Cigar Aficionado

By providing an extraordinarily powerful 20x Leica zoom lens in a pocketable body that’s just 1.1 inches deep, Panasonic delivers an entirely crave-worthy compact camera.

We’ll get to the other features momentarily, but let’s linger over that lens for a moment. It starts out at an admirably wide-angle 24-mm equivalent, useful for scenic shots and cramming everybody into a photo shot in tight quarters. When it’s time to fill the frame with a distant subject, you have zooming power comparable to a 480-mm telephoto lens in the palm of your hand—enough to pick out a face in the crowd, or a single basketball player from the bleachers. What’s more, I got surprisingly sharp results shooting handheld at long-zoom settings thanks to the camera’s sophisticated optical stabilization system (though a tripod is still a handy accessory for those mega-telephoto shots, particularly when the light isn’t bright).

The ZS20 shoots sharp 14.1 megapixel stills, and doesn’t skimp on video capabilities either. (You can capture movies at 1080p resolution, the highest of the high-def standards.) Image quality is impressive in both modes, with good results even in difficult indoor lighting. There’s a nice balance between manual controls for intrepid photographers and point-and-shoot automation for those who crave simplicity. The Intelligent Auto system matched camera settings to varied shooting conditions very well in my tests, producing well-exposed images.

The camera sports a three-inch touch-screen display. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of touch-screen cameras—I find working with physical buttons consistently faster and easier. Fortunately, the ZS20 uses a hybrid control scheme. You get buttons for the important settings, like turning the flash on and off and adjusting exposure, and a knurled dial on top to quickly switch shooting modes. When it comes to the touch-screen trick I find genuinely useful—focusing anywhere on the screen by simply touching the spot you’ve chosen—the ZS20 responds quickly and accurately.

As with most digital cameras today, you get plenty of bells and whistles of varying degrees of usefulness, including a sophisticated panoramic photo mode and a built-in GPS for recording the location of a shot. But the wow factor here is the tremendous photographic flexibility of a 20x zoom lens in a 6.5-ounce package, a compelling offer at the $350 price.