After the success of its PEN series of micro four-thirds cameras, Olympus is also looking to strengthen its portfolio in the compact digicam market. The superzoom digicam, which offers DSLR-like looks and DSLR-like image quality is becoming an increasingly popular category among budding photographers. I was really impressed with the Nikon P500, a superzoom camera I reviewed a few months ago. The new 14-meg Olympus SP-810UZ I have unwrapped now is a similarly endowed clicker recently launched by the company.
At first sight, the SP-810UZ is markedly different from the other superzooms. The thin body is the equivalent of any regular digicam in the market, and only the lens and protruding grip add width to this otherwise petite shooter. My snazzy black unit with chrome detailing looked professional, and the shiny plastic wasn't flimsy. The oversized lens and small body are disproportionate, but the benefits are immense considering how light the camera is - just 413 grams, including the battery and memory card. I'm not surprised though, considering Olympus' expertise in creating compact cameras.
The 36x zoom lens translates into 24-864 mm on a 35mm lens equivalent, with a maximum aperture of 2.9.
The controls are also classic Olympus – minimalist but intuitive. The back panel has a dedicated recording button – the camera can capture videos in 720p HD. Other controls include a Play and Menu button, and a circular dial which helps you navigate the menu and make any other changes. The 2.3-inch LCD screen is not touch sensitive, but comes with an auto-orientation sensor. Considering that the camera doesn't have a viewfinder, it would have been nice if Olympus had included a tiltable LCD, a feature that some Panasonic Lumix superzooms have. There's also a pop-out flash, but unfortunately no dedicated button to activate it.
The menu is easy to navigate, and controls for modes appear right on the screen when you turn on the camera. There are 16 scene modes to pick from as well as magic filters, which I really enjoyed using on the EP-3. The classic Pin Hole is available, as well as new modes like Punk, Sparkle, Drawing and Reflection. The camera doesn't offer many manual controls, which is quite disappointing. There's only a Program (P) mode, which lets you adjust Flash, Exposure, White Balance, ISO and shooting mode. P mode also lets you switch to Macro and use the Burst modes. With even the most basic digicams offering full manual control, I was disappointed that the camera didn't give me the option to adjust aperture and shutter speed.
Strangely, the camera doesn't offer any Macro option in the Scene modes, but it is available in the Magic Filters and Panorama mode. The camera does offer a 3D mode, but it takes a bit of work and you can only see the results on a 3D screen. It captures one photo, and then you have to overlap that over the same subject, until the edges almost overlap visually on the screen and the camera automatically captures a second shot.
Obviously, the first thing to test on a camera like this would be the results in maximum zoom. At full zoom, I snapped some shots of a shy Spotted Dove at midday. In the harsh afternoon sun, the photos weren't washed out, and most of the detail was preserved, as you can see in the sample shots. However, in most of the maximum zoom shots, I noticed soft edges and a lack of sharpness. It might be too much to expect from a regular digicam, but DSLR users will be disappointed at the average quality.
ISO goes up to 1600, but even at ISO 200, there was visible noise in the photos. I took some portrait shots indoors under adequate lighting, and while they looked fine on the LCD, they looked very different when I transferred them to my computer. Again, images lacked sharpness and fine detail was lost. Also, despite the 14 megapixel resolution, the image quality resembled that of an 8-meg phone camera.
My favourite setting on any camera is the Macro mode, and like I mentioned earlier, there isn't a dedicated Macro scene mode. In P mode with Macro turned on, the camera found it difficult to focus. It frequently focussed on the wrong object, because it only has one central focal point. Autofocus is also slow, so wildlife and action shots are difficult to capture. Regular macro mode let me focus only up to 6cm away from my subject. The super macro mode which you have to use without zoom was much better, letting me take shots from as close as 4cm away.
I shot a few videos in HD, and was glad to find that results were sharp and sound quality was great too. You can also capture videos using any of the Scene or Magic modes, which can produce some quirky results.
The camera's handy size and various scene and magic modes make it a good option for those who like to have their camera handy at all times. It's also a good buy for beginner or casual photographers who want to look like they're holding a professional snapper. However, for those of you who are more interested in taking quality shots, you might be better opting for one of Olympus's PEN series.
Love: Compact form factor, easy user interface
Hate: Average picture quality, lags when focussing
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