Photographers are a greedy bunch, always wanting more. Lenses never zoom far enough, go wide enough or focus closely enough. But, if you can still say that about the new 12-megapixel Olympus SP-590 UZ and its 26x wideangle zoom, there's something the matter with you. It can be all yours for around £280.
That lens has an equivalent focal range of 26-676mm. That's 2mm wider than the average wideangle zoom -- and it does make a difference -- and long enough to fill the frame with a gnat in the next county. Probably. And, on the subject of close-ups, this lens can focus right down to 10mm in super macro mode, making it surely the most versatile lens ever to make it off the drawing board.
Usually with lenses, the more ambitious the specs, the dodgier the quality gets at or near operational limits, but this lens holds up remarkably well. At normal focal lengths, it's sharp, largely distortion-free and doesn't suffer from much chromatic aberration either. The definition does fall away at the longest zoom settings, though, but this is pretty typical of superzooms in general.
With or without image stabilisation (the SP-590 has it), it's pretty difficult to keep faraway subjects steady in the frame long enough for the autofocus to get a proper fix. The SP-590's AF is quicker than most, though, so your chances of getting a half-decent shot at maximum range are good.
You also get digital SLR-style aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes, and Olympus' quick-action 'function' menu makes it easy to adjust the drive mode, white balance, ISO and metering pattern. By now, enthusiasts might be thinking the SP-590 has got the lot...
Well, not quite, although it does depend on what you're comparing the SP-590 to and what your priorities are. It's not really a substitute for a digital SLR because it can't shoot raw files (important for maximum dynamic range/image quality), has a nasty little electronic viewfinder instead of a crystal-clear optical viewfinder, and the focusing just doesn't have quite the same speed and 'snap'. And, while the SP-590's picture quality is pretty good, an SLR's will always be better.
But the SP-590's still much better than an everyday compact. If you can put up with the extra bulk, you'll get a camera that's dramatically more versatile than the average snapper, and you won't have to remortgage your house to do it.
Olympus isn't the only maker to offer a superzoom, of course. There's the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS, Nikon Coolpix P90 and Pentax X70, for a start. Of these, the Canon is the fastest and most responsive, but by far the most expensive. The other two are cheaper but more sluggish. The SP-590 manages to combine the speed of the Canon with the cost of the other two, so, in that sense at least, it's a pretty good buy.
Superzooms are tricky to recommend. Real photography enthusiasts will find they do a great deal but only tolerably well. The Olympus SP-590 UZ, however, is one of the best of the bunch and comes at a price that makes it well worth a punt.
Edited by Charles Kloet