Most compact digital cameras are depressingly identikit, so our spirits lift when a manufacturer attempts a different approach. But is the 16 megapixel Pentax Optio VS20 trading on gimmicks?
In a first of its kind for a compact camera, it offers two shutter release buttons, zoom levers and tripod attachment screws. One set is on the top and bottom plates – as normal – while the second set is on the left and right flanks.
The theory is that the essential controls are readily to hand, whether shooting with the camera held vertically or horizontally.
Less eccentric is the fact that the camera packs in a 20x optical zoom – thereby propelling the Pentax Optio VS20 into the ever-burgeoning travel zoom category – even if the body that surrounds it is thicker in depth than most competing models with as big a lens.
Supported by sensor-shift anti-shake, this provides a very useful focal range equivalent to a wide-angle 28mm to 560mm in 35mm terms.
We’re also offered a macro mode that can achieve sharp results as close as 1cm – again helpful in broadening the camera’s application – plus 1280 x 720 pixels HD video.
Both stills and movies are framed via the anti-reflective 3-inch, 460k dot resolution back screen.
Of course all this needs setting in context, and that context is a snapshot camera priced at a very reasonable £199.99 in the UK, or $249.95 in the US.
This puts it in direct competition with the Olympus SZ-14 boasting 14MP and a 24x optical zoom.
Build quality and handling
The Pentax Optio VS20’s build is the usual plastic and metal mix, with a gentle curve to one side of the faceplate providing a sort of grip, and a rubber patch that curves around the camera’s opposite edge providing another.
While the black finish to the faceplate of our review sample lends it a cool sophistication, the grey plastic at the rear more obviously suggests a budget model.
Likewise the pared-back control layout; we get a dedicated video record button, separate playback button, familiar four-direction control pad for tabbing through shooting icons and menu settings with a central ‘OK’ button for effecting changes, plus a menu and dual-use delete/easy mode buttons.
A press of the latter enlarges the screen icons, for example.
But let’s turn our attention to taking a photo. On a pro-level DSLR, a doubling up of key controls makes sense because of the bulk, especially when adding a battery grip at the base of an already chunky body.
Having a second shutter release button on a DSLR prevents an awkward stretch for your digits when turning the camera on its side to shoot in portrait fashion.
But on an auto-everything pocket snapshot camera such as the Pentax Optio VS20, two sets of controls come across as funny rather than a functional necessity.
The controls at the side are unnecessary on a camera of this size, and indeed when we did try to use the camera up-ended, forefinger pressed against the secondary shutter release, we found our little finger waggling around in the way of the lens, because there’s no vertical grip.
A press of the top plate power switch and the Pentax Optio VS20 readies itself for the first shot or video in just over two seconds, lens shooting out from flush to the body with a mechanical buzz, while the rear LCD blinks into life to compose the shot.
A half-press of the shutter release button results in focus and exposure noticeably adjusting, making the photographer almost blind for a second before the view clears and snaps back into focus.
Squeeze down fully to take the shot and with little in the way of shutter delay, there’s a wait of four seconds while a 16MP JPEG is committed to memory – the screen briefly displaying the captured still before going blank and then refreshing itself.
While the VS20 is capable of recording a lot of detail at its lowest sensitivity settings, the results at its highest settings are terrible. At ISO 3200 or above, resolution automatically drops to 5MP, providing a result that resembles a softened image crop.
What was most annoying on our review sample, though, was that auto white balance was a tad unreliable, introducing some odd colour casts.
With Landscape mode chosen and a green foreground taking up two thirds of the frame, for example, the blue sky behind was given a green tint, providing a result that looked like a processing mistake.
Using the Miniature mode also delivers results in which so much of the image is blurred, it looks like a fault rather than a filter. And when shooting at the telephoto end of the zoom, the camera sometimes struggles to decide what it was supposed to be focusing on.
More positively, the self-stitching Panorama mode can produce respectable results after a few dry runs, and the pencil sketch option has better contrast and better definition than the identical mode on Olympus snapshot cameras.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Pentax Optio VS20, we’ve shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart’s central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100, the Pentax VS20 is capable of resolving up to around 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
See here for a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 14 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: n/a (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: n/a (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG Signal to Noise Ratio
JPEG images from the Pentax VS20 that lag behind the Canon IXUS 220 HS, Fujifilm F600 and Canon PowerShot A4000 for signal to noise ratio (SNR). Although the charts shows better SNRabove a sensitivity of ISO 1600, this result is due to the smoothing of detail and lack of quality in the images taken a ISO 1600, 3200 and 6400.
JPEG dynamic range
This chart shows that the Pentax has a lower dynamic range than Canon IXUS 220HS, Fujifilm F600 and Canon PowerShot A4000. At a sensitivity of ISO 800 the chart does show a jump in dynamic range just beating the Fujifilm F600, however from ISO 200 the VS20 could easily loose tonal graduation in both the shadows and highlights.
When the light is in your favour, it is possible to achieve some razor sharp results handheld with the Pentax Optio VS20, as this telephoto shot shows.
Using the landscape mode option is supposed to boost greens and blues, but here it has delivered a rather unnatural-looking end result, with distinctly turquoise skies and burnt-out cloud detail.
For landscape and travel photography fans, the Pentax Optio VS20 offers the advantage of a Panoramic mode that takes three shots as you pan, automatically lining up the next and firing the shutter, then stitching them together. There are occasionally jagged joins, but here’s one of our better attempts.
Another shot revealing the camera at its best when using the maximum 560mm equivalent telephoto setting and attempting to shoot handheld.
And here’s the same scene from the same vantage point, but at the extreme wide-angle 28mm equivalent setting.
The Pentax Optio VS20 offers various digital effects filters. Here’s one of our better attempts at using the Sketch mode, which mimics an artistic pencil drawing, rendering the shot in black and white but retaining the shape-defining outlines.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
Despite looking enticingly flashy in the press shots with its broader than average zoom lens extended, when placed before you the Pentax Optio VS20 is a bit of a lump compared with travel zooms costing a little more, such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 and other Panasonic TZ series cameras.
Odd white balance issues and occasionally struggling focus are perhaps more serious, since they lead to a hit and miss performance that lessens the camera’s reliability.
The broad zoom range on offer here is always going to come in handy, enabling a wide range of framing options without the photographer having to step forward or back. Given this the pricing also seems very fair, since it’s no costlier than your basic 5x zoom compact.
The Pentax Optio VS20’s picture performance is hit and miss, with occasional white balance issues, an inability to determine what it should be focusing on, and familiar compact camera bugbears including burnt out highlight detail and purple pixel fringing between areas of high contrast.
With this sort of model, you really do just want to point and shoot and come away with usable results most (if not all) of the time. And in that respect the Olympus SZ-14 – costing £199/$305 – is a better bet, if not perfect.
The Pentax Optio VS20’s unique selling point of the twin sets of controls and tripod thread also for us fell rather flat. A pity, since on the face of it and in return for that extended zoom reach the Pentax Optio VS20 suggests very good value indeed.