With one or two exceptions, superzoom cameras have only gone up to 12x optical zoom lenses in recent years. Olympus is pushing that boundary, however, with its new 7.1-megapixel SP-550 UZ, which sports an 18x optical zoom lens. The camera marks a shift back toward the company's older wide-zoom models since, like those, its lens' zoom range starts at a wide 28mm equivalent, which should help when you try to squeeze those last few friends or relatives into a group photo.
Not many superzoom cameras can claim such a wide lens, nor can they claim the reach that this camera's 504mm equivalent maximum zoom affords.
Much like last year's SP-510 UZ, the 550 UZ's body was designed with attention to detail, making it a very comfortable camera to use. A vast amount of the body, including the lens barrel, is covered in rubber and feels secure in your hand.
Plus, since Olympus placed almost all the buttons on the right side of the camera and well within reach of your right thumb and forefinger, one-handed operation is definitely a possibility. Of course, we always recommend using your left hand to steady the camera, especially one with a lens as long as this one.
Just in case your steady hands aren't enough, or in case you shoot at slow shutter speeds (slower than 1/500 second at the lens' maximum zoom, for example), Olympus includes sensor-shift (aka mechanical) image stabilisation to help steady your shots. While optical image stabilisation tends to be more effective than the sensor-shift variety, we found Olympus' method very effective and surprisingly quiet for mechanical stabilisation. For example, we were able to capture sharp images while holding the camera in our hands at 1/30 second with the lens zoomed to an equivalent of 128mm. That's two stops slower of a shutter speed than we'd normally shoot at that focal length.
In a fit of marketing hype, Olympus touts a dual image stabilisation system in the 550 UZ, though the second method, which they call digital image stabilisation, just pumps up the ISO and shutter speed to try to keep you from shooting with too slow a shutter speed. Since most of Olympus' competitors participate in the same kind of hype, it's hard to fault them for it, especially since they include the mechanical system as well.
We're less inclined to let Olympus off on the other specious marketing claims they associate with this camera, such as the supposed 15 frame per second burst rate and ISO 5000 sensitivity. The 15fps burst can only be achieved by setting the camera's pixel resolution down to 1.2 megapixels, while the ISO 5000 (or ISO 3200 for that matter) setting caps your pixel resolution at 3.2 megapixels. We find it disingenuous to prominently advertise features like these without just as clearly pointing out the shortcomings of those modes.
To Olympus' credit, there are plenty of features in the SP-550UZ that we enjoyed. In addition to full manual exposure controls, the 550UZ boasts 23 scene modes to help you take on challenging situations and explanations of each mode appear on the menu screens when you choose them. Plus the camera has a built-in guide, accessed through the main mode dial, which steps you through the adjustments needed to take on difficult shots, such as shooting a backlit subject, or shooting a subject that's in motion. Also, if you press the display button while the camera is turned off, it'll show the time and date, and in case you're on the road without your travel alarm clock, you can set the 550 UZ to wake you up with the alarm function included in the camera.
However, we'd give up some of those nice features if it would make this camera faster. The SP-550 UZ took 2.86 seconds to start up and capture its first JPG. Subsequent JPGs took an agonizing 4.61 seconds between shots with the flash turned off and 4.76 seconds between shots with the flash turned on. When shooting raw, the time between shots just about doubled to a crippling 9.39 seconds, and that was with the flash turned off.