With one or two exceptions, superzoom cameras have topped out at 12x optical zoom lenses in recent years. However, Olympus is pushing that boundary with its new 7.1-megapixel SP-550UZ, which sports an 18x optical zoom lens. The camera marks a shift back toward the company's older wide-zoom models since, like those, its lens' zoom range starts at a wide 28mm equivalent, which should help when you try to squeeze those last few friends or relatives into a group photo. Not many superzoom cameras can claim such a wide lens, nor can they claim the reach that this camera's 504mm equivalent maximum zoom affords.
Much like last year's SP-510UZ, the 550UZ's body was designed with a lot of attention to detail, making it a very comfortable camera to use. A vast amount of the body, including the lens barrel, is covered in rubber and feels secure in your hand. Plus, since Olympus placed almost all the buttons on the right side of the camera and well within reach of your right thumb and forefinger, one-handed operation is definitely a possibility. Of course, we always recommend using your left hand to steady the camera, especially one with a lens as long as this one.
Just in case your steady hands aren't enough, or in case you end up shooting at shutter speeds slower than the reciprocal of the lens' 35mm-equivalent focal length (slower than 1/500th second at the lens' maximum zoom, for example), Olympus includes sensor-shift (aka mechanical) image stabilization to help steady your shots. While optical image stabilization tends to be more effective than the sensor-shift variety, we found Olympus' method very effective and surprisingly quiet for mechanical stabilization. For example, we were able to capture sharp images while holding the camera in our hands at 1/30 sec. with the lens zoomed to an equivalent of 128mm. That's two stops slower of a shutter speed than we'd normally shoot at that focal length. See our slideshow of image samples for this shot and more. In a fit of marketing hype, Olympus touts a dual image stabilization system in the 550UZ, though the second method, which they call digital image stabilization, just pumps up the ISO and shutter speed to try to keep you from shooting with too slow a shutter speed. Since most of Olympus' competitors participate in the same kind of hype, it's hard to fault them for it, especially since they include the mechanical system as well.
We're less inclined to let Olympus slide on the other specious marketing claims they associate with this camera, such as the supposed 15 frame per second burst rate and ISO 5000 sensitivity. The 15fps burst can only be achieved by setting the camera's pixel resolution down to 1.2 megapixels, while the ISO 5000 (or ISO 3200 for that matter) setting caps your pixel resolution at 3.2 megapixels. We find it disingenuous to prominently advertise features like these without just as clearly and largely pointing out the shortcomings of those modes.
To Olympus' credit, there are plenty of features in the SP-550UZ that we enjoyed. In addition to full manual exposure controls, the 550UZ boasts 23 scene modes to help you take on challenging situations and explanations of each mode appear on the menu screens when you choose them. Plus the camera has a built-in guide, accessed through the main mode dial, which steps you through the adjustments needed to take on difficult shots, such as shooting a backlit subject, or shooting a subject that's in motion. Also, if you press the display button while the camera is turned off, it'll show the time and date, and in case you're on the road without your travel alarm clock, you can set the 550UZ to wake you up with the alarm function included in the camera.
However, we'd give up some of those nice features if it would make this camera faster. The SP-550UZ took 2.86 seconds to start up and capture its first JPG. Subsequent JPGs took an agonizing 4.61 seconds between shots with the flash turned off and 4.76 seconds between shots with the flash turned on. When shooting RAW, the time between shots just about doubled to a crippling 9.39 seconds, and that was with the flash turned off. Shutter lag measured an unremarkable 1 second in our high contrast test, which mimics bright shooting conditions, and 1.6 seconds in our low-contrast/dim shooting conditions test. Continuous shooting yielded about 1.5 frames per second when capturing 7.1 megapixel JPGs.
Image quality also left a bit to be desired. While the lens in the 550UZ is admirable for its wide angle, fast f/2.8-to-f.4.5 maximum aperture range, and 18x optical zoom, it is noticeably less sharp than the lens Olympus included in last year's SP-510UZ. All the images we shot were slightly softer than we would've liked from a camera of this class. On the plus side, we only saw minor purple fringing, and mostly only at the edges of the frame and under harsh lighting conditions. Olympus' ESP metering did a decent job of judging exposure, but tended to sacrifice highlight detail to maintain shadow detail. Experienced shooters should be able to overcome this with the spot or center-weighted metering modes. The SP-550UZ's automatic white balance did a good job of serving up neutral images, even when faced with the challenge of our lab's tungsten hot lights.
While we noticed some image artifacts not related to sensor noise, we also saw ISO-related noise as early as ISO 200. Even at ISO 100, we saw the beginnings, though it was extremely minor and would only be visible slightly when viewed 100-percent magnification on a high-quality monitor. Even at ISO 200, the noise present wouldn't show up in most prints, though you'll notice it on monitors. At ISO 400, noise was much more noticeable and chopped away at the finer details present in these already-soft images. At ISO 800, the noise grew more, ate away more detail, and shadow detail began to fall off. You may still be able to get passable 4x6-inch prints at ISO 800. ISO 1600 should be avoided at all costs. At that point there is very little detail or shadow detail. The decreased pixel count at ISO 3200 and ISO 5000 help to manage some of the noise issues, but your best bet is to stick with ISO 400 or below. For a camera in this price range, that's an unfortunate diagnosis.
Given its performance and image quality issues, it's tough to recommend this super zoom. If you're willing to spend this much money on a camera, and you don't want an SLR, you should consider some of this camera's competitors, such as Canon's Powershot S3 IS or Sony's Cyber Shot DSC-H5.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Time to first shot||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Typical continuous-shooting speed|