The smart-looking, matte-black, 8-megapixel Olympus SP-350 is one of three cameras that launched Olympus's SP line; the other two are its 7-megapixel twin, the SP-310 and the 6-megapixel, 10x-zoom SP-500 UZ. The Barbie-size SP-350 is not only one of the most affordable 8-megapixel cameras on the market but also one of the smallest. Its 24 scene modes will appeal to snapshooters, while enthusiasts will appreciate this pocketful's manual controls, raw-capture and custom settings, and optional conversion lenses, external flash and underwater housing. Once you get past those attractions, however, you're left with relatively mediocre performance and photos.
Despite its diminutive size, the moderately lightweight 233g (when equipped with one CR-V3 or two AA batteries and an xD-Picture Card) Olympus SP-350 handles surprisingly well. Photographers with sizable mitts may feel cramped by its tiny buttons, but its controls are arranged within easy reach around the 64mm LCD. Other than flash, exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speeds -- which you can control directly with the navigation buttons -- all other functions are menu-driven; you even have to scroll through the tabbed menu to turn on the macro setting, which slowed shooting on a couple of occasions.
But the menus are filled with sophisticated features, such as metering and focusing options, raw capture (with basic on-board raw editing and conversion), user-controllable noise reduction and flash intensity and white-balance compensation for fine-tuning colour bias. You can set and save four groups of parameters and access them via the mode dial. Sharpness, contrast and saturation are adjustable an amazing five full steps up or down.
The Olympus SP-350's multiple burst modes include bracketing for focus as well as exposure. A time-lapse feature captures images over an extended period, and in Manual mode the Bulb feature allows long exposures. The camera also has a high-resolution movie mode.
The 38mm-to-114mm (35mm equivalent) lens zooms smoothly through its focal range, although the autofocus lags a nanosecond behind. Equipped with an AF illuminator, the Olympus SP-350 can accurately focus under low light; it may take a fraction longer than you'd like, but the camera does lock. Although the LCD gains up in low light, it has relatively low resolution and tends to wash out in bright sunlight, leaving you to take your chances with the tiny -- but bright -- optical viewfinder.
The Olympus SP-350 doesn't come close to breaking any speed records in burst mode, although at a little better than 1fps, it beats the camera's sluggish single shot-to-shot times, which can reach almost 5 seconds with flash. If you're shooting in raw format, you'll have to wait about 12 seconds before you can shoot again.