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Olympus SP-510 UltraZoom Overview

by Dan Havlik
Review Date: 12/12/2006

There was a time when Olympus had the longest ultra zoomers in town, but that's all changed as more and more competing manufacturers have jumped into the ring with their own all-in-one cameras with extra long focal ranges. While you'd think these camera types would be fading with the advent of affordable Digital SLRs, that doesn't appear to be the case. Now there are smaller, more feature-rich models crowding the long-zoom pool.

The latest camera in Olympus' ultra-zoom arsenal is the 7.1 megapixel Olympus SP-510 UZ. The Olympus SP-510 features a 10x optical zoom lens that's equivalent to 38-380mm in 35mm format. The Olympus SP-510 features the company's BrightCapture technology with ISO sensitivity ranging from 50 to 4,000; though at ISO 2,500 and above the camera's resolution drops to 3 megapixels. While the Olympus SP-510 does not have true hardware-based optical image stabilization, it offers a Digital Image Stabilization mode instead. This uses a gyro sensor to detect the amount of camera shake and then employs software to select a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed while tweaking sharpening to reduce blur.

The Olympus SP-510 has a large 2.5-inch LCD screen but with a below average resolution of just 115,000 pixels. Since framing shots on an LCD at full zoom is tricky business, the camera also offers an electronic viewfinder. In addition to a range of fully automatic settings including 21 beginner-friendly scene modes, the camera offers Aperture and Shutter Priority modes for more advanced photographers who want to expand their creativity. The Olympus SP-510's battery life is also a stand-out feature with the camera able to capture up to 630 shots on four AA batteries, according to CIPA standards. The camera stores images on xD-Picture cards, or 21MB of built-in memory. Read on to find out if the Olympus SP-510UZ carries on the great Olympus tradition of ultra zoom cameras.

 

Olympus SP-510 UltraZoom User Report

Silver Shooter. The Olympus SP-510 is an attractively designed, relatively compact -- 4.2 x 2.9 x 2.8 inch (106 x 75 x 70mm) -- digital camera with some heft, weighing in at 15.98 ounces with four AA batteries and xD-Picture Card loaded, hardly shy of a pound. The extra weight is welcome, however, to help stabilize its big 10x zoom.



Silver Mettle. The Olympus SP-510 UZ eschews the digital SLR stylings of some of its competitors for a more traditional digital camera look.

Unlike some rival super zoom models, this camera doesn't attempt to reproduce the looks of a digital SLR, instead going for a sleek, rounded exterior that's a good combination of the futuristic and functional. The camera's silver polycarbonate body uses enough actual metal around the lens and on the various buttons and dials to give it a higher-end feel. The Olympus SP-510 is very easy to hold with most of the weight balanced in the generous grip portion of the body. Overall, the design is very similar to the Olympus SP-510 UZ's predecessor, the SP-500 UZ. Like the SP-500, there's a nice raised area on back of the SP-510 that the Mode dial sits atop. This makes for a good thumbrest and allows for quick mode changes with a careful turn of the knurled dial. The textured rubber on the inside of the handgrip is also a nice feature, providing just the right mix of comfort and tactile stickiness so the camera will stay snugly in your hand.

The buttons on the back of the camera seem unnecessarily small, especially the menu button which will likely get most of the action. Overall, the Olympus SP-510's external controls weren't very responsive to the touch. In several cases I had to push the buttons twice to make sure they registered. I was also slowed down a bit by the menu system which hasn't changed a lot from Olympus models of recent years, and is beginning to feel outdated. For instance, to get to the actual menu to adjust ISO, White Balance pre-sets, and the like, it takes two pushes of the Menu button -- one to get to Olympus' palette of menu choices and then another to get to the actual Camera Menu.

A similarly annoying two-step process is carried over to the Olympus SP-510's manual system. For basic camera instruction there's a Basic Manual which walks you though the simplest operations. For more advanced instruction, however, you need to load an Advanced Manual CD-ROM into your computer and then open a PDF file from the disk. Even for someone like me who spends a lot of time around computers and CDs, finding out more about this camera's functionality was a real pain. Although I've said it in reviews of products that have done away with paper manuals before -- including most of Olympus' other cameras -- I really believe that getting rid of paper manuals does a disservice to consumers.

Subpar Screen. While the Olympus SP-510's LCD screen is 2.5 inches, resolution is only 115,000 pixels, so image preview is mediocre, and rendering during playback is substandard. I really wish manufacturers wouldn't include such large screens on their cameras if they won't back them up with adequate resolution. On the Olympus SP-510's screen, it's hard to tell a good shot in playback; so it's best not to erase anything until you've had a chance to download the pictures to your computer for full review.

The Olympus SP-510 also has an electronic viewfinder which offers only so-so quality when framing shots. It is preferable to the screen on back when using the camera's full 10x zoom, though, since it'll help you steady your shots and give you a better idea of what you've zoomed in on. It also comes in handy when excessive glare in daylight won't let you properly view the LCD, which occurs regularly because of the low resolution. Overall, the LCD and EVF on the Olympus SP-510 are a disappointment.

Slow Mover. The Olympus SP-510 is one of the slowest cameras I've played with recently, powering on and ready for first shot in 2.4 seconds. Shutter lag was noticeable with the camera taking 0.63 second to snap a picture at the full autofocus wide setting. Though better when prefocused, the Olympus SP-510 was certainly no speed demon, taking 0.088 second to capture a picture, according to our tests.

The Olympus SP-510 wasn't very fast shot-to-shot either, taking an average of 4.23 seconds per shot over 20 shots in Single Shot mode when capturing images as Large Fine JPEGs. I also had issues with the speed of the camera's general operations. As mentioned earlier, the Olympus SP-510's buttons are rather small and not very responsive, sometimes taking a half second or so to respond after being pressed. I also found the menu system outdated and confusing, oftentimes requiring one more menu screen than should be necessary for basic functions.

Bright Tidings. In bright, day lit conditions, the Olympus SP-510 UZ could capture very nice pictures full of rich color and good detail.

Like its predecessor, the Olympus SP-510 uses a pop-up button to activate the flash, which I found to be confusing. Most novice photographers usually expect the flash to deploy automatically, but on the Olympus SP-510 you must firmly press the pop-up button to turn it on. Combine this manual flash system with the long lens in low light, and many point-and-shooters are likely to get a lot of blurry pictures unless they leave the flash up. The only certain way to turn the flash off is to swing it shut.

Night and Day Quality. Although the Olympus SP-510 offers what, on paper, looks like extreme light sensitivity with ISOs ranging from 50 to 4,000, that spec is deceiving. First of all, when ISO is set to 2,500 or 4,000, the camera's 7.1 megapixel resolution decreases to 3 megapixels. Based on that caveat alone, I would not recommend using either of those settings. To make matters worse, the camera produced very noisy images above ISO 400. Shadow areas were riddled with chroma noise and many pictures I took at ISO 800 on an overcast day in New York City were so noisy I thought I had mistakenly put it at the highest setting. These findings were the same in test images of still life shots taken in the lab at ISO 800 and above.



Zoomed In. Though I didn't need to use the Olympus SP-510's full 10x zoom for this shot of a stone Dionysian head, the lens did help me capture some nice detail even though the head was on the side of a building twenty feet above me.

The Olympus SP-510 does capture very nice images in daylight and under adequate indoor lighting conditions. Macro shots I took of the few flowers in my neighborhood still growing this late in the season had lively but not overly saturated color. The Olympus ED 10x f/2.8-f/3.8 aperture optical zoom lens provides very good sharpness, though because the camera uses digital image stabilization instead of hardware-based optical image stabilization, some shots I took at the full 10x zoom were not very sharp, especially in low light conditions when the camera automatically boosts the ISO. In better light, however, I was able to get some nice zoomed in shots of a stone Dionysian head on the side of a building.

Though the Olympus SP-510 tended to slightly overexpose in the brightest areas of a subject, it still offered good overall dynamic range, picking up nice detail in parts of a picture where there was less glare. After spending a few overcast days struggling with this camera's dodgy low-light capabilities, I was pleased to get a range of crisp, punchy shots when the dark clouds had moved on.

 

The Bottom Line. Though devoted Olympus users might be happy with the Olympus SP-510 -- warts and all -- I struggled with this ultra zoom model in everything but the most ideal, perfectly lit conditions. This 7-megapixel camera has a 10x zoom, it uses digital image stabilization instead of the preferred optical image stabilization, producing slightly noisy, not always sharp, photos when fully zoomed in. I found the camera's slow overall speed when taking pictures and performing basic functions to be irksome as well. It's a pity because when the light is right and you're not in a big rush (or capturing a subject that's not in a rush!) the Olympus SP-510 can take some very fine pictures with rich color and great detail.

 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Sleek, silvery design is futuristic but functional.
  • Comfortable handgrip
  • Great color, good dynamic range, and decent sharpness in images shot in adequately lit conditions
  • Excessive noise in images shot above ISO 400
  • Inadequate resolution for 2.5-inch LCD
  • Sluggish overall performance and during picture-taking and general operations
  • Outdated menu system
  • No paper manual for advanced instruction, only CD
  • Only digital image stabilization for 10x zoom which increases noise and degrades quality

 

Though long-time users of Olympus cameras might be more forgiving of some of the quirks on the Olympus SP-510 UZ, I struggled with this camera when shooting in anything but the most ideal of circumstances. While this 7 megapixel camera offers light sensitivity settings of up to ISO 4,000, image resolution drops to 3 megapixels when shooing at ISO 2,500 and above. Furthermore, excessive noise in images shot above ISO 400 degraded picture quality, making flashless shots in low-light look mottled and grainy.

I also struggled with the camera's outdated menu system, finding it difficult to quickly change basic settings and functions. This sluggishness carried over to picture-taking, where the Olympus SP-510 demonstrated noticeable shutter lag unless you pre-focused. The camera also fared poorly in our shot-to-shot tests, taking over four seconds per shot in Single Shot mode at the highest image quality setting. Other liabilities include less than adequate resolution for the 2.5 inch LCD screen, no optical image stabilization (only digital stabilization), and no paper manual to explain the Olympus SP-510's advanced functions, just a CD.

Despite producing better-than-average image quality in adequately lit indoor and outdoor settings, the Olympus SP-510's low-light deficiencies and sluggish overall demeanor prevent it from making the Dave's Picks list. We suggest you consider a long zoom camera with optical image stabilization, like the Canon S3 IS or Sony H2.