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  DSLR Tips

Olympus SP 550 Ultra Zoom Gordon Laing, March 2007

Lenses and image stabilisation / Screen and menus / Sensor and processing

Olympus SP-550UZ lens

The highlight of the Olympus SP-550UZ is undoubtedly its massive optical zoom range: a whopping 18x makes it the world’s most powerful at the time of writing. The SP-550UZ’s lens offers an equivalent range of 28-504mm and the actual optical specification is 4.7-84.2mm f2.8-4.5

Olympus SP-550UZ lens positions

When the camera’s powered off, the lens retracts within an outer barrel section which protrudes about 35mm from the body. Press the power button and the lens extends by a further 25mm in a fairly leisurely 2.5 seconds; this is the lens at its wide angle position. Zoom the SP-550UZ all the way in and about three seconds later it’s extended by 63mm from its resting position. You can see these three positions in the photo above.

While the SP-550UZ’s motorised zoom can’t be described as being in any hurry to extend or retract, it does at least do so very smoothly – unlike the handful of lurches of most compacts, we counted around 70 steps between the SP-550UZ being zoomed-out and fully zoomed-in.

To illustrate the SP-550UZ’s optical coverage in practice we mounted it on a tripod and took photos with the lens zoomed all the way out, then all the way in. These shots, shown below, were taken from exactly the same position as the coverage examples in our other reviews, so can be used for comparison.

Olympus SP-550UZ coverage
Olympus SP-550UZ coverage at 4.7mm f4.5
Olympus SP-550UZ coverage at 84.2mm f4.5
4.7-84.2mm at 4.7mm, f4.5 (28mm equivalent)
  4.7-84.2mm at 84.2mm, f4.5 (504mm equivalent)

The examples above show the vast optical zoom range offered by the SP-550UZ, and even after using it for some time, you’re still taken aback by the sheer flexibility on offer by such a small camera. What’s particularly gratifying though is unlike most super-zooms, there’s no compromise in wide angle coverage. While most super-zooms stop at around a 35mm equivalent, the SP-550UZ zooms all the way out to an equivalent of 28mm. This may not sound like much, but makes all the difference when photographing landscapes, large buildings and interiors, not to mention group shots when you can’t stand back any further.

The SP-550UZ’s lens can also focus as close as 1cm which allows for some spectacular macro-photography. All in all, it’s wonderful to have wide angle, extreme telephoto and very close macro capabilities in a single camera. That said, if an equivalent of 504mm is still insufficient for your requirements, the optional TCON-17 adapter can multiply it by 1.7 times to deliver an equivalent focal length of 857mm.

Olympus SP-550UZ image stabilisation menu

Olympus SP-550UZ Image Stabilisation

Given its enormous focal range, we’re relived Olympus equipped the SP-550UZ with image stabilisation facilities. Olympus talks about having ‘dual image stabilisation’, but half of this refers to using impractically high ISO sensitivities. We’ll leave the undesirable impact of those to our noise results pages and instead talk here about the important half: an active stabilisation system which physically shifts the CCD sensor within the body to counteract camera shake.

Unlike some cameras which offer a number of stabilisation modes, it’s either on or off on the SP-550UZ. Under most circumstances you’d leave it on all the time, particularly as even the mildest camera shake is magnified greatly when zoomed-into 18x.

If enabled, the system kicks-in as you half-press the shutter and shuts-off to conserve power once you let go. If you’re using movie mode with stabilisation enabled, it’ll operate continuously. It’ll also generate some heat too, but if the system over-heats, it’ll automatically shutdown to cool. As seen below, the stabilisation is very effective and we have a further demonstration in our video tour.

Olympus SP-550UZ
Image stabilisation OFF
Olympus SP-550UZ
Image stabilisation ON
Olympus SP-550UZ - Image stabilisation OFF   Olympus SP-550UZ - Image stabilisation ON
4.7-84.2mm at 84.2mm, 1/30, f8, 50 ISO
4.7-84.2mm at 84.2mm, 1/30, f8, 50 ISO

Olympus SP-550UZ focusing

Olympus SP-550UZ manual focus

The Olympus SP-550UZ offers three Auto-focus modes: iESP evaluates the frame using 143 focusing points, Spot uses the central AF target mark, and Area allows you to manually choose the area you’d like to focus on. An AF predict option can track subjects moving towards or away from you, and an AF illuminator light can be enabled or disabled. In manual focus mode, the up and down rocker buttons allow you to adjust the focusing distance using an on-screen scale, while the central portion is enlarged for verification.

The SP-550UZ can normally lock onto a subject and auto-focus in just over a second. Again like the motorised zoom, it’s not exactly swift, but fine for most subjects under good lighting conditions. If you’re hoping to use the massive optical zoom to photograph moving wildlife or subjects under dim conditions though, you may find the focusing a little slow at times. To be fair, this is the case with most super-zoom compacts though, and if you want the quickest response under these conditions you should really be looking at a DSLR instead.

Olympus SP-550UZ viewfinder

Olympus SP-550UZ Viewfinder

Like all super-zoom compacts, the Olympus SP-550UZ is equipped with an electronic viewfinder as an alternative means of composition to the main colour screen. Pressing the monitor button above the screen switches between it and the viewfinder, and in practice it’s bright and detailed.

Olympus SP-550UZ features continued...

Lenses and image stabilisation / Screen and menus / Sensor and processing

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