Small wonder

It all started with the Lytro Illum I picked up off Adorama just over 2 months back.

Looking for new ways to present images, I discovered that the Lytro Illum had an interesting party trick.

You see, the Illum isn’t a regular camera. It’s a light field camera that allows photographers to shoot a scene and decide on which part of the scene to focus on later. In short, changing the focus point and depth of field (it goes to f/1!) in post-processing (aka post).

But it had limitations.

Despite touting a 40-megaray image capture system, with RAW files coming in at around 50MB each (that’s Hasselblad H4D territory!), image quality was akin to a 4 megapixel photo.

Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be printing anything, though the resulting videos (in MP4 format, no less) were a pretty novel way of presenting a static scene on social media.

As it turned out, a buddy of mine of at Gulf Photo Plus picked up on my dissatisfaction and mentioned me in an retweet about how Panasonic had something similar using an innovative Post Focus / Snap Focus system.

As it also turned out, a Panasonic Lumix ambassador on Twitter jumped on the bandwagon and shared some YouTube videos he created to explain Snap Focus. And it got me curious, especially with an upcoming extended weekend trip to Georgia (the former Soviet state)

And as it finally turned out, Panasonic’s PR agency had picked up on the convo and gotten in touch with me to see if I’d like to have a go at their new TZ80 point and shoot.

Now, those of you who know me get it that as much as I am a gearhead, I’m also a bit of a camera snob (I shoot with Leicas and Hasselblad). So putting a point-and-shoot (PnS) in my hands was cutting it a little close to getting sneered at.

And as it turns out, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

You see, Leica M and Hasselblad H and V systems have their limits. They don’t do macro with standard lenses (many with minimum focusing distances of 70 cm), and hauling around an swapping in/out extension tubes and bellows focusing systems weren’t going to cut it.

And they aren’t high-fps (that’s frames-per-second, for you n00bs out there) systems, so I wasn’t going to get split second shots. But they were good for what they were — photographic tools for people who take their time to get the shot.

A companion, not a replacement

And this is where the TZ80 shines. It’s not a replacement for my higher end systems.

Instead, it’s an excellent companion to them. It’s that little camera I can use for shots I wouldn’t otherwise be able to get with my usual cameras. Like macro shots. Or action shots.

I’m not going to go into much detail about the stuff that many other PnS cameras have these days — like Intelligent Auto (iA), inbuilt macro mode, video recording, scene (SCN) / panorama / effects modes. The TZ80 ticks all these boxes with aplomb.

What it does have, which I’ve found to be really useful in the right environments and moments, is an impressive Macro Zoom mode, 4K Photos and video, Post Focus, Snap Movie.

The latter two see limited use in my bag, largely due to the relatively slow lens and small sensor which effectively limit the depth of field separation which makes these features really useful. More on that in a bit.

Let’s start off with 4K Photos.

This little guy does 4K videos, which, frankly, is a bit surprising for something in this price range (around USD500). And Panasonic goes the extra mile to make this feature really useful by allowing me to snap a quick video, then scroll through each frame to get the exact moment I want.

Jessie jumped into the air, I shot a quick vid of it, and grabbed the frame I wanted. All in 30s. #nofilter
An unexpected benefit comes from finding extra frames that make for a nice photo. #nofilter

The shots above are straight out of camera (SooC) JPGs — no crop, no color adjustments.

For everything else shot as a photo, I’m really grateful that Panasonic saw fit to offer RAW files (in Panasonic’s RW2 format), which gives me a bit of latitude to flavor them to my taste.

Aside from jumping shots, this would be BRILLIANT for birthday parties (want to get that decisive moment of the candle being blown out?), sports (a skateboarder in mid-air), nature (a bee flying around a flower), and pretty much anything that’s moving.

Built-in WiFi for image transfer and remote control

Couple that with the built-in WiFi (2.4Ghz — I made the mistake of setting my phone to only connect to 5Ghz networks and spent a good 10 minutes wondering why my camera wasn’t being detected), and you have a camera that is perfect for capturing and sharing awesome Instagram and Snapchat content.

The WiFi system has some strengths and some quirks though. Keep in mind that I usually don’t read user guides (or maps), so it was great to discover that the camera not only allows WiFi image/video transfers, but also remote control of the camera via Panasonic’s uninventively-named “Image App” (I wish I was kidding, but I’m not). Might come in useful for low-light / long exposures.

It’s not without its kinks though. I have yet to get it to successfully connect to my Macbook Pro or my Microsoft Surface Pro 4 over WiFi for image browsing/transfer. Maybe I should read the manual after all…

Low-light performance

Surprising for such a small sensor, a slow lens (f3.3), and a camera this light (heavier cameras are easier to hold steady), the low-light performance of the TZ80 is something to write home about. I had expected it to perform terribly in the dark, cold wine tunnels of Kakheti, so you can imagine my surprise to find something this usable from the TZ80.

I shot it, transferred it to my Mi Note Android phone, and shared it on my Instagram feed within minutes of the shot.

Shot handheld, in a dark wine tunnel of a winery in Kakheti
Dinner in Culinarium, one of the best restaurants in Tbilisi. Low light, handheld shot.

Easy Panoramas

Capturing a panorama is a piece of cake. Turn the control dial to pano mode, and pan the camera. It’s idiot-proof, and pretty damn decent.

A pano of Rike Park in Tbilisi, Georgia. Out of camera JPG
A 6th century monastery in Georgia

Needless to say, the Panasonic TZ80 is very versatile in good light, and the 24–720mm telephoto lens makes certain scenes that much easier to capture (keeping in mind the 1/ 2x focal length rule, if you’re shooting at 720mm, you really want your shutter speed to be around 1/1500s to 1/2000s!).

A 16th century castle in Kakheti, Georgia. SooC JPG
Despite the small 1/2.3" sensor, the dyamic range is surprisingly good. SooC JPG

Getting up close. Really close.

The TZ80 has also got some interesting macro modes, which I discovered accidentally. There’s the regular macro mode, and if you activate Post Focus, you’ll unlock the ability to do Macro Zoom.

Shot practically 1 cm for my watch, at 4.30 pm in Roseleaf Cafe at Dubai Garden center. Mix of indoor lighting and overcast skies otside. SooC JPG

What’s happened to make the above shot possible is a mix of simple physics, and smart technology. Since the sensor is really quite small, it’s possible to get really really close (like 1cm close) and still be able to focus.

With Post Focus activated, the camera shoots a series of shots, focus bracketed which pretty much means that I could have picked a frame from the 24-hour dial to the “Automatic 100M” to be in sharp focus, and exported it as a JPG.

I’d go on to mention Snap Movie, but really, there’s no point. It’s a useful feature to have on Panasonic’s high end Lumix systems (e.g. G and GX Micro Four Third systems) with fast (f1.2-f1.4) lenses where you can pretty much do a pull focus video, i.e. focus on the foreground and ‘pull’ focus to something in the background (or vice versa).

Due to the slow lens (f3.3 to f6.4) and small sensor, there’s really not much separation to speak of, but if you’re keen to try it, here’s how you get it going:

  • Switch to movie recording mode
  • Switch OFF Post Focus (Fn2 button by default)
  • Tap on the Fn tab on the rear LCD touchscreen (did I mention how awesome and convenient it is to be able to tap and shoot with the touchscreen?)
  • Select Snap Movie
  • Tap on the Setup button and turn on Pull Focus
  • Select Set to confirm the settings
  • Drag your finger from where you want to start focus to where you want to end focus
  • Hit record
Snap Movie with Pull Focus on the Panasonic TZ80. SooC MP4 uploaded to YouTube.

It takes some getting used to, but for what I had intended to shoot with this feature, I feel I would have been better off with a GX85 and a 25/1.4 lens, but honestly, knowing how I’m likely to buy another gazillion lenses and accessories, I’m not really sure I want to go into another system at this point in time.

Parting thoughts

The Panasonic TZ80 has been a very versatile performer, which makes for a fantastic travel compact.

It’s not the cheapest compact out there, but as of the time of this review, I’m confident enough to say that it’s probably the best choice for anyone looking for a good point and shoot that covers everything from sports to travel, and is the perfect companion for anyone who’s toting a system around and wants something good for everyday carry.

In fact, I personally found it so good that I bought one for myself.