Camera Test: Olympus SP-550UZ

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.

Camera-Test-Olympus-SP-550UZ

Camera-Test-Olympus-SP-550UZ

Camera Test: Olympus SP-550UZ225885OlympusSP-550 UZIn many ways, the Olympus SP-550UZ represents both the best and the worst of digital camera marketing. On the one hand, it's is a solidly built EVF, with an astonishing 18X optical zoom (4.68-84.24mm f/2.8-4.5, or a 28-504mm equivalent in 35mm), effective sensor-shift image stabilization, a 7.1 Megapixel CCD, a RAW shooting mode, and lots of other impressive features. It even feels like a slightly scaled-down DSLR in the hands. On the other hand, it also has a number of super-impressive sounding features that come with footnotes and annotations, squirrelly explanations and marketing doublespeak. For example, the promo sticker atop the pop-up flash proudly touts: 15 fps Burst Rate. But nowhere on the camera itself does it mention that this ridiculously fast burst rate is captured at a ridiculously small file size of 1280x960 pixels -- just twice the pixel width and height of VGA video, or a measly 1.2 megapixels per image. Turn it to the "real" burst mode at full resolution and you'll only catch 3 frames in just over two seconds. You call that a burst? Bottom line: You may have the reach and the burst rate to zoom in on Emily's diving catch in the outfield, but you'd be sadly mistaken to think you could print 1.2MP images at 8x10!

In many ways, the Olympus SP-550UZ represents both the best and the worst of digital camera marketing. On the one hand, it's is a solidly built EVF, with an astonishing 18X optical zoom (4.68-84.24mm f/2.8-4.5, or a 28-504mm equivalent in 35mm), effective sensor-shift image stabilization, a 7.1 Megapixel CCD, a RAW shooting mode, and lots of other impressive features. It even feels like a slightly scaled-down DSLR in the hands.

On the other hand, it also has a number of super-impressive sounding features that come with footnotes and annotations, squirrelly explanations and marketing doublespeak. For example, the promo sticker atop the pop-up flash proudly touts: 15 fps Burst Rate. But nowhere on the camera itself does it mention that this ridiculously fast burst rate is captured at a ridiculously small file size of 1280x960 pixels -- just twice the pixel width and height of VGA video, or a measly 1.2 megapixels per image. Turn it to the "real" burst mode at full resolution and you'll only catch 3 frames in just over two seconds. You call that a burst? Bottom line: You may have the reach and the burst rate to zoom in on Emily's diving catch in the outfield, but you'd be sadly mistaken to think you could print 1.2MP images at 8x10!

Other disputable claims?

What's Hot • Full manual controls • 18x optical zoom • RAW capture mode • Mechanical Image stabilization • Solid build What's Not • Sluggish, small burst mode at full resolution JPEG • RAW write time is several seconds for a single shot • Best-quality video is limited to 15 seconds per clip • Touted 15fps burst mode is at tiny 1.2 megapixel file size • Noise/Resolution issues at ISO 400 and up • Product Gallery • Image Quality Gallery • Rate this Camera • How to Read a Camera Test

• ISO up to 5000! But, again, images shot at ISO 3200 and 5000 are at a pixel-shedding, resolution-dropping 3.2 megapixels each.
• Dual Image Stabilization? The sensor-shift mechanical IS in this camera is impressive, and it works very well, but the other half of this dual IS amounts to little more than ISO boosting and aggressive noise processing.
• Video at up to 30 frames per second at 640x480 pixels per frame! (With the card we used, we were limited to 15 seconds recording time at this highest resolution. However, users can record movies at full resolution and 30 fps longer than 15 seconds -- and actually all the way up to card capacity -- as long as they use a Type H xD card.)
• Zoom while recording video! (Here it gets tricky. You must turn on the "FULLTIME AF" mode in the camera settings menu options before shooting movies to allow the camera to maintain focus on a moving subject or when using the zoom lens. Otherwise, you can zoom without sound, or with sound but all the while locked into that focal length until you pause and re-zoom.)

Olympus is not alone in this rampant marketing hype. Virtually every camera manufacturer is guilty to some degree or another of trying to inflate performance, touting semi-features that only work with reduced resolution or in certain modes, and touting high ISO settings as "Image Stabilization" or "Electronic Vibration Reduction." It is the consumers who ultimately pay the price for these marketing tactics with disappointment that the camera isn't all they thought they'd bought. Unfortunately, we don't see this trend stopping any time soon.

Having said all that, what's the real story with the Olympus SP-550UZ?

The story is this: Olympus has made a pretty impressive camera. It's not perfect, but then again, very few cameras are. This is a very nice camera for the beginner ready to jump up, or the DSLR shooter who is looking to downsize without giving up too much control.

It feels great in the hand. The lens barrel, which extends a surprisingly long way, is solid and smooth all the way through. Even when the lens barrel is gripped to lend extra support and stability, it doesn't rattle or shake, as we've seen on many zooms. The buttons and dials feel great: good resistance without being sticky. The flash pops up with a satisfying cluck. The xD-Picture card door pops open nicely. The battery compartment cover, which we expressed concerns about in our First Look feels a little bit better, but it is still a little clunky getting it latched and locked over the 4 AA batteries.

The main LCD is a big and bright at a 2.5 inches (230,000 pixels) and gains up and down quickly in changing lighting. The LCD in the Electronic Viewfinder is obviously much smaller, and is a bit more dim, but offers good contrast and is very easy to view and read. Very fast panning will challenge the redraw time of the EVF, but it keeps up pretty well with most action until the shutter is released. Then it blacks out briefly and refreshes for a split second before firing off the next frame, and blacking out again briefly.

In the lab, the Olympus SP-550UZ performed well, competitive for its pixel class without setting the world on fire. Color accuracy, particularly Automatic White Balance, is Excellent, with an Average Delta E: 7.96.

Noise is handled well at ISO 50 with a Very Low rating of 1.4. At ISO 100, it scores a Low rating at 1.9. At ISO 200, it climbs to 2.5, Moderate rating, and then hops just over into an Unacceptable rating at ISO 400, with a 3.1. At ISO 800 and 1600, blur filtering kicks in, and gets the noise back down to Moderate at ISO 800 (2.7) and Moderately Low at 1600 (2.2).

Of course, the blur filtering takes its toll on resolution, which drops from 1675 (Very High) at ISO 50, to a noisy 1525 (Very High) at ISO 400. After blur filtering kicks into high gear, resolution drops way down to 1025 (Unacceptable) at ISO 1600. Our policy is to only measure full resolution ISOs and modes, so we did not test ISO 3200 or 5000, but casual observations indicate aggressive blur filtering and exceedingly low resolution at these ISOs.

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.

Color accuracy: Excellent. Average Delta E: 7.96/Automatic White Balance, ISO 50

Noise: Very Low at ISO 50 (1.4), Low at ISO 100 (1.9), Moderate at ISO 200 (2.5) Unacceptable at ISO 400(3.1) Moderate at ISO 800 (2.7), Moderately Low at1600 (2.2)

Resolution: Very High at ISO 50 (1675), Very High at ISO 400 (1525), Unacceptable at ISO 1600 (1025)

Lens Distortion: Visible Barrel Distortion (.55%) at 28mm. Slight Pincushion distortion at Macro setting (.25%), 180mm (.29%) and at 504mm (.29%).

Deep Tech Specs

Imager: 7.1-megapixel (effective), 7.4 megapixel gross, 1/2.5" CCD

Lens: 4.68-84.24mm (28-504mm equivalent in 35mm photography), 14 lenses in 11 groups, 4 aspherical lenses, 2 ED lenses

Zoom: Seamless to 100x (18x optical and 5.6x digital)

Aperture Range: f2.8- f4.5 (adjustable in 1/3 EV step)

LCD: 2.5" (6.4cm) LCD, approx. 230,000 pixels

Viewfinder: Electronic viewfinder (with dioptic correction)

Focus System: CCD Contrast Detection

Focus Ranges:

Normal Mode: Wide: 3.94" (0.1m) - infinity
Tele: 47.24" (1.2m) - infinity

Macro Mode: Wide: 3.94" (0.1m)
Tele: 47.24" (1.2m)

Super Macro: 0.39" (0.98cm) - infinity

Focus Mode: iESP, Auto, Spot AF, Selective AF Target, Manual

Shutter Speed: 1/2000 sec. -15 sec., Bulb

ISO: Auto/High ISO Auto/50/100/200/400/800/1600/3200*/5000* (*approx. 3MP)

Metering Mode: Digital iESP Auto Multi-Pattern TTL, Spot Metering, Center-Weighted Metering

White Balance: iESP2 Auto, One-Touch, Preset (Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, 3 Fluorescents)

Exposure Compensation: ± 2 EV steps in 1/3 EV steps

Recording Modes:
Still Image: DCF Exif 2.21, JPEG, PIM 3
Movie Mode: AVI Motion JPEG

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