An 18x zoom lens, 16 megapixel resolution, a full price of £199.99/AU$299/US$299.95 and a street price of around £100/AU$150/US$120? It’s certainly a headline that demands your attention. After all, anyone in the market for a take-anywhere pocket compact camera is looking for a combination of the biggest zoom and best resolution.
And to be able to offer that (on paper) for such a low price, well, Pentax has all the makings of a high-volume seller in the Optio RZ18. But more importantly, what else is onboard the Pentax Optio RZ18 at this price?
The Pentax Optio RZ18 isn’t heavy on those clever features that you might only use occasionally. But what it does offer is some of the key necessities in a take-anywhere compact camera. Chief among its specifications is its wide-angle 18x zoom lens with an equivalent focal length of 25-450mm.
The aforementioned 16 megapixel sensor is another of its key selling points, helping it stand out among other cameras in this class, as is its 3-inch, 460,000-dot LCD screen.
Also onboard the Pentax Optio RZ18 is a Dual Shake Reduction system, a dynamic range setting for high-contrast scenes and a range of artistic filters for achieving toy camera and miniature effects, sepia tones, high-contrast monochrome and more.
As you’d expect, it also has a range of scene modes for just about every situation.
HD video recording is limited to 720p, however, which lags behind some of its competitors, and it should be noted that you don’t have access to the 18x zoom while filming video.
Build and handling
The Pentax Optio RZ18 has a very minimalist design, which often is a nicer way of saying a camera lacks many direct controls, but for a camera like this there are only so many that you need.
The Pentax Optio RZ18 is housed in a plastic body, and yes it has that familiar hollow plastic sound when you tap it, but don’t let that put you off. The camera actually looks rather stylish in a retro sort of way, and its construction feels solid. It may be plastic, but the camera still feels robust.
Unlike other travel zooms, the Pentax Optio RZ18 has no raised grips on the body design. Instead it offers a large textured area on the front and a small textured thumb grip on the back. While not inspiring to see coming out of the box, these work surprisingly well to hold the camera securely in your hand.
On the back, underneath the thumb grip are playback and Face Detection buttons. Beneath these is a four-way controller, which offers direct controls for setting (in clockwise order) the drive mode, macro mode, the overall Mode button and the flash.
The Mode button brings you directly to a menu where you can choose from 24 scene modes, ranging from Auto Picture to Landscape, Portraits, Panorama, Flower, Sky Saturation, Movie and more.
On top of the camera are the power and shutter buttons, and the standard toggle for zooming in and out of a scene.
While the Pentax Optio RZ18’s menu and direct controls are decidedly limited, they are extremely simple and quick to use. And for this type of camera in this price range, you aren’t looking for complexity.
So on this level the Pentax Optio RZ18 succeeds. We were able to shoot and adapt our settings with ease and speed and never missed a potential shot due to scrolling through complex menu systems.
Starting up the Pentax Optio RZ18, the camera is ready to shoot nearly instantly, and because of the simple button layout it was very easy to pull the Pentax Optio RZ18 out of your pocket when something cool was happening, turn it on and turn on the Dynamic Range settings – or whatever you needed to set – and still get the shot.
That said, there were a couple of seconds of lag in between taking your shot and being able to take another, during which the LCD display reminds you there’s ‘Data being recorded’ when you try to press the shutter button.
The Pentax Optio RZ18’s AF system offers six options: AF Standard, Macro, Super Macro, Pan Focus, Infinity and Manual Focus.
The AF Standard option is what you’ll use the vast majority of the time, and we found no real issues with its ability to pick out the most important parts of a scene. Testing it in minimal to cluttered backgrounds, it performs admirably.
In fact, every AF mode performed capably, save for the Manual Focus option, which proved a bit cumbersome to use.
When setting the Manual option, a rectangle appears in the centre of the LCD, with a slider to its right. Using the four-way controller, move the slider up or down until your subject is in focus. It’s simple in theory, but movements of the slider are so minute it feels like you are clicking forever.
The Pentax Optio RZ18 has a sensitivity range going from ISO 80 to ISO 6400, and quite handily you can set the Auto ISO range to be limited from 80-100 and in increments of up to 80-1600 to keep noise to a minimum.
This is a nice option, but the problem is, noise and smudging are present even at lower sensitivities.
We noticed some luminance noise and smudging of colours even at some of the lowest sensitivities, and as you move up the scale the problem was compounded.
Noise and mottling of colours begin creeping into images as low as ISO 200, getting worse as you move up the scale.
Now, for sharing photos online and making prints for your photo album, this isn’t a problem. You won’t notice it. But viewing images at 100% that were taken at ISO 400, you’ll see smudging of colours and luminance noise.
That said, for a camera that showed so much noise, even at lower sensitivities, we were surprised by its excellent dynamic range abilities. The Pentax Optio RZ18 features a Dynamic Range setting that enables you to choose one or both of highlight and shadow correction, but even without enabling this function the Pentax Optio RZ18 captures a reasonable amount of detail in high-contrast scenes.
Choosing the Shadow Correction and Highlight Correction enables you to capture a surprising amount of extra detail, as you can see in our example.
For instance, we shot this canal path underneath an overpass, and with the Shadow Correction enabled we were able to capture graffiti on the wall as well as a reasonable exposure on the highlights in the light at the end of the tunnel.
To complement its 18x zoom, the Pentax Optio RZ18 employs CCD-Shift Shake and Dual Shake Reduction systems to help you achieve sharper images when shooting at the telephoto end of the focal range.
Under the CCD-Shift option, the camera applies an equivalent of 2.5 stops of compensation to your image, while the Dual Shake Reduction system boosts the Pentax Optio RZ18’s sensitivity up to ISO 6400 (but reducing the resolution to 5 megapixels).
These options do produce a noticeable difference in sharpness, at the expense of a little noise. For the most part, the Pentax Optio RZ18 captured accurate colours, but only with some help from the camera’s exposure compensation function.
The Pentax Optio RZ18’s exposure compensation range is +2 EV to -2EV in 1/3 stops, and we found we had to generally underexpose by a third – and sometimes two-thirds – of a stop in order to get colours that looked strong and accurate.
Shooting at the base exposure in bright, blue conditions, we repeatedly capture a cyan sky, and in cloudy conditions other strong colours also appear washed out.
The camera’s metering system seems perhaps a little biased towards shadow detail at the expense of some of the lighter tones within a scene.
That said, the Pentax Optio RZ18 has a wide range of fun art filters and scene modes that capably compensate for any colour, tone or effect you want to emphasise.
Finally, the Pentax Optio RZ18 records 720p HD video, which is adequate, and matches that provided by most other cameras in this class. Videos are crisp and clear, and our only gripe is that the zoom is locked during recording.
Presumably this is to cut down on noise in your videos, but if you’re purchasing a camera in this class for holidays and days out, are you as concerned about a little noise as you are about being able to have that extra flexibility?
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Pentax Optio RZ18, 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 80 the Pentax Optio RZ18 is capable of resolving up to around 24 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 80, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 100, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: xx (Click here to see the full resolution image)
The image above, zoomed in to 100%.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 80 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
The Pentax Optio RZ18 has some obvious faults, but it also offers some impressive specifications at this low price point. And then there’s that 18x zoom. We were genuinely impressed to find that high level of versatility in such a slim package.
But unfortunately the 18x zoom and low price tag are about all the Pentax Optio RZ18 has going for it.
The versatility of the 18x zoom lens is to be applauded, and the Dual Shake Reduction system aids shooting at the telephoto end.
The 3-inch LCD screen is big and bright, making composition and selecting settings easy. Sensible button layout helps with this, and the Dynamic Range setting really did make a noticeable and pleasing difference to images.
Strong colours, noise-free images at lower sensitivities and adequate processing speeds are fundamental needs in a camera, and the Pentax Optio RZ18 fails – or at best, stumbles – in providing these.
Not having access to the 18x zoom while recording videos is a little frustrating, plus the camera is slow to process, and there is noise and smearing of detail at lower ISO settings. We struggled to capture strong colours in bright conditions, too.
The camera does have some useful and effective features, such as the Dual Shake Reduction system and Dynamic Range setting, and the range of creative art filters and scene mode do produce strong effects.
But for all the little things it does well, the Pentax Optio RZ18 lags behind in the fundamentals compared to some of the other cameras in its class, such as the Samsung WB700 – another 18x superzoom that even offers manual control.
Ultimately, whether you should buy the Pentax Optio RZ18 comes down to one question: is fine detail important to you? Are you OK with images that appear smudged and smeared under closer scrutiny?
For many people this isn’t a problem. For many, a Facebook photo album is enough. And if this is the case, the Pentax Optio RZ18 offers all you need at the best price currently on the market.
But if your ambitions lie beyond an online photo gallery, you might want to consider some of the Pentax Optio RZ18’s rivals, such as the aforementioned Samsung WB700.
By Jeff Meyer, TechRadar