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Olympus SP-570 UZ review

With an almost unlimited choice of compacts and DSLR cameras on offer today, you could easily forget that there is another category of cameras out there that appears to be quite popular with a certain user group. So much so that manufacturers keep updating these models with new and innovative functions every year. These ultra-zooms or bridge cameras feature DSLR like performance and sophistication but do not have interchangeable lenses. One such model is the Olympus SP-570UZ, the most recent successor to the 8-megapixel SP-560UZ of last year.

front of Olympus SP-570UZ rear of Olympus SP-570UZ

The SP-570UZ has a phenomenal 20x zoom range from 26mm wide angle to 520mm tele (35mm eq.) and with this range at hand it can truly be called a superzoom. Its resolution has been upped to 10-megapixels and it comes with built-in Dual Image Stabilisation and sequential shooting of up to 15 frames per second.

The camera in use

When picking up the Olympus SP-570UZ you immediately notice its excellent handholding and its solid built. The camera is reasonably heavy, which inspires confidence and gives the impression that this is a durable photographic tool. The handgrip seems to be perfectly moulded with a substantial rubberised "dent" on the back for your thumb and a nicely contoured front for the fingers of your right hand, while your index finger rests on the shutter release button with the exposure compensation switch next to it. All controls are within easy reach and feel as if they are built to last. The large thumb wheel at the back is used for adjusting most camera functions in combination with the OK button on the 4-way dial. This works really convenient and you quickly get used to this handy way of setting the camera's most frequently used parameters.

The large 2.7" HyperCrystal LCD screen on the back of the SP-570UZ, can be used to frame the image or to show an overview of all camera settings when using the electronic viewfinder. Incidentally you may find yourself switching between the electronic viewfinder and the LCD screen quite a lot when taking pictures. Our experience was that at longer focal lengths it was much easier to keep the camera steady by pressing it against your face than by holding it in front of you, while for more general photography or for moving subjects the LCD screen proved to be more convenient as it did not have the delay of the electronic viewfinder. In bright sunlight however, the LCD screen is highly reflective which makes it difficult to make out your subject. Another situation in which you may want to use the electronic viewfinder. A tiny button just above the LCD screen switches between the two.

At the capture stage, you can choose to show as much or as little image information on screen as you like, a live histogram being only one of the many options available. Info about shutter speeds or aperture, contrast saturation and sharpness are there as well, together with information about battery status or exposure compensation. To the left of the LCD screen we find buttons for display options, camera menu, delete and playback.

On the 4-way switch with a central OK-button you can set macro, self timer or flash options. The Olympus SP-570UZ comes with a super macro function, which allows focusing up to 1cm - although if you come this close you may find that the large lens can block out most of the light hitting your subject. In self timer mode you can choose a 2 or 12-second delay. Flash options include Auto, Red Eye reduction, Fill in, first or second curtain flash, or a combination of these. The flash has to be raised manually in all program settings before it will fire and flash exposure compensation is possible over +/- 2 stops. In addition to a hot shoe, the SP-570UZ provides wireless flash with the new Olympus FL-50R and FL-36R flash units, which are fully compatible with the camera.

Power on time is about 2 seconds, which is not extremely fast but okay for cameras in this class. Zooming is done by turning the lens ring clockwise to zoom out or counter-clockwise to zoom in. Compared to DSLR cameras its action is rather sluggish sometimes, as there is some delay before the lens reacts. When turning the zoom ring carefully, slow and smooth transitions are possible for precise framing, whereas a fast twirl on the lens ring will zoom in or out in large steps to capture the subject in frame.

On the top dial we find the familiar PASM program modes plus Movie and Scene modes. There are 23 Scene modes including more gimmicky settings like Smile modus, which automatically takes a picture when your subject smiles, or Auction, which captures pictures in e-mode ready for upload to auction sites on the net. Naturally the mores serious modes are also present with settings for Available Light, Portrait, Landscape, Sports or Beach scenes. On the program dial a Guide mode acts as a handy help in many different photo situations, giving advice about the best camera settings for situations like shooting into backlight or subjects in motion.

The elaborate menu system is divided into chapters for Camera menu, Image quality, Set up or Panorama. A Silent mode suppresses shutter and focusing sounds in capture mode. In playback, the menu system provides even more functions such as editing images, fixing redeye or brightening up shadow areas, set print order or edit a slide show of the images in camera. Most of the menu chapters have further sub-options which can make finding the right setting a bit awkward sometimes. For general photography however, there is really no need to consult the camera menu that often. Pressing the OK button brings up the most frequently used exposure and image parameters on the LCD screen. These can then be set directly by using a combination of the arrow buttons and the control wheel to change things like white balance or ISO, exposure settings or image quality. Colour rendition, together with sharpness, saturation and contrast can be adjusted here as well. We found this direct access, to those settings you need most, very convenient to use.

The camera uses conventional AA type batteries and it pays to buy a good quality set of rechargeables straight away. From our own experience we can say that cheap alternatives really are no good and will quickly ruin your photo fun with this camera. Cheap batteries usually do not have the stamina that this camera requires for frequent zooming or continuous use of image stabilisation for instance. With a quality set of 1300mAh we managed to capture about 200 images before a new set was required. Modern alternatives with more power will undoubtedly increase this figure. Olympus include a set of alkaline AA batteries with the camera to get you going, but it is best to keep these in your camera bag as a back-up for when you run out of power somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Why Olympus chose for AA batteries for this camera is beyond us, as - although they are cheaper and readily available in most shops - they won't last as long as dedicated Li-ion batteries.

In the box

Among the standard accessories you get with your Olympus SP-570UZ are the familiar AV/USB cables, a comfortable wide neck strap and lens cap. Apart from these, there is a set of alkaline AA batteries, a basic manual and CDs with the advanced manual and Olympus Master 2 software. The 26-page printed manual is really too basic to tell you all the camera can do. Its functions and options are so diverse that you really should sit down with the manual on CD to familiarise yourself with all its features. You may find however, that there are so many options that you will never get round to using them all.

nr 1 from the HiSpeed series nr 6 from the HiSpeed series

The second CD contains Olympus Master 2 software to edit, share and organise your SP-570UZ images. It also performs RAW processing. Also included is a trial version of Olympus Muvee theaterPack. A program that lets you create photo slideshows and movies from your digital images and videos. You can add music to synchronise with the images and add a variety of effects and transitions before burning them on CD or DVD.

The SP-570UZ accepts xD cards only and as Olympus and Fuji are the only manufacturers to use this type of memory card in their cameras there are not many third party manufacturers who make them. So prices remain steep and they are not yet available in the larger capacities or the faster speeds of the popular SD/SDHC or CF cards in use with other cameras today.

Image quality

The Olympus SP-570UZ has a f/2.8-4.5 4.6-92mm zoom lens with a range of 26 to 520mm in 35mm format. An extreme zoom range like this inevitably brings compromises and this can be seen in some purple fringing at the tele end of the lens. There is some barrel distortion at wide angle, which shifts to slight pincushioning at the tele end. Especially at wide angle this will be noticeable in architectural photography in that lines running across the image will not be totally straight but show a slight curve. This is acceptable as most cameras in this class will suffer from this to some extent, and it should not be considered a serious shortcoming of the Olympus.

full resolution image with natural colours vivid colours soft colours saturation +5 saturation, contrast and sharpness +5

Like most of its rivals the Olympus features an optical Dual Image Stabilisation system using a moving sensor, which is extremely useful, especially at the longer end of the zoom, as it allows handheld shots at slower shutter speeds than without stabilisation. Quite how many stops are gained we have not been able to assess exactly, but we reckon it to be around 1 or 2 stops. If you want to be sure of sharp tele pictures however, you should take a series of shots, increasing the chance of a perfect result among them.

Focusing can be a bit hit and miss sometimes. We found that the Olympus SP-570UZ requires straight lines for precise focusing. Especially in macro mode when taking pics of delicate flowers for instance, this could lead to some hunting before the object is sharp. And even then - especially with smaller objects - we sometimes found that the focus was on the background instead of on the subject. Also at longer tele settings or in low light situations, getting the subject in focus sometimes takes longer than is to be expected, making it difficult to capture the decisive moment especially in action shots. There is no shutter lock if the subject is not in focus so chances are you may only find out afterwards that your picture is not sharp and that you missed a good shot.

Image quality at low ISO settings is excellent, with well balanced, realistic colours and lots of punch. Saturation, sharpness and contrast can be upped or toned down on the screen menu, or a quick fix could be to choose for vivid or natural colours. White balance and exposure are spot on most of the time and images rarely require any exposure compensation except for extreme contrast situations with the sun in the picture or very dark shadow areas. Shadow adjustment can be set at the touch of a dedicated button at the capture stage or fixed in camera in post processing and this works okay.

full resolution image at iso 100 iso 200 iso 400 iso 800 iso 1600

The effective ISO range of the Olympus SP-570UZ goes from ISO 64 to 3200 and in reduced pixel mode you can use 6400 ISO. Our experience was that it's best to stick to the lower ISO settings as anything above ISO 400 shows severe noise and should not be used for large prints with lots of detail. Noisy images at anything over low ISO values are not unusual for compact cameras with these small sensors. Manufacturers should accept that there is a limit to how many pixels you can fit on a such a small sensor without image quality starting to suffer. Most people still believe that the more pixels a camera has, the better its image quality. Without wanting to go into this too deep, this is not completely true as more pixels on small sensors will increase noise and this will manifest itself especially at higher ISO values.

The Olympus SP-570UZ is advertised as having continuous shooting of up to 15 frames per second. We tried this out at a concert of Ellen ten Damme the other night and found this a mixed experience. It is true that you can keep shooting until the buffer is full, but two distinct disadvantages make this mode less useful than we would have thought. Firstly the camera automatically resorts to ISO 400 by default and reduces image quality to a low 5 or 3 megapixels, depending on whether you choose for Hi1 or Hi2. Secondly, when the camera buffer is full it will take a long wait - seems like close to a minute - before any further pictures can be taken. On top of this the electronic viewfinder cannot really keep up with the action and resorts to showing a fast moving subject - like Ellen - like a mere streak of light across the frame, which makes it all too easy to lose the subject from the viewfinder completely. Don't forget to set AF to continuous and predicative AF to on, otherwise only the first shot may be in focus.

Conclusion

So, should you buy the Olympus SP-570UZ or would it be best to go for a DSLR. Well it all depends on what you want or need from a camera. If your aim is to make photography your hobby, prices of DSLRs are so low nowadays that they would make an ideal start to what can be a fantastic pastime, with the possibility to start a complete system from scratch. Olympus do have some nice offerings in this department as well, and we might make them the subject of another test some other time.

If however, you do not want to carry all that weight around and require a well-designed camera with a compact body and comprehensive features, the Olympus SP-570UZ would not be a bad choice at all. It can capture nice wide angle shots of landscapes or interiors while the tele lens is long enough to capture that bird on a wire as well. Handling is excellent and image quality is very good. Add to this a good image stabilisation system, shadow adjustment and face detection, and lots of manual control.

The Olympus SP-570UZ does have a few flaws however, although none of them serious enough to make this a bad camera, not by any means. Find out if you can live with its limited battery life and slow zooming but also take into consideration that the camera has so many options that a creative photographer will find most things he will need in this camera - and more. Just remember to stick to those lower ISO settings and carry a spare set of batteries and you really can't go wrong. So try one out in the shops, compare it with similar offerings from other manufacturers and then make your final choice.


Additional information: Olympus SP-570 UZ product details and other reviews
May 17, 2008

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