The stylishly sculpted 14-megapixel Olympus SZ-14 slots into Olympus’ Super Zoom range between the SZ-11 and SZ-20 and features a 24x zoom lens in a compact highly specified metal body. But does a big lens and stylish design make a decent camera?
Olympus SZ-14 review – Introduction
Olympus’ Super Zoom series combines 14-megpaixel resolution and a long optical zoom lens that gives the (35mm film equivalent) focal length of 25-600mm, so more than enough range to cover almost any shooting task from landscapes to wildlife and bird photography.
At a penny shy of £200 and weighing in at just 216g, it is a camera as equally unlikely to break the bank, as it is your back when carrying it around. Available in three liveries of red, black and silver (tested here) the camera has a sculpted handgrip to the right side on top of which sits the shutter release and on/of button. A small (manual) pop up flash is activated by a slider on the left side of the lens throat, and completes the main shooting controls.
On the camera’s back we find the large 3-inch display with an impressive 460K-dot screen that’s nice to use in all but the brightest of conditions. To the right of the LCD are the other key controls including a redirect movie record button, playback, Menu and a Help system button denoted by a “?”. Between this and the other buttons is the rotating four-way jog control that aids image and menu scrolling. Pushing the four quadrants of the dial activates the screen’s excellent info display or direct delete feature.
The info display I like as it toggles through three states of main control info, the same but with a rule of thirds framing grid overlaid and an active histogram and finally nothing, just a big picture. In playback it toggles between just the displayed image, the image with date, time and exposure number or all the above plus extra technical details that include the mode the image was taken with (panorama for example), a histogram of the displayed shot and the aperture and shutter speed used among other details.
In other words a comprehensive set of data and all helpful; for those that need such details on the fly. Overall handling is nice, the sculpted grip houses the LI-50B chargeable battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The sculpted surface is smooth and nice to hold but could do with a grippier surface for one handed snapping because if you’re wearing gloves when using the camera it can feel very insecure.
Olympus SZ-14 review – Features and Handling
Most prominent of the SZ-14’s features is its massive 24x, F/3.0-F/6.9 optical zoom lens, which despite its comprehensive focal length, proves remarkably compact when switched off and remains suitably svelte when switched on and the lens is active thanks largely to three Aspherical elements sandwiched within a total of 11 lens elements in ten groups. The aperture range is reasonable rather than good but offers enough scope to get good hand held shots in brighter conditions while other kit such as image stabilisation helps keep things steady in low light and at longer focal lengths.
A 14-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor snuggles behind the lens and performs well at all lower sensitivities while, for the more snap oriented iAuto mode is there to automatically select the “correct” shooting mode based upon what the camera “sees” and to help make picture taking as easy as it can. Add to these essentials the ability to take panoramic images using a natty in-camera stitching system (both manual and automated or for later use on PC to create a panorama from a set of snaps) and 3D photos; it boasts a range of 11 Magic filters, which further enhance creativity and are fun to use, though not all are effects that succeed in delivering their promise.
The Watercolour and Sketch filters both provide effects that either miss out entire portions of a scene (depending on the brightness and contrast) or in the case of the Watercolour mode, produce an effect more akin to a film negative than any watercolour painting I’ve ever seen. Other filters include a Miniature effect (best used on large but middle distance subjects to get the best effect) and a clever Fragmented filter that creates a fairly effective montage of square fragments from a scene. Whichever one you use, you have to allow for an extended processing period as the effect is applied and before you can use the camera again.
High definition Video capture is limited to 720p with Multi-motion Movie Image Stabilisation and allows the magic filters to be applied when shooting movies too, so while the resolution is not the ideal 1080P we’d like, the application of filters (except Sparkle and Fragment) makes for even more fun shooting moving images.
Despite the optical distortions already carried out by the long zoom lens, a closest focus distance (in Super Macro mode) of 3cm means this camera encompasses the big and the small in (almost) equal measure. There are two macro settings, the above-mentioned Super mode where the lens is fixed and you need to move the camera about to compose a shot and a “normal” macro mode where the camera’s lens will still zoom through its focal range. Between them, the two modes offer remarkable versatility of shooting options for the small and equal to the versatility the lens provides when shooting normal subjects.
One of the nicest things about the camera is its almost all-metal body, with the rear and top panels made from plastic. Similarly, the camera menu systems are easy to use. Picture taking settings can be adjusted via a menu running down the right hand side of the screen and similar to most Olympus compacts today. Various settings can be adjusted directly from here making it quick and intuitive to use. Flash, self-timer, white-balance, focus, exposure compensation, ISO and the number of frames taken, all are displayed. Zooming the lens is fast, almost too fast, taking just under two-seconds to go between extremes leaving little time to stop at the required focal length for the scene you’re snapping, but a little practice here helps to get to grip with this control.
Other features I like include the Sequential shooting mode where images are recorded at 10fps at a resolution of 3-megapixels for 43 consecutive frames, you get 42 consecutive frames at just under 8fps and 5-megapixels or at the full 14-megapixel resolution, you can shoot 18 frames at just under a frame a second. Whichever way you cut it, sequential shooting provides a good level of scope for snapping fleeting action, sports or similar and while the resolution steps down dramatically to achieve the faster settings, it adds another dimension to a this superzoom snapper.
Performance, Image Quality, Value and Verdict
Olympus SZ-14 review – Performance and Image Quality
The SZ-14’s image quality is very good overall, you get decent colour capture; natural-looking and not too vibrant while the iESP, (backed up by spot) metering system does a good job of keeping things well exposed or providing a little more control if needed respectively. The auto white balance is okay for most subjects with only mixed lighting causing some orange-looking colour casts but nothing dramatic so performance here is pretty good overall. In terms of captured detail, it’s very good overall with a couple of caveats… There’s a loss of detail in both deeper shadows and highlights, the image corners can be a little soft too and purple fringing is (occasionally) evident on very high contrast elements such as tree braches against a bright sky.
Image noise is well controlled, almost absent from images at sensitivities below ISO 400 although at ISO 200 a tiny amount of noise can be discerned in expanses of shadow or colour such as a blue sky. At ISO 400 noise reduces sharpness a tad, as image processing starts to play its part, ISO 800 and 1600 there’s a significant increase in the levels of noise. ISO 800 images retain some sharpness but at ISO 1600, well, it’s not good and so you’ll only want to use those images at small size or perhaps online. When using the camera’s automated scene modes, Landscape gave great blues and greens; Portrait mode produces pleasant-looking skin tones though disappointingly, red-eye was a problem on some portraits with flash.
Olympus SZ-14 review – Value For Money
The Olympus SZ-14 is currently priced (as reviewed) at £199.99, but you’ll be able to find it for less shopping around. However, the market for ultra-zoom cameras has increasing competition across just about all segments and budgets, from Pentax’s Optio VS20 at the same price to Leica’s eye wateringly expensive V-Lux 3 at just under £700.
Given all that, the SZ-14 boasts enough tricks and kit, produces nice enough results and is eminently pocketable, even with such a mammoth lens, to make it well worth the money.
Olympus SZ-14 review – Verdict
The Olympus SZ-14 has few demerits the worst being the lack of a grippy surface (present on other SZs), the 720P HD movies could be improved when looking across the competition and high sensitivity image noise is irksome at best and makes them almost unusable at worst. Nevertheless, the SZ-14 produces decent image quality (at low ISOs) has a good set of snapping features and at under £200 makes it a awful lot of camera for the money.