Olympus SP-550 UZ Review
Olympus SP-550 UZ Exposure
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall color and hue accuracy, slight oversaturation in bright reds and blues, undersaturation in yellows and yellow-greens.
Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life. The SP-550 UZ does very little to enhance saturation in its images, resulting in somewhat muted color.
Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc. Here, the SP-550 UZ performed producing good skin tones overall.
The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is. The SP-550 UZ showed very small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, only pulling cyan toward blue and skewing the oranges toward yellow, but there was so little deviation from the standard colors that it's hard to see any pronounced hue shifts.
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm casts with both Auto and Incandescent white balance settings. About average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Color balance indoors under incandescent lighting was warm and reddish in Auto white balance mode, while the Incandescent setting resulted in a more yellow color balance that actually looked more pleasing overall. Manual white balance got it just about right. The SP-550 UZ required a +1.0 EV exposure compensation boost to get a good exposure, about average for this shot. Overall color is a bit dark and yellow in Auto mode, making the blue flowers very dark and purplish. (A very common outcome for this shot.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulb, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the US.
Good color balance overall, with fairly bright colors. Heightened contrast under bright outdoor conditions.
|Auto White Balance, +0.7 EV||Auto White Balance,
Outdoor shots showed better than average exposure accuracy, though with notably high contrast under harsh sunlight. Strong highlights tended to produce slight underexposures, as in the house shot above, with a limited midtone range, but exposure accuracy was still better than average when compared to many other consumer digicams. Overall color looked pretty good, with bright reds and blues that nonetheless didn't look too overdone. There was quite a difference between what the LCD displayed and what our computer monitor showed later, with the LCD suggesting poorer results than the camera actually captured.
High resolution, 1,400 lines of strong detail.
|Strong detail to 1,400 lines horizontal||Strong detail to 1,400 lines vertical|
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,400 lines per picture height, with extinction at around 1,700. (The camera produced slight color artifacts at lower line frequencies though, visible in the full-sized res target shots.) Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images with excellent detail. Minor blurring of detail from noise suppression in areas of subtle contrast.
|Very good definition of high-contrast elements. Just slightly soft, but not bad.||Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the even shades of Marti's hair here.
The Olympus SP-550's images are quite sharp with just a little softening in the corners. Some evidence of edge enhancement, but not bad. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)
Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears. The crop at far right shows this somewhat, with darker areas of Marti's hair showing limited, blurry detail, though individual strands are visible where a lighted strand passes in front of a darker shadow area. On balance, the SP-550 UZ shows less detail lost to noise reduction at low ISO settings than average, but more at high ISOs.
ISO & Noise Performance
Moderate noise at the normal sensitivity settings, but very high noise and strong blurring at the higher settings, especially at ISO 1,600.
|ISO 50||ISO 100||ISO 200|
|ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1,600|
The SP-550's lower ISO settings (ISO 50 and 100) produced low to moderate noise, with only slightly blurred detail in the dark areas. (As noted above, better than average in this respect.) However, starting at ISO 400, chroma noise begins to dominate areas of fine detail. At ISOs 800 and 1,600, noise is so strong and blurring so significant, that detail is lost. Given this result, we did not capture the ISO 3,200 or 5,000 settings. Color, while somewhat intact, is marred by blotchy yellow patches, and an overall yellowing of shadows.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with good overall detail, but high contrast limits both highlight and shadow detail. Limited low-light capabilities, but sensitive enough to capture bright images under typical city street lighting.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
The Olympus SP-550 UZ had a hard time with the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above, producing very high contrast with washed-out highlights and deep shadows. Shadow detail is limited, with the effects of noise suppression very evident in the form of smudged detail in deep shadow areas. The camera required about average positive compensation at +0.7 EV. (In "real life" be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)
The Olympus SP-550 UZ performed well on our low light test, with good color from the Auto white balance setting. At the lower ISO settings (50 and 100), images were bright down to 1/4 foot-candle, which is about 1/4 as bright as average city street lighting at night. At ISO 200 they were bright down to 1/16 and from ISO 400 to 800, images were bright down to the lowest light levels we test. At ISO 1,600 and above, you can see that the exposure system was unable to accurately set exposure to deal with the 1/16 foot candle, regardless of the increased theoretical light gathering ability.
The camera's autofocus system worked well, able to focus down to below 1/8 foot candle unassisted by an autofocus illuminator, and well past the darkest light level we test with the AF assist lamp enabled. Keep in mind that the long shutter times here absolutely demand the use of a tripod or other camera support to get sharp photos. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) For such applications, you may have better luck with a digital SLR camera, but even there, you'll likely need to set the focus manually. For information and reviews on digital SLRs, refer to our SLR review index page.
Coverage and Range
A useful flash range, and moderate orange cast with incandescent lighting. Our standard shots required +0.7 EV compensation.
|28mm equivalent||504mm equivalent|
|Normal Flash, High Intensity
|Slow-Sync Flash, High Intensity
Flash coverage was a bit uneven at wide angle, and clearly underpowered to deal with the extreme telephoto on the SP-550 (totally understandable, but good to know). In the Indoor test, the Olympus SP-550's flash underexposed our subject at its default setting, requiring use of the "+" flash setting to get reasonably bright results. Even here, the exposure is a little dim, with a noticeable orange cast. The Slow-Sync flash mode also needed the "+" setting, though it resulted in more even lighting; unfortunately it also has a stronger orange cast).
At ISO 100, flash power remained fairly bright to the 16-foot test distance at wide angle, but it's completely underpowered at telephoto, even at the closest range of 6 feet.
|Manufacturer-Specified Flash Range|
Our standard test method for flash range uses a fixed setting of ISO 100, to provide a fair basis of comparison between cameras. We also capture two shots using the manufacturer-specified camera settings, at the range the company claims for the camera, to assess the validity of their claims. In the shots above, the SP-550 UZ seems to perform exactly as Olympus says it will, producing good exposures at the rated distances with its ISO set to Auto (200). While the range is rather limited, the good news here is that the camera isn't significantly boosting its ISO. This would produce greater flash range, but at the cost of higher image noise. In Auto ISO mode, the SP-550's flash photos do indeed show moderate chroma noise, especially in the gray and black areas.
Great print quality, great color, crisp prints at 11x14 inches, usable ones at 13x19. ISO 400 images are usable to 11x14 inches, better at 8x10. ISO 800 is usable at 8x10, but ISO 1,600 and up are only good at 4x6.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)
The Olympus SP-550 UZ produced crisp prints at 11x14 inches, and somewhat softer but still acceptable ones at 13x19. As always though, the real test of print size came at the higher ISO settings. Here, the SP-550's ISO 400 images held up reasonably well at 11x14, but were better at 8x10 inches. The highest ISO we recommend using is 800, which also turned in usable 8x10 images; not bad for such a small camera. 5x7 and 4x6 shots at 800 are quite good, with very good color. ISO 1,600 images are only good at 4x6, an then only when held about two feet away. ISO 3,200 and 5,000 were also of limited value, and absolutely only good at 4x6. Remarkably, however, they did manage to maintain good color at these high settings.
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Olympus SP-550 UltraZoom Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Olympus SP-550 UltraZoom with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.