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Olympus SP-800UZ Review
by Andy Stanton -  8/10/2010

The Olympus SP-800UZ is an SLR-like ultrazoom which, like most of the cameras in its class, has a large lens and built-up right hand grip. However, unlike many ultrazooms, which are often referred to as "hybrid" cameras because they have many of the functions of a DSLR in a smaller package, the SP-800UZ is strictly a point and shoot, as it lacks a viewfinder, mode dial and manual control over shutter speed and aperture.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image


This is a departure for Olympus, as its previous SLR-like ultrazooms have all been of the classic "hybrid" type. But even though the SP-800UZ lacks some of the attributes of other ultrazooms, it does have a very long zoom lens with a focal length of 28-840mm (35mm equivalent), or 30x optical zoom. The only other ultrazoom currently available with a 30x optical zoom is the Fuji HS10, covering a focal range from 24-720mm.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Wide Angle, 28mm

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Telephoto, 840mm

In my "First Look," which appeared a couple of weeks ago, I said I was pleased with certain aspects of the camera but noticed some problems. Now that I've had a chance to thoroughly explore the SP-800UZ, let's see if my initial impressions have been borne out.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The SP-800UZ is relatively small for an ultrazoom, with dimensions of only 4.2x2.9x3.3-inches and a weight of 14.7 ounces (416g), excluding battery and memory card. It has a 1/2.3-inch, 14 megapixel CCD sensor. Its list price is $349.99 but it can usually be found for considerably less.

Olympus SP800

The camera comes with a USB cable and charger, an audio/video cable, a lithium-ion battery, a neck strap, a cord for attaching the lens cap, and a quick start guide. Olympus does not provide a printed manual or a CD containing the photo management software but they are built into the camera's internal memory and can be downloaded to your computer when you attach the camera prior to installing a memory card.

The SP-800UZ is an attractive camera. The body seems solid, with a combination of metal and plastic construction. There is a comfortable grip on the right side and space on the left to use another hand to steady the camera. It has a somewhat spartan appearance, with fewer buttons and dials than most ultrazooms but those it does have are well-marked (except for the dedicated movie button, which bears no markings but is colored red) and operate smoothly.

Ergonomics and Controls
The front of the camera contains the huge 30x optical zoom lens, an AF illuminator lamp for acquiring focus in dark areas, which also doubles as a timer lamp, and holes for the speaker and the microphone (monaural only). The camera comes with a lens cap that fits on the lens without locking. This is a good thing in that it will pop off, with no harm to the camera, if the camera starts up and the cap has been inadvertently left on. However, the lens cap does have a tendency to come off when the camera is not in use.

Olympus SP800

The top of the camera contains the shutter button, with an encircling zoom lever, an on/off button and the camera's flash, which needs to be manually raised. I prefer a flash that pops up at the press of a button, but the simpler system of the SP-800UZ works fine. The camera's top also contains eyelets for the neck strap.

One side of the camera is completely bare, the other side contains ports for a USB cable and AV cable or HDMI cable, covered by a tethered plastic plate.

The bottom of the camera contains only two items of significance - the tripod mount and battery/memory card compartment. The tripod mount is found way off to the side of the camera, which is not ideal for a camera the weight of the SP-800UZ, as the camera could become unbalanced while on the tripod. Further, the tripod mount is plastic, which will have a shorter life span than one made of metal. The memory card compartment is covered by a sturdy, sliding plastic cover, which works well.

Olympus SP800

The camera's rear consists mainly of the 3.0-inch LCD monitor, which is in a 16:9 configuration. The rear also contains a large, red movie button, below which is a panel with a circular, rotating controller with an OK button in the middle.

Menus and Modes
Pressing the menu button displays the camera's menu, which permits you to select from several shooting modes - IAuto, Scene, Program Auto, Beauty, Panorama and Magic - and gives access to the setup menu. Depending on the shooting mode selected, you will also get access to various selections from the camera's function menu. The SP-800UZ also has playback and movie modes. The menu button brings up different functions when the camera is put into playback mode. The menu is logically laid out and each option is accompanied by a helpful explanation.

Here are the various modes:

Olympus SP800 Sample Image

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Normal
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Pop Art
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Pinhole
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Fisheye
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Drawing

The SP-800UZ has a powerful flash that can illuminate up to 10.2 meters at wide angle. There are four flash modes including auto red-eye reduction (camera makes several pre-flashes), fill-in and off.

Display/Viewfinder
The SP-800UZ does not have a viewfinder, unlike most SLR-like ultrazooms. I regretted not having the viewfinder, not only because it is sometimes useful in certain lighting conditions but also when using a long zoom lens, holding the camera against one's eye helps to steady the camera and get a sharp picture.

Olympus SP800

The LCD measures 3.0-inches with 230,000-dots of resolution in a 16:9 configuration. The monitor has five levels of brightness. It is sharp and fluid, with good color. Olympus says the monitor uses "anti-glare technology" which appears to work well as the monitor did not tend to get washed out in bright sunshine, as is often the case with LCD monitors.

PERFORMANCE
The SP-800UZ is a responsive camera in most respects. It turns on and off quickly, taking no more than a couple of seconds for each function. All buttons and dials work smoothly and menu operations are responsive. Overall shooting performance is good, except for one major failing, as mentioned in my "First Look" - no matter what lighting conditions I shot under, the camera continually took over three seconds between successive shots. The good news is that activation of the flash did not make shot-to-shot time any slower. Still, over three seconds is a long time to wait between photos.

Shooting Performance
As shown by the performance table, the SP-800UZ is a relatively quick performer compared to the competition, in this case the highly rated Pentax X90, Nikon P100 and Fuji HS10. For shutter lag, the time between pressing the shutter and taking the picture when the camera has already locked focus on the image, the SP-800UZ took only 0.03 seconds, which is virtually instantaneous.

For AF acquisition, the time between pressing the shutter and taking the picture without pre-focus, the SP-800UZ took a fairly quick 0.45 seconds, about the same as the Pentax and Nikon and quicker than the Fuji. However, these numbers are tempered by the SP-800UZ's problems in obtaining focus in dim lighting, which occurred indoors and occasionally outdoors as well. While the camera would sometimes obtain focus after several seconds it often failed, resulting in the display of a red X.

The SP-800UZ scored only 1.2 frames per second in continuous shooting mode, the lowest figure of the four cameras. This is actually faster than the speed claimed by Olympus, a very slow 0.85 frames per second for 24 consecutive images. Fortunately the camera does obtain faster speeds using fewer megapixels; 7.7 frames per second at five megapixels, 10.2 at three megapixels and 15.2 at two megapixels.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.01
Pentax X90 0.01
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.03
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.06

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Pentax X90 0.43
Nikon Coolpix P100 0.44
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.45
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 0.64

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix HS10 7 12.3 fps
Nikon Coolpix P100 6 11.3 fps
Pentax X90 5 1.4 fps
Olympus SP800-UZ 10 1.2 fps

The SP-800UZ uses Olympus's Dual Image Stabilization, which combines sensor-shift stabilization ("mechanical" image stabilization) and increases in ISO and shutter speed ("digital" image stabilization). It also employs AF tracking, which automatically tracks fast moving subjects and continuously adjusts the focus and brightness.

The camera uses an LI-50B lithium-ion rechargeable battery which Olympus says will last for 200 shots. This figure is short and in fact I did find that the battery icon started moving downward sooner than I would have liked. Battery life can be lengthened with infrequent use of the menus, video recording and use of the flash. It would probably be a good idea to purchase an extra battery and take it with you if you intend to a lot of shooting. The battery can be charged by connecting the camera to a computer with the USB cable or to a wall adapter that plugs into a power source (which will result in quicker charging).

Lens Performance
When I began using the SP-800UZ I was thrilled to have the ability to capture items at very long distances using the 30x optical zoom. Zooming is quick and smooth and the long lens is very versatile and permits you to take close-ups of images that you can barely see with the naked eye. However, the long lens is a mixed blessing. As you use more zoom, it becomes more difficult to take a clear photo without the blurring effects of camera shake. Apparently there's only so much the camera's image stabilization system can do. With the ultrazoom I own, an 18x Panasonic, I can usually take a sharp picture at the long end of the zoom if I use the viewfinder while holding the camera against my face. But since the SP-800UZ lacks a viewfinder I had to find other ways to stabilize the lens. One method I arrived at was to pull the neck strap taut and hold my breath while snapping the shutter. This helped but I still experienced a large number of blurry photos when using the long zoom.

The lens was able to maintain good sharpness through the zoom range, even at the extreme long end once I was able to obtain focus. I did not see any evidence of vignetting and my photos seemed only a bit more blurry in the corners than in the rest of the image. I noticed chromatic aberration in situations of sharp contrast, which is especially noticeable when the photo is blown up. For instance, in the photo below, there is purple fringing on the edges of all the white portions of the building.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image

As the photos below demonstrate, there is significant barrel distortion at the extreme wide angle of the lens but no pincushion distortion at maximum telephoto.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Wide Angle
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Telephoto

Video Quality
The SP-800UZ takes adequate HD videos at 1280x720 resolution at 30 frames per second, with monaural sound. The reason the colors seem faded is that the video was taken at long range.

Image Quality
The images produced by the SP-800UZ have good, realistic color at shorter range and when shooting in macro or super-macro mode, where it can focus as close a 1cm.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image

However, colors tend to fade the more zoom is used. Colors are not as saturated as they are in some cameras but you can increase or decrease the saturation of an existing image in playback mode.

Auto white balance was accurate, both indoors and out. The camera gives you optional presets of daylight, overcast, tungsten, daylight fluorescent, neutral fluorescent and office fluorescent.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Photos taken in bright sunshine are often affected by overexposure, which unfortunately is the case with most cameras with small sensors. Flash photos turned out well.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image

As shown below, the SP-800UZ does best at the lowest ISO levels. Noise starts to intrude at 100 ISO and becomes more evident at 200 ISO. Noise levels and softening from noise reduction increase at 400 ISO through 1600 ISO. Color seems to be fairly consistent throughout the ISO range.

Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 50
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 50, 100% crop
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 100
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 200
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 400
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 800
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Olympus SP800 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop

Additional Sample Images
Olympus SP800 Sample Image Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Olympus SP800 Sample Image Olympus SP800 Sample Image
Olympus SP800 Sample Image Olympus SP800 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
As you can probably tell from the tone of the review, I was not terribly pleased with the Olympus SP-800UZ. While its long 30x optical zoom lens gives the camera great versatility, the big zoom lens comes with a price. At longer focal lengths, it is hard to get a sharp picture and colors tend to fade. I also noticed problems with the auto focus in dim light, chromatic aberration and overexposure. Slow shot-to-shot times are also an issue.


On the plus side, the camera is attractive, has good build quality and a superior LCD monitor. It produces realistic colors, offers reliable white balance and has an excellent flash.

For someone looking for an ultrazoom with a huge optical zoom, the SP-800UZ is certainly an option. However, there are many ultrazooms on the market with shorter optical zooms that are better cameras overall.

Pros:

Cons: