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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Panasonic - Lumix DMC-FT3

Compact digital cameras are often small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, but Panasonic has gone the other way with its Lumix DMC-FT3. Only recently launched but already discounted online, its tough exterior is an attempt to create a camera that can withstand the rigours of travel, hiking or adventure sports. And it really works.

Safe from the elements
As useful to the clumsy as to seasoned globetrotters and adrenalin addicts, this red or aqua blue-coloured compact's claims include being waterproof to 12m (anything deeper requires a separate ?marine case'). It's also dust-proof, operational down to -14ÂșC temperatures, and droppable from two metres. This resilience comes largely from the way the camera's inputs and outputs are housed. The camera's SDXC card slot and Lithium-ion battery compartment, as well as its mini-HDMI and AV/micro-USB out, are kept safe from the elements by a flip-open door that's lined with a soft rubberised plastic seal. On the door is a catch and - crucially - a sliding lock. It's a simple and well executed system, and though the DMC-FT3 doesn't look too macho (it's reminiscent of a camera from four or five years ago), in our tests it withstood a good soaking and some needlessly nervy rough play.

Other traveller-friendly features abound, although most of them sit on the wrong side of novelty. If you've headed into the outback and you're relying on a digital camera's compass, altimeter and barometer for survival, good luck to you.

More useful is the camera's GPS feature, which effectively gives your photos a caption: country, region, state, city and town can be set, and all can be toggled on and off, while landmarks from a database covering 78 countries are also included. We're not sure how crucial this feature is, especially as it relies on finding a satellite - which can mean being ?offline' for sometime, affecting accuracy. Even when it's correct, it's often meaningless.

If you're on the road, more important than all of that is the DMC-FT3's battery life. With the above functions used sparingly, we managed around 290 shots between charges, which isn't bad.

Standard spec
Behind that tough exterior lies some thoroughly respectable capabilities for a compact. Full HD video recording (in the AVCHD format) comes courtesy of a 12.1 megapixel sensor and a 28mm wide angle Leica DC-Vario Elmar lens.

The all-important optical zoom reaches 4.6x and is reasonably quick to work, while the 2.7in LCD screen is sharp with reasonably accurate colours. There's also a useful ?power save' option that lowers brightness, a handy way of preserving power on trips away from modernity.

Although it's quick to wake and reload between shots, it takes a little practice to get to grips with all of the DMC-FT3's features. The menus have a rudimentary design and are difficult to follow initially, and though they're not exactly complex, full manual control is not what's on offer here (though white balance and ISO can be tweaked). A plethora of scene select modes are provided (candle light, pets, children, etc.) and there are also some notable editing features included, such as cropping, when in playback mode.

The LED flash is also decent; there's no flooding of the picture in poor light, while the auto-flash systems appear to err on the side of caution. That's good news, because the pictures we managed to shoot with the DMC-FT3 were as sharp as similarly priced compacts, with close-ups particularly impressive and low-light shots free from too much digital 'noise'. Video recording in Full HD is also a feature worth exploring, with AVCHD format files it creates enjoying the fruits of autofocus, face detection and even that LED flash for close-ups.

3D chops
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the DMC-FT3 is its 3D option. Rather than using dual lenses to shoot an accurate double image, thereby mimicking human sight (as found on the FujiFilm Finepix XP30), this is a software-driven strategy; 20 separate pictures are taken as the shutter is held down and the camera panned horizontally, with the ?best' two frames - as chosen by the camera - overlaid on each other and saved as an MPO file. Most 3D displays can show this, though in our tests using one of the latest generation of Panasonic Viera 3DTVs, the results were mixed: some were effective, but with an effect that was either slightly forced or confused, while others surprisingly accurate. Still, the cumbersome 20-shot rule means this feature is unlikely to catch on across single-lens cameras.

The outdoor crowd have seen a slew of ?rugged' cameras slip through their fingers over the past few years. At first glance, this may appear to be all about its novelty GPS, compass, altimeter and 3D features, but Panasonic has delivered a something genuinely new to the market: thoroughly reliable photography. Ideal for paddlers, snorkellers and clumsy backpackers after something more than just a ?tough' camera, this compact is good enough to record any point-and-shooter's progress around the globe.

BEST POINT: Good, reliable image quality with ruggedness.
WORST POINT: 3D images are a bit of a gimmick.

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