I found the Stylus SP-820UZ iHS to be fast to start up, relatively quick to focus (in easy shooting situations), and easy to operate. The camera starts up and can capture an image in 1.5 seconds. The shutter lag is minimal: If you have pre-focused the camera, the shutter lag is likely to be 0.1 second or less. (In fact, when measuring this lag, I found the shutter trip to be almost instantaneous - it took me five tries just to measure a lag as long as 0.1 second.)
If you have not yet focused, you're more likely to experience the 0.3-second shutter lag I got in my testing. The autofocus usually operates well, and is moderately quick to lock onto a subject. It's not the most sophisticated, however. Although there is face recognition AF and AF tracking, there is no multi-area AF nor can you move the AF box in Spot mode. Focus is not strongly emphasized with this camera - there is no manual focus option nor is AF mode one of the quick selections available via the four-way control (you have to launch the full menu). The powerful zoom sometimes poses a challenge for the autofocus system, as does low light, and the autofocus on occasion will swim in and out in its attempt to fix on your subject.
What makes this camera easy to operate is the layout of the four-way control. Rather than assign all four positions to a function, the left and right positions are reserved for immediate shooting menu navigation. For example, in Program mode pressing left will take you to the flash menu; pressing right will pull up whichever other setting you have changed most recently. The icons for all most commonly used settings display vertically on the right side of the LCD, and you use the up and down positions to navigate between them once you have entered this menu. This setup is something of an alternate to the dedicated quick menu button you see on some other cameras. I found it very convenient, and appreciated not having to find another button to make a quick setting change.
With a very powerful zoom lens, it's easy to assume that there will be artifacts and/or distortions at the edges of wide-angle images. Also, Olympus bills its image stabilization as dual, meaning that in addition to sensor-shift anti-shake, some pixel processing is going on to further sharpen what sensor-shift and a high ISO could not sharpen. Some might say you have to pay the piper somewhere on a reasonably priced zoom, likely with anti-shake processing artifacts and/or digital noise.
I was pleased to see this first assumption stood on its head. I saw no significant vignetting or chromatic distortions (inaccurate color pixels) at the edges of my photos taken at wide angle. The camera tended to expose accurately and to do so in a wide range of conditions. However, that is not to say that this camera delivers the highest level of image quality. Viewing its images at 100% on-screen reveals its limitations, even at low ISO settings - there is a lack of crisp edges and some obvious pixilation. Whether this will be apparent to the typical user will depend on viewing habits and whether they make large prints. On our Sample Photos page, for example, you can see the amount of digital noise introduced at the higher ISOs. In these images the effect is isolated from anti-shake processing because these images are taken using a tripod.
Hand holding the camera (as most users are likely to do) will require the camera to also employ sensor-shake and/or high ISO and processing to sharpen images, which can contribute other artifacts. For example, compare images PC020695 and PC020702 on the Samples Page. The first is taken at ISO 80, yet a 100% view reveals the lack of fine details. Zooming in completely in the second image made the camera increase the ISO to 800 to help combat camera shake, and the not-quite-sharp results speak for themselves. I don't mean to employ an unfair fight here - the ability to zoom in that far and get a shot is a tremendous flexibility. But in late afternoon light, you'll want to want to pack a tripod to get more attractive super-zoom shots.
It almost seems obscene that a camera with a 40x zoom would offer digital zoom, but this one does. In fact, it offers both digital zoom and something called super-resolution zoom. Olympus explains in the manual that super-resolution zoom will not degrade image quality due to increased processing of pixel counts. I was not, however, able to see a significant different between the two methods of digital zoom. Using either method to further increase the zoom resulted in images that looked fuzzy and noisy, even at roughly 5x7-inches on a computer screen.
Video quality is on par for a camera in this price range. I wouldn't call it extremely sharp nor extremely dull in the details. The best part is that you can use the camera's powerful zoom while recording video. And though you hear the distracting sound of the zoom motor on the audio while it's in action, it's not the loudest nor the most annoying I've heard. Typical of point-and-shoot cameras, you'll see dancing digital noise in shadow areas and it will be more pronounced when not shooting in bright light. I would not make great fanfare of the fact that they are technically 1080p.
In my testing I found the built-in flash to be powerful, considering its small size. It scatters a lot of light. Indoors, I found the light to drop off at about 15 feet when using ISO Auto. The company publishes an outlandish flash range of 49 feet at wide angle - but this requires you use ISO 3200, which will undoubtedly result in a noisy image. I found that I could shoot in low light with this camera indoors, crank the zoom up to 40x and still get a usable flash shot, though the camera routinely cranked up the ISO to 1600 to help combat blur and introduced some digital noise in the process.
The best aspects of the SLR-like styling have to be the mode dial and ample handgrip. The mode dial offers eight positions for quick switching of shooting mode and the handgrip helps you keep a firm clutch on the camera. However, the camera does not offer any manual mode, nor aperture-or shutter-priority settings. Customizability is largely reserved for the Beauty Fix mode, which has its own mode dial setting. This camera offers a basic list of modes, filters and edit options. So it somewhat comes out of left field that the Beauty Fix edit mode offers a full 19 adjustable parameters - the camera doesn't even offer that many scene modes. You can't even apply any of the 12 magic filters to an existing shot - but you can add blush, lipstick and eyelashes to doll yourself up to look like comedian Eddie Izzard. In a camera dressed up to look serious, I found the attention paid to this gimmick a disappointment. Or, maybe I just need to lighten up and have some fun. (See photo PC030704 on the Samples page.)
Speaking of having some fun, that pretty much describes the screaming-fast high-speed burst modes. I clocked the high-speed burst modes at 11fps and 28fps. In both cases, the camera records 3-megapixel images and stops at 34 shots. At 28fps the camera does not even bother making the fake shutter noise - it's shooting so fast that you're done in about 1.5 seconds. On the Sample Photos page, see images PB230405 and PB230414, which were taken at 11fps. As you can see by the file names, they are nine images apart, yet the ball has only traveled a few feet. These extremely fast burst speeds are great for capturing fast action. The downside is reduced resolution, but 3=megapixels is still plenty for your average sized prints.
On the full-resolution burst side, the results are not as impressive. Olympus bills its full-resolution burst as reaching 3fps. However, that is at the faster of the full resolution burst modes - and it stops after just three shots. Burst 1 mode lopes along at 1.6fps, though it can keep recording with no limitation other than the memory card capacity.
The LCD is sharp and bright, with a 460,000-dot resolution. It's pleasingly crisp and colors are attractively saturated. The only limitation (other than that it is fixed and doesn't articulate) is that it sits recessed behind a protective window that's reflective, essentially taking away the viewing angle. For example, in bright sunlight it might be difficult to see well enough to frame a shot when holding the camera overhead or simply having a light source behind you.
The camera supports SD, SDHC and SDXC card formats, though it does not support UHS speed class. That's not to say it won't work with a UHS card, however. I was able to shoot with a SDHC Class 10 card with a Ultra High Speed 1 rating. You can also use an Eye-Fi card to enable WiFi capability.
Olympus does not publish a battery life rating for this camera, which runs on four AA batteries. The widespread availability of these batteries is tremendously convenient - especially if you already own some of the rechargeable variety.
Bottom line - The SP-820UZ iHS delivers a lot of zoom power for the price. More often than not the camera captures an accurate exposure, and offers a powerful built-in flash. However, image quality is not at the top of the heap. Though full-resolution burst is slow, the low-res modes are rapid-fire. If you have no need for extensive settings options or manual modes, but will be entertained for hours by the 19 adjustments in Beauty Fix mode, this camera is a good fit.
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