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Olympus SP-510 UZ Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  12/26/2006

The Olympus SP-510 UZ – A bit less than the sum of its parts

Many digital imaging industry experts thought consumer demand for long zoom digital cameras would disappear once affordable digital SLRs hit store shelves, but there are now more monster zoom digicams available than there were when the world’s cheapest dSLR cost three grand.  Today’s long zoom digicams are smaller, faster, more powerful, and cheaper than those famous Olympus long zoom digital cameras from a few years back.  Once upon a time Olympus was the long zoom digicam king, but as more and more OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have jumped on the monster zoom bandwagon, Olympus has fallen behind the competition (Canon S3 IS, Panasonic FZ5 & FZ7, Sony H2 & H5) in this popular digicam niche market. 

olympus sp-510 uz
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The latest long zoom digicam from Olympus is the 7.1 megapixel SP-510 UZ. The SP-510 UZ has a lot going for it: a 10X optical zoom, a large 2.5-inch LCD screen, a full slate of exposure options, an amazing sensitivity range, and outstanding battery life.   The Olympus SP-510 UZ also offers consumers a nice selection of useful features and SLR like ergonomics, but its lackluster performance, high noise levels, and failure to include optical image stabilization may be deal breakers for many consumers.
 
NUTS & BOLTS


Viewfinder/LCD  

The SP-510 UZ features a relatively high-eyepoint tunnel style electronic viewfinder (EVF). The SP-510 UZ’s high resolution (235,000 pixels) EVF is noticeably sharper than the LCD screen – which is nice for veteran shooters who generally eschew arms-length LCD screen composition in favor of traditional framing/composition techniques.  The EVF is also fairly bright, which helps when glare and harsh outdoor lighting make the SP-510 UZ’s 2.5 inch low resolution (115,000 pixels) LCD screen unusable. The EVF is essentially hue (color) accurate, but EVF/LCD images are noticeably warmer than the actual images captured.   The EVF (like the LCD screen) is fluid - movement is smooth rather than jerky, but there’s no diopter correction for eyeglasses wearers. 


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I found myself using the SP-510 UZ’s EVF for framing/composition virtually all the time because the large 2.5 inch LCD screen is difficult to see in bright outdoor lighting.  Further compounding the problem is the LCD screen’s low (115,000 pixels) resolution.  The SP-510 UZ’s LCD screen is acceptably bright and (in most situations) fluid, but it isn’t very sharp. The LCD screen provides users with a detailed information/status readout and a histogram option. Both the LCD screen and the EVF show almost 100 percent of the image frame.
 
Zoom Lens

The heart of the SP-510 UZ is its f2.8-f3.7/6.3-63mm (38-380mm - 35mm equivalent) all glass zoom. This broad-range optic allows the camera to be used for shooting just about anything - from moderate wide-angle (landscapes, group shots, travel, street scenes) compositions to super telephoto (sports, wildlife, concerts, auto racing) shots.

The SP-510 UZ's 10X zoom (11 elements in 7 groups with 2 aspherical elements to reduce curvilinear distortion) is a very complex optic so it realistically can't focus as rapidly as a shorter zoom.  AF speed issues occur most often in low light situations, but in good light the SP-510 UZ's 10X zoom is acceptably (but not impressively) quick. Minimum aperture is f8.0 at both the short and long ends of the zoom

The SP-510 UZ's monster zoom is surprisingly sharp (for an optic of this complexity), but the lack of image stabilization largely negates this positive characteristic; full size images are often a little mushy looking, especially at the long end of the zoom.

olympus sp510 uz sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The SP-510UZ’s 10X zoom nicely reached across to small lake at Cave Hill Cemetery to capture these colorfully clad children feeding the resident waterfowl

I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners), but corner resolution is noticeably softer than at the center of the frame (at all focal lengths) - not unexpected in an optic this complex.   Barrel distortion (vertical lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is very well controlled and there's no visible pincushion distortion (vertical lines bow in toward the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom, but chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is slightly higher than average.

The SP-510 UZ's 10X zoom provides two macro settings - the normal macro setting allows users to focus as close as 2.9 inches and the Super Macro setting allows users to focus as close as 1.2 inches.  The SP-510 UZ permits the use of filters and auxiliary lenses, but users will need to buy an optional (Olympus CLA-4) adapter.

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(view medium image) (view large image) The SP-510 UZ does a nice job with this back-lit shot close-up

No Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)

Optical image stabilization is practically ubiquitous in today's long zoom digicams and most of the SP-510 UZ's competition provide this useful feature.  OIS allows photographers to shoot at shutter speeds up to three stops slower than would have been possible without OIS.  For example, if a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without OIS) a digicam with OIS can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject, everything else being equal, at 1/60th of a second.  OIS provides an especially important benefit outdoors (when shooting handheld) at full telephoto in good light (where even the slightest camera movement is magnified exponentially) because the OIS system automatically compensates for virtually unavoidable camera shake.

Unlike most of its competition, the SP-510 UZ doesn't provide OIS, instead Olympus opted for something called Digital Image Stabilization (DIS), which automatically selects a higher sensitivity setting (up to ISO 1250) to force the camera's CPU to select a shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake.  The problem with this approach is that the SP-510 UZ produces higher than average noise levels, even under optimum exposure conditions. Increasing sensitivity to avoid the effects of camera shake causes noise levels to rise to an unacceptable level. Opting for DIS over OIS saves Olympus a few dollars per unit, but short-term corporate savings decisions that ultimately cost consumers (high noise levels and degraded image quality) often result in long-term market share loss.

Auto Focus (AF)

The SP-510 UZ utilizes Olympus' multi-area iESP TTL contrast detection system as its default AF mode. In iESP AF mode, the camera assess the entire image area and then automatically concentrates focus on the primary subject (based on closest focus priority). Other AF options include full-time AF, which adjusts focus continuously (as opposed to only when the shutter button is pressed halfway) and AF Predict, which is designed to track moving subjects by predicting where to lock focus based on subject speed and the direction of movement.  The SP-510 UZ's AF system is reasonably quick, but noticeably slower (especially in low light) than the competition. In good light the SP-510 UZ’s iESP AF is quite accurate, but in lower light it tends to hunt a bit for focus.

Manual Focus

SP-510 UZ users can manually adjust focus (with the up and down arrow keys on the compass switch and a distance scale superimposed on the LCD screen). In MF mode the central portion of the frame is enlarged (to help ensure accurate focus). Like most digicams with manual focus capability, the SP-510 UZ's MF mode is neither fast nor convenient -- but it can be useful when focus is critical.

Flash

The SP-510 UZ's on-board multi mode (Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, Fill Flash, Fill Flash with Red-eye Reduction, and Off) manually enabled popup flash is fairly weak - maximum flash range (in auto ISO mode) is just short of 15 feet; not very impressive for a camera with a 10X zoom. Flash recycle time (with fresh batteries) is between 6 and 7 seconds. 

Image File Storage/Memory Media

The SP-510 UZ stores images to xD picture cards or to 21MB of built-in memory.  Olympus doesn’t include a starter xD card and like all Oly digicams, the SP-510 UZ will only record to Olympus branded memory media in panorama mode.

Image Format(s)

The SP-510 UZ saves images in either JPEG (2 compression options) or uncompressed RAW image formats.  RAW format is available only in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes.

Connectivity

USB 2.0, A/V out, DC in

Power

The Olympus SP-510 UZ is powered by four AA batteries.  Power management is very impressive – Olympus claims (up to) 630 shots with OTC, available anywhere, AA Alkaline batteries.  I didn’t keep precise track of exposures, but I never even got close to running out of juice – so I don’t have any reason to quibble with Olympus’ numbers.


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EXPOSURE

The SP-510 UZ provides a very impressive level of exposure flexibility, including auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority, full manual mode, and a bulb setting (up to 8 minutes), plus 21 scene modes.

The SP-510 UZ's scene modes make shooting impressive images easy by automatically optimizing all exposure parameters for each specific photographic genre (Portrait, Landscape, Landscape + Portrait, Night Scene, Night Scene + Portrait, Indoor, Candlelight, Available-Light, Self-portrait, Sunset/Fireworks, Beach, Snow, Museum, Behind Glass, Cuisine, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select 1, and Shoot & Select). Set the SP-510 UZ to Scene mode and the camera displays a scene mode menu.  Select a scene type and the camera displays a sample image and then a short text description of the selected scene mode designed to teach shooters how to capture a specific subject-oriented scene type.

The SP-510 UZ's advanced exposure system is aimed primarily at more experienced photographers who want/need the maximum level of creative control, but even beginners/amateurs can capture super images with the SP-510 UZ's auto/program/scene modes.

My Mode

My Mode allows users to save custom (favorite) exposure settings and access them (up to four unique sets of My Mode settings can be saved) easily and quickly via the Mode Dial.

Movie Mode

The SP-510 UZ's Movie mode allows users to record video clips (with mono audio) at 640x480 @ 30 fps (clip duration limited to 15 seconds) or 640 x 480 @ 15 fps with clip duration limited only by xD card capacity.

Metering

The SP-510 UZ provides three light metering modes; Digital ESP (default) metering measures light from multiple points in the image frame to determine the best aperture--shutter speed combination based on the brightness and contrast of the entire scene. Center-weighted averaging biases exposure on a large area at the middle of the image frame - good for traditional landscapes and group shots.  Spot metering bases exposure on a very small area at the center of the frame, allowing photographers to place that "spot" on the most important element in the composition (like the face or eyes in a head & shoulders portrait) and bias exposure for that element of the composition. Spot metering is also very useful in tricky lighting (backlit subjects or a subject that’s lighter or darker than the background).

White Balance

White balance options include TTL Auto, Sun/Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten (Incandescent), Fluorescent 1 (daylight balanced), Fluorescent 2 (neutral), or Fluorescent 3 (cool).   The SP510 UZ's auto white balance is reasonably hue (color) accurate, but the overall "look" is a bit warm, which is not unusual with mass-market digicams, since most consumers like warmer color.

Sensitivity

The SP-510 UZ provides a very impressive range of sensitivity settings (Auto, and ISO 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 2500, and 4000). ISO 50 and 100 are essentially noise free.  ISO 200 is almost as good, although there is some minor noise visible in shadow areas.  ISO 400 images are noisy, but (up to 5x7 inch enlargements) should be OK.  Above ISO 400 image noise becomes progressively more onerous.  ISO 2500 and ISO 4000 images are limited to 3 megapixels. Chroma noise (blotching) is visible in higher ISO images with lots of sky.


 
In-Camera Image Adjustment

The SP-510 UZ provides an impressive range of in-camera image adjustment options.  Users can adjust color saturation, contrast, and sharpening +5/-5 steps allowing shooters to lower contrast (to preserve shadow detail) when shooting under bright lighting, punch up color saturation to add some pop on an overcast day, or boost sharpening to ameliorate the slightly softer look at the telephoto end of the long zoom. Users can also record images in black-and-white or sepia tone. The SP-510 UZ permits users to bias exposure (exposure compensation) +/-2 EV in 1/3 EV increments and adjust WB (white balance) + 7 steps toward the warm (red) end of the color scale or - 7 steps toward the cool (blue) end of the color scale. 
 
CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The SP-510 UZ is a stylish somewhat blocky looking compact digicam.  It won’t fit in a shirt or pants pocket, but it slips easily into a large jacket pocket, fanny pack or small purse. The polycarbonate over metal frame body should be tough enough to go just about anywhere except extreme climates and combat zones. All controls are logically placed and easily accessed and the SP-510 UZ’s traditional layout quickly becomes intuitive. The large hand-grip provides a secure hold and a nice balance point for the 10X zoom. The user interface is very good and menus are efficiently organized and easily navigated, once users become familiar with the camera.


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Technical Specifications


Included

Lens cap, Wrist strap, Four AA batteries, USB & A/V cables, Software CD-ROM, quick start guide.

Optional

CLA-4 adapter, wide-angle, telephoto, and macro conversion lenses

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

In the final analysis, image quality should be the single most important consideration when choosing a digicam. The SP-510 UZ's color is hue accurate with slightly subdued saturation and an overall warmish tone.  Reds and blues tend to be slightly over saturated. Default contrast is a bit flat, which will make it necessary to boost contrast in scenes with light/dull colors or pastels.

Chromatic aberration is a real problem for most digicams and the SP-510 UZ is not immune, however the 10X zoom's ED glass does a decent job of limiting the dreaded purple fringe mostly to high contrast shots and the extreme edges of the image frame.  Image noise is very well managed in brightly lit outdoor shots, but rises noticeably in dimmer lighting. Overall noise levels are higher than average and noise levels rise exponentially as sensitivity increases. At ISO 50 and 100, images are virtually noise free, but at higher ISO settings image noise becomes problematic. Above ISO 400 image noise levels are unacceptable.  The 10X zoom is impressively sharp, but due to the lack of OIS (optical image stabilization) that advantage is largely negated.  Digital image stabilization is a poor substitute for OIS, boosting sensitivity to overcome camera shake results in noisy images that don’t look sharp.  The SP-510 UZ has a tendency to over expose white and light colored areas in bright lighting in the auto and program modes.

olympus sp-510 uz sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) The SP-510 UZ’s slightly warm color interpolation is obvious (and welcome) in this fall scenic shot.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The SP-510 UZ's boot up cycle is about 3 seconds. Shutter lag is a bit longer than average (about ½ a second), but image capture is essentially real time with pre-focus.   Write to card times are also slower than average - about 4 seconds for a Large Fine JPEG and about 7-8 seconds for a RAW image.  The SP-510 UZ’s 10X zoom covers a long range so it obviously can't focus as rapidly as a shorter zoom.  AF Speed is acceptable, but not impressive.  Overall, the SP-510 UZ is noticeably slower than average (and conspicuously slower than the competition).

olympus sp-510 uz sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) Photographers who want to shoot action will have to practice pre-focusing and learn to anticipate the decisive moment by about a quarter to half a second. Cropped slightly to remove an extraneous element

A Few Concerns

The SP-510 UZ’s faults (slow, no OIS, and noisy images) outweigh the strengths (super outdoor images in good light, long battery life, sharp zoom, and comparatively cheap) for its target audience. 

Conclusion

Overall, the Olympus SP-510 UZ is an eminently usable digicam that will perform acceptably in a broad range of outdoor picture taking situations.

Serious shooters will likely be put off by the SP-510 UZ’s shortcomings, but scrap-bookers, family shutterbugs, casual photographers, travelers, and nature lovers will be impressed with the SP-510 UZ’s 10X zoom, broad features list, and comparatively low price.  Long zoom fans looking for a camera that can grow with them as their imaging skills develop should check out Canon’s S3 IS.

Pros
SLR-like ergonomics, compact size, a nice feature set, lots of manual exposure options, and a 10X zoom 

Cons
No image stabilization, lo-res LCD screen, poor low light focusing, PDF user’s manual