OLYMPUS SP-550UZ ON TEST
MANUFACTURERS NOTATION of SALIENT POINTS:
Digital compact camera with ultra-zoom lens 28-504mm (equiv)
7.1MP on 1/2.5'' (multiplier = 5.96) CCD sensor with diagonal measurement = 7mm
18x Optical Zoom equivalent to 28 - 504mm with 2 ED elements; 14 Lenses in 11 groups (4 asp's)
Digital Image Stabilization (CCD based) IS
Bright lens 1:2.8-4.5 with Super Macro capability of 1cm
Large 2.5" LCD with 230,000 pixels
Super High sequential shooting (15 fps @ 1.2MP/frame)
Full manual control with PASM, full AUTO and 23 scene modes
Internal memory approx 9MB and USB 2 Full Speed
Highly selectable options in WB; Metering; AF; Flash: ISO; Drive; File size; Image Quality etc.
In 2000 the Olympus C2100UZ was the ONLY ultra-zoom to have; in fact it was so good that it attracted a bit of a cult following and is still regarded fondly and highly by many. However Olympus' domination of this class of camera was soon usurped by the likes of SONY mainly because Olympus seemed to lose its insight into what photographers wanted from this class of camera.
In addition and following the demise of the high quality 'C' Series of compacts from Olympus I know many Olympus C5050/5060/7070/8080 owners are actively looking for something to replace what has become a recognised classic line of digicams, and are looking to this model.
The all new 550UZ is obviously aimed at re-establishing its dominance of the class by offering a machine at the forefront of ultra-zoom design and performance. A massive 18X optical zoom that starts at the desirable 28mm wide-angle rather than 35mm and reaches an astonishing 504mm will challenge all comers. Add to this the promise of clean shots at long telephoto via a CCD based 'Image Stabilization' and some other pretty impressive specifications including RAW capture and Olympus seem to be talking the talk!
I'm delighted to see Olympus is turning its back on the megapixel race, at least with this offering. The 7.1MP count is both sensible and sufficient. Picture fidelity is not just a matter of packing more and more photosites on tiny sensors. It is a matter of finely balancing ALL the aspects of fidelity and usability. The new UZ's sensor count is more than enough to fully exploit the lens capability at f=2.8; any more would simply be a waste. Sensor size, pixel dimension and pitch, sensitivity and noise as well as how the image is handled in the cameras processor all combine to either make or break the cameras ability to record fine images. Get this balance right and you've got a winner; if not it's going to be a lemon.
Personally I've avoided Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) cameras based on the regular tries at my local camera shop and being perpetually disappointed. Being fundamentally a single lens reflex user with a few digicams including C5050 and Casio EX-Z850 which have peep-hole VF's but great LCD's I find the both the concept and the reality of EVF somewhat strange. To me it's like looking through a mirrored tube at a television screen. That said I can see the attraction for both manufacturers and users. It's all a matter of personal taste and preference.
When Olympus announced their latest UZ compact camera with its staggering 18x zoom my normal avoidance of this type of camera was out-manouvered by pure curiosity. I also know there is a huge amount of interest in this camera worldwide. So perhaps it was more than coincidence when I looked in on an old aquaintance who now owns and runs RGB Lab Services in Middlesbrough (UK) I was surprised to see in his display cabinet a 550UZ very, very nicely priced at £292.99 (I don't know how he does it!) More worrying was the UZ was smiling at me in a most seductive way. Graeme is a good salesman who always lets me talk myself into buying the goods and before I knew what had happened I was off home with a brand new 550UZ under my arm.
[Graeme set up RGB Technology Ltd., two years ago when independent labs and camera shops in the UK were closing down at an alarming rate. As well as providing full professional lab services he wishes to expand the range of cameras, lenses and accessories offered to be the best in Northern England, and this ambition includes the full range of Olympus DSLR's. I have included all Graeme's details at the end of this article; if you want an Olympus 550UZ (or anything else photographic for that matter) please give him a ring and support your independent and local lab and camera shop. Remember - use them or lose them!]
The box is in Olympus' usual livery of two-tone blue with white lettering. Inside is the foam sheet wrapped camera, lens cap and cord; strap hangers, neck strap; USB cable; AV cable; 4 x AA industrial grade heavy duty batteries; Olympus Master 2 software with Advanced Manual on CD; hard copy basic manual and the usual paperwork. I was disappointed to see no rechargeable batteries or charger. As is my usual habit I download the manual from Olympus-Europa as a PDF which saves losing the CD based version. There is no remote control nor does the camera support any hand operated controller. (I note too there is a rather nice Olympus leather case available on-line at £29.95 but personally I think that's too pricey).
The camera is beautifully presented in shiny dark grey metal-flake painted plastic, with matt grey coloured rubber grip material with tiny implants of diamond dust, covering the entire front and a 15mm band around the lens barrel. This rubber is repeated on a small area on the back to provide a grippy area for the right thumb. Bright-work is restricted to lens rings front and back of the barrel; control dial; shutter and zoom ring; 4-way toggle surround and the cameras unusual but very attractive 4mm wide heavy chrome median plate that gracefully arches out at each side of the camera to provide holes for the strap hangers. It is tastefully finished and reflects a pretty high level of build quality. I note here the machine is made in Indonesia.
The large and comfortable grip to the users right houses 4 x AA batteries (alkaline or NiMH) and the xD card enjoys its own compartment next to the 4 way toggle. I note here that the xD card door opening edge is very sharp; as this is the only 550UZ I've handled I can't say if this is the norm. USB and AV outlets are under a rubber slip-out to the left rear edge of the camera. The flash release button is high on the users left and is entirely mechanical; the dioptre ajuster is left of the large viewfinder tube; the microphone pick-up is placed high on the front plate and directly across the lens housing from it is the AF assist lamp. 'OLYMPUS' is blazened on the front of the flash housing and a small grey and gold badge with 18X Optical Zoom graces the front plate in the finger well and are the only badges. The huge lens housing takes up 45% of the front plate and the outer brushed chrome ring is threaded on its inner to accept an adapter tube for filters and ancilliary lenses. This ring also tells us the lens is Olympus ED lens; AF Zoom, 4.7~84.2mm f=2.8~4.5.
The rear of the machine is taken up by the huge screen, the 4-way toggle and surrounding four selection buttons with the monitor on/off button just right of the viewfinder. The top plate accommodates the main control wheel, shutter and zoom ring, IS button and power on/off. Bottom plate has the battery compartment door, plastic tripod bush and speaker.
All in all the machine looks well finished, not over-burdened with badges, buttons or rings; it is elegant and business-like.
The 550UZ is quite light but the rubber covered areas provide a superbly textured finish that instills confidence. Close examination reveals tiny bright specks in the rubber which I suspect is silica dust to offer a non-slip surface - a nice touch. The grip on the right enables you to carry the camera in one hand with fingers lightly curled around its raised ridge (much as I carry my E-1). I'm no lover of wrist or neck straps so this is important to me anyway. The machine is well balanced and the rounded base of the left side sits nicely in the palm of the left hand. The left index finger curls comfortably around the bottom of the lens on the rubber grip ring; the thumb naturally heads towards the flash release button and the remaining fingers fit squarely under the bottom plate. The right thumb falls to the rubber thumb inset; the right forefinger heads for the shutter/zoom ring and the remaining fingers vie for space around the grip. I estimate 75% of camera stability comes from the left hand. Buttons and control rings are well spaced and the fingers seem to fall to them easily. Ergonomics are simply excellent and remind me very much of my C5050.
CONTROLS & LAYOUT
The camera controls are accessed via rear and top plate buttons as per these notations:
FIRING UP THE 550UZ:
As the camera takes NiMH rechargeable batteries I use a set I have for my C5050. The battery install configuration looks the same as the C5050 but I suspect the door and metal pin hinge is not as high quality on the 550UZ. Once installed first start up was achieved in 4 seconds and the immediate screen asks you to set the date and time. Once set you don't see this again. From now on start up is around 2.5 seconds which compared to my tiny Casio EXZ-850 is decidely slow but the 550UZ has more to do in its boot sequence. The battery symbol on the top left of the screen glows green to tell you all is well, turning red as depletion approaches. Shut down is slower at 3.5 seconds from the lens parked at 28mm to 4.5 seconds from fully extended position. The start-up sound (as well as most things) can be changed later. I suspect these rather slow timings will reflect the general speed of the 550UZ's overall performance; however I've got no real issue with a bit of slowness providing the camera handles well and produces good results.
Keen to see the EVF image I switch it on by toggling the monitor button. It is bright (too bright for me) and responds well to the dioptre adjustment. Once set it is clear and quite crisp but (obviously) nothing like a DSLR screen. The EVF pixels appear surprisingly large and coarse to me and the image looks very basic. However, I asked my missus for her opinion and she loves it! (My obvious wariness of EVF is rooted in years of OM 35mm).
I have no doubt I will grow accustomed to EVF but I'm not sure I'll ever like it.
ZOOM, AF & LAG:
The 18x zoom lens slides out in its twin barrels with virtually no noise, only a slight hint of a 'whir'. From its 28mm widest to its 504mm longest tele takes 4 seconds which is respectable if not remarkable. At 28mm the lens protrudes 25mm (1") from the body and at full reach this is extended to 62mm (2.5"). With the lens fully extended the fingers of the left hand tend to reach forward to support the camera under the lens tube, giving additional stability and this seems to be natural and unconscious.
In natural and good outside light the AF is quick to beep its confirmation and this is quickest at 28mm (1 sec) slowing as the lens is extended (up to 2 secs). Indoors and lit naturally the results were slightly different; the quickest lock was at widest angle (1 sec) but at full telephoto allow 2 - 3 seconds. When artificially lit but not dim enough to force the AF assist light AF lock at 28mm is 1 second but takes up to 4 seconds at the tele end and sometimes will not lock. Similarly when it is dim enough to force the AF assist light the AF lock performance seems to drop off at both ends of the lens spread with many AF lock failures. However, the ambient light has to be almost non existant to force the AF assist light and it has a limited reach of about 20 feet maximum in any case. Compared to the speedy Casio EXZ-850 the 550UZ AF system is reasonable to a little tardy.
The general lag that's inherent with digicams is mainly attributable to AF issues and I found little to no additional lag imposed by any other internal system (exposure, WB etc). If the AF locks on within 1 second the photo will be captured equally as quick. Write times slow performance depending on your file size/save selection, but please see the write time section later in the review.
So far so good. I find the 550UZ attractive and promises to be a joy to handle with well placed controls. The next test of modern digicams is the ease by which the various settings can be chosen, altered and/or set via the MENU system. The 550UZ has 2 menu systems.
1. The main menu is accessed by (what else) the MENU button above left of the 4-way toggle.
2. An additional basic (exposure) menu accessed by pressing the 4-way centre OK button.
Being used to the E-sysytem cameras menu system I found the 550UZ's icon driven primary screen confusing. Then I realised that menu availability depends on the mode of the camera (position of control wheel) and other basic things. For instance, if there is no xD card inserted into the machine, over half of the file types/sizes are greyed out and this is because the internal memory is limited and the only memory available. Once I find the right sub-menu I have no problem, it's just the primary screen. After several days use I still find the basic menu system unintuitive - sorry but there it is.
EXPOSURE MENU SUB-SYSTEM:
I'm not going to go through the menu system item by item - that's what handbooks are for! It is competent if not a tad confusing but this might be due to constanly switching between E-1 and E-500, C5050, IR500 and my Casio EX-Z850. The icon driven first screen is, to me anyway, cumbersome.
Standard outdoor test:
[PLEASE NOTE: the images following have had NO post processing other than re-sizing.] Let's move to the most important feature of the camera - the images it is capable of producing. I set up the camera on a tripod to take my usual comparative shot looking towards the entrance. Three images were taken, all using cameras inbuilt timer function to avoid camera shake from shutter press; one at 28mm; one at max optical zoom of 504mm and finally one using cameras in-built digital zoom.
[NOTE: For this set of images the 550UZ's basic settings are: ISO100; SHQ; WB cloudy; A; Meter = ESP; AF=Spot; Sharpness +1; Contrast 0; Saturation +1; NR = OFF; IS ON but not initiated by the camera.]
Here is my standard viewpoint image I apply to all lenses I test. For a crop comparison I have used the existing test I did on the E-500 with its standard lens set at (equivalent) 28mm. Here are the crops:
Zooming the SP-550UZ lens to its optical maximum of 504mm (35mm equivalent) produces a spectacularly better result. This is as good as any result I've had from ZD or OM lenses on the E-500 at about the same focal length.
Below is a comparative image to show how good the SP-550 is against the E-500 with ZD50-200mm + EC14 fitted. The comparison is not accurate in that the focal lengths do not match, nor do the apertures but it serves as an indicator.
The SP-550UZ, like most other compacts has a Digital Zoom facility. It also has a Fine Zoom feature. It took me a while to work this out. The Fine Zoom restricts the digital zoom to a crop of 2048 x 1536 whereas the Digital Zoom allows sensor cropping down to the minimum size of 1280 x 960 which gives a greater 'mafnification' but coarser result. This is only a bit of sensor trickery and should not be taken too seriously. With Fine Zoom set to ON the zoom 'range' is extended to 756mm; but the file size is restriced to 2048x1536 (this is effectively a sensor crop). With Digital Zoom enabled the range is greater still. I normally turn this feature OFF on any digicam I own as the image degradation can be severe. For completeness I'm illustrating the Digital Zoom result below:
OBSERVATIONS ON STANDARD TEST:
The results are in line with my expectations. Wide-angle shots are inherently disappointing if you insist on pixel peeping. Taking the WA end generally the result is perfectly satisfactory for a small sensor bridging digicam. As soon as you start zooming in the SP-550 comes into its own producing great images throughout the telephoto range up to its maximum optical focal length. Even the digital zoom for all its reduced file size and over processing is surprisingly good, on a tripod anyway. This latter facility might just produce that 'nearly missed' image where you have no choice but to extend the cameras 'effective' length as a last ditch attempt to get the shot.
The results from this 'general' test are in line with or supass my expectations especially at the telephoto end. There's little doubt with performance like this the SP-550 will lay down the gauntlet for all other manufacturers in this class. Frankly, I did not expect telephoto performance at this level of excellence.
ISO (NOISE) STANDARD TABLE TOP TEST:
Using my standard highly detailed ceramic I take 7 shots at ISO 50, 100, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 5000. To save space I've decided to only show the crops with some annotations underneath for comment.
OBSERVATIONS ON NOISE/ISO TEST:
These results speak for themselves. Performance at lower ISO's is excellent falling away to good at ISO 800 and that's where I draw the line. Everything after this is too processed for my taste with an unacceptable level of unsharpness. However your opinion may be different.
Pixel binning is used at the two highest ISO ratings with subsequent loss of file size and definition. I suppose if these high ISO's mean the difference between getting a shot (poor that it is) and not, then perhaps the concept is justified though I'm not convinced.
IMAGE STABILISATION & IS TESTS:
Lack of IS was one reason the older ultra-zoom lost its way. That combined with the new lens zoom ratio of 18:1 makes IS on the new model a necessity, not a luxury. Anyone with DSLR experience knows how difficult is is to handhold lenses greater than 300mm focal length never mind 504mm. Unless you are well practiced the enevitable 'sway' occurs and if the shutter speed is not at least higher than the FL of the lens the results will be ruined by camera shake.
To my knowledge other makers ultra zooms achieve IS by a lens-shift device. Olympus have trodden a different path by combining two concepts; 1. A mechanical CCD-shift Image Stabilization; and 2. An ISO boost allowing (forcing) higher shutter speeds, to produce their Dual Image Stabilisation system. The first part invloved designing a sensor-shift mechanism instead of a lens based shift recorder. A CCD-shift Image Stabiliser uses built-in electro-gyro sensors to record camera movement and adjust the CCD image sensor. This ensures that light remains centered on the image sensor to maintain image clarity despite a slight movement on the part of the photographer. The second part is determined mainly by lighting conditions and the cameras exposure meter decides how much faster the shutter must operate to reduce camera shake and achieves this in the ambient lighting conditions by boosting the ISO level. Both require much in-camera processing, especially the ISO boost to remove excessive noise at high ISO. Like any other such system it is all a matter of degree; the system cannot work miracles but it can compensate for both a swaying photographer and/or poor light. That said the user will still benefit from learning the techniques to avoid or at least reduce camera shake in the first place.
The question is, of course, does it work. There follows a couple of sequences of wide-angle and full zoom that are handheld with the IS selected and initiated.
OBSERVATIONS ON IS TESTS:
I can't really add more to these results. The IS seems to work very well providing you have a reasonable amount of camera control/handling skill. And if you don't the SP-550 will rescue a few shots for you as long as you don't expect too much.
There follows a couple of grab shots I've captured with the SP-550UZ. I've got to say that the camera takes a bit of getting used to but once you are happy with the menu system and the best way to hold the machine with the zoom extended it's a joy to use. The only aspect I'm not keen on is the 'apparent' slowness of the machine after using DSLR's. However for a compact it's performance is solid if not pacey!
For grab shots these are fine. The bulb images shows how competent the spot meter is ensuring the object metered - the white hot filament - is correctly exposed throwing the rest of the image into under-exposure. The Woodpecker is not bad considering it's handheld at the maximum reach of the lens and taken through glass. It's not perfect but considering all the elements against the image coming out at all I think it perfectly acceptable. There is some amount of blur to the background which does lift the subject off the paper and provide a little separation.
HIGH SPEED SEQUENTIAL CAPTURE:
The SP-550UZ offers several 'BURST' modes for sequential shooting: Hi-Speed2 [Hi2] delivers 15 frames per second for 20 frames at the lowest resolution of 1280 x 960 (1.2MB) per file. (There is another similar resolution Hi-Speed2 [Hi2] selectable mode that includes AF-Predict). Hi-Speed1 [Hi1] delivers 7 frames per second for 15 frames at a not too bad file size of 3MP. Normal Speed: delivers 1.2 frames per second for 7 frames at the maximum resolution of 7MP. Also included in this short-cut menu selection is Bracket Mode that offers exposure bracketing in bursts of either 3 or 5 frames depending on the file size selected.
From these figures it is easy enough to calculate the cameras internal buffer is likely to be 64MB. The buffer is one restriction to the cameras ability to offer unrestricted file size burst sequences. Just as important is the processor speed and the inherent poor speed of the receiving xD card. It is obvious that most high speed burst modes must result in a restricted file size and I cannot believe the whinging surrounding the (alleged) misrepresentation of sequential shooting specifications I've read. If the SP-550 were to offer 15 frames per second at maximum resolution the buffer size alone would need to be 128MB and the processor required would have to match the speed of a Pentium IV. The most expensive DSLR's do not have such capabilities yet, never mind a $500 all purpose bridging compact.
The wizardry to achieve the highest of the ultra high speeds (15fps) is entirely sensor based and does not rely on the mechanical shutter. Its use is confined to studying hi-speed events such as golf swings etc and perhaps bird flight but I cannot think of much else I might use it for in everyday photography, however your opinion might differ. The 1.2fps 'normal' sequential rate and Hi1 at 7fps are shutter dependent (the latter much to my surprise) and offer the user a fair choice of sequential speed against file size. Personally I think the 1.2fps is on the slow side though, try as I might, I could not better this using manual focus mode, as the sequence of senor flushing and exposure calculation etc seems to equate to the AF time in any case.
Having tried the various modes I think the best solution is the intermediate setting fo 7fps at 2048 x 1536 (3.1MB) file size. This gives a pretty good frame rate and reasonable results too. However, the images below are derived from the 15fps burst setting (without preductive AF). They are all a 33% crop from the original small files of the sequence and resized to the 791K I use for all review images. As you can see considering they have been cropped and downsized they are not too shabby.
BELOW: I've put together the sequence I took using the setting referred to above. I can see a use for this feature as my wife and I do a lot of bird watching and studying. I might also try the 15fps on a brighter day to see how well increased shutter speeds stop the wing beats.
PREDICTIVE AUTO FOCUS: When enabled this feature detects the distance of back or forward moving subjects and then calculates their predicted location at the moment of shutter release. This is especially useful when photographing playing children or wildlife, for example. I know it didn't have too much success on the C7070 but it sure sounds good! To date I haven't tested this feature. Please keep popping back.
BARREL & PINCUSHION:
I set up my usual (not brilliant and I must replace it) target and placed the camera directly infront and levelled it on the tripod with the bubble. The first shot is taken at 28mm with the lens fully open (sorry about the reflection - I had a light sheet propped up against an adjoining wall). Without moving the camera I zoomed in as close as I could still maintaining good AF and took the second shot. As it turns out this is taken at 210mm which is just under half of the optical zoom range.
OBSERVATIONS ON BARREL & PINCUSHION:
I've little to add. These results are about average for this class of camera and in general for most digital compacts. The amount of barrelling was perhaps a little more than I expected. Bear in mind the lens at its shortest is at the unusually wide 28mm (rather than the more common 35mm). Pincushion seemed well controlled and if it stays at this level as more telephoto is applied it's certainly good enough for me and I doubt you will notice it in your photography.
MACRO & SUPERMACRO:
Similar to most other compacts the SP-550UZ has both Macro and SuperMacro settings. This means you can get close (4" in Macro mode), then closer still (0.4" in Super Macro)! For the macro shot below I selected Super macro and placed the front element approx 2.25 cm away from the rhododendron flower bud.
OBSERVATIONS ON MACRO:
Olympus cameras are noted for their macro ability and this does not disappoint. The macro images are excellent. When you recall the messing about we used to have to do to get images like this from an older SLR this facility is truly remarkable.
TIME LAPSE: I've longed for this feature on DSLR's and higher end compacts. Being able to do time lapse is a great photographic tool. The SP550 allows 99 shots at intervals of up to 99 minutes. As yet I haven't tested the feature so I can't tell you how the camera behaves when doing time lapse. As soon as the weather picks up I'll be testing. Please keep popping back.
FRAME ASSIST: I have long used architectural screens in my SLR/DSRL's and am pleased to see the function being made availble in compacts. I find the 'thirds' screen very useful indeed. The SP-550 has two choices; diagonally crossed hair and thirds.
HISTOGRAM: Another great feature which you can chose to have OFF, ON or on DIRECT.
MY MODE: The camera allows you to store up to four different set-up sequences in your personalised MyMode section. When the command dial is set to 'MyMode' you can select the choice of your four stored modes. I think 4 is about right. The C5050 had 8 and I could never remember any more than 3.
ALARM CLOCK & DUAL TIME: Well I suppose someone might use it. Personally I see these as gimmicks.
PIXEL MAPPING: We take this function for granted on Olympus digital cameras. Try using another brand for a few months to appreciate just how great this feature really is.
DEMO & INFO MODES: Whilst very helpful for novices/new owners to help finding their way around and explaining the menu selections, I do not understand why the camera has these screens. The only time these are likely to be used is in the honeymoon period and that normally lasts about 2 days. After this I suspect these will never be accessed again. I know it's only a firmware file but this development money might have been better spent on a better RAW decompiler.
PRE-CAPTURE MODE: I can't decide if this is pure gimmick or not. The manufacturer describes it as: Pre-Capture begins working as soon as the focus is locked, automatically archiving five frames in the camera’s buffer memory prior to the shutter release – virtually guaranteeing that none of the action will be missed even if the user’s reaction time is slow. I'm going to have to try this out in a serious way and report back with my findings! Please come back for this.
Camera manufacturers are in a no-win situation. If they design a proprietary battery they get slated for being greedy and if they rely on popular battery types (normally AA's) they get criticised for having huge grips to hold them. Having used both for many years I really have no strong opinion either way. Proprietary batteries require individual chargers and yes, that's a pain. But rechargable AA's come with different problems like having one cell from a set of 4 that's below par causing the machine to switch off when only the weakest battery is depleted.
However, having used the SP-550 for two weeks it is plain the battery life is truly excellent. I haven't properly tested battery life but I cannot argue with the makers estimate of 460 mixed use shots per set. In two weeks I have exhausted only one set of good (1800mA) NiMH's.
I've been asked by many readers to provide a resume towards the end. (That's OK as long as you don't simply come straight here and ignore the rest of my hard work!) This list is inevitably influenced by personal preferences that may be insignificant to others. I've restricted the list to 'Five a Side' to focus my mind.
Appearance - to my eyes this is a fine looking piece of photographic machinery *****
The optical zoom range and IS does translate into good images ****½
Handling - it is simplicity to use (if not to set) and is not over-burdened with bells and whistles ***½
Build quality for a $500 (£300) camera is very good and just misses excellent [sharp edge to card door] ****
The rubber grip material instills handling confidence ****½
I DON'T LIKE:
The menu system which I find plain confusing **½
Shutter lag can be inappropriately long as most other functions are reasonably quick **
Write speeds & xD cards; the sooner Olympus consign these horrible cards to the bin the better **
Start up and shut down time too slow **
As a photographic tool this camera offers much. It extends photo opportunities to the range of a well kitted DSLR. The IS works very well and allows full use of its remarkable optical zoom (and even the extended digital zoom). I was very impressed with the files coming out of the camera. JPG's are typically Olympus and have that refined quality that Olympus have consistently delivered for many years. Files require little post processing. As yet I haven't processed any RAW's as I simply haven't had time.
Compared to a DSLR it is slow and a little unresponsive. Compared to some compacts it's also a little laboured; but this is an ultra zoom - (probably set to become THE ultra zoom) - and the whole camera appears to be tuned to the speed of the zooming mechanism. Once you accept the camera for what it is I know you will be impressed too.
As much as I've tried I still cannot get used to its EVF. I found myself using the screen more and more for composition; for me that's not good. But this is purely a personal thing and does not detract in any way from my very high opinion of this camera.
If Olympus could improve three areas of performance this machine would be stellar: Shave a little time off AF; Increase the high resolution burst rate to 1.5 - 2 fps; Drop xD in favour of the much faster SD. If they could achieve these 'small' improvements they would, in my opinion, have a world beater. It is so very, very close.
Price in UK - When released in February 2007 it was priced at £400. I anticipate this will fall in the next 3 to 6 months to about £300 on the High Street. It will be interesting to see how long the camera survives in these days of short lived production runs.
NOTE: As of September 2007 (8 months after release) the UZ550 is already superceded by the UZ560. The new model offers 8MP and has a slightly altered zoom range still giving 18x optical zoom but now equivalent to 27-486mm. In addition it has on-board the 'TruePic III' image processor for faster image handling and higher image quality. The digicam industry never sleeps!
As promised more details about the supplier of my SP-550UZ: (not a sponsor)
Graeme Dewing, RGB Technology Ltd., 11 Newport Road, Middlesbrough, TS1 1LE.
Tel: 01642 228182; Fax: 01642 228183.
Web Site: www.rgb-tech.co.uk
If you wish to purchase an SP-550UZ at an Internet price but from a 'real' shop please give Graeme a ring and tell him you got his details from the biofos site.
FINAL NOTE: This article seeks nothing other than to inform. Only you can decide what equipment you want/need for your use. Bear in mind I own these cameras and/or lenses, out of my own pocket; I have nothing to gain or lose by publishing this article, photographs, examples or opinion.