We loved the idea of the Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS100, a premium pocket camera with a long zoom lens and a large 1-inch sensor. Its lens was a disappointment, however, delivering so-so results when zoomed in. The ZS200 ($799) not only has a longer zoom ratio, but also a better overall lens. It delivers better images than a smartphone or small-sensor superzoom, while providing ample range for all but serious wildlife and sports photographers (who wouldn’t use this type of camera for that work to begin with). We like it, but wish it had a larger EVF and a tilting LCD, both of which you’ll find in Sony’s similar RX100 VI, but it’s a more costly choice at just under $1,200.
Pocket-Size, 15x Zoom
The ZS200 follows the design motif of most pocket superzooms. It’s a small camera (2.6 by 4.4 by 1.8 inches, HWD) with a lens that retracts into the body when not in use. It weighs 12 ounces and is available in black or silver. It’s a little bigger all around than the 10.6-ounce RX100 VI (2.3 by 4.0 by 1.7 inches).
The 24-360mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom doesn’t cover as much range as 30x lenses we see in superzooms with smaller image sensors like the Sony HX90V, but the 1-inch sensor is four times the size. That means it should net better quality images, assuming its lens is up to the task. It’s a little longer than the ZS100’s 24-250mm and the RX100 VI’s 24-200mm, but it gets there by utilizing a relatively narrow f-stop, even at the wide end.
The lens aperture is narrower than the f/2.8-5.9 design used by the ZS100 and the f/2.8-4.5 zoom offered by the RX100 VI. It opens to f/3.3 at the wide angle and narrows all the way down to f/6.4 at 360mm, but it’s not a linear progression. The f-stop, which measures how much light the lens gathers, is already at f/4.2 at the 50mm position, f/5.3 at 100mm, f/6.1 at 200mm, and at the smallest f/6.4 opening around 280mm.
This means the camera will be able to keep the ISO (a measure of the sensor sensitivity to light, which is variable with a digital camera) low when shooting in bright light, but it will need to up that sensitivity in dim conditions. The ZS200 certainly offers significant advantages in zoom power when compared with a flagship smartphone, but its advantages are less palpable when shooting in very dim conditions. The RX100 VI offers a better compromise of zoom power and f-stop, while 1-inch models with shorter, but brighter zooms, like the Canon G7 X Mark II with its 24-100mm f/1.8-2.8, deliver much better images in very dim lighting.
The top plate houses a pop-up flash, centered behind the lens. It is mounted on a hinge and can fire when tilted back, a plus for adding a bit of soft, indirect light to subjects when shooting indoors. The mode dial, video record button, control dial, zoom rocker, shutter release, and power switch are also on the top plate, all situated on the right side.
On the rear you’ll find the Fn4/LVF button, which switches between the viewfinder and rear LCD, a mechanical flash release, and the AE/AF Lock button, all running in a row along the top. To the right of the LCD you find Fn1/4K Photo, Fn2/Focus Stacking, Fn3/Q.Menu/Delete, and Display buttons. A four-way control pad, with Menu/Set at the center and directional presses to adjust EV, White Balance, Drive, and Macro focusing round out the control buttons.
The 3-inch LCD is a fixed design—it doesn’t swing out or tilt—with a 1,240k dot resolution. It’s sensitive to touch, and does support Touch Pad AF when using the EVF. Touch Pad AF lets you change the active focus area by sliding your finger across the LCD when framing shots with the EVF. Aside from its fixed design—a tilting LCD makes taking shots from high or low angles a more pleasant experience—I’ve got not complaints with the LCD. Panasonic’s touch support is quite good too, allowing you to navigate through menus, which you can’t do with the more limited touch interface found on Sony’s RX100 VI. The RX does have a tilting screen, however, a big plus mark in its column.
The EVF is slightly larger than what you get with the ZS100. Its magnification is 0.53x (full-frame equivalent) and it packs 2,330k dots into a 0.21-inch field sequential LCD. I wish it was a bit bigger—it’s helpful to frame a shot on a bright day, but it doesn’t give you as good a view of the scene as you get with a larger EVF, like the pop-up OLED finder Sony has put on its RX100 series cameras starting with the third-generation model. An OLED finder is also better for tracking action—some photographers will see rainbow smearing when panning with an LCD. It’s not something that my eyes pick up, however.
Wireless communication is included, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can transfer images to your smartphone. It works with the Panasonic Image App for Android and iOS. Images are saved to an SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory card.
The battery is removable, but is charged in camera via micro USB. It’s rated for 370 shots using the rear LCD, 250 shots using the EVF, or 350 shots using the EVF in conjunction with a power-saving mode.
Performance and Autofocus: Pretty Speedy
The ZS200 isn’t the fastest camera in its class, but it’s not slow either. It starts, focuses, and fires a shot in about 1.5 seconds. Autofocus speed varies based on lighting conditions and the selected focus area. With the wide focus area enabled and under bright light, the ZS200 locks on in almost no time at all. But it does slow down significantly in dim light, to about 0.7-second, and if you opt to use the tiny, but very precise, Pinpoint focus function, it requires about 0.8-second, even in bright light.
The Pinpoint function is useful for scenes where other distractions in the frame may draw the attention of the larger boxes used by the standard focus system, like photographing a bird through tree branches, for example. I wish it was as speedy as the other focus modes, but you should only need to use it in select scenarios. The RX100 VI’s phase detect system does a better job overall, even when honing in on a very small region of interest, but it’s one of the reasons the RX costs $400 more.
Continuous capture is available at 9.4fps (a little shy of the 10fps advertised by Panasonic) when shooting full-resolution JPG or Raw photos with fixed focus, and at about 6fps with tracking focus enabled. The duration of capture changes based on the image format. The camera’s buffer is good for 29 Raw+JPG, 32 Raw, or 170 JPGs before filling up. Clearing to a SanDisk 280MBps memory card (an overkill—the ZS200 doesn’t support UHS-II speeds; you’ll be fine with a 95MBps UHS-I card) requires 28.8, 19.8, and 21.7 seconds, repectively. You can continue to capture images and use the camera as the buffer clears, but you can’t start recording a video clip until all images are committed to memory, so be careful with those big bursts if you like to add video to the mix.
There’s also Panasonic’s 4K Photo mode. Leveraging the video engine, 4K Photo extracts JPG still frames from video clips, allowing the ZS200 to capture 8MP JPG images at a staggering 30fps. But because the ZS200’s video engine introduces a crop to 4K, the widest angle you’ll be able to use in 4K Photo is 36mm. There are options to vary focus points during 4K bursts, but you don’t get true subject tracking capability. If you do need extreme burst shooting at full resolution with subject tracking, once again look to the $1,200 RX100 VI—it shoots in Raw and tracks subjects at up to 24fps.
Image and Video Quality: A Step Up From the ZS100
I tested the ZS200’s zoom lens using Imatest software, which examines photos of a test chart to quantify sharpness. At 24mm f/3.3 the lens resolves 1,930 lines on a center-weighted evaluation, better than the 1,800 lines we want to see at a minimum from a 20MP sensor. Most of the frame shows good image quality, but the edges are very soft (867 lines), giving them a blurred look. Narrowing the aperture doesn’t do much to change image quality, though edges improve a little bit at f/5.6 (988 lines) and f/8 (1,394 lines).
At the 50mm position we see crisper results at f/4.2 (2,292 lines), with edges that show just a hint of softness (1,698 lines). Resolution holds steady at f/5.6, with a slight drop (2,168 lines) at f/11.
Theres a small drop in resolution at 135mm f/5.7 (2,007 lines), with a slight uptick in shooting quality at f/8 (2,164 lines). Here we see a crisp center, but a drop in resolution as you move away, even before you get to the edges of the frame. At f/5.7 results are a little soft (1,769 lines) in the mid parts and periphery, but they improve at f/8 (2,120 lines).
The pattern is similar at 250mm. At f/6.3 the average score is 1,915 lines thanks to a sharp central area (2,138 lines), but the mid parts and outer edges of the frame show about 1,773 lines. And at this position narrowing the iris to f/8 doesn’t do anything to better the results; the camera actually takes a slight step back. Still, this is significantly better than the copy of the ZS100 we tested—it delivered noticeably blurred results (1,334 lines) at 250mm.
Moving to the 360mm focal legnth changes things a bit. At f/6.4 the average is 1,879 lines, and the lens shows as good or better resolution at all the but the edges of the frame, which drop to 1,432 lines. Narrowing the aperture to f/8 doesn’t change the results.
We were only able to test one copy of the ZS200, and sample variation is a real concern when lens designs become as complex as this one. I’d say the copy of the camera that Panasonic sent over is a good one, but other media outlets had less luck. DPReview tested three ZS200 samples and found the lenses delivered different results on each, including one that offered disappointing center resolution.
PCMag hasn’t had a chance to complete its full review of the Sony RX100 VI as of yet, but if you have the budget, it’s an alternative to consider. We did test its lens, and found it to deliver overall sharper results, topping 2,300 lines at each tested focal length when shot wide open. Its edge performance also suffers at 24mm, though not as much as the ZS200. It doesn’t have the same level of telephoto reach, but is brighter throughout, and has better macro capability. The ZS200 can focus to 3.15 inches (8cm) at its widest angle, while the pricier Sony locks on as close as 1.18 inches (3cm).
In terms of image noise, the ZS200’s 1-inch, 20MP, BSI CMOS image sensor is a known quantity. It’s the same one Panasonic uses in other models, including the ZS100 and LX10, as well as in Canon cameras like the G7 X Mark II, G9 X Mark II, and G3 X. It’s a Sony-made sensor, so it’s not surprising that it’s also in the RX100 and RX10 series, although the latest models use an upgraded version with on-sensor phase detection and a stacked design—this doesn’t have those features.
Because of that we expect Raw results to be similar to the other cameras, but Panasonic’s JPG engine is its own, so we used Imatest to take a look at those results. Our ISO test shows that ZS200 keeps under 1.5 percent through ISO 6400. That’s an excellent result, but there is a serious amount of noise reduction used to get there, which does a number on clarity. In reality, you can shoot through ISO 400 with absolutely no loss of image quality. At ISO 800 and ISO 1600 we see some very slight smudging of details. Things are a bit blurrier at ISO 3200, but like ISO 6400, I’d be comfortable pushing the sensor that far for web sharing. The sensor can be set as high as ISO 12800, but there the results are seriously blurred. Check out the slideshow that accompanies this review for pixel-level crops from our ISO scene—you can judge the quality for yourself.
If you are serious enough about your photos to take time processing images, Raw capture is also an option. We use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC to process images, and present the results in the slideshow along with the JPG output. Lightroom does a better job controlling noise with its default develop settings enabled than the ZS200’s JPG engine, so we see strong image quality through ISO 1600. There’s a bit of rough grain visible starting at ISO 3200, and the effect is distinctly pronounced at ISO 6400 and 12800, though you can certainly use these settings if you don’t mind some texture in photos. They’re especially well suited for a grainy black-and-white conversion.
Panasonic makes some of the most popular cameras for videographers, so it’s not surprising that the ZS200 has solid video chops. It shoots at 4K at up to 30fps (24fps is also supported), and 1080p at up to 120fps. There is no microphone input, so the ZS200 shouldn’t be your first choice for vlogging.
There is a crop introduced when shooting video. The lens covers a 36-540mm angle of view when shooting in 4K and a 30-450mm view in 1080p. Aside from that, I have few complaints about the video quality. The 4K footage shows lots of detail, the image stabilization is effective (though handheld footage at a 500mm angle is always going to be a bit shaky, no matter how good your stabilization is), and the autofocus system smoothly racks between subjects, whether it be automatically based on changes in the scene or manually—you just need to tap on the screen to change the focus point. Video capture is another reason I miss a tilting screen, however, as there are times I’d prefer to hold the camera a bit lower when recording, and I can’t do that and see the ZS200’s screen at the same time.
Leaves Us Wanting More
The Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 is a very appealing camera for photographers who value zoom power over low-light shooting. Its lens covers the longest range we’ve seen from a 1-inch pocket-friendly model—Sony’s RX10 III and IV have a 1-inch sensor and a 24-600mm zoom, but are the size of an SLR—and the sample we tested netted crisp images throughout, although with some bluriness around the edges of the frame.
There are a lot of other good aspects, including snappy performance, 4K capture, Raw capability, and a price that’s well under $1,000. But I’m left wanting a bit more. I really missed having an articulating screen, a feature I’ve come to take for granted given how many cameras now offer it, and I want a better EVF for those times when I want to raise the camera to my eye to take a shot.
The ZS200 is a marked improvement all around when compared with the ZS100 (which is still on sale), but it’s now overshadowed by the RX100 VI. If you aren’t too sensitive on price, I think it’s a better overall option, even though its lens doesn’t have as much reach as the Panasonic. With the Sony you get a better EVF, a tilting LCD, better autofocus, and a brighter lens for clearer photos in dim light. But $1,200 is a tough pill to swallow when shopping for a point-and-shoot. If your budget isn’t that large, and you’re happy with what the ZS200 delivers, it will serve you well.