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Olympus SP-560 UZ Review
by womble -  12/27/2007

The Olympus SP-560 UZ is the latest in Olympus's UZ line of ultra zoom cameras, boasting a class-leading 18x optical zoom. Unlike many of its competitors that start their zooming at a modest 35mm focal length equivalent, this one stretches from a genuinely wide 27mm to an amazing 486mm. This is a phenomenal range and to achieve its equivalent with an SLR would require a bag full of lenses. Out of the gate, the SP-560 has a cost, convenience, bulk, and weight advantage over most SLR alternatives. The key question is whether it has traded off too much in pursuit of zoom supremacy.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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NUTS & BOLTS

Sensor/Processor

The SP-560 features 1/2.35" CCD 8 megapixel sensor. This represents a slight increase in size and pixel count versus the previous SP-550, and Olympus deserves some credit for not simply increasing the pixel density. It is complemented by the third generation of Olympus's TruePic image processor. This combination is the heart of the image stabilization system, which shifts the sensor to compensate for camera shake when engaged.

Viewfinder/LCD

A large 2.5" TFT LCD with 235,000 pixels is on the back. It features five brightness levels and is visible in anything except strong, direct sunlight. Unlike some competitor models in this category, the screen does not articulate. Complementing this screen is an eye level electronic viewfinder with dioptic adjustment.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Lens/Zoom

The lens is a 14 element, 4.68 - 84.24 mm (27 - 486 mm equivalent in 35mm photography) unit. The lens is apparently identical to the one used on the SP-550 and has the same aperture range (maximum from f2.8 to f4.5, and minimum of f8). The front element of the lens sits flush with the barrel and can be easily damaged, so it's worth investing the time to ensure the lens cap is secured to the body. Olympus does not list any protective filters for this lens and trips to three local camera dealerships also drew a blank on options. This design seems incredibly short-sighted considering that the lens is the main (and almost certainly most costly) feature of the camera.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Flash

There is a built-in, pop-up flash, which offers various modes including red-eye reduction and fill-in. Distance guide for the unit is 12" to 13'. The flash is generally fine, but can be too strong for closer subjects. There is no separate hot shoe, although when put in slave mode the flash strength can be ratcheted back and an off-camera flash triggered instead.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Memory Media

Olympus is the only manufacturer still solely using xD format cards – newer Fuji cameras mostly use both xD and the more popular, easier to find, and significantly cheaper SD format. A card is not provided, but there is onboard memory (around 48 MB) that allows for some initial evalution of the camera. Use of an Olympus xD card enables a panoramic photo function. Unlike some other camera makers, Olympus also allows easy transfer of files from the onboard memory to removable media. This feature sounds trivial until you are five minutes from making a presentation that uses a photo locked on a camera for which you can't find the connecting cable.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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File Formats

Photo files are stored as JPEGs at varying degrees of compression, or in limited modes as uncompressed RAW files. Movies are stored as AVI files with WAV audio and can be shot in one of three modes: 640x480 at 30fps, 320x240 at 15fps, or 160x120 at 15fps. Sound is optional and zooming can be done while recording.

I am a fan of the Olympus file naming system. The name includes key date information – the second character represents the month in hexadecimal (A for October) while third and fourth capture the day. This makes it quick to find files on a disk or card without waiting for thumbnails to appear.

Connectivity/Power

Behind a rubber flap there are USB 2.0, AV, and DC power ports. The SP-560 will use the Olympus C-7AU power adapter, standard with many previous Olympus cameras. Power is provided by four AA batteries, and any owener would be advised to quickly replace the supplied alkalines with some high-capacity NiMH rechargeables.

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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In the Box

In addition to the camera there is a strap and separate lens cap that, together, will keep you amused for a few minutes of fiddly assembly. As noted, it is worth taking time to ensure that the cap is correctly attached, as it is the only protection for the lens. Other box contents include the software CD, USB cable, AV cable, four AA alkaline batteries, and (at least for North America) manuals in French, English, and Spanish. The inclusion of manuals is a welcome improvement over the previous Olympus strategy of only including an electronic copy on the CD.

Software

Olympus provide the Olympus Master 2 Software for both Mac (OS X 10.3+) and PC (XP/Vista). It takes up 500MB of space, and unless you plan on shooting RAW regularly, free image editing alternatives will likely better meet your needs.

OPERATION

Ergonomics

Camera fit in the hand is a subjective thing, but I and several others who looked at the camera found it comfortable to hold. The Olympus is well-balanced, and steadying the camera sufficiently is quite easy – important for a camera with such a long lens. On the top and side, the dials and buttons are intuitively placed. The flash pop-up button is on the flash housing; a missed opportunity would have been for this to do double duty as a flash mode button. The rear controls serve to navigate the hell that is the Olympus menu system (more on that below).

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Size & Weight

116.0 mm (W) x 78.5 mm (H) x 78.0 mm (D)

4.57" x 3.09" x 3.07"

365 g (12.9 oz) without batteries and card

Engineering

The camera feels well made, and although plastics are used extensively they are sturdy and similar to those used on many entry level SLRs. Since the LCD screen does not rotate closed as on some models, protective film is recommended. Aside from the above mentioned difficulty in protecting the front lens element (which I would consider a design flaw) my only gripe is the tripod mounting socket: a camera with a nearly 500mm maximum focal length will require the use of a tripod in all but the brightest light, and a metal, rather than plastic, threaded socket should be an expectation. The formed plastic mount may suffice, but does not look like it will tolerate heavy use.

Controls

Once upon a time Olympus ultra zoom cameras were very easy to operate. Most functions could be accessed with controls on the camera, and the few functions that could not were readily accessible via simple menu systems. Not any more. The menu system used on the SP-560 has sacrificed simplicity and functionality for feature bloat. I have come to tolerate face detection and have even found it of some use in certain circumstances, but like most users, I could live without ‘smile detection' and scene modes for food photography and the like.


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Perhaps in recognition of the need for some explanation, rather than pare back soft features, Olympus adds to the problem by including a 20-page Shooting Guide within the menu system itself. While trying to learn about different features I would all-too-often find myself stuck in one mode, frantically pushing buttons to get back to a mode that would allow me to take the photo I wanted.


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Overall, the complexity of the menu system mirrors the trend seen across the board in Olympus cameras, and in this case as in others, the menus are clearly in need of some user-friendly refinement.

ISO/Metering

Sensitivity ranges from ISO 50 to 3200 under normal conditions, and up to 6400 at reduced resolution. Metering options include ESP multi-pattern, center-weighted, and spot metering. For general use the ESP metering yields the best results. Exposure compensation is available in 1/3-stop increments.

White Balance

White balance is selectable from five presets: two daylight option and three tungsten options. Auto white balance is good outside, but often misses inside. The one-touch white balance, however, is very effective. Simply point the camera at a piece of blank, white paper (or another pure white object) and the camera will adjust accordingly. This flexibility is particularly important given that RAW format – which allows white balance adjustments post-shot – is not available in several modes.

Focusing

The SP-560 has three autofocus modes: iESP (in which the camera makes a guess as to the intended subject), Spot (which focuses on the central part of the image), and Area (which works like spot but allows the focus point to be moved via the control pad). Focus options include a low-light focus assist lamp, predictive focus for moving images, and manual focus using the control pad.

Drive

The brochure and marketing proclaim a 15fps shooting rate, but as is often the case, this isn't the whole story. In order to achieve this shooting rate, both resolution and focus settings are compromised, with resolution set at 1.2 MP and focus locked after the first frame. This makes it difficult to use continuous shooting mode for sports, since freezing action requires a high shutter speed while maintaining the widest possible depth of field (important given focus can't be adjust after the first frame) requires a small aperture – often an impossible combination in less than perfect lighting.

Shutter

The electronic shutter is capable of exposure times from 1/2000 to 15 seconds. Long exposures (up to 8 minutes) are possible using the bulb setting. A self-timer can be set for either 2 or 12 seconds. Time-lapse photography is also possible on this model, with an interval that can be varied from 1 to 99 minutes.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The zoom range is fantastic, and the 27mm wide angle makes a difference when taking photographs of family groups or landscapes.

olympus sp-560 uz sample image
Wide angle (view medium image) (view large image)

olympus sp-560 uz sample image
Full telephoto (18x optical zoom) (view medium image) (view large image)

A lens this long in this price range is going to be prone to purple fringing. Indeed chromatic aberration is significant enough to detract from high-contrast shots, and is most visible at the extremities of the zoom, both wide and telephoto.


Fringing at wide zoom


Fringing at telephoto zoom

Barrel and pincushion distortion appears in some shots, but is not as pronounced as would have been expected with a lens of this range, with pin-cushioning being slightly more obvious than barrel distortion. Some corner softness also shows up at wide angle shots, in particular.

Image Processing

Above ISO 200 the noise reduction is pronounced, leaving a "watercolor" mottled effect. The dynamic range also shows some limitations, and highlights were frequently clipped in bright sunlight.


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Image Stability

The image stabilization definitely helped in the mid-range of zooming, from around 100mm to 270mm equivalent (or 4x to 10x zoom). Above that, the SP-560 was very difficult to handhold and get a shot without visible camera shake. Whether this matters to you or not depends on how large you want to print your images, as a little camera shake is often invisible on a 6x4 print. Also bear in mind that the constraint here is less about the camera than it is the simple physics – at this magnification, even the smallest vibration has an impact. Even with the best DSLR equipment, few professionals would be able to successfully take a tack-sharp handheld shot at 470mm.

ISO Performance

The pictures below of a shoeprint in green foam were taken at different ISO settings. 50 is obviously preferable, 400 barely tolerable, and above that only useful if final print size will be small (or in situations where a shot, no matter how noisy, is better than no shot at all). As seen, detail loss is pronounced, even at ISO 400.


ISO 50 (view large image)

ISO 400 (view large image)

ISO 1600 (view large image)

ISO 6400 (view large image)

Speed of Use

Shutter lag is generally good, and while focusing can sometimes be sluggish in low light, few photographs were missed due to the shutter not firing at the expected moment. The same can not be said of the flash, which is the primary victim of the AA power strategy and can take several seconds to recharge. The manual states a flash recycle time of 7 seconds, but it was nearer to 20 on too many occasions. The truly awful interface on this camera also slowed things down considerably. As hard as it can be to set the appropriate mode, it can be even harder to get the mode you want back or recall what mode you are in. This is especially frustrating when trying to adjust resolution and quality settings, which are found in different locations depending on which mode is being used.

Movie Mode

In a pinch you can use this camera to get adequate movie footage. However focusing is slow and the microphone offers limited range with no option for an external mic. Like most every digital camera, for general use the SP-560 is simply not a suitable alternative to a video camera.

Battery Life

I was pleasantly surprised by the battery life. Previous experiences with cameras using AAs as opposed to high-capacity proprietary lithium-ion cells showed that the convenience of AAs comes with a mileage penalty. With the SP-560 using the supplied alkalines, I was able to fill a 2 GB card under normal shooting conditions (including the occassional flash photo) before the batteries gave out. NiMH use times were slightly lower, but still sufficient for a regular day of shooting on all except the most photography-intensive vacations. Given that xD cards top out at 2GB, expect to run out of card before battery. An exception to this is shooting in movie mode, which consumes a lot of power.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Olympus SP-560 UZ
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Olympus SP-560 UZ
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CONCLUSION

First impressions of the Olympus SP-560 UZ were generally favorable. It is comfortable to hold, has an impressive zoom, and is loaded with features. For those reasons alone, this camera will probably sell well. Living with it is a little harder, especially when one realizes that many of these features are buried in the most appalling menu system yet devised. The last time I was this confused with a piece of electronics, some kind soul had set my cellphone language to Norwegian. With the recent advances in shutter lag reduction – the previous bane of the compact digital camera world – it is a shame that Olympus has sought to replace it with "menu lag," as users scramble to get the camera set up for the picture unfolding in front of them. Above all else, this is what lets the SP-560 down. While the lens has a few drawbacks, the sheer versatility of this zoom range, coupled to a camera with manageable size/weight and powered by readily available AA batteries make this a good choice for travelling, especially so if the destination is going to be sunny and can limit your photography to lower ISO shots. For most shooters, however, it would be worth sacrificing some of that upper zoom range for simpler functionality and greater dynamic range.

Pros

Cons