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Olympus SP-320 Digital Camera Review
by  -  5/17/2006

The Olympus SP-320 is a member of Olympus' SP line of cameras that have "Power and Versatility". With features like RAW image capture and several manual modes, the camera may appeal to someone with a tight budget who wants the advanced features that the camera has. The SP-320 features a 7.1 megapixel sensor, 2.5 inch LCD, and 3x optical zoom. Powered by 2 AA batteries, the SP-320 is a midsized compact camera that is comfortable to hold and takes good pictures.

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NUTS & BOLTS

Image Sensor

A 1/1.8 inch CCD has an effective resolution of 7.1 megapixels (3072x2304 pixels). You can also capture images at 3:2 (3,072 x 2,048), 2,592 x 1,944, 2,288 x 1,712, 2,048 x 1,536, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, 1,024 x 768, and 640x480. Several quality settings vary the JPEG compression rates.

Viewfinder/LCD

The SP-320 does have an optical viewfinder that is small, but effective as an alternative to the LCD. It does come in handy, since the LCD is easily overpowered by bright sunlight.

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The SP-320 has a 2.5" LCD screen with 115k pixels of resolution. The screen refresh rate is good so you get a nice fluid view of your subject. The LCD is also color accurate. Features like a live histogram and framing guides are available to help you out with your shots. The only downside to the LCD is that it does not perform well in sunlight -- it becomes very hard to see. If you increase the brightness to compensate for the sunlight, you start losing details on the LCD, so it doesn't really help out too much.

Zoom

The 3x optical zoom lens on the SP-320 has a focal length range of 8mm -- 24mm (35mm equivalent of 38mm -- 114 mm). The aperture range of the lens is f2.8 -- f4.9.

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Focus Modes and Focus Ranges

The SP-320 has the full complement of focus modes. The default mode is the iESP mode, which lets the camera select what to focus on. If you want more control, you can switch to Spot autofocus or Area auto focus. Spot fixes the focus point in the center of the frame and the Area autofocus lets you move the auto focus area around the frame. Finally, the SP-320 has a Manual Focus mode for the highest level of control.

In non-macro mode, the SP-320 AF system can focus on subjects as close as 7.9 inches at wide angle and as close as 11.8 inches at the telephoto end of the zoom. When in Macro mode, focus ranges are the same as in Normal mode. In Super Macro, you can get as close as 0.8 inches.

There is a focus assist light that comes on in dark conditions to help the camera achieve focus.

Flash

According to Olympus, the built-in flash on the SP-320 has as working range of 12 feet at wide angle and 7.2 feet at full telephoto. This claimed range seemed to be about accurate.

A dedicated flash button, next to the optical viewfinder, lets you cycle through the flash modes. Your options are: Auto, Red-eye reduction, Forced On/Fill In, Forced On with Red-eye reduction, and Forced Off. A flash intensity option in the camera menu allows you to tweak the flash output.

For more advanced flash shooting, you can choose the "sync" mode of the flash. By default, the sync is set on "Sync1", which fires the flash when the shutter opens (front curtain). If you want to shoot with a "rear curtain" where the flash fires right before the shutter closes, you can choose Sync2 from the Synchro option in the camera menu.

If you have a slave flash that synchronizes with the internal flash, you can set the output of the flash by choosing a level from 1 to 10. This option is also in the camera mode menu.

Memory Media

The SP-320 uses xD picture cards and has 25MB of internal storage. No starter card is included. Only Olympus branded xD-Picture Cards can be used with the Panorama function.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG, RAW

Connectivity

USB (for USB2.0 transfers), A/V out, DC in

Power

The SP-320 is powered by 2 AA-sized batteries. I used high-capacity NiMH rechargeables (2500 mAh) and got over 150 shots easily. Despite the good battery life, the camera needs to take breaks once in a while. If you shoot more or less continuously for more than about 30 shots, the battery indicator turns red and starts to flash. If you turn off the camera and come back 5 minutes later, the battery indicator is full and green.

Another thing that I didn't enjoy about the camera's power management was that once the battery started to get low, the cycle time between flash shots got very long and the LCD would go completely blank for upwards of 5 seconds. Also, this blanking out would happen, at seemingly random moments, while I navigated the menu system.

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EXPOSURE

As one of Olympus' more advanced point and shoot digital cameras, the SP-320 has a full complement of shooting modes and scene modes. The Auto mode does everything for you. If you want more control over white balance, ISO, etc., you can use the P (or Program Auto mode). Continue turning the mode dial, and you get A (aperture priority), S (shutter priority), and M (manual mode). The next notch on the dial is "My Mode". With My Mode, you can create your own settings and save them to the My Mode feature. The Scene mode lets you choose from the following: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape & Portrait, Night Scene, Night & Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Museum, Cuisine, Reducing Blur, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select1, Shoot & Select2, Beach, Snow, Under Water Wide1, Under Water Wide2, Under Water Macro.

Movie Mode

When shooting movies, you can choose from SHQ (640x480 at 30 frames per second), HQ (640x480 at 15 frames per second), SQ1 (320x240 at 30 frames per second, and SQ2 (320x240 at 15 frames per second). One thing that I found when using the camera (but couldn't find it in the documentation) was that while shooting on SHQ mode, I was limited to 20 second movies, even though I had space for more.

You can also enable digital image stabilization during movie capture that removes some shake. If you turn off the ability to capture sound during movie capture, you can use the zoom control. (Otherwise, the sound of the zoom motor will be audible on the movie.)

Metering

Digital iESP Auto Multi-Pattern TTL, Spot Metering, Center Weighted Metering

White Balance

The default white balance (iESP2 Multi-Pattern Auto TTL) does an ok job, but may have difficulty with some fluorescent lighting. There are several presets to choose from (Overcast, Sunlight, Evening Sun, Tungsten, and 3 Fluorescents) and you can also set a custom white balance.

Sensitivity

You can let the camera decide with Auto mode, or you can choose ISO 64, 100, 200, 400, and 800. Noise levels with the SP-320 were about average. Things are well controlled at ISO 64 and 100. At ISO 200, noise is more apparent but still acceptable for prints, with 400 and 800 getting a bit out of control.



In-Camera Image Adjustment

While in Program auto mode, you can adjust the saturation, contrast and sharpness. Also, if you need a quick tweak to the exposure, you can adjust the exposure compensation

If you want to change colors and do other edits, the functions are available during image playback.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The Olympus SP-320 is a "medium" sized compact camera. The camera has a dark grey plastic body. A battery compartment/grip holds 2 AA sized batteries and makes the camera easy to hold. A rubberized strip on the front and a place to rest your thumb on the back also help in the comfort department. Despite the plastic body, the camera feels solid in your hand. Buttons and dials operate well, with solid feel and feedback.

The top of the camera has the shutter release with zoom control ring around it. Also, the mode dial can be found on the top of the camera.

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On the back of the camera are the rest of the controls. A Disp/Guide button cycles through display modes and if you hold it down, you'll get a Guide entry. A Quick View button gives you a shortcut to playback mode. The 5-way directional pad lets you access and navigate the menu system and shortcuts. When you click Ok/Menu during image capture, the up, left, and down directions are shortcuts that can be defined in the setup menu. The right direction gets you into the main menu system. Above the LCD, you'll see the optical viewfinder, flash button and AEL/Custom button. The flash button lets you cycle through flash modes. The AEL/Custom button, by default, toggles an exposure lock, or it can be set adjust many other functions of the camera.

Technical Specifications

Included

Along with the camera, you'll get 2 AA batteries, USB cable, A/V cable, wrist strap, quick start guide, basic manual, CD-ROM of Olympus Master software, CD-ROM with the advanced user's manual, and warranty card.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Overall, I was impressed with image quality. Noise levels were controlled, colors were good, and the images showed good sharpness and detail. The camera did experience some problems with some bright red tulips -- the saturated reds were a challenge for the sensor.

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I only noticed mild barrel distortion at the wide angle and a slight pincushion distortion at the full telephoto end of the zoom range.

Macro performance was good, especially in Super Macro mode. See the fun picture below of a teak patio table and make sure you look at it at full size.

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olympus sp-320 sample
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Additional Sample Images

 
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Timing/Shutter Lag

The speed of camera operation was good, except for the cycle time between shots as the batteries run down a bit. Start up time was under two seconds. The shutter lag (time between when you push the button and when the image is captured) was average to good. When taking a shot from scratch (a full press of the shutter), shutter lag is less than one second. When focus lock is already achieved after a partial depress of the shutter, shutter lag is minimal -- I would estimate less than 1/10 of a second.

A Few Concerns

My main concern is the power management system of the camera. While you can get a decent number of shots on a single charge, the camera can get frustrating to use after the battery gets discharged a bit. Cycle time between shots can take 10 seconds and the LCD will blank out while the camera does something.

I was also not impressed with the viewability of the LCD in bright outdoor conditions -- luckily, there is an optical viewfinder if you need to resort to it.

My last gripe has to do with the xD Picture Card memory. Olympus and Fujifilm have been using this media recently. It's not bad as far as media goes, but the fact that they have their own memory format (while others settle on SD) can be a real pain if you have an investment in media already. Also, the fact that the Panorama function is disabled if you don't have Olympus branded media is very lame.

Conclusion

The Olympus SP-320 is a good choice for someone looking for camera with advanced features (RAW, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes) but who still has a pretty tight budget. At a street price under $300, the SP-320 stays affordable for such "advanced" features.

The camera takes high quality images with good color and detail. It's also easy to use, yet still has plenty of customizability with custom shortcuts and the ability to set up to four custom modes. Battery life is good, if you can handle some of the power management issues that I've brought up (cycle time and LCD black out after batteries have discharged a bit).

Pros:

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