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DCRP Review: Olympus
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: February 1, 2006
Last Updated: April 6, 2008
The SP-500 Ultra Zoom ($379) is the latest big zoom camera in Olympus' lineup. The SP-500UZ is the descendent of the C-765/770 models, which were introduced way back in early 2004. Olympus was kind of a pioneer in the ultra zoom space, and now virtually every camera maker has at least one UZ camera for sale.
While many of Olympus' competitors have added image stabilization to their ultra zooms, Olympus has not had this feature on their cameras since the legendary C-2100UZ from the year 2000. What you will find on the SP-500UZ is a 10X optical zoom lens, 6 Megapixel CCD, large 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, and plenty of scene modes too.
How does the SP-500 Ultra Zoom compare against the competition? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The SP-500UZ has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
Olympus began building memory into their cameras last year, instead of including a memory card. The SP-500UZ has just 10MB of internal memory (which borders on absurd), which holds just two photos at the highest JPEG quality. That means that buying a memory card is a must, and I'd recommend a 256MB or 512MB card as a good starter size. The SP-500 uses xD Picture Cards, which tend to be a little pricey. Olympus doesn't say if the camera takes advantage of their high speed xD cards.
The SP-500 uses four AA batteries, and Olympus includes four alkaline cells which will quickly make their way into your trash can. So, do yourself a favor and buy a set or two of NiMH rechargeables and a fast charger. They'll last longer, cost less over the long term, and won't end up in our landfills. Unfortunately, Olympus does not provide battery life for most of their cameras, which makes it impossible to compare the SP-500 against the competition in this area.
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! Fewer and fewer cameras these days use AA batteries, unfortunately.
The SP-500UZ includes a lens cap with retaining strap to keep your 10X lens safe and sound. As you can see, it's one of the smaller ultra zooms out there.
There's just a few accessories available for the SP-500, and I've compiled them into this chart:
Let's talk about software now.
Olympus includes version 1.31 of their excellent Master software with the SP-500UZ. 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.
Nothing's changed with Olympus' manuals over the last few years. You still only get a small "basic manual" in the box, with the full manual on CD-ROM. The quality of the content itself is just average for a digital camera.
Look and Feel
The SP-500 is a fairly small camera as ultra zooms go. While the old C-770UZ had a nice metal body, the SP-500's is plastic. Despite that, the camera feels pretty solid. The SP-500 fits well in your hand, with a perfectly sized right hand grip. Controls are well-placed, and "button clutter" is kept at a minimum.
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-500UZ is the smallest and lightest camera in its class!
Let's move onto our camera tour now.
If I'm not mistaken the SP-500UZ uses the same F2.8-3.7, 10X optical zoom lens as the C-770UZ before it. The focus range of the lens is 6.3 - 63 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 380 mm. The barrel around the lens is threaded, and you can use both conversion lenses and filters once the CLA-4 conversion lens adapter (optional) is attached.
Directly above the lens is the SP-500's pop-up flash, which is released manually. The flash on the camera is pretty strong, with a working range of 0.3 - 4.5 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 3.4 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to this camera (the old C-770UZ had a hot shoe).
To the upper-left of the lens you'll find the AF-assist lamp and microphone. The AF-assist lamp, which also serves as the visual countdown for the self-timer, is used by the camera as a low light focusing aid.
The first thing to see on the back of the SP-500UZ is its large 2.5" LCD display. While it's big in terms of size, the resolution is a big lacking: there are only 115,000 pixels on the display. While the screen is still very usable, images could be a lot sharper. Low light visibility was good, but not great.
As with all ultra zoom cameras the SP-500 uses an electronic viewfinder instead of a traditional optical one. Electronic viewfinders show the same thing as the LCD (shooting info, menus), and they show more of the frame than an optical viewfinder would. At the same time, EVFs aren't nearly as sharp or as bright as a real viewfinder. The one here is bright, with average sharpness, but poor low light visibility. Strangely enough Olympus left out a diopter correction knob, so there's no way to focus what's on the screen (it seemed a little blurry to me).
Just to the right of the EVF is the button that releases the flash. Next to this is another button -- this one's used for switching between the LCD and EVF.
Now let's take a look at all those buttons to the right of the LCD. I'll start from the top and work my way down. The first one, Display/Guide, serves two purposes. While shooting it toggles what information is shown on the LCD or EVF. While you're in the menus you can press it to open the help system. This handy feature explains what all of those confusing menu items are for.
The next buttons down are for QuickView (enters playback mode) and flash setting/photo delete. The available flash settings on the camera are auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill-in flash, fill-in flash w/redeye reduction, and flash off.
Next up we have the four-way controller, which you'll use for menu navigation and selecting manual settings.
Now let's see the top of the SP-500. The two buttons are for power and AE Lock / DPOF print marking. The AE Lock button can be customized, and you can assign your favorite function to it.
To the right of those buttons you'll find the mode dial, which has the following options:
As you can see, the SP-500UZ 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 available light scene will lower the resolution to SQ1 (2048 x 1536) and boost the ISO in order to avoid blur in low light / no flash shots.
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 2.2 seconds. By quickly pressing the controller you can make very precise adjustments to the focal length -- there are far too many steps to count.
On this side of the camera you'll find the speaker and I/O ports. The ports, which are kept under a rubber cover, include USB and A/V output. Sadly, the SP-500 only supports the USB 2.0 Full Speed standard, which is just as sluggish as the original USB 1.1.
On the other side of the camera you'll find the DC-in port (for the optional AC adapter) and the xD memory card slot. 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 as well as a plastic tripod mount. As you can see, the SP-500 uses four AA batteries. The plastic door covering the batteries is fairly sturdy, and it has a locking mechanism to prevent it from opening accidentally.
Using the Olympus SP-500UZ
It takes a little over two seconds for the SP-500 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. That's about average for an ultra zoom camera.
|The SP-500UZ 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. That one (called a direct histogram) shows overexposed areas in red, and underexposed areas in blue.|
Focus speeds on the camera were average. In normal lighting it typically took between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds to lock focus at the wide-angle end of the lens, and noticeably longer at the tele end. If the camera has to "work" a little, focus times can exceed one second. Low light focusing was above average.
While shutter lag wasn't a problem at faster shutter speeds, it was noticeable at slower ones. However, you really should be using the flash or a tripod at those shutter speeds, as the photo would probably be blurry anyway.
Shot-to-shot speeds were just okay. At the SHQ (JPEG) quality, expect delays of about 1.5 seconds between shots. If you're shooting in RAW mode, the camera will be locked up for seven seconds while the image is saved to the memory card. It's possible that a high speed xD card could reduce this delay, but since I didn't have one, I couldn't find out.
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-500UZ, including:
That's quite a list! As you can see, the SP-500UZ 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-500UZ 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 four tabs containing the various menu items. Keep in mind that some of these options are not displayed in the automatic shooting modes. With that in mind, 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 five pictures at 1.3 frames/second. High speed mode increases the frame rate to 1.7 frames/second, but limits you to just three shots in a row. This is the only burst mode in which you can use the RAW image format, and the camera is locked up for 25 seconds while the images are written to the xD card. A third burst mode, AF sequential, will focus before each shot, which slows the frame rate even more (I still could take just five shots before the camera stopped to write). The LCD/EVF has a brief blackout between shots in all of the burst modes.
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-500UZ 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-500UZ did a decent job with our macro test subject. The main issue here is a slight brownish cast, which turns the red cloak into a more orange color (this is probably a white balance issue more than anything). Aside from that, the news is all good. The subject is nice and sharp!
There are two macro modes on the camera. In normal macro mode, you can get as close as 7 cm to your subject at wide-angle and 60 cm at telephoto, which is about average. To get really close you'll want to use super macro mode, which reduces the minimum distance to 3 cm. Do note that the lens is locked near the wide-angle position in super macro mode.
The SP-500 did a fine job with our night shot test. The camera took in plenty of light thanks to its full manual exposure control (though you'll have to use "M" mode to get at the slowest shutter speeds) and the buildings are sharp and in focus. Noise levels are reasonable for a camera with this resolution, and purple fringing was not an issue.
Now let's use that same scene to see how the SP-500UZ does at higher ISO sensitivities:
You'd be hard-pressed to see the difference between the ISO 80 and 100 shots. At ISO 200 there's a noticeable color shift, and details start getting muddy. While things look pretty bad at ISO 400, you should be able to get an acceptable 4 x 6 inch print out of the photo, especially after some noise reduction.
There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the SP-500's 10X ultra zoom lens. While I saw some blurry corners in this test, I did not find this issue to be a problem in my real world test photos. Vignetting (darkened corners) was not a problem, either.
There's just a bit of redeye to be found in our flash test. If you want to remove what little is there, you can use the built-in redeye removal tool in playback mode. Here's what that did to this photo:
As you can see, it cleaned up the left eye, but the right one remains the same. Still, it's an improvement.
Overall, the photo quality on the SP-500 Ultra Zoom was good. Colors look good, and sharpness was right where I like it to be. Exposure was generally good, though I noticed that the camera had the tendency to lose detail in highlights. Noise levels were also a notch higher than I would've liked. Purple fringing levels were generally well controlled.
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-500UZ's photo quality meets your expectations.
The SP-500UZ has an unremarkable movie mode. You can record video at 320 x 240 (30 frames/second) until the memory card is full. Sound is recorded along with the video. The built-in memory holds just 15 seconds of video, so you'll want a decent-sized memory card for longer movies. Another way to get longer movies is to cut the frame rate down to 15 frames/second, though this will make your video choppier.
If you're recording movies with sound then you cannot use the zoom lens during filming. If you turn off sound recording you can use the zoom as much as you'd like. A digital image stabilizer helps to smooth out shaky videos.
Movies are saved in QuickTime format, using the M-JPEG codec.
Here's an exciting sample movie for you:
Click to play movie (16.6 MB, 320 x 240, 30 fps, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The SP-500UZ 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 SP-500 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-500UZ 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.
Some other playback features let you add titles, borders, and "layouts" to your photos. But wait, there's more: you can even make calendars right on the camera!
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). Press the Display/Guide button a few times to get the much more useful screen on the right.
A calendar view of your photos is also available. Just pick a date to see what photos you took that day!
Moving between photos is very slow. It takes over two seconds for an SHQ photo to show up on the screen, and RAW images will take over six seconds to be displayed.
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is a run-of-the-mill camera in a category with some very strong competition. While it has some nice features, the SP-500 lags behind what is offered by other manufacturers, with the most notable thing missing being image stabilization.
The SP-500UZ is a compact (by ultra zoom standards) camera with a 6 Megapixel CCD and a 10X optical zoom lens. The lens covers the fairly typical 38 - 380 mm range, and Olympus offers conversion lenses if you want to expand that range. As I mentioned, the camera lacks optical image stabilization, which more and more of the competition is offering these days. The SP-500's body is entirely plastic, but despite that it feels solid. Controls are well-placed and buttons are kept to a relative minimum. The camera features a large 2.5" LCD display, though the resolution of the screen is low, and low light visibility was just okay. The electronic viewfinder was average, and I don't understand why Olympus didn't provide a diopter correction knob for it.
The SP-500 offers features for both the beginner and enthusiast. For the beginners there are plenty of scene modes to choose from. There's an available light mode that tries to do what Fuji's "Real Photo Technology" cameras can do, but those cameras do a better job than the SP-500. Power users will enjoy the full manual controls on the camera, white balance controls, and customizable menus and buttons. The camera supports the RAW image format, and Olympus' bundled software does a good job of working with the files. The SP-500's continuous shooting and movie modes were lacking, though.
Camera performance was a mixed bag. Startup and focusing speeds were average, and shutter lag was only noticeable at slower (read: tripod required) shutter speeds. Shot-to-shot speeds were good if you're shooting in JPEG mode, but lengthy (7 seconds) in RAW mode. The camera was exceptionally slow while playing back photos, as well. Photo quality was also hit-or-miss. While I liked the colors and sharpness in the photos I took with the camera, things were a bit noisier than I would've liked, and the camera tended to lose detail easily in overexposed areas of a photo.
There are a few other things worth mentioning, though most of them are related to the camera bundle. The 10MB of built-in memory is really absurd, holding just two images at the highest JPEG quality setting. I'm still not a fan of the camera manual on CD thing, and it would've been nice had Olympus included some rechargeable batteries in the box, as well. And finally, it's too bad that Olympus left out support for the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol on this camera.
The SP-500UZ is an average camera in a sea of really good ones. While I'd say that it's "okay to buy" the SP-500, there are many other cameras in this category that offer better performance, photo quality, and features (including image stabilization).
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S2 IS, Fuji FinePix S5200, Kodak EasyShare P850, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z6, Nikon Coolpix S4 and 8800, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7 and DMC-FZ30, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1. All of those cameras have image stabilizers except for the FinePix S5200 and Coolpix S4.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the SP-500UZ and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photo quality turned out in our gallery!
Want a second opinion?
Read more reviews at Imaging Resource and Megapixel.net.
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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