Didn't we review this camera only two months ago? That was the question on my lips when the ill-favoured courier left this off at EPZ towers. That and, whose turn is to make the coffee? In fact, it was the Olympus SP-550UZ that was reviewed back in those sunny days of August, but since then competition has arrived and with absurd haste, Olympus has knocked this version out. Differences? The wide angle view is 27mm instead of 28mm - I'm sure you'll be able to tell - which means the telephoto end is 486mm instead of 504mm. The resolution has crept upwards to match rival cameras so it's now 8Mp, rather than 7Mp and there are a couple of other new features like Face Detection and Shadow Adjustment. And Matt, mine's a tea please.
Olympus SP-560UZ Specifications
- Sensor: CCD - 8 Million pixels
- Image Size: 3264 x 2448 Pixels
- Lens: 27-486mm f2.8-4.5 (18x zoom)
- Focus: TTL Autofocus
- Macro: 1cm
- ISO range: ISO50-3200 plus ISO6400 (reduces resolution)
- Shutter speeds: 4-1/1000sec in AP/SP, 15-1/1000sec in M
- Exposure: Program AE/AP/SP/M
- Metering: ESP, Spot, CW
- Monitor: 2.5in. TFT LCD
- Movie Mode: Yes
- Other Features: PictBridge Support
- Storage: 47Mb internal, xD Card
- Batteries: 4xAA
- AC Adaptor: Optional
- Video Output: Yes
- Size/Weight: 116x78x78mm - 365g
- Transfer: USB
The Olympus SP-560UZ sits happily on the £285 price point, forcing the SP-550UZ down by £20. Up against it there's the Panasonic DMC-Z18 with a street price of around £260-£270 and the Fuji FinePix S8000fd which sports a 27mm wide angle and an 18x zoom for £289.
Olympus SP-560UZ Modes and features
To be fair, Olympus have managed to introduce a couple of other new elements besides the slight change to the focal length. Face detection does what it says on the tin - tracks faces when shooting portraits, and Shadow Adjustment, which has been introduced on Sony cameras, is now here as well. This processes the picture to brighten shadow areas - can be handy if the portrait style isn't to your liking. One of the buttons on the back of the camera is now dedicated to just this function so there's no need to fumble through menus to get it.
The Olympus, dual-menu system is still there though. The Menu button for half the features, or pressing OK/Func in the middle of the joypad arrangement to bring up the quick menu options overlaid on the live view. One of the options accessed here is the ISO range and this now has a top end of ISO6400 rather than ISO5000 on the 550UZ, though as before, this reduces the resolution down to 3.1Mp which is still good enough for 7x5in prints.
On the top of the very stylised right side of the camera is the control dial offering the PASM program modes, a shooting guide mode, Scene modes (one more than the SP-550UZ at 24), a personal settings mode, video, Auto and Playback. Next to this is the fire button surrounded by the large zoom rocker. As the zoom extends such a long way, optical stabilising is of course a very good idea. A button next to the zoom rocker turns this on and off. This is well thought out button positioning.
On the back of the camera is the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen. Next to them is a decent empty space for your thumb, and then there's controls packed in tighter than dhows in the harbour in Shanghai. The joypad arrangement contains the usual suspects of exposure compensation, macro, flash and timer, with the OK/Function button in the middle, but rather than pressing on individual directional pads, the arrangement is surrounded by a solid ring which you press. Then, framing this lot, are four more controls, offering access to the main setup menu, quick playback, LCD display options and the Shadow Adjustment toggle.
The quick menu which overlays the live view reveals the usual choice of Olympus metering options, which tend to be reliable, white balance options. Drive modes and the ISO range which covers an impressive 50-3200 before offering the reduced resolution ISO6400 mode.
The focus system is only accessible through the main menu setup and this offers spot, area and iESP - that looks everywhere - as well as Face Detect focussing. There are options for continuous focussing and depth-tracking focussing too.
Something else to look out for is that the noise reduction system is set at On by default. This is worth leaving on as it has no real effect on the performance of the camera. There's also the usual stalwart of pixel mapping.
As far as storage goes, the camera uses the x-D Picture Card format - no sign of Olympus doing a Fuji and incorporating SD technology as well. If you find yourself stuck for a spare memory card the inclusion of extra internal memory will be welcome. This is now up to 47Mb rather than the 20Mb on the SP-550UZ. That'll give you an emergency 12 pictures in hi-res JPEG mode.
Olympus SP-560UZ Build and handling
Whether it's the rubbery finish grips, the mottled black magnesium alloy body or the dull-metal central ridging, the SP-560 looks stylish and powerful, like a coiled snake, ready to spring. Handling is good too with a deceptively deep handgrip, space for your thumb and clear buttons festooning the body. The dual menu system does mean that the often-changed settings can be rapidly accessed even if it does make some of the less-used elements harder to find. Overall, the build and handling are first rate - it's a really attractive looking, big-zoom compact.
Olympus SP-560UZ flash options
There are a few options here starting with Auto, Red Eye, force flash on, forced off, forced on with red-eye and slow synch flash. The range is around 3.16m at ISO100 in wide angle mode, which isn't great but pretty par for the course. If you want to up the ISO to 400 then you can use it up to 6.4m.
Olympus SP-560UZ Performance
Startup to shooting time is nothing out of the ordinary at 3secs, but as this is dealing with a big zoom lens, it's acceptable. The shutter lag is quite respectable at around 0.06secs in our test. There are a couple of extra burst mode options that reduce the resolution down to 3Mp again, just like the hi-ISO mode, but in standard burst mode with high quality JPEGs the SP-560UZ managed to record 12 images. That's not bad, it lifts it well clear of the usual compact brigade and compares very favourably with the Panasonic FZ-18 which could only manage a dismal four images. There's also a super-burst mode that offers a fabulous 15fps... but as this reduces the resolution to 1280x960, it's more like a choppy video mode than photography. The actual video mode offers 640x480 shooting at a standard 30fps.
As for the focussing systems, in general they are quite tenacious, if not particularly quick. The Face Focussing though is a little hit and miss and pretty much needs someone to be stood facing you, in which case it's hardly needed anyway. Even then it confused Matt's face with that of a plant. To be fair, it's an easy mistake to make.
The LCD screen gives a nice clear display and adding the live histogram is handy. The EVF is also useful for bright days, but both the displays blur slightly if panning the camera from side to side.
If you want bright and punchy colours you've certainly come to the right place. Blues are very bright, red is lively, while green is neutral.
Camera control is good and largely intuitive, except for the double menu system. That said, it means that the very useful ISO range is east to access on a quick menu, and other interesting elements like the optical stabilisation and the shadow equalisation are available on buttons on the camera.
Also have to make a final mention here for the macro mode which, at 1cm, allows focussing from such a close range that the lens starts to cast a shadow over the subject.
The colour chart shows very bright blue colours that then dominate any secondary mixes. The red primary and shades are light and greens are neutral.
Standard AP mode gives a good result with healthy skin tones, though there is some variation in the shadows and the image is bitty on close inspection.
Scene mode shot from the previous evening shows the AWB tinting the scene blue. The face textures aren't any smoother though.
Slow synch flash mode has rather blasted the picture and produced shiny reflections but at least the background is white.
In dismal conditions the iESP metering has exposed for the ground, losing the sky. There is noise in the water, fringing on the white stanchions and not a lot of detail. Shot in AP mode at f/8.
Landscape Scene mode uses the same exposure, though picked a wider aperture. It's slightly sharper which can be seen in the background, but still has noise and purple fringing.
What you want to see is the zoom in action so here's the 27mm wide angle view.
One 18x zoom later and you can see that there's work going on in the bell tower - see the ladder.
A couple of macro shots now. With 1cm focussing you can get very close to the subject as seen here.
This macro shot of a fungus is from further away, using -0.3EV to hold the detail in the white cone.
Olympus SP-560UZ Noise tests
The standard mode for this camera to run is is NR, for noise reduction, by default. The test shots below we all done in this mode. I also shot them with NR turned off which gave an interesting result. Aside from the black card, the noise was more apparent in the NR test shots, because the images had been sharpened and had more contrast. The non-NR shots had slightly less apparent noise, but the colours were flat and the image softer.
First up then, ISO50 which has superb clarity, you can really see the detail. However, there's still a little noise in the grey card area. At ISO100 it's a little more noticeable and variations can be seen in the black card as well. At ISO200 green and purple noise is now evident in the grey card, but the flower still shows great detail and clarity. Up to ISO400 the noise is worse in the black area, but also the petals of the flower are lighter and certainly softer. At ISO800 the grey card is looking a little mushy, but it isn't bad. There's a little purple in the grey card but the central yellow area now has black spots and the red petals are light and lacking in detail. At ISO1600 the petals have lost detail and sharpness, and the entire image now has sharp points and areas of dark blue/black noise. There's no detail in the middle. ISO3200 is where the boat gets pushed out too far and sinks under the weight of its own ambitions. There is purple and green banding, the red petals are darker but lack detail and shape. This isn't usable in colour but would suit some subjects for black and white. The 3Mp resolution ISO6400 picture is something completely different. It's like a cloth has been wiped across the image, smearing it.
The ISO50 test.
The ISO100 test.
The ISO200 test.
The ISO400 test.
The ISO800 test.
The ISO1600 test.
The ISO3200 test.
The ISO6400 test.
Olympus SP-560UZ Verdict
With such a short space of time between the 550UZ and the 560UZ there's was a nagging worry that the differences would be so small as to not worth noting, but fortunately, there are. The slightly wider lens won't give you a fresh perspective on landscape photography if you owned the 550UZ, but that doesn't stop it from being very worthwhile in its own right. At the other end of the focal length, the zoom will get you places you never imagined, and all without leaving the car. Well, alright, you might have to get out now and again, but an 18x optical zoom is a big weapon and the clarity at the end of it is decent. The standard burst rate is pretty good, without having to recourse to the lo-res mode that offers 15fps.
One of the selling points of the camera has to be the fantastic ISO range, running from ISO50 to ISO3200 without dropping the resolution, and then the rather pointless ISO6400 at 3Mp, which is a mess. While there is noise at every setting, it is kept under control all the way through, with even ISO1600 being usable in colour, as long as it isn't printed at A4.
The extra 1Mp resolution takes it up to 8Mp like its rivals, but the extra is welcome here. There is a slight limitation in the fastest shutter speed being 1/1000sec in AP mode, but unlike the Panasonic Z18 which had the same problem, at least the Olympus can use an ISO50 mode which requires double the light that ISO100 would use.
All these things said, it's the zoom range that will sell the camera. The lens performs well, it's very handy to have a 27mm wide angle view with it, and all the other features, plus the nice build quality and attractive design, make this a cracking little camera with a very big zoom.
Olympus SP-560UZ Plus points:
18x optical zoom!
27mm wide angle
Great ISO range
1cm Super macro mode
Olympus SP-560UZ Minus points:
ISO6400 reduces resolution
ISO3200 quite messy
Noise is present early on
15fps burst mode only 1.2Mp
The Olympus SP-560UZ costs £285 and is available from the ePHOTOzine shop here.