Panasonic's Lumix ZS60 packs crazy zoom in a small body, with one major flaw

With their massive focal ranges, super-zooms (also called mega-zooms or bridge) have always made great cameras for vacations. With one device it’s easy to grab wide-angle vistas or zeroing in on the tops of faraway buildings. But to get a very long lens, you used to have to buy a super-zoom camera with a DSLR-like body.

No longer: Compact, pocket-sized variants like the 18-megapixel Panasonic Lumix ZS60 ($450, in black or black/silver) are packing a longer focal range, while maintaining a point-and-shoot-style body. But Panasonic packed in a lot more features, like its latest 4K-capture technologies. For holidaymakers, or anyone who wants a high-zoom camera without getting an interchangeable lens camera, the ZS60’s size and list of features are attractive. Despite the impressive features and an affordable price, its small sensor poses limitations that may drive away those who want the best image quality.

There’s nothing particularly sexy about the camera’s boxy design, but the ZS60 has clean lines as well as textured grips. It looks the same as its predecessor, the ZS50, but it has enhanced (on paper, at least) performance and features. The ZS60 is small, measuring 4.4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches and tipping the scales at 11 ounces, so it could be easily carried anywhere. The best part is that it packs a Leica Vario-Elmar 30x zoom with (24-720mm) built-in optical image stabilization to reduce blur at long ranges. Aperture range is f/3.3 (wide) to f/6.4 (tele), so don’t expect too much in dim light (more on this in a bit). There’s a control ring at the base of the lens for manual focus and other functions. It’s less bulky that the similarly priced Lumix FZ300, which has a DSLR-like body, but that camera gives you 5-axis image stabilization, weather-resistant body, and faster lens (f/2.8).

On the front are a built-in flash and an autofocus-assist lamp, while the top deck has the main mode dial, shutter button with zoom toggle, stereo mics, video record button, and power key. There’s no hot shoe for accessories such as a larger flash, but we doubt this is a deal-breaker for buyers looking for a good small-sized travel camera.

The rear has a fixed 3-inch LCD with a 1-million-dot resolution. It’s not adjustable or tiltable but quality is fine under most conditions. It’s touch enabled, so it’s easy to adjust menu settings or touch to select a focus point. What’s handy is a tiny but usable 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder with diopter control, which lets you hold the camera to your eye for more stability or if the sun washes out the LCD. To the right of the LCD are the usual keys and control wheel found on all cameras. Panasonic offers a lot of flexibility here by offering the ability to add functions to many of the buttons, as well as virtual function buttons via the LCD.

On the right side is a compartment with HDMI and USB connections, while the left has a mono speaker. The bottom has the combination battery compartment/SD card holder. The battery is rated a solid 320 shots, so it should last an entire day’s outing; it can charge in-camera over USB

The ZS60 comes with a rechargeable battery, AC adapter, USB cable, and wrist strap. There’s also a basic manual. Not included in the box but available as free downloads are PHOTOfunSTUDIO 9.8PE photo editor, SILKYPIX Developer Studio SE for handling RAW files, and a trial version of LoiLoScope video editor. To pair with a phone or tablet, download the Panasonic Image App for iOS or Android.

Panasonic offers a one-year warranty for parts and labor. The company offers an extended warranty via SquareTrade.

The ZS60 has a 1/2.3-inch 18-megapixel sensor coupled with the Venus Engine processor. It’s a responsive camera that focuses quickly thanks to a 49-point AF system. However, like the ZS50, this continues to be a small-chip camera, so there are some significant quality issues to be expected.

Although it’s not a fair comparison, we recently did a hands-on with Sony’s latest mega-zoom and the results were top-notch, thanks to the 20-megapixel 1-inch “stacked sensor” and a high-quality (and very big) 25x (24-600mm) lens. But the RX10 III is a bigger product that costs three times as much as the ZS60, and, in cameras, you get what you pay for.

One-inch sensors are becoming more common in 2016, with most camera brands offering them. Based on camera companies’ sales, sensors larger than 1/1.7 inches are seeing growth in an overall down market. But, in an age where phones have taken over at the low end, it goes to show consumers are willing to pay more for superior quality. Panasonic has the Lumix DMC-ZS100 ($699), a 1-inch sensor sibling to the ZS60 (but with a 10x zoom), while Canon’s has its 25x PowerShot G3 X ($999), just to name two. So, there’s the tradeoff: You can spend more for better image quality, or save money and take a hit. As for the ZS60, the question is, how much of a hit?

Since the ZS60 is an ideal travel camera, we took it on several trips. Overall, the Lumix ZS60 performs as one would hope, but again, it’s far from perfect due to that small sensor. For example, we did some maximum telephoto (720mm) shots of boats in the ocean, from a hotel balcony, and the detail was very poor. However, when we captured wide-angle vistas and less extreme zooms from the same position, the results were much better. This was the case in almost every situation, as you can see from the samples.

While the 49-point autofocusing system is snappy, and we like the ability to tap-to-focus anywhere on the LCD, the camera can be slow at times, particularly if it’s processing something. For example, when browsing through a mix of 4K videos and stills, or switching between shooting and playback, we encountered delays of a few seconds. It’s nothing awful, but annoying at times.

The ZS60 has built-in optical image stabilization (OIS) to help eliminate blur. As with any high-power zoom, proper hand-holding techniques are critical at extreme telephoto even with OIS. You can bring the camera to eye level thanks to the viewfinder – for extra steadiness – but finding a nearby railing to use as a makeshift tripod is helpful. The EVF is small, but at least it’s there and works well. We like the sensor that quickly switches between the EVF and LCD, and you can use the LCD as a touch-panel to touch-focus while looking through the EVF.

Ergonomically, the ZS60 is fun to use with easy-to-read keys. The main mode dial has the usual suspects: Intelligent Auto (two levels), PASM, Movie, Custom, Panorama, Scene, and Creative Control (special effects). The touchscreen lets you change settings with a minimum of fuss. Users should have no problems getting up to speed but we always recommend you at least skim through the supplied manual to make the most of the camera.

We took the camera to a Cactus League spring training game to try out the maximum frame rate of 5 frames per second, with continuous autofocus (10 fps without). The results were very uneven, with lots of blur. Top mechanical shutter speed is 1/2,000th of a second, which is an OK spec. Sports shooters, however, shouldn’t expect miracles here since it’s a point-and-shoot camera and not a more powerful mirrorless or DSLR that can capture 100 JPEGs at 1/4,000th of a second. Overall, the camera really works best with a lot of light, but even then, results tended to overexpose and without the depth of more expensive models.

The ZS60 has an ISO range of 80-3,200, expandable to 6,400. Again, a small chip isn’t going to provide super-high sensitivity levels of 12,800 and beyond. In fact, ISO 800 is about as high as you should go. Again, with its high-aperture lens and tiny sensor this camera really performs best with some serious sunshine.

We were impressed with how movies look in Full HD (1080 up to 60p) and 4K (3,840 x 2,160 at 30p), both in MP4 for easier uploads; AVCHD is also available, but limited to Full HD. However, the ZS60 has trouble focusing moving subjects, with jelly effects (where the image wobbles like Jell-O) and rolling shutter galore. It’s obvious this isn’t a filmmaking camera, and we aren’t sure how useful 4K is for the targeted user, but it’s there if you’re looking to shoot some memorable videos during a vacation. Budding filmmakers looking for an all-in-one should consider the RX10 II or III, PowerShot G3, or Panasonic’s FZ1000.

With 4K capture, there are some notable features worth mentioning because they could come in handy. The ZS60 offers Panasonic’s 4K Photo and Post Focus modes, which were trickled down from its mirrorless cameras. When using these functions, to the user it may seem like ordinary photo taking, but the camera is actually recording 4K video. What happens is, the camera then strips 8-megapixel stills from the video. These aren’t meant for everyday shooting, but are useful when the situation calls for them.

For example, 4K Photo is three burst modes that are great for action shots (you can read more about the feature in our Lumix G7 hands-on). In playback mode, you can scan through the video and extract the moment you want. Unlike regular burst mode, the camera saves a single 4K movie file, as oppose to multiple JPEG or RAW image files that aren’t as easy to play back. But you don’t get the full resolution of the sensor, although, under the optimum conditions, the results aren’t bad. Also, you can only extract images in-camera (although Adobe Photoshop or Light could be used, you lose the metadata).

Post Focus is a feature we really like, and the ZS60 gets points for including it. Like a Lytro light-field camera, a Post Focus image lets you “refocus” after shooting. When enabled, the camera is grabbing focus data from each of the 49 points; like 4K Photo, it’s not actually saving 49 images, but recording a 4K video. During playback, you are able to refocus by tapping on any part of the screen, which you can extract as individual JPEGs. You don’t need to worry about focusing, but for it to be effective it’s best for still-life and you should use a tripod. The downside, again, is that you don’t get the full resolution of the sensor, and you will notice some loss in quality. But for what it is, the images don’t look too bad and it’s fun.

Another feature worth mentioning is Live Cropping for movies. When recording video in 4K, you can crop into the video in a smooth panning manner, instead of the jerky unevenness you get with using the zoom toggle. To use, you simply set the start and end points on the LCD, and then hit record (20 or 40-second durations). It takes some getting used to at first, but what you get is a filmmaking quality. The final video is only Full HD, however, and the zoomed-in image isn’t as sharp as we would like.

Note that 4K would require a fast memory card with ample storage capacity.

Despite these cool new features, image quality is limited to what the small sensor is capable of, 4K or no 4K. Despite the higher resolution, we theorize image quality could have taken a hit when Panasonic switched sensors; the ZS50 was lauded for its images. The camera works best with still images and lots of light, and in these situations the camera is more than capable of producing pleasing images for viewing online or printing in small sizes. It’s when you try to enlarge them, shoot in low light, or capture action shots, where you’ll notice the deficiencies. When viewed in their full size, you’ll notice the details aren’t as sharp.

On a positive note, the Lumix ZS60 has built-in Wi-Fi and pairing it with a Samsung Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6S was very simple. The Panasonic Image app does the basics like remote shooting and sharing to social media, but it gives you some control over the various features, including zoom. The company gets pluses for implementing the process well. If we had to knock it, it would be that we wish there was a dedicated Wi-Fi button, as it’s not easy to locate in the menus.

At $449, the ZS60 is a good travel camera overall. It’s relatively light, and it’s very compact considering it’s packing a 30x zoom. The older ZS50, based on customer ratings, was very popular, and while manufacturers oftentimes get criticized for not updating their products’ form-factors, we think Panasonic did well to retain the design. We also give the company kudos for including a lot of user-friendly features, like Post Focus, with every new camera, and the ZS60 isn’t just a minor rehash of the ZS50.

In theory, the ZS60 should be a fantastic point-and-shoot like the ZS50, but something happened along the way to a higher-megapixel sensor that’s caused a drop in image quality, which is too bad as that affects the usefulness of features like 4K Photo. It’s better than a lot of long-zoom cameras we’ve used, but we’re also seeing new compacts that can do much better. With that said, judging from some early Amazon customer reviews, the ZS60 has its fans, and we think some casual users will find it appealing.

The ZS60 does the job, particularly in well-lit environments. But you could say that for most point-and-shoot cameras. The culprit is a tiny image sensor that’s starting to feel its age in 2016. If image quality is a priority, you could spend a bit more for the ZS100, or consider Panasonic’s new Lumix G85 compact mirrorless camera with a good zoom lens. Both options use larger sensors, and offer the same 4K features.

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