For a while there, it looked like Olympus was giving up on bridge-style long-zoom cameras, basically just going through the motions with its last few SP-series models. With the Stylus SP-100 (also called the SP-100EE), though, Olympus stands to steal some sales from the competition.
The camera is built around a new 50x f2.9-6.5 24-1,200mm lens with optical image stabilization, similar to what other manufacturers are offering. Behind it is a 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor and an updated Olympus image processor, the TruePic VII.
On back, just above its 3-inch 460K-dot LCD is a 920K-dot resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) -- something Olympus dropped from the last several SP-series cameras -- that has been specially designed to minimize contact between your face and the camera's body.
Going back to the lens (you know, the major reason you'd consider a camera this large in the first place), one of the big difficulties with using a lens this long is that it's very easy to lose moving subjects. Once out of frame you usually need to zoom out to find your subject again, and by that time you may have missed your shot. Not so with the SP-100's unique dot-sight targeting system.
Stashed beneath the flash is a semitransparent mirror. A switch on the camera's right side pops it up and projected on it is crosshairs. Should your subject leave the frame, you just put them in the crosshairs and your back on target without zooming the lens out and in again.
The dot sight works very well and, really, is the main reason you should consider getting the SP-100. It's certainly not the only 50x zoom or longer camera available, though, and for its $400 (£360, AU$450) price at the time of this review, it's lacking features that others in the class have.
Looking at the SP-100 and other full-size megazoom cameras, it would be easy to mistake it for an entry-level digital SLR. The SP-100 and other small-sensor cameras don't deliver the photo quality of a dSLR with a larger sensor. That said, as long as you're not pixel peeping or don't typically enlarge and heavily crop your photos, this Olympus turns out very good results, especially from ISO 125 through ISO 400.
That means as long as you're shooting outside in daylight or inside with a lot of light you'll get nice-looking photos good for larger prints and sharing online. At ISO 400, subjects start to look a little soft and could use some post-shoot sharpening. Although noise levels are decent, the softness gets a bit worse as you increase sensitivity until you end up with no fine details and colors desaturate. While ISO 1600 and 3200 might be usable at small sizes, I would avoid using ISO 6400 altogether.
The thing is, you'll need those higher ISOs in low light or when using the zoom lens in less than full daylight conditions to freeze motion or prevent blur from hand shake.
With video, you get similar results as photos. In full daylight, video looks good. But, with less light, it picks up noise and softness. Also, quickly panning the camera will cause a bit of Jell-O effect. On the bright side, audio quality is pretty good and you do have use of the zoom lens while recording. On the other hand, the motor is easily heard when moving the lens when recording quieter scenes.
The SP-100 is a reasonably fast camera. From off to first shot takes about 1.7 seconds. It always starts with the LCD on, which if you prefer to shoot with the EVF, will slow you down a bit as you need to press a button to switch it on. The lag between shots is low at 0.4 second and even when using the flash it remains less than a second.