The travel zoom compact is still proving popular and Olympus is building a raft of small-bodied, big-zoom, low-cost cameras for 2012. Setting sail in the wake of the SP-620UZ ‘Ultra Zoom’ we reviewed a few weeks back (16 megapixels and 21x optical zoom) comes the more slender SZ-14 ‘Super Zoom’.
Resembling a flattened version of its bridge camera-like forebear, this latest digital compact fields a 24x optical zoom and 14-megapixel resolution, derived from a 14.5MP 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor. It costs an extra £20, but the price tag remains a very affordable £199.
Aimed at new photographers
Available in the silvery grey of our review sample, as well as black or red body colours, the SZ-14 measures 106.5x68.7x39.5mm and weighs 216g with SD card and rechargeable battery inserted. While it’s not the very slimmest travel zoom around it will still fit in a trouser pocket.
Given the budget price we also don’t get the built-in GPS facility that costlier travel zoom cameras like Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-TZ30, or indeed Olympus’s own SZ-30, additionally offer. But many may feel saving £100-150 in the case of the Panasonic is worth the omission.
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Design and styling
The Olympus purportedly boasts a metal chassis, though the glossy exterior makes it look and feel more plasticky when held in the palm. At the back there’s a three-inch, 460k-dot resolution LCD screen for composition and review.
One benefit of the slightly larger body size is that we are provided with a bigger handgrip on the SZ-14 than most pocket zooms can muster. Unfortunately, because of the glossy faceplate, this is rather slippery to the touch, and could have done with the addition of a rubber strip or pad to provide a firmer hold. As a minor concession there is a small rubber rest at the back for the thumb.
Zoom and effects
With the image stabilised zoom lens here providing the 35mm film equivalent of a wide angle 25-600mm, and the camera itself looking rather spare and minimalist in terms of buttons and controls - of which there are fewer than we might practically have liked - Olympus piles on the under-the-bonnet gimmicks.
Once again we get Magic Filters. There are 11 such digital effects here, including the Olympus regulars of pop art, miniature diorama mode and the fluorescent "punk" effect, all of which are implemented at the point of capture, rather than in playback mode.
The newest option is a "fragmented" filter, as also witnessed on the SP-620UZ, and which produces a montage-type "tiled" effect – looking as if you’d cut the shot into squares and roughly stuck it back together. As a bonus for amateur videographers, most filters, with the exception of the latter, can be implemented when shooting video clips as well as stills.
Movie mode records at 1280x720 pixels, along with stereo sound and HDMI output lurking under a plastic side flap.
Fortunately the optical zoom can also be used for recordings, and without the sound cutting out each time you zoom. Though there is a low mechanical buzz to the zoom when gliding through its range, it’s quiet enough not to distract.
Navigation and picture modes
With no shooting mode wheel or obvious means of summoning up a virtual version, initially use of the SZ-14 is somewhat puzzling. With the camera powering up from cold in two seconds as long as time and date have been set first, eventually a poke of the "OK" button at the centre of a backplate control pad/ scroll wheel illuminates the uppermost option on a side-of-screen toolbar.
Tabbing back and forth through the options presented here reveals the default intelligent auto (iAuto) mode which automatically recognises a host of common scenes and subjects. There's also a more user-controllable program mode, a brief selection of the usual scene modes (optimised for shots of pets, portraits, landscapes, night scenes, sunsets, fireworks), the aforementioned Magic Filters, plus a self-stitching panorama and 3D mode.
Incidentally we did prefer to tab, because the scroll wheel at the back is very slippery and it’s otherwise hard to arrive at the setting you want without much back and forth. Either a larger wheel or stiffer "action" would benefit.
The Olympus’s pictorial panoramas are generated from three shots taken in succession and composited together, with a choice of panning horizontally from left to right, right to left, or shooting vertically up or down. Between each successive image, rather than a ghostly overlay of the previous shot guiding your hand, a floating target appears on screen, the camera’s shutter automatically firing when the user reaches the sweet spot.
The 3D image option is likewise generated from two shots taken from slightly differing angles. The MPO format file this generates is viewable only on a proper 3D telly, though a flat 2D JPEG is created for reference on the back of the camera.
Speed and low-light performance
Otherwise take a regular shot in iAuto or program mode and the SZ-14 is refreshingly swift to determine focus and exposure, doing so in the time it takes the user to blink. Take a shot and there’s a wait of around 3-4 seconds while a maximum resolution image is committed to memory, which is par for the course at this price.
Use the zoom in stills mode and it will get from extreme wide-angle to maximum telephoto setting in three seconds, slowing by roughly twice that if alternatively you’re taking a video while zooming.
If you are shooting in low light there is a modest ISO range stretching from ISO80 to ISO1600 selectable manually, or the option to use the pop-up flash located directly above the lens, with a side lever provided for its manual activation.
Despite being a budget model, the user-friendly SZ-14 still comes with a rechargeable lithium ion battery. This is good for a slightly underwhelming 200 shots from a full charge, with a mains adapter unit that plugs into the camera via its USB port being its means of re-charging. This in-camera charging pits the SZ-14 is out of action, but it can be charged from a vacant port on your laptop if you happen not to be near mains electricity.
As you’d expect of an inexpensive snapshot, when examining image quality we find the Olympus SZ-14 acquits itself best when there is plenty of sunlight available – as long as that sunlight isn’t so harsh that the camera struggles to reproduce highlight detail and familiar bugbears like pixel fringing creep into frame.
We were able to get reasonably sharp results shooting handheld at maximum telephoto in the spring sunshine, however, shots occasionally benefited from tweaking in Photoshop to provide a bit more contrast. At the extreme 28mm equivalent wide-angle setting, the camera’s performance didn’t suffer noticeably from barrel distortion or loss of focus towards the edges of the frame. If conditions are a little duller then there are always the Magic Filter effects to fall back on to provide a more visual dynamism.
In terms of low-light performance, though detail softens slightly at ISO800 and above, we’d be happy keeping the results of images at the top whack, if comparatively modest, setting of ISO1600. Altogether not a bad jack-of-all trades performance - said with the understanding that your images will resemble snapshots rather than professional photos.
The 14 megapixel, 24x optical zoom Olympus SZ-14 has the double whammy of a broad focal range yet a value-added price tag with which to sell itself, and it largely succeeds on both points.
It’s much the same as the previously reviewed SP-620UZ in terms of its feature set, but provides a slightly longer zoom in a more compact body for just £20 more.
Perfect for beginners, it may not set the world alight but it does the job of offering plenty of picture-taking opportunities from the one "all-in" device, and at a very reasonable price. It won’t turn you into an award-winning pro, but if it’s casual holiday snapping you’re after, equipped with the SZ-14 you can’t go far wrong.