I hate to keep saying it but the parade of ultra zoom digicams continues—at least it’s marching into my house via FedEx! Recently we tested the very good Panasonic DMC-FZ18, an 18x 8-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization. Olympus recently introduced an updated ultra zoom, the SP-560 UZ, also with a whopping 18x lens and 8MP resolution with sensor-shift stabilization. What both have in common is a very wide-angle setting; it’s 27mm on the Olympus versus 28mm for the FZ18. Although the pair is very close, they are much wider than the typical 35-38mm of other mega zooms such as those from Sony and Canon. The 8MP Fujifilm FinePix S8000fd–which we’ve asked for–also has an 18x zoom with a range of 27-486mm. Hey does this sound like a trend of more wide-angle digicams? As a matter of fact it is since we’ve learned other manufacturers will unveil them at the PMA convention at the end of January. While waiting for the S8000fd it was time to test the new Olympus. Here’s what we discovered…
Features and Design
The surprisingly compact SP-560 (black only) is a very attractively designed digicam with rounded edges and a slick chrome accent that also has the holes for the camera strap connectors. It has a soft-textured surface that’ll help avoid any slippage—it is very nicely done.
The camera measures 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at 13 ounces without the required four AAs and xD Picture card. This is very close in size and weight to the FZ18 so there’s no big difference. However when you extend the zoom, the Olympus protrudes an additional inch compared to the FZ18. Personally I liked its overall looks and heft compared to the Panasonic (other than the Pinocchio-style lens).
The front is dominated by the 18x zoom which equals 27-486mm in 35mm terms. The wide angle is very appealing for portraits and landscapes (although there’s a bit of distortion) while the benefits of a built-in 486mm telephoto are pretty straightforward for anyone, especially travelers. Also on the front are a few silver and gold decals touting the lens size, model number and Olympus logo. It’s very tastefully done. Beyond aesthetics are the AF Assist lamp and three-pinhole mic.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
The top of the camera is fairly clutter-free. There’s a button to engage the image stabilizer, another for power on/off and a knurled mode dial. The shutter with surrounding wide/tele control angles down on the pistol grip that holds the batteries. It has a very comfortable feel but—as always—we urge you to do your own hands-on testing. The mode dial is pretty straight forward. There’s Auto, Program AE, aperture- and shutter-priority, full manual, movie, playback, access to 25 scene modes (with thumbnail images and brief descriptions), My Mode and Guide. With My Mode you can save up to four favorite settings (picking white balance, ISO and metering). The Guide is a smart onboard owner’s manual with answers and solutions to 15 common picture-taking questions. Say if you want a “close up photo” hit the OK key and the camera will be put into macro mode. This is a very helpful feature and, as you can see, this one leans a bit more to the point-and-shoot crowd. Still there are plenty of manual options for those who want that flexibility.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
The rear of the camera is dominated by the 2.5-inch LCD screen rated a solid 230K pixels. It held up well in direct light which is a good thing since you have to drill pretty deep into the menus to adjust the brightness. Along with the LCD, the SP-560 UZ also has an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to use when you’d like to hold the camera up to your eye. It has a diopter control to adjust the focus. Next to the EVF is a key to let you switch between the LCD and viewfinder. To the right of the screen is a four-way controller with center set button surrounded by four other keys including Display, Shadow Adjustment, Playback and Menu. Display lets you adjust how many items will clutter the screen including icons, histogram, grid lines and so on. At its cleanest you’ll only see the highlighted metering area. Shadow Adjustment is something new from Olympus and is basically backlight compensation which lightens detail in shadows. I tend to like high contrast images but it did a decent job of a subject framed by a bright window. Menu and Playback are self explanatory; Olympus onscreen menus are basic, to the point and easy to read.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
The right side has a compartment for xD Picture cards. Olympus continues to soldier on with this orphan format in its point-and-shoots while Fujifilm offers consumers multiple formats (xD and SD). We urge Olympus to do the same since the cards have less capacity and cost more than SD/SDHC. For example a 2 gig M-Type (high speed) card costs around $40 USD versus $15 for a similar capacity SD high-speed edition. In its E-series D-SLRs there are dual slots for CompactFlash and xD cards. I can’t understand why Olympus won’t be more “agnostic” in its less expensive cameras. Profits you say? Oh, right, that little thing… Note: the company recommends you use an M-Type card to access some special features including Art, Panorama and 3D. With 3D you can create three-dimensional images when using special glasses. I didn’t try this out (glasses weren’t provided) but I’d bet it’s ridiculous.
On the left side is a compartment for the optional DC-in and USB-A/V out. The bottom features a tripod mount and compartment for the four AAs and xD card slot.
The SP-560 UZ comes with a good kit (other than memory card). It
has a lens cap (with string), strap, A/V and USB cables. Since it runs on four AAs, they’re supplied as well but you should pick up a set of NiMH rechargeables if you choose this one. Olympus also supplies a Getting Started bundle with three individual 100-page manuals (English, Spanish, French) and a CD-ROM with Olympus Master 2 software that’s a more-than-decent basic editing and filing program with the ability to develop RAW files.
After popping in the AAs, a 2 gig M-Type xD card, setting the date/time as well as few basic parameters, it was time to capture some holiday spirit.
Testing and Use
After just a few minutes of shooting, the key difference between the FZ18 and the SP-560 UZ is pretty obvious; it’s much slower especially when it comes to saving files—and this was in JPEG (best compression)—not RAW. When you’re in that mode be prepared to wait—about 10 seconds—as the image is saved to the card. I’ve noticed this delay in other Olympus point-and-shoots before and it really shows what happens when companies do not beef up their processing power as they boost resolution. Bummer. Yet the company’s D-SLRs are pretty responsive.
Also Canon has nothing to worry about as the leader (in my view) of Face Detection quality. The Panasonic FZ18’s FD was O.K. and the same holds true for the SP-560 UZ. However, when you use the Olympus with the flash, shot-to-shot time drops precipitously (the FZ18 slows down as well). At least this gives you the time to ask your friends and family to regroup while you say “look at the camera.” And if you’re shooting in RAW, they can take a bathroom break before the camera is good to go again. This is an exaggeration but the SP-560 UZ is s-l-o-w (around 10 seconds for a RAW image). Olympus claims this camera captures 15 frames per second and this is true if you want a dozen 1.3 megapixel images. What a joke—but I have to give the marketing department high grades for taking lemons and turning it into lemonade.
I did my usual collection of subjects—indoors with low light, groups of people and outdoor scenes using the many manual and scene mode options available but began in straight Auto. Folks, I have to tell you I really like the incredible focal range of this camera and others of its ilk. Moving from wide angle to a very tight telephoto with one camera is very enjoyable. Definitely try this out when you visit your retailer.
Once done I made a pile of 8.5×11 prints with no tweaking in either JPEG or RAW. And the results were very underwhelming. Images taken side-by-side with the FZ18 were decidedly less crisp and did not have the “pop” of the Panasonic. That Leica lens was just better and combined with the overall processing speed put it decidedly ahead. The Shadow Adjustment feature, however, did a good job bringing out the details in a room taken in available light (no flash). Unfortunately my still life in very dim light was filled with noise but at least the camera did not grab for focus. Give this one to Panasonic as well with the Sony DSC-H3 doing an even better job. The SP-560 UZ uses two types of image stabilization (sensor shift and digital) and it worked O.K. but again the OIS of competitors is a notch ahead. On a more positive note, macro close-ups were very sharp and give you an added tool for your shooting arsenal.
The Olympus SP-560 UZ mega zoom camera has a lot of things going for it but in the end, its picture quality and performance that matter the most. My advice would be to buy the Panasonic if you’re looking for an 18x zoom since they’re similarly priced. I just wish Olympus would beef up its point-and-shoots to the level of its D-SLRs. Until then, they’ll continue to be also-rans.
• Decent photos in good light
• Dual Image Stabilization
• Runs on AAs
• Images don’t really “pop”
• Slow response compared to competition
• Too much digital noise with high ISOs