Olympus SP-350 Review
The 8-megapixel SP-350 and 7-megapixel SP-310 are some of the latest offerings from Olympus this year (2005), and are the first of the new "SP" model line. The SP-350's features include a 3x optical zoom lens, large 2.5-inch LCD display, flash hot shoe for Olympus Speedlights, and VGA (640x480) size movie mode, all stuffed into a very compact and rugged body. Aimed more at the novice user, the SP-350 has plenty of manual controls, but it also has a simpler side with user-friendly Auto and Program exposure mode as well as 24 pre-programmed SCENE modes for various shooting situations.
The ergonomics of both models are pretty awesome. Even though they are very compact, the large handgrip affords a secure and comfortable fit in your hands, and the various controls of the camera fall naturally under your fingertips. The only buttons that were hard to reach was the 4-way controller and the OK/Menu button. However a quick change in the way you hold the camera takes care of that. I was happy to see that Olympus included both an eyelevel optical viewfinder and the color LCD screen. This 2.5-inch display works well outdoors, even in the bright sun light. While shooting in lower lighting conditions it "gains up" well, allowing you to frame your subject; something you could never do with a 35mm film camera.
While there are many positives to this camera, there is also a very big negative - its shooting performance. Power up until the first image is captured was average at about 3.2 seconds. The all important shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter release and actually capturing the image) measured 2/10 of a second when pre-focused and 9/10 of a second including autofocus; much slower than some of the least expensive models on the market today. The shot to shot delay when using single exposure mode was 2.3 seconds without the flash and 4 - 10 seconds with the flash (depending on subject distance.) When I was shooting portraits with the flash at mid-telephoto range the time between shots was very aggravating.
There are three burst or continuous capture modes to choose from (Normal, HI and AF.) With normal mode, I captured 3 images in 2.7 seconds before the buffer was filled. HI speed mode captured 2 frames in approx. 8/10 of a second. Once the buffer is filled it takes 10 seconds or more to clear and then you may continue shooting. AF mode is similar to normal mode, however I observed that the camera focuses on the subject before it captures an image, where the other modes lock focus once in a series. The LCD is all together unusable during any of these modes. In this instance, however, the optical viewfinder comes in very handy. Our tests were done using a 512MB xD-Picture Card, Program mode, SHQ quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default unless specified otherwise. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
Image quality was actually quite good for an 8-megapixel consumer model. The majority of our outdoor samples were sharp and well exposed, but I did see some noticeable edge blurring, like image noise, which can only be seen when viewing images at 100% and is very unlikely to be seen in any of your prints. Speaking of noise, I found levels were average at lower ISO speeds, noticeably increasing at ISO 200 and 400. Like many Olympus models, the SP-350's white balance and exposure systems work very well, with the Auto WB setting producing accurate color temperatures in a variety of lighting conditions. I was especially pleased with all of our outdoor people shots when using its dedicated Portrait scene mode. Our samples were tach sharp, well exposed, and showed true skin tones.
I was also very impressed with our indoor results. Its tiny built-in flash boasts a range of up to 12.5 feet at wide angle; but lets be honest, who really shoots with wide angle indoors all the time? I found when using the zoom to frame for portraits, that the effective range drops somewhere between 5 - 8 feet. This is your typical range, and will be sufficient enough for most interior shooting, however, if you need more power, just slap on one of Olympus' Speedlights; Like the compact FL-20, and you'll have no problems lighting up your family members from across the room.
Like you see on just about every consumer model these days, both the SP-350 and SP-310 can record QuickTime video at either 640x480 or 320x240 resolution. The frame rate can be set at 30 or 15 frames per second. Audio is recorded, however you have to enable it via the menu; I found this out the hard way. When using its high-quality 640x480 30fps mode, clip length is limited to a total of twenty seconds. While the length of a 320x240 clip is limited only by the amount of available space on your memory card. Our movie samples were good, showing minimal compression noise and the AF system does a good job, especially when you consider that I was shooting through glass when recording one of our clips (an example with sound will be added promptly.) The digital image stabilization seemed to help us capture steadier movies, however I would still recommend using some sort or camera support like a monopod when recording.
Battery life was also disappointing. At first I thought that the set of 2500mAh NiMH cells that I was using were bad. However it seemed no matter what set was used, it was about the same. Olympus does not specify how many images can be captured, but I found it took nearly three battery changes to capture about 100 shots and conclude several of our other tests; this is using the LCD 100% of the time and taking several photos with the flash.
Bottom line - the Olympus SP-350 was a mixed bag. We loved its ergonomics, image quality, and versatile exposure modes, but the slower than average shooting performance and poor battery life forces us to ask you to consider other models. While we can't prove this, we feel its shooting performance suffers due to the very slow recording xD-Picture Card media. Olympus really needs to either join the SD band wagon or release these newer and faster xD cards right away!
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