The consumer point and shoot digital market is facing something of a crunch. Digital cameras are hardly a new phenomenon, and most of us are looking at our third digital camera, or more. Many consumers are coming to appreciate the flexibility that a full Digital SLR offers, and with many entry level SLRs now hovering around the AU$1000 mark, that makes it hard for a humble pocket camera to stand out. Some do it by being robust, such as the exceptional Olympus Tough Lite 850SW; others do it by accentuating the ease of use, like most of Kodak's offerings in this space. Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FS20 fits nicely into that description as well, as it's almost bereft of fiddly dials and extensive tweakable feature sets -- this is purely a camera for those who want to point, shoot and be reasonably happy with the results they get afterwards.
The body of the FS20 looks ostensibly similar to Panasonic's other Lumix models, such as the DMC-FX36. It comes in a simple silver casing, and from the front you'd have a hard time picking between the two cameras. On the rear, however, the FS20's accent on simplicity reveals itself. It's the first camera we've hit in the consumer space that doesn't feature a dial for shooting modes; what you get on the rear is a 3-inch LCD display, flanked on the right hand side by a switch that flicks between playback and capture modes. Underneath that you'll a display overlay button, five way simple toggle selector and a menu button that lets you get at the guts of the FS20's controls, if that's your thing.
The top of the camera is where you'll find the power button, zoom and shutter and an automatic zoom button that quickly shifts the camera into maximum zoom mode.
The FS20 features a 10-megapixel CCD, 4x optical zoom on a 30mm Leica DC VARIO-ELMAR lens. It features optical image stabilisation, and Panasonic's Venus IV image engine for processing image shots. Panasonic claims a shutter response time of as fast as 0.005 seconds per shot. The FS20 uses SD cards, and SDHC cards are supported.
The FS20's standout feature in the crowded consumer market is its Intelligent Auto system, and it's also the reason that the controls on the back of the FS20 are so sparse. The Intelligent Auto system will, so Panasonic claims, automatically adjust focus, exposure, ISO settings and perform face detection, and based upon what it finds, set itself to an appropriate mode while you're taking your shot. If you do want to fiddle with settings it's certainly possible, but that type of user would be better served elsewhere.
We tested the FS20 in a variety of shooting modes, and to give it a thorough run-through, also gave it to a digital camera novice, as that's clearly the market Panasonic's pitching to with the FS20.
The intelligent auto system worked very well for most of our tests, quickly picking up when we were taking portrait shots, panoramic views (the lens is a 30mm wide, so it's certainly possible) or macro shots. It was only in the latter category where we sometimes had to wait a while for the camera to work out what we were shooting. For the average flower, that's not likely to be a problem, but getting bees to stay still might be a different story.
Our novice user utterly adored the FS20, simply because it worked in the same fashion as an old box brownie; you point and shoot it, and for the most part it works. Being digital, of course you can trash shots quickly and without fuss.
For those moving onto bigger and better cameras, the FS20 might feel like it's holding your hand a little too much to be worth considering, but for anyone making their tentative first steps into digital photography, the FS20 comes highly recommended.