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Olympus have this to say about the camera:
"Get up close and personal in a whole new way. With the worlds first wide 18x optical zoom, the Olympus SP-550 UZ accepts no limits, bringing photographers closer to distant subjects than ever before. Capture candid street scenes from a discreet distance, grab the detail of your favourite sport from way up in the stands then even use the wide angle lens to take in the whole game as this models focal length spans an amazing 28mm-504mm (in 35mm camera equivalent terms)! Enjoy double protection against camera shake with Dual Image Stabilization. Even at high magnifications or when capturing fast-moving objects, this technology ensures results are significantly sharper. Packing 7.1 Megapixels of detail-capturing power, the SP-550 UZ opens up a new realm of creative possibility."
You can find more information on their website.
The Camera: a visual tour: (Photos of the camera taken with the Samsung NV7 OPS)
Size Comparison: Compared to a Pentax 35mm film camera - a medium / compact sized 35mm film camera.
Specifications / Features:
Average box contents - There is no memory card provided with the camera - instead there is only 20mb of memory built in. Rechargable batteries would have been a nice addition, as would a full printed manual (instead it appears to be on the CD with the camera I got - this may vary depending what country you're in).
Battery usage: Battery life seemed very good, using Ni-Mh batteries, I managed to take over 325 pictures before battery empty appeared on screen. Better battery life should be possible using higher power Ni-Mh batteries.
Menu Options / Modes: The camera mode is selected using the top dial. This allows the choice of: Auto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, My Mode (4 custom 'My Modes' can be setup), Guide mode, Scene mode, Video mode, Playback.
Photo mode/menu: The menu button brings up the menu screen(s) as shown below:
Photo / Camera
menu options: The first screen gives you quick access to some options
such as image quality, reset, setup, silent mode etc. The Camera menu
options are: White Balance, ISO, Drive (Single, Continuous, Continuous
High Speed 1 - at 3mp, Hi Speed 2 - 15fps at 1.2mp, Pre-hi-speed - at
1.2mp, AF, BKT), Metering ESP / Spot / Centre weighted, Fine Zoom, Digital
Zoom, AF mode, Focus mode (AF, MF), Fulltime AF, AF Predict, AF Illuminator,
Image Stabilizer, Flash strength, Flash sync, Flash (Internal, Slave),
Microphone, Panorama (only available with Olympus XD cards!), WB +/-,
Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Noise Reduction, Timelapse, Olympus conversion
Screen / LCD display in photo mode: (shown above) The screen resolution with 230,000 pixels is very good. The screen is clear and the text and menus are easy to read. The built in help is accessed simply by pressing the ? / Display button when you are setting a feature.
Function Menu: much like the Canon Function button, the Olympus Function button gives quick access to photo controls such as: White Balance (Auto, Sun, Cloud, Lightbulb, Fluorescent 1,2,3, Custom), ISO (Auto, High Auto, 50 - 5000), Drive (Single, Continuous, Continuous High Speed 1 - at 3mp, Hi Speed 2 - 15fps at 1.2mp, Pre-hi-speed - at 1.2mp, AF, BKT), Metering (ESP, Spot, Center weighted)
Optical / Electronic Viewfinder: The electronic viewfinder has a diopter corrector. The electronic viewfinder is clear and a decent size, not too small, but not big either.
Scenes: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape and Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Night Portrait, Indoor, Candle, Self Portrait, Available light, Sunset, Fireworks, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot and Select 1, Shoot and Select 2, Beach, Snow, under water wide 1, under water wide 2, under water macro. A quick note on shoot and select 1 and 2 - this takes numerous photos in quick succession, you then choose the ones you want to delete by putting a tick next to them! Originally I thought I had to put a tick next to the one's I wanted to keep only to see them get deleted! Surely a big red cross should be put on the ones you don't want, and big green ticks on the ones you want to keep!
Shooting guide: The shooting guide has 15 guides on how to take photos in particular situations or styles, and will take you through various options or settings, and setup the camera correctly for that mode, for example selecting "Brightening the subject" gives you two options "Increase the value of +/-" or "Set to fill-in flash". Selecting the first option increases the exposure compensation to +1.0. As well as "Brightening the Subject", the camera has the following built in guides: Shooting into backlight, Set particular lighting, Blurring Background, Adjusting are in focus, Shooting subject in motion, Targeting with assistance, Close up photo, Super close up photo, Shooting at night, Reducing blur, Hi-speed sequential shots, Don't miss the shot, Reducing red-eye, Adjusting image quality.
Playback (Review) mode/menu:
Playback mode: Scrolling through the photos is fairly quick. The zoom is very quick. There were numerous different playback views: Calendar view by date, Normal, thumbs - showing 4, 9, 16, or 25 thumbnails. There was some additional information available about the photos ISO setting, aperture, shutter speed, white balance etc. A histogram is also available.
On the initial playback menu, you have the choice of: Slideshow, Edit, Print order, Calendar, Playback menu, Setup, Index, Erase and Silent mode.
Playback menu options: Protect, Rotate, Audio. Playback edit menu options: (right) Raw data edit, Resize, Crop, Redeye fix, Black and White, Sepia, Frame, Label, Calendar, Layout, Brightness, Saturation.
Setup menu options: Format, Backup (to copy internal memory to XD memory card), Language, Power on setup, Screen setup, Beep, Volume (warning), Shutter sound, Volume (Audio), Record view (turn this off to speed the camera up in photo mode), File name, Pixel mapping, LCD brightness, Date / Time, Dual time, Alarm Clock, Video out, Frame assist, Histogram (off, on, direct), My mode setup (current, reset, custom), m/ft, Custom button (this changes the image stabilisation button on the top of the camera to one of the following options: Image stabiliser, AE Lock, AF Lock, Image quality, Fine Zoom, Digital Zoom, AF Mode, Focus mode, Fulltime AF, AF Predict, Syncro, Flash, Audio, Noise Reduction).
Picture Size / Quality: The camera takes the following size pictures:
As shown in the table above, higher quality images take a large amount of memory, so a high capacity memory card is definitely recommended, unless you're prepared to sacrifice image size or use higher compression options to fit more pictures in memory. There is a very good choice of image sizes and aspect ratios (including 3:2 and a new 16:9 aspect ratio), and inclusion of RAW image mode means you can ensure no image quality is lost before any further editing occurs.
A large memory card is relatively cheap, and highly recommended, I would recommend at a bare minimum a 512mb memory card, and preferably a 1gb memory card, especially considering the relatively low prices - the larger the memory card, the more photos you will be able to take. If you are likely to go on holiday then the largest memory card you can afford would definitely be worth investing in, as you don't always know when you will next be at a computer. Listed below are links to memory cards that will work with the Olympus SP550:
Find the latest
prices for XD memory cards at Amazon.co.uk: 512mb: £8,
1gb (1000mb): £12,
2gb (2000mb): £23.
Speed: The camera is fairly slow to switch on and take photos, being ready in around 2.8 seconds. Focusing seemed fairly quick especially with the lens at the wide-angle setting (under 1 second). The playback mode is a fairly quick, with photos taking under a second before displaying when going from photo to photo - and the zoom is very quick. The camera shutter response seemed very quick when pre-focused, with a response time of around 0.1 seconds. Shot to shot time was average, with a delay of around 3 seconds between shots without flash. The flash recharge time was quite quick with shot to shot time 1 second slower than without the flash. The cameras menus seemed quick. On the continuous shooting mode, shot time is average, at roughly 1.2fps, with a shot taken every 0.8 seconds for upto 7 shots at the highest resolution. On hi speed mode 1 shot time is very quick at 7 fps for upto 15 shots at 3mp. Hi speed mode 2 offers 15fps shooting for upto 20 shots at 1.2mp. Both hi-speed mode 1 and 2 set ISO to ISO400 or above. Continuous shooting isn't available when taking RAW photos, and shot to shot time slows down to 8 seconds between shots.
Ease of use: The camera is very easy to use, especially in the AUTO mode and the scene modes, even though the camera has a lot of options. The controls on the back of the camera are quite straightforward - the menus are responsive and easy to read and navigate. The menus are also easy to use, and the options are big enough and easy enough to see clearly. The modes are easy to access, quick and simple, mainly thanks to the large screen (most options are easily accessible by use of the ok button and the direction arrows) which makes it easier to use. It is useful to read the advanced manual to help familiarise yourself with some of the more technical features of the camera. The built in help is very useful as it explains the options, and the built in guide has solutions and settings to solve some of the main problems people may face when using a digital camera.
Ergonomics and Buttons: (Feel, placement, labels, etc.) The buttons are fairly easy to use, they are clearly labelled and are in a good position, providing quick and easy access to them even when holding the camera with one hand. There aren't too many buttons on the camera, which should make it simpler to master the cameras basic functions. The buttons feel good, and are a decent size, not too small, and not too big. The shutter release is good, and the zoom control surrounding it feels very nice and is easy to use. The pop-up flash release button is easy to use and clearly labelled. The four-way controller provides quick access to most common functions such as self-timer, macro mode, flash etc. I thought the camera felt very good ergonomically, with an excellent sized rubber hand grip, an excellent rubber thumb grip on the back, and other rubber cladding around the lens and on the left of the body the camera is very easy to hold. The shutter release and zoom very well positioned. Personally I would have preferred the metal mode dial to be moved back slightly so that it was easier to reach with the thumb. The camera feels like a very solid, robust and well built camera, despite the plastic construction.
Image Quality: Here are some real world sample photos taken in various settings, such as Inside, Noise, Outside, Zoom, Macro, to demonstrate the quality of pictures taken and also show different features of the camera. Larger versions of these photos, plus more photos are available in the Olympus SP-550 UZ Sample Photo Gallery!
Inside: The camera has very good colour - It took a good "Heather and Flower" photo - there is no red-eye in the photo, although there is some in other group photos. It has a decent flash, and copes well with group photos, and on AUTO ISO, the ISO setting was kept fairly low in these photos. The camera did a good job at focusing most of the time even in low-light. Colour is quite richly saturated.
Noise: Noise is generally a bad thing - it removes detail, and gives a grainy effect over the image. With digital cameras noise can be a real problem as digital camera noise is often made out of blue, red or green dots. As the ISO setting increases, pictures tend to have more noise. Noise is most noticeable in dark areas of photos. The camera has an Automatic mode for ISO levels, Automatic High mode (uses high ISO settings to avoid image blur), and manual ISO settings (ISO: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 5000!) - below you'll find the noise test image, plus actual pixel crops from the image taken at different ISO settings, compared with the 6 megapixel, 12x optical zoom lens Panasonic Lumix FZ7, and 6 megapixel Olympus SP-500UZ.
ISO Noise Test Photo - Flash off unless otherwise stated. Panasonic Lumix FZ7 on the left, Olympus SP-550UZ in the middel, Olympus SP-500 UZ on the right. The colour difference is due to automatic white balance.
The Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom offers an impressive ISO range from ISO50 to ISO5000! Noise is low at ISO50 and ISO100, appearing slightly less speckly than the 6 megapixel Olympus SP-500, which is quite impressive considering an increase in megapixels normally means more noise. At ISO200 noise is acceptable, and at ISO400 noise is becoming much more noticeable with colourful speckled dots. Performance is good compared to the Panasonic Lumix FZ7 which has noticably more noise, and the Olympus SP-500 which has slightly more noise. At ISO800 noise is increased further with noticeable black dots, however detail is still fairly good. At ISO1600 noise is high and detail has started to drastically disappear. (Although not as much as the FZ7 on the left!). At ISO3200 and ISO5000 - the camera reverts to a lower resolution of 3 megapixels and detail is very low, with ISO5000 being the worst. I would try and avoid these settings completely and stick to ISO50 - 400, only using ISO800 where absolutely necessary. Hopefully you wont need to use anything higher than ISO400 due to the built in image stabilisation.
Image Stabilisation: This is the first recent Olympus Ultra Zoom to feature real image stabilisation, a feature that helps reduce image blur due to low light or long zoom photography. Here are some test photos taken with Image Stabilisation on and off - these photos were taken without flash indoors with the zoom set to around 4x. The Olympus SP-550 UZ image stabilisation system moves the CCD sensor to counter any camera shake.
As you can see - image stabilisation is effective for low-light / high zoom, slow shutter speed photography helping acheive blur free photos in situations where you normally wouldn't be able to get a sharp image without the aid of a tripod. The SP-550 UZ says it has "Dual Image Stabilisation" - in addition to the real CCD-shift image stabilisation - it also lets you use high ISO settings to avoid image blur the downside being that you'll end up with much more noise in your photos.
Outside, the camera has rich accurate colour, with good saturation, contrast, and detail. Noise seemed low even in the darker areas of the photo. I turned up the quality to maximum to avoid jpeg artefacts. Exposure seemed very good.
Zoom: The Olympus wide-angle 18x optical zoom lens provides an excellent zoom range - without the requirement for digital zoom. Digital zoom simply degrades image quality and better results can often be obtained using software. I've included examples to show what is possible.
Exposure / Metering on the photos of the clock tower seems very good, with the dark areas of the photo not too dark, and the bright areas of the photo still visible. There is also a good depth of focus in the wide angle shot from the sign to the clock.
Lens noise and zoom: The lens is fairly quiet. There are around 100 steps between wide angle and telephoto!! This gives very good control over how you frame your subject.
Other Image Quality issues: Purple fringing and chromatic aberations can be seen in some extreme test cases near the edges of the photos, and was more noticeable when using the telephoto end of the lens. There appeared to be some vignetting (corner darkness) when using the zoom at the full 18x optical zoom.
This camera has an excellent super macro mode - it allows you to be 1cm away from the subject - this allows you to get very good, close-up, detailed macro photos. Custom white balance helps achieve better colour as well.
Video mode: The camera features an unlimited 640x480 video mode at 30fps with sound when using Type "H" XD Memory cards (Type "M" XD Memory cards limit the length to 15fps when recording at 640x480/30fps) - with sound off you can use the optical zoom and image stabilisation - with sound on you can't use the optical zoom or image stabilisation while recording. The video resolution and quality are good however it is a shame that the optical zoom and image stabilisation aren't available when recording sound. A wide-screen mode would be a nice feature.
Summary: The Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom, with it's impressive wide-angle 18x optical zoom lens and CCD-Shift image stabilisation, is an appealing digital camera providing a zoom range of 28mm - 504mm. It feels very comfortable in hand, and produces very good images with very pleasing colours and generally low noise. The screen and electronic viewfinder are good. The camera is easy to use, especially with the built in help and shooting guide, and camera speed is fairly good. The camera offers good battery life, with very good controls and very good build quality. The camera has a good video mode although with some limitations. The Olympus SP-550 UZ manages to put Olympus back up there with the other ultra zoom cameras, but goes one step further with the world's biggest 18x optical zoom lens! If you want a wide-angle ultra zoom digital camera, then the Olympus SP-550UZ is Recommended, it has numerous benefits and a few little problems, but the benefits definitely outweigh the negatives.
What I like:
What I don't like:
Images are viewable in the Olympus
SP-550 UZ Sample Photo Gallery.