In my never-ending search for a high image quality compact digital camera, I came across the Panasonic DMC-FX37. This little compact caught my eye with its long list of premium features and tiny footprint. It’s got a wide-angle Leica lens, image stabilization, 720p HD video recording, and a 4x zoom. That’s a pretty compelling list of features for such a small camera.
I’m used to using a Fujifilm F30 because of its great image quality, especially in low light, but it’s getting a bit long in the tooth and I wanted a change. So, I took the little FX37 on a recent trip overseas. Well, to make a long story short, I shot 90 percent of my images on that trip with the little Panny instead of my DSLR. Its unique wide-angle lens with the optional 16:9 shooting mode provided such quick and compelling images that I found myself reaching for it over my trusty SLR.
First, the ergonomics and setup are nothing special, but the camera works as expected and the learning curve was shallow. One annoying thing is that I’m used to a shoot-priority camera, so I had to get used to flipping the play/shoot switch. I lost a few shots because I turned the camera ON while in playback mode. Otherwise, the menu buttons are fine, including the Q-menu which puts the most frequently used settings within easy reach (ISO, WB, etc.).
The lens is a 25mm (21mm equivalent in 35mm format) with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. This is a wide-angle lens and it may take some time to get used to. Although with its 4x zoom range, I never felt it wasn’t able to get to a more “normal” focal length. I happen to love super wide lenses and took to it right away though it may take others some time and experience to use it well. I coupled this with the 16:9 shooting mode to take some interesting panorama-like shots (like this one of one of the outer buildings near the Japanese imperial palace in Tokyo):
HD 720p Video
Another feature I was excited to try was its 720p HD video recording mode. I think it’s astonishing for a camera this small to have HD video recording. The format fits perfectly on today’s modern TVs and I’m sure in another year or so even middle-of-the-road digital cameras will have this feature. Video quality came out clear and crisp with a high enough framerate for most casual events. Here’s a short sample:
This camera meters and exposes very well. Even in tricky high-contrast scenes, it does a great job. Sometimes it will blow out some highlights, but only because it’s trying to balance the photo (see that first sample photo, it was a bright day). It has some pro-oriented features like automatic exposure bracketing. This is a very nice feature to have if you want to experiment with amateur HDR shots without having to use a tripod. Just lean against something to steady the camera and fire off several photos using the auto exposure bracketing mode.
And of course the FX37 has the usual plethora of scene modes. I generally never use these modes, but I took the time to peruse the huge list of available scene settings and lo and behold I found a couple that were actually useful. Or a useful novelty at least. The first is the Slim Mode. This feature will compress the image horizontally so that people appear slimmer than they actually are. It’s got a couple settings, but if you use the most subtle one it actually works without being overly apparent. The other scene mode I liked was the Nightlife Party mode. Usually you can set a camera like this manually to a higher ISO, rear-sync flash ON and shoot away to achieve good results. But this Nightlife Party mode was better than that. I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was doing, but I think it forced the shutter to stay open longer than it did when in the more manual mode. Anyway, the results were excellent.
Various and Sundry Other Cool Features
- Vacation Time Change Reminder – pretty neat little feature if you bother to set it up. It will prompt you to change the timezone when you travel so that your photos have the proper date/time stamp.
- Intelligent ISO + Image Stabilization – this is not a new feature anymore and it works as advertised. Even with the kind of slow f/2.8 lens, I was able to get sharp photos with no motion blur as long as I was careful.
- Focus Lock – you can point the camera at something (like a child or a pet) and have it lock the focus on it. As long as the subject stays within the frame reasonably well, it will prioritize the focus on it. Pretty neat and it works well.
- Face Tracking – only worked OK. It did not detect faces as well as some other cameras like the Fujifilm F200EXR
- Auto Ai – works very well in selecting an appropriate scene mode automatically. But as a photographer, I prefer to be manually in control of everything.
- Angle of View – this screen has an amazingly high angle of view. Simple amazing. You have to see it to believe it. I could hold it high above my head at the most extreme angles and still be able to see what was on the screen. Kudos to Panasonic on this.
- Battery Life – very good for a camera/battery combination of this size. If you’re paranoid, just charge it every night. Otherwise just shoot with it, the battery longevity surprised me (and I am comparing it to the amazingly long life of the Fujifilm F30 here).
- Battery Charge – very compact and lightweight, no cords, world adapter. Exactly what you want.
- SD Card – you should try to get as fast of an SD card as possible, Class 6 or higher. The slower cards worked perfectly fine, but when shooting long HD video, you could tell the faster cards allowed for more sustained video.
- Auto Rotate – it auto-rotates photos seamlessly. ‘Nuff said. The new Fujifilm F200EXR *still* doesn’t do this (unacceptable).
- Size – it’s tiny and fits in your pocket. More pocketable than the Panasonic LX3 or the Fujifilm F200EXR and a tad smaller than the Fujifilm F30. Kudos to Panasonic on achieving so much in such a small package! This is a great pocket camera, no compromises when reaching for it to put in your pocket for a day or evening out.
- Image Quality – The big fat MINUS for this camera, not a very strong point at all. Certainly not up to par when compared to the Fujifilm F30 or the new F200EXR. The shots taken with the FX37 should be fine for prints up to 5×7 or maybe 8×10, but you will see some serious flaws if you go any higher than that. This also limits how much you can crop of course. But with all that said, it’s good enough for snapshots and I honestly think the feature set and ease-of-use more than make up for its shortcomings in the IQ department.
I am already pining for the new FX48. I reach for this camera more than my Fujifilm F30 or even the new F200EXR. It’s smaller, it shoots 720p video, has a wider lens, and a better viewing screen. For serious photography, I break out the DSLR. For snapshots, I absolutely love this Panny.