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Brian's Photo Blog — Article 409
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 — Sharpness Shootout
Tuesday 14 April 2015   —   Category: Equipment

This article is the third of a five-part series about the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 camera. If you have not read at least the first article, you might like to do so before continuing here.
  1. First Impressions
  2. First Photo Outing
  3. Sharpness Shootout
  4. Wi-Fi Remote Control
  5. Pros and Cons
  6. Special part six follow-up:
    Focusing Revisited
  7. Special part seven follow-up:
    Reader Responses
As I explained in the first article of this series, my first impression of the ZS50’s focus quality was not very positive. My first test shots seemed to show a somewhat soft focus — enough to make me seriously consider sending the camera back for a refund!

Of course, pocket cameras in general are not going to be winning any awards for razor-sharp focus. And it would not be fair to compare the image sharpness of the ZS50 to the superior sharpness of my Micro Four Thirds (µ4/3) equipment. But still, if the image sharpness was horrible, why even keep the camera?

A few years ago I had similar concerns with two lenses I owned at the time. In order to resolve the issue, I decided to have a Sony vs. Sigma wide-angle-lens shootout. Using the same methodology described in that article, I set up a new experiment to test the image sharpness of the ZS50, with two other cameras acting as test controls.

So, welcome to my 2015 Sharpness Shootout!
Today’s contestants are: At one end of my home office, I hung the March 2015 issue of Popular Science magazine from an Impact Multiboom light stand, lit with a small Fotodiox Pro LED 209AS light.

At the other end of my office, about 12 feet away, I placed my Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod, upon which each of the three cameras took its turn photographing the text of the magazine.

A few words of explanation are in order before the contest begins. All of the following test photos were captured in RAW format, which is my standard shooting method. In Adobe Lightroom I applied the same minimum processing of a slight amount of noise reduction and sharpening to each image. I also converted all the images to black and white in order to remove any variations in white balance between the cameras.

For both pocket cameras, the camera chose the shutter speed, aperture and ISO — I adjusted only the exposure compensation (indicated by /- EV). With my E-M5, I used my Panasonic telephoto zoom lens, with an equivalent focal length of 200-​600​mm.

For the remainder of this article, all focal lengths will be given in their 35mm equivalents. With these details taken care of, let the contest begin!

Because the F900 has a maximum focal length of 500mm, for the first round of test shots each camera was zoomed to the same 500mm. As you will see, apparently not all 500mm are created equal!
Panasonic ZS50 — 1/25 sec. at f/6, 1 EV, ISO 400, at (supposedly) 500mm. Hmmm ... compared to the other two photos in this first round, this image feels more like 400mm ... strange.
 
 
Olympus OM-D E-M5 — 1/6 sec. at f/11, 1⅓ EV, ISO 200, at 505mm (the closest I could get to 500). The stronger contrast in this sample helps make the image look sharper.
 
 
Fujifilm F900 — 1/60 sec. at f/5.3, 1 EV, ISO 500, at 500mm.
 
 
It seems clear that the winner of this first round is my higher quality and more expensive µ4/3 camera and lens combination. However, keep in mind that these are (for the most part) unprocessed images. After further processing in Lightroom to increase the contrast and sharpness, and reduce noise, the quality of the ZS50 image is much better and very acceptable, as you can see in this improved sample.
 
 
You must also keep in mind the goal of these sharpness tests. I am NOT trying to prove that the ZS50 produces higher quality images than the F900, or even the µ4/3 E-M5. I am only including samples from those two cameras for the sake of comparison.

The only reason I went to the trouble to perform these tests was to determine if the image quality of the ZS50 was so unacceptable that I needed to send the camera back and get a refund, or if it was good enough that I could go ahead and keep the camera — that is all.

With this simple goal clearly fixed in our minds, let’s move on to the second round. Because the F900 maxes out at 500mm, it has now dropped out of the contest as we push towards longer focal lengths.
 
Panasonic ZS50 — 1/25 sec. at f/6.4, 1 EV, ISO 400, at its maximum 720​mm. Once again, the stated focal length seems less than what it should be compared to the next image.
 
 
Olympus OM-D E-M5 — 1/6 sec. at f/11, 1⅓ EV, ISO 200, at the lens’ maximum 600mm. What’s the deal with the blurry results?
 
 
I am somewhat bothered that the focal length claimed by the ZS50 does not seem accurate, but that’s not the focus of this article. I am even more bothered by the lack of sharpness in my Panasonic µ4/3 telephoto zoom lens at its maximum focal length. The sample from the much smaller and cheaper ZS50 is much better!

In one of my articles from a couple of years ago — A German Tripod Collar for Panasonic 100-300 Lens — the video at the beginning of the article touches on the disappointing results that some (many?) people experience with this lens. This issue of softer focus at longer focal lengths is also discussed in this review of the lens.

You can see for yourself that the sharpness was much better in my first round of testing when the focal length was dialed back to 500mm. At the full 600mm used in the second round, the sharpness takes a steep nosedive. But from what I can see, the ZS50 at its maximum 720​mm (supposedly) focal length does not suffer from this problem.

Thinking that perhaps the E-M5’s autofocus was at fault (it can happen, as I have discussed before), I decided to perform a third round of testing at maximum focal using manual focus instead. This was also a good opportunity to try out the manual focusing capability of the ZS50, which the F900 lacks.
 
Panasonic ZS50 — 1/25 sec. at f/6.4, 1 EV, ISO 400, at its maximum 720​mm (supposedly). This time I used manual focus.
 
 
Olympus OM-D E-M5 — 1/6 sec. at f/11, 1⅓ EV, ISO 200, at the lens’ maximum 600mm. This time I used manual focus.
 
 
With both the ZS50 and the E-M5, I used their magnified focus assist feature, which greatly enlarges the image during focusing so that you can better see what is in focus and what is not. As you can see from the above results, the manual focus images and the autofocus images are nearly identical.

Obviously, it is the Panasonic µ4/3 lens that is at fault, and not the E-M5 camera, which corresponds to what I have heard about this lens. Too bad for Panasonic’s lens, but three cheers for Panasonic’s wonderful little ZS50 camera!

But before you imagine that the Panasonic 100-​300​mm µ4/3 lens is a total failure, I must inform you that I have gotten some great results from it. Earlier this year I took quite a few photos of my daughter splashing in the ocean, and I was very pleased with the results. The 100%-crop enlargement shown here is just one example.

Of course, I had wisely pulled back the focal length to slightly more than 500mm. That probably made all the difference.

You can see those photos in the Lompoc Surf Beach 2015 album. You can also explore all 298 pictures on this Web site which were taken with this lens, scattered among 26 different albums.

As far as I am concerned, the ZS50 passed its tests with flying colors. I’m SO glad that I took the time to investigate its focus sharpness before I rushed to judgment and sent the camera back, because it settled the image quality question once and for all. As far as I am concerned, the ZS50 is definitely a keeper!

To see larger versions of the test images on this page, see the last photo in the Panasonic ZS50 Test Shots album. Additional test photos can be seen in the Portland Japanese Garden, Stereo 2015 and Bird Feeder 2015 albums.

For more information about this camera, don’t miss the next article in this series, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 — Wi-Fi Remote Control. For a look at the practical use I have put this camera to, you might like to check out these articles:
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 409
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Reader Comments
On July 20, 2016, Richard Baguley wrote:
Very interesting.

I bought a TZ70 (50 in US) for an important trip - very disappointing.

Focus is soft to the point of being blurred. Images lack life and are, frankly, far worse than my old Canon A610, against a 350D no chance.

Oddly, at long focal lengths results are almost acceptable. At "normal" f/l and indoors my phone is far better.

To add to the problems dynamic range is abysmal: whites are crushed with no detail and shadows are black with no detail - terrible.

I'll be testing the Lumix in the next few days but right now I'm sure it's going back as next to useless.
On January 11, 2017, Wolfgang wrote:
I play quite a bit at astro-photography and I have seen the type of blur you are getting from your 600mm lens. Undoubtedly part of the issue is the lens' poor performance at 600 mm vs 500mm. But...
Try this- Place the lens/camera combo on a sandbag so both are supported and that on top of an absolutely stable base (stone wall?)
Then re-shoot at the same distances.
I found with my Nikons and the Sigma 150-600mm lens my sharpness increased tremendously once I found an absolutely secure base, especially when the shutter vibration was no longer transferred to the lens, even with the mirror locked up.
On January 28, 2018, Risto Pilvi wrote:
Hi there. Thank you for the interesting article concerning the sharpness of the Panasonic DMC ZS-50. I have received quite nice shots shooting in JPG form, but now I come to the problem, I have not found a RAW converter (free or otherwise) which works with the camera. I am mainly using Photoshop Elements 12, and Nikon's own editing programs for my D610. I understand that this is common problem with the ZS-50. I would be very happy if You could help me on this problem. Best regards, Risto Pilvi, Helsinki, Finland.
On January 28, 2018, Brian wrote:
In reply to Risto's question: From what I have seen, Adobe keeps pretty up to date with the RAW formats of new cameras. However, your PSE 12 is kind of on the old side, and the ZS-50 came out a couple of years later. Adobe offers a free Adobe Digital Negative Converter which they update regularly. You can find out more, and download it, at this page on their Web site:

https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/using/adobe-dng-converter.html

I personally have not had any problems with the ZS-50's RAW files, because Adobe updated Lightroom to be able to open them shortly after the camera was released. I hope this helps.
 
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 409
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