Ignore their looks and the Pentax Optio VS20 appears to offer the same spec as the twice-the-price Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30. Both sport a 20x zoom, resolution in the middle teens and the now obligatory HD movie mode.
So what sets them apart, except from roughly £170? I set out with the Optio VS20 to find out.
The VS20 looks great on paper, with a 16-megapixel sensor and long zoom, equivalent to 28-560mm on a regular 35mm camera. That's an incredibly versatile range, perfect for landscapes at the wider end and long enough to snap distant wildlife when fully extended. It's got optical image stabilisation too, to help steady your handiwork at such long zooms.
Build quality is good, with a sturdy plastic case and neat double shutter controls, each with a zoom rocker. One button is positioned on top of the case, as you'd expect, but the other is sited on the end of the grip so that when you hold the camera horizontally it's hidden in your palm. Turn the camera on one end and it's in the perfect spot to take portrait shots, without having to twist your hand around the camera body. It's a neat feature that's usually only found on dSLRs with optional battery pack add-ons.
It has both smile and blink detection -- the first firing the shutter when it detects smiles in your image, and the latter warning you if someone blinks at the point of capture. You can also register up to three faces for priority detection. If the VS20 spots them in the frame when you're composing your shot, it'll prioritise focus and exposure for them over and above any others.
Elsewhere, its specs are pretty much par for the course. Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, although compensation is a little narrow at +/-2.0EV in 1/3EV steps. To match its rivals it really needs to hit +/-3.0EV.
If you have neither the inclination nor the ability to edit your photos
when you get home, you can apply a lot of common effects out in the
field. There's a range of digital filters for creating sepia, black and white, toy camera and other in-camera effects, as well as 26 shooting modes.
Potentially the most limiting spec is the shutter speed range. At its fastest it fires at 1/2,500 second, which will be enough to cope with all but the most extreme situations. However, the longest exposure in regular shooting modes tops out at just a quarter of a second, and even if you switch to night scene mode -- the only one that pushes it further -- you still can't hold the shutter open for more than four seconds. This is fairly brief and will limit your options if you want to shoot night-time street scenes or landscapes, when you can't rely on the flash.
The VS20's LCD screen doesn't do its images much justice. It's sometimes a little slow to find the correct exposure, so you might miss a good shot, and when you've taken your picture, the previewed results look insipid and not nearly so punchy as they do when downloaded.
The camera itself did a very good job of maintaining the colour in subjects that were shot against a bright background. The weather vane below, for example, might reasonably have been silhouetted by the overcast sky behind it, but the VS20 retained both the red and green paint on the sail, hull and compass letters. There is also very little evidence of chromatic aberration aside from a slight halo effect around the darker details where they meet the sky.
Aberration is an unwanted effect, which occurs where the lens doesn't perfectly align each of the available wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum, so that some tones reach a slightly different part of the sensor to others. It most often manifests as a purple fringe on one side of the subject and green on the other, as can be seen in the example below, shot on the VS20, where a green line traces the bottom edge of the sculpture, and a pink runs along the right.
Other shots produced some evidence of colour interference. In the image below, showing plaques set into the concrete base of a sculpture, you would expect to see a clean grey in the stonework and a dark metallic colour in the plates. However, there's a rainbow effect in both areas -- and in particular where the focus falls away outside of the 1cm macro zone.
Furthermore, when zoomed to 100 per cent, the fall-off in focus doesn't produce an attractive bokeh effect, with a smooth transition from a sharp subject to a smooth background, as the background here looks like it was shot through a frosted screen. Again, this is due to the colour noise interference.
Performance was excellent in some tests, and poor in others. It was sometimes difficult to judge when the VS20 would perform at its best. In this detail shot of peeling paint on a beach hut, it did a great job of capturing both the decayed gloss and the underlying wood, even when downloaded and zoomed to 1:1.
The image below has plenty of detail, both in the tall grass at the back of the shot, and in the foreground water. There's no evidence of compression artefacts or of smudged detail in the most complex parts of the image.
However, this image of an industrial landscape, which was shot just 8 minutes later, and so under similar lighting conditions, was poorly handled. There's considerable noise in the darker portions of the image, which impacted clarity in the abandoned barge in the foreground and the steel banking on the opposite side of the river.
In both of the pictures above -- the grasses and the barge -- the VS20 self-selected sensitivity of ISO 100. Although the optical zoom had been extended from 5mm to 8mm for the industrial shot, requiring the shutter be slowed from 1/160 second to 1/125 second, balanced by a slight narrowing of the aperture, all other conditions remained the same.
When sized to fit on a regular monitor, most of the results are good. It's only when you zoom to 100 per cent that the imperfections are revealed -- as is the case with most cameras. For example, although there is little tonal variation in this shot of a horse grazing, it's easy to distinguish individual strands in its mane and details on its coat.
Video capture was poorly handled. The biggest problem is the lack of optical zoom. If you set the VS20 to whichever level of zoom is appropriate to frame your subject at the start of your film, and then maintain that setting, you'll have no problem. If you want to change it during filming, you can only zoom in, not out.
Why? Because it relies on cropping and enlarging the central portion of the frame. This is done in fast, jerky steps, rather than as a smooth slide, with uncomfortable results. The fully-zoomed image is of unacceptably low quality.
There's active shake reduction to keep your framing steady but no wind noise reduction to quieten down your soundtrack. This amounts to an underwhelming video experience overall.
The Optio VS20's specs are broadly the same as those of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30 apart from two significant differences -- the price and the quality of output. The VS20 is around half the price of the TZ30. Even so, if your choice is between these two, I'd urge you to spend a little more -- and save up if necessary -- for the TZ30. Although the VS20's results were fine when viewed at full screen, zooming to 100 per cent revealed interference in some of the test results.
At times the camera was slow to respond and the lack of optical zoom when shooting video -- and the quality of movies -- limits your creativity.
If the Optio VS20 is touching the top of your budget, then consider a slightly older alternative. The positively reviewed Samsung WB700, released in the last quarter of 2011, now ships for around £140, with a 14.2-megapixel resolution and 18x zoom.