DCRP Review: Pentax Optio 555
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: November 17, 2003
Last Updated: January 22, 2004

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The Pentax Optio 555 ($550) is an updated version of the popular Optio 550 (see our review). Both cameras have a 5 Megapixel CCD, 5X optical zoom lens, and compact body. The differences between the new cameras are few. The 555 adds PictBridge support, improved performance, a larger range of shutter speeds, and a new flash exposure compensation option -- otherwise they're the same camera. Those who purchased the 550 a few months ago are probably not pleased by the rapid introduction of this new model.

I liked the Optio 550 quite a bit -- is the 555 just as good? Find out now in our review!

Since the cameras are so similar, text from the Optio 550 review will be reused here.

What's in the Box?

The Optio 555 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 (effective) Mpixel Pentax Optio 555 camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • D-LI7 rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • Neck strap
  • 3D Image Viewer
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring ACDSee software + drivers
  • 141 page camera + separate software manual (both printed)

As with its predecessor, the Optio 555 includes a tiny 16MB Secure Digital (SD) card in the box. Don't expect to store many 5 Megapixel photos on that card. I recommend picking up a larger card (256MB a good place to start) right away. The Optio can use both SD and MMC (MultiMediaCard) formats.

As with the earlier model, the 555's battery packs a powerful punch -- giving the camera very good battery life. The battery has 6.7 Wh of energy (more than some full-size cameras), and Pentax estimates that you can take around 400 shots (LCD on, 50% flash), or spend 210 minutes in playback mode. Those numbers have not changed since the Optio 550.


Battery charger + battery

When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it in the included external charger. It takes about 3 hours to recharge. This isn't one of those "plug it right into the wall" chargers -- you must attach a power cable.

Two things to note about proprietary batteries like the one used here: First, they are very expensive, at $40 a pop (I recommend buying a spare). Also, when you're low on power, you can't just pop in a regular AA battery to get you through the rest of the day.

The Optio 555 has a built-in lens cover, so there is no lens cap to worry about. As you can see, it's a small camera.

So what's the deal with the 3D Image Viewer that's included in the box? The Optio has a unique feature which lets you take two shots in a row and combine them into a 3D image. To view the images in 3D, you can print them out and then use the 3D image viewer (kind of like glasses). Once you get the hang of it, you may be able to do it without the viewer.

I could only locate three accessories for the Optio 555. They are a remote control ($15), camera case, and AC adapter. There are no lens or flash accessories available (not surprisingly).

Pentax includes ACD System's ACDSee for both Mac (v1.6) and PC (v5.0). It's not Photoshop, but it's good for organizing, editing, and sharing your photos. Windows users will also get ACD Photostitcher, which can be used for creating panoramic images. The Mac version is Mac OS X native.

The manual included with the Optio 555 is typical of those included with a digital camera. It's complete, but confusing at times.

Look and Feel

While the "trim" on the cameras are different, overall the Optio 550 and 555 share the same body (the 555 being much easier to photograph). It's an ultra-compact body, made almost completely of metal. With a few exceptions, the 555's body is very sturdy. It's also easy to hold and operate with just one hand.

Speaking of size, the dimensions of the Optio 555 are 100 x 59 x 39.5 mm / 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.6 inches (W x H x D, without protrusions), and it weighs 205 grams / 7.2 ounces empty. Those numbers are identical to the those of the Optio 550.

Ready to take a closer look at this camera?

One of the biggest features of the Optio 555 is its 5X zoom lens. The F2.8 - F4.6 lens has a focal range of 7.8 - 39 mm, which is equivalent to 37.5 - 187.5 mm. The 555 does not support add-on lenses.

To the upper-right of the lens is the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.4 - 5.2 m at wide-angle, and 0.15 - 3.2 m at telephoto. You cannot add an external flash to the Optio 555.

To the left of the flash is the optical viewfinder. Continuing to the left, you'll find the "passive autofocus sensor". While not an AF illuminator, it does improve low light focusing. It also helps the camera focus quickly in normal conditions -- something an AF illuminator cannot do.

To the left of the AF sensor are the self-timer lamp and remote control receiver. The microphone can also been seen.

On the back of the camera, you'll find a 1.5" LCD display. This small screen doesn't skimp on resolution, with 113,000 pixels. It's sharp, bright, and images on it are fluid. You cannot, however, adjust the brightness of the screen.

To the upper-left of the LCD is the optical viewfinder. It's pretty large for a compact camera, and as an added bonus, there's even a diopter correction feature (to focus what you're looking at).

To the right of the viewfinder are three multi-function buttons. They do the following:

Record mode function Playback mode function
Flash setting (Auto, off, on, auto w/redeye reduction, on w/redeye reduction) Protect image
Drive (self-timer, remote control, continuous shooting, interval shooting, multiple exposure) DPOF print marking
Focus mode (macro, super macro, landscape, manual, move focusing area) Delete image

I'll cover most of the above later in the review. But first, a few notes about some of those.

Continuous shooting mode will take shots sequentially until the memory card is full. The frame rate will vary depending on the image resolution and quality setting. At the highest (JPEG) quality setting, the 555 shot a little faster than 1 frame/second.

Interval shooting will take up to 99 shots at a chosen interval. You can choose intervals ranging from 10 seconds to 99 minutes. You can also set the start time up to 24 hours ahead. The AC adapter is a requirement for this feature.

The multiple exposure feature allows you to superimpose an image on top of one you've already recorded. You can give priority to the brighter image, the darker image, or you can just average their exposures.


Manual focus

Manual focus will let you use the four-way switch to choose a focus distance. The center of the frame is enlarged so you can be sure that your subject is in focus. A little gauge on the LCD will report the current focus distance. The "move focusing area" feature lets you select one of five focus points on the LCD (center, left, right, top, bottom).

Back to our tour now: the zoom controller (located at the top right of the photo) is well-placed, and it quickly moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.6 seconds. The zoom wasn't as precise as I would've liked.

To the right of the LCD is the playback mode button., which does just what it sounds like. Below that is the four-way switch, used for menu navigation, manipulating manual controls, and setting the exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV, 1/3EV increments).

The two buttons below the LCD are for Menu/Function and Display (turns LCD on and off). The function button allows you to quickly access your favorite settings, by pressing it along with one of the directions on the four-way switch. You can put most menu functions in this spot. The default function is flash exposure compensation.

On the top of the camera, you'll see the speaker, diopter control slider (for the optical viewfinder), power button, mode dial, and shutter release button.

The mode dial has the following options:

  • Program mode - fully automatic, with full access to camera settings
  • Aperture priority (Av) mode - you choose aperture, camera chooses shutter speed. Aperture range is F2.8 - F7.9
  • Shutter priority (Tv) mode - you choose shutter speed, camera chooses aperture. Shutter speed range is 15 - 1/1000 sec (an improvement over the Optio 550)
  • Manual mode - you choose both shutter speed and aperture, using the ranges above
  • User mode - quickly access your favorite settings
  • Voice recording - save audio clips in WAV format. Record until the memory card is full (which is about 30 minutes on a 16MB card)
  • Movie mode - more later
  • Digital filter mode
    • Color filters
      • Black & white
      • Sepia
      • Red
      • Pink
      • Violet
      • Blue
      • Green
      • Yellow
    • Soft Filter - gives pictures a "fuzzy" look
  • 3D image mode - for creating the 3D stereo images that I described earlier
  • Panorama assist mode
  • Picture (scene) mode
    • Landscape
    • Night scene
    • Flower
    • Portrait
    • Surf & snow
    • Autumn colors
    • Sunset
    • Fireworks
    • Text

As you can see, the Optio 555 has all kinds of options that allow you to get pretty creative with your photos. Let's continue our tour now.

Nothing to see here!

On the other side of the camera you'll find the I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The ports include USB/video out (one port for both), as well as DC-in for the optional AC adapter.

On the bottom of the camera is the battery compartment, memory card slot, and metal tripod mount.

One thing that Pentax did not improve on this model is the cheap plastic door that covers the battery and memory card slots. I fear it could break off at any moment.

Due to the design of the camera, you cannot change the memory card or battery while the camera is on a tripod.

Using the Pentax Optio 555

Record Mode

Startup speeds have improved on the Optio 555, with a startup time of about 3.8 seconds.

While the Optio 555 has a passive AF system, it's focusing speeds are average. It took a little less than a second to lock focus in almost all cases. One area in which is was better than average was in dim light -- it was able to lock focus on various objects around the house (with the lights turned down).

Shutter lag was just barely noticeable, even at slower shutter speeds.


The Optio's LCD can show a lot of info in record mode, including a histogram

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent. Assuming you have the post-shot review feature turned off, you can take another picture in about one second. After a picture is taken, you can hit the delete photo button to review (and remove) the photo you just took.

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Optio 555 (Pentax uses a "star system" to represent image quality):

Resolution Compression # shots on 16MB card
2592 x 1944 TIFF 0
Best (***) 4
Better (**) 8
Good (*) 14
2048 x 1536 Best (***) 7
Better (**) 12
Good (*) 18

1600 x 1200

Best (***) 11
Better (**) 20
Good (*) 27
1024 x 768 Best (***) 25
Better (**) 45
Good (*) 56
640 x 480 Best (***) 53
Better (**) 82
Good (*) 100

As you can see, there's a TIFF mode on the Optio 555. You can also see that you can't actually fit a single TIFF image on the tiny 16MB memory card that comes with the camera. Do note that the camera is locked up for 25 seconds while the TIFF is saved to the memory card.

As far as file numbering goes, the camera names files as IMGP####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. The camera maintains the numbering even if you erase the card.

While not the best looking menu system, the Optio 555's system is easy to navigate. The menu items include:

  • Recorded pixels (see chart)
  • Quality level (see chart)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, tungsten, fluorescent, manual)
  • Focusing area (Wide, spot)
  • AE metering (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Sensitivity (Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400)
  • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) - adjust the flash power; new to the Optio 555
  • Auto bracket - see below
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this lowers the quality of your photos
  • Instant review (Off, 0.5, 1-5 sec)
  • Interval shooting - described earlier
  • Fast fwd movie (Off, x2, x5, x10, x20, x50, x100) - see below
  • 3D mode (Parallel, cross) - choose the viewing method for 3D images
  • Memory - the camera will store the selected settings in memory so they aren't lost when you turn off the camera. The available settings include:
    • Flash
    • Flash exposure compensation
    • White balance
    • Exposure compensation
    • Digital zoom
    • AE Metering
    • Sensitivity
    • Focus mode
    • Zoom position
    • Manual focus position
    • Display mode
    • File numbering
  • Sharpness (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Saturation (Soft, normal, hard)
  • Contrast (Soft, normal, hard)
  • User - store your favorite camera settings to the "user" spot on the mode wheel.

Time for some further explanation.

As you can see, the Optio has manual white balance controls. That's the best way to get perfect white balance under any lighting.

Pentax's bracketing system is excellent. Not only can you bracket exposure, but you can also do it for white balance, sharpness, saturation, and contrast as well. The camera takes three shots in a row, with an interval you can choose (for white balance and exposure). If you've got enough room on your memory card (not to mention patience), this is a great way to ensure perfect pictures.

The "fast forward movie" feature is like a "time lapse" movie. You can reduce the frame rate by a factor of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100. When you play the movie back, they are played back at 15 frames/sec multiplied by the chosen factor. Sound is not recorded. I hope this makes sense -- try it and you'll see.

In addition to the record menu, there's also a setup menu. The options in this menu include:

  • Format
  • Sound - adjust the annoying beep sounds
  • Date + date style
  • World time - view the time around the world
  • Language (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Chinese) - not sure about those last two
  • Start-up screen (on/off) - use the default Optio picture, or one of your own
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Sleep timeout (Off, 30 sec, 1-2 min) - turn the LCD off after inactivity
  • Auto power off (Off, 3, 5 min) - turn off the camera after inactivity
  • Quick delete (on/off) - took me a while to figure this one out. When on, it shortens the photo deletion process by one button press.
  • Quick zoom (on/off) - when on, "zoom and scroll" feature automatically jumps to highest zoom ratio
  • Function setting (Recorded pixels, quality level, white balance, focusing area, AE metering, sensitivity, flash exposure compensation, digital zoom, instant review, sharpness, saturation, contrast) - define what the various directions on the four-way controller do (while the function button is held down).
  • Focus limiter (on/off) - limits the movement of the lens when shooting. I'm not sure what this is really for.
  • Reset - turn settings to back their default values

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The 555 did an awesome job with the macro test shot. Color, sharpness, and detail are all excellent.

The camera has two macro modes: regular and super. Regular macro mode gives you a focus distance of 15 - 65 cm. Super macro mode gets you even closer: just 2 cm from your subject. The catch is that the lens is locked at wide-angle.

The night test shot also turned out nicely. The camera can take in plenty of light, thanks to its manual shutter speed controls. Detail and sharpness were good, and purple fringing was at a minimum.

Compact cameras usually have a redeye problem, so you won't be surprised to see the test result above. You can remove this phenomenon fairly well in software. (Since people have asked, I always take this shot with the camera's redeye reduction feature turned on.)

The distortion test shows mild-to-moderate barrel distortion and a slight hint of vignetting (dark corners). I saw a little bit of vignetting in my real world photos, but it wasn't horrible.

On the whole, the Optio 555's photo quality is very good. Color, exposure, and detail were impressive. Pentax obviously has the in-camera sharpening turned up, which adds a little noise/grain to the photos. If it's too much for you, try turning down the sharpening a notch. Purple fringing was not a problem that I noticed in my limited testing (I wasn't able to take as many pictures as usual due to my recent move).

Don't just take my words as gospel: view the pictures in the gallery and make your own decision about he Optio 555's photo quality!

Movie Mode

I covered one facet of the Optio's movie mode in the previous section, when I tried (not very well) to explain the fast forward movie feature. Now here's some info about the standard movie mode.

While Pentax is not making a big deal about it, it seems as if you can now record movies until the memory card is full. On the Optio 550, movies were limited to 10 minutes. I took an 11 minute movie before giving up on the Optio 555. On both cameras, the resolution is 320 x 240. Sound is recorded along with the video.

Files are saved in QuickTime format, at a frame rate of 15 frames/sec.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Here's a rather dull sample movie for you:


Click to play movie (5.0MB, QuickTime format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Optio 555 has a very nice playback mode. The Optio has the basic playback features nailed: slide shows, DPOF (and not PictBridge) print marking, thumbnail mode, and image protection are all here.

The zoom and scroll feature is here too, allow you to zoom in as much as 8X into your photo, and then scroll around. Zoom and scroll speeds are about average.

Two of the more advanced features include resizing and trimming. You can resize an image to any of the smaller resolutions (plus 320 x 240), and you can change the quality as well. The trimming feature allows you to crop a photo -- the resolution and quality settings are the same as the original image. In both cases, the original image is kept.

The Optio can show plenty of information about your photos, including a histogram -- just press the display button.

The camera moves through photos at an average pace, with a two second delay between high res photos.

How Does it Compare?

While I don't think that Optio 550 owners should be racing out to upgrade, I do think that the Pentax Optio 555 is an attractive option for those who want a little more zoom in a compact camera. Not only will you get more zoom -- 5X in this case -- you'll also get a camera that takes very good quality 5 Megapixel photos. Add in full manual controls (with an expanded range of shutter speeds), and bonus features like digital color filters, and you've got something that enthusiasts will enjoy as much as beginners. The super macro mode lets you get within 2 cm of your subject, which is pretty amazing. Also amazing is the powerful (albeit proprietary) battery that the 555 uses, giving it much better than average battery life. There isn't much to complain about. Images are slightly noisy, with occasional vignetting. Redeye was an issue as well. While the camera's overall build quality is excellent, the cheap plastic battery/memory card door leaves much to be desired. I would've liked to see a larger memory card included with the camera, and faster performance wouldn't hurt either (it was just average). But if you want a compact camera with something other than a 3X zoom lens, then you really can't go wrong with the Optio 555.

What I liked:

  • 5X zoom in a compact body
  • Very good photo quality
  • Impressive battery life for a compact camera
  • Full manual controls
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • Super macro mode allows you to get as close as 2 cm to subject
  • Cool digital color filter effects
  • Unique 3D photo, fast forward movie features
  • Can save favorite settings to spot on mode dial

What I didn't care for:

  • Images slightly noisy, some vignetting
  • Redeye
  • Cheap plastic door over battery/memory card compartments
  • Skimpy 16MB SD card included
  • Average performance

Some other cameras worth checking out include the Canon PowerShot G3 and G5, Kodak EasyShare DX6440, Minolta DiMAGE S414, Nikon Coolpix 5400, Olympus C-5060 Wide Zoom, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V1. These are cameras with a 4 Megapixel or higher CCD and a 4X-5X zoom lens.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Optio 555 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality stacks up in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read another review of the Optio 555 over at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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