Though far from perfect, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 shapes up to be the best of the cameras promising 18x-zoom Nirvana we've reviewed so far, a trio rounded out by the slow Fujifilm FinePix S8000fd and the slower Olympus SP-550 UZ. Like those models, the FZ18 incorporates a wide aperture, wide-angle lens, specifically f/2.8-to-f/4.2 28mm-to-504mm, and like the S8000fd, incorporates an 8-megapixel sensor.
Its design looks quite similar to its 7-megapixel, 12x-zoom line mate, the FZ8Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3, the FZ18 retains an EVF (electronic viewfinder). That's a good thing: even with the optical image stabilizer, when shooting that long you really want the additional steadiness conferred by an eye-level-grip type of stance.
Panasonic doesn't skimp on shooting options here. In addition to a full set of manual, semi-manual, automatic, and scene program exposure modes, and the standard three metering choices--spot, center and multiple--the FZ18 includes six autofocus algorithm options: Face, 1-point, 1-point high speed, 3-point high speed, Multi-point, and Spot. It also offers automatic scene detection, rather sluggish face-detection, and Intelligent Auto mode, which enables the image stabilizer, uses Intelligent ISO (automatic up to the user set cap), face detection, automatic scene mode detection, and continuous AF. The three-shot self-timer provides a retro photo-booth experience. And not only does the FZ18 offer raw mode, it also supplies a raw-plus-JPEG option, which we generally see only in midrange and higher dSLRs.
Choosing a rating for the FZ18's image quality was unusually difficult. At its best, the FZ18 snaps excellent photos: sharp, with accurate exposure, good color rendering, reasonable lens geometry, and only modest noise at the low-to-middle ISO sensitivities. However, this seems to apply predominantly under natural lighting. CNET Labs tests indoors under tungsten and fluorescent lights not only exhibited poor automatic white balance, but above average noise and compression artifacts in the JPEG images. The raw versions of the photos (opened with Adobe Camera Raw using the default settings for the file format), with their adjusted white balance, less sharpening and slightly more noise suppression, came out far better than the JPEGs. True, they're a bit softer, but the trade-off seems to be more than worth it. Unfortunately, since I foresee most users shooting JPEG--it's faster than raw in the FZ18--I docked the FZ18's image-quality rating a point. You can see what I mean if you look at the image samples.