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Olympus had a go at the superzoom compact some years back, with a 10x offering, where quality took a back seat to the driver shouting, look it's 10x zoom! It was radical in the day, but actually, a load of pants. These days everyone is at it with large zooms, so here's the Olympus response, the 18x optical zoom SP-550UZ that also has a wide angle 28mm setting.
Olympus SP-550UZ Specifications
- Sensor: CCD - 7.1Mp
- Image Size: 3072x2304 pixels
- Lens: 28-504mm, f/2.8-4.5 (18x zoom)
- Focus: TTL Autofocus
- Macro mode: 1cm
- Exposure: Program AE/AP/SP/M
- Metering: ESP, Spot, CW
- Shutter speed: 4sec-1/1000sec in AP/SP. 15sec-1/2000sec in M
- ISO range: 50-1600 normal. ISO3200 and 5000 in reduced resolution
- Monitor: 2.5in. TFT LCD (230k)
- Movie Mode: Yes
- Other Features: PictBridge Support
- Storage: 20Mb internal, xD-Card
- Batteries: 4 x AA
- AC Adaptor: Optional
- Video Output: Yes
- Size/Weight: 116x78x78mm - 365g
With it's massive zoom, the SP-550UZ is up against other optical monsters like the Panasonic DMC-Z18 which also boasts 18x magnification, the Canon PowerShot S5 IS with a more modest 12x zoom but 8Mp resolution for another £50, and the Fuji FinePix 9600 which has just a 10x zoom, but offers the 28mm wide angle view, 9Mp resolution and costs £50 less.
Olympus SP-550UZ Modes and features
There's a bit of everything with the SP-550UZ, starting with a choice of program modes on the control dial, or auto, custom or scene modes. The scene modes aren't too comprehensive, though there are 23 of them, including the usual portrait and landscape modes which might get the most use. The custom option allows up to four configurations of settings which is handy. It's fairly obvious that with a monster zoom, there's going to be optical stabilisation involved, and this is included and set to be on by default. On the top of the camera is a button to toggle it on or off, which is a bit of a waste of space really.
The zoom rocker is easy to manipulate, and the zoom itself will trundle along in large steps. The option to make it use smaller steps for more accurate framing has to be set in the menu as well, but this does make the zoom slower to use. Talking of the menu system, this is still isn't the clearest system imaginable. Pressing the OK button in the middle of the joypad brings up the common shooting options like ISO and metering, so that they can be accessed quickly. Pressing the menu button brings up sub-menus for camera resolution and functionality that need to be selected before those options are presented.
Although the camera has proper program shooting modes like aperture and shutter priority and manual, it doesn't have a selection wheel to change the aperture or shutter speed with. Initially this is quite confusing as it isn't obvious how these functions are accessed. The answer is that the up arrow on the joypad is also the exposure compensation button. This activates the aperture - if in AP mode - which is used by then pressing up and down on the joypad. Pressing left and right will set the exposure compensation. Really, this is not a nice system to use, the buttons are too small and lack feedback for such an often-used and important camera function.
The viewing system is provided by either the large LCD screen or, when in bright weather it becomes impossible to see, the electronic view finder. This is activated by a switch, but is a little cumbersome to use that way. A pity then that Olympus didn't use an automatic switching function that turns the EVF when held up to the face.
The other item accessed from the joypad itself that warrants a mention is the macro option. This brings up a choice of regular macro so that the zoom can be used a little, or super macro which gets right in close to just 1cm.
Olympus SP-550UZ Build quality
There are other cameras in this kind of field that feel very lightweight and plastic. The SP-550UZ on the other hand looks very stylish, with a kind of hulking power within its lens system. There are rubber grip elements that give good handling ability, plus a gun-metal grey plastic finish that complements the plastic chrome parts and the metal chrome band that runs around the camera. It all gives an impression of quality, though it's largely plastic.
Olympus SP-550UZ Flash options
There's a decent selection of modes available include red-eye, auto, fill-flash, red eye with fill, and slow sync. Flash compensation can also be used to tinker with the power, setting it to +/-2EV. The power is rated at 4.5m on the wide angle, which is okay. Better than some, but not top of the range.
Olympus SP-550UZ Performance
Putting the camera into burst mode, it can shoot four pictures in around four seconds, but then the buffer fills up and it manages just one more in the 10 second test, giving a result of five. This isn't desperate, but for an upper-end compact it isn't great either.
Focussing is a little slack, particularly when the zoom is at the telephoto end. It can hunt about looking for things to focus on. It isn't quick either. Things are better at the wide angle end, but it's still fairly sluggardly. Packing an 18x optical zoom, giving the equivalent reach of 504mm in 35mm terms, means that optical stabilisation is a jolly good idea. In practice it isn't a safety net for casual handling, as even in bright light with the shutter speed at the top end, plenty of photos were blurred. Shooting moving objects at the end of the telephoto certainly requires as fast a shutter speed as possible, and this is where a flaw of the SP-550UZ became very obvious. In AP or SP modes, it only shoots up to 1/1000sec which really is not fast enough. There were also plenty of occasions when I was shooting with a wide aperture, and because of the sun, the shutter speed wasn't fast enough. Now, to some extent this can be dealt with because the ISO can drop down to ISO50, which requires twice as much light, so for wide aperture shots, it's the same as having a faster shutter speed. However, it's neither here nor there, when trying to use a 504mm lens to capture a moving object with just 1/1000sec shutter speed. It's possible to get sharp shots, but the majority were blurred. The shutter lag also becomes very noticeable at the end the zoom, making it even more difficult to capture moving objects with it.
Curiously, Manual mode does offer faster and longer speeds, which rather points the finger at the metering for not being that good. And true to form, in testing, I found the metering to be easily fooled, and even situations which weren't that challenging there was a tendency to over-expose.
Thankfully, the close up elements of the camera's functions did shine through. The SuperMacro mode of just 1cm is right at the top of what you can expect from a compact, and with that monster zoom on the camera, this was an unexpected bonus. The other element is that the wide angle setting is 28mm, which is far, far better for landscape shots than 35mm.
Handling is good but the omission of a selection wheel is a serious one for a camera with enthusiast aspirations. The method of changing the aperture and shutter speed is awful and would put me off using the camera on a long-term basis.
Olympus SP-550UZ Noise tests
There is excellent detail in the ISO50 shot, it really jumps out, but there are artefacts in the shadow areas which is not very good. At ISO100 the detail is still very good, but noise is clearly seen in the grey card. Up to ISO200 now and detail is good, but there's noise evident in the grey and black cards. This isn't too impressive but the pictures are still usable. At ISO400 the noise becomes multi-coloured, though it's fine rather than clumpy. At ISO800 the noise is much more striking, we're losing details and the colour of the petals changing as well. There's also a lot less detail in the central yellow area. Things then go pear shaped at ISO1600. Detail has vanished, the colour does become brighter, but the noise is now in multi-coloured blocks. The central yellow area is largely mush. This setting should be avoided. The next two settings drop the resolution down to 3Mp and serious noise reduction kicks in. The result is that ISO3200 isn't much worse than 1600 but it's hopelessly soft and mushy now. Strangely, there's less noise in ISO5000, but then that's because the picture is more like a painting than a photography, with no real detail left.
Olympus SP-550UZ Verdict
The previous UltraZoom from Olympus was something of a triumph of marketing over functionality. The image quality at the end of the zoom was dreadful. So it's nice to see that it's actually a lot better here. It isn't super sharp, but it's acceptable and means that you can zoom in from very far away to reveal small details or capture people surreptitiously. There's optical stabilisation, but it's not a panacea for your camera shake woes. You'll still need to keep it very still when shooting, and here, the 1/1000sec shutter speed in AP or SP modes does not help the cause. The handling in general is good, but this is let down by the operation, the lack of a selection wheel making AP and SP mode use tricky. The dual menu system is messy too.
Thank goodness then for the 1cm Super Macro mode and the 28mm wide angle lens as they are great features to counter the flaccid autofocus and easy-to-fool metering.
The SP-550UZ does look good, it has got some great features, but there are aspects of the performance and operation that leave something to be desired. However, if you really want to have a compact camera with an unfeasibly large zoom, then this will fit the bill.
Olympus SP-550UZ Minus points:
Autofocus not great
Max shutter speed not fast enough
Optical stabilisation doesn't prevent lots of blur
Camera control clumsy and messy
Higher ISOs reduce resolution
Metering tends to over-expose
Low ISO settings a little noisy
The Olympus SP-550UZ has a street price of around £299 and can be purchased from the ePHOTOzine shop here.