Premium travel zoom digital cameras don’t compromise on any feature and perform incredibly well. You get full manual control, excellent zoom range, full HD video recording, plenty of effect filters and scene presets, pristine imaging quality and rugged build. However, all this comes in at around Rs 18,000. Those who don’t have a big budget have an option for going in for more affordable models, of course, with a hacked down feature set and some compromise on performance. Priced under Rs 10,000, the 16 megapixel Olympus VR-350 is one such budget travel-zoom digital camera. Let’s find out what it has in store for shutterbugs.

A budget travel-zoom that's easy to use

A budget travel-zoom that's easy to use

Design and features

The Olympus VR-350 is clad in an aluminium shell with anodised finish. The use of metal not only augments the aesthetics but also makes the exterior resilient to scratches and occasional bumps. This camera is available in three colours – silver, black and purple. We received a silver unit for review, the most sober of the three colours. Chrome trimmings around the rims of the lens housing and a chrome strip on the top go very well with the colour of the shell.

Going by its compact form, the VR-350 comes across as a simple point-and-shoot digital camera. Switch on this baby, pull the zoom rocker, watch the lens extend and you’ll realise it packs some serious meat. The lens is 24 mm at its widest end and extends up to 240 mm, which translates to 10x optical zoom. With an aperture of F3.0 at 24 mm, it’s certainly not very bright in low-light. However, you can’t expect much from an entry-level shooter. The front of the camera sports a flash strobe, focus assist lamp and a tiny aperture for the microphone towards the bottom. The bulge for grip doesn’t protrude much as it would make the camera chunky. Also, there’s no sort of texture or rubberised finish on the front to lend a firmer grip. We guess Olympus has given more preference to aesthetics.

The sides of the camera are plain, without any ports. The right side has only an eyelet to attach a wrist strap that comes bundled. A proprietary USB port that’s common for PC interface and video output is located at the bottom, along with a tiny grille for the mono speaker and a threaded hole for tripod mount. 

3-inch LCD and a simple control panel

3-inch LCD and a simple control panel

The rear of the camera is very similar to that of many other cameras by Olympus. The most dominant component is the large 3-inch display, and to its right is the control panel which comprises of a dedicated movie recording button, 5-way D-pad and buttons for Menu, help and playback.

Ergonomics

The VR-350 is for those who want something that’s hassle-free and easy to use. Hence, it doesn’t feature manual and semi-manual shooting modes that require adjusting too many parameters. The most basic shooting mode is the iAuto mode, which analyses the subject in the frame and automatically uses optimal settings. Contrary to this is the Scene mode, where you select the appropriate scene. These include Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sport, Fireworks, Sunset, Pet, Documents and 3D. Scene modes allow you to tweak only a few parameters such as IS, resolution, self-timer and compression. The white balance, ISO speed and metering are taken care of by the camera. If you wish to take control of these, you can switch over to the Program mode, which is the most advanced. The most interesting shooting mode is Beauty – its purpose? To make the subject beautiful! Shoot a front-facing portrait in this mode and you’ll be taken to an interface using which you can lighten the skin tone, whiten teeth and apply blush, eye shadow and lipstick. Use it sparingly and your subjects may actually look better. Overdo it and your subjects will look like plastic dolls with painted makeup. And that’s the real fun!

The Magic mode allows shooting using filter effects such as Pop Art, Pin Hole, Fish Eye, Drawing, Soft Focus, Punk, Reflection and Watercolor. Most of these modes can also be used to shoot videos. The VR-350 can shoot videos at 720p; however, note that optical zoom isn’t available while shooting videos.

The user interface is well laid out and quite intuitive even for a first timer. What’s very upsetting is the sluggishness of the UI. You have to be a little patient while navigating through the shooting parameters and changing values.

The mildly bulging grip doesn't inspire confidence

The mildly bulging grip doesn't inspire confidence

Since the camera is slim and the portion of the body available for grip is too limited, one-handed shooting isn’t recommended. The grip doesn’t feel too comfortable, especially if you have large hands. Hence, it would be wise to keep the wrist strap worn all the time.

Performance

The VR-350 initialises in no time and you will seldom miss golden moments. You can start shooting in 2 seconds from the time you press the power button. The focussing is very quick. You end up wasting time only while changing settings due to the sluggish UI.

Noise test

The noise is well-controlled only up to ISO 200, beyond which graininess increases dramatically and kills the colours and details. At ISO 800, tiny water paint like blobs are visible if you view the image at 100 percent zoom. ISO 1600 yields larger and more prominent blobs, which look worse in low-light shots.

ISO 100

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 200

ISO 800

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 1600

Performance and sample shots

The reproduction of colours and details is below average. Our test shots lacked contrast and details in distant objects looked quite muddled. The trick to make photos look good is to rescale them to fit the screen and boost the contrast. This can be done with an image viewer like IrfanView. You have to take a little trouble to make your photos look better, but it’s worth it.

Shot handheld at ISO 200, 1/20 sec shutter and -0.7 EV

Shot handheld at ISO 200, 1/20 sec shutter and -0.7 EV

Close ups look better than distant scenes

Close-ups look better than distant scenes

Pin Hole effect adds a nostalgic touch

The Pin Hole filter effect adds a nostalgic touch

Photos shot using high ISO speeds look better rescaled

Photos shot using high ISO speeds look better rescaled

A 100% crop of a shot taken at ISO 800 - notice the large blobs!

A 100 percent crop of a shot taken at ISO 800 – click on the photo and notice the large blobs!

Looks good? Click on the photo and finer details will look flat

Looks good? Click on the photo and finer details will look flat

Verdict and Price in India

Rs 9,990 for a travel-zoom camera with 10x optical zoom, 720p video recording and elegant aesthetics might sound attractive to you. But the sub-par performance holds us back from recommending this camera. The only thing that we liked about this camera is the unique Beauty mode. We’re not kidding! 

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