Watch out all you superzoom compacts! While we were safely thinking that 16x and 18x zooms seemed to be the limit for compact cameras, Olympus has gone and released the SZ-30 MR with a huge 24x zoom, equivalent to 25-600 mm! It's strange to think that just two years ago, a zoom this powerful would have been unthinkable even on a bridge camera. But apart from its monster lens, this camera has a BSI CMOS sensor and two image processing chips for simultaneously capturing two different image formats or styles. All of this makes the SZ-30 MR an original compact with some very interesting features.
HandlingThe first time we picked up the SZ-30 MR we couldn't decide what kind of camera it was: a mini-bridge or a larger compact. The grip handle is almost as deep as on bridge cameras, even if a little slimmer, and helps you keep hold of the camera effectively. The buttons are well made and are finished nicely, and the mode-selection dial, zoom lever and flash feel sturdy and handle with precision. On the other hand, we really weren't keen on the smooth plastic finish, the rather approximative assembly of the chrome-effect detail at the top of the grip handle, or the out-dated hard plastic connections compartment—all of which smacks of mid-range compact.
Then, there's the screen. A 460,000-dot definition is all very well and good, but it'd be even better if the display didn't look black when holding the camera up above your head. Then again, that's what you get for using a TN panel, which is a rather inexplicable choice for a supposedly flagship camera! The SZ-30 MR costs less than the Sony HX9V in spite of the fact it has a lens and functions that could easily justify a higher price. We therefore can't understand why Olympus had to go and ruin things with such a low-grade TN screen. As well as the tight viewing angles, light greys are soon overexposed to white and colour fidelity could be better.
The screen is even more disappointing since Olympus has clearly paid great attention to detail with the rest of the camera. The controls have been reworked and improved, and the camera is more pleasant to use and a little more responsive than the brand's other models (even if white balance and exposure previews still aren't as smooth as they could be).
Multi-RecordingOlympus has been keen to promote the fact that the SZ-30 MR has two image processors. It can therefore apply two radically different treatments to raw data captured and received from the sensor. You can, for example, take a photo at the same time as recording video footage, with no interruption to the film and in 16-Megapixel resolution (usually, cameras offering this kind of function either take a 2-Megapixel shot or stop filming for the time it takes to shoot a photo).
Beware though: while the video is recording, exposure and focus are not readjusted for the still shot. The photo can therefore lack sharpness and often looks typically like a video frame, with bright areas more frequently overexposed than in a regular photo.
The MR mode also offers three more interesting and original ways of using this dual-processor system.
- Size: you can capture two different sized (different resolution) photos or videos simultaneously—for example, 16 Megapixels and 1 Megapixel for a photo, or 1080p and 360p for a video. That means you get a small file that can be easily upload to Facebook or YouTube when you're on holiday or out and about, as well as a high-resolution version for printing or editing when you get home.
- Frame: the multi-framing function captures two photos or videos that look to be taken at different focal lengths. For photos, the second image has a reduced resolution, and could simply be obtained by cropping a regular shot. Here too, the advantage is that you get a smaller file that's ready to send. For videos, you can film one wide-angle and another close-up but both are captured in 720p resolution, which gives you some pretty interesting post-editing options. Note that you can't change the way a video is framed once you start recording.
- Magic: simultaneously records one regular photo or video and another with your choice of creative filter. The size of the final files depend on the type of filter you choose and not all of the filters can be used in video mode.
Simultaneously records two 720p videos: left - water colour creative filter / right - standard image.
These modes won't be of interest to all users, but we found them quite fun to use. They can also be pretty handy for post-editing photos and videos—for replacing part of a photo, for example, or editing a video with alternate frames from a close-up and wide-angle view of the scene.
ResponsivenessWe were keen to see if the SZ-30 MR could start up quickly in spite of its 24x zoom lens ... and we were pleasantly surprised! Lens motorisation is fast and the camera can switch on, pop out the lens and take a picture just two seconds after you press the 'On' button. Other models can do better, in particular the Nikon Coolpix S9100, but for cameras with zooms of 12x and over, the average start-up time is closer to two and a half seconds.
When up and running, the SZ-30 MR performs well, focusing in under half a second (except in very low light), saving photos in 1.5 seconds, and shooting a continuous burst of 1.5 fps or a series of five frames in 8/10 ths of a second. These times are nothing out of the ordinary but they're still on the better side of average for current compacts.
Picture QualityOlympus has never been the leader of the pack when it comes to handling digital noise, at least in its cameras with small-format sensors (the E-PL2 possibly has the best image processing system of all cameras with 4/3" sensors).
The arrival of the BSI CMOS sensor (no doubt similar to the one used in Sony's HX9V) has improved things considerably. Although smoothing starts to appear from 400 ISO, it's actually quite discreet up to 800 ISO—a setting at which the slight loss of detail still isn't too much of a problem. At 1600 ISO though, it's a different story, as the image becomes very dull, with blue shades that are full of noise. On the whole, picture quality is decent enough, but Canon and Sony manage to get more out of their BSI CMOS sensors—as does Fujifilm once you've correct the overexposure issue in the F550.
Since Olympus made its name in the field of lenses and optics rather than electronics, we were keen to see what this lens could do, especially with its record-breaking focal range of 25 to 600 mm. As we said above, just two years ago not even a bridge camera could have hoped for such a powerful zoom.
At wide-angle settings quality could be a little better in the corners of the frame, as the image becomes a little hazy, lacks contrast and finer detail disappears. It's nothing too serious and it'll barely even be visible on an 8" x 10" (20 x 27 cm) print. Plus, it's something that we've seen in pretty much all superzoom compacts on the market right now.
At 200 mm, however, the lens is surprisingly good, as the whole frame is perfectly sharp and contrasted. Plus, quality isn't lost as you zoom further. Although the micro contrast does drop a little (no doubt due to diffraction: the lens only opens to f/6.9 at 600 mm), the picture is still bursting with detail and is very good quality.
The tighter aperture of the lens has another consequence too: as you zoom, the stabilisation system has to work harder and harder to keep the shot clear. With the lens zoomed half way out or beyond, the system gets a bit noisy and you can actually feel the sensor moving when you hold the camera! It's surprising rather than worrying, but we don't like the buzzing noise the camera makes.
VideoThe first thing to note is that the SZ-30 MR doesn't use the full width of the sensor in video mode—far from it, in fact! In wide angle, 8° of the horizontal field of view is lost. The focal length of 25 mm in photo mode therefore becomes a rather tight 32 mm in video mode!
The video frame looks closer up as the wide-angle view is lost in video mode. Plus, distortion isn't corrected.
That's a bit of a disappointment, as apart from that the SZ-30 MR video mode is almost perfect. The image is sharp, detailed and there's not much speckling noise even in low light. The optical zoom can be used while filming and the continuous autofocus works well.
The sound isn't bad either, with a clear and pleasant stereo effect. Voices sound clearer with the Sony HX9V or the Canon SX230, but the SZ-30 still has a very good video mode compared with most compact cameras. One thing we don't like however, is the way this Olympus camera tries to mask the noise of the lens motorisation system when you use the zoom. This automatic correction is a little on the harsh side, muffling certain frequencies and dulling any metallic-sounding noises.
- Record-breaking zoom in a compact camera
- Picture quality at mid-range and telephoto focal lengths
- Pleasant to handle, nice controls
- Original and interesting multi-recording functions
- 1080p HD video with stereo sound and optical zoom
- Picture quality could be better from 800 ISO upwards
- Lens quality could be slightly more consistent at wide-angle settings
- TN screen (looks dark when viewed from below)
- Sound is muffled when you zoom in video mode
- Some of the plastics could be better quality
The Olympus SZ-30 MR is one of the best Olympus cameras we've seen for a while. It's pleasant to use, relatively compact, has a zoom worthy of a bridge and some original new functions. Although Olympus has improved the way this camera handles sensitivity and noise, some other models can still do better. Plus, we're having trouble forgiving Olympus for that naff TN screen.