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Olympus SP-510 UZ review: Olympus SP-510 UZ

The menus are intuitive and use a nifty graphical interface to shift between setup, image quality, and camera menus, the last of which includes functions that you can also access through the OK/function button on the keypad, such as white balance, ISO, drive mode, and metering. We like the duplication, since the function button provides quick access to the most important settings while shooting, and since the camera menu has everything, it's a great resource if you can't find a setting. It might be nice to offer a menu view that eliminates these duplicates so that you could make the camera menu shorter once you're used to the camera's button layout.

6.2

Olympus SP-510 UZ

The Good

Great body design; high-quality, fast lens; manual exposure controls.

The Bad

No optical image stabilization; high noise at ISO 400 and above; lens not wide enough.

The Bottom Line

The Olympus SP-510UZ is packed with cool features, but a not-so-wide lens, sluggish performance, and noisy images steal its fire.
I remember a time when Olympus was well known for its well-featured, superzoom cameras. When the company changed its naming conventions recently, its crop of superzooms was cut to only the 6-megapixel SP-500UZ, which has now been joined by the 7.1-megapixel SP-510UZ. The 510UZ looks impressive on paper, with a boatload of features, including manual exposure controls and a 10X optical zoom lens, but a lack of optical image stabilization and unusually high noise mar this camera's outlook. Add to that the fact that cameras such as Sony's Cyber Shot DSC-H2 and DSC-H5 and Canon's excellent PowerShot S3 IS, all sport 12X lenses and yield lower noise, and this Olympus will likely have a rough time in the stores this fall. Like most superzooms, the SP-510UZ has a chunky body with an SLR-style grip on the right side and a pretty big lens up front that extends when you turn the power on and has a rubber grip around it to help you hold on while shooting with two hands. All the control buttons are within reach of your thumb or fingers, so one-handed shooting is possible. Some of the buttons are small, but they are responsive and placed well, so that once you memorize where each one is, you shouldn't have trouble pressing them without looking. One of those buttons lets you switch between the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the 2.5-inch LCD screen. It's worth noting that, unlike some EVF cameras, you can't have both the EVF and LCD on at the same time.

Also, since there are so many menu levels and pressing the menu button backs out one level at a time, it can take a while to back all the way out. We counted five presses of the menu button after we changed the drive mode to bracket across three exposures. It might be nice for Olympus to design a way to jump out of the menus with one button press. To the company's credit, if you press the shutter button while you're in the menu, you can still take a picture, and the camera returns you to the menu exactly where you left off, so you don't have to miss a shot just because you're trying to change a setting.

Four AA batteries provide power and find their home inside the camera grip. Like most Olympus cameras, the SP-510UZ records images to xD picture cards. Olympus's SP-510UZ has an impressive list of features, though some of the most important ones can't quite keep up with the competition. Its lens is definitely high quality, including the same type of extra-low dispersion and aspherical lens elements found in the company's SLR lenses, but at 10X optical zoom, spanning 38mm-to-380mm (35mm equivalent), it neither keeps up with the 12X zooms offered by most of its competitors, nor allows the useful wide angle that we'd become accustomed to with the company's old C-8080, C-7070, and C-5060 wide zoom cameras. Optional conversion lenses, including 0.7X wide, and 1.7X telephoto versions, help overcome this problem, but few people tend to use these lenses. To Olympus's credit, the lens is fast--its maximum aperture spans f/2.8 to f/3.7 across its zoom range, which matches its competitors' offerings and should help some in low light situations.

Worse than the wide-angle woe is this camera's lack of optical image stabilization. For a superzoom in this day and age, this is inexcusable, especially considering that the company includes it in its Stylus 750. Olympus tries to skirt the issue by touting Digital Image Stabilization, but all this does is boost the ISO so that you can shoot at a faster shutter speed. If not for this camera's noise issues (see below), this wouldn't be too bad, but a lack of optical image stabilization would still seem strange.

In addition to the welcome manual exposure controls, the SP-510UZ includes such perks as raw image capture, as well as a raw plus JPEG mode, front- and rear-curtain flash sync, and even a time-lapse setting that lets you shoot up to 99 images at intervals of up to 99 minutes between shots. Of course, since that'd take 6 days, 19 hours, and 21 minutes, you'll have to buy the optional AC adapter if you want to do that. You can adjust flash output to one of 10 levels by choosing the slave flash mode in the camera menu. Most manufacturers refer to this as flash compensation and don't hide it away in the menus.

The 2.5-inch LCD screen washes out in bright daylight but gains up nicely for framing in low light. Also, at 115,000 pixels, it's a bit coarse compared to a lot of the LCDs out there today. Though Olympus doesn't list the pixel resolution of the EVF, it actually seems less coarse than the main LCD. Like most EVFs, this one couldn't keep up with continuous shooting, blanking out sporadically, so that reframing while shooting bursts became a guessing game.

Four customizable My Mode options let you program in your favorite settings, and unlike some cameras with similar custom modes, this one includes most, if not all, of the camera's many settings. This is especially useful when sharing the camera among family or coworkers.

Also, for less experienced shooters, you can access a guide from the main mode dial. Unlike some such guides, which provide text feedback, this one lists 13 different situations, such as shooting at night, shooting subjects in motion, or shooting into backlight, and then offers options to change camera settings according to the situation. For example, shooting into backlight offers three options: set to fill-in flash, set the metering to spot, and increase the value of exposure compensation. Just select the one you want, and the camera sets it for you.

Nontweakers will appreciate the camera's 21 scene modes, while video lovers should like the camera's ability to capture video at up to 640x480 pixels and 30 frames per second. Performance wasn't stellar in our tests, but wasn't too bad for a 7.1-megapixel camera in this price range. The SP-510UZ took 2.2 seconds to start up and capture its first image, and 2.3 seconds between subsequent images without flash. This shot-to-shot time rose to 2.7 seconds with flash enabled. When shooting raw images, the shot-to-shot time slowed to a glacial 10.6 seconds, though most cameras at this price don't even include raw capture. Shutter lag measured a respectable 0.7 second in our high-contrast test and 1.7 seconds in the low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. Continuous shooting yielded an average of 1.13 frames per second when capturing VGA-sized JPEGs, and 1.05fps when capturing 7.1-megapixel JPEGs. At its best, the SP-510UZ can capture images with abundant detail and accurate-looking, well-saturated colors, with only very minor JPEG artifacting and little or no fringing. The camera's automatic white balance did an admirable job of serving up neutral colors under our lab's tungsten lights. Interestingly, the tungsten preset was less neutral, with a slight bluish-green cast. So, you may as well stick with auto white balance when shooting indoors or outdoors, where it did just as good a job at producing neutral colors when shooting in natural daylight.

Unfortunately, noise became a major issue starting at ISO 400. Even at ISO 50, images from the SP-510UZ weren't as clean as images we've seen from most competitors, though they'd be more than acceptable for most users. While also very usable at ISO 100, noise began to creep in, especially in darker colors, and shadows, manifesting itself mostly as blotchy off-color blobs, rather than the finer, snowy noise that some cameras produce. ISO 200 yielded noticeable noise, which began to steal the sharpness from finer details. The small hash marks on our test scene's tape measure began to blur, but I could still distinguish one mark from it neighbor at 100 percent magnification in Photoshop. At ISO 400, multicolored speckles blanketed our images. Though the hash marks remained distinct, most users would be disappointed with prints any larger than 4x6 inches. At ISO 800, things only got worse; all detail in the tape measure blurred away, and most detail in darker parts of our scene were lost. At ISO 1,600, images were unusable. In an attempt to make ISO 2,500 and ISO 4,000 more palatable, Olympus decreased the resolution to 3.1 megapixels. This didn't help. Our images at ISO 2,500 and ISO 4,000 were also unusable, unless you like the impressionist-painterly effect these high-sensitivity settings produced.

If not for this camera's unfortunate noise and performance issues, its many convenient and well-thought-out features, despite a few omissions, would make this an impressive superzoom. As it is, we can't really recommend the SP-510UZ in the face of competitors such as Sony's DSC-H2 and DSC-H5 and Canon's PowerShot S3 IS. To be fair, the Olympus SP-510UZ does cost less than those other cameras, so if you absolutely can't afford one of them, you may want to take a look at this Olympus, but you'd be better served by splurging.

Shooting speed
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Time to first shot  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Sony Cyber Shot DSC-H2
1.5 
2.6 
0.4 
Canon PowerShot S3 IS
1.7 
1.5 
0.4 
Sony Cyber Shot DSC-H5
1.8 
2.7 
0.6 
Kodak EasyShare P712
1.6 
2.9 
0.6 
Olympus SP-510UZ
2.3 
2.2 
0.7 
Note: Seconds

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Note: Frames per second

6.2

Olympus SP-510 UZ

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 5Image quality 5