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DCRP Review: Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 18, 2007
Last updated: February 13, 2012

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This is the final review of the Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom. Product shots and screenshots that were featured in the preview have been re-shot, and all sample photos are from a production model. Thank you for your patience (well, most of you).

Several years ago, if you wanted an ultra zoom camera, there was only one name to know: Olympus. One of their cameras even developed a sort of cult following: the C-2100UZ. Sadly, the cameras that followed weren't nearly as interesting, with their biggest flaw being a lack of image stabilization. Since then, the ultra zoom market has been taken over by the likes of Canon, Panasonic, and Sony.

Olympus wants to change all that with the SP-550 Ultra Zoom ($499). On paper, it may have the most impressive specs of any ultra zoom out there. It packs a whopping 18X optical zoom lens (that starts at 28mm no less) into a relatively small body and throws in -- get ready -- image stabilization as well. Instead of using lens-shift image stabilization like most ultra zooms, Olympus used CCD-shift technology to reduce blurry photos. We'll see how well the system works later in the review.

Other features on the camera include a 7.1 Megapixel CCD, 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, RAW support, and a VGA movie mode.

Is the SP550 the ultimate ultra zoom camera? FInd out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The SP-550UZ has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 7.1 effective Megapixel Olympus SP-550UZ digital camera
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master
  • 94 page camera manual (printed)

Like the majority of cameras these days, the SP-550UZ has built-in memory in lieu of a bundled memory card -- 20MB of memory, to be exact. Unfortunately that holds just 4 photos at the highest JPEG quality setting (and one RAW image), so you'll want to buy a memory card right away. Like all Olympus cameras, the SP-550 uses xD Picture Cards, which currently come as large as 2GB. I'd recommend a 1GB card as a good starter size. Buying a "Type H" high speed card is highly recommended, as it lets you record movies until you run out of memory, and it improves overall camera performance as well.

The SP-550UZ uses four AA batteries for power. Olympus gives you alkalines in the box, which will quickly end up in the trash. Thus, you'll want to buy yourself a set or two of NiMH rechargeables (2500 mAh or above) and a fast charger. You'll save both money and the environment in the long run. Now, here's a look at what kind of battery life numbers you'll get out of the SP-550:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used for test
Canon PowerShot S3 IS * 550 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S6000fd 400 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S9100 320 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
GE X1 * 600 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare Z712 IS * 275 shots KLIC-8000
Nikon Coolpix S10 * 300 shots EN-EL5
Olympus SP-550UZ * 530 shots 4 x 2300 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 * 380 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 * 360 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 * 270 shots CGA-S007
Samsung Digimax Pro815 450 shots SLB-1974
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 * 300 shots NP-BG1

* Has image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The SP-550UZ's battery life numbers are above average, even with the relatively anemic batteries Olympus used in their testing. Put in more powerful batteries (say, 2700 mAh) and you'll get best-in-class battery life out of the camera.

If you've been around here for a while then you'll know that I love cameras that use AA batteries. They're cheaper than proprietary lithium-ion cells, and you can use off-the-shelf batteries when your rechargeables die. Hurrah for AA!

Olympus includes a big 'ol lens cap and retaining strap to protect the SP-550's 18X zoom lens. If I have one complaint about the lens cap, it's that the thing likes to fall off.

Let's talk about accessories now. There are quite a few available for the SP-550, including:

Accessory Model # Price * Why you want it
Telephoto conversion lens TCON-17 From $90 Boosts the telephoto end of the lens by 1.7X, bringing the top end to an unbelievable 856.8 mm. Requires conversion lens adapter.
Conversion lens adapter

CLA-10

$30
Required for the telephoto conversion lens lens. Also lets you use 55 mm filters.
Underwater case PT-037 $350 Lets you take your SP-550 up to 40 meters underwater.
Wired remote control RM-UC1 $57 Control your camera remotely
AC adapter C-7AU From $30 Power your camera without draining the battery
Battery/charger kit B-90SU From $30 Includes a four hour charger plus four 2300 mAh NiMH batteries
Nylon camera case 202132 $30 Protect your camera from the elements.
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

Not too shabby, eh? Only things missing here are a wide-angle conversion lens and an external flash.


Olympus Master 2.0

Olympus includes the brand new version 2.0 of their Olympus Master software with the SP-550. The software is, for the most part, a nice upgrade over the previous version. It's pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about everything you could ever want. The downside is that it is buggy (it crashed frequently on my Mac Pro) and that the RAW editor is truly lousy (more on this below).

After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. For some reason (bug?), the thumbnails of RAW images are really low resolution. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related newsfeeds, though it wasn't yet working when I tried it.

Here you can organize photos into albums, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a bunch of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.

Olympus Master also lets you update the firmware on our camera from within the software.


Like a lot of photo viewers, Olympus Master lets you view you images in a calendar format. There's even a "diary" for each day for you to record notes in.

Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.

That brings us to the RAW editor in Olympus Master 2.0. While the new version of OM offers more RAW editing tools than the old one, the conversions themselves are, well, lousy. First, here's what you can adjust: exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, noise filter, and color space. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master quickly shows you the results. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.

Now, the bad news. The quality of the RAW image conversions created by Olympus Master are poor. Rather than try to describe it, I'll just show you:


JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG using Olympus Master (no changes)


RAW -> JPEG using Olympus Master (noise filter off, sharpness +5)

I think it's pretty obvious what the problem is with the RAW converter in OM: softness. Images are so soft that they look out-of-focus -- and that's not what you'd expect when shooting in RAW mode. I found that turning the noise filter option OFF helped a great deal, though the JPEGs were still much sharper. So, if you're using OM for RAW conversions, turn that off and turn the sharpness setting up -- way up (+4 or +5 is nice) and you'll get better results. Let's hope Olympus gets their act together and corrects this obvious flaw in their software, otherwise folks will be forced to use something else for RAW conversion (Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in was not compatible with the camera when this was written).

Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Another thing to note about RAW images is their size: they're four times as large as a super high quality JPEG.

While I really shouldn't be criticizing the quality of the SP-550's manual (after all, they do give you a printed one in the box), I just have to mention that it's not terribly user-friendly. While you will most likely get your question answered, expected a cluttered layout with lots of "notes" and fine print. Heck, there's not even a real table of contents.

Look and Feel

The SP-550 Ultra Zoom is a compact, SLR-style ultra zoom camera that reminds me of some Fuji and Kodak models. The body is made of plastic, but still feels pretty solid in your hands. Speaking of hands, the large, rubberized right hand grip makes the SP-550 easy to hold. There aren't too many buttons, and the important ones are within easy reach of your fingers.

Now let's take a look at how the SP-550 compares to other ultra zooms in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S3 IS 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.0 in. 42.8 cu in. 410 g
Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd 5.2 x 3.8 x 5.0 in. 98.8 cu in. 600 g
Fujifilm FinePix S9100 5.0 x 3.7 x 5.1 in. 94.4 cu in. 650 g
Kodak Easyshare Z712 IS 4.1 x 2.9 x 2.7 in. 32.1 cu in. 300 g
Nikon Coolpix S10 4.4 x 2.9 x 1.6 in. 20.4 cu in. 220 g
Olympus SP-510 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.9 x 2.8 in. 34.1 cu in. 325 g
Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 44.2 cu in. 365 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.6 in. 104.7 cu in. 668 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 38.2 cu in. 310 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 15.1 cu in. 232 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 4.3 x 3.3 x 3.4 in. 48.2 cu in. 375 g

The SP-550 is both larger and heavier than its predecessor, the SP-510, which isn't surprising considering how much more "lens" there is in it. In the group as a whole, it's about average, comparable in size to the popular Canon PowerShot S3.

Let's start our tour of the SP-550UZ now, shall we?

On the front of the SP-550 you'll find its gigantic lens. Well, it doesn't look that big at first, but wait until you see it fully extended! This lens packs more zoom than any other camera on the market -- 18X. The lens is fairly fast for a zoom with this range, with a maximum aperture of F2.8 - F4.5. The lens isn't just powerful, though -- it also starts at a wide 28 mm, unlike most ultra zooms, whose lenses often start at 36 mm or higher. The full focal range is 4.7 - 84.2 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 504 mm.

So how much zoom is 18X? Run your mouse over the focal lengths below the photo to see for yourself:

28mm
(wider than on most ultra zooms)
35mm
(Most ultra zooms start here, or even higher)
438mm
(A little more than typical ultra zoom max)
504mm
(SP-550's max)

That, my friends, is some insane zoom action. If you want even more zoom power then you can add the telephoto conversion lens I mentioned earlier. The barrel around the lens is threaded, and I'm assuming that you'll need to screw in an adapter before you can use the conversion lens. There's also a "fine zoom" feature which gives you a lossless digital zoom, though at a lower resolution. More on that later.

A big lens needs image stabilization, and Olympus has delivered the goods (and it's about time, too). Nearly all ultra zooms use lens-shift image stabilization, but Olympus chose to use CCD-shift instead, probably for the same reason why they didn't have image stabilization at all for the last several years. The concept is similar: the camera detects motion caused by the tiny movements of your hands, which are quite pronounced at the telephoto end of the lens. The camera's CCD sensor is on a movable platform, which can shift to compensate for this motion. It won't work miracles, but it will let you use slower shutter speeds than you could without IS. I should also mention that you cannot use the IS system in movie mode if you're recording audio with your video.

Here's a little taste of what the SP-550's image stabilization system can do:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on - yep, I've got tickets to the Elite Eight game in San Jose. Woohoo!

The photos above were taken at the shake-inducing shutter speed of just 1/3 second. Without image stabilization you get a blurry mess, but the SP-550's OIS system does the job, giving you a nice, sharp photo. If you need another example of what the image stabilization system can do, check out this short sample movie (and remember that you can't use this feature if you're recording sound in movie mode).

Directly above the lens is the SP-550's pop-up flash, which is released manually. Olympus gives flash working range numbers of 0.3 - 4.5 m at wide-angle and 1.2 - 2.8 m at telephoto, though I'm not sure what ISO setting they used to come up with those (possibly ISO 200). Regardless, those numbers are about average for an ultra zoom. The SP-550UZ can't connect directly to an external flash, though it does support slave flashes (like nearly all cameras).

The last two things to see on the front of the camera are the microphone (at right) and AF-assist lamp (left). The latter is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also doubles as a visual countdown for the self-timer.

On the back of the SP-550UZ you'll find a fixed 2.5" LCD display, which is fairly common on ultra zooms these days. The screen packs 230,000 pixels, so everything is nice and sharp. Outdoor visibility was about average, while low light viewing was above average, as the screen brightens automatically in those situations.

Directly above the LCD is the electronic viewfinder, also a fixture on ultra zooms. The EVF is basically a small LCD that you view as if its was an optical viewfinder. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as nice as the "real thing", with much lower resolution and poorer visibility in less-than-perfect lighting conditions. For whatever reason, Olympus doesn't publish the resolution of the EVF. What I can tell you is that it's fairly sharp (by EVF standards) and has the same auto brightening (in low light) as the LCD. There's a diopter correction knob on the left side of the viewfinder to focus what you're looking at.

To the lower-right of the EVF is the button which you'll use to switch between the EVF and LCD. Moving to the right of the LCD now, we find four buttons plus the four-way controller. Here are what the buttons are for:

  • Menu
  • Playback mode
  • Display (toggles what's shown on the LCD/EVF) + Help
  • Delete photo

When you're in the menus or the scene selection mode you can press the Display/Help button to find out more about the selected option. I'll show you an example of this a bit later.

You'll use the four-way controller for menu navigation, selecting manual settings, and also for:

  • Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
  • Left - Macro (Off, macro, super macro)
  • Right - Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash on w/redeye reduction, slow sync, flash off)
  • Center - OK/Function

If you're in record mode, pressing the center button in the four-way controller opens up the function menu. This shortcut menu has the following options:

  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent x 3, one-touch)
  • ISO (Auto, High ISO Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 5000)
  • Drive (Single-shot, sequential, high speed 1, high speed 2, AF sequential, AE bracketing)
  • Metering (ESP, spot, center-weighted)

I'll tell you what all those do in the menu section later in the review.

Now let's take a look at the top of the camera, starting with the mode dial. It has these options:

Option Function
Auto mode Point and shoot, some menu options locked up
Program mode Still automatic, but with full menu access; slowest shutter speed is 1/2 second, unless you turn on noise reduction, which allows for 4 second exposures
Aperture Priority mode You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed; aperture range is F2.8 - F8
Shutter Priority mode You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. Shutter speed range is 4 - 1/1000 sec with noise reduction on, and 1/2 - 1/1000 sec with it off.
Full Manual (M) mode You pick the aperture and shutter speed. Shutter speed range expands to 15 - 1/2000 sec; a bulb mode lets you take exposures as long as 8 minutes
My Mode Store four different sets of camera settings here
Guide mode Camera shows you have to perform various camera functions; see below
Scene mode You pick the situation and the camera uses the proper settings; choose from portrait, landscape, landscape+portrait, sport, night scene, night+portrait, indoor, candle, self-portrait, available light, sunset, fireworks, cuisine, behind glass, documents, auction, shoot & select 1/2, beach, show, underwater wide 1/2, underwater macro
Movie mode More on this later
Playback mode More on this later

As you can see, the SP-550UZ has a full set of manual exposure controls, though I have to (again) give Olympus the thumbs down for not including the full shutter speed range in the shutter priority mode. The My Mode is handy, holding four sets of camera settings for easy retrieval.


One of many scene modes

Geez, could Olympus throw in any more scene modes in this thing? The available light mode is a high sensitivity mode that lowers the resolution to 3 Megapixel and boosts the ISO as high as necessary in order to get a sharp photo. Unfortunately, this sharp photo will also be noisy and low resolution, as you can see in these two examples. My advice is the same as it usually is with features like this: don't use them, and manually adjust the ISO instead. The auction mode (obviously inspired by Casio's eBay mode) basically turns on auto bracketing and lowers the resolution for you. The shoot & select modes are both continuous shooting modes which let you choose which photos to keep when you're done shooting.

The guide feature is exclusive to Olympus cameras. Pick the thing you want to do and the camera will tell you what settings to adjust to accomplish your goal. Heck, it'll even change them for you.

To the upper-right of the mode dial is the zoom controller, which has the shutter release button inside it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto (and it's a long trip) in about 2.8 seconds. There are at least forty stops in the 18X zoom range -- it's very precise.

The final set of buttons on the top of the camera are for power and image stabilization mode. There are only IS two modes on the SP-550: on or off. The system is always activated when you halfway press the shutter release (other cameras let you activate IS when the photo is actually taken). Why would you turn off the IS system? A great example is when you're using a tripod, when IS can do more harm than good.

I should mention that the image stabilization button can be "remapped" to another camera function in the setup menu.

On this side of the camera you'll find the flash release button and the I/O ports. The I/O ports are covered by a rubber cover, and include DC-in (for the optional AC adapter) and USB + A/V (one port for both). For some unknown reason, Olympus chose not to support the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol on their ultimate ultra zoom, which means that your file transfers will be quite slow (hint: get a card reader).

The lens is at the full wide-angle position here.

On the other side of the camera we find the xD Picture Card slot, which is protected by a plastic cover of average quality.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here -- it's huge!

Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the SP-550. Here you'll find the speaker, a plastic tripod mount, and the battery compartment. The battery compartment door is of decent quality, and it includes a locking mechanism so your batteries don't accidentally fall out.

Using the Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom

Record Mode

With a big lens to extend, it's not surprising that it takes the SP-550 a while to start up -- expect to wait about 2.7 seconds (with the startup screen turned off) before you can start taking photos.

You can choose from two live histograms on the SP-550. The one on the left is pretty standard. The "direct" one on the right show over and underexposed areas of the frame in real time.

Focus speeds were typical of an ultra zoom camera. At the wide end of the lens, the SP-550 locked focus in about 0.2 - 0.4 seconds. Telephoto focus times took at least twice as long, often exceeding one second. The more zoom you're using, the longer it'll take to lock focus. Low light focusing was pretty slow, but accurate.


The view on the LCD tends to "blow out" when you're shooting a bright subject

Oh, and one thing that annoyed me when shooting brightly lit scenes: the image on the LCD/EVF "blows out" when the camera locks focus (see screenshot). This can be a pain when you're taking photos outdoors, as your subject suddenly becomes difficult to see.

Shutter lag wasn't a problem at fast shutter speeds, and barely noticeable at slower speeds.

Shot-to-shot speeds were average, with a delay of about 1.5 seconds before you can take another shot. In RAW mode the camera is locked up for about five seconds after you take a shot, and that's with a high speed xD card, too.

There's no way to delete a photo immediately after taking it. You must first enter playback mode.

Now, here's a look at the numerous image size and quality choices available on the camera:

Resolution
(Record mode)
Image size Quality # images on 20MB onboard memory # images on 1GB card (optional)
RAW 3072 x 2304 RAW 1 96
SHQ 3072 x 2304 Super High 4 244
HQ 3072 x 2304 High 10 560
SQ1 2560 x 1920 High 7 412
Normal 16 840
2304 x 1728 High 8 416
Normal 19 1030
2048 x 1536 High 8 442
Normal 25 1304

SQ2
1600 x 1200 High 13 726
Normal 39 2060
1280 x 960 High 21 1120
Normal 61 3194
1024 x 768 High 33 1726
Normal 94 4914
640 x 480 High 82 4258
Normal 205 10648
16:9 1920 x 1080 Normal 27 1452

Yeah, that's a lot of image quality options. As I mentioned earlier, the SP-550 supports the RAW image format, and a JPEG can by saved at the same time, if you wish.

Olympus' file naming scheme is a little different than on most cameras. Files are named PMDD####.jpg, where M = month, DD= day, and # = 0001-9999. The numbering is maintained as you swap memory cards.

Now, onto the menus!

The SP-550UZ has Olympus' rather unconventional menu system. When you press the menu button, you are first presented with the screen above. From here you can adjust the image quality, enter the recording or setup menu, or put the camera into "silent mode". If you're in scene mode, you can also get to the list of available scenes from this menu as well. There's also an option for returning the camera to its default settings.

Choose the "camera menu" option and you'll arrive at a different screen. By pressing the display/help button you can get a help screen for any of the options. Here's what you'll find in the camera menu:

  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, daylight fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, white fluorescent, one-touch) - see below
  • ISO (Auto, High ISO Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 5000) - see below
  • Drive (Single shot, sequential, high speed 1, high speed 2, AF sequential, bracketing) - see below
  • Metering (ESP, spot, center-weighted)
  • Fine zoom (on/off) - see below
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - best to keep this off
  • AF mode (iESP, spot, area) - this last option lets you use the four-way controller to select an area in the frame on which to focus
  • Focus mode (AF, MF) - see below
  • Fulltime AF (on/off) - camera is always trying to focus, which reduces focus times at the expense of your battery
  • AF predict (on/off) - for tracking a subject moving side to side in the frame
  • AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  • Image stabilization (on/off) - described earlier
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Flash slow sync (Front curtain, rear curtain)
  • External flash (Internal, slave) - the latter is for use with any commercial slave flash; you can control how much light is emitted in that mode, as well
  • Sound recording (on/off) - records 4 seconds of audio along with a photo
  • Panorama - helps you line up photos for later stitching on your computer; requires an Olympus-branded xD card
  • White balance compensation - see below
  • Sharpness (-5 to +5 in 1-step increments)
  • Contrast (-5 to +5 in 1-step increments)
  • Saturation (-5 to +5 in 1-step increments)
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - reduces noise in exposures longer than 1/2 second
  • Timelapse (on/off)
    • Number of shots (2-99)
    • Interval (1-99 mins)
  • Conversion lens (on/off)
  • Sound recording for movies (on/off)

As you can see, the SP-550UZ has a custom white balance setting. This lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color, even under unusual lighting conditions. There's also a white balance fine-tuning feature which lets you "tweak" the WB in the red or blue direction.

As part of their apparent mission to have the most impressive specs of any ultra zoom camera, Olympus has given the SP-550 the ability to crank the sensitivity as high as ISO 5000. Yes, you read that right. The catch is that once you get above ISO 3200 the resolution drops to 3 Megapixel. There are two auto ISO modes as well, with the "high" option using higher sensitivities than the regular auto mode. I'll have more on the camera's high ISO performance in a bit.

The SP-550 has quite a few continuous shooting modes. Let me preface this discussion by saying that you cannot use RAW mode for any of these modes -- JPEG only! The standard sequential shooting mode took a measly three shots in a row at 1.2 frames/second -- nothing to write home about. To shoot faster you're going to need to lower the resolution and set the ISO to something other than 50, 100, or 200 (Auto is fine). The high speed sequential mode requires you to use a resolution of 3 Megapixels or less, and it took fifteen shots in a row at a speedy 8 frames/second. If that's not fast enough, you can lower the resolution even more (to 1280 x 960) and use the 15 fps high speed sequential mode. While it was a bit slower than advertised (shooting at more like 13-14 frames/second), that's still pretty darn fast -- and the camera took twenty shots in a row. You can also turn on a "precapture" mode, which actually starts buffering photos when you halfway press the shutter release, and saves the last five photos recorded before you fully press the button, plus the fifteen that came after that. Finally, there is an AF sequential mode which, as its name implies, refocuses before each shot. As a result, the frame rate drops to just 0.7 frames/second, with three shots taken in a row.

For all these continuous modes, the LCD and EVF kept up nicely with the action. One thing to watch out for is noise, though. Since you're locked into Auto ISO, the camera may boost the ISO as high as 3200, giving you photos that are noisy, in addition to low resolution.

There is also an exposure bracketing feature on the SP-550UZ. This takes either three or five photos in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between exposures can be ±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, or ±1.0EV.

The fine zoom feature is basically a copy of Panasonic's Extended Optical Zoom feature (which is a copy of the Smart Zoom feature on Sony cameras). By lowering the resolution to 3 Megapixel the camera can boost the total zoom power to 27X by using a lossless digital zoom. It's basically just cropping the image, something you could do yourself on your PC.


Manual focus

The manual focus feature is buried deep within the record menu for some reason. Turn this on and you'll use the four-way controller to set the focus distance. The center of the frame is enlarged on the LCD/EVF, and a guide showing the focus distance is displayed as well.

There's also a separate setup menu available, which you can get to in both record and playback mode. The options here include:

  • Format (internal memory or card)
  • Backup - copies files from internal memory to memory card
  • Language
  • PW On Setup - choose a startup screen and sound
    • Screen (Off, 1, 2)
    • Volume (Off, low, high)
  • Screen setup - use a photo you've taken as the startup screen
  • Beep (Off, 1, 2) - choose a beep and its volume
  • Warning sound volume (Off, low, high)
  • Shutter sound (Off, 1, 2) - choose a shutter sound and its volume
  • Volume (Off, 1-5) - for playback
  • Rec view (on/off) - post-shot review
  • File name (Reset, Auto)
  • Pixel mapping - removes hot pixels
  • LCD brightness (1-5) - there's no way to set the EVF brightness apparently
  • Date/time set
  • Dual time - for when you're on the road
  • Alarm clock - yes, this is real
    • Alarm time (set)
    • Snooze (on/off) - talk about a convergence device!
    • Alarm sound (1-3) - choose the sound and the volume
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Frame assist (Off, grid, X) - two types to choose from
  • Histogram (Off, on, direct) - described earlier
  • My Mode Setup (Current, reset, custom) - save current or selected settings to one of four spots in the My Mode memory
  • Units (meters, feet)
  • Custom button (Image stabilization, AE lock, AF lock, image quality, fine zoom, digital zoom, AF mode, focus mode, fulltime AF, AF predict, slow synchro, slow sync, sound recording, noise reduction) - define what the image stabilization button on the top of the camera does

Alright, enough about menus, let's talk photo quality now.

I spent way too much time trying to get a decent macro shot out of the SP-550UZ. There wasn't a problem with focus, or the amount of detail captured -- those were both great. Rather, it was the color -- specifically the reds. If you've been here long enough you know that the figurine's cloak is a nice saturated red (example), and not the washed out pink that you see here. I fooled around with virtually every setting imaginable, from saturation to white balance fine-tuning and never got anything close to reality. I believe what it boils down to is poor custom white balance, which is the setting you'd want to use when shooting under studio lights. Now this won't matter to most of you, but if you shoot under unusual lighting, this is something to consider.

Straight RAW -> JPEG conversion using Olympus Master 2.0 RAW -> JPEG conversion with noise filter off, sharpness and saturation increased

I also tried shooting in RAW mode, and that helped slightly. Ultimately I had to edit several RAW properties (including sharpness and the noise filter to fix the softness problem) to get a result I found acceptable (but noisy). Of course, you shouldn't have to do all this to get accurate color.

There are two macro modes on the SP-550: regular and super. In regular macro mode, the minimum distance to your subject is 10 cm. If you put the camera into super macro mode, the lens will move to around the 3X position and stay there. This reduces the minimum distance to just 1 cm.

The SP-550 fared better in the night scene test. The camera took in plenty of light (though I had to use full manual mode to get at the longer shutter speeds), the image is fairly sharp, and purple fringing is non-existent. Noise levels are low considering the resolution of the camera.

Speaking of noise, here's the first of two tests of ISO sensitivity. This one uses the night scene you see above:


ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

There is just a slight increase is noise when you go from ISO 50 to 100, with a minor loss in detail. At ISO 200 we see more noticeable noise, and once we hit ISO 400 there is a lot of multi-colored noise destroying the details of the shot. At ISO 800 this noise and detail loss is magnified, and by the time we reach ISO 1600 there is virtually no detail left. I didn't include them in the crops above since they're low resolution, but if you want to see them, here they are: ISO 3200 and ISO 5000 versions of the night scene.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the SP-550's 18X zoom lens. This will make straight edges appear to curve, as you can see in this example. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges to be a problem.

There's a bit of redeye in our flash photo test. Thankfully the built-in redeye reduction tool (accessible in playback mode) was able to get rid of it:

Much better!

Now it's time for our second ISO test. This one is taken in the studio, and is comparable between cameras (I recommend comparing it to the Canon PowerShot S3, Fuji FinePix S6000fd, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5). While the crops give you a quick idea about the noise levels at each ISO setting, viewing the full size images is always a good idea.


ISO 50

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

I already mentioned this in the macro section, but I'll say it again: the SP-550's custom white balance is pretty lousy, resulting in really washed out colors. But we're not looking at color accuracy here, we're looking at noise.

Both ISO 50 and 100 are very clean, with no noise to speak of. We see a bit of grain appearing at ISO 200, but there's no reason why you can't make a large print of that photo. There's more noise at ISO 400, comparable to say the Canon PowerShot S3, but not as clean as the Fuji FinePix S6000fd or the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5. A midsize print will still look nice at that setting. At ISO 800 the noise reduction gets turned on high, resulting in a real smudging of details -- though a small print isn't out of the question here. ISO 1600 is quite a bit worse, and I don't think this setting (or anything above it for that matter) is usable. Yes, that means that the low resolution ISO 3200 and 5000 settings should be avoiding - these are really only there to be shown on the camera box.

As soon as I step outside of my studio the SP-550UZ's photo quality is very good. Photos were well-exposed, with pleasing, saturated colors, and sharpness that will please most people. Noise levels are low at ISO 50 and 100, and tolerable at ISO 200 and 400. I would try to avoid anything higher than ISO 400 unless you're really desperate -- and stay away from the scene modes that boost the sensitivity really high. While not what I'd call a "problem", purple fringing did pop up in several photos.

Don't just take my word for it, though. Have a look at our extensive photo gallery, printing the photos if you can. Then and only then can you decide if the SP-550's photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

The SP-550UZ has a pretty good movie mode. You can record video (with sound) at 640 x 480, 30 frames/second, until you run out of space on your memory card -- assuming that you're using a high speed (Type H) xD card. If you're not, the movie will stop recording after 15 seconds. A 1GB xD card can store about 10 minutes of continuous video. For longer movies you can reduce the resolution to 320 x 240, lower the frame rate to 15 fps, or both.

If you want to record sound with your movies (as most people would), you'll have to forget about using the optical zoom or the image stabilizer, as both will be disabled. Turn off sound recording and you can use both to your heart's content. There's another option to watch out for, and it's fulltime AF. If this is on, the sound of the focus motor may be picked up by the microphone.

In playback mode (which I'll talk more about below) you can trim your movies, create a still from a single frame, or make a collage out of nine frames.

The camera records movies using the M-JPEG codec and saves them as AVI files.

Here's a sample movie for you. Be warned, it's a big download.


Click to play movie (19.9 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, AVI format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The SP-550UZ has a pretty fancy playback mode. You've got all your basic features like slideshows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, voice captions, image protection, and zoom & scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge a photo by as much as 10 times, and then you can scroll around to check focus or look for closed eyes.

You can quickly jump to the photos you took on a certain date by using the calendar feature.


Edit Menu

The camera has an elaborate editing feature as well, for both JPEG and RAW images. In JPEG mode you can change photos to black & white or sepia, adjust sharpness, contrast, and saturation, plus reduce redeye. You can also put virtual frames around you photos, or put text on top of them. Heck, there's even a calendar creation tool.


RAW edit menu

For RAW images you can adjust the image quality, white balance, sharpness, contrast, and saturation. Just pick the new settings and the camera creates a JPEG image incorporating the changes.

By default the camera doesn't tell you much about your photos. Press the display button and you'll get more information, including a histogram.

The SP-550 moves through JPEG images without delay. Thankfully Olympus got rid of the nasty seven second RAW image load times that I saw on the preproduction model. Here they load just as fast as JPEGs.

How Does it Compare?

The Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom is a great example of a marketing-driven cameras. I'm just guessing here, but the marketing folks at Olympus probably got together and said "let's make an ultra zoom camera with the biggest and baddest specs on the market", and then the engineers had to make it work. And it works, for the most part -- though plenty of compromises were made. While it's not the best ultra zoom on the market, the SP-550 is still a very good one, and certainly worth a look.

The SP-550 is a midsize ultra zoom camera made mostly of high grade plastic. It feels solid in your hands, and the decent-sized right hand grip makes the camera easy to hold. The important controls are easy to reach, and Olympus thankfully didn't go overboard with buttons on this model. The biggest feature on the camera is undoubtedly its 18X optical zoom lens. Olympus could've had the focal length start in the usual 36 - 38 mm range, but they didn't -- they did something better. The zoom range on the SP-550 is an excellent 28 - 504 mm, giving you both wide-angle and super telephoto capability. If you need even more zoom then you can pony up for the optional teleconverter. A big zoom lens like that requires image stabilization, and Olympus put a CCD-shift system on the SP-550. The system works pretty well, though it can't be used in movie mode when you're recording sound. The camera has a fairly standard-issue LCD display and electronic viewfinder, both of which have average outdoor viewing and above average low light visibility.

The SP-550 has a large selection of both automatic and manual controls. In the automatic department we have numerous scene modes, an in-camera help system, and a "guide" that will not only tell you what settings to change to achieve your goal, it'll even set them for you. The camera has the requisite high sensitivity mode (called "available light" here), though I'd avoid it if possible, as you just end up with low resolution, noisy photos. The playback mode is especially nice, with numerous creative tools (virtual frames, calendars, etc) plus RAW and JPEG editing. In terms of manual controls, there are plenty to find on the SP-550. They include shutter speed and aperture, white balance, and focus. For white balance you can use a white or gray card to get accurate color (though I found that this feature did not work well) or tweak things further with WB compensation. The My Mode feature lets you store up to four sets of camera settings to a spot on the mode dial. The SP-550 has a nice VGA movie mode, though you'll need a high speed xD card to take advantage of it. Do note that both the optical zoom and the image stabilizer are disabled if you're recording sound along with your movies.

Camera performance was average in most respects. The SP-550UZ takes about 2.7 seconds to turn on, which is fairly typical. Focus times are decent at wide-angle or in good light, but sluggish at the telephoto end of the lens, or in low light situations. The LCD and EVF also tended to "blow out" when shooting brightly lit subjects. Shot-to-shot delays are minimal when shooting JPEGs, but you can expect to wait 5 seconds between RAW photos. The SP-550 has tons of continuous shooting modes, though they all come with a list of qualifications. The regular continuous mode takes just three shots in a row at a sluggish 1.2 frames/second. If you want to use either of the two high speed modes you'll need to lower the resolution to 3 Megapixel (for 8 frames/second) or 1.2 Megapixel (for 14 frames/second). Be warned that these images can be noisy, as the ISO cannot be fixed at a low value. Battery life on the SP-550UZ is excellent -- with NiMH rechargeables, of course.

Photo quality was very good for the most part. The SP-550 takes well-exposed photos, with accurate colors, pleasing sharpness, and relatively little purple fringing. The one exception in the color accuracy department comes when you're using custom white balance -- as my test photos hopefully illustrated. Noise levels on the camera are low at ISO 50 and 100, and reasonable at ISO 200 and 400. I would save ISO 800 for desperation only. The photo quality at ISO 1600, 3200, and 5000 isn't what I'd consider acceptable. While the camera has a bit of a redeye problem, the in-camera redeye reduction took took care of it in a matter of seconds.

There are several negatives to the SP-550 that didn't fit in the preceding paragraphs. The RAW converter in the bundled Olympus Master software is truly awful -- so I would avoid shooting RAW until a better tool comes out. The software was quite buggy on my Mac, as well. Speaking of RAW, expect to wait at least five seconds between shots if you're using that image format. You can't use RAW in any of the continuous shooting modes, either. While Olympus went all out with most of the SP-550's features, they seemed to have forgotten to include support for the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol, which virtually all of the competition supports. One thing they didn't forget was to put a full, printed manual in the box with the camera (they used to include it only on CD). Unfortunately the quality of the manual is lacking, with short descriptions and a clutter, unfriendly layout.

Though not without its share of flaws, the Olympus SP-550UZ is a very good (though not best-in-class) ultra zoom camera. It offers virtually every feature known to man, though some of them aren't implemented terribly well. Still, if you want a camera with a lot of zoom, and you won't be using custom white balance very often, then it's definitely worth a look. Do take a close look at the competition though, as the best cameras in this group are all top-notch.

What I liked:

  • Incredible 28 - 504 mm zoom range in a relatively small body
  • Very good photo quality (in most situations)
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Well-built body feels solid in the hand (despite plastic construction)
  • Large LCD display is visible in low light situations (though see issue below)
  • Full manual controls
  • Can store four sets of camera settings to a spot on the mode dial
  • AF-assist lamp; slow, but accurate low light focusing
  • Two live histograms to choose from
  • VGA movie mode (30 fps) with sound (see issues below, though)
  • In-camera help system plus a guide feature which shows you what settings to adjust to achieve a certain objective
  • Elaborate playback mode with built-in RAW editor and effective redeye reduction tool
  • Support for telephoto conversion lens and underwater case
  • Excellent battery life; uses AA batteries

What I didn't care for:

  • Olympus Master software produces terribly RAW to JPEG conversions; Mac version was quite buggy as well
  • Poor color accuracy using custom white balance
  • Slow shot-to-shot times when shooting in RAW format
  • LCD/EVF tend to "blow out" (bloom) when shooting brightly lit subjects
  • Sluggish focusing at telephoto end of lens and in low light
  • High ISO settings basically useless
  • Fastest continuous shooting modes require much lower resolutions; regular continuous mode is weak compared to other cameras in class
  • Image stabilization unavailable when shooting movies with sound
  • Plastic tripod mount
  • No USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • Manual leaves much to be desired (but at least it's printed)

Some other cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S3 IS, Fuji FinePix S6000fd and S9100, GE X1, Kodak EasyShare Z712 IS, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 and DMC-FZ50, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7.

As always, I highly recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the SP-550 Ultra Zoom and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the photo quality of the SP-550 in our gallery!

Want another opinion?

You'll find another review of the SP-550UZ at CNET Asia.

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 or technical support.

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