In recent years we’ve seen the size of big zoom cameras dropping. What once sat in a body just smaller than a DSLR, now fills a space just larger than a typical compact. The Olympus SZ-30MR typifies this move, offering a staggering 24x zoom in a body that you can still just about slip into your pocket. But does this clever camera put real power in your pocket, or leave you slightly short-changed?
With a body measuring 106.3 x 68.7 x 39.5mm and a weight of 226g, the Olympus SZ-30MR shares some of the same design lines as it’s 12.5x sibling, the Olympus SZ-20. Here the addition of the MR tag refers to “multi recording” denoting some enhanced shooting features which we’ll examine later. It is compact considering the focal range it offers and we just about managed to slip it in the back pocket of our jeans; we suspect it is rather better suited to a jacket pocket or handbag however.
Marking the SZ-30MR out is the pronounced handgrip on the right-hand end. This shouldn’t be overlooked as the 24x lens will accentuate even the slightest movement of your hand. Around the back a small rubber pad offers thumb grip. We found there was enough space on the left-hand side to support the camera with the left hand without obscuring any critical parts.
A flap on the right-hand side of the camera conceals the USB and micro HDMI connections (latter cable not provided) meaning you can easily connect to your HDTV at home to play back movies or share photos. The SD card slots into the base along with the battery, internal memory is negligible.
The body is finished in plastics throughout and if anything the camera looks a little cheap. The glossy finish around the front and top will find themselves liberally smeared with figure prints and various points around the moldings seem to make it difficult to brush off the fluff and debris it seems to attract. The rear is finished in a matte black, so stays looking clean, but does feel over so slightly hollow, so it doesn’t have the quality of finish that something like the Canon PowerShot SX220 HS or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 do, although the Olympus does offer a greater zoom than both those pocketable competitors.
Although the angular body does provide grip, the controls are a little too prominent for our liking. The top mode dial is a little too easy to change and we often found we knocked it around to another setting. Missing that choice shot because it’s flipped around to panoramic is frustrating to say the least. But the controls do fall easily within reach of your fingers and thumb, so making selections is easy enough.
On the rear of the camera you’ll find the now commonplace instant video capture button along with the main settings adjuster which is the four-way clicking, rotating dial, with OK button to its centre. A dedicate Menu button offers access to the main settings, with pertinent and oft changes shooting settings adjusted using an on-screen menu system.
The zoom is adjusted using the toggle wheel encircling the shutter button, prominent enough to find easily without having to look. The power button sitting just behind is flush to the body of the camera to avoid accidental power-offs. The built-in flash needs to be deployed using the switch on the side of the lens housing, but whether the flash fires or not is still governed by the camera.
The mode dial on the top offers a range of shooting options, although the SZ-30MR doesn’t go as far as offering manual controls: you don’t get shutter or aperture shooting controls, or full manual, with the P (program) mode being the closest you’ll get to wrestling shooting control away from the camera. As such, the SZ-30MR can be taken as a travel zoom for those who want quick results, but don’t ever find themselves wanting to get involved in more advanced photography.
Outlining a number of clever, or certainly unique, features, you’ll find the mode dial offering common iAuto and auto modes, the former offering scene detection, or more traditional scene modes for picking the appropriate scene for yourself. This is joined by Magic, which offers a range of filters for different photo effects, panoramic, and 3D. 3D shooting requires you to shift the lens slightly to get two pictures from differing angles to then create a stereoscopic effect.
The final shooting modes are more unique. Photo with video clip offers to sandwich a shot between two snippets of film, and finally you get the multi recording option, from which the camera gets its name. From here you’ll be able to take multiple photos at different angles, sizes, or mixing in the Magic effects at the same time as straight shooting.
Changing settings pertaining to all these modes, as we mentioned, is via the on-screen menu options, with details also letting you know what major settings do, as well as giving you real time previews. For example, fire up the Magic mode and you’ll be able to scroll though the effects on the screen and see what the results will be. The same applies to white balance, which is useful for getting some shots to look right.
Power on the camera and you’ll be ready for shooting in about 3 seconds, the lens extending to its widest 25mm (35mm equiv.) position. Running the lens out to the maximum 600mm will take an additional 3 seconds. A half press of the shutter button will determine focus, lighting up the focal point with a green box before saving the image to memory on a full press.
High speed shooting, accepting a lower resolution, is also offered at up to 15fps, and two options for sequential shooting at full resolution at different speeds, maxing out at 5 full-sized images at 7fps, so you’ll barely notice that’s what you’ve done. These shooting modes can be accessed via the on-screen menu, however all focusing modes cannot.
Focusing can be split out to give you face focus, but we’re more interested in AF tracking, so you can select a focal point and reframe the picture and not have to worry about the sometimes dubious focal point selection you automatically get. It works fairly well, but the fact you have to dive in and out of the main menu means it is a little too hidden away. Macro focus, however, does get a position in the on-screen menus in some shooting modes.
Focusing is generally fast, although as expected it can take a little while to determine focus at extreme zoom. Likewise, auto macro through the iAuto mode doesn’t seem as capable as selecting the macro shooting mode in P, which yields better results.
The zoom range in such a compact body will certainly attract the attention of those around you. The biggest challenge is keeping it stable at the far reach of the zoom. The image stabilisation system can be heard whirring away as you hold the camera, but can’t save those really long shots - it’s best to use a tripod or something solid to get the best results.
At the far end of the zoom you’ll find that things aren’t as sharp and the images take on that customary milky appearance, something that affects many big zoom cameras of this type. Even with a steady camera you’ll find that down at pixel level things look mottled, but that’s to be expected given the size of the camera and may be down to the density of pixels in the 16-megapixel sensor. But looking at them as point and shoot results, the 24x zoom acquits itself well, letting you get closer to the action than many rivals.
Colours come out well, with some lovely blues and greens in evidence, something we see a lot from Olympus. Exposure is generally good, although things aren’t so reliable once you throw the zoom out a long way, remembering of course that the maximum aperture reduces as you extend the zoom. High contrast scenes will confuse it, with highlights blowing out and other areas lacking the punch they perhaps should.
Under closer examination you’ll see plenty of purple fringing around high-contrast edges, although that’s not uncommon on compact cameras, especially given the work the lens is having to do here. There is some sign of barrel distortion at the wide angle but it’s not excessive.
In lower light conditions, we found that the SZ-30MR seemed reluctant to fire the flash, pushing you to hand-hold down to about 1/30sec. Image stabilisation just about pulls this off, but it also didn’t seem to want to push up the ISO level, which many cameras will. Testing in difficult conditions at a concert, we often found it was expecting a 1/15sec shutter or longer, having not pushed the ISO above about 320.
You can override this by getting out of the iAuto mode. Two ranges of Auto ISO are on offer, and if you want the higher ISO range you’ll be best selecting High ISO Auto in P mode. Noise creeps in from around ISO 400 upwards, although the results aren’t nearly as bad as you might expect. The top two settings of 1600 and 3200 are obviously marred by noise and lack real detail, but might be the difference between having that shot and not.
Those extra shooting modes are really yet to convince us of their place. The Magic options we like, especially the Pin Hole option, but the others seem to lack the intensity of effects you’ll find on other Olympus models, so don’t really strike us as that useful - and you’re not getting common things like the amusing miniature mode.
The Panorama mode stitches together approx 180 degrees of the scene around you, which is great, and the 3D mode produces an MPO file, although if you’re equipped for 3D images, perhaps something with stereoscopic lenses will fulfil your needs better. The photo and movie capture is a little odd, providing a photo sandwiched in the middle of video clips (with various options for setting the length of these clips). It seems best suited for scenes where you want to capture some action although getting the timing perfect is something else.
Multi recording also lets you capture two things at the same time. Essentially the results are that the camera crops part of the final result to give you two videos or photos. Try as we might, we couldn’t get anything especially exciting from it, so it strikes us as rather odd to name the camera after it.
You can also capture images whilst recording video, another of the highlights of this camera. In reality what you get is the opportunity to capture two images whilst filming, indicated by a square on the screen.
Video capture is one of the highlights of the SZ-30MR, with excellent quality results from the Full HD capture that is offered. The instant capture button means any settings have to be changed before you hit the button, but out of the box the results are great.
Continuous autofocus is in place although it can be a little slow to change. Generally video is sharp, although you’ll find that if you dive in to something close it will often refuse to refocus, preferring the background to the foreground. The zoom works during video, although the sound is slightly muffled (rather than being completely blanked out) during the movement of the lens.
The battery performance isn’t fantastic, we got around 200 shots and about 15 mins of Full HD video before the battery reached the end of life.
The Olympus SZ-30MR is a capable point and shoot camera, offering simple operation for the basic shooting modes that offer the best results. On the whole, iAuto is effective, returning great results with little tinkering, ideal for casual holiday photos and the like. Under full examination shots don’t hold up, lacking the fine detail of more advanced cameras, but returning results that will be acceptable to most. The lack of RAW shooting or manual controls do outline this as a casual shooter, rather than one for those who like to tinker.
We’re not so sold on some of the extras and the multi recording options don’t leave us feeling as though other cameras are missing out. The Magic effects are interesting, but not as exciting as other Olympus cameras and missing some of the funky effects you’ll find on rival models.
Overall, this is a capable and compact camera, offering a larger than normal zoom, which won’t make too much of a hole in your pocket. But ultimately it struggles to deliver fine image quality that more particular photographers will want.