- Review Price: £320.00
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything from Olympus other than several fantastic E-system digital SLRs and several more slightly disappointing mju and FE compacts, so it’s refreshing to see the company return to a style of camera it practically invented, the semi-professional compact ultra-zoom.
From around 2002 to 2004 Olympus had a whole string of successful UZ models featuring high quality 8x and 10x zoom lenses, but this was in the days before image stabilization, so naturally camera shake was a major drawback for all of these models. These days the company seems to restrict itself to just one UZ model a year, and in January it announced the launch of the 7.1-megapixel, 18x zoom SP-550UZ, the latest in this line.
The SP-550UZ has only just appeared in the shops with a suggested retail price of £375, but already it is available from some online retailers for as little as £299. There aren’t many cameras that compete with the 550UZ directly, but perhaps the closest matches are the 6-megapixel 12x zoom Canon S3 IS at £269, the 7-megapixel 12x zoom Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 at £250 or the 6-megapixel 10x zoom Fuji FinePix S6500fd at around £220.
Just one look at the 550UZ and you can see that Olympus has decided to take the UZ series in a whole new direction. The camera bears little resemblance to its predecessor the SP-510UZ or any of the previous models. Instead it looks a little like a miniature DSLR, although with a style that is completely new and – at least in my opinion – very attractive.
The camera body is made of high-strength plastic finished in a shiny metallic grey, but with metal details including a chrome strip that runs vertically around the seam of the body and incorporates the strap lugs. Virtually the whole of the front half of the camera is covered in a high-friction textured rubber coating, including a ring around the lens barrel. The same material is applied to a large thumb-grip area on the back of the camera, and combined with the well-designed ergonomic handgrip it makes the camera extremely secure and comfortable to hold. It also protects the camera from knocks and scratches, and looks pretty darned cool at the same time.
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.
In terms of general performance, the 550UZ acquits itself reasonably well. It starts up in a fraction over three seconds, which isn’t bad considering the size of that zoom lens, and takes nearly as long to shut down again. The AF system is a little on the slow side, and takes over a second to lock on even in good light, but fortunately it doesn’t get much slower at long zoom settings. It is a little slower in very low light, but thanks to a good powerful AF assist lamp it will focus in the dark at a range of several metres.
Shot-to-shot times are reasonable, although I’ve seen a lot better. In the highest quality setting (SHQ) with file sizes of around 3.6MB it can shoot three frames in 4.5 seconds, but then has to pause to write to the memory card. In the slightly lower quality HQ mode, which produces files of around 1.1MB, it can shoot at one frame every 1.5 seconds until the card is full. The video mode is also competent, shooting at 640×480 and 30fps with mono audio. The zoom lens can be used when shooting video, although only if silent mode (no recorded soundtrack) is selected.
Since the 550UZ runs on four AA batteries their duration will obviously depend on the type and brand that are used, but I took well over 200 shots on the set of standard Panasonic alkaline cells that were supplied with the camera and the battery level indicator was still reading full. Considering the amount of glass the focusing and zoom motors have to move around that’s quite a respectable performance.
Finally we come to image quality, and here I will admit to being slightly disappointed, although given the camera’s impressive specification perhaps I was expecting too much. For some reason Olympus has decided to give the 550UZ a tiny 1/2.5in sensor, and I can’t help but think that this was a wasted opportunity. A larger 1/1.8in sensor might have given it better colour depth and dynamic range, and probably better noise control as well. As it stands however, at 50 and 100 ISO quality is very good, with excellent sharpness and detail, but at 400 and over there is colour speckling and image noise plainly visible in all shots. 3200 and 5000 ISO are only available in HQ quality mode, which is selected automatically when these ISO settings are chosen, but the noise reduction system is very heavy-handed, and shots at these speeds lack fine detail, although they have less colour noise than ISO 1600 shots.
The exposure system, as is usually the case with Olympus cameras, performs extremely well, and high contrast shots seldom lose both highlight and shadow detail, although it’s sometimes a close thing.
The lens performs reasonably well, with good corner sharpness at all focal lengths, but at the widest setting it does produce very noticeable barrel distortion, while the longest telephoto setting has the opposite problem, pincushion distortion that makes the horizon curve upwards at the edges of the frame. There was also visible chromatic aberration at both ends of the zoom range, as well as the dreaded purple fringes around high-contrast highlights.
The massive zoom range and impressive image stabilisation make the SP-550UZ a camera with unique capabilities, and at low ISO settings the image quality is very good. Handling, build quality, style and low-light performance are also highlights. The range of manual options and RAW mode will appeal to experienced users, while the beginner-friendly Guide mode is a boon for those keen to learn. However slow focusing and shot-to-shot times, high-ISO image noise and lens distortion at both ends of the zoom range are serious handicaps.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size image at the minimum ISO setting has been reduced for bandwidth purposes to let you see the full image, and a series of crops taken from original full resolution images at a range of ISO settings have been placed below it in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality.”
At the minimum 50 ISO the image is sharp and clear.
Still good at 100 ISO
Up another stop to 200 ISO, and already there is a trace of image noise visible as speckles of red and green in the blue area.
At 400 ISO the image is now quite noisy, enough to show up on even a small print.
At 800 ISO the image is now badly affected by noise.
At 1600 ISO the image is so bad it is now completely unsuable.
For 3200 ISO the camera automatically selects a lower quality setting, which seems to help reduce the noise, but the loss of quality is drastic.
The very high maximum ISO setting of 5000 is really unusable except under extreme circumstances.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size image has been reduced for bandwidth purposes, and a crop taken from the original full resolution image has been placed below it in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality.
Full-sized versions of some of the following images can be downloaded in a new window by clicking on the sample shots as indicated. However be aware that the average file size is around 3MB, so those on very slow connections will experience some delay.”
The SP-550UZ has a wide angle end equivalent to 28mm, which is great for panoramic shots, but the horizon is badly warped by barrel distortion.
This 100 percent crop from the bottom left of the previous image shows some chromatic aberration, the red and green fringes visible around the white tarp.
This is the tiny distant boat from the top right of the wide-angle image, shot from the same position at the maximum zoom setting, equivalent to 504mm. Amazingly this shot was taken hand-held at 1/20th of a second.
This is a 100 percent crop from the previous image, so you can see how sharp it really is.
The same shot, but this time taken using a tripod and a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. It’s a bit sharper, but not by much.
”This page consists of resized images so that you can evaluate the overall exposure.”
The tiny sensor doesn’t give much dynamic range, but the exposure system makes the best of it.
The colour rendition is good, although the overcast day makes it look a bit washed out.
The big zoom lens really helps to blur out the background.
Score in detail
Image Quality 7
|Camera type||Super Zoom|
|Megapixels (Megapixel)||7.1 Megapixel|
|Optical Zoom (Times)||18x|
|LCD Monitor||2.5 in|
|Flash modes||Auto Flash, Red-eye Reduction, Flash OFF|
|Video (max res/format)||640 x 480|
|Memory card slot||xD-Picture Card|