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Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom - Digital Camera Review
Review Date: 23/03/06
Rating: Above Average
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Introduction: Announced on the 29th of August 05, the Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is a new 6 megapixel digital camera with a 10x optical zoom ED lens. The cameras 10x optical zoom lens is equiv. 38-380mm on a 35mm camera. The Olympus SP-500 is available from around £199, this makes it good value for money for an ultra zoom 6 megapixel digital camera. The camera is enclosed in a sturdy black plastic body. The SP-500 records videos at 30fps and with a resolution of 320x240. The camera is fairly compact for an ultra zoom digital camera - the body measures: 105.5 x 74.5 x 71.0 mm (without protruding parts), and weighs approx. 285g.

Olympus have this to say about the camera:

"If you want a high quality camera that offers amazing 10x optical zoom power, this is the camera for you. With its large 6.4cm LCD and 6 million pixels, the SP-500UZ lets ambitious photographers frame and shoot creative images with ease. A predictive auto focus and a movie recording function with sound expand your creative options even further."

You can find more information on their website.

The Camera: a visual tour: (Photos of the camera taken with the Olympus EVOLT E-500)


Front - Camera off - lens cap on.


Lens on, microphone, focus-assist lamp, small rubber hand grip.


Back - 2.5" screen, electronic viewfinder, pop-up flash release button, EVF/screen switch, Display / Guide button, Quick view button, Flash / Delete button, 4-way controller with central OK / Menu button.


Top: Power, AEL, zoom control, shutter release, mode dial.


Lens - Olympus ED Lens - AF Zoom 6.3 - 63mm 1:2.8 - 3.7 - The Olympus features a metal ring around the lens - the rest of the camera is plastic.


Bottom - battery compartment (open/close lockable latch), plastic tripod mount.


Left Side. Lens at telephoto setting, USB, AV out, Speaker.


Lens strap loop. DC in, XD Memory card compartment.

Size Comparison: Compared to a Pentax 35mm film camera - a medium/compact sized 35mm film camera.


Size comparison.


Size comparison - compared to Panasonic Lumix FZ7.


Size comparison, compared to the Panasonic Lumix FZ7.

Specifications / Features:

  • 6.0 Megapixels
  • Olympus 10x optical zoom ED lens - 38 - 380mm equivalent / 1:2.8 - 3.7
  • 2.5" / 6.4cm TFT screen - 115,000 pixels
  • Electronic Viewfinder - 201,600 pixels
  • 3cm Super macro mode
  • Shutter speed: 15- 1/1000 - Bulb mode: 8 minutes
  • 320x240 / 30fps Movie recording with sound, digital anti-shake
  • ISO: Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400
  • 21 Scene modes

Box Contents:

  • Digital Camera
  • Strap
  • 4 AA Alkaline batteries
  • USB Cable
  • Video Cable
  • Lens Cap
  • Lens Cap strap
  • CD-ROM 1 (Olympus Master Software)
  • CD-ROM 2 (Advanced Manual)
  • 29 page Basic Manual (Printed, multilingual)

Average box contents - There is no memory card provided with the camera - instead there is only 10mb of memory built in. Rechargable batteries would have been a nice addition, as would a full printed manual.

Battery usage: Battery life seemed good, using Alkaline batteries, I managed to take over 215 pictures before battery empty appeared on screen. With high powered rechargable batteries, battery life should be much better.

Menu Options / Modes: The camera mode is selected using the top dial. This allows the choice of: Auto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual, My Mode (4 custom 'My Modes' can be setup), Scene mode, Video mode, Playback.

Photo mode/menu: The menu button brings up the menu screen(s) as shown below:

Camera menu Picture settings menu

Photo / Camera menu options: Metering (ESP, Spot, Centre-weighted), Macro (Off, Macro, Super Macro), Drive (Normal, Continuous, High speed continuous, AF continuous, Bracket (+/- 0.3 / 0.7 / 1.0 x 3 or x5)), ISO, Self-timer, Flash strength (+/- 2), Syncro Flash (Sync 1, Sync 2), Flash (Internal, Slave), Digital Zoom (on, off), Noise reduction, AF Mode (iESP, Spot, Area - can be manually set), Focus mode (Automatic, Manual), Fulltime AF, Panorama (with Olympus XD card), Audio, Timelapse, AF Predict.

Photo / Picture menu options: Image size / quality, White balance (Auto, Preset, Custom 'One Touch' White Balance), White Balance (+/-7 Blue / Red), Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation (+/- 5).

Photo mode Built in Guide

Screen / LCD display in photo mode: (shown above, right) The screen resolution with 115,000 pixels is average. The screen is clear and the text and menus are easy to read. The camera displays a coloured live histogram showing seperate Red, Green, Blue and overall histogram.

Built in Guide: Pressing the DISP / Guide button whilst in the menu will bring up a full screen explaining what the function does. This is a very useful feature and is basically a cut down manual built into the camera.

Optical / Electronic Viewfinder: The electronic viewfinder does not has a diopter corrector. The electronic viewfinder is smaller than the FZ7's for example, but it is still quite usable.

Setup Menu Scene modes / Auction

Setup menu options: Reset, Language, Power on setup, Power off setup, Record view, Volume, Beep, Shutter sound, My Mode setup, File name, Pixel mapping, LCD brightness, Date/Time, Dual Time setup, m / ft, Video out, AF illuminsator, Shortcut, Histogram (Off, On, Direct), Frame assist, Custom Button (customises AEL button, for quick access to preferred option).

Scenes: Portrait, Landscape, Landscape and Portrait, Night Scene, Sport, Night Portrait, Indoor, Candle, Self Portrait, Available light portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Museum, Behind Glass, Cuisine, Documents, Auction (shown above). Shoot and Select 1, Shoot and Select 2, Beach, Snow.

A quick note on shoot and select 1 and 2 - this takes 4 photos in quick succession, you then choose the ones you want to delete by putting a tick next to them! Originally I thought I had to put a tick next to the one's I wanted to keep only to see them get deleted! Surely a big red cross should be put on the ones you don't want, and big green ticks on the ones you want to keep!

Playback (Review) mode/menu:

Playback mode (basic info) Playback mode (further info)

Playback mode: Scrolling through the photos is a bit sluggish / slow. The zoom is very quick. There were numerous different playback views: Calendar view by date, Normal - with the option of additinal info, histogram, thumbs - showing 4, 9, 16, or 25 thumbnails. Further photo information was available by pressing the display button.

Playback menu Playback edit menu

Playback menu options: (left) Protect, Rotate, Slideshow, Print, Audio, Album entry.

Playback edit menu options: (right) Raw data edit, Resize, Crop, Redeye fix, Black and White, Sepia, Frame, Title, Calendar, Layout, Brightness, Saturation.

Picture Size / Quality: The camera takes the following size pictures:

Mode
Image Size
Number Stored
RAW
2816 x 2112
1
SHQ
2816 x 2112
2
3:2 - 2816 x 1880
2

HQ

2816 x 2112
7
3:2 - 2816 x 1880
8
SQ1
2592 x 1944 (5mp)
High
2
Normal
8
2288 x 1712 (4mp)
High
3
Normal
10
2048 x 1536 (3mp)
High
4
Normal
13
1600 x 1200 (2mp)
High
7
Normal
21
SQ2
1280 x 960 (1.3mp)
High
11
Normal
32
1024 x 768 (1mp)
High
17
Normal
50
640 x 480 (VGA)
High
43
Normal
109

As shown in the table above, higher quality images take a large amount of memory, so a high capacity memory card is definitely recommended, unless you're prepared to sacrifice image size or use higher compression options to fit more pictures in memory. There is a very good choice of image sizes and aspect ratios, and inclusion of RAW image mode means you can ensure no image quality is lost before any further editing occurs.

A large memory card is relatively cheap, and highly recommended, I would recommend at a bare minimum a 256mb memory card, and preferably a 512mb memory card, especially considering the relatively low prices - the larger the memory card, the more photos you will be able to take. If you are likely to go on holiday then the largest memory card you can afford would definitely be worth investing in, as you don't always know when you will next be at a computer. Listed below are links to memory cards that will work with the Olympus SP500:

Find the latest prices for XD memory cards at Amazon.co.uk: 256mb: £15.47, 512mb: £29.71, 1gb (1000mb): £48.94.
Need more help deciding what memory card to buy? Have a look at our guide to digital camera memory cards or our article what size memory card should I buy?

Speed: The camera is fairly quick to switch on and take photos, being ready in around two seconds. Focusing seemed fairly quick. The playback mode is a bit sluggish, with photos taking a second or two before displaying when going from photo to photo - however the zoom is very quick. The camera shutter response seemed very quick when pre-focused, with a response time of around 0.1 seconds. Shot to shot time was average, with a delay of around 2 seconds between shots without flash. The flash recharge time was quite quick with shot to shot time only slightly slower than without the flash. The cameras menus seemed quick. On the High Speed continuous shooting mode, shot time is average, at roughly 1fps, with a shot taken every 0.9 seconds for upto 3 shots at the highest resolution. On the normal continuous shooting mode, shot time is slightly slower at roughly 1fps with a shot taken every 1.1 seconds for upto 5 shots at the highest resolution.

Ease of use: The camera is very easy to use, especially in the AUTO mode and the scene modes, even though the camera has a lot of options. The controls on the back of the camera are quite straightforward - the menus are responsive and easy to read and navigate. The menus are also easy to use, and the options are big enough and easy enough to see clearly. The modes are easy to access, quick and simple, mainly thanks to the large screen (most options are easily accessible by use of the ok button and the direction arrows) which makes it easier to use. It is useful to read the advanced manual to help familiarise yourself with some of the more technical features of the camera.

Ergonomics and Buttons: (Feel, placement, labels, etc.) The buttons are fairly easy to use, and they are in a good position. There aren't too many buttons on the camera, which should make it simpler to master the cameras basic functions. The buttons feel okay, although some may find them small. The shutter release is good.  The pop-up flash release button isn't labelled very clearly, and almost blends into the camera too well causing the button to appear invisible. The four-way controller could have been used better as well, but providing quick access to most common functions such as self-timer, macro mode etc, except currently you have to press the OK/Menu button to get to a menu before you can switch on the self-timer etc. I thought the camera felt very good ergonomically, with an excellent size hand grip, with the mode dial, and the shutter release and zoom very well positioned. The camera feels like a solid, robust and well built camera, despite the plastic construction.

Image Quality: Here are some real world sample photos taken in various settings, such as Inside, Noise, Outside, Zoom, Macro, to demonstrate the quality of pictures taken and also show different features of the camera. Larger versions of these photos, plus more photos are available in the Olympus SP-500 UZ Sample Photo Gallery!

Inside:

Heather and Flower (ISO80) Group photo (ISO242)

Inside: The camera has very good colour - It took a good "Heather and Flower" photo - there is no red-eye in the photo, although there is some in other group photos. It has a decent flash, and copes well with group photos, and on AUTO ISO, the ISO setting was kept fairly low in these photos. The camera did a good job at focusing most of the time even in low-light. Colour is richly saturated.

Noise: Noise is generally a bad thing - it removes detail, and gives a grainy effect over the image. With digital cameras noise can be a real problem as digital camera noise is often made out of blue, red or green dots. As the ISO setting increases, pictures tend to have more noise. Noise is most noticeable in dark areas of photos. The camera has an Automatic mode for ISO levels, and manual ISO settings (ISO: 80, 100, 200, 400) - below you'll find the noise test image, plus actual pixel crops from the image taken at different ISO settings, compared with the 6 megapixel, 12x optical zoom lens Panasonic Lumix FZ7.

ISO Noise Test Photo - Flash off unless otherwise stated. Panasonic Lumix FZ7 on the left, Olympus SP-500 UZ on the right. The colour difference is due to the Olympus SP-500 doing a better job with the automatic white balance.

Panasonic Lumix FZ7 Olympus SP-500UZ
ISO80 - Actual Pixels ISO80 - Actual Pixels
ISO100 - Actual Pixels ISO100 - Actual Pixels
ISO200 - Actual Pixels ISO200 - Actual Pixels
ISO400 - Actual Pixels ISO400 - Actual Pixels

Noise is much higher on the FZ7 than on the Olympus SP-500 upto ISO400, where noise levels appear quite similar, the FZ7's noise is much more blotchy - whereas the SP-500's noise seems much more fine grained and consistant. Personally I would say that ISO80 - ISO100 is useable on the FZ7, whereas ISO80 - ISO200 is useable on the SP-500, with ISO200 on the FZ7 being borderline / unacceptable, and ISO400 on the SP-500 being borderline / unacceptable.

Outside:

Liverpool Shops (ISO100) Geese (ISO200)

Outside, the camera has rich colour, with good saturation and contrast. There was good detail although some images seemed a little soft. Noise seemed low for ISO100 photos. I turned up the quality to maximum to avoid jpeg artefacts. Exposure seemed very good with detail visible in the white goose, and in the darker shadows.

Zoom: The Olympus 10x optical zoom lens provides an excellent zoom range - without the requirement for digital zoom. Digital zoom simply degrades image quality and better results can often be obtained using software. I've included examples to show what is possible.

Wide-angle 3x optical zoom 10x optical zoom

Exposure / Metering on the photos of the clock tower seems very good, despite the overly grey weather, with the dark areas of the photo not too dark, and the bright areas of the photo still visible.

Lens noise and zoom: The lens is quite loud - although nothing to worry about. There are around 50 steps between wide angle and telephoto! This gives very good control over how you frame your subject.

Other Image Quality issues: Purple fringing can be seen in some extreme test cases near the edges of the photos, however this was only seen when looking closely at the images, and was not seen in most normal photos.

Macro:

Macro Timex Watch Actual Pixels (ISO100)

The super macro mode allows you to be 3cm away from the subject - this allows you to get very good, close-up, detailed macro photos. Custom white balance helps acheive better colour as well - although I did not use it in this photo - auto white balance did a fairly good job here.

Video mode: The camera features a 320x240 video mode at 30fps with sound - this features digital anti-shake. This is fairly average - and quite poor compared to some of the newest cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ7 which features 16:9 aspect ratio video at a high resolution (848x480) at 30fps with sound.

Conclusion

Image Quality: Image quality is very good, the images have very good colour, with good contrast and detail, with fairly low noise except for the higher ISO settings. Images were slightly soft straight from the camera and could benefit from sharpening. Purple fringing was quite low, as was red-eye. The camera did a good job focusing the majority of the time, with low light focusing aided by the focus assist lamp. I did not notice vignetting in photos, nor did I notice barrel or pincushion distortion. There is a very good range of image sizes, and a good choice of compression options (including RAW mode). Auto white balance and metering, and exposure seemed to be good to very good. The camera gives very good control over image quality - selecting different picture modes allows allows you to change the saturation, contrast and sharpness. The lack of image stabilisation could cause problems for some people, especially in low light or at the long end of the zoom. (8/10)

Everything else (the camera as a whole): The camera is quite compact for an ultra zoom, it is almost pocketable. The camera is stylish with a black body. The camera has good 2.5" screen, although the resolution is quite low. The fairly small electronic viewfinder can be used in bright sunlight. The camera feels well built, and is very comfortable to hold. The camera is easy to use, the menu system is easy to use and there is a good layout of buttons and controls, although the abundance of features and options are accessed mainly through the menu system which could cause some people problems. The camera speed is good, with a good switch on time, quick focusing time, excellent shutter response, good flash recharge time, slightly sluggish / slow playback mode, quick menus, and fairly slow continuous shooting. The camera has a large range of features, including RAW support, bulb-mode, time lapse photography and playback photo editing as well as others. Battery life is good. The cameras video mode features digital anti-shake, but the resolution is fairly poor compared to other digital cameras. (7/10)

Value for Money: The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom at around £199, is good value for money in a competitive market offering a lot of features and controls, although most similar ultra zoom digital cameras have image stabilisation and are available for slightly more money, for example the 6mp Konica Minolta Dimage Z6 is around £200, the 5mp Sony Cybershot DSC-H1 is around £250, the 5mp Canon Powershot S2 IS is around £280, and the 5mp Kodak Easyshare P850 is around £260, and the 6mp Pansonic Lumix FZ7 is around £290. Ultra zoom digital cameras without image stabilisation (a dying breed?) can be had for around the same price or less, for example the 6mp Nikon Coolpix S4 is around £240, and the 5mp Fujifilm FinePix S5600 (link to review) is around £200. (8/10) See more digital camera reviews sorted by megapixels here.

Summary: The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is an appealing digital camera, it feels very comfortable in hand, and produces very pleasing (saturated) colours, with generally low noise. The screen and electronic viewfinder let the camera down due to the screens low resolution, and the electronic viewfinders small size. This camera is easy to use (in auto mode) especially with the built in help guide, although it offers a mixed bag with regards to camera speed. The camera offers good battery life, with very good controls and good build quality. I would recommend this camera to people who want greater creative control that normal, however I'd recommend trying out the camera and comparing with other brands before purchase, especially those with image stabilisation. If you can live without image stabilisation, and aren't interested in recording videos then this is well worth considering, especially if you find the vibrant colours, numerous features, and ease of use, appealing.

Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom Rating: Above Average (7.5/10)
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What I like:

  • Very good exposure / metering
  • Very good colour
  • Excellent Macro mode
  • Abundance of features, RAW mode, bulb mode, time-lapse photography.
  • Abundance of picture adjustments, both before photo and after photo is taken - Sharpness, Saturation, Contrast, etc
  • Comfortable handgrip
  • Built in guide / help
  • Good battery life

What I don't like:

  • Advanced manual is on CD
  • Low screen resolution (115k pixels)
  • Slightly slow focusing / occassionally misses focus at telephoto in dark conditions
  • Low resolution video mode compared to the competition
  • Lacks image stabilisation, causing more likelihood of blurry photos in low light, or using full zoom - doesn't offer any compensation or scene mode for example - high shutter speed mode (such as Nikon Coolpix S6), or high ISO mode (such as the Fuji S5600). Compensation must be done manually through the use of a tripod, high ISO, higher shutter speed. One solution would be to use the Sports/Action scene mode as this will be biased towards using faster shutter speeds. Perhaps with a firmware update, they could include a Scene mode designed to avoid blur at telephoto zoom settings?

Additional Test Images are viewable in the Olympus SP-500 UZ Sample Photo Gallery.

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