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I began using Panasonic’s FZ range of Bridge cameras way back in 2004. Since then I’ve owned and/or gained firsthand experience of the FZ20, 28, 38, 50 (borrowed), 150, 200, 80 and 330 (300). Despite many years of shooting with film SLR’s, I’ve yet to be tempted to go digital in respect of any interchangeable lens system on offer today. I appreciate that top-end DSLR equipment affords comparably better image quality (IQ) than all-in-one Bridge options, especially in low light. But for sheer portability and the convenience of so many available focal lengths in the generally lighter package – and because small sensor IQ capabilities arguably more than match 35mm film these days – I actually prefer a Bridge.
From close-up wildlife through portrait to landscape photography, ‘Bridges’ cater for the whole bundle completely absent of any requirement to change a lens. And as far as these fixed lens Bridge options go, no other manufacturer than Panasonic offers 25mm to 600mm with F2.8 aperture available all the way through from minimum to maximum focal length.
As if that ingenious Leica-designed glass wasn’t enough of a boast in and of itself, the FZ330’s about much more than its currently unrivalled optics. Although released just over four years ago, I’m sure the whole attractive feature-set of the FZ330 combines to reveal exactly why the model is still being manufactured as I write this in October 2019. Over a period of four years, many lesser models become dated as technologies advance. But except for just one or two areas in which it could arguably be upgraded, the FZ330 remains as popular a purchase today as it did back in 2015. Having spoken to a number of retailers recently, I’m reliably informed that the FZ330 is and always has been a best seller since its release. Why else would Panasonic have continued to make the camera for so long?
Maximum image resolution is 12-megapixels, which is arguably sensible given that the sensor’s just 1/2.3in in size. Most other bridge cameras from all makers also harbour 1/2.3in sensors, but many have higher pixel rates of 18 to 20-megapixels crammed onto the same surface area. In practice, rather than the higher pixel count enhancing image quality as it might on much larger sensors, an increased number of smaller photo sites on smaller sensors often only serve to exaggerate noise and detail-smearing issues. (Indeed, this very scenario even plays out in Panasonic’s own FZ80, an 18mp model with a growing reputation for producing poor results compared to other and often older FZs donning lower resolution sensors of the same size. In my experience, compared to the FZ330, FZ80 results don’t come remotely close).
Moving back on point, the body of the 330 is weather-resistant, meaning that there’s no longer any rush to stash the camera away at the first sign of rain. Gone are the days I’d eagerly pop older FZs inside my coat after the first water droplet hit the camera. In practice, I’ve continued shooting with the FZ330 well into a shower on many occasions, with no ill-effects whatsoever. I have, however, always carefully dried off the camera before placing it inside the carry case or before opening the door to the battery compartment. To me, these are commonsense practices that offer extra assurance that the FZ330 will perform trouble-free for as long as possible, hopefully many years.
The 330’s 3in articulated touch screen has a higher resolution than the LCD found on the FZ150 and 200 before it. The electronic viewfinder (EVF), which uses superb OLED technology, is also significantly bigger and of higher resolution than the 200, offering a more precise viewing and overall richer experience when framing subjects. The EVF of the 200 was better than the 150, but the 330’s version is a larger improvement still – and by a noticeable and very welcome margin. It really is great to have this kind of quality EVF on board!
Compared to the older FZ200 with which it shares the same lens assembly, the 330 has more refined controls too: for starters the command dial’s more substantial and easier to use. The manual focus switch, which now rests at the back of the camera, also includes an AFC option that continuously updates autofocus when tracking subjects. A new wheel on the lens barrel makes manual focus adjustment an easier exercise and can also be used to navigate menus and adjust settings.
With so many buttons and dials as well as the new touchscreen interface, multiple ways to access the same feature are there to be explored rather than to feel daunted by. In so many ways, the FZ330 is far more flexible and efficient to use that the FZ200 and there is much to learn by comparison if users are of the mind to do so. For those who are not, the basics of camera operation are no more difficult on the FZ330 than they are when using cameras with far less options to tweak or adjust things. Ultimately, despite the fact this could be regarded as a true enthusiast’s camera, the FZ330 is equally as beginner-friendly to anyone who cares to handle it and, if necessary, read the instruction manual before use.
Although I don’t use it myself, Wi-Fi will be regarded by some users as a welcome addition too, as will Panasonic’s companion app for IOS and Android. Features of this include a remote viewfinder mode with photographic control, video recording and stop-motion animation capture. The ability to take a photo just by giving the phone a shake is also there. Photos can be geo-tagged with the help of a connected smartphone’s GPS radio, and collages can be generated from photos stored on the camera. I hasten to add that I’ve tried no such procedures myself, so have no insight into how well they actually function.
I feel the main point to note with Bridges in general is that they are cameras primarily designed to shoot still images. Video is there pretty much as an added novelty rather than a fully dedicated feature. Therefore, whilst the FZ330 can produce more than acceptable quality video for people who dabble with the medium as an aside, neither this nor any other Bridge, except perhaps for the more video centric FZ2000, could truly compete with a fully dedicated home movie making machine designed specifically for the job. Ultimately, cameras designed first and foremost to shoot stills are always better for shooting stills than they are video. The exact opposite applies where cameras designed primarily for shooting video carry an additional feature for shooting stills. Neither can be a master of both and, alas, perhaps never that particular twain shall meet in small sensor models.
When the 330 was released in 2015, the inclusion of 4k video was a relatively big thing (arguably it still is.) Other manufacturers at the time where playing catch-up, just as they have been doing in relation to many Panasonic products over many years. Ultimately, Panasonic embraced 4K video recording more eagerly and enthusiastically than any other competitor.
Where Panasonic so often leads, it appears others simply must follow and I’m not sure this exceptionally innovative company receives as much credit as it deserves for shaping the world of technology in the way that it has and continues to do. Well, at least there goes my shout out for a great but often unsung manufacturer!
Despite the fact that noise from the motor will mar any soundtrack containing sequences of zooming in and out, the FZ330 records 3,840 x 2,160 pixel 4K video at 24 or 25 frames per second (fps) or 1080p at 24, 25 and 50fps respectively. Some Panasonic cameras with larger sensors use a slightly cropped area of the frame to enable each pixel of 4K video to correspond directly with a photo site on the sensor. As far as I’m aware, however, the FZ330 doesn’t do this (except perhaps when shooting a series of stills in its 8mp 4K burst photo mode). Consequently its 4K video isn’t likely to be quite as clear and crisp as, say, the G9 or any other M4/3 example with ultra high definition capabilities.
Slow motion capture for 720p video at 100fps or VGA at 200fps is also available, playing back at 25fps at 1/4 or 1/8 of normal viewing speed. Conveniently, manual exposure control and touch screen-generated spot autofocus are there as well. As already touched on above, an additional drive labelled ‘4K Photo’ captures 4K sequences that allow for individual frames to be saved as Jpeg files. Effectively it’s a 30fps, 8-megapixel burst mode that, if required, can be left running for a few minutes at a time. Again, I’ve yet to try 4K Photo myself, but I’ve seen many good examples from the feature posted on DPR and other photographic forums to encourage me to experiment with this particular function in the future.
AUTOFOCUS SPEEDS AND STLL IMAGE SHOOTING
Although exceptionally quick in normal use, taking only around 0.2 seconds between tripping the shutter to taking a photograph, there are occasional inaccuracies associated with autofocus. Don’t get me wrong here, in most situations the FZ330 focuses impeccably. But there are times of frustration ahead for those who use the camera primarily at longer focal lengths, particularly in situations where the camera apparently becomes confused by a variance in contrast that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for other models. At these times, hunting and/or a weird kind of lens-to-subject tremble becomes the name of the game. At its worst, when framing via the viewfinder, the normal and initial hunt we experience from many a miss-focus associated with other cameras develops into a strange, pulsating judder that must be experienced to be believed on the FZ330.
To speed things up, Panasonic saw fit to include Depth by Defocus (DFD) autofocus technology primarily developed for their M4/3 cameras in the FZ330. Previous small sensor FZs had always utilised the more familiar out and out contrast detection autofocus (CDA). Although not without its own problems, and despite the fact it was generally slower – albeit only slightly in some models – I actually found CDA slightly more reliable than DFD appears to be. I just wish Panasonic would acknowledge the real virtues of phase detection systems and plant one in any upgrade they care to make to the 330, although a hybrid between phase detection and DFD might be even better.
I’ve seen similar complaints to mine re DFD from M4/3 users too. So, if the problems exist on cameras fitted with much larger sensors, I don’t see how DFD tech can be totally suited to the FZ330. Either way, something is definitely intermittently amiss here – although I’d go so far as to say that most folks who buy the camera for everyday shooting may rarely, if at all, experience the problem and may even be inclined to deny that it even exists at all. Be assured, however, that it most certainly does, and I don’t doubt many more users could confirm the situations in which their FZ330 struggles the most. Ultimately, though, I’d say no-one should be put off by such intermittent unreliability. In its defence, more often than not, the FZ330’s a real sharp, fast and reliable shooter indeed.
Although not so long-lasting for continuous video recording, fully charged battery power enables users to shoot around 700 to 800 best quality Jpegs over a session lasting around 4-hours during which the 330’s switched on and off a number of times. Resisting the temptation to keep reviewing our shots in-camera also helps conserve power for those opportunities we might otherwise miss. Overall, just two batteries can easily cover 8 plus-hours worth of photography, which I’d say will be more than enough for the average user.
Compared to the FZ200, continuous shooting performance has been improved too. My old FZ200 could manage 10fps for just 14ish frames before stalling to save highest quality Jpegs. The FZ330, on the other hand, can sustain 12 fps for up to 83 JPEGs before stopping briefly to write them to the card. It also records images at 7.2fps with continuously updating autofocus, apparently indefinitely for JPEGs and around 26 in terms of RAW files.
With lightening speed autofocus and such respectably fast continuous burst modes onboard, the 330’s certainly no slouch. No wonder that the camera has consistently proven so popular amongst wildlife enthusiasts and many DSLR users who appreciate the speed within a much lighter and more portable package. With such a fantastic image stabiliser also on board, gone is the necessity for tripod or monopod usage to ensure distant subjects remain clearly in focus. Instead, the 330 arguably makes for the ideal, hand-held, Eveready tool for virtually any photographic situation. It won’t make ALL DSLR users ditch their comparatively much heavier gear, but many have already made the switch to the FZ330 because they balance the trade off in image quality against the sheer convenience of the all-in-one option.
Despite being only 1/2.3in size, the FZ330’s sensor is capable of delivering surprisingly detailed and overall excellent results within sensible limits. This is no doubt in part due to its excellent onboard image processor and a comparatively fast F2.8 lens, which affords the means of maintaining the lowest possible ISO settings, whilst enabling shutter speeds fast enough to keep moving subjects blur-free and the overall image relatively clear of noise.
In good to reasonably fair light levels, FZ330 photographs can look exceptionally good between base ISO 100 and ISO 800. Beyond ISO 1600, however, the camera really begins to struggle, but I maintain that for the most part, virtually all that one could ever require of the FZ330 is attainable between these boundaries. As such, the even higher ISO settings found within the model are virtually redundant and of no interest to me, beyond perhaps enabling a noisy record shot of something I’d rarely see in dim light, for example. Ultimately, if you require consistency and photo clarity outside of the 330’s ISO capabilities, then you’ll need a camera with a larger sensor; re-enter that DSLR you may have been thinking of selling.
Although the RAW format is present, I’m a Jpeg shooter myself. Contrary to some of the opinions I’ve read by critics of the FZ330’s Jpeg output (possibly made up mostly of diehard RAW fans), I have no problem obtaining generally highly satisfactory results straight from the camera with no real requirement for post processing. Okay, it took me a few photography sessions to eventually find and settle on my own preference for in-camera settings. But since the day I became completely happy with my own little set of tweaks afforded by such a flexible, superb in-camera processor and overall splendid Jpeg engine, I’ve never looked back.
The main point to note is that straight out of the box, The FZ330’s default settings render less detailed and vibrant quality of Jpeg output than is otherwise attainable from user-tweaks and some patient experimentation. Left at default, FZ330 Jpegs can show inaccuracies in colour; they may even appear washed out and exhibit fine-detail smearing, the extent to which might see some users head straight to the RAW option, when, unless they generally prefer RAW anyway, there’s simply no need.
Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we only have our own eyes and expectations to please in terms of image quality. Consequently, the in-camera adjustments to any settings will be personal and therefore may not be applicable to all. Bottom line, some folk don’t mind noise; some like to sharpen until halos appear; some like a variance in black to replace shadow detail; some like additional contrast, some like over-saturation and just as many will prefer dampened versions of all of the above and much more.
Me? I like what I like, and the FZ330 delivers it in Jpeg form straight out of the camera. Although your settings may end up different to mine, I don’t doubt that this wonderful, versatile Jpeg producer could do exactly the same for you. Have a play; you just might enjoy the outcome.
Again, the contribution that this fantastic Leica-designed lens makes in terms of results cannot be overstated here. Overall, the lens is generally sharp throughout the focal range. But at or near full telephoto, depending on the subject, the F2.8 aperture may appear to give softer-looking results than smaller apertures of F3.2, F4, F4.5 and F5. Beyond F5 and all the way down to the minimum of F8, lens diffraction gradually becomes more noticeable.
A general consensus amongst users is that F4 is the lens sweet spot when shooting at any chosen focal length throughout the FZ330’s range. Notably, if shooting in virtually any fully automatic setting from wide to telephoto, Panasonic appears to have programmed the camera to choose F4 aperture by default. This suggests that the designers themselves view F4 as the aperture to maintain enough consistency across the focal board, thereby keeping any auto point-and-shooter generally happy with all output he or she sees from the camera.
In practice, I much prefer aperture priority to any fully automated mode of operation, and F4 has always been my primary choice for shooting wide landscapes through to 600mm close-ups of birds, etc. At the more open F3.2, occasionally slightly more detail is apparent than with F4, but for some reason only at full 600mm equivalent. Anything under 600mm and, light levels permitting, I’ll generally revert back to F4. Although it’s there, rarely will I choose the fully wide open F2.8 setting, mainly because in my experience F3.2 results appear consistently crisper and more detailed under any conditions. I can only go by what I’ve come to experience from over four-years of consistently using this wonderful camera.
Just before concluding this review, I simply must outline one of my all-time favourite features here. As with a number of FZ’s before it, the 330 absolutely excels at close-up photography because it enables users to focus on subjects that are a mere one-meter away from a lens fully extended to 600mm telephoto. Yep, just imagine it, subjects as small as just 8cm across actually fill the frame, making the 330 perfect for photographing insects and other small creatures without going close enough to frighten them away. Bees, butterflies, bugs of virtually any sort or description can take centre stage here, and with often astounding levels of detail displayed in our photographs. Admittedly this kind of photography takes some practice, but the results may be amongst the most rewarding that users will ever experience with any camera. A truly superb feature indeed!
In terms of its specification and sheer versatility out in the real world, no other Bridge camera fitted with the same size sensor offers all that the FZ330 does for the price we pay; that’s pretty incredible considering that it’s now been retailing for over four years.
Although anyone could be forgiven for anticipating that an all this time, other Bridge manufacturers might have caught up with or perhaps even overtaken Panasonic in terms of utter bang-for-the buck tech and spec, not one of them actually has. All the more interesting to me and quite probably anyone potentially seeking to buy a FZ330 is that it’s never been less expensive to obtain that it is right now.
On release in 2015, it was just under £500. Today, in October 2019, the FZ330 is retailing on average at just £379, even less in some places. Clearly there’s never been a better time to buy than right now. But no matter how low its price may drop in the future, and regardless of whether Panasonic eventually get around to upgrading the model, the FZ330 will never be any less of a camera that it is and always will be.
Seriously, there’s little else you could possibly expect from any camera, and I cannot recommend the FZ330 highly enough.
Please note that reduced resolution image samples below are best viewed through my DPR Photo Gallery by clicking the highlighted link under each shot: