Digital SLRs may be making all the headlines but rumours of the death of the compact camera have been greatly exaggerated.
Panasonic's latest super-zoom revitalises the category with a mighty 18x optical zoom, spanning a range from useful wide-angle (28mm) to frankly disturbing telephoto (504mm) focal lengths.
As usual, the lens bears the Leica marque and, as usual, it employs Panasonic's Mega OIS optical stabilisation system, which we rate among the best in its class.
Like previous FZ cameras, the DMC-FZ18 presents a right-hand grip design, with a traditional mode dial and navi-pad, joined here by a small thumb-stick.
The stick is used for adjusting exposure and focus settings, and while it's better than the spongy pads Canon favours, it has problems rivalling a decent brace of jog dials for speed or accuracy; it's also positioned annoyingly close to the electronic viewfinder for anyone with a traditional centre-mounted nose.
The all-plastic construction is light and just about stable enough for one-handed use if you feel the urge to really test the stabilisation system.
The front-facing zoom lever is small and slow, but smooth and accurate. Focus, flash and drive each get dedicated buttons, although the lack of quick access to ISO, quality and white balance settings feels anachronistic on such a modern enthusiast's camera. The menus are staid, text-only affairs.
The 2.5-inch LCD matches Canon's S5 IS for size and pixels, although it fades out much earlier in dim conditions. Colours and sharpness in both the LCD and EVF are above average, making manual focusing less of a hit-and-miss affair than on many compacts.
But both have the inevitable 'exposure lag' when moving from framing light to dark scenes that SLR users in particular will find irritating. At least you can boost LCD power on bright days, or choose a High Angle setting for angled shots.
Full to bursting
Panasonic has stuffed the DMC-FZ18 with more scene modes than ever before - we stopped counting at 30. But don't worry if you're not sure of the precise difference between Creative Night Portrait, Candle Light and High Sensitivity modes, as a new Intelligent Auto mode analyses the scene and chooses a suitable mode for you.
It can use face detection, adjust the ISO and even activate the image stabiliser for you - although we'd recommend simply leaving this turned on all the time.
If you don't need your hand held quite so tightly there's full PASM exposure and a Custom mode for your own choice of settings. Aperture and shutter speeds are set using the tiny thumb-stick, which also selects the Autofocus zone.
This is worth experimenting with as the Panasonic's focusing system isn't the fastest we've used (it's slower than the Canon S5, for instance). It usually gets there in the end, but you need to take care with extreme telephoto shooting because the depth of field contracts.
For a little more speed, the Burst mode reaches the giddy heights of 3fps, but only for a handful of images before decelerating. Shot-to-shot time is limited mainly by the ponderous AF system, although if you make use of the welcome RAW or RAW+JPEG capture, expect delays when shooting a series.
Image quality from the monster 18x zoom is surprisingly good - and we say surprisingly because all too many super-zooms sacrifice wide-angle sharpness or telephoto contrast in search of the maximum zoom range.
The optics show a touch of distortion at 28mm but hardly any edge softness and even less chromatic aberration. As long as you're not expecting SLR levels of clarity, the abundance of detail at full resolution is very impressive. Edges are rock solid, skin tones are smooth and complex, fine detail is sensitively handled.
In more detail
Exposure and white balancing are also top notch. The DMC-FZ18 doesn't get confused with contre-jour scenes or mixed lighting, exposing reliably for mid-tones. Dynamic range is average - highlights burn out rather easily - but noise, a real issue with previous Panasonics, is well controlled.
While some noise is visible at ISO 400, only when you reach the maximum ISO 1600 does the detail degrade. The advertised ISO 6400 is attainable only at reduced 3MP image sizes, and is certainly worth considering for emergencies.
The DMC-FZ18 makes a strong case as a back-up camera for travelling. Matching its focal length in SLR terms would take up a hefty part of your luggage allowance and would cost several times as much (at least!). Instead, the Panasonic is light, affordable and extremely flexible, with a really decent spread of essential manual features on board.
Predictably, its main drawback is a lack of speed and finesse, in terms of both adjusting settings and raw, off-the-cuff shooting. But that shouldn't deter you from road-testing what's certainly one of the strongest all-round compacts available.