Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3

My wife wanted a point-and-shoot camera. My go-to brand for that sort of thing usually is Olympus, based on the recommendation of someone who’s forgotten more about cameras than I’ll ever know, but there are some serious concerns that Olympus may not be around much longer.

So I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3, a point-and-shoot I got on sale for under $100. Unlike most cameras I could find in that price range, the reviews on it were overwhelmingly positive.

I could only find two complaints about it. If you want a traditional viewfinder, you won’t get one here. And one person complained that there weren’t any English-language instructions with the camera. That sounds like a quality control issue, but even if that’s always the case, most of the other reviews said the camera is so easy to use you won’t need a manual.

I concur with that. If you’ve used any other digital camera, you can figure this one out in a few minutes or less. But if you want or need a manual, you can download basic and advanced manuals from Panasonic.

Panasonic isn’t a big name in cameras, but Panasonic cameras have Leica lenses in them. Leica’s optics are arguably the best in the world. And Panasonic is no slouch when it comes to electronics, so that’s a good combination. My first digital camera was an early Panasonic Lumix model, purchased way back in 2001, and I was happy with it. It still works, but it’s obsolete today–only a couple of megapixels, and a really slow lag time. That was fine for 2001, but we can do better now. But I like that it outlived its usefulness, rather than breaking a month after the warranty ran out.

This one doesn’t suffer from slow lag time–it keeps up just fine with my hundred-mile-an-hour kids. And so far, unlike my other cameras, this one’s flash doesn’t make my kids blink. My wife and I both shot a half-dozen pictures in a row without getting a blink. And the pictures looked good, too. Color me impressed.

By hitting the mode button, you can pick several modes for shooting. I can flip it to intelligent auto mode and the resulting shots look like they were shot by someone who knows something. My wife–who actually took college-level photography classes and knows her way around a camera–can use normal mode and adjust settings to her liking. Then we’re both happy and either of us can get decent shots from it.

One thing I like a lot about this camera is that it has a small amount of built-in memory. I can’t tell you how many times either my wife or I have grabbed a camera to get a shot, only to get a prompt that says NO MEMORY CARD because one of us put the memory card in a computer and forgot to put it back. With a little bit of memory on board, this unit gives you insurance against that. Flash memory is cheap enough that this feature doesn’t cost much to include, so it’s nice of Panasonic to do it.

It can also record video. It won’t match the late, lamented Flip cameras for ease of use, but at least it has a better lens, and popping the memory card out of the camera and into the computer to copy video files isn’t that hard. And being able to change cards is a plus. And did I mention this camera costs about what I paid for my Flip camera when I got it?

One complaint I hear often about inexpensive cameras was the build quality. I can’t tell you how many camera reviews I read that went something along the lines of “Spectacular camera until the battery door broke.”  I’m not going to give this one an intentional drop test, but it seems reasonably sturdy, and I haven’t seen any complaints about its durability.

If you need a good basic camera–something that won’t take a lot of space in a pocket or purse but will take better pictures than your camera phone–it’s hard to go wrong with this. If you want more than 4x optical zoom and higher resolution, you’ll need a pricier camera of course. But being able to get a serviceable camera with Leica optics for $100 or less really is something.

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