Review: Olympus SP-560UZ

Olympus SP-560 UZ

I switched to this camera from a Canon A610 that died on me. The first thing I noticed with this camera is that the picture quality on my $200 Canon was better or equal than this $400 camera. The dynamic range is poor, with skies often washed out to white. Like many “super-zoom” cameras competing on specs, it makes up for noise and dynamic range limitations in its small CCD by over-processing, and the images show signs of heavy noise reduction filtering, washing out details. Granted, this isn’t a DSLR, but this isn’t a cheap camera, either. It appears that they really pushed the boundaries of the CCD to get 8 MP, and used too small a CCD for this resolution.

This problem appears is common to all recent cameras in this market segment, such as the Canon S5. They are pushing the pixel counts so high, and the zoom ranges so far, that optical quality is suffering significantly as a result. (See this post for an example and more explanation of why.) So, you get a 18x zoom. Is there really any point in zooming in on a bad picture?

I’m sorry to offend Olympus fans, but Olympus engineers can’t violate the laws of solid state physics, and smaller pixels means less photoelectron capacity, and that means less dynamic range. Smaller pixels also means less signal to noise, and it shows. The fact of the matter is that they have pushed the pixel count too far for the size of the CCD, and you will get better images from a camera with fewer pixels, ironically.

Another issue I found is that the autofocus algorithm is rather slow, especially at long focal lengths, and it often has difficulty with any scene movement. Worse, it will sometimes tell you it focused successfuly when it didn’t. Part of this is the zoom, I’m sure, but my experience in this regard is backed up by some very in-depth reviews on dpreview.com.

Aggregiously, they have disabled the use of panorama shooting for any non-Olympus branded data card, which is completely unneccesary and a brazen shakedown of their own customers. After paying $400 for a camera, it is an insult to be forced to buy an overpriced branded card to utilize full function of your own purchase.

On the bright side, the build quality is generally quite good. Much better than the Canon S5, which I also considered. The camera has a nice heft and a very solid feel in the hand. The materials are high quality all over, the one exception being a cheap and annoying rubber cover on the USB port. They also made the poor choice of using a non-standard USB cable, so you cannot use your existing set of cables. In addition, I’ve found that the physical USB connection at the camera is not very secure and will reset the connection upon even the slightest movement of the cable.

A true high point is the zoom and image stabilization. The 18x range is exceptional, and essentially gives you everything from a wide-angle to a medium telephoto. Unfortunately, the cost of this is a lens that does not perform well at the extremes: at wide-angle its highly distorting, and at all lengths there is significant chromatic aberration (color fringing) off center.

In summary, Olympus made a mistake by following the crown (maybe in fact leading it) by putting way too much effort into specmanship, and less into making the right engineering decisions. They clearly wanted to have 18x and 8MP printed on the box, and considered image quality a secondary concern. This may be endemic to all the brands of super-zoom cameras, but it doesn’t change the fact that you don’t truly get your money’s worth where it counts with this camera: image quality. This is a huge shame, because in most every other aspect this is the one of the nicest cameras I’ve ever used.

My advice: if you need the resolution afforded by 8 MP, you need to just suck it up and buy an SLR. Only they have large enough detectors to handle such resolutions adequately, and use different technology than found in a consumer camera. Otherwise, just get a $200 5 or 6 MP camera with the largest CCD size you can find (avoid the smallest pocket cameras). The images will be just as good, if not quite a bit better, and you’ll save a lot of money.

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