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Olympus SP-550 UZ Digital Camera Review
by Ben Stafford -  2/27/2007

The Olympus SP-550 UZ certainly made a splash when it was announced since it was the first and only (so far) point and shoot digital camera with an 18x optical zoom, wide angle lens.  It also features dual image stabilization, a 15fps continuous shooting mode, 7.1 megapixel resolution and a 2.5 inch LCD.

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The Olympus SP-550 UZ is a great choice for someone looking for a long zoom. It's more expensive than some of its competitors, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8, but if you want that extra zoom reach - the SP-550 UZ is the way to go. The capability of the camera to shoot at ISO 5000 and the ability to take 15fps sequential shots makes it a possible candidate for someone looking to take action shots of their kids on the soccer or football field.

What’s New

The SP-550 UZ has several improvements over the previous SP model, the SP-510 UZ.  It does have the same capture resolution, but probably the most significant features are the longer zoom (18x vs 10x in SP-510 UZ) and dual image stabilization. 

NUTS & BOLTS

Image Sensor

A 1/2.5” CCD sensor captures 7.1 megapixel images as RAW or JPEG image files.  Full resolution images are 3,072 x 2,304 pixels in size.  There are various compression levels and aspect ratios (3:2 and 16:9) available as well.

Viewfinder/LCD

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The 2.5 inch LCD on the back of the SP-550 UZ has 230K pixels of resolution.  Colors are generally pretty accurate, and the refresh rate of the screen is high enough to provide smooth viewing.  The brightness of the LCD gains up or down depending on lighting conditions.   If you have problems seeing the LCD outdoors, there is also an electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment where you can get all of the information of the LCD, but on a screen hidden from the sun.

Lens/Zoom

The lens is arguably the most significant feature about the SP-550 UZ since it can do wide angle (35mm equivalent of 28mm) and it has an 18x zoom range.  So, the entire range (in 35mm terms) is 28 – 504mm.  While turned off, the lens is protected by a lens cap that fits snugly around the lens.  If you forget to take the lens cap off when you power it up, it is lined with foam so that it doesn’t damage the lens.  The lens will pop the lens cap off.

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Wide angle (view large image)
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Full 18x telephoto (view large image)

In normal and macro focus modes, you can focus as close as 3.9 inches at wide angle and 47.24 inches at telephoto.  In super macro mode, the focus ranges from 0.39 inches to infinity.

As far as focus area – you can let the camera choose from multiple areas with iESP, you can set it to spot mode, or you can choose “area” mode which lets you move the focus point.  Manual focus is available.

There is a pretty cool “AF predict” mode that can be enabled via the camera menu.  When you have this turned on, you lock the focus with a partial press and then the camera will attempt to stay focused on the subject in the focus point.  This would be good for someone walking toward you.  It’s kind of a middle point between continuous or full-time AF (which sucks battery and does exist on this camera as an option) and single AF that keeps your focus set once it’s been locked.

Image Stabilization

The Olympus SP-550 UZ features what Olympus calls “dual image stabilization”.  It has a mechanical method of image stabilization which counter-acts blur from camera shake by shifting the sensor.  It also uses high sensitivity (ISO) capability to increase shutter speeds and counter-act blur from image movement.

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Without IS - 1/10 second shutter speed (view large image)
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With IS - 1/10 second shutter speed (view large image)

Shooting Modes

Another headline feature of the SP-550 UZ is the capability to shoot continuously at 15 frames per second.  In fact, there are several sequential shooting modes in addition to the single shot mode.  There is a sequential mode that allows you to take full-res shots.  The next fastest mode (Hi1) limits the quality to 2048x1536 with the maximum number of shots at less than 15.  Then, Hi2 mode limits the quality to 1280x960 for up to 20 shots, but is faster yet – this is the 15fps mode.  There is an additional mode that adjusts the AF for each shot.  With normal sequential shooting, the AF and exposure are locked at the first frame so the camera doesn’t have to take time to recalculate those things.  A bracketing mode is available as well as “pre-capture”.  When enabled, Pre-Capture starts saving shots to the buffer as soon as you do a partial press of the shutter.  This way, if you’re late in catching “the shot”, the camera might have gotten it for you.

Flash

The built-in flash is hidden underneath a pop-up door directly above the lens.  A mechanical release pops it up and enables the flash mode selection.  At ISO 200 it has a claimed range of 14.8 feet at wide angle, and 9.2 feet at telephoto.  If you bump up the ISO, flash range increases.  At ISO 1600, the range is 42 feet at wide angle and 26 feet at telephoto.  You can leave the flash in auto mode, or one of the following: fill flash (always on), red-eye reduction, fill flash with red eye reduction, slow sync, or off.

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Memory Media

The Olympus SP-550 UZ has 20MB of internal memory and accepts xD-Picture Card memory media in capacities up to 2GB.

Image File Format(s)

Images can be captured as RAW files or JPEG files.  When shooting in RAW, you can choose whether or not a JPEG is saved along with it (in varying resolutions).

Connectivity

There is a multi-connector for USB 2.0 Full Speed and A/V out.  There is also a DC-in jack so that you can power the camera with an optional adapter.

Power

The camera is powered by 4 AA batteries in a lockable battery compartment.  Battery life is very good.  I used 2200 mAh rechargeable NiMH batteries and took over 250 shots and the battery meter was still "full".

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EXPOSURE

Auto/Program Mode

When you want to keep things easy you can use the auto and program auto modes.  Auto mode essentially lets you change just the flash mode, timer mode, and focus mode.  When you switch to program auto, the camera still does everything for you, but you get the added flexibility to change the white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, drive mode, metering method, and the camera menu becomes available.

Scene Modes

There are plenty of scene modes to keep you happy: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape & Portrait, Night Scene, Night & Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select1, Shoot & Select2, Beach, Snow, Underwater Wide1, Underwater Wide2, Underwater Macro.

Most of the modes above a fairly self-explanatory, but there is a help button on the camera that will give you a short description of the mode.  For example, I wasn’t sure what the “Shoot & Select” modes were so I used the help button.  They let you take shots at a fast frame rate and then choose the ones that you want to keep.

Manual Exposure Modes

The SP-550 UZ is an advanced camera, so you get a full complement of manual exposure modes – aperture priority (A), shutter priority (S), and manual (M).  In aperture priority, you set the aperture that you want and the camera determines the shutter speed.  With shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed while the camera determines the correct aperture for a good exposure.  In manual mode, you set the shutter speed and aperture to full flexibility. You can also save up to 4 custom modes with your own customized settings.

Movie Mode

The SP-550 UZ can capture movies at up to 640x480 resolution at a 30fps frame rate, but those movies are limited to 15 seconds.  If you capture at a smaller resolution or a slower frame rate, you can take longer clips.

The optical zoom can be used during movie capture, but only if you disable audio capture.  (You would hear the zoom motor during your movies if you didn’t).  Also, image stabilization is available during movie capture.

Metering

The camera is capable of multi-pattern (iESP), center-weighted, and spot metering.  Multi-pattern metering evaluates the entire frame (or most of it, at least) to determine correct exposure.  Center-weighted metering examines the entire frame but considers the center area of the frame more heavily.  With spot metering, the camera determines exposure by only looking at the center point of the frame.

White Balance

You can let the SP-550 UZ set white balance automatically (iESP2), you can set a custom white balance (one-touch), or use one of the presets: sunlight, overcast, tungsten, and 3 fluorescents.

Sensitivity

The ISO range of the SP-550 UZ ranges from ISO 50 – ISO 5000.  At ISO 3200 and ISO 5000, capture resolution is automatically bumped down to about 3 megapixels.  You can set the ISO manually (if you’re not in Auto mode), you can leave it at Auto or High ISO Auto.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

During image capture, you can adjust sharpness, contrast, and saturation from the camera menu.  During playback mode, you can apply some effects and fixes, like red-eye fix, black & white, sepia.  You can also resize, crop, change brightness, adjust saturation, add a frame, add a title, or make a calendar with your image.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The Olympus SP-550 UZ is not a compact camera, as you would expect from a camera with such a long zoom.  It’s in the category of cameras that I consider to be the easiest to hold – with a prominent grip/battery compartment.  The camera has a very high quality build – it’s solid and controls are laid out well.  The grip is especially comfortable – with a rubber coating on the front of the camera and on a thumb grip on the back.  A comfortable grip is especially critical on long zoom shots to provide a stable platform for the camera.

On the front of the camera, you see the monster lens, the flash (when popped up), the focus assist lamp and the microphone.

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The top of the camera has the shooting mode dial, shutter release, zoom control (ring around shutter), power button, and button to toggle the image stabilization system.

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The back of the camera has the LCD, viewfinder to view the electronic viewfinder, button to toggle between LCD and EVF, menu button, playback mode button, 5 way directional pad, Disp/help button to cycle through display modes or view in-camera help, and delete button.

The right side of the camera has the door to access the xD-Picture Card slot.

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The left side of the camera has a rubber door to access the USB/AV multi-connector and DC in jack.  Also, just under the flash, you’ll find the button to deploy the flash.

The bottom of the camera provides access to the battery compartment and there is a tripod mount as well.

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Included

4 AA batteries, USB cable, A/V cable, wrist strap, lens cap strap, manual, and CD-ROM with Olympus Master software

PERFORMANCE

Overall, I was very pleased with image quality.  Images showed good detail and were sharp across most of the frame (there was some slight softness in the corners if you looked really hard).  Colors were accurate.  Many of the shots that I took were taken on a gray Midwestern day and the images show that, with subdued colors and lackluster quality of light.  When shooting indoors, color casts can happen if the white balance is not set correctly, so make sure that you take some test shots.  The SP-550 UZ allows you to set a custom white balance very easily.

Exposure was good overall at the default settings.  If the images don’t come out the way you want them – it’s easy to change the metering mode or adjust exposure compensation to get the results that you want (see the shots below) – one of the joys of digital.

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With such a complex lens (wide angle and long zoom), I noticed above average barrel distortion at wide angle and pincushion distortion at telephoto.  Barrel distortion shows up as straight lines bulging outward from the center while pincushion distortion has straight lines bowing in towards the middle of the frame.  It’s quite common to see this sort of distortion, but it’s a bit above average on the SP-550 UZ.

Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was visible in contrast transitions areas, but only after viewing the image at 200% size or more.

High ISO image quality was very good.  The SP-550 UZ is capable of shots taken at a sensitivity of up to ISO 5000 (it bumps resolution down to about 3 megapixels though).  The camera also has some built-in noise reduction that can be enabled or disabled.  Shots up to ISO 400 would be acceptable for large prints.

Timing/Shutter Lag

Getting that long lens ready to go does take several seconds, so don’t expect to win any races with power up or power down times.  However, once the camera is ready to go, it does a nice job.  This is definitely a camera that you’ll want to do a partial press of the shutter before getting a shot (something that should become habit anyway).  When you do a full press of the shutter, it takes around 1.1 – 1.3 seconds to capture the shot.  If you do a partial press to get a focus/exposure lock first, shutter lag is less than 0.1 seconds.  Cycle time (the time between shots) when taking shots, one at a time, is about average and will depend on your memory card speed.  While I was testing, I was getting around 3-5 seconds.  If you enable the flash, it recharges before the images finished writing to the memory card, so I didn’t experience any time waiting for the flash to charge.

Sample Images

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Indoors with flash (view medium image) (view large image)
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Conclusion

I really enjoyed using the Olympus SP-550 UZ.  It’s comfortable to hold, has plenty of advanced features and takes great shots.  Beyond that, you get the world’s first 18x optical zoom in a point and shoot digital camera.  The dual image stabilization is a must for such long zoom shots and the system in the Olympus does a good job of handling blur from camera shake.  While I normally wouldn’t use the 15fps sequential shooting capability very often, it is also a nice feature.  The camera also has great battery life.

If you’re interested in a long zoom camera, the SP-550 UZ is a great choice.  Don’t be intimidated by all of its features, plenty of in-camera help and Olympus’ built-in Guide system do a great job of helping a beginner to get comfortable with the camera.

Pros

Cons