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It’s interesting that I should have this camera to review immediately after the Canon PowerShot S80, because the two cameras are very similar in many ways. They are both mid-market models designed for the keen photographer who wants SLR-like creative photographic control in a compact camera. They both use the same Sony 8-megapixels CCD, and they both have big 2.5in 115K pixel LCD monitors. Comparing the two cameras however shows how differently Canon and Olympus have approached the same design criteria.
For starters there’s the price. The SP-350 costs £309.99, less if you risk grey imports and shop around online, making it about £190 cheaper than the S80. This puts it into a price bracket mid-way between the top snapshot models such as the Mju 800 and semi-pro models like the C-7070, although it is still within the range of most keen photographers. It does offer a good specification for the price, but is it really better than a decent mid-range compact?
Like all Olympus models, the SP-350’s build quality is outstandingly good, and even though it has a plastic body it feels solid and robust. Although it is physically quite a small camera, it has a large sculpted handgrip and is comfortable and secure to hold. Pressing the small and slightly fiddly power button next to the optical viewfinder activates the camera in about 1.5 seconds, a very creditable performance. The main shooting control is the mode dial on the top panel, which offers a choice of full auto, program exposure, aperture or shutter priority and full manual, as well as 24 pre-set scene modes and four use-defined ‘My modes’.
In the three manual modes exposure settings are easily adjusted using the D-pad, which is simpler than Canon’s innovative but slightly fiddly rotating dial. The other controls are kept to a minimum, which is good for simple operation, but it does mean that every time you want to adjust something you need to delve into the menu system. It is possible to reprogram the exposure lock button with one of a range of useful options, such as ISO, drive mode, metering mode, AF mode, noise reduction level and so on, which is a useful feature. Also, exposure compensation is adjusted using the left and right arrows on the D-pad, although these are not labeled. The SP-350’s movie mode is good, capable of shooting at 640 x 480 resolution at 30 frames a second with sound.