Olympus SZ-14 £199.99
24th Apr 2012 | 11:15
A 14MP 24x superzoom camera with HD video for under £200
Sitting mid-way up the Olympus range of travel-friendly compact cameras, the Olympus SZ-14 sports a good range of features for a pocket-friendly price. A 14-megapixel CCD sensor should provide ample resolution, even for large prints.
Although CCD sensors generally don't perform as well as the newer backlit CMOS technology found in cameras higher up the Olympus range, sensitivities up to ISO 1600 are available.
The headline feature that draws the most attention is the huge 24x zoom range, providing an angle of view equivalent to a 25-600mm lens on a 35mm camera, in a body only 39.5mm thick.
This range is perfect for those on the move, with the 600mm equivalent telephoto zoom being perfect for picking out distant details, whereas the 25mm equivalent wide angle should be ample for shooting in claustrophobic environments and for squeezing plenty of the scene into the image.
A Panorama mode is also included for capturing even wider scenes.
Because holding such a long telephoto lens steady can be difficult at the best of times, the Olympus SZ-14 comes equipped with Dual Image Stabilisation. A sensor shift system keeps things steady when shooting still images, and electronic image stabilisation takes over for video recording, which should help to tame the effects of quivery hands.
In addition to iESP metering, advanced face detection and shadow adjustment technology have both been employed to aid accurate exposures in tricky lighting conditions.
A 3-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 460,000 dots provides a clear image for composing and reviewing images, too.
Although many cameras now sport 1080p HD video recording, Olympus has stuck with 720p footage for the Olympus SZ-14. This can be viewed on a suitable HD-ready television via the built-in HDMI interface.
If you have a 3D TV you can also take and view three-dimensional images on the television via the same HDMI connection, although the HDMI cable is not included.
Finally, a range of 11 'Magic' picture-taking modes are included, which create popular special effects in-camera. These range from traditional and popular effects such as Pin Hole, Fisheye, Drawing, Soft Focus and Miniature, to more exotic ones, such as Punk, which reduces the photo to a pink and black high-contrast image. These modes give more scope for creativity.
With a UK price of £199.99, the Olympus SZ-14 is in the same price bracket as the Olympus SH-21, which was announced at the same time, and the Canon IXUS 125 HS, Fuji FinePix F600 EXR and Nikon Coolpix S6200, to name a few
Build quality and handling
The black version of the Olympus SZ-14 supplied for review has a matt crinkled finish applied to the high quality plastics used in its construction.
A metal front plate follows the contour of the body, enhancing the quality feel, but at the same time this surface feels quite slippery, which may affect your ability to keep a firm grip of the camera.
For a camera housing a 24x zoom lens, the Olympus SZ-14 is remarkably thin and light, tipping the scales at only 216g with the battery and memory card inserted.
Battery charging is performed with the supplied USB cable, which can be plugged into any powered USB socket or charger, which should limit the amount of bulky accessories that have to be taken out when travelling.
Unfortunately, Olympus decided to use a non-standard USB cable for charging and image transfer, so care will need to be taken not to lose it. A standard micro USB connection, as found on most mobile phones, would have been a better option for many.
Controls are laid out within easy reach of finger and thumb, and a rotating dial aids quick progress through the camera's well laid-out menu system.
The extensive range of automatic scene programs and 'Magic' creative effects will suit inexperienced photographers perfectly.
Manual control is limited to exposure compensation in Program mode, which may leave more experienced photographers wanting.
A dedicated video recording button, placed next to the thumb rest, is slightly recessed to prevent accidentally filling memory cards with unwanted footage.
Support for Eye-Fi wireless SD cards is also included, which will enable images to be transferred straight to a compatible printer or computer.
The dual image stabilisation system works well in both still image and video modes, keeping the image on the 3-inch LCD screen suitably steady, which aids composition.
Although not the highest resolution screen available, the 420,000 dot screen fitted to the Olympus SZ-14 provides a clear, crisp view when composing, even in bright light. When images are played back on the screen, they often look soft or even out of focus until you zoom in to view them at 100%.
In use the Olympus SZ-14 feels very responsive, starting up and focusing quickly, even at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
A variety of sounds are played back with every press of a button, which can make this camera sound like a very compact arcade game. Even with the sounds turned off, the camera still plays a loud tone when switched on, which can be quite disturbing when shooting in quiet places, such as museums or churches.
Although the Olympus SZ-14 doesn't sport the latest backlit CMOS sensor technology, it puts in a fairly respectable performance, with noise levels being kept acceptable for sharing on the web and printing at small sizes throughout the ISO sensitivity range.
Images taken between ISO 80 and ISO 400 display good detail and sharpness, and images taken at higher sensitivities are softened due to the effects of noise reduction.
With default settings, colours can sometimes be a little muted. Picking the appropriate scene mode from the menu can give punchier results as required.
Auto white balance does a good job of reducing the effect of strong colour casts under artificial light, just leaving enough of a cast to retain the atmosphere of the scene.
The iESP metering used on the Olympus SZ-14 tends to err on the bright side, leading to many images looking washed out due to overexposure, unless appropriate exposure compensation is applied.
High-contrast scenes in particular tend to fool the metering system, often leading to unpredictable results. With face detection enabled, exposures for people portraits are much more consistent, so it pays to leave this feature enabled.
As part of our image quality testing for the Olympus SZ-14 we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the SZ-14 is capable of resolving up to around 18 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
See a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 80, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 100, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 12 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
Our analysis shows that the Olympus SZ-14 has better signal to noise ratio results than the Canon IXUS125 HS at all but ISO 80, and the Nikon Coolpix S8200 at all sensitivities but ISO 1600. At all other sensitivities the SZ-14 out performs the comparison cameras. When it comes to dynamic range the charts show that the competition all have better results except at the higher end of the sensitivity scale where the SZ-14 just takes the lead.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG Signal to Noise Ratio
JPEG images from the Olympus SZ-14 show better signal to noise ratio across the sensitivity range than the comparison cameras, except for the Canon IXUS 125 HS at ISO 80 and the Nikon Coolpix S8200 at ISO 1600.
JPEG dynamic range
A super-macro mode enables focusing as close as 3cm from your subject.
Images are sharp, with plenty of detail.
The 600mm equivalent telephoto is ideal for picking out distant scenes.
Plenty of fine detail is recorded at low ISO settings.
No manual control is provided for controlling shutter speeds or apertures, so it pays to select the appropriate scene mode.
The 25mm equivalent wide angle is ideal for capturing wide scenes.
The image stabilisation system does an excellent job of taming camera movement.
Colours can be quite muted using default settings.
During testing, the Olympus SZ-14 has proved itself to be a versatile camera, capable of producing good quality images, especially for a superzoom compact at this price point.
The lack of Full HD video may be off-putting for many, but the 720p footage recorded should still look good on a regular HD TV.
The combination of a 24x zoom in a small, light and reasonably robust body should suit those who wish to travel light perfectly.
Having such a large zoom range housed in a body under 4cm thick makes it portable, without technical compromises.
A good selection of automatic scene modes and the easy to navigate menus should suit inexperienced photographers well, enabling them to get good results in a wide range of conditions.
For a camera that charges via USB, it seems strange for Olympus to use a proprietary USB connection, since the camera could be rendered useless for a time if the cable goes missing on your travels.
Occasional wayward exposures, lack of manual control and the slippery finish are all aspects of the Olympus SZ-14 that may be improved upon.
Although there may be a few issues that could be improved upon, such as the non-standard USB interface and the iESP metering system's propensity for overexposure, the Olympus SZ-14 still represents good value for the price.
Point and shoot photographers will love the easy to use interface, selection of automatic scene modes and 'Magic' creative effects, whereas more experienced photographers may wish to look further up the Olympus range for a camera with a little more manual control.
For the price, the range of features and quality of images delivered are about right, making this camera an interesting choice for those after a compact camera for their travels.