Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's still the best.*
The Long Version: Digital cameras are funny things. There's no reason why one that's properly taken care of won't live for seven or eight years, but in market terms they're obsolete in a tenth of that. A compact camera has no chance to become a competent and well-rounded member of electronic society before being forced to make its way in the world, ultimately being replaced by another immature model that promises a slight improvement over what came before.
The Panasonic TS3 is the the fourth waterproof camera that Panasonic has made, starting with the TS1 which was released in 2009. We know that it's better than the TS2 because it has a higher model number, and it's more expensive than the TS10. I've been using one daily for three months now, and to celebrate I decided to hang out with it for a saturday afternoon in Coney Island. That's where I took the photos for my first look at this little camera, so redoing the twenty-three hours in transit just felt right.
I spent very little time on image quality in my first look, so that's where I'll start here. Frequently decent, typically good, rarely outstanding: the TS3 isn't designed for peak performance, and that's okay. Being happy with any compact camera is a matter of having realistic expectations. When I use it in perfect conditions and look at the photos with a critical eye at high magnifications, I'm frequently disappointed to see that the fine detail is blocky, pixelated, and smeared. In low light or bad conditions my forgiving spirit will be pleased with the successes and accepting of its failures, even though the results are still blocky, pixelated, and smeared. Happiness is a function of attitude: the TS3 isn't an SLR, and an SLR can't be thrown in a fountain for fun. At least, not multiple times.
I've owned a waterproof camera before, and then had a brief relationship with a superzoom, so I knew what I wanted this time around. But even still these past three months have been a surprise as I find new ways to have fun with the orange TS3. Plunking it down in fountains, swimming pools, and puddles has become an engaging pastime for me. I've used it for street photography, to document lawlessness, and I've even taken a few photos that I really like. I bought it to be my digital take-everywhere counterpart to my film cameras, and while I confess that I haven't always carried it, the few times that I haven't I've often regretted my oversight.
The TS3 is just a fun camera. It's not the smallest, being a boxy design that's larger than the average 4.6x zoom compact, and much larger than the cellphone that has mostly replaced them. Perhaps the future will see me using a phone in place of a camera, but not yet. Until cell phones become waterproof, develop really long zoom ranges, or become capable of actual autofocus, dedicated cameras will remain superior.
When I first looked at the TS3, the "Mode" button and the various scene selections were a big deal. I would like to say that I've come to appreciate the thought and planning that went into the cameras' interface, but, well, no.
Pressing the "Mode" key once brings up the quick-access scene modes. There are eight positions, including the one that goes to the additional scene options. These are reached by navigating with the four-way controller and selected with the Menu/Set button. I've found three modes to be useful, and will typically switch between "Normal", "High Dynamic [Range]", and "Handheld Night Shot". Moving from either of the last two to Normal takes four button presses, while going from Normal to one of the others will take between six to a dozen button presses. That's atrocious, but it's also about average for a compact camera.
Now, I'm not one to write An Open Letter To A Camera Manufacturer, or to use my Vast Internet Knowledge (meaning: none) of software and product design to insist that a problem can be solved with three magical lines of code. But the fix to this problem isn't that hard to envision. The TS3 already remembers the last scene mode that was used, and my Panasonic GH1 has a menu devoted to the most recently chosen menu items. Imagine combining those two ideas, and have the eight options on the first page be a combination of the ones that Panasonic thinks are important as well as the ones most recently used.
Intelligent Auto and Normal should always be there, the Beach and Snorkelling mode is a great tribute to the TS3's capability, and perhaps the 3D mode is important to Panasonic's feeling of self-worth. That still leaves four more slots to fill. Make the fifth Mode position, underneath the Intelligent Auto function, be the scene mode that's been used the most over the lifespan of the camera – or the past few months, whichever. The other three positions on the bottom row should be the scene modes that were most recently used, naturally without repetition if one of them happens to be the all-time favourite.
The most popular modes could then be reached in as few as three to a maximum of five button-presses, including the Mode button to start the process and the Set button to select the correct one. That's still a lot, but keeping the most popular results together will add to the usability advantage. If the desired scene mode isn't on that top screen, make pressing the "Mode" button again bring up each additional screen. There are already times when multiple presses of a button calls up additional options, so this wouldn't be violating any usability guidelines, should such a thing exist.
While all of this time spent on scene modes may seem silly to anyone who wrongly thinks that using a dSLR in Manual mode makes them hard core, they're about the only way to actually exercise any influence over the TS3. Certain modes can do things that would otherwise be beyond the cameras' capabilities, while others have some utility that's only apparent on further exploration. The manual does a poor job of explaining these, and the on-screen help is no better, but the Panasonic Imaging catalog almost verges on useful. From those sources and my own experience, here's a quick overview of the noteworthy modes. (Many Panasonic cameras share the same settings, so this actually applies to more than the TS3/FT3.)
Beach and Snorkelling is for normal use, including underwater, while the Underwater mode is intended to be used with a sold-separately diving case.
3D is only viewable on a 3D TV, which Panasonic just happens to make. Fancy that.
Self Portrait is actually useful, as the front AF Assist LED becomes a focus confirmation light. Solid is good, flashing means it didn't work.
Panorama Assist is nothing like the Sweep Panorama of Sony or Fuji fame, but instead it provides a guide for taking a series of photos that can be combined later on the computer. Canon cameras have worked this way since the start of the century.
Handheld Night Shot takes a quick series of photos and then merges them into one 3MP image. This is quite a clever trick, and it's even smart enough to handle movement reasonably well.
Baby/Pet: The Pet mode sets the iso higher, and the Baby modes soften the skin tones just in case the subject is ugly. Both of these modes can be used to keep track of how old your baby/pet is as an aid to the forgetful.
High Sens[itivity] is an iso3200 mode that automatically reduces the output to 3MP. Not bad when the Handheld Night mode isn't an option, like the times when the subject's too close to the camera. In better light it will stick with iso1600, in which case the results are still better than a 3MP iso1600 photo taken in "normal" mode.
High Speed Burst mode takes little photos (the typical 3MP) at about 7fps, much faster than the burst setting in the Normal mode. The Flash Burst mode isn't nearly as impressive, but having the camera set to Burst shooting in Normal mode disables the flash, so there you are.
Starry Sky allows long exposures of 15, 30, or 60 seconds. The time is chosen manually with no guidance from the camera, and the dark-frame subtraction noise reduction doubles the taking time. The camera uses iso100, and the results aren't bad.
Pin Hole and Film Grain allow the easy shooting of artistic photo, with the light fall off at edges, or the effect like a grain of sand. [sic]
High Dynamic [Range] is an interesting effect. The camera seems to take only one photo, but then inverts the tone curve to give an exaggerated low-contrast image that looks an awful lot like an HDR photo. The sub-mode "Art" further exaggerates the colours, making it more suitable for Flickr, while the monochrome option can be quite decent. The only thing to watch for is that transition edges are darker than they should be, but I personally find that better than the brighter halos that other methods tend to produce.
One thing a lot of people ask about is the "lens cover" for the TS3. None of the Panasonic waterproof cameras have one – in fact, it's only the Olympus SW/Tough series that do. My old Stylus 770SW has a metal cover that pivots closed over the lens, but not only would this occasionally have sand caught in it, it didn't even stop the front element of the lens from being pitted. While I do try to take care with the TS3, I've still subjected it to treatment that's scratched the rear LCD cover, but the lens remains pristine. I did manage to smear it with sunscreen when I was in Coney Island, causing some interesting effects, but that's hardly the cameras' fault.
Another consideration with all small cameras is battery life. I've turned off the GPS on mine, which helps a bit, but I use an Eye-Fi card for data transfer, which clobbers it. Having two batteries is just a sensible thing to do for any camera, and having a second BCF10 for the TS3 is no exception. It's worth including the extra cost in the budget for the camera, and remember that Panasonic locks out the generics.
Oh, and the reason for the Eye-Fi card is that every time the door has been opened – to change the battery, remove the SD card, or use the data ports – the camera puts up a nagging warning to make sure that the seals are clean. After the fifteenth time it gets a bit much.
Another interesting quirk about the TS3 is that it can be turned on in Playback mode by holding down the "play" button. This might be a concession to usability, although it's an odd place for them to choose to cut out one button press (power>play). I suspect that it's a carryover from a generic firmware package, because being able to review images without extending the lens mechanism is very useful for most cameras – but not the TS3. The compact camera market changes quickly and these little devices are never given the chance to mature, so again, although this may show a certain lack of craftsmanship, it's no different from every other little camera on the market.
When I first wrote my thoughts on the TS3, I was leaving the camera set to five megapickles in the reasoning that it saves space on the card and computer, while not reducing its image quality for any practical purpose. Looking at photos taken with both settings, I find that the down-sampling that the camera does isn't particularly good. I haven't really found any conclusive difference between the 5MP at 1:1 and the 12MP setting at 1:2, and certainly can't see any difference between them at web sizes or in small prints, but I've switched back to the full-size images because it's the only way to defeat the digital "EZ" zoom. A 12MP file is about 5MB, 5MP is 3MB, and the 3MP setting results in files around a megabyte each.
I've taken almost 2500 photos in the 100 days that I've owned the TS3. I can't say that any of them have been masterpieces, but that's not what I've been trying for. Despite my cynicism and overall bleak regard for compact cameras and the market churn that produces them, the TS3 is an enjoyable little device that does what I want it to, if not quite how I want it to.
I'm happy with the TS3, and in the past few months I've seen nothing from it or any other manufacturer that makes me doubt my camera choice. If Panasonic would fix some of the usability and interface issues with the next year's model I would consider buying it as well. But with both image quality and usability, I'm willing to accept that these compromises and mixed results are an unavoidable fact of life while hoping that someone's willing and able to prove me wrong. Until that happens, my TS3 and I will be having lots of fun as we go about our daily lives, with just the occasional diversions into lakes, oceans, swimming pools, and fountains.
(*among waterproof and shockproof compact cameras, as of 29 June 2011.)
last updated 30 June 2011