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Preview

Olympus SP-500 UZ Digital Camera

 

This has been a year of a return to quality design and execution for Olympus, and it shows again in the SP-500UZ. The Ultra Zoom line of cameras was remarkable when it debuted, offering surprisingly long zooms that were unsurpassed by any other digital camera. Over the years, the UZ line got smaller and smaller, and lost its large grip, which was a major feature of digicams of the day. Up to last year's introduction of the C-765, they'd lost the ease of AA rechargeables as well; but the new SP-500UZ brings all of that back. It has more of the raw camera feel we're used to getting from the company's higher-end line, like the C-7070, yet it's still small and light.

Now, it's not exactly pocketable, but it's about as small as you want for handholding long zoom shots. The grip and body fills the hand just right, and the camera doesn't tax this grip with extra weight, because most of the weight is in the grip. The shutter release and zoom toggle is perched high on the grip in an ideal place. My index finger wraps around perfectly and rests on the chrome button.

SP-500 Back view

There's a nice raised area on the back 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 controls on the SP-500UZ, unlike many past Olympus cameras of this size and shape, are simple and easy to understand. The one control I'm not crazy about, despite its simplicity, is the flash pop-up button. When shooting indoors, the novice photographer needs a hidden flash to deploy automatically, and with this manual-only design, that will never happen. Combined with the long lens in low light, point and shooters are going to get a lot of blurry pictures unless they learn to leave the flash up (though the only certain way to turn the flash off is to swing it shut).

Now, we haven't tested this camera in the lab yet, because it's a prototype, but my informal shots have confirmed that this camera has an excellent flash for even very long indoor shots. I've shot over distances of about 40 feet and still the whole scene was illuminated.

Zoom

The 500UZ's long zoom reaches from 38-380mm, a full 10x. That used to be a lot more impressive, but these days there are quite a few competitors with similar specs, and most of those cameras have something the SP-500UZ doesn't: image stabilization. Zoomed all the way out, my heartbeat clearly moves the camera with every pulse. With the flash on, I can still get pretty stable shots indoors, because the camera syncs to 1/250 second, and while it's on and zoomed out, the camera defaults to 1/250. Not a bad solution. And as I mentioned, it reaches pretty far, so with a little clever programming, the camera remains usable indoors--as long as you don't mind flash shots.


I found that as long as my subject stayed still (a rare occurrence with my 22-month-old), I could rest my elbow on a seat and get some pretty stable non-flash shots indoors. But quite a few were blurry as well, some from my own motion and some from my son.

Olympus did put some smart family features into the camera,. Their Available Light Portrait Scene mode is interesting, allowing an automatically-exposed shot without the flash firing to wake up your subject. ISO and shutter speed are set to help make it happen. And for the active children, there's a special Scene mode that allows you to just keep firing as the little folks run around. When you release the shutter, you're presented with the last five shots from which you can choose a few items to delete. This last point is important to remember, because I thought selecting your images marked them to be saved, and I lost a lot of shots. Since this is a pre-release camera, we have no manual, and so I have to learn things the hard way. This is of course how most buyers will learn to use this camera--without reading the manual--so I think they should have reversed this procedure.

This feature worked fairly well, but would work better if the camera had a faster frame rate. According to the specs, it's supposed to shoot 2.5 frames per second, but I was seeing more like one frame every 2.5 seconds. We'll have to leave that for the lab when we get the full version.

The SP-500UZ has a nice big 2.5 inch LCD, great for framing and reviewing your pictures. Since the camera is a lot bigger, it would be a shame not to take advantage of that extra real estate. So it's good they did. Though the literature implies that it's a non-glare screen that has great outdoor viewability, I found it only marginally useful, showing my own reflection quite clearly in the smoky coverglass. Will this change on the full model? We'll see. It was plenty useable when aiming the camera horizontally, just not great for chimping in the sunlight (chimping is the art of huddling around a digicam and saying, "Ooo, ooo, ooo!").

For shooting in bright light, the 500UZ also has an EVF, or Electronic Viewfinder. It's basically just another LCD that you can see through a peephole so that you can still see what's going on in bright sunlight. Also, when dealing with a very long zoom lens, it's far easier to put one of these in than to build an accurate 10x optical viewfinder.

Special features include the ability to edit images inside the camera, including red-eye removal and cropping. The SP-500UZ can also accept external lenses to expand its telephoto and wide angle abilities. The WCON-07 Wide Conversion Lens has a multiplication factor of 0.7x, making the 38mm wide angle into a 26.6mm lens. Meanwhile the 1.7x TCON-17 Telephoto Conversion Lens should by definition make the already impressive 380mm lens into a 646mm lens. Brace yourself against something when using that, I think.

The SP-500UZ has a 6 megapixel sensor. Since it's a prototype we played with, commenting on the image quality wouldn't be right, since we don't know what the shipping model will deliver. I had a good experience with the camera, however, and enjoyed shooting with it.

The camera will use the xD card standard, but it comes with 10MB built in. Not a lot, but in a pinch it might due to squeeze a few more shots into the evening. It can record in JPEG or RAW, which is a nice addition. There are quite a number of Scene modes, as well as the full complement of Auto and full Manual modes. Like its bigger Olympus bretheren, it's a camera to grow with.

Look for our full review when we receive the full production unit.


SP-500 First Look Review
SP-500 Specifications
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