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DCRP Review: Olympus Stylus 500  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: January 27, 2005
Last Updated: February 28, 2012

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The Olympus Stylus 500 ($399) is a compact point-and-shoot, weatherproof camera. By weatherproof I mean that it can take a splash -- it's not equipped to go swimming. Other features include a 5 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, and large 2.5" LCD display. How does this latest Stylus perform? Find out now in our review!

The camera is known as the mju digital 500 in some countries.

What's in the Box?

The Stylus 500 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 effective Megapixel Olympus Stylus 500 digital camera
  • 32MB xD Picture Card
  • LI-12B lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master software and drivers
  • Basic manual (printed) + full manual on CD-ROM

Olympus includes a 32MB xD Picture Card with the camera, which won't hold very many 5 Megapixel photos. So, buying a larger card is a very good idea. I'd recommend 256MB at the bare minimum (xD currently tops out at 1GB). xD cards do tend to be more expensive than SD and CompactFlash cards, so you've been warned.

The Stylus uses the now familiar LI-12B lithium ion battery (the older and lower power LI-10B also works, in case you have one laying around). The LI-12B packs a modest 4.6 Wh of energy, which translates to about 200 photos per charge (using the CIPA battery life standard). For the sake of comparison, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T33 can take 180 shots, while the Casio Exilim EX-Z55 can pull off a whopping 400 photos per charge.

There are some disadvantages to the style of battery used by the Stylus 500 (and plenty of other cameras). For one, they're expensive -- $37 a pop (and I recommend buying a spare). Secondly, if you run out of juice in the field, you can't just drop in some alkaline AAs to get you through the day.

When it's time to recharge the battery just snap it into the included external charger. It takes about 2 hours to fully charge the battery. This isn't one of those convenient (in my opinion) chargers that plugs right into the wall -- you must use a power cable.

Part of the "stylish" design of the Stylus 500 is a built-in lens cover -- so there are no messy lens caps to worry about.

There are just a couple of accessories available for the Stylus 500. If you really want to get the camera wet then you'll need the PT-026 underwater housing ($250), which lets you take the camera up to 131 feet underwater. Also available is the RM-1 wireless remote control ($30), which can be used in record and playback mode. Other options include an AC adapter ($37) and a carrying case.

Olympus includes their new Master software with the camera, and I have to say that they've done a great job with it. The first thing you'll probably do with the software is transfer photos from your camera. Once you've done that, you've got a nice thumbnail view that you can organize by date or keywords. A calendar view is also available.

It's easy to change the size of the thumbnails, and everything was snappy on my PowerMac G5.

If you want to edit a photo, that's just a click away. You can rotate, crop, reduce redeye, or do an "instant fix". If you want to adjust the color balance, you can do that as well, as you can see above.

The software can also be used to "stitch" together several photos into one panoramic photo.

Sharing photos is easy: you can print them or e-mail them right in the Master software. Naturally, there's a slideshow feature available as well. And, if you want to archive them to a CD or DVD, that's available too.

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, one thing that hasn't changed is Olympus' unwillingness to print the full camera manual. As usual, you'll get a 25 page "basic manual" in the box, with the full manual on the included CD-ROM. The quality of the manual itself is good -- it's getting to the information that's difficult.

Look and Feel

The Stylus 500 is a compact, but not too compact metal camera. It's not as small as say, the Stylus Verve or Canon SD300, but it'll fit into most of your pockets without any trouble.

With a few exceptions, the camera is made entirely of metal, and it feels very solid for the most part. Being a weatherproof camera, everything is sealed so if the camera gets splashed, the important components don't get damaged. I do have one complaint related to this subject that I'll get to later.

Now, let's see how the camera compares to the competition in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD300 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in. 5.7 cu in. 130 g
Canon PowerShot S500 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 8.2 cu in. 185 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z55 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 6.7 cu in. 130 g
Fuji FinePix F450 2.9 x 2.5 x 0.8 in. 5.8 cu in. 150 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE G600 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.2 in. 9.8 cu in. 195 g
Kyocera Finecam SL400R 3.9 x 2.5 x 0.6 in. 5.9 cu in. 125 g
Nikon Coolpix 5200 3.5 x 2.3 x 1.4 in. 11.3 cu in. 155 g
Olympus Stylus 500 3.9 x 2.2 x 1.2 in. 10.3 cu in. 165 g
Olympus Stylus Verve 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 9.0 cu in. 115 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 136 g
Pentax Optio S5i 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 in. 5.3 cu in. 105 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T33 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8.4 cu in. 125 g

As you can see, the Stylus 500 is one of the "larger" cameras in its class. But don't get me wrong, it's still pretty small.

Okay, let's start our tour of this camera now, beginning with the front.

If I'm not mistaken, the Stylus 500 has the same F3.1-5.2, 3X optical zoom lens as its predecessor (the Stylus 400). This isn't the fastest lens out there, so keep that in mind if you do a lot of shooting that requires a fast shutter speed. The focal length of the lens is 5.8 - 17.4 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded.

At the top of the photo is the camera's built-in flash. The working range of the flash is pretty good for a camera in this class: 0.2 - 4.2 m at wide-angle and 0.2 - 2.6 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the Stylus 500.

The little circle just to the right of the flash is the self-timer lamp. The dark-colored circle further to the right is the receiver for the optional remote control. To the lower-right of the lens you'll find the microphone.

There is no AF-assist lamp on the Stylus 500.

One of the big draws of the Stylus 500 is its large 2.5" LCD display. Where some big LCDs skimp on resolution, the one on the Stylus does not: it packs an impressive 215,000 pixels. The screen is nice and sharp, and motion is fluid. Outdoor visibility is better than average. In low light situations, the screen "gains up" automatically so you can still see your subject.

As you've probably noticed, there's no optical viewfinder on the Stylus 500. Whether that's a problem is your decision. Olympus is going LCD-only on their lower-end cameras, and personally I'm not a big fan of that idea.

At the upper-right of the photo is the zoom controller. The controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.3 seconds. I counted an impressive 12 steps throughout the zoom range.

Below the zoom controller is the speaker and the Quick View button. This button quickly enters playback mode. To the right of those is the mode dial, which has the following options:

  • Record mode
  • Movie mode
  • Playback mode
  • Album

I'll have more on all those later.

Scene modes

The final item on the back of the Stylus 500 is the four-way controller. This is used for menu navigation, as well as:

  • Up - Scene mode
    • Program auto - for everyday shooting
    • Landscape
    • Landscape + portrait
    • Portrait
    • Indoor
    • Sport
    • Beach & snow
    • Behind glass
    • Self-portrait + self-timer
    • Self-portrait
    • Sunset
    • Night scene
    • Night + portrait
    • Cuisine
    • Documents
    • Candle
    • Underwater wide - requires underwater case
    • Underwater macro - requires underwater case
    • Shoot & select 1/2 - for taking action shots; camera takes several photos in a row and you save only the images you want
  • Down - Self-timer, remote control (on/off)
  • Left - Flash (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash, flash off)
  • Right - Macro mode (Off, normal, super) - more on this later

As you can see, the Stylus 500 has a ton of scene modes, which are great for beginners or anyone who doesn't want to fuss with manual settings. Then again, there aren't any manual settings to worry about on this camera anyway!

The only things to see up here are the power and shutter release buttons.

Nothing to see here.

Over on this side of the camera you'll find the I/O ports, including DC-in (for optional AC adapter) and USB + A/V out (one port for both). You can also see the gaskets around the ports which protect them from the elements.

We end our tour with the bottom of the camera. Here you'll find the battery and xD memory card slots, as well as a plastic tripod mount (why can't they put a metal one on a metal camera? sigh). The door that covers all this isn't terribly sturdy, and it opens way too easily -- which was surprising given the fact that this camera is supposed to be watertight. You probably won't be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod, either.

The included battery and xD card are shown at right.

Using the Olympus Stylus 500

Record Mode

Fast startup speed is another one of the strong points of the Stylus 500. It takes just 1.2 seconds for the camera to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

A live histogram is available in record mode

Autofocus speeds were about average, with the camera taking about 0.6 - 0.8 seconds to lock focus in most cases (it'll take longer if the AF has to "hunt" a bit). Despite not having an AF-assist lamp, the Stylus focused surprisingly well in low light conditions.

Shutter lag was quite low, even at slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.

Shot-to-shot speed is very good, with a delay of about 1.4 seconds between shots, assuming you've turned off the post-shot review feature.

There's no easy way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken. You must first enter playback mode by pressing the Quick View button.

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

Quality Resolution # images on 32MB card
SHQ 2560 x 1920
(low compression, higher quality)
HQ 2560 x 1920
(more compression, lower quality)
SQ1 2048 x 1536 40
SQ2 1600 x 1200 48
1280 x 960 76
1024 x 768 117
640 x 480 180

There's no RAW or TIFF mode on the Stylus 500, not that I'd expect one.

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 for a year). File numbering is maintained as you erase and switch memory cards.

The Stylus 500 uses the recent Olympus menu system, minus the customizing feature found on their more expensive cameras. When you first hit the menu button, you'll be presented with the following options:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Mode Menu - see below
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent x 3) - a custom option would've been nice
  • Image quality (see above chart)

The Mode Menu is where most of the options on the camera are located. Here's what you'll find in this menu:

  • Camera Settings
    • Metering (ESP, spot)
    • Drive (Single-frame, sequential) - see below
    • ISO (Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400)
    • Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this off
    • AF mode (iESP, spot)
    • Sound recording (on/off) - add a 4 sec voice clip to each photo
    • Panorama (on/off) - helps you frame panoramic shots; Olympus-brand xD card required
    • 2-in-1 (on/off) - combines two successive pictures into one
    • Histogram (on/off)

  • Card Setup (Format)

  • Setup
    • All reset (on/off) - retain settings after camera is powered off
    • Language (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
    • Power on setup - for startup screen
      • Screen (Off, 1-2) - pick up a startup screen
      • Volume (Off, low, high)
    • Menu color (Normal, blue, green, pink)
    • Beep (Off, low, high)
    • Shutter sound (Off, 1-3) - you can set the volume for whichever shutter sound you choose
    • Rec view (on/off) - post-shot review feature
    • File name (Reset, auto)
    • Pixel mapping (on/off) - removes dead pixels that can appear in images
    • Monitor brightness (-7 to +7, 1-step increments)
    • Date/time (set)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)

In the sequential shooting mode, you can take up to 5 photos (at SHQ quality) at 1.7 frames/second -- which is good, but not great. The LCD turns off during shooting, which makes it virtually impossible to follow a moving subject.

That's about it for menus. This is a point-and-shoot camera, as you can see. Let's move on to photo tests now.

The Stylus 500 did a great job with our macro test subject, using auto white balance no less. Our subject is sharp and smooth, with accurate and quite saturated color.

There are two macro modes on the camera. In normal macro mode, you can get as close as 8 cm to your subject, at both the wide and telephoto ends of the lens, which is about average. To get closer, you can use super macro mode, which lowers that distance to 7 cm. Despite the relatively long distance, you can still fill the frame with an object 27 x 20 mm in size. Do note that in super macro mode the lens is locked at the telephoto position.

The night test shot came out decently, though the noise levels are a little high. Since there's no way to manually set the shutter speed, you're at the mercy of the camera's brain when it comes to getting a good exposure. For best results, use one of the night scene modes. The camera took in enough light here, and purple fringing isn't a problem. The full size image is a little crooked, so you'll have to forgive me.

Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images. You can click on the thumbnail to see the full size images.

ISO 64

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

Noise levels were already pretty high to begin with, and by the time you get to ISO 200 details are starting to get destroyed. This may not be the best camera for high ISO shooting.

There's very mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. I see no evidence of vignetting (dark corners).

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of redeye on this compact camera. While your results may vary, you can expect to deal with redeye to one extent or another.

The image quality on the Stylus 500 was a little disappointing. Color and exposure were both fine, and purple fringing level were low. However, images were soft and details were really fuzzy, as illustrated in images like these. I also saw some strange artifacts on edges, such as in this shot. Despite these flaws, you'll get nice 4 x 6 and 5 x 7 inch prints -- any larger and I'd look at other cameras.

With that in mind, I invite you to check out our photo gallery. Print the photos as if they were you own, and then decide if the Stylus' photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The Stylus 500 has a rather unexciting movie mode. You can record 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 videos at 15 frames/second until the memory card is full. Sound is recorded as well. The included 32MB card can hold about 83 seconds worth of video, so you'll want a larger card for longer movies.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming.

Movies are saved in QuickTime format.

Here's a dull sample movie for you. Neither the video nor the sound quality will win any awards.

Click to play movie (4.3 MB, QuickTime format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The Stylus 500 has a pretty 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 8X into your photo (in 1X steps), and then move around in it.

Bonus features include soft focus and fisheye effects, plus the ability to change your images into black and white or sepia tone. You can also rotate, resize, and crop your photos right on the camera.

One other feature worth mentioning is the album feature. You can put photos into the album either on the camera or using Olympus Master. Once you've done that, just turn the mode dial to the album position and you can share your photos with friends and family (see screenshots).

Normally, you don't get much information about your photos in playback mode. However, by changing some settings in the playback menu, you can get the info screen you see above-right.

The camera moves through photos at an average clip, with a delay of slightly over one second between each high res picture.

How Does it Compare?

The Olympus Stylus 500 is as compact point-and-shoot camera that looks good, resists water, is super-fast, and has some neat features. Unfortunately photo quality isn't as good as it should be. But first, the good news. This latest Stylus is compact (but not too much so), metal, and weatherproof. It can get a little wet, but that doesn't mean it can go snorkeling with you -- for that you'll need the optional underwater case. The Stylus has a large and sharp 2.5" LCD display that is viewable in both bright and dim lighting. Camera performance is very good for the most part, especially the startup speed -- wow. The camera doesn't have any manual controls, but you'll find plenty of scene modes to make up for it. Other nice features include in-camera cropping, special effects, and albums.

On the downside, the photo quality wasn't wondrous. Photos were well-exposed with accurate color and low purple fringing, but they were soft, with lots of fuzzy details. They'll be fine for smaller prints, but for larger sizes or 100% on-screen viewing you'll likely be disappointed. The camera doesn't have an AF-assist lamp, but it focused better than I would've expected considering that. Also missing is an optical viewfinder -- something I personally require, but many folks won't miss it. The plastic door over the battery and memory card slot is flimsy and opens way too easily -- a concern on a water-resistant camera like this. And finally, no Olympus camera review would be complete without a snippy comment about not including the full printed manual in the box -- so there it is.

Overall, I like a lot of things about the Stylus 500 -- I just wish the photos were better. If you want a smaller camera that doesn't mind getting a little wet, it's worth checking out.

What I liked:

  • Stylish, compact, and weatherproof metal body
  • Good all-around performance, excellent startup speed
  • Large LCD display is usable outdoors and in low light
  • Plenty of scene modes
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • Optional underwater case
  • Cool playback mode features
  • Much improved bundled software

What I didn't care for:

  • Soft photos with fuzzy details
  • Redeye
  • No optical viewfinder or AF-assist lamp
  • Plastic door over battery/memory card slots too easy to open accidentally
  • Some manual controls would've been nice
  • Unexciting movie mode
  • Full manual only on CD

Other high resolution, compact cameras worth a look include the Canon PowerShot SD300 and S500 Digital ELPHs, Casio Exilim EX-Z55, Fuji FinePix F450, Konica Minolta DiMAGE X50, Nikon Coolpix 5200, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax OptioWP (also weatherproof), and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P200 and DSC-T33.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Stylus 500 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photo quality turned out in our gallery!

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.