This review applies to the Panasonic DMC-ZS3, however there is a newer ZS7 on the market with GPS capability.
Over the years I had owned nothing but Casio digital cameras, ranging from a whopping 2 mega pixels to 10 mega pixels. I had always been happy with their cameras for a variety of reason, however their latest 10mp was lacking in image quality compared to the previous models. So I started researching different brands. I had a big trip to Yellowstone National Park planned. This was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid, so I couldn't just go there with a crappy camera. I could have bought a SLR, or prosumer camera (same size as SLR with a fixed lens). However I knew how much trouble lugging a large camera around can be, so I choose to search for the best pocket sized camera on the market. I wanted something that I could carry with on a hike, or for miles in Vegas without wearing me down or getting in the way.
I researched every possible camera I could find, here were my requirements: Good image quality is a MUST, the higher the zoom the better, good image stabilization, HD video, long battery life, and pocket sized.
I researched over a dozen websites, but the two largest are DPReview.com and Steves-Digicams.com. Both had reviews of cameras that fit the bill, some from Sony, Casio, Canon, Panasonic, Pentax, and more. What drove me towards the Panasonic was that every review for it was great, and in several head-to-head multi-reviews it won out. I had never owned a Panasonic device and I didn't know what the build quality or battery life would be like. But I ordered the camera based on the good reviews. If you are more interested in consumer reviews there are over four hundred 5-star ratings on this camera listed on Amazon.com.
I bought the camera, a case, a gorilla-pod, a 16GB SD card, and an extra battery. One item of note, and my only con about this camera, the battery has a chip built-in that makes it so only genuine Panasonic brand batteries work in this camera. At first this was a huge annoyance to me. It took a long time to find a good price on an extra battery. However in the end the battery in this camera lasts so long that I have only used my spare battery three times in the year I have owned the camera, and that is only after taking over 300 photos using the flash for most of them. So don't let that hold you back.
It has been a year since I bought the camera and I can say I am never looking back. If this camera is ever broken I will not hesitate to replace it with the same model or something a bit newer in the same line.
Since purchasing the ZS3, I have taken over a thousand photos using the camera. I have probably deleted less then a dozen due to a blurry image or bad lighting. That is a great ratio compared to my previous cameras were I often took three of every photo, and later had to decide which of the three to keep. With the ZS3, I don't have that fear that the photo won't turn out good once I get back to my computer.
The ZS3 has a massive 12x optical zoom, a very high number for a pocket sized camera. However that zoom isn't useless. Often when using long zoom on small cameras the camera loses so much light sensitivity or the image shake is so bad that the image turns out useless. Not so with the ZS3. The three photos above were all taken from the same spot in Grand Teton National park, I used nothing more then my Gorilla-pod to stabilize the shot.
Zoom-macro is rare feature I did not find it on any of the other pocket sized cameras on the market. What zoom-macro does is allow you to use the full zoom on the ZS3 as if you were up-close taking a macro shot from just a few inches away. The above two photos have not been cropped and were taken from over 10 feet away. Yet they look like close-up macro photos.
Regular macro shots on the ZS3 are also great. You can get as closer then an inch to a subject and still get sharp focus. The camera also auto-detects and uses macro-mode when you need it. No more changing modes, just get up close and shoot.
My previous Casio digital cameras all had what I thought was good low-light capability, in that they could take a low-light photo if I used a tripod and a 4-second timer. The ZS3 however can take awesome low-light photos without the need for a tripod or even super high ISO speeds.
The first photo above was taken underground in the Seaholm Power Plant in Austin, TX. The photo has more detail then my own eyes could see. I had to navigate the area with a flashlight. Even then this photo was taken using all automatic settings, resulting in ISO800 with a 1/8second shutter speed. The detail in the both the light and dark areas is amazing. There is no need to spend five minutes and fifteen photos in an attempt to make an un-natural looking HDR photo.
The second photo was taken early in the morning at Yellowstone, it was dark enough to require car headlights, and that glare in the sky isn't the sun, its the moon.
The Seaholm photo also brings up battery life. While at the power plant I took 356 photos and 3 videos, all using just one battery. Most of them were taken in pitch-black darkness using the camera's flash to fill the room. In the case of my photos from Yellowstone, I took a days worth of photos, again over 300, using just one battery. I took a week-long trip to Yellowstone, and Vegas and only had to recharge the batteries twice.
The ZS3 has a 28mm wide angle lens. Much wider then most other pocket cameras. This makes for great landscape shots. It is also very useful indoors where you simply can't back away further from a subject to get a good shot. It takes only six or seven photos to make a full 360-degree panoramic image.
There is no excuse for a digital camera these days to not have video. However not all video is created equally. Here again are several features that set the ZS3 apart from the crowd. It is was the only pocket sized camera on the market that could use the full camera zoom while recording video. This makes it as capable as any camcorder. It also records using a stereo microphone, this greatly increases the quality of sound in videos where there could be lots of noise or a crowd around you. The ZS3 records video in 720p, but not only does it record in HD, it doesn't ruin the video by compressing it with a MJPEG compressor. Instead the ZS3 uses the AVCHD Lite video standard. This means it records video using a H.264 codec, and records the audio using Dolby Digital. This is exactly the same compression technology as what you find on a BluRay movie disk. No more odd MP3 sound artifacts or motion JPEG blockyness.