Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's best not to over-think things.
The Long Version: When faced with a long digital camera review I always skip to the conclusion first, so here it is: the Panasonic TS3/FT3 is the best underwater camera on the market right now, performs very well as a general-purpose point and shoot, and is a great camera to have even if it never needs to go swimming.
Compact digital cameras are tough to review and frustrating to shop for. Feature-packed but rarely very good, by the time anyone has enough experience with one to have useful insight the bloody little things are out of date and off of the store shelves. Making matters more complicated, nearly every camera has some significant faults, and they all have something wrong with them. The key is separating the awkward from the abysmal, and then making the best of what each camera can do.
On the positive side, the Panasonic TS3 is a good little camera that's only moderately afflicted by bad design and marketing choices. The biggest example of this is found under the Mode button, where one of the valuable top-tier menu positions is wasted on the "3D" feature. This only works when connected to a 3D-capable TV, which Panasonic just happens to make. Never mind that these devices made up only 3% of flat-panel TVs shipped in 2010, it's been deemed important enough to take up one of seven top shooting modes. Two other quick scene positions are dedicated to underwater modes, which is surely one more than necessary for the vast majority of TS3 owners. Twenty-six others are relegated to an additional two screens, and some of those are actually useful. Naturally none of these positions can be changed.
Another unfortunate design choice with the TS3 is that it's impossible to turn off the digital zoom. Sure, there's a setting called "Digital Zoom" and it can be set to "off", but using the camera at anything other than its maximum megapickles adds an "ez" magnification that picks up seamlessly when the optical zoom hits its limit. Unlike the Digital Zoom, but like the similar-but-somehow-different i-zoom, the camera doesn't even have the courtesy of showing the point where it just starts making stuff up. While the i-zoom and ez-zoom only add a modest enlargement, most of the time I can spot the images that use it in my Lightroom catalog.
On the subject of megapickles, the TS3 has dropped to 12MP from the TS2's 14, which is still too many. Setting it to 5MP gives the same image quality for anything remotely realistic from this little camera, and saves space and time, making it a relatively good tradeoff. Image quality overall is actually fairly good, especially once the lens is zoomed in past its barrel distortion. It's hardly a high-iso monster, but its 15-second exposures in "Starry Sky" mode were more than good enough to catch a night-time April snow storm while my Nikon D700 sat on the shelf.
One standout feature of the TS3 is simply the feel of the camera. The curve at the top and bottom of the front grip, and the rounded left side of the camera, make it very nice to hold. It has a heft and solidity to it that's very reassuring, and it has an object-quality that goes a long way toward justifying its price even before it's turned on. I only wish that its LCD screen had better protection: mine has some very fine scratches after playing in the surf, so I must not have rinsed all of the ultra-fine sand from it before drying the screen with a soft cloth. Disappointing. At least the little brush that Panasonic includes with the camera did a good job of cleaning that sand out of the battery compartment's locking mechanism.
The TS3 has a total of fourteen buttons on it, from the power, shutter, and 'auto-fill memory card' buttons on top, to the four-way controller and miscellaneous buttons on the rear. Panasonic's excellent Quick Menu shares the Delete button, but its operation is limited compared to their flagship cameras. On the GH1, it's possible to take a manual white balance reference directly through the quick menu; the TS3 can select the Manual position but needs to go into the full menu in order to actually capture the reference image. The TS3's quick menu does allow any of its built-in WB presets to be biased toward warmer or cooler values, which is niftily indicated by changing the colour of the icon. That's an elegant ability that's awfully advanced for a point-and-shoot. I frequently find the interface decisions of these small cameras inexplicable, and the TS3 certainly has its share of conundrums.
On the bright side, Panasonic has fixed the proliferation of multiple confusing and ineffective Fluorescent white balance presets by just getting rid of all of them. Camera design needs more of that kind of problem-solving.
I continue to be amazed at just how difficult it is to make intelligent choices when using a compact camera. To learn what all of the different camera settings do, and how they interact with each other in its little brain, is even more difficult than learning photography. Worse, photography is somewhat intuitive and is independent of specific camera models, while experience with one point and shoot camera is of little help with the next one. I could conceivably devote myself to studying the different contrast controls, digital zooms, intelligent resolution, and quality settings until I know exactly how the camera will work and which settings to use under different conditions. But neither the camera nor I are going to live long enough to make that worth doing.
The "Starry Sky" mode turns off the image stabilization, which is appropriate for a long exposure. The "Night Scenery" mode, which includes the exhortation to use a tripod, leaves the IS turned on and disables the flash. The "Night Portrait" mode lets the user choose between slow-sync and no flash and tells everyone to be really still. The self-portait mode does nothing aside from putting the flash on automatic and giving some friendly advice. There's absolutely no consistency between similar-seeming modes, and not enough information to choose between them.
I was impressed to see that the TS3 can take exposure bracketed photos, set for 1/3, 2/3, or a full stop between exposures. By setting the starting exposure compensation up or down from zero, the entire series can be biased, although this isn't apparent from the settings screen. The TS3 can also shoot a respectable high-speed burst, but turning on exposure bracketing will cancel burst shooting and returns the camera to single-shot mode once bracketing is turned off.
If I was a complete cynic, I might suspect that there's no overarching internal logic to be found in the TS3, and I might suggest that its entire operating system and user interface needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from scratch. Get the team that solved the fluorescent white balance problem to do it – I like their thinking.
But to cheer myself up I just remember that anyone who chooses Sony's latest waterproof camera, the svelte TX10, will be confronted with "Superior Auto," "Intelligent Auto," and "Program Auto" modes. I'd hate to be the sucker who has to untangle that usability knot.
One strength of the TS3's different modes – and something that not all Panasonic compacts can do – is that they remember their own individual colour settings. I leave "Normal" mode's colour set to Vivid, and the iAuto position set to monochrome. The "HDR" mode also has a monochrome option, along with "standard" and "art". (Honestly, I don't see much difference between those two, so I suppose that art really isn't something that I'll know when I see it.) The HDR mode also forces the camera to iso 400, and while I'm not exactly sure how it does its thing, I don't mind its monochrome images at all. They're not art, but they're not ugly either.
The GPS feature is new to the underwater line, and my success with it has been mixed. Panasonic says that it could take two or three minutes to aquire a position, but in the city – even with a reasonably unobstructed sky view – that's proven somewhat optimistic. And they aren't kidding when they say to stand still, either; I've taken a couple of half-hour walks with my TS3 in hand, and my photos still all say that I'm on a highway twelve kilometers from my house. Taking photos in Coney Island, with its lack of obstructions and my frequent long pauses, gave GPS results that any anywhere from generally indicative to outright spooky. I still leave the GPS receiver turned on – I have a second battery – but it's more of a game than something with an actual practical use.
I do have to grudgingly admit that I've been impressed by the TS3's image quality a couple of times. It's not going to get a "That's Great!" response, but it often merits a "not bad" and even the occasional "pretty good". Getting the exposure right is very important, but there are some iso 1600 photos already queued up for future reviews. Iso 800 is not that bad, and iso 400 can be pretty good. That's fortunate, since the lens hits f/4.9 at 2x zoom, and f/5.6 as soon as it reaches 3x. The camera maxes out at f/10 and 1/1300 shutter speed, although I do have one photo that inexplicably reports an aperture of f/18. You can hover your mouse over the sample images in this review to see their exposure settings.
I've been trying to buy a digital compact travelling companion for almost six months, and couldn't find one that was worth the money. Cheap ones are generally lousy, and the more expensive ones aren't better enough to justify the increased cost. The new Panasonic TS3, while inevitably flawed, was still good enough to convince me that it's worth the money. I've used it successfully on one trip already, and I've based a daily photo project around documenting the best of its first five thousand photos. After a couple of productive weeks with this little device, I have to say I'm quite pleased with it overall. It's going to make a solid little sidekick to my film cameras, and it's the digital camera that I always have with me.
For the same price as this shockproof camera, it's possible to buy others with the same image quality that offer different features, like touch screens or longer zooms. (Not that a touch screen is actually a feature, but you know what I mean.) For a little more money there are compacts that include manual controls and raw recording, which will be a better choice for those who like placebos or are prohibited from having multiple cameras. Finding the right mix of abilities and deciding how much to pay is always a personal choice, but there's nothing better than a TS3 if this camera happens to tick the right boxes.
(For now, anyway.)
Updated: my little TS3 turned three months old on June 22, and I've written an update to this review to mark the occasion. You can read Part Two by clicking here.
added: it was recently pointed out to me that nobody really says that there's normally a rattling noise from the camera when it's turned off, and that it goes away when the camera is turned on. This is typical for all of Panasonic's OIS / image stabilized lenses – the movable lens element isn't locked in place when the camera is powered off. I don't know why it's designed this way, but it's not a defect.
last updated 29 june 2011