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Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom

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The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is the lowest-priced advanced camera I’ve ever examined. The SP-500 matches the image quality of much more expensive models, and it offers such notable features as a remote control like the one that accompanies the Canon PowerShot Pro1 (which costs almost twice as much) and the ability to store four customized scene modes.

The most exciting aspect of the SP-500 is its impressive 10X zoom lens. But because the camera has no image stabilization, this long zoom can be a mixed blessing. In anything other than bright sunlight you may end up with blurry pictures because the long zoom amplifies camera shake, especially with long shutter times.

The long lens expands 3.5 inches when the camera is on. Even so, the SP-500 isn’t terribly heavy—about 14 ounces with battery and memory card—and the wide grip makes it comfortable to hold while you shoot. You can easily snap a picture, use the zoom, or turn the mode dial with your right hand, but you’ll need your other hand to access the on-screen menu. An Auto-exposure Lock button is conveniently located on the top of the camera.

As for freezing quick action, the fastest shutter speed is a disappointing 1/1000 of a second; most advanced cameras I’ve tested have a minimum shutter speed of 1/2000 or 1/4000 of a second.

Though the 2.5-inch LCD screen is viewable in daylight, the electronic viewfinder works much better in that type of setting, and it also saves battery life. You can switch between the two by pressing a button to the right of the viewfinder.

Battery life should not be a worry. Powered by four AA Duracell Ultra batteries, this SP-500 was still going after 500 shots, which is when I stopped testing. And its use of standard AA batteries means that you won’t have any problem finding replacements.

Its resolution of 6 megapixels is a little behind that of the 7.2- and 8.4-megapixel models that we typically see in this category now, but the Olympus’ resolution is more than adequate for most people. You can easily enlarge images to 8-by-10-inch size and get photos that will look good on the wall.

You get a selection of 21 scene modes, including Museum (which turns off the sound and the flash) and an unusual Behind Glass mode. But there is no way to quickly switch from one mode to another; you have to scroll through the list. One workaround is to use the My Mode setting on the dial to create saved groups of settings; this enables you to switch among four groups of customizable settings—a nice touch for advanced photographers, who may prefer a setting that differs in its details from the closest default scene mode.

I was impressed with the color in the photos I took with the SP-500, and the camera accurately exposed the images. I did notice some slight distortion when using the zoom lens at its widest settings, and the photos looked rather soft: Details such as small text and fine lines dissolved in a blurry haze. Switching to the Document Scene mode, however, improved sharpness by boosting contrast.

jury tests

Color Quality—Accuracy Excellent
Clarity—Detail Good
Clarity—Artifacts, Noise Very Good

Scale = Excellent, Very Good, Good, Flawed, Unacceptable

To gauge picture quality, we take a series of shots, with and without flash, at the camera’s highest resolution. We photograph a complex still life and a mannequin using automatic settings in Program/Full-Auto Mode to see how well each camera captures subtle color and exposure under its default settings. We then photograph the same still life and a resolution moiré chart with semiautomatic settings using aperture priority, custom white balance, and exposure bracketing. We pick the best shots of each of those two subjects for judging. We also test the camera’s capability for minimizing noise using a range of ISO settings. We review the on-screen and printed photos and assign image-quality scores. The image-quality rating of the camera is based on five categories: exposure, color, sharpness, distortion, and overall.—Tested in conjunction with the PC World Test Center


Resolution 6 megapixels
Zoom/Focal Length 10X Optical (63mm)
Maximum Aperture f3.7
Size (wxhxd) 4.2 inches x 2.8 inches x 2.9 inches
Weight 13.6 ounces

Macworld’s buying advice

The Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom is a competitively priced camera with a long zoom lens, and numerous scene modes that will appeal to many photographers.

[ Richard Baguley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PC World, Wired, and He also maintains a Camcorder blog. ]

Olympus SP-500 Ultra Zoom
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