One of the main issues where megazoom camera lenses (and point-and-shoot zoom lenses in general) are concerned is that, to keep size and cost down, the apertures get increasingly smaller as you extend the lens. That's not the case for the Panasonic Lumix FZ200, though.
Smaller apertures mean you're letting in less and less light, which means you need to use high ISO settings to keep shutter speeds fast enough to prevent blur. While dSLRs and interchangeable lens cameras can turn out good high-ISO results, that's rarely the case with point-and-shoots.
The FZ200's lens, however, has an f2.8 aperture through its entire zoom range: 25mm to 600mm. That means even if you don't have great lighting, the camera won't immediately need to ramp up ISO sensitivity to get a proper exposure when you start using the zoom.
That doesn't automatically mean it's a better megazoom than anything else right now, but the rest of the camera puts it over the top. Many of its features are straight from its predecessor, the excellent FZ150, but you also get an improved autofocus system, a high-res electronic viewfinder (EVF), and a new high-sensitivity 12-megapixel MOS sensor. It's loaded with shooting options for every user level, plus an updated interface and more direct control over settings.
It is more expensive than competing models with longer zooms, but longer lenses don't mean better pictures.
The FZ200's new sensor and improved JPEG image processing do result in slightly better photos (and video, for that matter) than we got from its predecessor, the FZ150. Pixel peepers will see noise and artifacts, even at ISO 100, but the photos are still more usable at larger sizes up to ISO 400. And with the f2.8 aperture available through the zoom range, you don't need to be shooting in full sun or using its higher ISO settings to get a good shot. In fact, during shooting in mixed daylight conditions, the camera rarely went above ISO 400.
When you're shooting with less light with the lens fully extended and you're trying to freeze action, however, you'll probably still need its higher ISOs. Photos do get noticeably softer at ISO 800, but above that things get smeary. If you don't like the results you're getting from Panasonic's JPEG processing, you can always shoot in Panasonic's RW2 raw format and process the photos yourself. After some quick adjustments using Adobe Camera Raw in Adobe Lightroom 4.1 (nothing difficult, just moving some sliders), I was able to improve color, detail, and amount of noise. The camera's performance doesn't slow down when shooting in raw or raw plus JPEG, either.
Colors are bright and pleasing and exposure is generally very good, but highlights tend to blow out -- typical of point-and-shoots. Again, shooting in raw can help you regain some detail loss and adjust color if you're not satisfied with Panasonic's JPEG output. There are also controls for making adjustments to color as well as an HDR mode for shooting backlit subjects.
Keep in mind, though, this is not a digital SLR or interchangeable lens camera, or even a large-sensor compact. Those cameras will get you better photo quality, but they cannot offer you an f2.8 25-600mm lens in a compact body at a price even remotely close to the FZ200's. You're paying for versatility, features, and convenience here more than photo quality.
The FZ200's movies are equally as good as its photos. With good lighting you get excellent results, especially when shooting in 1080p60 in AVCHD format. For more Web-friendly video you can record in MP4, too. The zoom lens does work while recording, though you will hear it moving and possibly the continuous autofocus in quieter scenes. Overall, if you're looking for something to shoot photo and movies with, this is an excellent choice.
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance information, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.
If you shoot a lot of moving subjects, such as children, pets, and sports, the FZ200's multiple burst-shooting options give you a lot of flexibility and a fighting chance of getting a good photo. Its fastest burst modes -- 40 frames per second and 60fps -- are at reduced resolutions, but Panasonic packed in three at full resolution. There's one that captures up to 12 shots at 12fps, but that sets focus and exposure with the first shot. What's better are the 2fps and 5.5fps options with autofocus, so you're able to get a moderately fast-moving subject in focus and properly exposed. Plus, these are available when shooting in raw plus JPEG or raw and its performance is just as quick. The camera's high-speed shooting also provides bracketing options for flash intensities and exposures.
Other aspects of the FZ200's shooting performance are excellent as well. Shutter lag -- the time from pressing the shutter release to capture -- is low at 0.2 second in bright lighting and 0.4 second in dim, low-contrast lighting. From shot to shot without the flash you're waiting only 1 second; adding the flash extends that time to 3 seconds. The time from off to first shot is 1.2 seconds, which is very good for this camera class. Basically, the FZ200 is as fast as you're going to get with what's basically a point-and-shoot camera at its core.