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Olympus SP-550UZ 7.1MPDual Image Stabilized 18x Optical Zoom
Review by Daniel P. Dern
Olympus Electronics  ISBN/ITEM#: B000LXZKQK
Date: 29 March 2007 List Price : $499.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Product Info / SP 550 Flicker Group / Show Official Info /

Daniel Dern took the SP 550 out for a spin, but found that it didn't quite meet his needs. Bigger than a pocket camera, slower than a DSLR, he found that he wanted either less or more camera. Still, the combination of massive zoom range (equiv 28-540mm), high ISO, AA battery power, and a moderately low price may put it in your sweet spot, if you need a go anywhere camera that does it all. Otherwise, you may find that a two camera solution is what you really need…until mid-size cameras mature.

$500 sure buys a lot of digital camera these days -- a lot more than it did five years ago when I bought my first and still-only digital camera, an Olympus D470 clamshell with a mere 3X zoom and 3 megapixels.

Whether it's the digital camera you want is a separate question.

The Olympus's SP-550UZ is a prosumerish-class camera -- it's too big for a shirt pocket, and got a lot of nifty features.

The 500UZ sports an 18x zoom -- the best in this class, according to Olympus. It's got a 2.5" LCD, and all manner of other features, including image stabilization, "burst mode" and pre-capture," and video. And it uses four AA batteries -- my preferred power source.

The more I use it -- and the more I reread the manual -- the more I understand about using it. But I'm not happy enough with the feel of the camera, or the results, to feel I'd buy one.

Big Zoom and More

This camera is chockful of features, like a dozen or more shooting modes. An 18X zoom is certainly impressive -- but I'm not sure the extra doubling from the more prevalent 10x ends up being a win, after factoring in whatever image stabilization is doing, it's possible that it's a wash or even a loss, in sharpness and color.

I'm not completely sure about the image stabilization, in terms of what it's doing, but it seems to do something. The SP-550UZ lets you set stabilization for a number of shooting modes, versus, say, the FujiFilm FinePix S700 I also tried, where "stabilization" is its own setting on the shooting-mode dial. On the downside, to toggle stabilization requires first pressing a button on top of the camera, and then using the arrow-pad on the camera back -- clumsy, time-consuming and distracting.

I haven't been able to test all the features; in particular, burst mode. Page 25 of the manual talks about it... but I'm not seeing where the controls to set it are; there's some critical piece of information omitted.

I find this camera (and others in this class that I've tested) more frustrating than good. I still feel it's not taking the picture when I want... and the view goes black for a second or two after I press the shutter. The extreme zoom is nice... but unlike an SLR with zoom, this is harder to feel I'm handholding as steady. And since the image stabilization is done in part by jacking up the ISO, a number of my shots look washed out.

One cautionary note: Be sure to secure the camera strap tight -- and check it periodically. My strap came loose several times; it was only luck that the camera didn't fall.

Good, but not good enough, IMHO

The Olympus SP-550UZ may be what you're looking for, if you want a major zoom and a good viewing LCD.

In general, what this camera has helped convince me is that I either want less camera -- a smaller one that slips into a pocket -- or one that comes closer to replicating the SLR experience in feel and operation.

If you want something in between, this could be your cup of digital photo tea, but it's not mine.

Maybe I simply haven't tried hard enough -- or forty-five years of film camera shooting have left habits hard to break; maybe not.

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