Olympus SP-560 UZ Review
For 2007, Olympus has upgraded the popular SP-550 UZ from last year. The SP-560 UZ includes all of the features that made the SP-550 so appealing, however, this new camera adds a slightly more versatile ISO range (up to 6400 over 5000 on the previous model), an 8-megapixel image sensor, Face Detect AF mode, and a Perfect Fix mode for touching up your images in playback mode.
As with past "SP" series models, the SP-560 offers a slew of manual and automatic controls that will suffice just about every user, regardless of their photographic experience. As usual, the beginners will benefit from the full Auto exposure mode, while the 25 pre-programmed Scene modes will help them capture great photos in a wide variety of different shooting environments. For those who like more control over the exposure process, the SP-560 offers as little or as much control as you would like. Program mode is a fully automatic mode, but does give access to ISO, White Balance, Metering, etc. Aperture and Shutter Speed Priority mode allow Novice users to choose one setting, while the camera selects the correct corresponding value. And, for the full experience, Manual mode grants access to controlling both the aperture and shutter speed values, while constantly displaying the exposure value so you can dial it in.
The SP-560 offers a very "well-built" feel in your hands, with a nice rubberized surface on the grip for your right hand. The various camera controls are positioned well, within easy reach of your thumb or forefinger.The menu system was logically organized and easy to navigate, and unlike past models, you Can display the menu screens on both the EVF and LCD. However, the default setting is LCD only, so you'll have to enter the Setup menu and choose the "Current" option under the Menu Display setting. We found the function menu very useful, allowing you to quickly change settings for White balance, ISO, drive mode and metering. It is called-up by depressing the OK/FUNC button and is displayed on either display.
I was pleased with both of the displays on this model. The LCD is bright, and thanks to its large size, the menu text is very legible. The only issue I have with the LCD, is that it does not feature a non-reflective coating, so there are several angles which reflect the sun. This is where the EVF really shines, and I found the eyecup is deep enough to block out most of the ambient light. Thankfully, both displays gain-up nicely when shooting in marginal lighting.
The SP-550 and SP-560, use to offer the most powerful optical zoom range among all consumer super-zooms, however, since then, it has been joined by models like Panasonic's Lumix FZ-18. The SP-560's "Ultra Zoom" moniker is no misrepresentation; the lens covers an astonishing 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 27-486mm! Olympus included several other features that complement the lens, including sensor-shift Image Stabilization that reduces the likelihood of camera-shake image blur at long focal lengths, as well as High ISO sensitivity to enable the use of higher shutter speeds in marginal lighting conditions, and two high-speed shooting modes to help you capture the moment. As a package, these features are a sports shooters dream, but there are several limitations that reduce the SP-560's effectiveness at capturing action.
Our shooting performance results were a bit disappointing for a model that has so many features that will appeal to sports shooters. Power up to first image captured was relatively slow at 2.9 seconds, most of which was attributed to the extension of the 18x zoom lens. Shutter lag when pre-focused was responsive at less than 1/10 of a second, slowing to 5-6/10 of a second including autofocus. When using single exposure (drive) mode, the shot to shot delay without flash was 2 seconds between frames, slowing to 4 and 5 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance and battery condition. Shutter lag when using red eye reduction pre-flash measured 1.1 seconds, during which the LCD or EVF goes blank.
The SP-560's Burst mode has improved over the SP-550, and offers 3 continuous drive modes: Normal, Hi1 and Hi2. Using normal continuous drive mode to capture SHQ images, the SP-560 captured 10 images in 7.6 seconds without filling its buffer. Both the LCD and EVF blanked between shots; making the viewfinders essentially useless for following a moving subject while shooting. Normal continuous drive mode offers the most flexibility in the selection of image size and quality; only the capture of RAW images is prohibited in this mode.
The high speed sequential shooting modes offer astonishing capture rates, but have limitations on image size, quality and ISO. Both modes require a minimum sensitivity setting of ISO 400. In Hi1 mode, we were able to capture 12 SQ1 (high) images in just 1.2 seconds without filling the buffer, however clearing the buffer to view the images in playback mode takes about 7 seconds. Both viewfinders blank between images but, because of the high capture rate, following a moving subject was not a problem. Unlike the SP-550, you can select the quality of the SQ1 (2048x1536) images; High or Normal (default) quality settings.
Hi2 mode was even faster, capturing 40 SQ2 (1280x960) shots in just 2.5 seconds, taking 17 seconds to clear the buffer! As with Hi1 mode, the viewfinders blanked between images, but the high capture rate allowed me to follow a moving subject. Hi2 mode offers an interesting feature that really helps you capture the decisive moment in an action scene, Pre-Capture. In this mode, the SP-560 begins capturing images when you have half-depressed the shutter button, saving them in a 10-shot buffer. When you fully depress the shutter button, the SP-560 stores the 10 images in its buffer, and seamlessly begins capturing subsequent images until you release the shutter button.
When using the RAW image quality mode, the camera really slows down considerably. The shot to shot delay averaged about 12.5 seconds between frames. In between shots, the LCD displays a "Busy" prompt with a scale that shows the progress of the image being written to the xD memory card. Our performance tests were done using an Olympus M 512MB xD-Picture Card, Program mode, SHQ quality, ISO Auto, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default unless specified otherwise. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
Our image quality results were good for an 8-megapixel super-zoom model. Using the SHQ mode, the SP-560 captures beautiful images indoors and out, that are nice and sharp with minimal edge softness. Colors are richly saturated, and the exposure system does well in most cases. I did find that when shooting our M&M man in ambient lighting, it had some troubles and produced images that were a bit warm. Noise is well controlled from ISO 400 and below, however as with all consumer models that feature such high sensitivity capabilities, noise becomes more detectable as you increase the ISO number. At ISO 800, there is slight loss of detail, and at ISO 1600 and up increases noise and decreases detail.
When shooting portraits indoors, the SP-560 really shines. It's pop-up flash has a generous range, for consumer digicam standards, of 21 feet at wide angle (ISO 400.) While I did not use that high of an ISO setting, I found that the flash worked very well indoors shooting in mid-sized rooms. I used the Portrait scene mode, with Face Detect AF mode enabled, and found that my indoor couple portraits were very pleasing; skin tones look very natural, face details are sharp, and the flash exposure is good even illuminating the background nicely. The Face Detect AF mode was fast too, finding and locking on our subjects within a second.
Like the SP-550, the telephoto capabilities of the 18x "Wide view" lens add tremendously to the overall versatility of the camera, covering a 35mm equivalent range of 27 - 486mm. At 27mm, you'll be able to capture large group shots and beautiful landscapes, while the 486mm end will take high quality images of very distant subjects without resorting to the digital zoom. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled, with only small traces of purple fringing evident in high contrast areas. We found a moderate amount of barrel distortion at wide angle, and slight pincushioning at the telephoto extreme. Overall a very nice lens that complements the SP-560 nicely. You can see for yourself by taking a look at some examples on our samples page.
The SP-560 also allows you to capture uncompressed RAW .ORF image files. These need to be later converted into JPEG format either in-camera or in an image editor that supports Olympus' RAW format. Like more advanced cameras, you can also choose to shoot RAW + JPEG. Overall, I don't think this function will be used by the average user who will purchase this model. However, it does add some appeal, and I'm sure some of the more advanced users will appreciate its inclusion in the feature set of this model.
The SP-560 allows you to record movies at 640x480 (30fps), 320x240 (15fps), or 160x120 (15fps). Sound can be recorded, however you have to make sure you enable this option in the Rec. Menu. When recording movies with sound, the optical zoom may not be used during recording, but can be preset beforehand. Again, like the SP-550, Image Stabilization is disabled when sound is enabled during movie recording, but can be activated when sound is turned off. This is very disappointing as not many users will record movies without audio. Taking away the IS makes no sense and I'm sure many consumers will be upset that they will not be able to capture nice steady long telephoto movies without some sort of camera support. Overall, our movie samples were good with typical amounts of compression noise. Just remember, the SHQ (640x480, 30fps) mode consumes about 1.7MB per second, so be sure you have a large capacity xD card.
The SP-560 continues the use of four standard AA-type cells, this means you can use a variety of different batteries. We highly recommend the use of NiMH cells or one-use lithiums if you are in a bind. We found that the SP-560 is very good at conserving power, and allowed us to capture over 150 shots and several movies as well as conclude our other test on a single set of batteries.
Bottom line - the Olympus SP-560 UZ is a very well balanced super-zoom model. Overall, the camera offers some very appealing features, great image quality both indoors and out, and plenty of resolution to create up to poster size prints. The only negatives I found with the camera were its shooting performance results in single exposure mode are a bit behind the rest of the market, and while it offers blazing fast performance in High Speed mode, you are forced to use such a small image size setting. With a street price of US$449 or less, I feel it offers an Ok value for such a capable consumer model with 8-megapixels and an awesome 18x Wide optical zoom lens.
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