Software - RAW conversion
Olympus supplies the latest version of its consumer level image management / raw conversion software, Olympus Master 1.4, with the SP-500UZ. The application is pretty fully featured, offering image browsing, editing and automatic downloading, plus a basic (though still fairly comprehensive) raw conversion utility. Aside from the issues we had with the quality of the raw conversion (see below) our only problem with Master was that it is rather flaky on the Apple Mac, crashing with depressing regularity. It worked perfectly well running on a Windows machine, thought the raw conversion module is very sluggish.
JPEG & RAW Resolution compared
Using the supplied software there appears only a small resolution advantage to shooting raw, but of course you do get much cleaner, less processed output (by default the JPEGs are quite highly sharpened) and post-shot control over stuff like white balance, contrast, sharpening and noise reduction.
At the time of writing this review Adobe has yet to release an updated version of its Camera Raw plugin that supports the SP-550UZ, therefore our usual comparison won't be available for a while, but our experience has been that Adobe can usually eke a little more resolution out of raw files, so it will be interesting to see.
As shown below the output from the raw converter (using the default settings) looks very soft indeed, something even setting the sharpness (in Olympus Master) to maximum doesn't help. A little experimentation reveals that the problem is the Noise Reduction, which even at ISO 50 (as here) lacks subtlety (or to put it another way, blurs the output indiscriminately). Turning the NR off helps a lot (see the next section for more examples). We also tried the (paid for) full version of Olympus Studio, but to be honest aside from more effective sharpening the results weren't significantly different.
|Olympus Master RAW
RAW -> TIFF
|JPEG from camera
|Olympus Master RAW
RAW -> TIFF
Noise reduction off
ISO 100 Studio shot comparison (default settings)
As the crops below show the default output at ISO 50 is nothing short of shocking; soft to the point of being plain blurry. Turning the noise reduction off brings back the detail, and looks a lot sharper, but there is visible noise, and to be frank you'll struggle to get anything significantly better than an SHQ JPEG without a lot of work. That said, the real advantage of RAW - control over white balance, a little extra latitude on exposure and the option to take full control over noise reduction and sharpening - is still there, and for the serious user it's worth experimenting with. But for now, with the supplied software as your only option for converting the files, you'll struggle to see any actual image quality improvement over a well-exposed (and correctly white-balanced) JPEG.
ISO 400 Studio shot comparison
At ISO 400 the camera's own noise reduction system is effective (in that it removes the 'graininess'), but to many the output will look unacceptably processed (and there is a serious loss of fine, low contrast detail), and so the use of RAW at least opens up some other options. The supplied software produces a way too soft result if you leave the noise reduction (which appears to be based on gaussian blurring!) on, and a very noisy - but sharper and more detailed - result if you turn it off. The point here is that you can at least then make your own decisions on how you balance the noise/detail trade-off, and you have the freedom to use more sophisticated NR tools (such as NeatImage). For quick snaps that won't be enlarged too much I have to say i'd probably go for the JPEG.
ISO 1600 Studio shot comparison
At anything over ISO 400 you are going to struggle to get anything usable no matter which route you take; the ISO 1600 crops shown below need little commentary (ISO 800 is a little, but not a lot, better) - the sensor simply isn't up to this, and whilst the RAW file (without noise reduction) is the sharpest, so much detail has been lost to noise that I doubt even the most expert NeatImage user could get a lot out of it. Of course for social snaps in low light destined for small prints or reduced-size web use you might find the JPEG acceptable, but I can't really see any point shooting RAW at over ISO 400.