Olympus SP-550 UZ Hands-On Preview

by Shawn Barnett
Hands-on Preview: 1/25/07
Test Images Posted: 3/22/07
More Test Images: 3/31/07

Olympus's latest iteration of the Ultra Zoom shows a little more promise than the recently reviewed SP-510. While the 510 attempted to recapture the look and feel of past successes like the C-8080, the SP-550UZ marks a somewhat late turn in the direction that the rest of the market has been headed for two years. The addition of real image stabilization to a longer zoom is probably the most significant development, followed by a new look.

Look and feel. The Olympus SP-550 has a more SLR-like build, with a slight, and probably unnecessary bulge out from the left of the lens (from the back). Combined with the big piece of glass out front, the pop up flash over top, and the largish grip, the SP-550 will look more appealing next to small SLRs like the Nikon D40 and Rebel XTi.

It has a dark gray body, with both painted shiny plastic surfaces and more matte surfaces. These latter surfaces are either coated with or completely made from a thick rubbery substance that's warm and soft to the touch, and provides a wonderful grip. This rubber surface also coats the substantial thumb-rest on the SP-550's back panel. The combination makes for a very sure hold on the camera.

Despite the rubbery assistance, the grip is smallish, and you have to adjust your hold on the camera, holding it high in your palm. It's a pretty small camera, so that's understandable.

I really like the shutter button on the SP-550. It's a little higher up on the body than I'm used to, but it's angled nicely; and I like the large chrome zoom ring around the shutter. It's becoming my preferred location for zoom toggles.

I'm pleased to see a diopter adjustment dial on the SP-550UZ, an important feature even when the camera has an EVF (electronic viewfinder) instead of an optical viewfinder.

The mode dial on the SP-550 doesn't thrill me, however, because it turns too easily, and doesn't positively move to the next position. It can easily be turned to rest in-between settings, causing confusion and missed shots. Since this is a prototype, this could change with the shipping version, but this is the type of design element that doesn't usually change at this late date.

I like the power button, a soft rubber button behind the shutter release whose purpose is clearly marked. To the upper right of this is the image stabilization button. Press it to cycle through the two sensor-shift stabilization modes, and press Set to select. I'd prefer that pressing the shutter button selected as well, but at least there's an onscreen instruction to help you along.

The new control cluster works for me on the SP-550, whereas other recent Olympus digicams that used the same cluster were just too small overall to support what amounts to a nine-button array. But the SP-550's excellent thumb-rest above leaves plenty of room for the thumb to actuate the controls on purpose, rather than accidentally. The raised silver ring makes pressing the four-way navigator very easy, and feels of decent quality as well.

The pop-up flash is activated by pressing the manual release button on the left of the lens housing, the same place that most SLRs use for this button. Unfortunately, the fully-automatic mode on the SP-550 cannot release this flash when it deems necessary. Instead the flash icon, shutter speed, and aperture displays flash red onscreen.

Screen. The 2.5 inch LCD on the back delivers silky smooth images with its 230,000 pixels, and checking focus seems pretty easy, except in bright light where the polished glass somewhat obscures the screen.

Optic. The most compelling feature of the SP-550 is its 18x lens. This is what gives long zoom digicams their greatest advantage over their SLR competition. Matching a zoom of this range with an SLR, the equivalent of 28-504mm on a 35mm camera, requires several lenses, and several lens changes, while the SP-550 can do it in one smooth zooming motion. The 504mm end is an impressive sounding spec, but the real benefit that most other long zoom digital cameras don't have is that 28mm lens.

Very few digital cameras can capture what we need for indoor photography, so it's significant when any digicam has a 24 or 28mm lens. But achieving 28mm with a 504mm at the other end is impressive indeed. We'll have to wait for our test results before we rave further, but if they've held chromatic aberration and distortion in check, the SP-550 could be quite the little darling of the enthusiast crowd.

The other notable aspect about the lens is its f/2.8 aperture at wide angle. This changes to f/4.5 at the 504mm end, but it's still useful to have a fast lens for low light shooting.

Stabilizing influence. Also missing from the last three Ultra Zoom cameras was some kind of image stabilization. This has been a glaring omission from Olympus's entire line. Now they have a new sensor shift technology that will be necessary for such a long zoom on the very small SP-550UZ.

Olympus is calling the new technology "Dual Image Stabilization" because they also employ what they've been calling "Digital Image Stabilization." This is a software-driven strategy that raises the ISO and biases toward wider apertures in order to raise the shutter speed. It's more a mode that biases the camera's automatic exposure system than anything that can be called image stabilization. It's misleading marketing hype, and as a recent editorial on dpreview.com offered, it's a practice that should be discontinued. This mode has always been better referred to as Sports or High ISO mode. We can only hope that with a genuine form of mechanical image stabilization at their disposal, Olympus will let Digital Image Stabilization fade into history.

A few other features of the SP-550 that are prominently mentioned might seem to exceed the capabilities of modern digital SLRs, like the ability to capture 15 frames per second. While that's probably true, they don't mention that the resolution is reduced to 1.2 megapixels to achieve that. It's actually a capture mode that is included on many other digicams, and is not invalid, but it's a little misleading, again. The Pre-capture mode is also not new, but certainly has its uses. When set to this mode, the camera begins to capture images before you press the shutter, something fairly easy to do at low resolution, since it's already capturing images and displaying them on the LCD.

Since they're bringing this mode to the front, we'll test it when we get a working sample. Though you might get crisper shots in this high speed continuous mode, this is the point at which I switch the camera to Movie mode and catch the live action with audio. The SP-550 can capture video at up to 30 frames per second at 640x480 up to the limit of the xD card.

Most appropriate for Olympus digicam fans, the SP-550 includes all four standard exposure control modes, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Manual, in addition to full Auto, Scene, and Guide mode. Guide mode is the most interesting, allowing users who don't want to think about what modes mean to just look at list of common shooting situations and let the camera pick the mode. Items like "Shooting into backlight," "Shooting subject in motion," and "Super closeup photo," are easy to understand; but like Scene modes, I still wonder whether people use them much.

For the rest, we'll have to wait until we receive a full review unit. Just from holding and using the SP-550, it seems like Olympus is listening to the market and designing accordingly. The SP-550 looks and feels great, and its optical specs do indeed impress.

Check back for a full suite of tests and sample images when we get the full shipping version.

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