Beneath its serious design, the Olympus Stylus SZ-15 has many of the key features that will appeal to those wanting a travel compact camera on a budget. The £179.99 / US$199.99 (around AU$300) full price tag for the Olympus SZ-15 gets you a 16 million pixel 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor and 24x optical zoom, which is the equivalent of a 25-600mm lens on a 35mm/full frame camera.
The Olympus SZ-15 can also shoot video at a resolution of 720p for 30fps. While this may not match full 1080p HD resolution, given the price of the camera this shouldn't really be expected. Video footage is saved as AVI files using Motion JPEG compression, while still images can be saved as normal or fine JPEG files. There is no raw shooting on the Olympus SZ-15.
As a consumer camera there is little in the way of manual exposure control, with the P setting offering the ability to change the exposure compensation and the ISO sensitivity, which has what is now considered a fairly small range from ISO 100-1600. White Balance and flash compensation can also be adjusted in this mode.
For those who just want to point and shoot there is an iAuto mode, a Beauty mode that 'Brings your subjects to life to create dynamic portrait images', Super Macro mode, a panorama mode and a variety of different scene modes.
Switching the camera to Magic mode offers access to 11 different art filter effects, including the standard Dramatic Tone, Miniature, Pop Art and Toy Camera effects.
The effects of these art filters can be viewed on the Olympus SZ-15's rear 3-inch 460k dot TFT LCD screen, which we found to be fairly poor in terms of colour rendition and contrast range.
Build quality and handling
The plastic body of the Olympus Stylus SZ-15 is styled almost like a miniature DSLR, with a hump above the lens that houses the small pop-up flash, and quite a large handgrip for a camera of this size. In the hand the Olympus SZ-15 feels well built, if a little plasticky. It also has the minimum range of controls, which, given the limited features than you can change on this camera, is no bad thing.
To house the 24x zoom lens, the Olympus SZ-15 is larger than most other cameras at this price, such as the much smaller zoomed Canon IXUS 140/ELPH 130 and Nikon Coolpix S5200. However, it's also about the only camera is this corner of the market that offers a lens with such a long focal length - unless you look at an entry-level bridge camera, which will be even larger still.
The on-screen controls are straightforward to use, and the main menu has a nice clear design and layout, and a limited range of settings to change, such as being able to switch from evaluative to centre weighted metering. Usefully there is a single line of text at the bottom of the menu screen that explains what the currently selected setting does.
We found that CCD bleed, which creates purple streaks gravitating out from strong highlight areas, is sometimes visible on-screen when composing images in bright conditions. Fortunately, it doesn't affect the images taken, but it is something that isn't often seen in a digital camera these days, since the majority now use CMOS rather than CCD sensors.
Overall the Stylus SZ-15 is straightforward and simple to use. Those people after a straightforward camera with a high magnification zoom wont be overwhelmed with settings or complicated button arrangements.
There's only a choice of centre weighted or ESP (evaluative) metering, but most Olympus SZ-15 owners will be satisfied with the latter. Generally, we found that this produces good exposures, though it has a slight tendency to over-compensate in darker scenes, producing images that are far too bright with burnt out highlight details.
Lost highlights are also due to the fact that the sensor seems to have a fairly restricted dynamic range. Using the exposure compensation feature, we were able to reduce exposures by between 0.3 and 0.7EV to darken the images, recover some highlights and make the over exposure more balanced.
The automatic white balance (AWB) setting works reasonably well, though some bright summer skies look a little cyan in colour. Shooting in woodland we also found that the AWB setting produces very cold results. Switching to sunlight or the overcast setting on the camera leaves some of the warmth of the brown woodland tones in images.
When shooting under tungsten light the AWB setting removed very little of the tungsten colour. We found that changing the Olympus SZ-15 to tungsten worked very well, reducing almost all hint of the tungsten amber glow and producing good neutral images. We would recommend taking the time to switch between the preset white balance modes to get the best results from the camera.
Rather oddly, there are no variations on the default image colour style, for example a black and white or vivid colour setting. If you wish to change any of the characteristics of the image this must be done either via the Scene or Magic modes. In fact, if you wish to take black and white images you are out of luck completely, since there is no option at all on the Olympus SZ-15.
Images taken with the Olympus SZ-15 are a little disappointing. While the colour rendition is quite good, images seem to suffer from over processing, with the noise reduction and JPEG compression being very high, even at the lowest ISO 100 sensitivity setting. Also, although images may look good on a computer screen at normal viewing sizes, a quick look at 100% reveals a lack of detail.
As the sensitivity increases, the quality gets worse, with ISO 1600 images appearing smudged and blurred at 100%, as the noise reduction obliterates any luminance noise in the image. That said, there is no colour noise visible, though there is a slight purple tinge to high contrast edges, implying that some sort of purple fringing reduction has been applied.
Again, if you are only ever going to look at images on a computer screen or website, this won't be an issue, but if you'd like to make prints we would advise that the quality won't really be suitable for anything other than 6 x 4 prints.
The 25-600mm equivalent lens of the Olympus SZ-15 takes just under two seconds to make a full zoom, which is quite fast for a zoom of this size and a camera of this price. The much needed stabilisation works particularly well, and this can be witnessed by the sound of the stabilisation motors whirring away and the smooth image presented on the camera's rear screen.
There is a little curvilinear distortion from the lens, and we would imagine that this is automatically corrected in-camera. The only time when there is a slight curve at the edges is when shooting using the super macro mode, which has a minimum focus distance of around 2cm from the front of the lens.
Focusing in macro mode is a little slower than when taking a more standard macro or portrait shot, and in this mode the camera can sometimes hunt when trying to find focus.
When shooting landscapes the focus is fast and accurate. Switching from the standard mode to spot focusing makes the focusing a bit snappier, so we would generally advise using this mode. AF tracking is also available, and manages to keep up well with moderately moving subjects.
Once you have taken the image it takes the Olympus SZ-15 around three seconds to recover before you can take another image. There is a continuous shooting mode, but this only enables 200 full sizes images to be taken at 0.45fps. Faster 1.5fps and 15fps modes are also available, but image resolution drops dramatically, to just 3 million pixels.
If you keep in mind that the Olympus SZ-15 is aimed at those who are happy to point and shoot and are only going to use their camera on a few occasions a year, then the Olympus Stylus SZ-15 is a suitable camera. It is uncomplicated, with few buttons, a basic design and it isn't bombarded with all the extra settings that may end up confusing rather than helping a point and shoot photographer.
However, the Olympus SZ-15 is clearly built to a low price point, which is indicated by the use of a CCD sensor, plastic construction and lack of features such as GPS or Wi-Fi. The image quality is ok if you are only ever going to look at images on the camera's screen or on a computer, but a 100% view reveals that images throughout the sensitivity range lack detail and look very smudged. The noise reduction is simply too strong.
All of that said, there is very little competition for the Olympus SZ-15 in this price range, and to buy a camera with a zoom lens that can match the 24x zoom of the Olympus SZ-15 you would have to spend around another £100 or more for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40, Canon PowerShot SX280 HS, Nikon Coolpix S9500 or the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50.
What camera should I buy? your options explained
The standout features of the Olympus SZ-15 are its impressive 24x zoom lens and a simple to use body and controls.
There are few options for more advanced photographers on the Olympus SZ-15, and image quality is poor on close inspection.
If an easy to use compact camera, at a reasonable price, with a powerful zoom lens is your criteria, then the Olympus Stylus SZ-15 is a reasonable choice. However, there are few additional settings or features in this bare-bones camera, and the image quality and processing speed of the camera is slow.
For the price, the Olympus SZ-15 is reasonable value, however for those wanting to make sure they get the best possible images, you should spend a bit more and purchase one of the more premium cameras.