The Olympus C-5500 Sport Zoom is, above all, a good compact camera for the money. Its 5-megapixel resolution, 5X optical zoom, solid build, impressive array of features, and very good image quality add up to a strong all-purpose option for the advanced snapshot photographer. That said, some of its features are compromised; for example, you can't shoot in burst mode at the highest-quality JPEG setting. That drawback, in addition to some inconsistent shutter lag and focus-time performance, makes this camera less suited for shooting action than the Sport Zoom moniker might lead you to believe. The brushed-metallic Olympus C-5500 Sport Zoom feels solid and comfortable in the hand. At about 13 ounces with batteries and media, it's bulkier and heavier than an ultracompact camera, and it certainly won't fit in the average pocket. But if you prefer a camera you can get a grip on, the C-5500 should please you. Its pop-up flash is a bit awkwardly placed, however, and might easily be covered by wayward left-hand fingers. On the other hand, the shutter release is well placed on a raised nubbin atop the molded grip, and a rubberized strip provides comfortable leverage for your other right-hand fingers.
A small mode dial provides easy access to most shooting modes: the standard automatic and manual exposure options; movie mode; a My Mode for which you can enter four different groups of saved settings; and Scene, through which, using the LCD menu, you can select one of 10 common automated modes.
You can easily access and trigger the navigational and select buttons, although menu-surfing can be a little tedious on the C-5500. The initial menu screen displays a compass of setting selections, corresponding to the navigational buttons. Select Mode Menu on the eastern side and you're taken to a familiar tabbed menu of camera, picture, card, and setup options. The other directions are user-adjustable shortcut settings, the default options being self-timer, image quality, and monitor on/off. The shortcuts are a good idea, but you still have to enter the menu system, and you'll probably need to adjust the shortcuts to suit your needs; until that point, you might feel you're doing more surfing than you'd like. Adjustable soft-dedicated buttons would be more convenient. The Olympus C-5500 Sport Zoom follows in the Olympus C-series tradition, which means it packs a lot of advanced features into the body of a point-and-shoot camera. Indeed, the C-5500 has an impressive range of features for a sub-$300 model. In addition to the basic exposure settings and manual overrides, this camera offers some nifty extras.
You can activate continuous autofocus, as well as an area autofocus function so precise that it lets you select from 143 regions--overkill, perhaps, but potentially useful. The multimetering function allows you to manually select up to eight different areas to get an average reading. A wealth of white-balance settings are available, including a one-touch manual preset and white-balance compensation, for fine-tuning beyond a given setting. You can also shoot while using a live histogram for reference, with the option of having the very light and very dark areas demarcated directly on the picture.
The f/2.8-to-f/8.0 (f/4.8 to f/8.0 at full telephoto) 5X zoom gives you a focal-length range equivalent to 38mm to 190mm in 35mm-film-camera terms. That provides a good telephoto range but little in the way of a wide angle.
The features are nice extras, but note that if you're a more advanced shooter looking specifically for advanced features, you might be aggravated by some of the limitations imposed. For example, the continuous-shooting mode is disabled when you're shooting at the SHQ (highest-resolution, lowest-compression JPEG) setting. The automatic ISO setting, generally sufficient when you're shooting in good light in the programmed or autoexposure modes, isn't available in the manual and aperture- or shutter-priority modes. So if the light fades and you happen to switch to aperture priority, the camera will automatically fix itself at ISO 80, and you'll need to make adjustments through the LCD menu. This camera doesn't save photos in TIFF or raw formats, either. These are quibbles, for the most part, but potentially annoying ones depending on your shooting scenario.
The high-resolution movie setting delivers 30fps at 320x240 with sound, as well as an option that helps to smooth out some camera shake. We found the Olympus C-5500 Sport Zoom's performance a little inconsistent, both in our standard testing and in everyday use. At its best, the camera is a solid performer, but we were frequently held up by an indecisive autofocus. At times, we thought we'd prefocused successfully, only to have the camera refocus when we fully depressed the shutter release, significantly delaying the shot. The shortest shutter lag we experienced in our testing was a respectable 0.65 second. The AF illuminator lamp performed well, aiding in low-light focusing performance.
Manual focus, however, was difficult at best; it's easy to switch over but a real challenge to determine sharp focus by looking at the magnified "focus window" on the LCD.
Shot-to-shot time lagged at 4.7 seconds. Our best sequential shooting time was slightly less than 1.6 fps for 4 frames, which is actually a bit faster than the claims in the user guide.
While we like the 5X zoom lens, we found the zoom lever itself frustratingly inaccurate, and we often suffered through a lot of back and forth in an attempt to frame the shot we wanted.
We have no complaints about the 2-inch LCD, which is sharp and bright in most lighting conditions. The optical viewfinder isn't very practical, however--even when you move your fingers out of the way. It's small and provides an incomplete, though clear, view.
Olympus claims a range of .05 to 12.5 feet at the widest angle and about 2 to 7.2 feet at the telephoto end, and we found coverage to be good in that range. The Olympus C-5500 Sport Zoom excels here, producing pleasing, clean photos with accurate exposure and very good detail and sharpness. Colors are saturated but natural, and photos exhibited very little noise at low ISO ratings, although at ISO 400, noise does tend to mar the photographs. Surprisingly little purple fringing was visible, even in branches and gate detail photographed against the sky.
The automatic white balance performed nicely both outdoors and in, making it generally unnecessary to take advantage of the C-5500's many white-balance settings. Flash-lit photos were exposed properly too. Neither barrel nor pincushion distortion was noticeable in any of our test photos.