We’ve all heard the jokes and seen the cute ads about how bigger is better. Since this is a decidedly G-rated site, our discussion of the biggest one out there has to do with mega-zoom digital cameras. In this case it’s the 7.1-megapixel Olympus SP-550UZ, a compact point-and-shoot digicam with an 18x optical zoom that’s equivalent to a very wide 28mm to a whopping 504mm in 35mm terms. No other model comes close to this; the very popular 6MP Canon PowerShot S3 IS and Sony CyberShot DSC-H2/H5 have 12x zooms with typical ranges of 36-432mm. For the record, Sony just announced updates to its H series, the DSC-H7 and –H9 which will have 15x optical zooms and 8MP resolution (they’re due in April for $400 and $80, respectively). Still the Olympus is the proverbial king of the hill when it comes to mega zooms and we were anxious to try it out.
Features and Design
When powered down, the Olympus SP-550UZ is a squat, bulky looking camera, with an appearance very similar to competing Canon and Sony models. You definitely will not slip this one into your jeans pocket; it’s meant to be worn around the neck like a D-SLR. Unlike that type of camera, the SP-550UZ does not have interchangeable lenses—you’re “stuck” with the f2.8-4.5 28-504mm lens, a focal that’ll satisfy the vast majority of shooters. We’re big fans of wide angle lenses and this camera delivers with a true wide angle of 28mm that lets you take impressive landscapes and portraits.
The camera tips the scales at 16.6 ounces including four AA batteries (supplied), xD Picture Card, strap and lens cap; it measures 4.57 x 3.09 x 3.07 (WHD, in inches). The front is dominated by the lens and the camera has a nice form factor for a comfortable grip. The front also has a textured, charcoal-colored faux leather covering that’s quite attractive. You’ll also find this texture surrounding the lens. There’s a minimal amount of decals as well as an AF Illuminator sensor and microphone.
The top is fairly straightforward too with a flash that has to be manually opened, mode dial, shutter button, wide/tele zoom switch along with buttons for power and Image Stabilization on/off. The right side has the xD Picture Card slot. We hope Olympus soon changes this slot to a combo that handles less expensive SD cards, the way FujiFilm has finally seen the light of customer satisfaction with its newest digicams. On the left side you’ll find a compartment for USB/AV out and a DC-in along with the diopter adjustment and pop-up button for the flash.
The rear is dominated by the LCD screen and viewfinder. The 2.5-inch monitor is rated an OK 230K pixels. You’ll also find a key to switch between the LCD and viewfinder for the times the screen gets wiped out by bright sunshine. To the right is the ubiquitous four-way controller with center OK button. The four points give access to macro, self timer, flash and +/- adjustments. There are also keys for Menu, playback, Display and delete. And finally on the bottom is the battery compartment, speaker and tripod mount. Overall, the camera looks and feels like a lightweight D-SLR which is exactly what all mega zoom manufacturers hope to achieve.
The SP-550UZ comes with a solid kit including the camera, strap batteries, cables, a 98-page Quick Start guide and an Olympus Master 2.0 CD ROM. This software package is a good starting point for getting your fingers wet with image editing since it covers all the basics plus it has a RAW converter for those who want the best image quality and are not afraid to do a little extra work on the PC. Anyone buying this camera should seriously consider opting for a set of rechargeable NiMH batteries to save money and the planet.
One funny note—the hardest thing about prepping this camera is attaching the strap. Although manufacturers spend millions engineering new digicams, threading the strap is like something from ancient Cave Dwelling days. Come on, guys, just design one with a few snaps! Also, this camera has one of my least favorite features—a lens cap attached by a string to the strap. When it flaps in the breeze, it’s incredibly annoying. That said, it was time to power up, set the date, basic preferences, image quality then hit the streets.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
I typically start in Auto at highest quality and then drill into the menus and other shooting options. SHQ in Auto for this camera is 3072 x 2304 pixels (7.1MP). A 512MB xD card holds about 120 JPEGs and less than half as many RAW files once you move out of Auto. All of my shooting was done with the Dual Image Stabilization on. In this case Olympus uses a mechanical sensor shift mechanism and digital IS to take the shakes out your photos. For the most part it worked pretty well but for shooting at night, a tripod is really the only way to go.
This camera powers up in about two seconds as the zoom lens emerges from the body. Recently I was in Las Vegas and Atlantic City for business (really) and tried the camera walking the famous Strip at night and Boardwalk in the daylight. While I was in Las Vegas for PMA, I also had the opportunity to use a pre-production model of the 8MP Sony DSC-H9 for some decidedly unscientific comparison of the two new mega zooms. The first thing I noticed about the SP-550UZ was the relatively long time it took to save images to the card—especially shooting at night. There’s a flashing red light next to the LCD that lets you know when the camera is busy. And the Olympus seemed to busy a long time especially with longer exposures. When shooting in daylight, response time was much better but still this is a pokey camera. When shooting in RAW, it took over five seconds for the camera to save the bigger files. Another problem was the “travel time” for the zoom to move from wide angle to maximum telephoto. I know it’s 18x but this camera needs instant jumps to get where you need to go more quickly. By comparison, the Sony moved much faster (saving and zooming) and that was a pre-production camera. Olympus claims a 15 frames per second burst rate with the SP-550UZ but that’s a bogus claim since resolution drops to 3MP (2048 x 1536) rather than full resolution like a D-SLR. This camera has a top ISO rating of 5000 for shooting in low light but unless you want a study in Pointillism and digital noise, keep it on Auto (or as low as possible). No digicam without a larger APS-C sensor can handle digital noise at these lofty levels and even many D-SLRs have issues going above ISO 800—but they’re much better than the 1/2.5-inch sensor used here.
Since this is a newer Olympus, it has a number of handy features to help you master the camera rather quickly including loads of Scene Modes with descriptions including thumbnail samples as well as guide to help you solve problems for specific shooting situations. As always, I applaud any steps taken by manufacturers that help you get the most out of your camera.
For those who want to go beyond simple point-and-shoot, this camera has many manual options including focus, aperture, shutter speed, contrast, sharpness, saturation and more. There’s even in-camera editing that’s becoming so popular such as red-eye fix and overall exposure, cropping and a long list of others including RAW processing. I like the fact you can save RAW images to JPEGs in the camera but you really need a larger screen to do the job properly.
After putting the SP-550UZ through its paces, it was time to download the images and make some 8.5×11 full-bleed prints with no image tweaking either in the camera or printer.
For the most part, I very pleased with the output of this camera. Granted some of the shots I took along the Strip at night were blurry but others did a great job of locking in the focus on extreme telephoto settings. Mechanical image stabilization can just do so much—a tripod or monopod is the only thing that can really guarantee rock solid focus. Still the ability to zoom in on the famous Las Vegas neon was quite good (many were taken in the Night Scene mode). Black on the prints was very good, with very little noise. The only real problem was the lag saving the files to the card—and this was in SHQ JPEG, not RAW. As for the images taken in Atlantic City on a sunny day, the camera handled focus and overall color quite well. The signs on the Boardwalk were very close to reality in terms of a natural feel. Again, there was some delay saving the photos but not really as bad at night in Vegas. When shooting in RAW, it took the camera around six seconds to save a file. Not good at all. Still overall the camera did a solid job.
Iamge Courtesy of Olympus
Olympus is to be congratulated for taking the mega zoom category up a level to 18x—and it appears this will be the most powerful model in 2007. Where Olympus continues to fall short is beefing up its processing so its cameras can move quickly rather than forcing photographers to wait for it to save files. No one expects it to have the response of a D-SLR but the company needs to put the new TruePic III processor used in its new Evolt D-SLRs in its compact point-and-shoot editions. Sony uses a variation of its Bionz processor originally used in the alpha D-SLR in its new mega zooms and it really showed—even with a pre-production model. With those caveats on the table, the SP-550UZ is a good camera for vacationers and for having around the house. The 28mm wide angle option is a real plus while the extreme telephoto will capture faraway subjects. I just wish the darn thing moved faster.
• 18x optical zoom
• Dual image stabilization
• Nice ergonomics
• Slow saving files
• Slow-moving zoom