Now that some digital SLRs offer live LCD framing, and given that some compact cameras can capture 10Mp RAW files, the gap between 'serious' SLRs and 'simple' compact cameras has started to narrow. Now Panasonic has muddied the waters with a sophisticated bridge camera that boasts a spec that is higher than some budget SLRs - and at a consumer-friendly price to boot.
The FZ50 definitely has professional aspirations, with its tough, grippy, black plastic body, fronted by a hefty 12x zoom lens. The Leica optics are controlled by a twisting manual ring, giving near-instant zooming between extremes (and saving battery power too). A second ring controls manual focusing, selected by a switch on the side of the lens.
Pick up the FZ50 with both hands (it's no lightweight), and your right hand has a lot of work in store. Reach on top for a mode dial to select Program, Priority or Manual exposure modes and buttons to activate the image stabiliser or continuous shooting. Your thumb hovers over a number of dedicated buttons, and then it's a bit of a stretch down to the awkwardly positioned four-way pad and menu selector. And if that weren't enough, there's a brace of jog dials to master, too.
Why so many controls? Well, the FZ50 is intent on matching digital SLRs feature for feature. Image stabilisation is essential with such a long lens, and it's worth leaving the Panasonic's Mega OIS turned on at all times - it really makes a difference if you're not packing a tripod.
A function button gives speedy access to basic settings (size, quality, ISO, white balance) as well a bewildering choice of focus zones. Also worth mentioning is the flexible Lock button, which can be set to freeze focus and/or exposure settings when composing scenes.
Another area where the FZ50 feels more like an SLR than a compact is in its displays. Two inches is positively Lilliputian for an LCD these days, although its fold-out action does at least give you the chance to frame candid shots - or even shoot round corners! And while the screen is sharp and bright, you'll probably favour the generously-sized electronic viewfinder for daylight shooting.
But it's not all about mimicking the big boys. One thing compact cameras can do extremely well is movie modes, and the FZ50's is no exception. Not only are video clips smooth, colourful and perfectly exposed, you can also zoom the lens while filming (still a relatively rare feature). Better still, the FZ50 offers a maximum resolution of 848x480- pixels to give sharp 16:9 format movies that today's modern widescreen TVs can really show to full advantage.
Still image quality is more of a mixed bag. The mighty 12x lens is almost too powerful, especially as it doesn't suffer from the distortion or colour fringing of other long zooms. It's perfect for taking flattering portraits, focusing on distant details in landscapes, and is especially good for wildlife and sports photography.
Unfortunately, the new 10Mp chip can't quite keep up. Squeezing more megapixels into compact cameras doesn't automatically mean better photos. In the case of the FZ50, you get beautiful, bright, detailed pictures in strong sunlight or with the flash, but a decline in quality as the light fades.
Choose a higher sensitivity (in practice anything from ISO200 up) and you'll find that pictures suffer from a painful combination of digital noise and aggressive noise reduction. The overall effect is to reduce sharpness and introduce smeary blotches into otherwise great pictures.
The highest sensitivities (ISO1600, even 3200 in High Sens mode) look very strange, although colours remain vibrant. You can normally improve results by shooting RAW images and then manipulating your files in the SilkyPix software supplied, although this might prove a little daunting for a digital novice.
So does the Panasonic Lumix FZ50 succeed in out-performing the current crop of 10Mp digital SLRs? Certainly not in terms of pure image quality, where it simply can't compete with the larger sensors and more sophisticated digital processing.
But as a powerful all-in-one compact with a great lens and superb movie mode, the FZ50 does something perhaps even more impressive: it raises the question of whether you really need a digital SLR at all.
Summary Comparing the Lumix FZ50 to a full-blooded digital SLR is futile, not least because its image quality lags behind - especially in lower light levels. However, the flexibility of the stunning Leica zoom, the range of creative features on offer and its gorgeous movie mode mean that this is one compact that should be proud of its all-in-one heritage.