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Review: Panasonic DMC-FZ8 compared to the Olympus SP-550 UZ

Side by side digital camera review
Panasonic Lumix DMC/FZ8
Olympus SP/550UZ
Panasonic DMC-FZ8 review
SPECIFICATIONS
Olympus SP-550 UZ review
SLR-type (12.6 oz battery and card)
Type
SLR-type (16.6 oz incl. battery and card)
7Mp / 3072 x 2304 (4:3, 3:2, 16:9)
Sensor
7Mp / 3072 x 2304 (4:3 and 3:2)
6 - 72mm (36 - 432mm) / 2.8 - 3.3
Lens
4.7 - 84.2mm (28 - 504mm) / 2.8 - 4.5
100-1250 (Hi-3200)
ISO
50-1600 (Hi-3200 and 5000)
3 fps (appr. 5 JPEG) / 2 fps (no max)
Motor drive
1.2 fps (appr. 12 JPEG)
2.5 inch (207.000 pixels)
LCD
2.5 inch (230.000 pixels)
Full specifications   Full specifications
8.0
 CONSTRUCTION
9.0
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 is smaller than expected. Compared to its competitor SP-550, our silver version of the FZ8 is lighter, less solid and less appealing. Its ergonomics are not as good as the Olympus. The camera is best operated held with two hands. The Leica zoom lens does not extend out as far of the camera body as the SP-550. There is little difference in the lens' length when extended for wide angle or full telephoto.
Body
Olympus has a long history of ultra-zoom compact cameras and the SP-550 sets a new standard with its 18x optical zoom (28 to 504 mm). A big zoom lens extends from a very solid body. It is made of polycarbonate, but because of its surface structure, matte gray back and matte rubber front, it looks very durable. The SP-550 is not only sturdy, but also has a very appealing design that fits the hand like a glove. The camera has a perfect balance even with the zoom lens fully extended.
The positions of the buttons are placed well but look a little fragile. Because the camera is somewhat small, the thumb hovers unintentionally over the On/Off button and the joystick. The shutter release is also not logically placed under the forefinger. The camera is, therefore, not very well suited for large hands.
The caps for both the AV-out and the battery/SD-card are easy to handle and made of hard plastic, minimizing the chance of easily breaking them. Unfortunately, the memory card can't be taken out when the camera is on a tripod because it blocks the cover.
Buttons, caps and covers
The ergonomics are great and all the buttons are on the right places. Thumb and forefinger can control the buttons while the other three fingers hold the camera. The function of each button is well indicated and the four-way control button works fine.
The covers of the memory card and the four AA-batteries are constructed well and are made for daily use. The rubber cap covering the USB and AV-out is difficult to open and close, as always. Why not a normal hard plastic cover?
The FZ8 has a nice 2.5-inch LCD screen and is very clear. Despite the resolution being lower than the SP-550, it is very sharp and bright. It has an acceptable viewing angle and the refresh frequencies are so high that it can follow the subject's movement in real-time. The electronic viewfinder works well in bright sunlight; however, the quality is not as good as the SP-550.
Viewfinder and LCD
With its 2.5-inch size, the LCD screen serves well as a viewfinder and for replays. It is bright and sharp, though not as good as the FZ8 screen. The view angle of the LCD screen of the SP-550 is the same as that of the FZ8. The electronic viewfinder of the SP-550 is more pleasing to use than the EVF of the Panasonic. It is a bit larger and brighter, and shows more detail.
8.0
 FEATURES
8.0
From its inception in September 2002 (FZ1), the Lumix FZ range is known for its 12x optical zoom with Mega Optical Image Stabilization lens. Never change a winning combination, as the saying goes, so the FZ8 features almost the same specifications. The Leica lens ranges from 36 to 432 mm and has a large aperture, varying from 1:2.8 to 3.3. The zoom function is quite smooth. With the Mega OIS, sharp pictures can be taken at 432 mm with a shutter speed of about 1/100s.
Zoom lens
As mentioned earlier, Olympus has a history of setting standards with optical zoom ranges for compact cameras, and the SP-550 is the next step with its 18x zoom. It starts at 28 mm and that is another milestone for this type of super zoom camera. It ends with 504 mm. Although this is, further than the maximum focal point of the FZ8, its biggest advantage lies in the extra view range at wide angle. The 28 mm shows so much more than the 36 mm. Image stabilization is a must for these high zoom ranges. Olympus claims it is a dual IS. We noticed no difference compared with the Mega OIS of the Panasonic FZ8. Both gain two or three stops in shutter speed.
The DMC-FZ8 has a whole range of exposure programs to suit the point-and-shoot users, as well as the more advanced photographers. Together with three metering modes, exposure compensation and full manual functions, every delicate exposure situation can be tackled.
As with all digital compact cameras, noise became a problem when the pixel count exceeds 4 or 5 million. The high sensitivity noise levels of the 7 Mp DMC-FZ8 are no exception to this rule and noise manifests itself from the ISO-200 and higher range. Images at ISO 800 are still useable for small prints. ISO 1250 is for emergencies and the hi-mode ISO (3200) is not worth looking at and could easily be removed from the specifications.
Exposure and ISO
The SP-550 has all the exposure modes and programs to handle all kinds of light situations. One can use it as a point-and-shoot camera using several scene modes. It can also control exposures with the P, A and S programs, or even full manual.
In the battle of large numbers, Olympus has added the ISO 5000 in the specifications. As expected, this high sensitivity delivers no useable image. Not even at low resolutions. This also counts for the ISO 3200 mode. Up to now, no compact camera with a small sensor is able to produce low-noise images above ISO 800/1600 without degrading many details due to noise reduction. The SP-550 is no exception.
The auto focus works quite fast and catches the main subject correctly most of the time. The higher the zoom, the slower the auto focus speed. The shutter speed is sufficient to capture most common subjects and in low light situations, the AF assist light is a helpful aid. Focusing is sometimes a problem at the end of the focal range. The FZ8 has a macro mode and can be focused manually too. In this mode, the center of the image is enlarged on the LCD screen and focusing accurately can be achieved with the help of the little joystick. You can choose several AF area modes and AF points. The FZ8 also has a continuous AF.
Focusing
The auto focus of the SP-550 is smooth and accurate. It is pretty fast in wide angle, and just like the FZ8, it becomes slower the longer the focal range becomes. It has a continuous AF and a predictive one for moving subjects. The way to focus manually is the same as with the Panasonic, but does not work as accurately.
The working distance of the Macro-AF is almost zero. This is nice in theory but it blocks all the light to the subject. Keeping the subject at least a few inches away from the camera, the FZ8 is very capable of producing very sharp and impressive macro pictures.
Macro
The camera has two macro settings, macro and supermacro. The Super macro of the Olympus SP-550 allows one to get very close to the subject. However, too close to be workable because the camera takes away the light from the subject. However, if held a few inches away, the pictures can be breathtaking indeed. The amount of distortion is average.
With 3 frames per second, the Lumix is on par with a dSLR. The buffer however is smaller and the write speed slower, making the camera stop for a few seconds after 5 frames. At 2 fps, however, the number of frames is not limited, and that is not bad at all.
Motor drive
The SP-550 shoots 12 frames in 10 seconds in its full resolution. That is not as fast as the Panasonic, which does it in 3 frames per second. However, the speed goes up in lower resolutions but the buffering and writing speed of the camera is not so great. It has a high-speed mode at 1280 x 960 called Pre Capture, with 15 frames a second so you do not have to miss a shot.
The Panasonic FZ8 makes great mov-movies (640 x 480) at 30 fps with sound. There is even a 16:9 movie format. Although the image stabilizer keeps on working, the zoom function is disabled because of the zoom motor's noise. The bright LCD screen works fine as a real-time viewfinder.
Movie
The SP-550 makes nice AVI movies at 640 x 480 pixels with 30 fps. Image stabilization works but when sound is turned on, the zoom function is disabled because of the zoom mechanism noise. Turning off the sound will enable the camera's zoom function. Therefore, zoom and sound functions cannot be used both at the same time. Using the LCD screen as a viewfinder does not work as nice as the FZ8 because it is a bit less responsive.
The JPEG quality can be adjusted with the usual parameters, such as Contrast, Sharpness and Saturation. The different levels of noise reduction can also be adjusted. Besides automatic white balancing, the FZ8 has five presets and two manual settings. The white balance can be fine-tuned in four directions, namely: yellow, blue, magenta and green. RAW is available, just like the SP-550, but AdobeRGB is not supported. There are different color modes available such as Cool, Warm, BW and Sepia. Slideshow playback of pictures is possible. Pictures can also be resampled, cropped, copied and the aspect ratio can be changed.
Misc

Controls for Saturation, Sharpness and Contrast of JPEG pictures are available. Noise reduction has only two modes: on or off. Besides the automatic white balance, the camera has six preset settings and a one-touch manual setting. White balance can be fine-tuned from blue to red. There is no AdobeRGB but shooting in RAW mode produces more detail and larger dynamic range (in theory, at least). RAW is developed by the Olympus Master software that comes with the camera. Playback provides the following functions: slideshow, create a calendar view, resize, crop, change brightness and saturation, fix red eye, and to view in black and white.

8.0
OPERATION
8.0
There is a 4-way dial gives access to exposure compensation, flash mode and self-timer. The little joystick helps set the exposure compensation and focusing point. It also helps you navigate through the menus. The mode dial works nice and handles well.
The camera's menu is simple and well organized. The manual is, therefore, not needed to find the most important parameters and settings. Just like the SP-550, the menu choice always starts at the top and this takes a lot of navigation when frequently changing certain parameters.
Parameter setting and menus
The 4-way controller gives quick access to exposure compensation, macro, self-timer and flash mode. With the Function button in the middle, one can choose WB, ISO, Drive and metering mode. Therefore, everything is within reach, ready for the next picture.
Working with the menu is a bit frustrating. The menu button must be pressed twice to turn it on or off. The initial choice always starts at the top of the list with 24 items. There is a lot of navigation and pushing buttons involved before the right parameter is reached. It takes getting used to but it could definitely be a bit more user friendly.
It is not possible to save personal settings.
Misc
It is possible to reset the menu and save your own set of parameters.
9.0
PERFORMANCE
8.0
The Panasonic DMC-FZ8 has the responsiveness of an average compact camera. Start up takes some time while the lens is being extended. AF is pretty fast but not as fast as a dSLR. Together with speed of zooming, metering and shutter delay, the FZ8 is able to catch the most common subject. However, it is not fast enough for sports and fast action shots. Writing speed and buffering are good. Storing a RAW file takes only a few seconds and the continuous drive of 2 fps keeps its speed until the memory card is full!
Speed
The camera is fairly responsive but lacks the speed of a dSLR. Startup takes two seconds while the lens is being extended. Furthermore, measuring and focusing speed are sufficient to not miss a moment. Compared to the FZ8, the writing speed is slower and the buffer is smaller. Taking pictures in RAW demands some patience.
Color and exposure:
The colors of the FZ8 are naturally pleasing. They usually agree to an average user's taste, although they can be modified to personal tastes, as desired. Exposure is mostly satisfactory with an occasional clipped highlight, but not annoying at all.
Sharpness:
The 7 million pixels in combination with the superb Leica lens catch a lot of detail but due to noise reduction, images must be sharpened to some degree. The FZ8 holds a nice balance and at lower ISO, the images result in beautiful prints, up to 12 x 8 inches.
Lens aberrations:
The Leica lens of the Panasonic captures more detail than his Olympus opponent. A difference is also the amount of chromatic aberration, which is less than with the Olympus. Because of the smaller focal range of the lens, the distortion at wide and tele angle is somewhat less heavy than with the SP-550.
Noise:
Until ISO 400, noise is reasonably under control, and compression, noise reduction and sharpening are in balance. ISO 800 can be useful and ISO 1250 only in extreme situations. The level of color noise is lower than the SP-550.
RAW:
A compact camera with a good RAW format is still an exception. The Panasonic FZ8 not only features RAW, but handles it relatively fast and comes with a good RAW-converter, SilkyPix. This software has extensive controls and with some practice, it is possible to obtain better image quality than the JPEG straight from the camera.
Image quality
Color and exposure:
The colors of the SP-550 are very pleasing. The exposure is progressive which results in bright pictures without disturbing blown out highlights. With the different metering modes and exposure compensation, every light situation can be easily handled.
Sharpness:
Sharpening is moderate and in combination with noise reduction and JPEG compression, it does not degrade image quality too much. Sharpening can be adjusted to suit one's taste or the selected output medium.
Lens aberrations:
A large focal range is nice, but has its repercussions. There is a serious amount of distortion in the extreme zoom settings. In many situations, a lot of green and red chromatic aberration is manifest. These deviations do require some post-processing.
Noise:
Too many pixels on a small sensor result in a lot of noise and at this point the SP-550 performs almost the same as the FZ8, the SP-550 showing some more color noise. ISO 800 and 1600 are suitable for 6 x 4" prints. ISO 3200 and 5000 are not useable.
RAW:
The SP-550 is able to shoot RAW, but becomes very slow. In addition, the converter, Olympus Master, is not state-of-art and the conversion result is not much better than the equivalent JPEG.
8.25
CONCLUSION
8.25
Panasonic and Olympus have earned their place in the top ten of camera manufacturers and the Lumix DMC-FZ8 and SP-550 respectively confirm their positions. Both cameras have some exceptional specifications and set benchmarks for compact cameras. Their compact size, long zoom range, easy handling and operation make them the ideal travel companion for novice and shutterbug alike. The extreme specs also have their downside as too many pixels on a small sensor results in higher noise levels at all ISO's. A zoom range of 18 times on the SP-550 is nice, but it comes with distortion and much chromatic aberration. Although the two cameras have almost similar specifications, they do differ. The SP-550 is better built with very good ergonomics and many features. The FZ8, though, is faster and has a slight advantage in image quality with less distortion, color noise, chromatic aberration and workable RAW. Looking at the plain figures, this match ends in a draw. However, considering the price difference (the FZ8 is over 100 dollar cheaper than the SP-550), the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 wins by a nose.
Samples Panasonic FZ8 Samples Olympus SP-550UZ
March 15, 2007
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