Olympus SP-550 UZ Overview
by Mike Pasini
Hands-on Preview: 1/25/07
Full Review: 6/01/07
Olympus's most ambitious Ultra Zoom yet, the 7.1 megapixel Olympus SP-550 UZ features a whopping 18x (28 to 504mm equivalent) optical zoom lens, ranging from true wide-angle to long telephoto. The relatively fast f/2.8 - 4.5 lens employs high-refractive, aspherical, and extra-low dispersion elements to maximize sharpness and clarity, and is also capable of focusing as close as 0.39 inches (1cm), an amazing feat considering the record-breaking zoom range.
To help ensure sharp, crisp results at longer focal lengths or in poor light, the Olympus SP-550 is equipped with both hardware and software image stabilization. Sensor-shift image stabilization, a first for Olympus, detects camera motion, and moves the CCD to compensate, reducing blur due to camera shake. This is especially useful at longer focal lengths, where the slightest camera movement can result in a blurry image, or in low light, when shutter speeds can be too slow for the typical user to hand-hold. The questionably named software-based Digital Image Stabilization simply boosts ISO sensitivity to gain a faster shutter speed. Faster shutter speeds help freeze subject motion, something that beginning photographers either don't know about, or don't have time to think about. It remains to be seen just how well these two systems will work together in the SP-550 UZ, but I applaud Olympus for finally including hardware-based image stabilization. It's essential for a model with such a long zoom.
The SP-550 also has a flexible, high-speed sequential shooting mode, which allows bursts at rates from 1.2 frames-per-second for 7 frames at full resolution, to as rapid as 15 frames-per-second for 20 frames at 1.2 megapixels. A separate mode uses a "Pre-Capture" feature that starts capturing shots the moment focus is locked, storing five frames just before the shutter release is fully depressed, compensating somewhat for user response time and shutter lag.
Other SP-550 UZ features include a 7.1 megapixel 1/2.5 inch CCD that delivers images up to 3,072 x 2,304 pixels in size. With such a long zoom, the SP-550 also uses an electronic viewfinder with diopter correction. Its 2.5-inch LCD has approximately 230,000 pixels, great for checking focus. There are four focus modes including manual. Exposure modes include Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Auto, Guide mode, and 22 scene modes. The SP-550 provides a generous (perhaps overreaching) ISO sensitivity range of 80 to 5,000 (with reduced resolution above ISO 1,600). The Olympus SP-550 offers a VGA movie mode (with QVGA also available), capturing clips at 640 x 480 pixels at up to 30 frames-per-second in AVI format (Motion JPEG) with sound, for as long as the xD-Picture card, or internal memory has space. Enthusiasts will also appreciate the 550's Raw image file support.
The SP-550 stores images and movies on xD-Picture cards, or 20MB of built-in memory. The Olympus SP-550 also offers Audio/Video and USB (full-speed) computer connectivity. Power comes from four AA batteries or an optional C-7AU AC adapter.
The Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom is expected to ship in March 2007 at an estimated street price of $500.
Olympus SP-550 UZ
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Rewind to January 2002. I had spent some time at the Olympus booth at Macworld Expo and had sad news to report: "Sadly, though, we learned the Olympus C-2100 UZ (which features 10x optical zoom and image stabilization) is being discontinued with no successor planned. The Olympus rep who confirmed the news also owns one, calling it the best camera he'd ever owned. An opinion that was seconded by a bystander who also owned one."
There's more. "The rep said Olympus simply wasn't able to sell enough of them, presumably because it's a bulkier design than their more popular models. He recommended hunting for one at CompUSA where they're going for about $500."
What a difference half a decade makes. That same five spot now gets you the Olympus SP-550 UZ, which has an 18x zoom with image stabilization. And 7.1 megapixels with a nice 2.5-inch LCD. Olympus has managed to re-expand its line, long dominated by compact Stylus models, and resurrect its long zoom. I've used a few UltraZooms in the past, but this one blew me away.
Debate obscure features all you like, but this one is real simple: Would you like 18x optical zoom with 100x digital and ISO that runs up to 5,000? Okay!
Design. The Olympus SP-550 UZ is an attractive digicam. Its elegant lines are molded to fit your hand. Everything you touch on the shell is wrapped in a soft textured grip like it was just waiting to be caressed.
A long zoom shouldn't be so light that it loses its target in a breeze, and the Olympus SP-550 UZ has the heft to steady itself in your hand without wearying your arm. It has a couple of eyelets on the side that first require you to attach special rings, to which you attach the shoulder strap. That seemed like a lot of work to me. So I skipped the strap and just grabbed it to carry it or shoot. It never even threatened to fall from my grip.
Controls are right at your thumb, very simple, and on the Olympus SP-550 UZ's top deck for those once-in-a-while mode changes. It's a design that's been refined over the years to what can only be called ideal. This is a very sweet package.
Display/Viewfinder. In addition to its 2.5-inch LCD, the SP-500 UZ has an electronic viewfinder for use in bright sunlight. But, frankly, neither do its images justice.
I was shooting some close-ups of flowers in Golden Gate Park. Bright pink ones that filled the frame. As soon as I took the shot, I compared the instant review display on the LCD with the flower. Overexposed. So I adjusted the EV compensation and took another. Overexposed. I gave it less exposure and settled. Back at the computer, it was the first shot that was the most accurate. The Olympus SP-550 UZ's LCD was showing blown highlights that weren't there. Instead, they were full of detail and rich with color.
Performance. A long zoom isn't going to win any prizes for startup or shutdown speed. Like a long-legged model exiting a limo, it slowly extends its assets, crank outing out those extravagant optics.
There's a similar problem with finding focus. The Olympus SP-550 UZ's lens isn't just a wide angle that hits infinity at about three feet away. It's a long zoom that fidgets with a shallow depth of field across the street.
Olympus provides several ways to work around the focus issue. There's manual focus, for one. There's Prefocus (in which the camera tries to anticipate focus). There's Continual Focus (the camera is always finding focus, not just when you half press the Shutter button). There's a burst mode that captures five shots before you press the Shutter button.
And of course the Olympus SP-550 UZ has optical image stabilization. Or I wouldn't be talking about this at all. Even with image stabilization, it's difficult to hold your target and press the Shutter button (especially if you're excited by finding a rare bird perched in your scene). The slightest motion can offset your composition just enough to ruin it. At 18x (let alone 100x), this really is a different game.
But it's a game you either love or don't get. And if you love it, you don't pay much attention to things like chromatic aberration, vignetting or corner sharpness. Your subject is in the center of the frame and you're closer to it than you can possibly get in reality.
With four AA batteries in the Olympus SP-550 UZ, I was able to shoot for days without swapping out the cells. That surprised me, frankly. I usually put in fresh batteries for every shoot, but I had an old but unused set and I wanted to know how long they'd last. They lasted -- in this camera.
On the other hand, I'm no fan of the Olympus menu system. In its favor, it's essentially the same as the one on the Stylus system, although the Olympus SP-550 UZ's menu system has quite a few more options. But the star array of options on the top menu is just too confusing for me. Up to nine text labels are presented in three rows with three columns, the center item highlighted. I much prefer a sequential arrangement of some kind (tabs, say) to this scatter-shot approach.
But the controls I most wanted were at hand on the Olympus SP-550 UZ's control pad, so I wasn't much discomfited on my various shoots.
Shooting. You do think differently about your photography with a long zoom. I couldn't resist taking some macros of flowers (Spring, after all, has sprung here). Really gorgeous stuff.
But then I got serious about the zoom range. So I went to the buffalo paddock (okay, the American Bison Meadow) to fulfill my life-long dream to shoot buffalo. Unfortunately, they were in a meeting. A lunch meeting. The three martini kind of lunch.
But I did spy one on the side of a hill about 300 yards away. I got as close as I could. There was a chain link fence between us. I slipped the Olympus SP-550 UZ's lens carefully between the links and took a wide angle shot just to set the scene. There's no way you can tell there's a buffalo in that picture.
So I zoomed in to full optical. Yes, you can see a resting buffalo. Then I got ambitious, turned on digital zoom and got a nice profile of his head at 3072x2304 pixels. I actually felt I should back off a little for a nicer composition. And I did.
Just up the road, I used the Olympus SP-550 UZ's 28mm end for a pleasant wide angle shot of Spreckles Lake near the Model Yacht Club. The lake is a favorite spot for sailing model yachts, often built by the owners who routinely turn down offers as high as $12,000 for them. I was disappointed not to find any boats on the lake but I zoomed across the lake anyway and was shocked to see what the camera captured. You could call it a crime in progress (see the Gallery images for the painter crouched over the bench: images YP4160884.JPG, YP41608845.JPG, and YP4160887.JPG).
"Police should have these," Mom said when I showed her what the Olympus SP-550 UZ could do. It can see without being seen. The gallery shots have several examples of this -- but you really have to be told that the shots go together (look at the file names for close sequences). There's one of Stow Lake with a pagoda, another of the Conservatory whose closeup is the front door handle. And then there's my standard shots from Twin Peaks -- except in this case my digital zoom shot shows a retirement party in the Bank of America building (well, nearly).
But I wasn't done with long zooming quite yet.
What about birds? I seem to recall shooting birds trumps shooting buffalo in some circles. So I set myself up in a sort of blind in the back yard and kept an eye on the overhead wires.
Shooting birds is a lot harder than shooting buffalo. Birds, for one thing, never sit still. If they aren't preening, they're scanning the sky for hawks and the ground for insects or seeds.
This caused no small problem focusing. But I got good enough at it that I was able to catch even a hummingbird in mid-flight. Pretty wild.
I did shoot a lot more images than I actually kept, shooting birds, but what I got was worth it to me (even though it required more patience than photographing a four-year-old child).
Long zoom is fun and long zoom is what you buy the Olympus SP-550 UZ for, but it's pretty capable of ordinary shots, too. At lunch one day, I set it to ISO 1,600 and grabbed a shot of the counter at Joe's. What I liked about the shot is that it captures the atmosphere, the color, the tone, even if it sacrifices some detail. In fact, I kind of hoped the SP-550 UZ would sacrifice some detail, since I didn't want any recognizable faces. There's certainly plenty of noise in the shadows, but the thumbnail itself makes me smile.
Likewise the shot of the menu and candle on the table at ISO 500 at 1/30 of a second at f/2.8. It captures the scene -- with enough detail to tell filet of sole is $11.45.
While I was sitting there, I slipped into Scene mode (something I rarely do) to set the Olympus SP-550 UZ on Behind Glass for a shot through glass. The glass? An aquarium across the room with the glare of the overhead lights on it. I got the fish, even at the expense of burning out the coral. And I might have done better if my lunch hadn't arrived just then.
My doll shots in the darkness of the garage were simply among the best I've ever gotten with any camera. Here image stabilization helped maintain sharpness despite a 1/10 second exposure. And even though ISO went up to 800, the noise was minimal and color was rich. This is such a dark setting, you'd never think to take a photo. But the Olympus SP-550 UZ was up to it.
My shots at Spreckles Lake were actually shot at High ISO, indicated in the Full Exif Display as GainControl with "Low gain up." Usually you would not set Auto ISO to High ISO for a daylight shot, but the camera should be able to set the ISO to 50 or 100 even at High ISO. And the Olympus SP-550 UZ did, but I also saw a lot of contrast in some of these shots.
I should also note that there's quite a bit of distortion with the Olympus SP-550 UZ's lens at both ends. I created a profile for the wider end of the lens using Acolens. That's always a revealing moment. No lens is perfect and optical distortions are easily accommodated by our "intelligent" vision. The SP-550's distortion doesn't particularly bother me, especially since I get the benefit of that zoom range, but it's not slight either.
Appraisal. While I had a little trouble focusing on subjects that wouldn't sit still, the Olympus SP-550 UZ let me shoot things I couldn't even see without looking through its lens. And I found that a lot of fun. A whole new world of birds, fish and buffalo, in fact. But the Olympus SP-550 UZ was just as capable taking shots at wide angle and in Macro mode. Some of my flower shots really surprised me with the quality of the color and detail. And its optical image stabilization and high ISO performance took great low-light shots as well.
- 7.10-Mp, 1/2.5-inch CCD
- 18x zoom (28-504mm 35mm equivalent) with 14 elements in 11 groups, 4 aspherical lenses, 2 ED lenses
- 5.6x digital zoom (seamless 100x total zoom)
- Maximum aperture of f2.8 to f4.5, minimum f8.0
- 2.5 inch LCD with 230,000 pixels
- Electronic viewfinder with dioptric correction
- ISO 50 to 1600 at full resolution
- Shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/2000 second with Bulb
- Multipattern and center-weighted metering
- Auto, custom and preset white balance options
- Built-in flash with six modes
- Self timer with 12 and 2 second options
- xD Picture Card storage media up to 2GB
- PictBridge and DPOF compatible
- USB 2.0 Full Speed
- Powered by four AA batteries
- Seamless 100x zoom range with 18x optical plus 5.6x digital
- TruePic Turbo Image Processor
- Sensor-shift optical and digital (high ISO, fast shutter) image stabilization
- 15 frame per second sequential shooting
- Precapture technology at reduced image size to record action before shutter is pressed
- ISO 3200 and 5000 at reduced (3.1Mp) image size
- Olympus Bright Capture Technology for low light situations
- Full manual control plus 30 shooting modes, including Movies with sound
- Scene modes include Portrait, Landscape, Landscape & Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Night & Portrait, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Available Light, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select1, Shoot & Select2, Beach, Snow, Underwater Wide1, Underwater Wide2, Underwater Macro
- Up to 10 frames in Panorama modes
- Setting memorization to store changes or restore defaults
- 20MB internal memory
In the Box
The Olympus SP-550 UZ ships with the following items in the box:
- Olympus SP-550 UZ digital camera
- Four AA alkaline batteries
- USB cable CB-USB6
- Audio/Video cable CB-AVC3
- Shoulder strap with rings
- Lens cap with strap
- Printed manual
- CD-ROM with Olympus Master 2.0 software
- Warranty card
- Large capacity xD memory card. These days, a 1GB or 2GB card is a good trade-off between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
- Rechargeable NiMH batteries and a good charger
While I had a little trouble focusing on subjects that wouldn't sit still, the Olympus SP-550 UZ's 18x optical zoom with 100x total zoom let me shoot things I couldn't even see without looking through its lens. And I found that a lot of fun. A whole new world of birds, fish and buffalo, in fact.
But the Olympus SP-550 UZ was just as capable taking shots at wide angle and in Macro mode. Some of my flower shots really surprised me with the quality of the color and detail. And its optical image stabilization and high ISO performance took great low-light shots as well.
While it has enough to complain about, the Olympus SP-550 UZ merits a Dave's Pick for its excellent physical design and world beating zoom range.