Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom

The digital compact camera business is like a bazaar, each manufacturer trying to impress consumers with novel and fancy features. Olympus recently introduced the SP-550UZ featuring a mind-blowing 18x zoom lens (28-504mm equivalent), CCD Shift Image Stabilizer, Super Macro mode, 7.1 megapixel 1/2.5″ sensor, incredible ISO 5000 and 15fps burst mode.

 

Read on to know if the camera is more bark than bite…

Rather than concentrating on the paper specifications, I’ll tell you about my experience with the SP-550UZ in everyday use. From past experience of using Olympus digital compacts, my main qualm was always the the slow AF performance. It’s no surprise that the first aspect I tested was the AF speed, both at the wide and tele photo end.

Rather surprisingly, AF was zippy and the noise less noticeable. Focus assist works well in a low light environment. What I really liked is the Area Auto Focus, allowing you to move the focus cursor to any point in the screen. I found it especially useful when one is sitting at the dining table and want to to focus on a friends face while the camera is placed on the table.

Next I tested the stabilization, the easiest way to test this is to use the super macro mode indoors hand-held. It worked pretty well (I’ve lousy hand-holding skills, mind you), I can get reasonably sharp photos at 1/13 sec.

 

For the sharpness and distortion aspect, rather than relying on test charts and what not, I just hopped over to Starbucks and took a couple of shots. Being a compact camera, the sharpness and distortion at the wide end and the distortion is quite good. Sharpness is definitely much better than my Fuji F30 and not worse than the Olympus C5050z. On the telephoto end, the sharpness is not tack sharp but acceptable. Image stabilization pretty much maxed out at maximum zoom and to get a good sharp image, I had to take a couple of shots.

 

Sensor ISO performance, is pretty good at ISO 50. The SP-550UZ having a small 1/2.5″ sensor, isn’t expected to be noise free above ISO 400, but I found it to be usable up to ISO 800 without relying on noise reduction. The SP-550UZ has a ISO 5000 feature allowing you to capture images in really dark conditions. However, I wouldn’t dare print those.

 

Power on and off is not the fastest in the league but acceptable. The controls of the SP-550UZ, as compared to the Olympus C5050z, has less buttons with most of the functions relegated to the menus. For instance, there is only 1 custom button to configurable between AE Lock, AF Lock, IS On/Off or Image Quality Setting. Settings like flash mode, EV compensation, ISO, AF mode and WB are only adjustable in menu. One thing I disliked is during focusing using the Area AF mode, the directional buttons is used to maneuver the AF point and the usual EV, Macro, Flash, Timer buttons will not be functional.

 

Reviewing photos on the 2.5″ LCD is pretty nice, you can view a histogram (no RGB histogram though) and image exposure data. I found the electronic viewfinder to be adequate but I would have preferred a high resolution. The EVF is pretty handy when I needed to take photos in bright sunlight, where the glare would prevent you from using the LCD

In summary, is this camera worth comparing to an entry level dSLR like the Nikon D40? Depending on ones needs. I am looking for a compact that can get me reasonable sharpness and detail at wide angle, the Olympus SP-550UZ certainly fits the bill. For those who want fast AF, high ISO performance and the ability to swap lenses, definitely the a dSLR like the Nikon D40 will be a better choice.

Pros

  • IS that really works
  • Sharp 28mm Wide Angle at f2.8
  • Super Macro mode with 1cm minimum focusing
  • Ability to shoot RAW
  • Area AF mode that can point the focusing point in the screen

Cons

  • Uses xD memory, (hard to obtain, slow and expensive format)
  • Missing a control dial and AE/AF Lock button
  • Missing colour histogram

Personal Wish List

  • I would rather have a 3-4x zoom f/2 lens than a 18x zoom f/2.8 lens, but thats just me 😉
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