Buy a battery grip for your professional or semi pro digital SLR and it will come with a second set of essential controls to one side near the base, including an additional shutter-release button. That’s because grip and body make for a big and bulky bit of kit, so dual controls ease what would otherwise be an awkward stretch for the fingers if turning the pro DSLR on its side to shoot vertically, or "portrait fashion".
But why are we talking about pro DSLRs when we’re reviewing a Pentax point and shoot? Well because the 16-megapixel Optio VS20 is the first compact to our knowledge that also comes with two shutter-release buttons, both encircled by a lever for operating its 20x optical zoom, and with two screw threads for attaching a tripod, one located at the base and the other at one side.
While this makes sense on a chunky workhorse DSLR, as described above, on a camera that will slip into your trouser pocket the extra buttons feel a little superfluous. We can recognise Pentax’s intention to stand apart from the crowd, but could the VS20 prove more of a gimmick than a great idea?
Design and features
We had the black fascia-ed version in for review. Partly because of the extra buttons and the broader than average focal range delivered by its internally stacked zoom - which here is the equivalent of 28-560mm in 35mm terms - the VS20 resembles a bit of a brick next to your slender fashion-conscious snappers costing £100 more. With dimensions of 60 x 108 x 34mm it weighs 191g and has a gentle curve to one side of the faceplate by way of a handgrip and rubber padding at the other end to provide a steadier two-handed hold.
Lens reach aside, another thing this Optio has in its favour is the price. At a suggested £199 it is one of the cheapest travel zoom cameras around, though the identically priced 24x Olympus SZ-14 (14 megapixels) is another option for those on a budget.
Like that rival, one thing we might not necessarily expect on an entry model is a 3-inch backplate LCD providing a high-ish 460k-dot resolution rather than the standard 230k. In the absence of an optical viewfinder this is expectedly the only means of composing and reviewing shots.
However, the camera could be quicker in determining focus and exposure - the LCD visibly blurs with a half press of the shutter-release button - rendering the photographer blind for a second or so before the image presented drifts back into focus. Also the VS20 takes a leisurely four seconds to commit a full 16-megapixel resolution JPEG to memory, while maximum shooting speed is one frame per second, so this is not a camera for those in a hurry.
On a more positive note, despite its point and shoot credentials and very few manual controls, we get a light-sensitivity range stretching up to ISO 6400. Stray above ISO 1600, however, and resolution drops to 5 megapixels to limit the appearance of image noise. Plus, while a grainy look is avoided, subject edge definition looks a little soft as a result.
Video and creative effects
A dedicated record button is provided top right of the backplate for filming video clips, a press of which commences capture no matter which alternative shooting mode might have been selected and otherwise in play at the same time; the 4:3 stills aspect ratio view on screen narrowing to present a 16:9 format.
Here we don’t get HDMI output however, just a joint standard definition AV output and USB 2.0 connection. And if you do try to zoom in during recording, you get a rather jerky digital cropping effect rather than access to the optical zoom, the action of which is smoother yet sound tracked by the low buzz of its mechanics.
There is also a digital zoom accessible in stills mode that runs on from the end of the optical zoom if you continue to exert pressure on the zoom lever. This definition-losing crop provides the equivalent of a maximum 144x zoom, or an otherwise impractical 4032mm reach in 35mm terms that would be the envy of any paparazzi if it presented anything other than a pixelated blur.
For everyday snapping the VS20 offers a "smart" Auto Picture mode that compares the subject before the lens with 15 pre-optimised on-board settings and selects the most appropriate. The alternative is to tab to the next setting of Program mode, allowing access to a more expanded set of controls, such as the ability to adjust exposure between +/- 2EV and manually alter white balance.
We also get the usual smattering of portrait, landscape and night shooting options, presented here with a press of the "mode" portion of the backplate control pad, plus a miniature effects filter, pencil sketch, fisheye and the aforementioned panorama mode that can produce effective results and a single elongated end image. That said, patience is required; it took us several attempts to avoid a stitched end result without obvious overlaps, and the miniature mode to us produced results that looked more like a lens fault than real life in miniature, due to just so much of the image being un-sharp.
And that’s rather the problem with the Pentax Optio VS20: its performance is inconsistent. We ended up with odd colour balances, odd exposures, the camera failing to find focus or merely focused on the wrong thing more times than we’d expect even with the caveat that this is a low cost budget model.
When the Pentax gets it right you can get crisp results at either end of the focal range, which stops us from dismissing it entirely however, and having such a focal range offered by a camera that will readily slip into any pocket is enough of a selling point on its own, without the need for the gimmick of extra buttons. Not once did we feel the need when turning the camera on its side to use the second set of controls – but when we tried them out purely for the purposes of completing our test, it was tricky to avoid the little finger of our right hand dangling in front of the extended lens. Also, the positioning of the integral flash top right of the faceplate means it’s too easy to also inadvertently obscure with a stray finger. The battery life is distinctly so-so too: 200 shots from a full charge.
The Pentax Optio VS20 is not quite the bargain it may initially seem. But set against a hit-and-miss performance is the fact that here we have a broad focal range that will in theory allow a wide variety of framing options without having to physically shuffle forward or back as we would with a fixed lens camera.
And then there’s the price. For £199 in return for a 20x zoom and chassis that, while slightly chunky, will still fit in your pocket, you might feel able to put up with a bit of inconsistency and white balance wandering between successive frames if the camera is left to its default "auto everything" devises.
However we feel the 24x zoom SZ-14 from Olympus we were testing alongside this camera is a better bet in terms of shot-to-shot reliability for the same price. In summation then, you can get decent results from the VS20, but it takes a few shots and a bit of patience. You ultimately can’t avoid the conclusion that Pentax, now partnered with Ricoh, can do (and has done) better.