Olympus SP-590 UZ

      Photo Review 8

      In summary

      A compact digicam with the longest optical zoom range currently available plus a special Bird Watching mode.Twenty-six times optical zoom is a big ask for a compact, small-sensor digicam, even with optical image stabilisation built-in. Yet that’s what Olympus is offering in its 12-megapixel SP590 UZ model. Equipped with P, A, S and M shooting modes, the SP590 UZ is designed to appeal to photographers who want an extended zoom range without the hassle of carrying extra lenses. Many compromises have been made to achieve these objectives. . . [more]

      Full review


      Twenty-six times optical zoom is a big ask for a compact, small-sensor digicam, even with optical image stabilisation built-in. Yet that’s what Olympus is offering in its 12-megapixel SP590 UZ model. Equipped with P, A, S and M shooting modes, the SP590 UZ is designed to appeal to photographers who want an extended zoom range without the hassle of carrying extra lenses. Many compromises have been made to achieve these objectives.
      For starters, even though the sensor-shift image stabilisation system is pretty good (Olympus claims it can provide up to 2.5 stops of shutter speed advantage) you’re hard pressed to get sharp pictures when hand-holding the camera at full zoom range. The lens is pretty complex, with 14 elements in 11 groups, including four aspherical elements and three ED elements. Furthermore, the maximum aperture is only f/5.0 at full optical zoom so, despite the amount of glass in the lens, unless you jack up the ISO above 400 (where noise starts to become visible), the fastest shutter speeds you can use are about 1/200 second, which is way too slow for a lens with an equivalent focal length of 676mm in 35mm format.
      Then there’s the sensor size and photosite density, which results in a pixel pitch os approximately 1.5 microns. Compared with an average of 5.2 microns on a typical 12-megapixel DSLR, the sensor in the SP 590 UZ will be hard-pressed to capture light. Image noise is bound to become problematic at relatively low ISO sensitivities.
      Fortunately, there are some good features to balance out these flaws. At its widest, the lens provides an equivalent focal length of 26mm, which is great for group shots, landscapes and other scenic photographs. This lens exhibits a fair degree of barrel distortion so you have to frame shots carefully if you want to simulate normal perspectives. However, you can have a lot of fun with it when you want wide-angle distortion effects.


      Front view of the SP 590 UZ. (Source: Olympus.)

      Physically, the SP590 UZ resembles the SP-565 UZ, which we reviewed in Issue 39. Like most ‘ultra-zoom’ cameras, it’s bulky and non-pocketable, although not as big as the SP 570 UZ. Measuring 110.1 x 89.7 x 91.0 mm when switched off, it is also relatively heavy at 528 grams with batteries and memory card on board. Sadly, Olympus has stuck with xD cards for this camera, instead of swapping to cheaper, more capable, SD/SDHC cards.
      The SO590 UZ’s body is built from matte black plastic, with a metal lens barrel from which the mainly plastic lens extends in two segments. At the 4.6mm position, the front of the lens extends just over 20mm, while at the 119.6mm extension it is a full 60mm from the end of the lens barrel.
      The zoom control is the stardard lever surrounding the shutter button – which is large. The grip is also large and comfortable and houses the four AA batteries that drive the camera. These are inserted via the base panel. A generous moulded thumb grip on the rear panel provides added comfort and security. The memory card slot is separate from the battery compartment and located in the side of the grip – as in most DSLRs.


      Rear view of the SP 590 UZ, showing the LCD monitor and key button controls. (Source: Olympus.)

      A 2.7-inch LCD monitor with 230,000-dot resolution covers two thirds of the rear panel. It boasts a wide viewing angle (both vertically and horizontally), anti-glare coating and automatic brightness control that provide better viewing quality than most LCDs. But it’s no match for bright Australian sunlight and its resolution doesn’t offer much scope for checking focusing accuracy.
      Despite being cramped and dark, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) provides above-average viewing quality – although it’s still inferior to a good optical viewfinder. Automatic magnification of the centre of the image field makes it easier to focus in manual focusing mode. However, regardless of whether you use the EVF or LCD, focusing can be tricky at full zoom extension unless you use a tripod.
      The built-in flash must be raised by pressing a button in all shooting modes. The slowest flash synch speed appears to be 1/30 second for forced flash – or 1/10 second in the slow synch modes. Flash output intensity is adjustable across +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps and you can use the flash on the SP 590 UZ to trigger external units in the Olympus Wireless RC Flash System.
      In an attempt to appeal to a broad range of photographers, Olympus has endowed the SP 590 UZ with plenty of shooting modes. The top panel mode dial carries ten settings, covering full auto, P, A, S and M shooting modes, a My Mode memory bank for registering groups of settings, a Scene mode that accesses 19 pre-sets, a Beauty mode for smoothing wrinkles and skin blemishes, a movie mode and a playback setting.
      The SP590 UZ has the same, complex menu system as other Olympus digicams and it often requires a lot of toggling to reach required settings. The My Mode function can help to reduce button pressing, although you have to press a lot of buttons to set up combinations of settings for different types of shots. Up to four combinations can be saved in the camera’s memory.
      Aperture and shutter speed settings are adjustable in 1/3EV steps, with the smallest aperture at f/8 for all focal length settings. Shutter speeds range from 15 seconds to 1/2000 second in manual mode; with a slow speed limit of 4 seconds in Night mode and 1/2 second in the other modes.
      Menu options include ESP, centre-weighted and spot metering, single shot plus three continuous drive settings, iESP, Face Detect and Spot AF mode, predictive autofocusing and manual focus. White balance is manually adjustable and you can choose between Vivid and Natural Picture Modes and fine tune contrast, saturation and sharpness. Image stabilisation and noise reduction processing can be switched on and off via the main menu.
      The SP590 UZ also provides quick access to drive, white balance, ISO, metering and image size and quality settings via the OK/Fn button in the centre of the arrow pad. The remaining arrow pad buttons control the flash, exposure compensation, drive and macro settings.
      Image Size and Quality
      Unlike the SP 565 UZ and SP 570 UZ (which offer raw file capture), the SP 590 UZ records only JPEG files. This is likely to deter some potential purchasers, given this camera’s relatively high price tag. Eight image sizes are provided, along with two compression levels, Fine and Normal. Typical file sizes are presented in the table below.

      Image size

      Image quality

      Approx. File size

      3968 x 2976





      2560 x 1920





      2048 x 1536





      1600 x 1200





      1280 x 960





      640 x 480





      3968 x 2232





      1920 x 1080





      Like other SP series models, despite offering widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio settings for still shots, the SP 590 UZ doesn’t support HD video recording. Only two video frame sizes are supported: VGA and QVGA, each at 30 and 15 frames/second. The maximum file size for movies is 2GB, regardless of the capacity of the card, and the maximum clip length is 40 seconds. Typical recording capacities for a 1GB card are shown in the table below.

      Movie setting

      Frame rate

      Maximum length on 1GB card

      VGA 640 X 480

      30 fps

      9 minutes and 25 seconds

      15 fps

      18 minutes and 44 seconds

      QVGA 320 x 240

      30 fps

      25 minutes and 26 seconds

      15 fps

      50 minutes and 7 seconds

      Playback and Software
      You can enter playback mode by either pressing the quick review button or selecting playback on the mode dial. The SP-590 UZ provides a standard suite of playback settings, including single and index views, slideshows and shooting data overlays. Pushing the zoom lever to the left in playback mode toggles through these various options, including a thumbnail plus histogram if Histogram is switched on in the shooting menu.
      Playback zoom, which is accessed via the zoom lever, provides up to approximately 10x magnification for checking focusing. The SP-590 UZ also supports slideshow playback (with optional ‘canned’ music and 15 transition effects) and a calendar display showing the dates on which pictures were taken.
      Adjustments available in playback mode include ‘Perfect Fix’ (covering shadow adjustment and red-eye fix), ‘Beauty fix’, trimming, rotation, resizing (to VGA or QVGA size) and colour editing (B&W and sepia conversion plus saturation adjustment). You can create an index of nine frames from a movie and save it separately or extract clips from movie sequences. You can also extract a still frame from a movie clip.
      The supplied software disk contains Olympus Master 2, a fairly basic file organiser/browser with raw file conversion facilities (which are irrelevant for SP 590 UZ user). We’ve already covered this software in previous reviews of Olympus cameras.

      Although the SP 590 UZ may look good on paper – and its sensor-shift stabilisation may provide a stop or two of anti-shake compensation, it remains very difficult to record pin-sharp images at full optical zoom in light levels lower than average daylight. Images from the camera appeared to be slightly soft and Imatest indicated some degree of under-sharpening.
      In brilliant sunlight we had no problems hand-holding the camera at full optical zoom – and also with the digital zoom switched on. But under cloud, shutter speeds tended to fall below 1/200 second at ISO 100 and the ratio of sharp to unsharp images declined as a result. We have some doubts about the usability of the Bird Watching mode in typical shooting conditions – particularly for photographing forest birds.
      You can ‘work around’ this problem by mounting the camera on a tripod and triggering the shutter with the self-timer. But that adds bulk and complexity to the operation – which is something buyers of this type of camera wish to avoid.
      Autofocusing was mostly fast and accurate in bright ambient lighting but we often had trouble keeping up with fast-moving subjects due at full optical zoom. Focusing also slowed noticeably in low light levels. (An AF-illuminator is provided to assist with focusing but is only effective with subjects a metre or two from the camera.)
      Shots taken with the review camera in bright sunlight were nicely detailed – particularly in the centre of the frame – and showed a wider dynamic range than we expected from a small-sensor digicam. Colours were also recorded with a natural-looking balance, a factor confirmed by our Imatest tests, which showed saturation to be modest and colour accuracy to be above average.
      Unfortunately, Imatest showed resolution to be below expectations for a 12-megapixel camera and revealed edge softening, particularly at shorter focal lengths and wider aperture settings. Resolution declined steadily from f/5.0 on; with best results for all focal lengths at the widest aperture or 1/3 stop down. The graph below shows the results of our tests.


      Resolution also declined as ISO sensitivity was increased, with best results at ISO 100 and a steep plunge at the ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 settings, where image size is reduced to 2560 x 1920 pixels. The graph below shows the results of our tests.


      Image noise was obvious in shots from ISO 400 on and shots taken at ISO 1600 and above were seriously noise-affected. Flash exposures fared better than long available-light shots but both were noise affected in some way and the flash proved able to illuminate an average-sized room at all ISO settings. Noise-reduction processing tended to soften images.
      Imatest showed lateral chromatic aberration to be higher than average, with the best results being at the high end of the ‘moderate’ CA band and the worst results being classified as ‘serious’. Coloured fringing was visible in outdoor shots when they were enlarged to 50%. The illustration below shows fringing at 66.7% enlargement.


      The full frame image.


      Magnified to show coloured fringing.

      Close-up performance was very good and we were able to obtain some excellent results with the Super Macro mode, where the camera can focus down to about a centimeter from the subject. The small sensor’s wide depth-of-field was advantageous in this mode.
      Digital zoom shots were better than expected – when they were in focus. However, this only happened for about one shot in four – unless the camera was tripod-mounted (as in the example shown in the Sample Images section below).
      The review camera’s auto white balance system performed better than most under incandescent lighting, although a residual orange cast remained in shots. Under fluorescent lighting, no colour casts were evident. The white balance pre-sets over-corrected colours under both lighting types but manual measurement yielded neutral colour balances.
      Flare could be an issue with the test camera, depending on the angle of the light. Shots taken with direct backlighting were often seriously flare-affected, while tele shots could be difficult to focus when backlighting was strong.
      The review camera powered up in just over 1.6 seconds but took a little longer to shut down. We measured an average capture lag of 0.4 seconds, which reduced to less than 0.1 seconds with pre-focusing. It took 2.3 seconds to process each high-resolution JPEG image. In the normal continuous shooting mode, the review camera captured seven shots in five seconds. It took 14.4 seconds to process this burst.
      Moving to the High-speed 1 sequential mode reduced the image size to 2560 x 1920 pixels, enabling the camera to record 10 frames in 1.4 seconds. It took 7.9 seconds to process this burst. The High-speed 2 sequential mode further reduced image size to 2048 x 1536 pixels, recording 14 shots in 1.1 seconds. It took 8.2 seconds to process this burst. It took roughly 20 seconds to format a memory card.
      Buy this camera if:
      – You’re looking for an ultra-zoom digicam with good wide-angle coverage, plenty of adjustable controls and image stabilisation.
      – You want manual flash adjustment plus a good range of flash settings, along with the ability to work with multi-flash set-ups.
      – You’d enjoy taking very close ‘macro’ shots.

      Don’t buy this camera if:
      – You want to shoot raw files (this camera is restricted to JPEG capture).
      – You require high performance levels in dim or contrasty lighting.
      – You want to shoot widescreen or high-definition video.
      – You want to shoot fast-moving action.





      Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.


      Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.


      Close-up. 4.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/50 second at f/5.


      Super macro. 9.2mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/60 second at f/3.5.


      Close-up at 119.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/5.6.


      4.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/5.6.


      119.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/800 second at f/5.


      4.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/5.6.


      Digital zoom. 119.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/5.


      Digital zoom with camera on tripod. 119.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/125 second at f/5.


      Flash exposure; 27.2mm focal length. ISO 100, 1/160 second at f/4.4.


      Flash exposure; 27.2mm focal length. ISO 1600, 1/160 second at f/4.4.


      Night shot: ISO 200, 4 second exposure at f/2.8; 13.6mm focal length.


      Night shot: ISO 1600, 4 second exposure at f/5; 13.6mm focal length.


      The same subject photographed in Night Landscape mode. ISO 400, 4 second exposure at f/2.8; 13.6mm focal length.


      Dynamic range: 4.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/1000 second at f/5.6.


      Backlighting; 23.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/1250 second at f/8.


      Flare; 4.6mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/5.6.




      Image sensor: 6.13 x 4.6 mm CCD with 12.47 million photosites (12.0 megapixels effective)
      Lens: 4.6-119.6mm f/2.8-5.0 zoom lens (26-676mm in 35mm format)
      Zoom ratio: 26x optical, up to 5x digital
      Image formats: Stills ““ JPEG (Exif 2.21); Movies – AVI Motion JPEG with WAV sound
      Image Sizes: Stills ““ 4:3 aspect ratio: 3968 x 2976, 3648 x 2736, 2560 x 1920, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480; 16:9 aspect ratio: 3968 x 2322, 1920 x 1080; Movies ““ VGA or QVGA at 30 or 15 frames/second
      Shutter speed range: 1/2-1/2000 seconds (up to 4 sec. in night mode); Manual 15-1/2000 seconds
      Self-timer: 2 or 12 second delay
      Image Stabilisation: CCD Shift type
      Exposure Compensation: +/- 2 EV in 1/3 EV increments
      Focus system/range: TTL iESP auto focus with contrast detection; range 10 cm to infinity; macro to 1 cm; Face Detection AF and predictive focusing supported
      Exposure metering/control: iESP, centre-weighted and spot metering
      Shooting modes: Auto plus P, A, S and M, 19 Scene presets (Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night Scene, Night + Portrait, Indoor, Candle, Sunset, Fireworks, Multiple Fireworks, Multiple Exposure, Cuisine, Documents, Smile Shot, Beach & Snow, Bird Watching, Pre-capture Movie Mode, Quick Shutter, Soft Background Shot)
      ISO range: Auto plus ISO 80-1600
      White balance: Auto, sunlight, overcast, tungsten, fluorescent (x3), one-touch manual, -7 Red to +7 Blue adjustment
      Flash modes/range (ISO auto): Auto, Red-eye reduction, Fill-in, Fill-in+Red eye reduction, Slow synchro, Off; range: 0.3-4.5 metres (ISO 200)
      Sequence shooting: 1.2 frames/second at full resolution; max. 10 fps at 3M
      Storage Media: 22MB internal memory plus xD-Picture card slot
      Viewfinder: Electronic viewfinder with dioptre adjustment
      LCD monitor: 2.7-inch TFT colour LCD with 230,000 pixels
      Power supply: 4 x AA batteries (alkaline, lithium or NiMH)
      Dimensions (wxhxd): 110.1 x 89.7 x 91.0 mm
      Weight: 435 g (without battery and card)






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