Flash back to 2004. Panasonic had a nice little set of bridge cameras, the FZ10 and FZ20, sporting some rather unusual 12x zoom lenses with constant aperture. Now, eight years later, the manufacturer has returned to constant aperture lenses, with f/2.8 over the entire focal range in 2012's Lumix FZ200. But this time, Panasonic's bridge has a 24x zoom lens that starts at a focal length of 25 mm! On top of that, the FZ200 has a 12-Megapixel "high-sensitivity" CMOS sensor and films Full HD video.
The FZ200 looks a lot like its predecessor, the FZ150. However, several features have actually been redesigned—the control layout has notably been updated. The lens barrel has the same type of zoom and focusing controls as the FZ150, which makes the camera feel more like an SLR to handle.
Build quality is similar to the FZ150, with decent assembly and a good-quality finish. That said, this is still a very plastic camera. We can't help thinking it could have warranted higher-end materials in some places. In spite of that, the bigger handle improves grip and fits more comfortably in the palm of your hand. The controls are simple and easy to get the hang of using while still offering plenty of customisable options for more advanced users.
The Lumix FZ200 has the same full swivel screen as the FZ150. Screen definition therefore hasn't changed and viewing angles are still nice and wide. There's also the same excessive contrast that overexposes light greys and the rather hit-and-miss colour fidelity (Delta E = 7.9). Similarly, the tiny viewfinder still has both low definition and low contrast, and it still uses a sequential display, which can lead to "rainbow effects" from colour break-up.
The FZ200 is generally speedier than the FZ150. It starts up in under a second and a half, and photo-to-photo turnaround has been trimmed down to under half a second.
The autofocus is on the better side of average at all focal lengths, although it inevitably slows down in low light.
On the whole, the Lumix FZ200 is a responsive bridge that won't hold you back or slow you down.
The FZ150 won us over with its 24x zoom lens and "high sensitivity" CMOS sensor. But while the FZ200 uses the same sensor, the lens is new in this 2012 model. Although the 25-600 mm focal range remains unchanged, the new constant f/2.8 aperture changes everything.
The sensor's performance therefore holds no real surprise, even though smoothing has been slightly reduced here. Noise appears at 400 ISO but stays well controlled up to 800 ISO. At 800 ISO granularity is still manageable and 8" x 10 " photos (20 x 27 cm) will look fine. However, upwards of 1600 ISO noise is noticeably heavier and blurs finer detail.
We couldn't help wondering whether image quality would really be up to scratch in this camera due to its large focal range and constant aperture. The results, however, are actually quite convincing.
At wide-angle, the image is sharp in the middle of the frame and still holds up well around the edges (although it's not quite as contrasted as with the FZ150). At longer focal lengths, the image is more consistent in quality over the frame and sharpness levels are up there with the best—even if you can spot a few purple fringes at 100% size.
The FZ200 films Full HD video at up to 50 frames per second with stereo sound. The image is nicely detailed even if light, bright zones tend to get overexposed.
The stereo sound is effective. Different noises are accurately rendered and voices are easily recognisable. Note that in very quiet scenes you can hear the noise of the zoom motor working.