Olympus SP-550 UZ

With only minor drawbacks, the new Olympus ultra-zoom camera delivers unbelievable coverage in a compact package.

By Ron Eggers

The Olympus 7.1-megapixel SP-550 UZ is one of the dual-LCD cameras that are the proving ground for some innovative capabilites. In place of an optical viewfinder, these cameras have a second LCD that displays exactly what the lens sees, just like DSLRs. Optical viewfinders are generally better suited for precision framing and focusing, but LCD viewfinders work well enough, and certainly better than the coupled viewfinders on most consumer cameras. And the dual-LCD design has some advantages over DSLRs: they’re more compact, less expensive, and sometimes have features that aren’t feasible with DSLRs.

Caption: Not only do you get great zoom with the Olympus SP-550 UZ, you get extreme macro capability as well. Photo ©Ron Eggers 

Though it’s a consumer camera, I tested the SP-550 UZ as I would a pro model, using it for a variety of shooting, including sports, scenics, close-ups and portraits. In most cases it preformed extremely well. The SP-550 UZ is loaded with advanced features, like sensor-shift and digital image stabilization, and an ISO range to 1600, even ISO 5000 with low resolution capture.

The thing that truly sets this model apart is the lens coverage. The 18X optical zoom 4.7-84.2mm f/2.8-4.5 lens (the 35mm equivalent coverage of a 28-504mm lens) gives it an impressive zoom range for a camera this size, consumer or professional. The excellent optics of the SP-550 live up to Olympus’ reputation for high-quality lenses. The lens design combines high refractive aspherical and extra-dispersion (ED) elements for sharp detail, edge to edge. There’s also a 5.6X digital zoom for a total zoom range of 100X. Further extending the range is an available telephoto conversion lens that takes the optical telephoto coverage to 30X.

I liked not only the long telephoto lens, but the entire zoom range. Early on, my primary lens with 35mm cameras was a 28mm. I liked the coverage and color saturation that the wide-angle lens provided. The coverage of the SP-550 UZ gives me the same results.

The camera also has what Olympus calls “super macro” capability. “True macro” is probably more accurate, as the subject captured on the sensor can be as large as or larger than the subject itself. The specs say it’s possible shoot as close up as 1 centimeter. In testing, the camera could focus correctly down to about 1 inch. Shooting that close takes practice. Focusing variations and limitations in depth of field can make in-focus macro results difficult to achieve.

Caption: Here you can see the extent of the 18X zoom with a 28mm wide-angle shot (top), a midrange zoom around 300mm (center), and a 504mm shot (bottom) taken from the same location.  ©Ron Eggers

At the other extreme, being able to zoom in extremely tight puts this camera into a class by itself. As the images above graphically illustrate, the SP 550 UZ could take covert shooting to a whole new level. This isn’t a pocket camera, but it could easily fit into a fanny or belt pack. Weighing just 12.9 ounces, the camera turned off is only 3 1/4 inches deep; with the lens at maximum extension, it’s still less than 6 inches deep. It makes it possible to carry along a long telephoto lens anytime, anywhere.

The SP-550 UZ is capable of multiple metering modes, including Digital iSP Auto Multi-Pattern TTL, spot and center-weighted metering. Though it lacks a custom K setting, it supports the rest of the white balance options. There’s a built-in pop-up flash, which has auto and manual firing capability, including red-eye reduction, fill-flash and slow-sync, but there’s no hot shoe or sync cord connector.

The sensor’s maximum resolution is 3,072x2,304 pixels. Post-processing is handled through the camera’s advanced TruePic TURBO image processor. Processed images are stored on xD cards.

In some respects, the SP-500 UZ is fast, but it has its shortcomings. For rapid shooting, it can take as many as 15 frames per second (fps) for up to 20 frames, but only when capturing 1.2-megapixel images. The frame rate drops to 1.2 fps up to 7 frames at full resolution. The separate movie mode supports multiple frame rates and resolution up to 640x480 at 30 fps.

While the camera can take a rapid sequence of images, getting ready to shoot takes too long. Auto focus can be so slow—barely acceptable, in fact—and it had problems locking in. When it got confused, the camera would run through the entire focusing range several times before honing in on the subject. A couple of times the camera simply wouldn’t focus. I had to turn it off and on again to get it to work properly. It also has the typical shutter lag of a consumer camera.

These limitations were frustrating at first. I lost too many shots because the camera wasn’t responding as I thought it should. As I got used to its shooting characteristics and could anticipate the shots, the percentage of usable frames increased dramatically. I was able to capture action shots just by adjusting my shooting style.

Caption: To take action shots, like this image of beach volleyball legend Karsh Kiraly, the photographer has to anticipate the shot to compensate for the Olympus SP-550 UZ's shutter lag. ©Ron Eggers

I’m generally not impressed with specialized shooting modes, but the 30 options available with the SP-550 UZ are so broad that controlling the capture is almost as precise as with a DSRL.

The customizable My Modes store your preferred settings; the Guide mode with special menus walks you through the settings for different types of photography; and there are 23 programmed scene modes for shooting different activities under a variety of lighting. For example, there are scene modes for shooting action, fireworks, day and nighttime portraits, documents under several kinds of available light, and even three different underwater modes (with housing for the camera).

There are two shoot and select modes, high resolution (3,072x2,304) and lower-res (2,048x1,536). In these modes, the camera takes a rapid series of frames, then presents them as a filmstrip and gives you the option to retain or erase any individual frame. A dial  topside lets you switch rapidly from standard shooting modes to My Mode, Guide, Scene or Movie. Camera settings are automatically adjusted to stored options for each shooting mode. 

Caption: Low light shot at Corona del Mar. ©Ron Eggers 

specs: Olympus SP-550 UZ
SENSOR: CCD
RESOLUTION: 7.1 effective megapixels (3,072x2,304 pixels)
SHUTTER SPEED: 1/2,000 second to 15 seconds, bulb
EXPOSURE MODES: Auto, Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, My Modes, GUIDE, Scene Presets (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), Movie
WHITE BALANCE: iESP2, Auto, One-Touch, Preset (daylight, overcast, tungsten, 3 fluorescents)
FOCUS: iESP, Auto, Spot AF, Selective AF Target, Manual
METERING: Digital iESP Auto Multi-Pattern TTL, spot, center-weighted
SHOOTING SPEED (RATED): 15 fps for up to 20 frames at 1.2 MP, 1.2 fps for 7 frames at 7 MP
ISO: Auto, High ISO Auto, 50 to 1600 (up to 5000 at low-res)
LENSES: 18X (28-504mm) optical zoom lens, 5.6X digital zoom
FLASH: Built-in pop-up
STORAGE: xD Card
PRICE: $449.99

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