Olympus SP-310 Review
The 7-megapixel SP-310 and 8-megapixel SP-350 are some of the latest offerings from Olympus this year (2005), and are the first of the new "SP" model line. The SP-310 includes many of the features found on its "big brother" like a 3x optical zoom lens, large 2.5-inch LCD display, and VGA (640x480) size movie mode, but resolution is decreased and there's no flash hot shoe. This compact consumer model is aimed more towards the novice user with loads of manual controls, but it will still appeal to those who are a little less experienced because it has user-friendly exposure modes like Auto and Program as well as 24 pre-programmed SCENE modes.
The ergonomics of both models is pretty awesome. Even though they are very compact, the large handgrip affords a secure and comfortable fit in your hands, and the various controls laid out on the body of the camera fall naturally under your finger tips. The only buttons that are hard to reach were the 4-way controller and OK/Menu buttons. However a quick change in the way you are holding 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 very well outdoors in the sun, and when 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.
The SP-310's shooting performance was slightly better than its sibling, but still disappointing. Power up to first image is captured averaged 3.6 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 6/10 of a second including autofocus. The shot to shot delay when using single exposure mode was 1.9 seconds without using the flash and 3 - 10 seconds depending on subject distance. I found it was more toward the end of the scale whenever I was shooting people shots using the mid telephoto range of the lens; which was very aggravating. There are three burst or continuous capture modes to choose from (Normal, HI and AF.) With normal mode, I captured 4 images in 2.8 seconds before the buffer was filled. HI speed mode captured 2 frames in approx. 4/10 of a second. Once the buffer is filled it takes about 8 - 10 seconds or more to clear and then you may continue shooting. AF mode is similar to normal mode, however the camera focuses on the subject before it captures an image, where the other modes lock focus once in a series. The LCD is unusable during any of these modes, however the optical viewfinder comes in very handy at times like this. Our test were done using a 512MB xD- Picture Card, Program mode, SHQ quality, preview off, flash off, and all other settings at default unless specified. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
I was pleased with the image quality if its 7-megapixel SHQ images. Our outdoor samples were sharp, well exposed and showed good overall color balance. Noise levels were average, becoming more noticeable as the ISO speed is increased. The exposure system did well in various conditions, allowing for beautiful sky and cloud detail. When shooting indoors, you will have to work with the limited flash range of approx. 12.5 feet (at wide angle.) I found it was sufficient for most interior shooting in small to medium sized rooms, however it just does not have the power to illuminate subjects in large open rooms like gymnasiums, halls, etc. We achieved the best results when shooting individual or small groups from no more than 6 or 7 feet away. In fact our people pictures turned out very nice with accurate skin tones and excellent flash exposure.
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 a how many images can be captured, but I found it took nearly three battery changes to capture about 80 shots and conclude several of our other tests; this is using the LCD 100% of the time and taking a several photos with the flash.
Bottom line - just like the SP-350, the Olympus SP-310 was disappointing. When we first saw the specs of this model, it looked very appealing. And we loved its ergonomics, image quality, and versatile exposure modes. However the poor shooting performance and short battery life really brings it down and it is very hard for us to recommend this model. We feel the shooting performance suffers due to the very slow recording media (xD-picture card.) Olympus really needs to either join the SecureDigital media band wagon or release those newer and faster xD cards, right away!
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