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You are hereHome > Digital Camera Reviews > Olympus SP-550 UZ


   


Olympus SP-550 UZ Review

Review Date: May 7, 2007

Category: Beginner to Serious Amateur

Olympus SP-550 UZ

USER'S EXPERIENCE

Thursday, Apr 5, 2007 - Here's what I receive in the box:

  • SP-550 UZ
  • No memory card (but 10MB Internal Memory)
  • 4x AA Alkaline Batteries
  • Neck Strap, Lens Cap, Lens Cap Retainer String
  • USB and A/V Cables
  • Documentation: Quick Start Guide Instruction Manual (English, French, Spanish)
  • Software CD: Olympus Master 2.0

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 shots.

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 SP-550 UZ.

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.

Before Focus Focus Locked using AF-assist Light
 
Picture taken with flash

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 shake.

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

Olympus Master 2

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 red-eye reduction.

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.

Summary

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.

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