Like Nikon with its Coolpix S9100, Olympus is a late entrant into the travel zoom class. But not to be outdone it’s shoehorning a 12.5x optical zoom into a 16-megapixel pocket snapper with the launch of the SZ-20, the headline spec an exact match for Casio’s competing Exilim EX-H30. Fittingly, the “SZ” prefix stands for “Super Zoom”, which here provides a mechanically image stabilised focal range equivalent to an ultra wide 24mm to 300mm in 35mm film terms. That’s not quite as impressive as Nikon’s 18x reach, but it’ll do for starters.
Though this Olympus looks glossily attractive in press shots, and we like the retro futurist design and especially something approaching an actual handgrip, it feels distinctly plastic-y to the touch. There’s the impression that if you squeezed hard it might actually squeak. Still, proportions are a manageable 102.4 x 64 x 30.4mm and it weighs 186g, so portability as well as versatility via that extensive focal range is chiefly what’s on offer. It’s affordable too, priced at £199.95 via Jessops at the time of our review.
That aside, Olympus aims to set itself apart from the pack with its usual range of “Magic Filter” digital effects - applied here at the point of capture. The selection on the SZ-20 comprises saturation boosting “pop art”, corner shading pin hole camera, perspective warping fisheye, “drawing” (which deconstructs an image so only scratchy black outlines on a white background remain), plus soft focus, “punk” (heavy photocopied-style outlines on pink/purple background), sparkle (a sprinkling of fairy dust) and watercolour (actually more like a poster painting that’s been dipped in the bath so everything smudges).
Filters aside, more conservative shooting modes comprise Program Auto, subject recognising iAuto for point and shoot simplicity, scene modes, plus the now ubiquitous instant panorama and 3D shooting mode. Of course you’ll need a 3D telly to review the resultant MPO files.
One immediate grumble is that with no dedicated shooting mode button or dial on this Olympus, all of the above are accessed via a toolbar located at the right-hand side of the screen, selections for which are made via directional control pad come scroll wheel. The latter is very responsive, which means you can race through options quickly. But it’s also very slippery - meaning that with even a gentle spin you can end up on a setting you didn’t actually want. If you’re in a hurry to change modes as a new shooting opportunity presents itself, the fiddly aspect makes for a frustrating experience.
With contrast detection auto focus on board, photos and Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels video are framed and reviewed via 3-inch LCD with better than average 460k-dot resolution, with light sensitivity settings starting lower than most at ISO 80 and topping out at ISO 3200. Fortunately the optical zoom can be accessed when shooting movies, but its movement is noticeably slower and smoother when the record button is hit - no bad thing as it avoids lurching transitions. One might raise an eyebrow at the fact Olympus has crammed 16.8 megapixels in total on a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, the same size chip as used by the 12.1 megapixel Nikon S9100, so increased image noise is a possible issue here. Focus range is from as close as 1cm in macro mode, to infinity (and beyond!).
The camera powers up from cold in around 2 seconds, and with a half press of the shutter release button focus and exposure is determined nigh instantly - so at least one can be up and shooting pretty quickly. Incidentally, like the S9100, here the Olympus' lithium battery is charged in-camera, a mains adapter plug and USB lead provided. If you’re nowhere near a mains socket but have your laptop handy, the SZ-20 can alternatively be charged from its USB socket.
Press down fully to squeeze off a shot and, with minimal shutter lag a maximum resolution JPEG is committed to memory in approximately 3 seconds. The LCD display briefly blacks out and out then freezes to showcase the captured image. Nudge the zoom lever with a forefinger and that is equally swift to respond, travelling from the extreme 24mm wide angle setting to maximum 300mm equivalent telephoto in around 3 seconds. As with most recent compacts, compatibility with Eye-Fi media cards is offered so while there’s the ability to go wireless with the SZ-20 it’s by no means unique in that respect. Otherwise it’s the regular SD, SDHC or SDXC card as the optional storage media of choice.
Results from the SZ-20 are a bit of a mixed bag - especially when you try and get too ambitious, so a bit of patience is required. Camera shake is always problematic when shooting handheld at longer focal lengths, resulting in blurred shots, and that’s the case here with the SZ-20. We had sometimes to take two or three shots of the same subject before we achieved one sharp enough to warrant keeping. Some corner softening is also noticeable on very close inspection when shooting at maximum 24mm equivalent wideangle. If we’re nit picking the camera also has the familiar Olympus bugbear of auto white balance shifting colours slightly shot-to-shot. Our concerns about a sensor overly burdened with a high pixel count seem to have been unfounded however; results are happily usable up to and including ISO 1600, though detail softens at ISO 800 and above to keep image noise at bay. Whilst we’d advise forgetting about the watercolour and drawing Magic Filters the rest here are fun, and pop art can be made to work well for the subject matter if wanting to add punch to an already colourful subject. Check out the orchid shot among our sample images.
Like the rest of its super zoom/travel zoom ilk, the SZ-20 wouldn’t claim to be a camera for the photo enthusiast - look to the Olympus XZ-1 for that. It does the job of providing those trading up from a regular 3x or 5x compact with a more expansive focal range, enabling the switch from wideangle landscape shots to close up candids in a matter of seconds, and does it for a reasonable price. Apart from our nit picking quibbles over image quality and the annoyance at the fiddly nature of the back plate scroll wheel used for making selections, the SZ-20 isn’t a bad effort, even if it’s a bit of an uninspiring one. For our money the Nikon Coolpix S9100 is a better all rounder, as long as you’re not bothered about 3D.
If the 12.5x optical zoom here isn’t enough for your needs, look to the equally new SZ-30 model, also from Olympus. We’ve yet to test it, but on paper it fields a veritable whopper at 24x, but with inevitable price hike to match.