Olympus SP-500

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The SP-500 is an ambitious camera from Olympus that offers a few surprises. With the benefit of a 10x optical zoom and a 6 million pixel CCD, the combination of quality engineering by Olympus and an impressive feature set, promises some great snaps whether you’re an amateur or a pro.

This semi-compact camera has all the usual automatic and scene modes that you find on most digital cameras these days. This is nothing special on its own. What I did find impressive was its ability to adapt, to many environments automatically and without user adjustment. But before I talk about the nice surprises, let’s just quickly run through what you get from this camera.

The 2.5-inch LCD display is the usual standard these days and offers a clear preview of what you’re taking. One problem you often find on digital camera LCD’s is that they’re difficult to view in bright sunlight conditions, however the SP-500 managed to survive in the hot summer days we had here in July.

The size of the camera is naturally larger than your typical compact camera and this is put down to the fact that this camera has a larger lens which is capable of reaching 10x magnification. The compromise in size is more than made up by the ability to zoom, a feature that I have learned over the years not to be able to do without. The limitations are quickly realised if you’ve ever tried out a compact camera which typically offers 3x optical zoom. There is a digital zoom just like all digital cameras have, but as we all know (or at least you should do), you should try to stay away from using it, and if possible to switch it off completely. The SP-500 does have a 5x digital zoom, just in case the 10x optical zoom isn’t enough.

The 10MB of integrated memory is in my opinion completely useless. On maximum quality settings you’ll only manage to take about 5 pictures, so purchasing an XD card is a definite must with this camera.

This follows the trend that all manufacturers take, however I’m puzzled as to why they bother putting such minute amounts of storage on board. I can understand why they don’t bundle larger card sizes that we often buy, say 256MB and upwards, but would it really hurt for them to integrate 32 or even 64MB?

Power is supplied by 4 x AA batteries. I was a little bit disappointed to find that it wasn’t using just 2 AA’s like a similar Kodak offering or a Lithium Ion rechargeable battery, however I did find battery life to be more than acceptable when using my 2500 mAh rechargeable AA’s. By last count I think I was on about 200 shots when the battery indicator started flashing.

The camera body itself felt really solid and robust. It didn’t creak when you were holding it and the lens cap provided sturdy and secure protection. The all-black-body gave it that SLR look of seriousness.

The button layout on the back was kept minimal with the most often used functions readily available (directional, display, review and menu keys). At the top you have the scroll wheel that lets you select the different shooting modes, zoom control and power button. Since this camera has an excessive number of scenes you can choose from (21 in total), you pick the scene by putting that scroll dial on the labelled Scene section and then scroll through on the screen to the one you want.

The array of scenes is impressive. Nearly every imaginable scenario you can think of can be found in this menu. I think it’s a little excessive. Some also overlapped and I also question whether some of these were correct. For example, sometimes when picking a scene such as Sunset did not work as well as setting it to Landscape when you wanted to take a picture of a sun set.

Picture processing time is another feature that this camera touts. Up to 3 shots per second can be achieved on this camera and you can choose between JPEG and RAW formats. This is often not an option for most users apart from true SLR camera owners. The ability to shoot in RAW mode may attract those semi-pro or more hardcore amateur photographers who want full, uncompressed resolution pictures.

The feature I liked most and use most often with my own camera is the Macro mode. Probably not as important to the average user, but for those artsy or creative types out there, a decent Macro mode is often an over-looked feature on digital cameras of this type. The SP-500 boasts a 3cm Macro Mode. This is about as good as it gets for a camera of this type and price point.

If you check out my sample shots of the Sony Ericsson M600i handset, you’ll see just how well the SP-500 handled the close up shot. The exquisite detail was captured with every pixel in mind and outputted a refreshingly crystal clear image. This makes the SP-500 an excellent all round performer along with its excellent ability to capture detail from afar. If you want to see how well the SP-500 handles different situations, purely by using the Automatic mode, you’ll be surprised at the clarity that this camera offers.

The Olympus SP-500 brings out the creative side and makes even amateur photographers and beginners look like professionals. An excellent feature set on this camera as well as its automatic focusing ability makes this camera a great all rounder, excelling in its zoom capabilities and stunning 3cm macro mode.

At £180, you can’t get a better ultra-zoom compact camera for that price. The Olympus SP-500 gets the TechCast Recommended Award.

2006-08-29 Onwah Tsang

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