Travel zoom digital cameras are a bridge between point-and-shoots and mega-zoom cameras. They are small enough to easily fit into the pocket and offer a raft of features that allow users to capture great shots. These include a telephoto lens, fully manual controls, plenty of scene presets and filters, and HD video recording. Olympus has chosen a different path with its latest travel zoom camera, the SZ-14. Let’s find out what it has to offer and how it compares with its counterparts on various fronts.

A basic point-and-shoot with a telephoto lens

A basic point-and-shoot with a telephoto lens

Design and Features

This 14 megapixel shooter is one of the most elegant looking travel zoom cameras in the market. It’s available in three colours, all sober – silver, red and black. The front of the camera’s shell is reinforced by an aluminium plate with brushed finish. The telescopic lens housing is black with chrome trimming around the rims.

The rear of the camera is a large black plastic panel, which is dominated by a 3-inch LCD monitor. To its right is the control panel that comprises a dedicated video recording button right at the top followed by buttons for playback and menu, a 5-way D-pad with a jog dial and a help button. A rubber grip for the thumb is placed at the top right corner. Lift the plastic flap on the right side and you’ll find an HDMI (type D) and a USB port. The battery and the SD card reside in a common compartment that can be accessed by unlocking and opening a plastic flap on the base.

24x optical zoom - 25-600 mm

24x optical zoom – 25-600 mm

Starting with the key features, the lens is quite wide at 25 mm. This favours capturing full body portraits and large groups without moving too much away. It also helps capturing wide landscapes and panoramas without taking too many shots. The lens extends up to 600 mm, which translates to a good 24x optical zoom. The largest apertures at wide and telephoto ends are F3.0 and F6.9 respectively. While an aperture of F3.0 is fairly decent for a budget travel zoom, F6.9 will result in underexposure in low light, leaving you with no option but to boost the ISO or use a tripod.

Closely observe the top and the control panel – found something missing? Most travel zoom cameras have a mode dial that lets you select Auto, PASM, scene presets and effect filters. The mode dial is missing here. Which brings us to the user interface – it’s typical of all Olympus digital cameras. The shooting parameters are displayed in a stack to the right and the parameters that can be tweaked depend on the shooting mode you select. The most advanced shooting mode available is Program in which you can set the white balance, ISO (80 to 1600), burst mode, AF mode (Face, Spot and AF tracking), among a few more parameters. You don’t get manual and semi-manual modes, which makes the SZ-14 a basic point-and-shoot camera but with a telephoto lens. The other shooting modes include the following:

  • iAUTO: Automatically detects the type of scene and accordingly uses optimal exposure parameters. All you can do here is set the image resolution, enable/disable flash and use the self-timer.
  • SCN: A total of 16 scene presets including face detection for pets (cats and dogs), Fireworks, Sport, Sunset, Indoor, Night portrait, Documents and Cusisine.
  • MAGIC: A collection of 11 effect filters to get creative shots without having to post-process. These include Pop Art (punchy colours), Pin Hole, Fish Eye, Soft Focus, Watercolor, Miniature and Reflection. Here, you can set the image resolution, use Macro, enable/disable flash and use the self timer.
  • Panorama: This mode allows shooting 180 degree panoramas using three techniques. In the auto mode, you simply have to pan the camera and the panorama image is stitched on-the-fly. The sad part is that the panoramas are 2 megapixels in size. In Manual mode, you get to shoot three images and the guide for the next image appears as an overlay of the edge of the previous image. The PC mode allows you to take as many shots so that you can manually stitch them using a panorama stitching app on your PC. 
  • 3D: This mode takes left and right eye shots and combines them to make a 3D image. However, these images can’t be viewed on the camera.

Build Quality and Ease of Use

Start with the lens and move backward and you’ll like the sturdy build. The rounded edges look nice and the finish of the surface is excellent. Move on to the control panel and you’ll be slightly disappointed. Like the case with most digital cameras, the glossy LCD display is a fingerprint magnet. The inclusion of a screen protector and a tiny microfibre cloth would have been nice. Secondly, the jog dial is plasticky and can get annoying. On several occasions we found it rotated too easily while using the d-pad.

A simple control panel with just a few buttons and a jog dial

A simple control panel with just a few buttons and a jog dial

As for the user interface, it’s very intuitive. You can navigate the menus and change settings by just using the jog dial, D-pad and menu button. Out of the two shortcuts present on the D-pad, one is ‘Info’ that toggles display of information such as the number of shots remaining, live histogram and shooting parameters. The other is ‘Delete’ which works in playback mode. The other three directional keys are only meant for navigation while in shooting mode. In many other digital cameras, you have one-touch access to self-timer, EV, Macro and Flash. Here, you have to navigate, which isn’t too comforting while you’re busy shooting.

One big issue with this camera is the sluggishness of the user interface. In the process of animating certain elements and showing real time previews, Olympus has bungled up the UI. Real time preview is useful and most cameras do that in live view. Here, for certain things such as white balance, EV and Magic Filters, stamp size previews are displayed in a carousel – it’s jittery, tiny and frustrating to select. Rapid key presses don’t speed up scrolling and there’s a slight lag when you get out of the carousel interface. We feel this fancy interface for preview is completely unnecessary – it could have been simpler and snappy.

The grip of the SZ-14 is satisfactory. Your fingers curl around the bulge on the right side, and there’s a tiny thumb grip. You’ll find this inadequate if you have large hands. Even if your hands are smaller, you’ll find it uncomfortable when your fingers begin to sweat. That’s because the surface for grip is plain and tends to become slippery. A textured finish would have been of a little help here.

Performance

The SZ-14 initialises in no time. From the time you press the power button, it takes just 2 seconds to get ready to shoot. While the shutter release is held half way down, the humming of the image stabilisation motor can be heard clearly. It’s not a flaw – the IS mechanism works extremely well. If you have steady hands, with IS activated you can get blur-free shots at shutter speeds as low as 1/6 sec, provided the subject is motionless.

Noise Test

The noise is extremely well-controlled at ISO speeds up to 200. Graininess starts creeping in from ISO 400, but it’s very much acceptable. At ISO 800 and 1600, both luminance and colour noise are very apparent. These values should be used as a last resort in very low lighting. With noise removal applied to remove colour noise, the images look decent but at a lower resolution.

ISO 200

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 1600

We shot all kinds of scenes and subjects and found the reproduction of details and colours good, both outdoors and indoors. However, only macro shots and objects that are a few feet away look good. Distant objects appear a bit out of focus and the details have a slight watercolour-like effect due to compression artefacts. Also, objects shots against bright backlight (for example, against the sky) have purple fringe around the edges. We rate this camera 6 out of 10 for the reproduction of colours and details.

A 100 percent crop from a frame - poor reproduction of details in distant objects

A 100 percent crop from a frame – poor reproduction of details in distant objects

Purple fringing is quite evident with bright backgrounds

Purple fringing is quite evident with bright backgrounds

The EV had to be stepped down to get this result in bright sunlight

The EV had to be stepped down to get this result in bright sunlight

A close up taken using Super Macro

A close-up taken using Super Macro

Shooting is a lot more fun with Magic Filters than the Program mode and the scene presets. The ones that we enjoyed using the most were Punk, Pin Hole and Fragment – the results were very pleasing.

The Fragment filter is something we've not seen in any other camera

The Fragment filter is something we've not seen in any other camera

The Punk filter yields funky results!

The Punk filter yields funky results!

Shot using the Pin Hole Filter

Shot using the Pin Hole Filter

The quality of videos shot at 720p is very good – the panning is smooth and the reproduction of colours and details is great. You can record videos with Magic Filters enabled, and the entire zoom range available while shooting is very useful. However, the stereo mic picks up the hum of the zoom motor, which is a big disappointment.

Verdict and Pricing in India

The Olympus SZ-14 retails with a 4GB SD card for Rs. 16,990, which is the MRP. Go out in the market and you should be able to buy it for a few hundred rupees less, along with a pouch. Some online shopping websites are selling this camera for less than Rs. 15,000. It is clearly the most affordable travel zoom camera with the maximum zoom range. However, don’t base your decision on this parameter. According to us, the price isn’t quite justified – the feature set is lean, the performance is just about average and to top that, the UI isn’t the best in class. The Sony Cyber-shot HX9V is a much better deal for the same price. The optical zoom is less (16x), but you get a brilliant user interface, full HD video recording, built-in GPS and full manual controls. Even better is the Canon PowerShot SX240 HS, which costs Rs 17,500. It has a 20x zoom lens, full HD video recording, PASM modes, plenty of filters to tinker with and brilliant performance.

Publish date: September 14, 2012 1:04 pm| Modified date: December 19, 2013 1:11 am

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