Best Compact Superzoom Cameras

Evan Powell, Updated June 21, 2012


Olympus SZ-31MR ihs

From the moment I took the SZ-31MR in hand, I had a feeling it might beat the Panasonic ZS20. There is a lot to love about it. It feels solid and well-constructed in a way that the ZS20 doesn't quite match. Turn it on and you get treated to a very bright screen and one of the easiest and best menu layouts ever designed-super friendly to use. The flash manually deploys at the flick of your fingernail-no menu access needed. And all the feel good marketing indicators were there... it costs more than the ZS20 ($380 vs $295), it has higher resolution (16 MP vs 14 MP), it has a longer zoom range (24x vs 20x). If it feels better, looks better, costs more, and has better specs, it would be the best of the two cameras, right? Well, not so fast.

What's HOT about the Olympus SZ-31MR:

1. 24x zoom, longest zoom range in compact superzoom category

2. 1080p/60 video

3. Outstanding easy to use menu

4. High contrast photos, often higher contrast than the Panasonic ZS20

5. Brighter than average LCD display for the group

6. Excellent close-ups, in focus even when the auto focus says it isn't

7. Easy and quick to deploy manual pop-up flash in mid-camera, not under left finger

8. Bright flash with better than average range

9. 15 fps burst mode

10. Panorama mode

11. HDR

12. 3D photos

13. Fun crazy modes for creative photo effects like pastel watercolors, pencil sketches, and split-image inversions

What's NOT so hot about the Olympus SZ-31MR:

1. Softer lens than the competition.

2. Flash does not fire when it should in auto mode (but okay in Program mode)

3. Flash illumination not as even and accurate as the ZS20

4. Price is higher than the competition

5. Warmer than desirable color balance in open shade

6. No GPS

7. Shot to shot speed a pokey 1.9 sec, compared to ZS20's 0.9 sec., lousy for capturing a moving subject

8. Slow, sometimes very slow, to find focus at maximum zoom.

A Look at the Olympus SZ 31MR ihs

Is it the best compact superzoom camera? Well, on occasion it is capable of taking better pictures than the Panasonic ZS20. It can get closer to the subject with its 600mm equivalent max telephoto zoom, compared to the 480mm reach of the ZS20. In bright daylight it has less digital noise, and in certain situations it produces a sharper, higher contrast image. The following two images illustrate that the SZ-31MR is capable of taking a more satisfying picture than the ZS20 in some scenes:

Tivoli Village, Olympus SZ31MR.
Excellent contrast and color balance, very good sharpness.

Tivoli Village, Panasonic ZS20
Color balance is solid, but not quite as sharp and high in contrast as the SZ-31MR

Though the SZ-31MR can outshine the ZS20 on some shots, it does not outperform the ZS20 reliably or consistently. In many cases the ZS20 produces the sharper, cleaner, more well-balanced image. So it depends on what is important to you in a camera, and it depends on what you do with your photos. If you're doing Facebook and Flickr postings that are not high res, the Olympus SZ-31 MR may be your first place choice since the softness of the lens is not apparent in compressed images. The Panasonic ZS20 does have a sharper lens, and the differences in image sharpness become apparent once you view the files in high res, or you blow them up for large scale prints. If you want to do some pixel peeping, you can see a comparison of these two cameras here:

PhotoScope: Compare Olympus SZ-31MR vs Panasonic ZS20

Notice that in the PhotoScope comparison above, the SZ-31 produces a warmer image than the ZS20. This excessive warmth does not happen in bright daylight, but it occurs frequently in moderately lit scenes such as open shade. That makes it difficult to set the SZ-31MR to proper white balance in all situations. As examples, the following two photos were taken in open shade with both cameras set to their factory defaults:

Olympus SZ-31MR                  Panasonic ZS20
Fire Plug in Open Shade: The ZS20 shows higher contrast, better color balance,
and superior sharpness.

Olympus SZ-31MR                  Panasonic ZS20
Storefront Sign in Open Shade: Here the SZ-31MR shows
higher contrast and saturation, but with the warm shift in color.
The ZS20, though lower in contrast, produces a more
natural image and more accurate color balance.

Though the Olympus SZ-31MR has a bright LCD display, an exceptionally easy to use menu, and instant pop up flash that needs no menu access to activate, it comes with several annoying attributes as well. It is slow from shot to shot, taking 1.9 seconds to reset between still shots. When shooting moving subjects, this is downright pokey compared to the 0.9 second shot to shot speed on the Panasonic ZS20. And though it has a 600mm maximum telephoto zoom reach (the longest of all compact superzooms at the moment), when you are out that far it takes it own sweet time trying to find focus, and sometimes you wonder if it ever will. It takes 1080p movies at 60 fps, but the zoom control doesn't slow down much in movie mode. This can lead to abrupt changes in focal length that may be annoying to watch for any length of time. By comparison the ZS20's slow zoom control in movie mode will tend to produce less abrupt changes, and thus an easier to watch video.

For Olympus SZ-31MR memory cards, see Camera Accessories

Other than pure image quality, one of the fun features of the Olympus SZ-31MR is the variety of oddball shooting modes that empower you to explore your creative side:

Olympus SZ-31MR's split screen reflection mode allows for some fun
and unconventional compositions. These two photos above were taken
in an airline cabin on a recent flight.

Taken on the same flight, the photo on the left above is of
the airplane's window with the SZ-31MR in watercolor mode. On the right
is a great view of my drink tray in pencil sketch mode.

The Verdict

The Olympus SZ-31MR has a longer zoom range than any other camera in the compact category and it's menu/user interface is terrific. We love that the flash pops up on command via a slider switch, and that it is located in the top middle of the camera. The flash is bright, but sometimes over-illuminates the scene. It is capable of delivering high contrast images with excellent color balance in broad daylight. In lower lit scenes, its color balance skews markedly toward the warm side.

If you are shooting for high resolution imagery, the softness of the lens will get in the way and leave you less satisfied than you'd like, but for Facebook and Flickr it is fine. It does a solid job with 1080p/60 movies, with the caveat that the zoom response is a bit too quick. But used carefully it can produce fine results.

Overall, the Olympus SZ-31MR is a very strong competitor in the compact superzoom category. However the Panasonic ZS20 remains in first place due to its tendency to produce a higher percentage of successful images in different shooting situations, and its potential for incrementally sharper high resolution photos.