The Olympus SP-550 UZ generates excitement,
thanks mainly to that incredible 18x optical zoom.
Where competitors max out at 12x and 432mm, the
SP-550 UZ pushes the limit with a 504mm tele.
As if that were not enough, the SP-550 UZ further
distinguishes itself by providing a wide-angle
28mm (vs. competitors' 35mm), a focal length that
provides satisfyingly wide landscapes and group
As far as construction is concerned, the SP-550
UZ is a mixture of hard plastic and texturized
rubber coated surfaces, and it all feels well
put together. It is a handsome camera and the
rubberized grip is curved at the right places
for a comfortably natural and secure hold. Simply
put, it has one of the best handgrips I've used.
I'm glad to see image stabilization introduced
(or should I say, re-introduced) in the SP-550
UZ in the guise of an effective CCD-shift IS which
is effective to about 2 stops.
I believe all digital cameras should have Area
AF where the AF Frame can be moved about on the
screen for off-centre focusing. The SP-550 UZ
Area AF has 13 across x 11 down =
123 positions that go almost to the edge of the
screen! Once you've selected AF Mode = AREA in the
MENU, all you have to do to activate it is to
press and hold the OK/FUNC button for about 1
sec., then use the ARROW Keys to position it on
screen. Then press and hold the OK/FUNC button
for another 1 sec. to set it in its new position.
Easy and intuitive, though the 1 sec. holds slow
things down slightly.
A digital camera targeted to serious and advanced
photographers should have a Live Histogram. There
is nothing like a Live Histogram to help you determine
whether your image is correctly exposed. You cannot
rely on the LCD monitor no matter how clear and
detailed it is because today's LCD monitors tend
to adjust its display (usually, brighten) to present
a bright picture. So it's quite easy to mistake
an underexposed picture as correctly exposed on
such LCD monitors. The SP-550 UZ has 2 Live Histograms!
Besides the traditional
histogram with a distribution curve, you can
also opt for a display of bright and dark areas.
If reading the above gives you the impression
that the SP-550 UZ is brimming with features that
a knowledgeable photographer would like, you're
right. And the converse is also true: it takes a knowledgeable photographer to make the most of the
I've read of some complaints of focus
errors (camera beeps and presents solid green
dot but image still comes out blurred) but have not found this to be particularly the case with my review camera. I wonder
if it may not be a case of camera shake, especially
when the camera is handheld at long focal lengths, or of the iESP's selective focus.
To put things into perspective, consider the
following real-world test where we zoom the lens
max and take a picture of "stuff" in my closet.
The distance is about 2m 33cm away, the subject
is a roll of gift wrapping paper in a dark recess
of the closet barely visible with the naked eyes.
I manually move the AF Frame to the off-center
subject, press the shutter release button half
way to lock focus (the AF-assist light reaches
all the way into the closet and does its job very
well), and take a flash picture to see how well
the flash functions.
Focus Locked using AF-assist
The image above is a screen capture, but click
on it to view the original image at full size.
The focus is slow but spot on even in this extreme
low-light situation with the flash doing a pretty
good job properly exposing the scene. The letters
on the gift wrapper is crisp and sharply in focus.
The camera is on a tripod to eliminate camera
My personal experience with my review camera is that it is almost impossible to handhold the camera at the extreme focal length of 504mm unless you can use a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake (taking the image stabilization into consideration) or use some kind of additional support.
Be forewarned that at full telephoto, it is sometimes very challenging -- even impossible at times -- to lock focus on low (and some not so low) contrast subjects.
Master 2 Software
The Olympus Master 2 software is very user-friendly
and an excellent upgrade from the previous offering. It displays all info on one screen, including
very complete EXIF info. You can do image editing,
resize, crop, insert text, brightness & contrast,
color balance, tone curve, gamma, auto tone correction,
hue & saturation, monochrome & sepia,
sharpness & blur, distortion correction and
It also processes RAW files: exposure compensation,
white balance, picture mode, contrast, sharpness,
saturation, B&W filter, picture tone, gradation,
noise filter and color space.
The SP-550 UZ stands in an in-between zone vis-a-vis
its competitors. We're not sure whether it is targeted mainly to P&S photographers or to serious amateur photographers. It provides many
features that advanced photographers like, but it lacks the manual zoom ring
and manual focus ring that are now pretty much
a fixture of the more advanced ultra zoom digital
cameras; it has a plastic tripod thread; the high speed continuous shooting mode (at full resolution) just does not cut it; performance is sluggish; and it is still using USB 2.0 Full Speed when competitors have long moved to USB 2.0 High Speed.
It has easy-to-use scene modes and a new GUIDE feature that seems pretty helpful for P&S photographers. However, the default ESP metering almost demands a positive exposure compensation anytime some bright sky is included in the picture; there are lots of WB settings but none seems to work just right; and those attracted
to the 18x optical zoom may find that, in practice,
it can be quite challenging to achieve focus and
track a subject at that long focal length, and
so the use of a shorter and more reasonable focal
length may be more appropriate.
My personal take is that the Olympus SP-550 UZ is
a well designed and very good ultra zoom digital camera, is enjoyable to use, and the 18x wide-angle
optical zoom blows past all its ultra zoom competitors.
If you must have that much zoom power (and
the wonderful wide-angle), no other ultra zoom
can match it. Just don't expect to be able to
track and follow fast moving action at that long
focal length. The SP-550 UZ is full-featured but
it might take a knowledgeable photographer (or
a beginner willing to learn) to make the most
out of it.