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Operation and controls

The SP-560UZ lies in the gulf between the point-and-shoot compact and a fully-fledged DSLR. As such it tries to let the user interact to whatever degree they see fit: it has plenty of scene modes to tailor its settings to the image being shot and will happily detect faces and meter accordingly. Alternatively it has the spot metering and manual controls that the more hands-on user will want. Including both sets of features without overwhelming one group of users or frustrating the other is a delicate balance. So how does the SP-560UZ manage? Let's find out...

Rear of camera

The SP-560UZ takes advantage of its large size to offer a large selection of buttons. There are no real surprises here, with the utterly ubiquitous four-way controller giving access to exactly the same options as pretty much everyone else's cameras. The button above the screen switches between the LCD screen and the electronic viewfinder, while the one at the bottom right activates the 'shadow adjust' feature that tries to boost the lighting in regions of shadow (Not massively unlike the active D-lighting feature in the latest Nikon DSLRs).

Top of camera

The nice detail design can't stop the overall appearance of the SP-560UZ looking a little peculiar. It's an odd agglomeration of curves, bumps and blocks but one that feels comfortable in the hand. It won't win any beauty contests, but it has rather grown on us.

"One touch" White Balance

Custom white balance is one of the great underused benefits of digital photography - it is the best way of ensuring accurate color in your photographs, yet only a handful of users seem to use or appreciate it. The user interface of the SP-560UZ goes some way to explaining this puzzle.

The Olympus features a "One Touch" White Balance function. We know this because it says so in the manual (not the printed one that some users might read, but the PDF one included on a CD). The fleeting references it makes do little to help locate this quasi-mythical function but at least reassure you that there is something waiting for you at the end of your quest.

It's not available through the quick-access 'Function' menu - From there you can engage a custom white balance but not set one. Instead, the "One touch" screen is tucked away, four menus deep. We have yet to find a way of setting a custom white balance and engaging it in fewer than nine button presses. Presumably "Nine Touch" white balance sounds less snappy. What makes this farce even harder to forgive is that Olympus used to include White Balance as one of the features that could be assigned to a custom button on its compact cameras. On the SP-560UZ there are 15 functions that can be assigned to the custom button but white balance, irrespective of number of touches, isn't one of them.

Display

In use the SP-560UZ behaves in a fairly predictable manner and is easy to get along with. A quick-access 'Function' menu attempts to bring the most frequently changed options a bit closer to hand but, as we have seen with White Balance, only allows options to be selected, not modified. This makes quick access to a manual white balance setting or auto-bracketing pretty useless, as you have to wade into the full menus to define their behavior.

The record screen offers the usual options. You can just see just the image with focus points or detected faces overlaid. Alternatively, two levels of shooting information can be overlaid. There is a manual focus mode (in addition to the four auto focus modes). However, the zoomed-in focus confirmation window is so low resolution that you're still left guessing. It's also one of only two instances that requires buttons to be held, rather than pressed. (It's in the manual)
Digging around in the setup menu allows you to turn on either grid lines, to help with composition and lining your shots up, or diagonals across from corner-to-corner. Also hidden in the menus is the choice of whether to highlight the areas of the image that will be clipped to under- or over-exposure, or to show a live histogram.
The function menu gives quick access to some of the functions you might want to change frequently. If you want to tweak their behavior, you have to dig around in the menus. Playback mode, meanwhile, also gives a choice of just the image or the image with one of two levels of shooting information.
And, if you've turned histograms or highlight clipping on in record mode (it can't be accessed from playback mode, oddly), then you can choose to see a histogram or the clipped areas in the photos you're reviewing. Another cute feature of playback mode is the calendar view, that arranges your images by when they were taken. Which is useful as long as you only take a handful on each day. Fill the card in a day and its usefulness as a navigation tool diminishes.
The SP-560UZ features 25 separate scene modes. A pertinent question might be whether it's easier to learn how exposure works and use the camera manually, rather than trying to memorize whether there is a relevant scene mode for the shot you want. So specific are some of the modes that, at first, we wondered whether "Under water wide mode 1" was expressly designed for taking pictures of submerged villages. It could be for the tiny minority of users who buy the optional under water casing, of course.
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