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DCRP Review: Olympus
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: December 15, 2005
Last Updated: April 6, 2008
The SP-350 ($399) is one of three models in Olympus' new SP-series of digital cameras. The SP-350, along with its lower cost sibling, the SP-310, is a compact camera with a 3X optical zoom lens, 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, VGA movie mode, and an AF-assist lamp. Both cameras use AA batteries and support the RAW image format.
The main differences between the SP-310 and SP-350 are resolution (7.1 vs 8.0 Megapixel), a hot shoe (the SP-350 has one, the SP-310 does not), and body color (gray vs. black).
How does the SP-350 perform in our tests? Find out now!
What's in the Box?
The SP-350 has an above average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Beginning in 2005 Olympus began building memory into their cameras instead of including a memory card. The SP-350 has 25MB of internal memory, which isn't very much considering the camera's resolution: that only holds just four photos at the highest JPEG quality. That means that you'll need to buy a larger memory card and factor that into the initial price of the camera. The SP-350 uses xD Picture Cards, which are on the expensive side. I'd recommend a 512MB or even 1GB card as good starter size. While there are high speed xD cards available, Olympus doesn't say if the camera takes advantage of them, and since I don't have one, I can't test it myself.
The SP-350 uses two AA or one CR-V3 battery. They include a lithium CR-V3 battery in the box, which will end up in your trash after a few hours of shooting. Thus, I recommend picking up a set or two of NiMH rechargeables (2300 mAh or better) and a fast charger. Unfortunately Olympus does not publish battery life numbers for the camera, so I can't compare it against the competition.
I like cameras that use AA batteries since you can drop in off-the-shelf alkalines when the rechargeables run low. Try that on your li-ion-powered camera next time! Few cameras these days use AA batteries, unfortunately.
The SP-350 has a built-in lens cover so there are no clumsy lens caps to worry about.
For being somewhat of a budget camera the SP-350 has quite a collection of accessories. And here they are:
That's not too shabby! There are some other flash-related accessories available, such as a hot shoe cable, flash bracket, and hot shoe to PC sync converter.
Olympus includes version 1.31 of their excellent Master software with the SP-350. When you first start it up you'll be presented with the above screen. Options here include transferring images from a camera or memory card or browsing, sharing, and printing photos that have already been transferred. A backup option will save your photos to your hard drive or CD/DVD disk.
Here's the main image browsing screen. In the left pane you can choose how images are viewed: by date or category. Powerful searching features let you find images in a number of ways. The thumbnails in the center of the screen load quickly and you can adjust their size in real time. On the right side you'll find shooting data as well as links to Olympus and their partners.
Items in the toolbar include rotation, editing, printing, e-mailing, and RAW development.
Here is the editing screen, where you'll find rotation and cropping, "instant fix", redeye reduction, and color balance options.
Here's the nicely design photo printing feature. Lots of options, as you can see. There's a similar window for e-mailing your photos to friends and family.
This is the panorama stitcher, which will merge your photos into one giant panorama. It's as simple as it gets -- just one button!
The last thing to see here is the RAW development feature. Here you can adjust the exposure, white balance, contrast, sharpness, and saturation in your RAW image. There's a bit of a delay after you make changes while the software processes the image, so changes are not quite real-time. Once you're happy your RAW images can be saved in a number of formats, including TIFF and JPEG.
What are RAW images? Simply put, they contain the "raw", unprocessed image data straight from the camera's sensor. The beauty of RAW format is that 1) they're smaller than TIFFs, and 2) they allow you to manipulate photos without losing any quality. Botch the white balance? Just change it later and it's just like taking the shot again. The disadvantage? You must process the images on your Mac or PC in order to export them to other formats. As you saw, the Olympus Master software can do this just fine. You can also use the latest Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop CS2 to edit the RAW files -- it has more capabilities than Olympus' software.
Just like with their old Camedia Master software, Olympus has a "Plus" version available for $20 more. The Master Plus software adds movie editing capabilities, more printing options, and the ability to make Video CDs.
While the software has greatly improved in recent years, one thing that hasn't changed is Olympus' unwillingness to provide a printed copy of the complete camera manual. As usual, you'll get a "basic manual" in the box, with the full manual on the included CD-ROM. The quality of the manual itself is good -- it's having to load up a PDF file that bothers me.
Look and Feel
The SP-350 is a camera that straddles the line between compact and midsize. While it's made almost entirely of plastic, it doesn't feel "cheap" like some other plastic cameras. The SP-350 fits well in your hand, with all the controls in the right place. It's easy to hold and operate with just one hand.
Now, here's a look at how the camera compares with some similar models in terms of size and weight:
As you can see, the SP-350 falls right in the middle of the pack. It's not a camera that will fit in your jeans pocket, but it'll go in a jacket pocket just fine.
Let's move onto our camera tour now.
The SP-350 has a standard issue F2.8-4.9, 3X optical zoom lens. The focal range of the lens is 8 - 24 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. The ring around the lens is threaded, though you'll need to buy the CLA-9 conversion lens adapter to do anything with it. Once you've got that you can attach conversion lenses or 34 mm filters.
To the upper-right of the lens you'll find the camera's AF-assist lamp, which is also used as the self-timer countdown light. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations.
Above that you'll find the cameras built-in flash. This flash is a bit stronger than average, with a working range of 0.4 - 3.8 m at wide-angle and 0.4 - 2.2 m at telephoto. Should you want more flash power (not to mention less redeye) you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a bit.
Just below the Olympus logo you'll find the optical viewfinder, with the microphone to its left.
The main event on the back of the SP-350 is its large 2.5" LCD display. While it's big on size, it's small on resolution, with just 115,000 pixels. While it's not horrible in actual use, the screen could definitely be sharper. While outdoor visibility was just average, the screen was fairly easy to see in low light conditions. That's because the screen "gains up" so you can still see what you're looking at.
While optical viewfinders on Olympus cameras are disappearing faster than open space in the suburbs, the SP-310 and SP-350 still have them. The one here is on the small side, but I'm not going to complain, since they're so rare these days. It does lack a diopter correction knob, though, which is used to focus what you're looking at.
To the right of the viewfinder are three buttons. They're for:
The AE Lock button is the SP-350's "custom button". That means that you can attach almost any camera function to that button -- AE Lock being the default.
On the right side of the LCD are two more buttons, plus the four-way controller. The top button (Display/Guide) serves two purposes. Outside of the menu system it toggles what is shown on the LCD, and it can turn the whole thing off as well. When you're in the menu, hold the button down to display a help screen like you see above. The Quick View button jumps to playback mode without having to use the mode dial.
The last thing to see on the back of the SP-350 is the four-way controller. The controller is used for menu navigation, adjusting manual controls, and setting the exposure compensation (the usual -2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments).
At the center of the above photo you'll see the SP-350's hot shoe, a feature which is quite uncommon on cameras in this class. The hot shoe works best with Olympus' flashes (since the camera and flash can "talk" to each other), but most third party flashes will work as well. Do note that you'll need to set both the camera and flash settings manually if you use a non-Olympus external flash. A plastic cover protects the hot shoe when it's not in use.
To the right of the hot shoe you'll find the mode dial, which has the following options:
As you can see, the SP-350 has full manual exposure controls. It also has a ton of scene modes -- maybe a little over-the-top if you ask me. Those two Shoot & Select scenes are just simple continuous shooting modes -- I'll cover that feature in more detail later.
The My Mode features lets you store four sets of camera settings in memory for easy retrieval.
Above the mode dial is the zoom controller, which is wrapped around the shutter release button. This moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.2 seconds. I counted twelve stops throughout the 3X zoom range.
The other side of the SP-350 is more exciting. Here you'll find the camera's I/O ports and xD memory card slot. The I/O ports, which are protected by plastic covers, include:
The SP-350 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast transfers to your computer.
The memory card slot is protected by a plastic door of decent quality.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the camera. Here you'll find the battery compartment, plastic tripod mount, and the speaker. The battery compartment can take two AA or one CR-V3 batteries, and it's protected by a plastic door with a locking mechanism.
Using the Olympus SP-350
It takes just 1.5 seconds for the SP-350 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures -- that's quite good for a camera with an extending lens. In order to get this startup time you will need to turn off the startup screen in the setup menu.
|The SP-350 has not one, but two different types of histogram available. The one on the left is pretty standard, while the one on the right is more unique. It shows overexposed areas in red, and underexposed areas in blue.|
Focus speeds on the SP-350 about average. In good lighting the camera focuses in about 0.3 - 0.5 seconds, but if it has to "hunt" or use the AF-assist lamp, look out: it can easily take more than a second for the camera to lock focus. Low light focusing was just average, despite the camera having an AF-assist lamp.
I was disappointed with the shutter lag on the camera: it was noticeable, even at shutter speeds where there shouldn't be any. This may not be the best camera for capturing fast action.
Shot-to-shot speeds were average. Expect delays of around 2 seconds without the flash and 5 seconds with it at the SHQ quality setting. In RAW mode the delay rises to 10 seconds. There's a possibility that a high speed xD card would decrease these times, but I didn't have one to test.
There's no easy way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken. You must enter playback mode (via the Quick View button) and delete it from there.
There are many image size and quality choices on the SP-350, including:
That's quite a list! As you can see, the SP-350 supports the RAW image format. I told you the pros and cons of the RAW format earlier in the review. While the SHQ and HQ modes share the same resolution, the compression levels are higher in HQ, which reduces the image quality. At the lower resolutions you can select either High or Normal quality (which adjusts the compression level) as well.
Olympus uses one of the more sensible file numbering systems that I've seen. Files are named Pmdd####.jpg, where m is the month (1-9, A-C), d is the day, and #### is 0001-9999. This way your file numbers are always unique (well, at least a year). File numbering is maintained as you erase and switch memory cards.
The SP-350 uses the advanced version of the Olympus menu system. When you first hit the menu button, you'll be presented with the following options:
Three out of the four of those items can be customized, so you can put your favorite camera functions in an easy-to-access location.
Selecting "Mode Menu" from that initial screen will bring you to the full recording menu. There are three tabs containing the various menu items. Keep in mind that some of these options are not displayed in the automatic shooting modes. With that, here's the full record menu list:
I have a lot of explaining to do!
I'll start with the continuous shooting modes on the camera. In regular sequential mode the camera took four pictures at a very sluggish 0.9 frames/second. High speed mode raises the frame rate to a s still slow 1.5 frames/second, but limits you to just two shots in a row. This is the only burst mode in which you can use the RAW image format. A third burst mode, AF sequential, will focus before each shot, which slows the frame rate even more.
For the regular and high speed modes the LCD is off during shooting, which forces you to use the optical viewfinder if you want to follow a moving subject. The LCD blacks out briefly in the AF sequential mode, but it comes back on before each shot is taken (not that this helps much).
The exposure bracketing feature will take three or five photos in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between shots can be 0.3EV, 0.7EV, or 1.0EV. If you've got the space on the memory card this is a good way to ensure a proper exposure every time.
The "area" AF mode lets you use the four-way controller to manually select one of 143 focus points. The manual focus feature also uses the four-way controller, this time to set the focus distance. A guide showing the current focus distance is shown on the LCD, and the center of the frame is enlarged so you can make sure your subject is sharp.
The timelapse feature lets you take a set number of photos over a given period of time. You can take up to 99 photos, with an interval between shots of 1 to 99 minutes. The AC adapter is strongly recommended if you use this feature.
The SP-350 has a custom white balance function, which lets you use a white or gray card for perfect color under even the most unusual lighting conditions. In addition there's also a WB fine-tuning feature, which lets you adjust the WB in either the blue or red direction.
And I'm spent. Let's move onto the photo tests now!
The SP-350 turned in a very solid performance in our macro test. My only complaint is that the reds are a little too orange. Otherwise things look good -- the subject is tack sharp.
There are two macro modes on the camera. In normal macro mode, you can get as close as 20 cm to your subject at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto, which isn't very good. To get really close you'll want to use super macro mode, which reduces the minimum distance to just 2 cm. Do note that the lens is locked at the wide-angle position in super macro mode.
The night shot turned out nicely as well. The camera took in plenty of light, though I had to use the full manual mode to get at the full range of shutter speeds. Noise levels are reasonable considering the resolution of the camera, and purple fringing was not a problem. The only strange thing I noticed is how the red lights on the tops of some of the buildings looks like they were clipped around the edges. Overenthusiastic noise reduction, perhaps?
Now let's use that same scene to see how the SP-350 does at higher ISO sensitivities:
I was pleasantly surprised with the SP-350's high ISO performance. Noise levels really aren't that much different through ISO 200, and I was able to get a nice 4 x 6 inch print out of the ISO 400 shot after cleaning things up with NeatImage. Pretty good!
There is moderate barrel distortion to be found at the wide end of the SP-350's lens. While I saw no evidence of vignetting (dark corners) here, I did see that the corners were blurry. Thankfully I didn't see any blurry corners in my real world photos.
Not surprisingly, the SP-350 has a redeye problem -- it is a compact camera, after all. While the camera's preflash-based redeye reduction system didn't help, the redeye reduction feature in playback mode did:
Much better! Too bad you can't have the software redeye reduction run automatically!
Overall I was pleased with the SP-350's photo quality. Photos were well-exposed and colors were accurate for the most part. There were a few photos (only one of which is in the gallery) that had a noticeable blue cast, but I haven't had any problems since that one day. Noise levels are reasonable for an 8 Megapixel camera and purple fringing was not a problem. Sharpness was just about perfect in my opinion.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, print the photos if you'd like, and then decide if the SP-350's photo quality meets your expectations.
The SP-350 has a decent movie mode. You can record video at 640 x 480 (30 frames/second) with sound for up to twenty seconds, regardless of the size of your memory card. The internal memory only holds 14 seconds worth of video, so you'll only hit the time limit with a memory card.
To get rid of that annoying time limit you'll have to use a lower movie quality setting. The HQ mode keeps the resolution at 640 x 480, but lowers the frame rate to 15 frames/second. There are also the two SQ modes: one is 320 x 240 (30 fps) and the other is 320 x 240 (15 fps).
[Paragraphs updated 12/16/05]
The zoom lens cannot normally be used during filming. However, if you turn sound recording off (which is actually the default, if you believe that) you can use it. The SP-350 has an electronic image stabilizer feature which helps smooth out your shaky videos.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the M-JPEG codec.
Here's a sample movie for you (this replaces the silent one that was originally here):
Click to play movie (16.6 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The SP-350 has a very nice playback mode. Basic features include slide shows, voice annotations, thumbnail mode, DPOF print marking, image protection, and "zoom and scroll". The camera supports direct printing using the PictBridge system, as well.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom in as much as 10X into your photo (in 1X increments), and then move around in it.
As with most cameras these days the Stylus lets you rotate, resize, and crop photos right in playback mode. You can also convert photos to black and white or sepia at the push of a button.
The SP-350 allows you to edit images as well as movies. For RAW and JPEG images you can adjust the brightness and saturation. The RAW editing feature lets you adjust the image quality, white balance (including WB compensation), sharpness, contrast, and saturation. Once you've done that you can save the modified image as a JPEG image. For movies you can make an index photo of frames from your clip, and you can also remove unwanted parts of the movie.
Another feature lets you add pre-made frames, titles, and even calendars (see above) to your photos.
There's also an album feature, which seems to be getting more popular these days. Each xD Picture Card can have twelve albums, and each album holds up to 100 photos. Adding photos to the album is a snap (you can even do it by date), and once they're in there just switch to the album spot on the mode dial for easy viewing.
By default the camera doesn't tell you too much about the photos you've taken (see above left). Pressing the Display/Guide button once shows more info (though it totally covers the image), and pressing it again gets you the much more useful screen on the right.
A calendar view of your photos is also available. This is unrelated to the calendar-making tool I showed you earlier.
Moving between photos is excruciatingly slow. It takes over two seconds for an SHQ photo to show up on the screen, and RAW images will take a whopping eight seconds to be displayed.
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus SP-350 is a full-featured compact 8 Megapixel camera that falls short in one important area: performance. That's too bad, because there's a lot to like about the SP-350.
The SP-350 is a fairly compact black-colored camera with a 3X optical zoom lens, 2.5" LCD display, optical viewfinder (which I only mention because they are uncommon on large LCD cameras) and an AF-assist lamp. While the LCD is large, the resolution is below average (115k pixels). Visibility is average in bright light and above average in dim light. The camera supports conversion lenses with the appropriate adapter, and you can add an external flash via a hot shoe. An underwater case is also available.
The camera is chock full of features for beginners and enthusiasts alike. For beginners there are tons of scene modes, a help system for the menu items, in-camera redeye reduction, and fun extras like a calendar-making tool. Enthusiasts will dig the full manual controls, custom button and menus, and the ability to save up to four sets of camera settings in memory. There are even two live histograms to choose from!
The SP-350 also supports the RAW image format, and Olympus includes software to work with those images (though Photoshop is more capable). The camera also lets you edit RAW images right on the camera and then save them into the more JPEG format. While the SP-350 has a VGA movie mode with a digital image stabilizer and editing capabilities, you can only record up to 20 seconds at the high quality setting.
Camera performance is, without a doubt, the SP-350's biggest weak point. While the camera starts up quickly, it's all downhill from there. Focus times are just fair, shutter lag was noticeable (which was very surprising), and shot-to-shot times can be lengthy, especially if you're using RAW mode. The continuous shooting modes were nothing to write home about, either. Playback speeds were slow as well, especially when RAW images are displayed. Low light focusing performance was a little disappointing for a camera with an AF-assist lamp.
Thankfully the SP-350's photos were pretty good. Images were well exposed with accurate color (most of the time), good sharpness, and low noise and purple fringing levels. I was also impressed with the camera's high ISO performance. Redeye was a problem, but the in-camera redeye reduction tool was able to knock it out.
About the only other negatives I can think of relate to the camera bundle. While I like the Olympus Master software, the 25MB of onboard memory is too little, and it would've been nice if Olympus threw some rechargeable batteries in the box.
I have mixed feelings about the Olympus SP-350. While I like the design, features, and photo quality, the camera always felt sluggish when I was using it. While I'm not asking for D-SLRs speeds, it would've been nice if the camera was at least as responsive as other cameras in its class. The SP-350 gets my recommendation, but with the footnote "not the best camera if you want to take or view pictures quickly".
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
[Conclusion updated 12/16/05]
Some other cameras in this class worth considering include the Canon PowerShot A620 and S80, Casio Exilim EX-P700, Fuji FinePix E900, HP Photosmart R817, Kodak EasyShare Z760, Nikon Coolpix L1 and P1, Olympus SP-310 (a lower resolution version of the SP-350), Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ2, Pentax Optio S60, Samsung Digimax V800, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 and DSC-W7.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the SP-350 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photo quality turned out in our gallery!
Want a second opinion?
Read more reviews at CNET, Megapixel.net, and Steve's Digicams. You might also find Digital Photography Review's review of the similar SP-310 to be helpful.
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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