Olympus’s SZ-31MR is the latest compact travel-zoom digital camera from Olympus, with a whopping 24x zoom and 16 megapixel sensor. We find out if it’s any good.
Olympus SZ-31MR review – Features
Key to the Olympus SZ-31MR has to be its 24x optical zoom lens and its 16 megapixel backlit CMOS sensor and combination that along with dual image processors, are designed to improve imaging and HD video performance, particularly in low-light, speed up response times and improve the camera’s scene and subject recognition modes. The F/3 – F/6.9 optical zoom lens gives the 35mm equivalent of 25-600mm focal range, so more than enough to capture almost anything from extreme close ups with its closest focus distance of 3-cm (in Super Macro Mode) and landscapes at the wide end of the lens right up to zoomed-in detailed snaps of wildlife at the 600-mm end of the lens. There’s even a ‘Super-resolution’ digital zoom mode.
Of the shooting modes available you have the usual suite of Olympus modes including the point and shoot iAuto setting and 17 scene modes including a relative newcomer in the shape of Handheld Starlight mode, there’s a 3D Photo setting (for use with compatible TVs and computers) and a Pet Detection setting that’s not quite as much fun as the titular Pet Detective (a la Jim Carey) that automatically fires the shutter when the camera recognises either a cat or a dog in the frame.
Other scene modes include Beauty and sweep Panorama modes, there are ten Magic Filters that include my favourite Dramatic Tone setting along with Miniature, Pop Art and Pin Hole camera modes to name a couple more. The clever Multi-recording settings allow you to combine shooting 1080P HD video with full resolution stills without switching away from movie recording across a variety of other settings such as Multi-Framing Movies, Photo with Movie Clip, Multi-File Movies, Magic Filter and Original Movie modes.
There are various high-speed continuous shooting modes that combine a range of frame rates are resolution settings that allow you to tailor your shooting to match the subject. These include the 60-fps mode for up to 75 frames but at 3-megapixels. Next up is the 15-fps for 120 frames (again in 3-megapixel mode) and 10-fps for a more modest 12-frames but at full resolution 16-megapixel settings. Last up there’s a Sequential shooting mode that gives a frame rate of 2.5-fps f but for up to 200 frames and again at 16-megapixels.
The aforementioned HD videos are recorded at full 1080p HD but with the entire optical zoom range available and the camera’s Movie IS image stabilisation available to help reduce shake, which is vital at the 600mm end of the lens where hand holding the camera without hand shake marring the video or stills for that matter.
Olympus SZ-31MR review – Handling
The styling and design of the SZ-31MR is attractive and the most obvious feature on the body is a nicely sculpted hand grip and combined with a rubber grip for your right hand thumb on the back, it makes one handed use of the camera easy and aids use overall; the camera feels secure and stable in your hand.
Olympus compacts have a neat (and no doubt familiar if you’ve used an Olympus compact before) on screen menu layout, with basic shooting options including macro settings, ISO, resolution, self-timer and white-balance ranged, with others, down the right hand side of the screen when you press the OK button that’s sat within a rotating four-way jog button, just to the right of the large, clean and crisp 3-inch touch sensitive display.
The focus point in use can be activated (and the shutter trigger activated too) using the touch screen if activated within the camera’s deeper menus, more on those shortly. An excellent Live Guide system, active in the automated iAuto shooting mode allows you to change colour saturation, brightness, and image colour (warm to cold on the fly and visible on the touch screen. Other buttons on the camera alongside the rotating four-way jog pad include a dedicated movie record button on the rear and a pronounced mode dial on the top plate that sits to the left of the shutter release and its surrounding lens zoom lever and a recessed, somewhat fiddly to use, on/off button.
The touch sensitive LCD is bright and clear and usable in almost all lighting conditions, but in direct bright sunlight, seeing what you’re framing and seeing what you’ve shot are frustratingly hard, although this is typical of such compacts that like this one, lack an optical viewfinder.
In terms of the battery life, after one full charge, I’m still snapping images and video a week later, the charge indicator showing its first dropped segment, so that’s around 200-shots so far, bags of reviewing shot and video and video capture too; in short battery life is good.
Performance and Verdict
Olympus SZ-31MR review – Performance
The cameras overall performance is pretty good with fast start up times accompanying very slight shutter and AF lag, so slight as to be negligible, especially shooting using the touch shutter system where touching the screen activates the focusing at that point and fires the shutter. Impressive stuff then. Some low light situations proved hard for the focus system to latch on to, even with the bright AF assist beam shinning brightly across a room, say, it struggled a couple of times.
The camera is capable of capturing great colour, blues and greens are very dynamic indeed and adding punch to landscape shots but disappointingly, I had pronounced redeye in many of my portraits taken indoors with flash and the skin-tones look a tad peaky to me. In the Sport mode, where the sensitivity is pushed higher to help attain faster shutter speeds things look good although as you climb over the ISO 400 mark, noise becomes more evident although not distractingly so. Set the ISO over 800 however and noise is more noticeable, over ISO 1600, noise suppression removes detail and colour leaches slightly and at ISO 3200 or 6400, noise is heavily suppressed, so much so that colour is further leached and detail is smoothed out horribly.
And so how does the SZ-31MR’s lens deliver? It seems more than up to its task of capturing detail for the 16-megapixel sensor, images that are well exposed images have great colour reproduction with purple fringing barely noticeable.
Detail is particularly good in the centre of the images, but at the corners, things are much softer than I’d have liked and at the lens – minimum focus distance of 3cm, (in Super Macro Mode) you can get some superbly decent macro shots with bags of lovely detail. White balance (WB) performance is good, particularly the auto WB pre-set performing well in most lighting situations except under mixed lighting, indoors, where it produced a familiar orange cast. In other words, it’s more or less what you’d expect at this level.
The sweep panorama mode works well enough with the usual caveat that it produces such a narrow image, with reduced vertical resolution, that while they look good, they cannot be used very big. It does not beat stitching full resolution images together, though it is a lot more fun and certainly faster to achieve.
The camera’s Digital Filters offer a range of clever effects for creating a funkier, more creative look to your shots and the Dramatic tone filter is my favourite producing some impressive, well, dramatic shots, and best used on a part cloudy day.
Using the camera’s digital ‘Super Resolution Zoom’ feature where the camera provides the equivalent of a 48x zoom ratio (so that’s the equivalent of a 1200mm lens here) it provides rather smeared detail but use quite small, it is acceptable. I even managed to shoot a couple shots of the setting sun (bear in mind the sun was low, near the horizon and partly obscured by clouds – don’t ever try this with a full on sun) at the equivalent of the 1200mm digital zoom, imaging what appear to be a couple of sun spots (check out my example shots for the test) and all hand held. If I’d had a tripod handy no doubt the result would be a little clearer, but this is still impressive (if slightly murky) for a hand held compact.
The Olympus SZ-31MR costs a penny shy of £300 at the time of testing, with other similar cameras including the Pentax Optio VS20, Nikon’s Coolpix L310 and the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS plus the recently tested Fujifilm FinePix F770 EXR spanning a price range from around £150 to £300 and so it’s at the top end of the scale and as such fits neatly into the market housing as it does a good balance between features and performance and price point.
Olympus SZ-31MR review – Verdict
While the market has an ever-growing array of long zoomed compacts, few are as svelte as this Olympus, fewer still as attractive. This makes the Olympus SZ-31MR an ideal option for anyone looking for a compact camera for a holiday or those travelling and not wanting the bulk of a system camera.
Images are excellent particularly the colour reproduction but portrait shots are a little disappointing; the battery life is good and the fast high-speed shooting and full 1080p HD video recording with stereo sound and the clever iAuto setting and Magic filters all combine to make the camera well worth serious consideration. In short then, the Olympus SZ-31MR an amazing zoom lens crammed into a (relatively) tiny body and its image quality and overall performance mean it is indeed an ideal travel camera.