Olympus SP550 UZ

      Photo Review 8.5

      In summary

      A compact digicam with the longest zoom range on the market and some features to appeal to travellers and photo enthusiasts.When Olympus announced its SP550 UZ, the world’s first 18x zoom digicam, in late January it attracted considerable attention worldwide but we had to wait until mid-May to get our hands on a review unit. The zoom lens ranges from the equivalent of 28mm to 504mm on a 35mm camera and it’s partnered with a dual-action ISO boost and CCD shift image stabilisation system plus a 7.1-megapixel imager. . . [more]

      Full review


      When Olympus announced its SP550 UZ, the world’s first 18x zoom digicam, in late January it attracted considerable attention worldwide but we had to wait until mid-May to get our hands on a review unit. The zoom lens ranges from the equivalent of 28mm to 504mm on a 35mm camera and it’s partnered with a dual-action ISO boost and CCD shift image stabilisation system plus a 7.1-megapixel imager.

      This lens is impressively large for a compact digicam and boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end of the zoom range narrows to f/4.5 at full tele zoom. It can also focus down to 1 cm in Super Macro mode, although with the tele setting the closest you can get is 1.2 metres. Size-wise the SP550’s body is a little smaller and lighter than the E-410 DSLR but its sensor is significantly smaller, so it’s surprising the digicam supports ISO settings up to 5000 (albeit with reduced resolution), while the E-410 tops out at 1600.


      The camera body is solidly constructed from high quality polycarbonate with metal trims on the seams and around the major controls and lens. A rubber-like coating on the front panel gives a secure and comfortable grip and, although the grip’s front molding is shallow, there’s a shaped thumb rest for added security. Small strap eyelets protrude from each side of the camera body, the memory card has a dedicated slot beside the arrow pad and the DC-IN and USB ports lie under a rubber flap on the opposite side of the 2.5-inch LCD. Button controls are of average size and reasonably easy to operate.


      The SP550 UZ appears to have been designed to provide something for everyone. For novice users, the mode dial has a Guide setting that provides information on topics like how to brighten pictures, shoot into backlight, blur backgrounds and select AF areas. This is an Olympus exclusive and, although basic, should be handy for beginners. The Scene mode setting accesses 23 illustrated scene pre-sets, another feature inexperienced photographers will like.


      Aspects of the camera that will appeal to keen photographers start with the shooting mode range, which includes P, A, S and M settings. The SP550 also supports Raw file capture and you can select simultaneous RAW+JPEG capture at SHQ, HQ, SQ1 and SQ2 resolution settings. JPEG compression levels are moderate with the Fine setting but very high with the Normal mode, as shown in the table below. However, the size/quality options provided are more extensive than most digicams offer.




      RAW (3072×2304)


      SHQ (3072×2304)



      SHQ 3:2 (3072×2048)



      SQ1 (2560×1920)



      SQ1 (2304×1728)



      SQ1 (2048×1536)



      SQ2 (1600×1200)



      SQ2 (1280×960)



      SQ2 (1024×768)



      SQ2 (640×480)



      16:9 (1920×1080)


      Slightly more compact than the Sony DSC-H9, which has a 15x optical zoom lens, the SP550 has a smaller, fixed LCD. The EVF just above the monitor has a marginally smaller eyepiece than the H9 but similar eye relief and it stands out a little further from the LCD. Diopter adjustment is provided via a wheel on the left side, which is easier to turn than the H9’s. The Display button on the right of the EVF housing lets you toggle between the EVF and LCD.

      The LCD has better readability than the displays on many compact digicams, particularly in shadowy conditions. However, the EVF was an average performer, with a relatively slow refresh rate and a tendency to ‘blow out’ in bright conditions and produce streaks with backlighting. Low light visibility was noticeably better with the LCD than the EVF on the test camera. A second Display Information button below the arrow pad is used for switching between normal, simple, Frame Assist (on-screen grid) and a histogram display in shooting mode and normal, detailed, no data and histogram in playback mode.

      You can choose between diagonals and a nine-area grid in the Frame Assist mode. Two live histogram options are provided, On and Direct, the latter highlighting bright and dark areas that are likely to be blocked up when the shot is taken. When the Guide setting on the mode dial is selected, holding down the Display button opens and closes the menu guide.

      The arrow pad is linked to four controls: macro, exposure compensation, flash and self-timer. Two macro settings are provided: macro, which covers subjects down to 10 cm and super macro for subjects down to 1 cm from the lens. Exposure compensation is the standard +/- 2EV in 0.3EV steps. The flash modes are also pretty standard and two self-timer settings are provided with 2 and 10 seconds delays. Settings are engaged by pressing the central OK/FUNC button.

      Image stabilisation is switched on and off via a button just behind the shutter release. There’s only one setting, which applies both horizontal and vertical corrections and is not really suitable for panning. It tends to delay autofocusing as well, which makes taking bursts of shots with long focal length settings a hit and miss affair (see Sample Images below).

      Pressing the Menu button in shooting mode opens the standard Olympus digicam interface with a page of selections containing Image Quality, Camera Menu, Scene Menu, Set Up and Reset plus a Silent Mode setting that switches off all warning beeps, shutter sounds and other noise effects. We’re not enamoured with this set-up as additional toggling is required whenever you wish to change resolution and adjust, say, the white balance or ISO settings. However, photographers who always shoot JPEGs at the highest resolution/quality settings should find it no encumbrance.

      Controls located in the camera menu include white balance, ISO, drive (including bracketing), metering, digital zoom, AF and flash modes. The image stabiliser is also switched on and off via this sub-menu and panorama settings can be engaged but you must use an Olympus-branded card for panorama capture. Other settings found here include white balance bracketing, sharpness, contrast and saturation adjustments and noise reduction.

      The time lapse shooting function is also activated and de-activated in this sub-menu and shooting intervals are adjusted here. You can also turn the sound recording function on or off for shooting movies and set the camera for use with a conversion lens.

      The Scene menu contains 23 modes, each illustrated with a sample image an additional screen of text information. There are four portrait settings, three underwater modes, two landscape modes and settings for fireworks, candlelight, sunset, cuisine and behind glass as well as modes for copying documents and shooting products for online auctions.

      Selecting the Program AE mode (P) limits the slowest shutter speed to ½ second ““ unless you switch on noise reduction (NR), which extends it to 4 seconds. In the A mode, apertures are adjustable from f/2.8 to f/8, which is adequate for the sensor size. In S mode shutter speeds can be adjusted between ½ and 1/1000 second with NR off or 4-1/1000 second with it on. Only in M mode can you set shutter speeds out to 15 seconds. The Bulb setting extends this to eight minutes. There’s also a My Mode memory where you can store up to four groups of camera settings.

      Drive mode settings aren’t accessible when the camera is set for Raw file capture. However, when shooting JPEGs you can choose from standard and two High-Speed settings. When Hi 1 is set, the camera can record up to 15 shots at resolutions of 2048 x 1536 pixels or lower. When Hi 2 is set, image quality is limited to 1280 x 960 pixels or lower and you can record up to 20 shots, including five frames stored just before shooting if Pre-Capture is set to On. Bracketing of three or five frames at intervals of +/- 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 stops is also available.

      Video clips can be recorded with or without sound at VGA (640 x 480 pixels) or QVGA (320 x 240 pixels) resolution at 30 or 15 frames/second but you need a high-capacity card (at least 1GB) to use this function as the internal memory can hold less than a minute of video at the lowest resolution/frame rate. Both the optical zoom and image stabiliser are disabled once you start shooting movie clips with sound. So is the Fulltime AF setting. Switch off the sound recording and all three are re-activated.

      The front page of the Playback menu has nine sub-menus, covering slide show/ Movie playback, edit, print order, calendar, set up, index, erase and silent mode. The central Playback Menu button lets you lock or rotate images, select index play and play voice memos. Editing functions are extensive and include in-camera Raw data editing, resizing, cropping and red-eye fix as well as B&W and Sepia conversions and brightness and saturation controls.
      You can also playback the pictures in a calendar format, view an index of nine frames, add frames to shots from a selection of 14 graphics stored in the camera, label shots with one of 10 messages, integrate a calendar with a picture and save it as a new file, create an index layout from some of all of the shots in the memory or on the memory card. With movies, the edit function allows you to extract part of a clip and overwrite it, or save it as a new movie. The index function allows you to capture a still frame from a video clip and save it as a JPEG image.

      Supplied with the SP550 UZ are two software disks, one containing the Advanced Manual (which new users will require) and the other holding Olympus Master, the file conversion software you require for editing ORF-RAW files. It’s stingy of Olympus not to provide a printed camera manual and the only printed document is too basic to be of much use to photographers who wish to explore the camera’s capabilities.

      Olympus Master is a competent enough Raw file converter that provides most of the basic adjustments you need to handle brightness, contrast, colour balance and sharpness adjustments. It also provides cropping and resizing, red-eye and distortion correction tools and has facilities for rotating, saving and printing images as well as displaying slideshows. But converted files are not as smooth and fault-free as conversions made with applications like Adobe’s Camera Raw.


      The main user interface in Olympus Master.


      Image handling options in Olympus Master.


      Raw development options provided by Olympus Master.

      Pictures taken with the test camera were bright and colourful with a slightly wider than average dynamic range than we’ve come to expect from small-sensor digicams. In bright sunlight, shots had a warm hue bias, which carried over to cancel out the blue cast of shots taken in shade. Exposure levels were quite variable and depended on brightness levels at the centre of the field of view, regardless of what metering mode was set.

      Imatest showed resolution to be slightly below expectations at ISO ratings up to 400. Beyond this point, resolution deteriorated until it was very low at ISO 5000. Colour tests showed some shifts in reds, yellows and greens and increased red saturation. All these problems could easily be adjusted out in editing software. Saturation was slightly elevated but less so than in many digicams.

      Lateral chromatic aberration was severe and we found some evidence of purple fringing in outdoor shots taken in bright conditions. Long exposures at night were slightly soft when noise reduction processing was switched on and marginally less so with it off. Noise was visible in these shots at ISO settings of 400 and above.

      At the longest end of the zoom range we were able to produce some excellent shots with differential focusing. Backlighting was also handled quite well, provided the lens was shaded. Close-ups were competently handled and the super macro setting produced some impressive shots. Digital zoom shots were soft and artefact-affected.

      The test camera took almost three seconds to power-up and extend its lens for shooting. We measured an average capture lag of 1.1 seconds, which reduced to less than 0.1 seconds with pre-focusing. Shot-to-shot times averaged 1.5 seconds for JPEGs but just over 10 seconds with RAW+JPEG files due to extended processing times. It took approximately 11 seconds to empty the buffer memory in Hi 1 continuous shooting mode and 9 sec in Hi 2. Flash recharge time averaged seven seconds.
      Olympus has clearly responded to market demands in the development of the SP550 UZ. There’s a strong demand ““ particularly among travellers ““ for a compact, all-in-one camera that can cover all situations. And, despite the compromises that have had to be made, the SP550 UZ is a capable camera that is well worth considering ““ as long as you don’t plan to print your shots larger than A4 size.

      Features that particularly commend this camera to potential buyers include the long zoom lens, which starts at a very useful 28mm equivalent wide angle setting and the overall sturdy construction of the camera body. Other plusses include the informative scene mode displays and wide range of in-camera editing functions. Power consumption was also very conservative in our tests (the camera is rated for 390 shots per charge with rechargeable NiMH batteries).

      Things that could have been better include the fairly average EVF, poor high ISO performance, aggressive noise reduction system, slow autofocusing at long zoom settings and uninspiring Raw file conversion software. The lack of a comprehensive printed manual is another negative. It’s also a pity that you can’t shoot Raw files in any of the continuous shooting modes and the USB connection is not Hi-Speed 2.0.







      Resolution at ISO 100.



      Resolution at ISO 5000.



      A close-up taken with the Super Macro setting.


      Differential focus using the longest focal length with aperture priority mode.




      Burst mode: one correctly-exposed and in-focus shot out of five bursts of five shots or more. Note the warm colour bias in the shot.


      Digital zoom.


      Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.


      Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.




      Image sensor: 5.76 x 4.29mm CCD with 7.4 million photosites (7.1 megapixels effective)
      Lens: 4.7-84.2mm f/2.8 ““ f/4.5 (28-504mm in 35mm format)
      Zoom ratio: 18x optical, 5.6x digital
      Image formats: Stills ““ RAW, JPEG (Exif 2.21); Movies – AVI Motion JPEG with sound (VGA/QVGA at 30/15 fps)
      Image Sizes: Stills ““ 3072 x 2304, 3072 x 2048 (3.2), 2560 x 1920, 2304 x 1728, 2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480; Movies –
      Shutter speed range: 1/2-1/2000s (up to 4 sec. in night mode); Manual 15-1/2000s; B, max 8mins
      Image Stabilisation: Anti-Blur mode: ISO boost & CCD shift image stabiliser
      Exposure Compensation:. +/- 2EV in 0.3EV steps
      Focus system/range: TTL iESP auto focus with contrast detection; range 10 cm to infinity; Super Macro to 1 cm
      Exposure metering/control: iESP, Spot, Centre weighted metering; 23 scene modes
      ISO range: Auto, ISO 50-5000
      White balance: Auto, Sunlight, Overcast, Tungsten, Fluorescent (x3)
      Flash modes/range (ISO auto): Auto, Red-eye reduction, Fill-in, Fill-in+Red eye reduction, Slow synchro, Off; range ““ 30 cm to 6.4 m
      Sequence shooting: 1.2 fps at 7.1MP, 7fps for 15 frames at 3MP or 15 fps for 20 frames at 1.2MP
      Storage Media: 20MB internal memory plus xD-Picture Card slot
      Viewfinder: Electronic
      LCD monitor: 2.5-inch “Nightproof” LCD (230,000 pixels)
      Power supply: 4x AA batteries, CIPA rated for up to approx. 390 shots, NiMH (2300mAh), approx. 590 shots Alkaline
      Dimensions (wxhxd): 116 x 78.5 x 78 mm
      Weight: 365 grams (without batteries and card)






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