Introducing my photo sketchbook: The Panasonic Lumix ZS50

Panasonic Lumix ZS50

A couple of weeks ago, I purchased my first brand new camera since I got my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, over a year ago. I’ve generally resisted buying new cameras these days — most of my recent purchases were either used or refurbished models. But when Costco discounted the Panasonic Lumix ZS50 this month, I decided to take the $250 plunge. The ZS50 is an amateur point and shoot camera with a super long zoom range. It’s the kind of device that I thought I would never own. So, why did I buy it?

These “Travel Zooms” are compact cameras, with a slow lens, which typically have a 30x zoom range. Mine goes from 24mm to 720mm, as a 35mm equivalent, though the actual range is 4.3mm to 129mm. The largest aperture ranges from f3.3 to f6.4. Yes, it has a tiny 1/2.3 inch sensor. I’ve considered getting one ever since Costco carried its predecessor, the ZS40, many months ago. After extensive research, I decided the 12MP ZS50 would be preferable to the older ZS40 or the newest ZS60 model.

I’ve mostly been a prime lens shooter for the last several years. My preferred focal length, either a 28mm or 35mm equivalent. I believe that the years of shooting with a 35mm, first with the Fujifilm X100S and more recently the Olympus with a 17mm lens, has developed my compositional skills. But, I’ve been branching out too, into — gasp — zooms. I use a 55-300mm on my Nikon D3300, for example, when I shoot lacrosse and I’m using other zooms too. I hope and believe that my compositional strengths now allow me to use more zooms. I’m not giving up primes, however. Their fast apertures and small size makes them ideal for low light, light weight use.

I actually have low expectations for the ZS50. How else can I justify using such a slow camera with a small sensor. When you use high performance mirrorless cameras and robust DSLRs, a 30X travel zoom is a big step down. But, it has one killer feature — a 30 times zoom that fits in your jacket pocket. The ZS50 is going to be my photo sketchbook. A smallish, creative device that I can easily bring anywhere to take pictures at almost any focal length. My objective, to strengthen my compositional abilities for telephoto, beyond 50mm which I often don’t shoot.

Key to the Panasonic is a zoom option that steps through the common focal lengths of 24, 28, 35, 50, 70, 90, 135, 160, 200, 250, 300, 400, 500, 600 and 720mm equivalents. In that way, I can learn to dial in the focal length I want, instead of merely zooming in and out haphazardly.

I have to admit that I had some doubts and I considered returning the camera. But after 2 weeks, I’ve started to figure out its narrow range of optimal performance. Anyone can take great (technical) photographs with a full frame Sony A7s II. Its powerful sensor can work well in almost any light. But the real photographic challenge is to use a smaller sensor with a slow lens and to navigate its many pitfalls. It’s the kind of perverted challenge that I find interesting.

While there’s been a number of limitations and disappointments, the camera has surprised me at times. I was able to shoot the Photos at an Exhibition Photo Essay in dim museum lighting. Incredibly, I shot 28 to 50mm equivalents at 1/4 of a second, that’s 3 – 4 stops of in-body image stabilization. The black and whites are all in camera JPEGs too. While the camera will shoot RAW, I’ll probably just shoot in JPEG.

I’m going to start a new collection called “Photo Sketchbook” where I’ll feature images and variations that I’ve experimented with. Sort of like opening up my sketchbook to the public to see what I come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

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