The Olympus SP-550UZ packs an 18x optical zoom, RAW capture and a helpful
guide mode into a solidly built EVF camera, but some of the "features" come
with asterisks and footnotes.
As for the lens performance: the 14 lens elements in 11 groups have to do some impressive stretching and squeezing to cover all that range, and it takes a toll on distortion numbers. At widest, 28mm, there is Visible Barrel Distortion (.55%). Most of the rest of the way, it turns to Slight Pincushion distortion, including at the Macro setting (.25%), 180mm (.29%) and at 504mm (.29%). These aren't the worst numbers we've ever seen, and for most users it shouldn't be that great an issue.
More on the burst modes: It's true that the camera will machine gun off an staggeringly quick burst at either 7 frames per second at 3.2 megapixels, or an amazing 15 frames per second at 1.2 megapixels, but sadly, its full-resolution JPEG burst mode is limited to 3 shots in just over 2 seconds once focused is achieved. Flash is possible in three-shot burst mode, and burst times will be limited by flash recycle time, which differs depending on subject matter, distance to subject and lighting. There is no RAW burst option. RAW is a single-shot only operation.
On the subject of RAW -- it's a great feature to include on any advanced feature camera, and we commend Olympus for including it, even if you are limited to single-shot situations, and suffer 5 plus seconds for buffering. For certain situations, and for certain photographers, only RAW will do, and it's great to see it included here, sluggish write time and all. Full manual control will also make this camera attractive to the advanced user. It is true, full manual. No asterisks or footnotes here. Set the camera in manual and you can select shutter speed, aperture, ISO and flash shutter sync and Flash compensation at the same time. We've seen too many cameras with partial manual modes that claim to offer total control, but the SP-550UZ actually delivers in this category.
But Olympus doesn't overlook the beginner to make the advanced user happy. The SP-550UZ also has two shooting mode dial settings to help the newbie make better photos under an amazing assortment of conditions. Scene mode, ubiquitous it seems these days, pre-sets the camera to optimized settings for a variety of challenging shooting situations -- candlelight, night portrait, beach and snow, and more. But if there's not a dedicated scene mode that fits your situation, check out Guide mode.
Guide mode skips sample photos for short phrases describing challenging situations: Shooting into backlight, for example, and then offers at least one option for shooting this particular situation, and sets the camera to the chosen Guide settings. It's not quite a complete course in Digital Photography 101, but it will help the beginner get an understanding on controlling the light and the camera.
One of the Guide mode settings: Reducing Blur offers to either activate the mechanical stabilization or increase ISO. If you find yourself puzzling over which to choose in this situation, choose the sensor-shifting stabilization. Sensor shift stabilization has a dedicated button next to the shutter, so it is available in any shooting mode, not simply via the guide. It works impressively, even at maximum zoom. In the Pop Photo lab, we were able to shoot as slow as 1/50 second fully zoomed out to 504mm and still make acceptably sharp photos of our test target -- when using the EVF and cradling the lens barrel for extra support -- three full stops. In the field, we were able to capture an acceptably sharp shot of a New Jersey Turnpike exit ramp sign at 504mm from a train moving at close to 40 miles per hour! Do the arms-length mummy impersonation capture method and you may be lucky to grab an acceptably sharp shot at 504mm at a stop and a half under the reciprocal focal length rule -- 1/160 second or thereabouts. As the camera's image quality starts to suffer at ISO 400 and beyond due to noise or resolution-stealing blur filtering, it's always better to consider mechanical IS and a slower shutter speed at low ISO, rather than cranking up the ISO into the low-quality zone.
Video mode, as we mention earlier, is quirky. At full VGA quality, 640x480 at 30 frames per second, clip length is limited to fifteen seconds, regardless of available card space. Drop it to 15 fps at this resolution and you can shoot to the capacity of the card. Likewise with 320x240 at 30 frames per second, or the lowest quality: 320x240 at 15fps. And then there's the other compromise with video mode: Zoom is enable, with no sound. Or zoom is disabled, with sound. Many cameras simply lock the focal length during capture, offering no zoom option whatsoever. The reasoning is that the zoom motor is audible during changes in focal length, which impacts the sound and aesthetic quality of the clip, so its understandable and commendable that Olympus offered an either/or option, but we'd like to see Olympus and the other players in the industry improve on this: allowing for zoom at a slower speed or coming up with some noise-canceling algorithms to counteract the zoom motor.
On the playback side, the Olympus SP-550UZ is able to flip through images a lot faster than many other Olympus models we've tested, even at full resolution. Aside from the standard playback fare: slideshow, print order function, and simple fixes for redeye, and monochrome conversions, there's a cool "Index" option. It takes a little time to process all the photos into indexed thumbnails, but these index images can be printed out and saved, if you want hard copies. Also, once indexing is completed, it's possible to scroll through the tiny thumbnails in-camera to make selecting and locating an image on the card that much quicker. It's a nice little touch -- not one you'd miss otherwise, but a nice little add-on, nonetheless.
Overall, the Olympus SP-550UZ is a very capable camera, especially at lower ISOs with the sensor-shift image stabilization activated. The reach of this lens is record-breaking, and it covers that long distance while keeping distortion mostly contained, except at the extreme wide angle setting, which is typical for this camera class. The built is rock-solid for a composite camera, and it feels great in the hands. Its burst performance at full resolution is sluggish and limited to three shots, and it crawls in writing a single RAW file. At the lower resolutions, it's lightning-fast, but you are seriously or severely limiting your printing size options by dropping the resolution to gain that touted blazingly fast burst rate. The actual full-resolution, low ISO performance, RAW capture, and full manual controls of this camera will make it attractive to a certain breed of advanced photographer, and the ease of use, scene modes, and guide modes will appeal to another, less-experienced breed of shooter.
All in all, it's a better-than-average camera in terms of features, but it is unfortunate that the actual performance and functionality is buried beneath a sea of marketing doublespeak and asterisked functions and features.