It's difficult to come up with a polite description for the appearance of the range of rugged cameras that have appeared over the past few months. First we saw the Tough 8000 from Olympus which was brick-like and didn't exactly strike a chord in the heart of aesthetes. Then, Canon's PowerShot D10 appeared and just from looking at the pictures, it looks like the curious offspring of a submarine and a blue whale.
Meccano or Lego?
Describing the Panasonic FT1 is a similarly curious task — we'd liken it more to a Lego brick thanks to its bright colours and screws that are positioned on each corner on the front plate. Speaking of colours, you can get this go-most-places-but-don't-forget-to-read-the-care-instructions-otherwise-you-void-your-warranty camera in orange, blue, green or silver. There's a thin flash unit nestled close to the centre of the camera, and the square and smooth lens unit sits to the right when looking at it face-on. Unlike the Olympus, there is no lens cover that slides over the lens when the camera is powered off.
This camera definitely looks and feels sturdy, thanks to its construction — the aforementioned screws, the brushed alloy at the front, and the reinforced flaps that protect the SDHC and battery slot, as well as the external output slot on the side.
Main controls are relegated to three buttons at the top — power, shutter and zoom rocker, and at the back an array of four-way buttons and a mode dial look after everything else. Of particular interest is the one-touch record button which, just under the mode dial, allows you to begin taking movies immediately.
There is a reason that Panasonic is touting this camera as a hybrid, because it successfully pairs a competent still image camera with HD video functionality. Rather than being a token inclusion to increase the specifications and up the asking price, the FT1's video taking is (so far) the best we've seen on a still compact camera. Using a format known as AVCHD Lite, a proprietary format based off AVCHD (used in many camcorders) and jointly developed by Panasonic and Sony, the FT1 is capable of recording in 720p. With an HDMI port on the side of the camera, and included software to transcode the resulting video files, the implementation here is as fully fledged as we'd expect.
The sensor on the FT1 hits a relatively standard maximum of 12 megapixels, while the Leica lens reaches 4.6x at full extension, and is 28mm at its widest end. As for the all-important statistics, the FT1 is waterproof to 3 metres, shockproof from 1.5 metres, and also dustproof. Note that the camera can only be immersed in water for up to 60 minutes at any one time, and as with all rugged cameras, there are special care instructions that need to be followed before and after you use your camera in the extremes.
Face recognition mode adds a splash of novelty to the FT1. In intelligent auto mode, the camera can recognise certain registered faces and then optimise the exposure accordingly. In practice it was a little fiddly as you have to enter a name and birth date on the camera for each subject.
Performance and image quality
Click through to the photo gallery to see the pictures taken with the FT1. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CBSi)
One of the most immediate performance issues with the FT1 came from turning the camera on, as the power button was recessed quite firmly into the top of the casing. Start-up time was around 1.5 seconds, but shot-to-shot time averaged around 4 seconds. Overall performance was definitely better than the pre-production we got our hands on in Singapore.
Noise control on the FT1 wasn't great when we hit levels of ISO 800 and above, with a considerable amount of coloured grain appearing. Colours though were quite brilliant, with good saturation and tonality. Blues and greens appeared most vivid as would be expected on an underwater camera.
Speaking of underwater, this was where the FT1 really came into its own — it seems almost a shame to buy this camera if you have no intention of using it in its subaqueous guise. Just as with the still images, the video was just as impressive, if not better. Everything appeared incredibly clear and sharp, and for the most part the lens was able to let in enough light to cope with even dark underwater situations. We loved how the camera let us use the optical zoom, both above and below water, and playing back the video on the 2.7-inch LCD screen was incredibly easy.
The mode dial did have a tendency to fall in between two selections during shooting or when we slipped it in a bag, resulting in a lot of frustrating situations where we couldn't take a shot because the screen kept telling us the mode dial wasn't in the correct position.
The video quality was the most impressive we've seen on a rugged camera before, thanks to the HD-quality reproduction. Colours underwater were fantastic, and there was no green or blue tinge that affected the rest of the image. At 720p resolution, the AVCHD files do need to be played back in the included software package (Panasonic's PhotoFunStudio), which then allows you to perform some rudimentary editing before outputting it back to a camera, CD, DVD or YouTube.
We really liked using the FT1. As an everyday camera it's perhaps a little too bulky and cumbersome, but for underwater and shockproof purposes, it's the best on the market so far. We've still yet to test the Canon PowerShot D10, and while it will present some stiff competition, the excellent video implementation on the FT1 is just too good to pass up — for now.