Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Canon camera user reviews the Panasonic ZS3 digital camera

I am a Canon camera user, having owned the SD230 and the SD1000. I have tried other people's Sony cameras and some lesser brands and have found Canon cameras to be more smartly designed. Better buttons. Better interface. Better connect to computers.

My SD1000 had three spots on the lens that I couldn't remove. Then we lost the camera. So I needed a new one. I wanted my next point-and-shoot camera to have HD video (either 720p or 1080p) so I wouldn't have to buy an HD camcorder and a good zoom (at least 5x or more).

After much research, I decided to buy the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3. The starting price (in Canada) was $500 and I waited until the first price drop this week. I bought one on sale for $450 CDN at Future Shop on July 11, 2009.

Here are some comments. Keep in mind, these are comments from a long-time Canon user.

Good stuff
  1. The HD video looks as nice as advertised. Watch a video recorded in AVCHDLite (m2ts) format at a resolution of 1280 x 720. The m2ts file was 106 MB and was uploaded to YouTube. There are some playback issues (see below). But I suspect standalone camcorders cannot produce video that is much better than this camera. UPDATE 2010/09/28: The occasional stuttering of video on Vimeo and YouTube when viewing at HD (720s) resolution is caused by slow computers. Not much you can about this. It's the price of being ahead of the curve on preserving videos in HD.
  2. You can set it up to automatically record a 5-second audio clip after taking each photo. This was a feature I always wanted in my Canon cameras. Some photographers like to make a note about what is in the photo, like: "Here we are at Bob and Mary's 25 anniversary party." While this is not a feature everyone will want or use, it is great news for those who want it. You cannot change the clip to record longer than 5 seconds, at least not in this auto-mode. (I assume you can manually add an audio note of any length by working through the menus.) UPDATE 2010/09/28: I thought I would use this more. I never have.
  3. There is a "wind mic" setting that supposedly helps to minimize the effect of wind noise when recording video/audio outdoors. It seems to reduce the bass and the change in sound is similar to other such wind-reduction techniques. It works pretty well at reducing wind sound, although your audio sounds tinny.
To note
  1. This camera uses the popular SD HC memory card format. No need to buy new ones if switching from a Canon camera, although I did buy a 16GB card as I shoot a lot of 720p video.
  2. The Panasonic ZS3 is bigger than, say, the Canon SD1000, although it is comparable to the similarly-priced Canon and Sony cameras.
  3. The two microphones are on the top of the camera. I guess this is smart as it allows the photographer to narrate. However, this means that this camera is not ideal for any kind of quasi-professional interview that you need to record. Also, I guess this is not a good idea for people who breath heavy while shooting video. UPDATE: When interacting with the person on camera, the shooter sounds much louder. This is kind of annoying. I think the mic should have been on the front.
  4. You'll want to buy an extra battery, but good luck buying one in store. Future Shop does not sell this Panasonic accessory. That is always a consideration when buying non-Canon cameras. It is harder to get extras and harder to get generic versions of the battery (like from Energizer or Duracell). [UPDATE: I bought my camera at the Future Shop at the Marché Centrale big box centre in Montreal. Perhaps other Future Shop locations sell the extra battery. UPDATE 2: I bought a Panasonic DMW-BCG10PP battery at Best Buy for about $79.]
  5. There doesn't appear to be GPS tagging of photos. That is sort of sucky as this isn't a cheap camera.
Annoyances
  1. The USB wire is not the standard one used on Canon cameras. The plug that connects into the camera is thinner. This sucks as it means I need to bring this wire to Canon households if I want to load photos on their computer. UPDATE 2010/09/28: This still annoys me, but I bought an SD card reader for my home PC, so I don't use the USB wire much anymore. And I don't really ever transfer stuff at people's homes. No, this is more or less a non-issue for me now.
  2. No viewfinder.
  3. When the camera connects to the computer, the ZS3 lcd screen does not go black, which wastes the battery. UPDATE 2010/09/28: As I now use the SD card reader, this is a non-issue.
  4. You have to select the correct camera mode (manual, iA, etc.) when transferring photos in playback mode. That is, the camera won't transfer all of the stuff at the same time. UPDATE: I cannot replicate this problem. I must have been drunk. UPDATE 2010/09/28: Someone in the comments suggested this was because I was wearing polarize sun glasses.
  5. As other reviewers have mentioned, the photo button is to the left of the mode select dial. I haven't yet accidentally turned the mode dial, but I did have to search with my finger for the photo button on day 1. UPDATE 2010/09/28: This happens quite frequently. I can't say that I have missed photographing the UFOs landing or something like that. But still something Panasonic should fix in future versions.
  6. When I rotate the camera to portrait, the viewscreen darkens. Will try to figure out why. UPDATE: I was not able to replicate this symptom inside the house. Odd. UPDATE 2010/09/28: Polarized sunglasses.
  7. The video record button is on the back of the camera, causing some jitter when I want to stop recording. I'm not sure why Panasonic didn't make the photo button also the video button. I though perhaps it was done this way so the user could take photos while recording video, but I tested this and discovered one cannot take photos while recording video.
  8. There doesn't appear to be as of July 2009 any video software or add on that can re-encode files in the m2ts video format, which I understand is what is used on Blu-ray discs. (Note: The MainConcept MPEG Pro HD 4 plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0 may allow me to edit these files... need to investigate.) Meaning that one either has to convert this 720p file to another HD format before editing or else switch to the other recording format that takes up more space, but is supposedly easier edit later on. I haven't tried this yet, but this program from Panasonic converts m2ts (AVCHD) files to "P2 DVCPRO HD format." I guess the second format is more common than the first. UPDATE 2010/09/28: I use Sony Vegas nowadays as it allows one to edit the more compressed AVCHD-Lite format. Pinnacle Studio 10 didn't permit it. And neither did Adobe Pinnacle, although I think there is supposed to be a plug in.
  9. Transferring videos from the ZS3 camera to your computer. See the next section.
Transferring files from the ZS3 to your Windows computer
My preference for transfer jpg and avi files from my Canon cameras to my Windows XP computer has always been the Windows camera and scanner wizard. I like the flexibility it gives me in naming my photos and my folder.

One of my annoyances with the ZS3 in my first week is the fact I cannot transfer m2ts video files using the Windows camera and scanner wizard. See the details below:
  1. The Windows camera and scanner wizard doesn't copy m2ts video files to computer. Nor does Picasa. This is one of my biggest pet peeves about this camera.
  2. The Windows camera and scanner wizard does successfully copy the MotionJPEG video files (MOV), which is the other, less compressed video format into which that the camera records video. However, Picasa does not.
  3. The only way to transfer all your photos and both video formats from the camera is by using the included PhotoFunStudio HD Edition. However, this is a slow, unwieldy software. I am not happy with the options it gives when naming files during transfer. I guess I will have to live with it for now. (I recommend Better File Rename to batch rename your files.) UPDATE 2010/09/28: The other way to transfer videos is to browse the SD card and locate the MTS video files in the STREAM folder. Copy and drag to your Windows folder. Seems very 1998-ish. But it works.
Playing videos

  1. The AVCHDLite (m2ts) video files play well with the provided PhotoFunStudio HD Edition. But when I play them with the VCL media player 1.0., or Media Player Classic, or Windows Media Player 9, there are weird artifacts in the video image. UPDATE 2010/09/28: This is still a problem. I've come to live with it, as I don't really view the raw videos anyway on their own. My edited version of the videos is all I watch.
  2. The MotionJPEG (mov) video files play well inVCL media player 1.0. But the image doesn't change in Media Player Classic. Weird.
Note: I'm having a problem with Windows Media Player 9 and cannot test these videos there.

Editing videos

If you are reading this, you probably edit your home movies and want to know if it is as easy to do with these two video formats. The short answer is no. Here are details.
  • Pinnacle Studio 12 Ultimate can import but cannot not render (convert) edited AVCHDLite (m2ts) files properly. There are missing frames and weird frame-rate speeds.
  • However, Pinnacle Studio 12 Ultimate can render edited MotionJPEG (mJPEG) files, which is the other way to record at 720p on this camera. There are several HD formats to output to, including mpeg4 at 720p, which means that the quality of the edited video looks as good (to my eyes at least) as the original.
  • Sony Vegas Pro 9.0 can render (convert) edited AVCHDLite (m2ts) files properly. I haven't test MotionJPEG too, but I assume it can render from this source video format too. UPDATE 2010/09/28: Sony Vegas 9 doesn't accept MotionJPEG (mov) files. So, you need to pick your format on the camera and try to stick with it unless you want to change your video editing software (which is something I did). I now shoot in AVCHSLite and edit in Sony Vegas exclusively.
  • Premiere Pro 2.0 does not recognize AVCHDLite (m2ts) or MotionJPEG files when I tried to import them.
  • I assume that I could add the MainConcept MPEG Pro HD 4 plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0 to help overcome this limitation, but I haven't tried this yet.
Bottom line: Sony Vegas Pro 9.0 seems to be the best choice if you want to edit AVCHDLite (m2ts) files. Unfortunately, I find the Vegas interface not as intuitive as Premiere Pro 2.0 and Pinnacle Studio 12--both of which I have used for years. UPDATE 2010/09/28: I've been using Sony Vegas for a year and have come to accept it. There are some really good features that have allowed me to edit in a much more creative way than with either Pinnacle or Premier.

Posting HD videos online
Although this has nothing to do with the camera, if you are reading this you want to know how to share your 720p HD videos with the world. I use free accounts at Vimeo and Facebook. Both show HD videos, although Vimeo has a paid service that allows one to post more HD videos.

I like Vimeo as it allows me to (1) password protect each individual video while (2) posting these same videos, unprotected, in a "channel", which is just a web page that lists videos you choose to put there. So, people searching videos won't be able to watch my home movies but anyone who has the URL to my channel can watch the videos without being bothered with passwords.

This is the same reason I like Picasaweb for posting photos (and not Flickr). The photos at Picasaweb are put on unlisted directories with long gibberish URLs. So, I can send the URL to family and friends but it's unlikely that anyone else would ever find the URL.

If you don't care about privacy, YouTube hosts 720p HD videos now. And I don't think there is a weekly limit on how many you can post, as their currently is in the free version of Vimeo.

Conclusion
July 24, 2009: I have used the Panosonic ZS3 for two weeks and am happy overall. I love the zoom and am impressed with the 720p video, although I'm sure most 720p cameras produce similar results. The camera is more expensive than the entry-level ones. But in my mind I was saving money by not buying a more $1,000 HD camcorder. So, I am happy with this decision. Portability and the relatively smaller size of camera are very important to me. I wanted one I could bring to friends homes and on vacation. It is bulkier than the Canon Elph cameras, but fits in baggy pant pockets.

UPDATE 2010/09/28: Like all consumer electronics, things get better and cheaper. Other cameras can do what the ZS3 does (except maybe the zoom while video recording). If you want my advice of what model to get, you should consider the ZS3 (or future version). But also look at the comparable Canon. I think Canon still produces warming photos. And while I cannot state any expert opinion on the 720p video of Canon still cameras, I suspect the different (if any) is slight. And remember that no matter what you buy, it will break or get dust on the lens in a year or two and you'll have to do it all over again. Finally, don't forget to back up your videos and images. Buy an external hard drive of 1TB or 2TB and back up you stuff.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Graffiti on Canada Post mail boxes

For the last year, I have waited for Canada Post to clean the graffiti from the grey box in front of my house. I assumed they would eventually clean it as part of their standard operaring procedure. Sadly, all the boxes--red and grey--in the area have been vandalized in the same way.

Today, I sent a complaint to Canada Post asking them to clean the grey box in front of my home. I will update this entry when I get a reply and when Canada Post cleans the box.

To make you own complaint, visit https://ssl.postescanada-canadapost.ca/corporate/about/contact_us/customerservice-e.asp#subject.


UPDATE: July 10, 11:08am

Received this confirmation e-mail from Canada Post:

***THIS IS AN AUTOREPLY. PLEASE DO NOT REPLY TO THIS E-MAIL***
This is to acknowledge receipt of your message to Canada Post. We are currently experiencing a rapid increase in e-mail requests from our customers. This has caused delay in our ability to respond promptly to your request. The average time to respond is now 1-2 business days. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

UPDATE: July 13, 2009, 2:47pm

Received a the following response that Canada Post will look into my complaint. Names blocked to protect the privacy of the Canada Post staff.
Thank you for your message to Canada Post.

I can certainly appreciate your concern and would like to apologize for the inconvenience caused.

I have opened an inquiry, which will be sent to the local depot that is responsible for delivering the mail so that they can look into this concern and take appropriate action. Your customer number is 10708*** and your case number for this inquiry is 7354***.

The depot does not normally follow up with the customer for these types of issues unless they require additional information. Please allow 10 business days for resolution and if you have further concerns, please contact us again. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

Regards,

Josée *******
Customer Service
Canada Post
UPDATE: July 15, 2009

I was astonished to discover this morning that there was no grafitti on the grey Canada Post box outside my house. I was not expecting such quick action. Thanks, Canada Post.
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