Perhaps operating on the theory that someone has to be in first place and it might as well be us, Olympus has raised the ante in the ultrazoom big lens sweepstakes with the introduction of the Olympus SP-590 UZ and its 26x zoom that covers the 26-676mm (35mm equivalent) focal length range. In so doing, Olympus moved past 24x offerings from Kodak, Nikon, and Pentax and left the 20x and lower competition from Canon, Fuji, and Sony even further behind.
Of course, having the biggest lens doesn't count for much more than having the biggest lens if the camera packaged around it doesn't perform. DCR's David Rasnake got his hands on a pre-production SP-590 in January at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, and with a decidedly limited shooting opportunity identified that big lens as the big deal with this camera. Pre-production equipment sometimes doesn't translate completely into the finished product that goes to market, however, so let's see how the Olympus you can buy does outside of the convention halls of Sin City.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The SP-590 UZ looks like a mini-DSLR, following the design trend that has largely characterized the ultrazoom class since at least back in the days when 10x represented the high water mark for zoom multiplication. The composite matte black body is punctuated with a brushed silver metal barrel that encases the lens.
Build quality looks good - seams are tight and even, but if you move the camera somewhat quickly (like bringing it up to eye level suddenly when a grab shot presents itself) there can be a somewhat disconcerting rattle that seems associated with the lens having a bit of play in it, particularly when extended toward the telephoto end of the zoom. I'll end the suspense right now and say this doesn't seem to impact image quality, but it might come as a bit of a surprise until you get used to it.
Of course, the camera's big 26x zoom lens is a big part of the sales pitch here. Is bigger always better? Judge for yourself: here are identical beach shots at wide angle and telephoto that offer the dramatically different perspectives of the same scene that are the ultrazoom's forte.
That big lens allows you to get "close" to wildlife, even small critters like this juvenile Costa's hummingbird perched on our rubber tree and shot with and without flash.
The SP-590 also offers dual image stabilization, advanced face detection, smile detection, high speed sequential shooting (at greatly reduced resolution), full manual controls along with automatic and scene-specific shooting options, and Shadow Adjustment Technology to help expand the camera's perceived dynamic range. A 12 megapixel sensor and the latest Olympus True Pic III image processor round out the hardware lineup.
The camera accepts xD or microSD (with an Olympus supplied adapter) memory media and there is 22MB of internal memory. In addition to the microSD adapter, Olympus includes USB and A/V cables, an instruction manual, neck strap, lens cap, four AA batteries, CD-ROM software, and a warranty card with each camera.
Ergonomics and Controls
The SP-590 body features a deeply sculptured handgrip with a wrap around rubber-like material that promotes a secure one- or two-handed grip. The camera back is nicely contoured to accommodate the thumb, and the replay button that sits in the area of the thumb rest has been recessed into the body to avoid accidental activations. The shooting finger falls naturally onto the shutter button. Control placement is simple and straightforward, with mode dial, power switch, and shutter button sitting atop the body and the balance of the external controls situated near the thumb rest on the camera back.
Make sure to attach the lens cap to the camera with the provided strap as the lens extending at power up will launch the cap off the body if you forget to remove it first.
Menus and Modes
Menu presentation was simple and intuitive - selecting the menu button brings up a screen with both large icons and a print identification of the selected menu. Menus that are not available (for example, the scene menu is not available if the camera is not set in scene shooting mode) have their icons muted. Going into the setup menu on the SP-590, the first item on the list is format - nice touch Olympus! Formatting memory media should be done before starting shooting with a fresh card, and it seems practically every non-DSLR camera I've reviewed buries it somewhere in the menus instead of pushing it to the top.
Post processing in-camera menus include fixes for shadow adjustment and red eye, and options such as clear skin, sparkle and dramatic eye, image size, cropping, and color tone, among others.
Shooting modes with the SP-590 are largely typical for the ultrazoom class, along with a couple of proprietary types every manufacturer seems to include in their mix:
Here are sunset shots in auto and sunset modes along with, two manual exposures.
Sunset Scene Mode
The 2.7 inch monitor is of 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for five steps of brightness. It proved to be one of the better displays I've encountered in non-DSLR digitals with respect to image composition and shooting in bright outdoor conditions - there were times when direct sun angles made it difficult to use, but overall it performed better than average.
There is a viewfinder with diopter adjustment for eyesight, and battery usage concerns which will be discussed at length later dictate the viewfinder as the method of choice for image composition in all cases except when the monitor is the only viable option. The user's manual does not indicate, but area of coverage appears close to 100% for both monitor and viewfinder.
On the surface the SP-590 UZ packs a lot of performance potential - that big lens, a 12 megapixel sensor, stabilization, full manual controls along with automatic options, and a suite of in-camera fix-it tools to help with the shots that don't quite come out right. One advantage of larger resolution sensors like the SP-590's is the ability to crop a bit more aggressively than smaller sensors and still retain sufficient dots per inch to produce good quality print photos. This original shot was cropped to a 12x8 inch size that yielded a 252 dpi image that will print well.
The camera looks great on paper - how does it do in the field?
The SP-590 powers up and displays a focus point in about 1.5 seconds, and I was able to get off a shot in about 2.25 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 3.75 seconds, and continuous shooting rate at full resolution was 1.2 frames per second for 6 shots before the camera stopped to let the buffer clear. There are high speed shooting settings that produced approximately 6.5 fps at 5 megapixels for 20 shots and approximately 10 fps at 3 megapixels for 25 shots. Focus and exposure are established for the first shot and applied to all subsequent shots.
Press to capture times with no pre focus were as quick as 0.57 seconds in good conditions and shutter lag with pre-focus ran 0.03 seconds - the SP-590 takes the shot when you tell it to with focus acquired. There is an AF assist lamp that may be enabled by the user to help with low light conditions where AF times predictably can lengthen.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||0.03|
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.03|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS||0.48|
|Olympus SP-590 UZ||0.57|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||0.59|
|Kodak EasyShare Z980||0.61|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3||0.68|
|Casio Exilim EX-FH20||40||30 fps†|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3
|Kodak EasyShare Z980
|Olympus SP-590 UZ
|Canon PowerShot SX200 IS
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.
When things went well the SP-590 acquired focus nicely at both the wide and telephoto end, but I also had trouble getting it to acquire focus in good light at the telephoto end at times - a problem not unheard of in ultrazooms at the long end of the lens. The Olympus manual indicates that subjects with low contrast, scenes with bright objects in the center of the screen, objects with no vertical lines, objects at different distances, fast moving objects, and objects not in the middle of the screen can make autofocus difficult. There were enough cases of similar telephoto performance on objects that offered definite targets to make the SP-590 a bit annoying at times.
Flash recycle times with fresh NiMH batteries ran about 3.9 seconds for a partial discharge at wide angle in medium lighting conditions to about 6.5 seconds for a full discharge (telephoto, f/8, pitch black conditions), both at 100 ISO. Flash performance was good overall, and can extend out as much as 29.5 feet at wide angle and 800 ISO.
Olympus rates the 590 UZ battery life at 340 shots with AA batteries, but after loading four fresh alkalines, shooting 92 stills (perhaps one-third of them flash shots), and one minute of video, I was surprised when the camera abruptly quit due to battery exhaustion. I'd been keeping an eye on the battery "fuel gauge" and it was full green the last time I'd checked, so it appears that gauge stays "full" even with battery levels dropping, then catches up in a rush.
A fresh set of alkalines gave me 134 stills and 71 seconds of video. In between, two tries with fully charged NiMH AAs produced even worse performance than the alkalines and got me thinking that perhaps the NiMHs had been lying around the house too long. Picked up two sets of new NiMH AAs, and while they were fully charging I made every power-saving setting in the camera's menus that I could think of.
In the appendix of the instruction manual Olympus noted that certain camera functions consume power continuously, such as repeated use of the zoom; shutter button half pressed repeatedly in shooting mode, thus activating AF and digital image stabilization; full time AF enabled (OK, fixed that one); monitor left on for an extended time (fixed that one also); and connecting the camera to a computer or printer. With the new NIMHs on board, camera settings optimized to cut power consumption and shooting conservatively with regard to zoom usage as well as a number of continuous sequences and no flash, I got 328 stills and about four minutes of video with the battery fuel gauge still reading "full." Almost certainly my old NiMH were to blame for those poor first performances, but I wouldn't recommend shooting this camera with alkalines unless you're prepared to use a bunch - NiMHs in good condition are the way to go.
Full time AF comes disabled as a default, so that fix is already in place for prospective owners of the SP-590, but folks who like to compose and capture via the monitor (and review every shot) will either need to acquire some shooting discipline about using the viewfinder or pack a whole bunch more AAs when they venture out with the camera. Using a card reader that will handle the xD or microSD memory media will eliminate battery losses due to image downloading, but I'm not sure how to get around the half press every time you want to take a shot - that's kind of built into the focus part of the image capture process. I've convinced myself the Olympus can make the published figure for battery performance, but I don't think many casual shooters will approach it without major changes in their shooting habits.
The Olympus dual image stabilization system offers both mechanical (sensor-shift) and digital (higher ISO to increase shutter speed) stabilization. The former is what I like to see, the latter I could do without. But unfortunately the user is faced with an "all or nothing" situation on the SP-590: stabilization can be on or off, but you can't disable the digital and leave the mechanical enabled.
The SP-590 zoom boasts a credibly fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide angle and f/5 at telephoto - the equal of its 24x zoom competitors, faster at telephoto than the Canon SX1 IS and just a bit slower than a Fuji competitor that offers nearly 200 fewer millimeters in focal length. There is some barrel distortion present at wide angle, and a bit of pincushion at telephoto. Wide angle showed some slight softness in the corners while telephoto was a bit more uniform across the frame. There can be some instances of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in high contrast boundary areas, but the fault becomes most apparent only as magnifications hit the 200 and 300% levels and is not particularly objectionable below that. The lens does a good job overall.
The lens will focus as close as 0.39 inches in super macro mode, and close focus at telephoto is about 6.5 feet, so you may find you try to use the telephoto on small objects inside the minimum range.
With more and more compacts showing up with 720p HD video, it was a little surprising that Olympus didn't find a way to fit that into the SP-590's bag of tricks, but that long zoom gives a lot of versatility to the 640x480 format in any event. It's not HD, but it's not bad.
Image quality in any camera is the product of a number of factors, but to my mind should include as a minimum a pleasing exposure and sharp focus, at least on the major interest point of the image. The SP-590 has all the auto and manual controls to facilitate the exposure part of the equation, and stabilization and AF to help with the sharpness part. Once that big lens gets beyond wide angle and sets sail for the telephoto end of the spectrum, however, users should strongly consider supplementing their hand-holding ability with some form of additional camera support. I used a heavy-duty monopod that's usually supporting a pro body DSLR and 400mm stabilized lens to shoot practically all the images for this review, but a lightweight and easily portable version would work just as well. Eliminating even a little shake while shooting with the telephoto will go a long way toward helping increase your "good" shot ratio at that end of the zoom.
Default images out of the SP-590 were good as far as sharpness and color, but I preferred the vivid color setting a bit more and used it most of the time. There are sharpness, contrast, and saturation control settings available for the manual shooting modes.
Auto WB worked well in most situations, but shot a bit warm under both incandescent light in the studio and fluorescent light at our house.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Light metering for exposure is via Olympus's multi-area ESP technology (which meters brightness at center of image and surrounding areas independently), center-weighted, or spot methods. I used ESP primarily during the shoot, and it performed well over all. There were some lost highlights in high contrast images (the white water in surf shots for example) that tends to be typical for metering systems of this sort.
The SP-590 may boast the biggest zoom in the class, but ISO noise performance is just average. ISO 64 and 100 look good; ISO 64 particularly seems a bit cleaner and sharper in the crops. ISO 200 is not bad but showing some signs of deterioration and perhaps a bit more than the competition at this sensitivity. ISO 400 is showing more distress and again at 800, with the biggest single deterioration coming in the jump from 800 to 1600. At small sizes none of the shots look particularly bad, and we didn't bother to shoot the low resolution ISO 3200 and 6400 sensitivities. They're there if you need them, but clearly options of last resort.
ISO 64, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO performance along with the digital stabilization aspect of the dual system tend to work against image quality unless you're shooting in the manual modes. Ideally, we'd shoot the SP-590 at the ISO 64 or 100 sensitivities for maximum quality from a noise standpoint, but auto shooting modes that establish the ISO can stray out of this desirable range, and the digital stabilization system wants to ramp up the ISO as well if shutter speeds get low. Shooting manually (either A, S, or M) at least lets the user take the auto ISO part of the equation out of play. Using scene modes can produce some surprises as well - in "bird watching" mode, for example, the camera reduces resolution to 5 megapixels and increases the optical zoom range by using the center portion of the sensor for image capture.
Additional Sample Images
The Olympus SP-590 UZ should appeal to a broad spectrum of folks for whom an ultrazoom is the instrument of choice - there's all the auto and scene shooting options any dedicated point and shoot user could dream of, as well as the face detection and smile detection features that make great marketing copy. But the "death before auto" crowd will find lots to like with this camera as well, beginning with the biggest zoom range in the class and adding in good image quality, color reproduction, and shutter response. AF acquisition times at the telephoto end were sometimes inconsistent even in good conditions, but this trait seems to be shared in some degree with most, if not all other members of the class.
Noise performance is average and the folks who live by the monitor on their point and shoots should plan to pack extra batteries (lots of extra batteries if they're alkalines) for all-day outings. They'll get lots of good stuff never venturing from the auto modes, but this camera does its best work when the user takes charge with the manual shooting options.