Pentax RZ18 digital camera review

Compact camera with 18x optical zoom
Photo of Pentax RZ18 digital camera
£200

Compact digital cameras offering D-SLR performance are all the rage – but they come with high price tags. Pentax has here gone the other way; the RZ18 features a bigger body than most of its rivals, but boasts an optical zoom that reaches a stunning 18x. With added GPS, is this the ultimate travel-zoom camera?

At just 109x61x36mm the RZ18 is far smaller than super-zoom cameras of just a few years ago, but build quality is questionable. Our white sample (black or metallic orange are also available) felt flimsy in the hand, and certainly wouldn’t survive a drop. Nor is there a weighty feel or grip-friendly finish that aids steady photos.

Maybe we’ve reviewed too many ‘travel’ cameras lately that do, admittedly, come with a higher price tag in return for their ruggedness and drop-ability, but shouldn’t a super-zoom camera destined for backpacks rather than shirt pockets be made of tougher stuff?

Pentax RZ18 digital camera side

That said, a lightweight (170g) body with 18x zoom (equivalent to 25-450mm) is not to be sniffed at, when the equivalent zoom on an SLR would take up every last inch of space in a backpack. Its dual shake reduction, based around CCD shift shake reduction and pixel tracking to reduce blur, are musts on a camera with such a big zoom.

In use the RZ18 works well at all stages of zoom, even at its maximum in artificial indoor light. We also like the wide-angle lens; it gives the panoramic capture setting (which neatly pins together three photographs) some good support.

Too many megapixels?
The quest for the highest megapixel count possible continues unabated, despite the fact that around six megapixels is all you need to print a photo at A4 size. The RZ18 has an overblown 16 megapixels, despite the lack of aperture and shutter priority settings that will preclude taking truly high-quality large photos.

Menus are relatively straightforward for controlling the flash, self-timer and a range of picture mode options – but for anything more technical, such as white balance, it’s not nearly as simple – and so, arguably, pointless. There are other limitations, including a maximum shutter speed of four seconds, omission of RAW format (thus restricting post-shoot editing), and a 720p 1280×720 pixels) limit to the RZ18′s hi-def video abilities.

The Pentax also films in the Motion JPEG format, which requires less processing power but only records mono audio – though the real annoyance is the fact that the optical zoom rocker doesn’t work while filming; it’s necessary to set before shooting, which is a real shame.

Pentax RZ18 digital camera rear

Pet hates
Auto Picture mode, which automatically selects the most appropriate shooting mode by assessing the light on and around the subject, is so simple an animal could operate it. Ironic, really, because the RZ18 wants pets the other side of the lens: its boasts ‘pet face recognition’ for up to three animals. This means that while shooting, ‘registered’ pets are given priority over unknown beasts, and will be in sharp focus even in a crowded group.

In our initial test it worked well on a basic level, automatically storing a cat’s face in its memory, and later automatically taking a picture the moment the cat looked at the camera (particularly insolent cats can slow this process right down).

The system is hit-and-miss, though – at one point the cat starred at the RZ18 for over ten seconds, but no picture was taken. Later when he threw it a glance, his face at last triggered an automatic shot that, of course, came out horribly blurred. It’s a bit of a strange approach to only photograph when the recognised subject moves; a completely still animal is surely the first rule of animal portrait photography.

We didn’t test the selective pet focus feature; adding strange animals to the cat’s living space seemed cruel, though we can see this feature might be of use at Crufts or chimpanzee tea parties.

Human face detection claims to be able to detect and optimise exposure for up to 32 faces, but in practice it can also struggle with just one – especially in low light. Smile detection is better; it delays the shutter until the perfect smile is achieved, and can be quickly deactivated if your subjects are particularly sullen.

Image quality
In low light conditions. it can be tricky to follow what’s going on using the 3in LCD screen, but pictures taken in such conditions are surprisingly clean.

Auto picture mode works well for the most part (though in one test it chose the night setting while inside a brightly-lit house and consequently used too slow a shutter speed), as does the focus, which helped us produce a range of noise-free images high on detail and featuring vivid colours.

Impressively, that applies to snaps using the zoom even at its full extent, with macro mode also dependable. That said, the results are always better in bright outdoor conditions. The same goes for video, which features considerably paler colours in poor light, while the highest quality 720p, 30 fps mode will be limiting for some.

Company: Pentax

Website: http://www.pentax.co.uk/

Contact: Pentax on 01782 753 330

Positives
  • 18x super-zoom; versatility; good performance in low light; high detail.
Negative
  • Pet face detection is flawed; no aperture or shutter priority settings; poor build quality.

Verdict

Overall, Pentax has come up with a good-sized point and shoot with superb super-zoom capabilities is a versatile all-rounder. The build quality, video recording and features are basic, but its core performance in both low light and with detail in general makes the RZ18 a great choice for undemanding users.