Unlike most of its super-zoom competitors, the Z20 has a very precise zoom control, with at least 15 steps between the wide and telephoto ends of the focal length range and a progressive speed increase, so that the longer you press the button, the faster the lens moves. This makes accurate framing of shots very easy, whilst still retaining a fast transition from wide to telephoto. Other manufacturers should be taking notes here.
On the main mode dial you find program, aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual exposure, as well as scene modes for portrait, sports action, landscape, night scene and sunset. There is also an auto mode which is a cut above most others. In auto, the camera will analyse the exposure conditions and then automatically select the scene mode that will produce the best results. It really does make a difference, especially in unusual lighting conditions.
The Z20’s movie mode isn’t quite as good as the Z5’s camcorder-quality 30fps VGA mode, but it can manage 15fps at 640 x 480 pixels (VGA), or 30fps at 320 x 240, which is adequate for most purposes. Movies are recorded in high quality Motion JPEG with audio, and the camera can keep shooting until the memory card or the 14.5MB internal memory is full, which ever one is in use at the time. Too give you an idea of file sizes, a 128MB card provides enough space for a three minute, 320 x 240 recording at 30fps.
Picture quality is extremely good, with bright natural colours, lots of fine detail and very little lens distortion even at wide angle. There is a little bit of purple fringing on very high contrast edges, but it is not a major problem. Noise levels are very low at ISO 50, 100 and at 200 a smidgen is noticeable. At the maximum (ISO 320), noise is evident although it’s within acceptable limits. The camera’s exposure system copes well with unusual lighting such as scenes that are backlit and have high contrast, plus the fill-flash works well to brighten up dark foregrounds, although it can be a bit harsh on close range shots. The multi-zone AF system works well even in low light, and in continuous mode the predictive AF does a good job of tracking moving subjects, although unsurprisingly it can be confused by foreground detail. In macro mode the camera picks the correct – usually the closest – subject with a high level of accuracy, although the claimed 1cm closest focusing range is only available at wide angle.
As a budget alternative to the more powerful DiMAGE Z5, the Z20 turns in an excellent performance for the money. Handling and picture quality are all of a high standard, and although it does have some unusual design quirks, it is a nice camera to use. If you’re looking for a longer zoom range but don’t want to break the bank, the Z20 is a recommended choice.