|Name||Digital compact camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3|
|At a glance:||Waterproof to 12m, drop-proof to 2m,Great image quality,Limited 4.6x zoom (28-128mm equivalent)|
|Summary:||An excellent outdoor camera limited only by its 4.6x zoom and lack of lens protection.|
The Lumix DMC-FT3 is Panasonic's latest outdoor camera, borrowing elements of its rugged design from the company's own Toughbook range of military-spec laptops.
The FT3 carries the highest possible Ingress Protection rating of IP68 – meaning it's both dust tight and waterproof beyond a metre in depth. In fact, the FT3 will take you right down to twelve metres in its naked state, or forty metres with an optional underwater housing.
It's also designed to withstand the occasional two-metre drop, tested in accordance with MIL-STD-810F's Method 516.5-Shock. While I lacked the time or budget to run my own 516.5 testing, I did repeatedly drop the FT3 from two metres onto a thin layer of cardboard over concrete. No visible damage, and the FT3 continues to shoot pretty pictures just fine.
Finally, it's 'freeze-proof' down to -10°C, which is great if you're skiing, snowboarding or just tramping through the snow – one of my own favourite hobbies. If the snow were more forthcoming this year, I might actually have put that feature to the test.
If you need extra toughness, the camera ships with a silicone skin that covers all but the lens, flash, buttons and screen. This makes the camera even closer to indestructible, by adding a good degree of 'bounce' for drops on hard surfaces like concrete and rock. It also adds significantly to the camera's grip, which is great if you have cold or wet hands and you're trying to line up a shot (or trying to avoid dropping your camera off the edge of a cliff).
Unfortunately, skin or not, the FT3 continues the tradition of rugged cameras to lack any kind of lens protection. The lens is recessed into the body, but there's no physical cover that closes when the camera switches off, and no lens cap that can be manually fitted. That means if you're carrying it in a bag with your climbing gear, or your fishing gear, or a rusty old machete you use for tree-trimming, the chance of lens-scratches is high.
The buttons are responsive, except the zoom and shutter – annoyingly, the three buttons where responsiveness matters to me the most. The shutter makes it quite difficult to tell when it's half-pressed and when it's all the way down: considering this is the kind of camera you're quite likely to be using with gloves on, that's not the most helpful design decision. Apart from that, all the buttons are large enough and discrete enough that gloved operation is possible, which I do commend Panasonic for.
Image quality is good – the camera shoots at 12.1 megapixels, and captures sufficient detail that the resolution doesn't prove excessive. The FT3 impressed me more than previous entries in the series, which just weren't in the same league as their non-rugged counterparts. The FT3 still isn't the best compact camera you'll ever use in terms of image quality, but the sacrifice you make for its durability has definitely been reduced.
A 4.6x zoom lens (28-128mm in 35mm film terms) lets you get a bit closer to the action, but the FT3 is really optimised for shooting up close. If you want to snapshot the top of a mountain, you don't zoom twenty-something times: you climb it.
A wide range of easily accessible shooting modes, along with a competent auto mode, help you get the images you're after, regardless of lighting conditions, distance and whether you happen to be above or below the surface.
The FT3 records video in full high definition (1920 x 1080 pixels), letting you capture your most extreme outdoor moments in as much detail as possible. A high-powered white LED provides illumination in dark settings and underwater, and a dedicated video record button sits right next to the shutter button for quick and easy access.
On-board GPS lets you geo-tag your photos and videos automatically, though this relies on a clear line-of-sight to four satellites overhead. In other words, it's not going to work indoors and it's not going to work under dense foliage. If you're in a clearing or sitting on the beach, you should be fine.
Almost niftier are the altimeter, depth indicator, barometer and electronic compass (a true compass, independent of the GPS) – I wouldn't recommend relying on these as survival tools, but they're genuinely useful in the great outdoors and add some detailed, nice-to-know information to your images.
Altogether the Panasonic DMC-FT3 is a good camera, with solid construction and a useful range of outdoor features. It's just a pity that its most valuable element, the lens, is left so unprotected.