An inexpensive high-end compact camera/DSLR crossover, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18K offers an 18x optical zoom, a 28mm wide-angle lens, and a host of manual controls for a very reasonable price.
An amateur photographer who hasn't used many advanced point-and-shoots or digital SLRs can really learn more about the art of taking a great shot by playing with the 8.1Mp Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's manual settings; yet the camera is also beginner-friendly thanks to its 18 preset scene modes and auto mode.
Besides the 18x optical zoom, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's wide-angle Leica lens stands out in other ways. The focal range extends from 28mm to 504mm, and the camera's excellent macro (close-up) mode allowed me to take some great shots of food - and scare the grin off of a bug's face.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 is also a camera built for comfort: it has a bulky size that feels good in the hand, but it weighs less than a pound with the battery in.
One reason for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's lower price may be the unit's image quality in comparison with the other cameras we've tested recently.
While we were impressed by the camera's image quality by itself, its overall image score came in near the bottom among all the megazooms in our subjective testing. It also scored surprisingly low in exposure quality and flash exposure; the latter was especially surprising given the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 fairly large, flip-up flash.
Battery life was also disappointing. In our tests, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's rechargeable lithium ion battery took 420 shots on a single charge, compared with shot counts in the 500 range for most of the other cameras.
During testing, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's face-detection feature didn't produce anything spectacular. Sometimes while focusing, the camera failed to recognise a person's face in the dark. It would take a few half-presses on the shoot button to get a clean focus on the subject's face. Another shortcoming: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18's optical image stabilisation, which gave only so-so results unless the camera was in auto mode.
Besides its manual controls and its wide-angle lens, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 has other goodies for more-advanced photographers and image editors; for instance, images can be shot in RAW format - but keep in mind that the image size will be about six times larger than a traditional JPG (and plan any SD memory card purchases accordingly).
All in all, the Lumix DMC FZ-18K does come through for the price, especially if high optical zoom, a great lens, and a beginners' course on manual settings is what you're looking for.