Full manual controls, a 10x optical zoom lens that's perfect for sports photography, a big, bright electronic viewfinder, and the ability to focus down to 30mm make the 4-megapixel Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom a camera that enthusiasts can use for serious work. Its ability to save photos in TIFF format, its hot shoe for mounting an external flash, and its robust MPEG-4 moviemaking capabilities add to its appeal for the dedicated photographer. Yet you don't have to be experienced to take advantage of this versatile camera. A dozen automatic shooting modes; sophisticated exposure, flash, and white-balance automation; and simple controls make this Olympus a camera that a neophyte can grow with.
Its chief shortcomings are its lack of a raw photo mode and its nonassisted autofocus, which dawdles under low-contrast lighting conditions. If you can live with QuickTime movies instead of MPEG-4 and can take a major performance hit in TIFF mode, the similar C-765 Ultra Zoom has most of the same goodies for about £30 less.
Fairly compact for an electronic viewfinder (EVF) camera at 340g and about 100 by 60 by 70mm, the Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom has a silver-toned, metal and plastic body that feels solid in your hands. It's balanced well enough for one-handed shooting, although you'll probably want to brace the camera with the other hand when the lens is cranked out to the 380mm (35mm-camera equivalent) telephoto position. Still, one finger is all you need to operate this camera because the zoom lever is mounted concentrically around the shutter-release button.
At first glance, it looks like the only other feature on top of the camera is a knurled mode dial; the pop-up flash unit is flush with the surface when retracted, and the hot shoe is covered by a sliding plastic insert that proved too easy to knock loose accidentally. The back panel is sparsely covered with controls, most of which reduce the clutter by doing triple or quadruple duty. For example, a single sliding switch serves to power up the camera and to alternate between the playback, recording, and movie modes.
A triad of buttons next to the EVF eyepiece also serve multiple functions, depending on your current mode. One locks autoexposure, activates any of 19 camera features, or rotates vertically orientated pictures. The second activates the timer or the separate remote control and bins unwanted pictures immediately after a shot, while the third changes flash mode or, during playback, protects the currently viewed image from being accidentally erased. There's also a quick-review button, a key for switching between the EVF and the back-mounted 4.5cm LCD, a sliding diopter control next to the viewfinder, and a button that pops the flash up.
The four-way cursor keys with a central OK/Menu button allow you to navigate through the menus and give you quick access to a few frequently used settings, including exposure compensation. Enthusiasts will appreciate how easy the manual controls are to use. Once your aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual exposure has been set, the f-stop and the shutter speed (or both, in manual mode) can be set by pressing the left/right and up/down cursor keys. To focus manually, you simply hold down the Menu key for longer than a second, and a focusing scale will appear on the LCD. Press the up/down keys to focus, or the left/right keys to switch between manual and autofocus. In manual focus mode, an enlarged view appears in the center of the EVF or rear LCD.
Much of the Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom's appeal is due to its 10x optical zoom, which, despite its reach, protrudes less than 50mm from the camera body. With an f/2.8 maximum aperture when set at 38mm, its widest angle (35mm-camera equivalent), the lens retains a respectable f/3.7 opening even at the 380mm (equivalent) top end, making this a prime optic for the sports photography workout we gave it. You may find the 38mm wide-angle view a bit limiting in tight quarters, however.
Olympus touts its 4x Super Zoom feature, which simply crops a 1,600x1,200 chunk out of the middle of the frame and wasn't really much better than a standard digital zoom that fills the frame by upsampling a smaller section of the sensor's pixels. You can probably do better enlargements in your image editor. If simple optical magnification doesn't float your boat, you can get large scale views of your subjects by moving in to as close as 70mm in standard macro mode or an intimidating 120mm in Olympus's Super Macro mode, using automatic or manual focus.