The Olympus SP-550 UZ is medium compact
in size and it just boggles the mind that an optical
18x ultra zoom is housed in the handsome dark
grey-finish body. The finish is a mixture of non-slip
texturized rubber covering the handgrip and smooth
satin grey hard polycarbonate plastic for the
rest of the body, plus silver/chrome accents to
tie it all together into a very good looking camera. The result is a tightly built
body with excellent construction and balance.
The handgrip is one of the best I've used on an
ultra zoom and feels comfortably secure with all
my fingers finding a resting place. The camera
is a few mm wider (11mm), higher (4mm) and deeper
(8mm) than the SP-510 UZ it replaces.
The zoom goes from a satisfying wide-angle 28mm
to an incredible tele reach of 504mm (focal lengths
throughout this review are expressed in 35mm equivalent). The 18x optical
zoom is currently the longest available in an
ultra zoom digital camera with its closest competitors
maxing out at 12x optical zoom. Wide-angle and
ultra zoom all in one! Kudos to Olympus for this
impressive optical feat. And don't forget the CCD-shift
image stabilization -- a first for Olympus ultra
zoom digital cameras.
With the camera powered on, the lens extends
approx. 23mm (< 1 in.) and takes approx. 2.5
sec. to do so. At full zoom, the lens extends
approx. an additional 40mm (@1.5 in.) and takes
approx. 3 sec. to do so. A lens cap sits on top
of the lens barrel and is just loose enough that
the extruding lens will not jam but will safely
push it off the lens barrel should you turn on
the camera and forget to remove the lens cap first.
A retaining string ensures you do not lose the
The camera is ready to go (lens extended, LCD
on) in about 3 sec. This is about 1 sec. longer
than for the SP-500 UZ and a relatively long startup
time compared to the competition (about 2 sec.).
Shot to shot time is also quite long, at about
4 sec. with most of that time apparently taken
with writing the image to the xD-Picture Card.
AF time is below average and can take up to 4
sec. at full tele to lock focus in low-light.
Depending on your type of photography, this performance
may or may not be an issue with you.
The SP-550 UZ sports a large 2.5-in. LCD screen
with a high 230,000 pixels resolution. The EVF
is excellent with a smooth display and the image appears bright (without hurting my eyes),
clear and crisp letting you know when focus lock
is achieved. There is a diopter adjustment that
works very well. I can see the whole viewfinder
display even with glasses on. As with other EVFs, exposure data and
a framing grid or histogram can be superimposed.
Colours: overall grey
with silver and chrome accents
Looks: SLR-style, handsome
Controls spaced well
Medium Compact: best carried hung
around the neck or shoulder
Dimensions: 116 x 78.5 x 78 mm /
4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 in.
Weight: 365g / 12.9 oz. without batteries
and media card
Takes 4 AA batteries
SPEED OF OPERATION
Below average startup with lens extending
about 23 mm (0.9 in.) and LCD turning
on in about 3 sec.
Shot to shot time about 4 sec.
AF feels a bit sluggish and can take
up to 4 sec. at full tele in low-light
Shutter lag in good light at wide-angle
about 1 sec., more if AF time included,
none if pre-focused
Included in the box are 4 AA Alkaline batteries.
Battery life is excellent even using Alkaline
batteries (@ 490 shots CIPA Standard). We recommend
that you purchase 4 AA NiMH rechargeable batteries
and a battery charger.
The top of the camera has the Power Button, the
Stabilizer button (customizable), the Shutter
Release Button, the Zoom Lever around the shutter
release button, and the Mode Dial. The Mode Dial
has AUTO, P, A, S, M, My Mode (4 available), GUIDE,
SCN (Scene Modes), Movie and Playback. The molded
shape of the excellent handgrip is clearly visible
from this angle.
The SP-550 UZ has full exposure flexibility,
with PASM, plus Scene Modes. In addition, there
is a GUIDE setting on the Mode Dial that attempts
to answer the most common questions beginners
ask by providing various solutions to a "problem."
For example, if you take a picture and it turns
out too dark, the GUIDE offers two ways that you
can brighten it: 1) Dial in an exposure compensation
(+1.0EV), or 2) Use fill-in flash (you need to
pop up the flash up first, of course). You select
the option you want and it's set! It's really
helpful for beginners as a learning tool. There
are 15 subjects covered in the GUIDE:
Shooting into backlight
Set particular lighting
Adjusting area in focus
Shooting subject in motion
Targeting with assistance
Close up photo
Super close up photo
Shooting at night
Hi-speed sequential shots
Don't miss the shot
Adjusting image quality
The flash is of the pop-up kind (button on the
left side) and needs to be manually popped up.
Beginners who rely on the camera to fire the flash
automatically will need to remember to pop up
the flash first; every one else will be happy
they have full control over when the flash fires.
The flash can be set to fire front curtain or
rear curtain, allowing you to take those streaking car light special effects.
The Zoom Lever is around the Shutter Button and
it takes about 3 sec. to zoom from wide to tele.
The zooming is very smooth and I counted about
28 intermediate steps going from W to T and about
52 steps from T to W, which makes it possible
to stop the zoom pretty much at the point where
you want it to. Most of the SP-550 UZ's competitors have a manual zoom ring and a manual focus ring, and these would have made a tremedous difference to the enjoyment of this camera.
To turn the CCD-Shift Image Stabilizer on, all
you need to do is press the Stabilizer button
and select ON. However, since the Stabilizer button
can be customized to some other function, you
can also set Image Stabilizer on in the MENU.
There are a number of Continuous shooting options
and it's all a bit confusing figuring out when
options are available and when they are not. The
Instruction Manual is no help here. For example,
the HI 1 and Hi 2 options are available only when
ISO is set to AUTO or ISO 400 and above.
Only the Sequential option allows you to shoot
at highest quality JPEG (none of the options allows
RAW shooting) at 1.3fps for 3 frames max. Hi 1
takes up to 15 frames at 5fps at 2048x1536 (3M).
Hi 2 takes up to 20 frames at 15fps at 1280x960
A Pre-capture option on Hi 2 allows the 5 frames
just prior to fully pressing the shutter release
button. It's pretty neat and helps you "catch
the moment" though at 1280x960 (1.2M) resolution.
AF drive mode adjusts the focus for each frame.
This means that you get the advertised high continuous shooting only if you are willing to live with low resolution and noisy images.
I used a 1.0GB Olympus xD-Picture Card Type M.
Video Storage Capacity
9m 28s or 15s
You can record movies with sound limited only
by the size of your memory card. You can store
approx. 10 sec. of SHQ movie in the Internal Memory,
or approx. 9 min. 28 sec. on a 1GB xD-Picture
Note that if you are not using a High Speed
xD-Picture Card (Type H), you'll be able to store
only 15 sec. of SHQ movie (the other Image Quality
options do not seem to be affected).
If sound is set ON, you cannot use optical zoom
(you can use digital zoom) during movie recording
nor use the Image Stabilizer. If the sound is
turned OFF, you can use the optical zoom and the
Image Stabilizer (though with Image Stabilizer
ON, Olympus warns that the camera will heat up
and may stop recording, in which case you need
to remove the battery and allow the camera to
cool down). If Full Time AF is ON, the sound of
the focusing will be recorded.
No xD-Picture Card comes with the camera but
there is approx. 20MB of internal memory.
xD-Picture Card Storage
RAW + SHQ
RAW + HQ
RAW + SQ1
RAW + SQ2
Unlike some digital cameras that only give you
a few image quality / image size options, the
SP-550 UZ gives you a plethora of image quality
/ image sizes combinations. (However, we can't
help wondering if all that is really necessary.)
RAW can be saved by itself or in combination
with a JPEG mode. It takes about 8 sec. to save
a RAW file, and 12 sec. to save a RAW + JPEG files.
At JPEG SHQ, 246 images can be saved on a 1GB
xD-Picture Card. We recomend that you purchase
either a 1GB or 2GB card, depending on the number
of images you normally shoot in one session.
The back is well organized: there is a large
2.5 in. LCD monitor, and the controls are on the
right side, adequately well spaced out. The thumb
area slopes up to the right to provide a comfortable
and sure hold.
BY CONTROL BUTTONS (clockwise starting from
the EVF/LCD button)
EVF/LCD toggles between the EVF and
LCD. EVF has diopter adjustment.
Arrow Pad: UP (Exposure Compensation),
RIGHT (Flash Auto, Red-eye reduction,
Fill-in, Red-eye fill-in, Slow, Off
-- only if flash is popped up), DOWN
(Self-timer 12s, 2s), LEFT (Macro, SuperMacro)
OK/FUNC (WB, ISO, Drive, Metering)
DISP: Info (Normal), No info (Simple),
Info + Grid (FRame Assist), Info + Histogram
ERASE (only one image at a time)
Once set, the Exposure Compensation
Indicator conveniently stays displayed
on screen until it is reset to "0"
Range: -2 EV to +2 EV (13 steps in
1/3 EV increments)
The screen brightness will increase
or decrease to reflect the value you
Note: the exposure compensation value
selected is retained even when the camera
is turned off (so remember to reset
to "0" after using it or the
next time you turn the camera on, your
shots may be over- or under-exposed.)
The USB connector is covered by a square rubber
flap. The bottom of the camera has a plastic [!] tripod
socket and the battery compartment has a safety
lock to prevent accidental opening of the compartment.
LCD & Menus
There is an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a
large 2.5 in. LCD monitor with a high 230,000
pixels resolution. The EVF is one of the best
I've used, bright, clear and crisp -- without
hurting my eyes as most high resolution EVFs do.
The LCD has a fast enough refresh rate for a
smooth display. The LCD monitor's brightness can
be adjusted in MENU/SETUP. The LCD gains up very nicely in low-light. Also when you half-press, it will
focus and the resulting display will gain up even more.
There is a very effective AF-assist which makes
auto focus to be precise even in
low-light situations. [Except in situations where
the AF light cannot reach a subject that is too
close to the lens, as in Super Macro mode.]
The Menu Structure has improved but is still
quite hierarchical, which makes for lots of button
presses and generally slow navigation.
CAMERA MENU 1 of 5
- Fine Zoom
CAMERA MENU 2 of 5
- AF Mode
- Focus Mode
- Fulltime AF
- AF Predict (for subject moving toward
or away from camera)
- NOrmal, Sequential, HI 1, HI 2, HI 2
FUNC - DRIVE 2 of 2
- AF, AEB
FUNC - METERING
- ESP (Multi-Pattern), Spot, Center-weighted
IMAGE QUALITY 1 of 2
IMAGE QUALITY 2 of 2
- Turns off operational sound (warning
beeps, shutter sounds, etc.)
PLAYBACK MENU OPTIONS
- Voice Memo (4 sec.)
ERASE - ALL
ERASE - ALL Confirm
- It takes 7 button presses to earse all
images on your camera
- Battery indicator, Program, 1/30 sec.
shutter speed, F2.8 aperture, +0.7EV exposure
- 2s self-timer, Flash on
- Image Stabilizer
- One Touch WB
- ISO 100, Macro
- Sequential, xD-Picture Card
- Image Quality SHQ, Image Size 3072x2304,
Space left for 245 images
- Frame assist displayed
- Cannot display both grid and histogram
at the same time
The Olympus SP-550 UZ has very good build
and construction, an excellent handgrip, and well
spaced controls. It has lots of useful features,
a very good EVF and LCD monitor that gains up
very well in low-light situations. Overall, Olympus
has given its ultra zoom a new SLR-like look and
feel, and this works very well. Only letdown is
the sluggish performance and lack of manual zoom and focus rings.