The main feature of the 550UZ is of course its massive 18x wide-zoom lens, with a focal length range equivalent to 28-504mm, a wider range than any other digital camera currently available, and one of the few super-zoom cameras to have a real wide-angle setting. Thankfully the lens is image-stabilized with both a moving-CCD mechanical anti-shake system and automatically selected higher ISO settings at longer focal lengths. It is possible to manually set the ISO so that it doesn’t increase when using long focal lengths, but even so the image stabilisation system works amazingly well. As you’ll see from the sample photos at the end of this review, I was able to take acceptably sharp hand-held shots at the maximum telephoto setting with a shutter speed as low as 1/20th of a second, over four stops below the recommended speed for that focal length, which is a remarkable performance by any standard.
The other stand-out feature is its maximum sensitivity of 5000 ISO, which as far as I know is the highest of any current non-SLR camera (The £3,300 Canon EOS-1D Mark III can mange 6400). I’ll come back to high-ISO noise reduction later.
As well as these impressive abilities, the 550UZ has plenty of other features too. It has a full range of optional manual exposure controls, and manual focusing too, with a magnified centre section in the monitor or viewfinder display to help with this. It has an aperture range of f/2.8 to f/8.0, which isn’t bad for such a big zoom lens, and a range of shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/200th, plus up to eight minutes on the ‘B’ setting. Photography enthusiasts will be happy to hear that it can also shoot in RAW mode. Saturation, contrast and sharpness are manually adjustable.
Despite these semi-pro credentials the SP-550UZ also caters for casual snappers and those who want to learn about photography, the former with 23 easy-to-use scene modes, and the latter with a particularly neat ‘Guide’ mode. This setting presents you with a menu of things you might want to do, such as shooting into backlight, shooting at night, blurring the background etc., tells you how to do this, and then sets the camera up for you to take the shot, including adjusting exposure compensation, zoom setting, flash mode, etc. It’s nearly as easy to use as a program scene mode, but also explains what it’s doing and why.
There are some interesting features in playback mode as well, including post-shot red-eye removal, some frames and text greetings that can be added to pictures, and even calendar templates. Shots can also be rotated, cropped and resized.