I started to see hot pixels in my good old Coolpix E5900, so I decided to buy a new camera. After much research, my choice fell on Panasonic DMC-ZS1, which was highly recommended by DPreview in their group review of compact super zoom cameras:
At first, the camera felt great - the 12x optical zoom range was awesome, which is about 6x magnification, compared to the 3x optical zoom of E5900. My excitement started to evaporate quite quickly though once I learned that the camera lacks basic control over image quality.
That is, in E5900, I could turn off noise reduction, sharpening and dial down the saturation, so I could use better imaging tools later. It turned out that it is impossible to control noise reduction and sharpening in ZS1 at all, which makes images coming out of this new shiny camera worse than those produced by the five-year old E5900.
[2012-03-13] DMC-ZS1 provides a combined setting Color Options that controls sharpening and saturation. See the effects of this setting in the Putting a Compact Camera to a Good Use post.
I decided to put my first impression to a test and took a few shots at ISO 400 with each camera. ISO 400 was used because this is the highest value in E5900. I adjusted noise reduction, sharpening and saturation to their lowest settings in E5900 and turned off all special processing, like iExposure, in ZS1, set its color mode to Normal, which produces least-saturated images, and switched camera to 5 MP to produce comparable images.
This is an image captured by E5900, cropped at a 100%. As expected, the noise is quite noticeable, especially in dark colors:
The same image captured by ZS1 appears less noisy at first because the camera applies noise reduction and sharpening:
However, you can already see at this resolution that even though the E5900 image looks noisier, the buttons don't appear as if they are acid-etched, compared to ZS1. Let's take a closer look at one of the buttons. This is the image of the button produced by E5900, scaled up to 200%:
, and this is the image of the same button produced by ZS1:
You can immediately see poor sharpening and noise reduction around the digit edges and at the top of the button, which is no longer qualified as noise and will only confuse noise reduction tools.
I ran both images through Noise Ninja, leaving all settings at their default values to make fair comparison. Here's the resulting E5900 image:
Looks much better, doesn't it? The ZS1 image, on the other hand, still shows same sharpening artifacts, which now have been smoothed out by noise reduction to the point that you can no longer see the original texture.
Let's take a closer look at both images. Here's the E5900 image scaled up to 200%. It's nice and smooth, even at the boundary of dark and light. Additional sharpening will further improve this image.
This is the ZS1 image scaled up to 200%. It is quite obvious that the original image is useless at its native resolution and even when scaled down shows blotchy detail.
Now, if you think this is bad, take a look at an image captured by ZS1 at ISO 1600. Scary, isn't it?
It is quite apparent that Panasonic's marketing people are much more influential than their quality assurance department, which should have stopped this sensitivity from ever seeing the light of day.
I actually like my ZS1. It has great optical zoom, image stabilization and it's compact enough that I can carry it around in my pocket. Most of the time I keep sensor sensitivity at ISO 80, which yields usable pictures. I hope, however, that some Panasonic decision maker would accidentally stumble upon this page and realize that DMC-ZS1 would be taken much more seriously by photographers if Panasonic would just introduce two simple settings, which may be buried into the menu as deep as they wish, to turn off in-camera noise reduction and sharpening. Not only this would make ZS1 faster by eliminating unnecessary and expensive image processing steps, but it would greatly improve the quality of final images.
[2016-04-02] Anyone who says that they only shoot at ISO up to X, whatever X is, because they can't stand the noise the camera generates, they don't know what they are doing. I certainly didn't when I wrote this post. A noisy shot is always better than no shot at all. My apologies to the Panasonic folks I mentioned in this post.