Operation and controls

The SP-500UZ has a real wealth of features and controls, and though many of the more advanced options are fairly well hidden in the extensive on-screen menu system, most of the important stuff - exposure controls (including AE compensation), white balance, ISO and so on - is no more than one or two key presses away. More importantly the level of customization on offer (common to most enthusiast Olympus cameras) means tailoring the camera to your own style of shooting is easy, whilst the fairly simple control layout and huge selection of scene modes means the SP-500UZ retains a beginner-friendly face for those less interested in manual control.

Rear of camera

To the right of the electronic viewfinder are the flash pop-up switch and screen / viewfinder toggle button. Down the right side of the screen are the DISP / GUIDE button (for changing the information shown on screen), flash button and a dedicated 'QUICK VIEW' button - for checking recently captured images without going the whole hog and switching to playback mode. Finally the ubiquitous four-way controller (with an 'OK / menu' button in the middle).

Top of camera

The top of the camera is home to the mode dial and shutter release (which sits in the middle of the zoom rocker). The lens, shown here extended, doesn't retract fully into the body when powered down (it sticks out around 6mm). To the right of the flash are the main power switch and AEL/Custom button - the latter can be configured to control virtually any shooting parameter

Display and menus

The most basic record screen, in fully automatic mode - showing focus brackets, memory in use (internal or xD), current file setting and a 'memory gauge' - the gray line on the left, which turns green as the buffer fills. You can actually turn the last three off if you prefer a more uncluttered preview screen. Half-press the shutter and the display changes to indicate the focus area selected (in iESP mode). There's no exposure information (shutter speed/aperture) in auto mode, but a green dot shows correct focus, and the flash symbol turns red if it is turned off and the exposure is likely to result in camera shake (as shown above).
In program mode the main difference is the appearance of exposure (aperture / shutter) information and an AE compensation indicator (top right) - pressing the left or right buttons on the 4-way controller changes the value. In aperture or shutter priority modes the up and down keys change the relevant setting. The value turns red if it's outside the usable range (i.e. if it would result in over or under exposure).
The SP-500UZ offers several other display options in record mode. Pressing the 'DISP' button cycles through the various options, including 'rule of thirds' grid lines. Finally you can bring up Olympus's excellent live histogram.
In manual exposure mode the up and down arrows control shutter speed, the left and right aperture. The EV display changes to show how far from the metered exposure you are. It's a neat, and highly usable system for those who like total control. The manual focus mode has an option for enlarging the central portion of the frame - essential given the fairly low resolution of the screen.
The SP-500UZ has a grand total of 21 subject modes. Each mode is illustrated with a photo thumbnail and a brief text description of what it does.
Pressing the menu button in the middle of the four-way controller brings up this menu - pressing one of the arrow keys takes you to one of the four choices. Note that the top, left and bottom 'shortcut' can be assigned to almost any setting, so if you change white balance and ISO most often, you can put them here. The SP-500UZ offers a wide range of shooting sizes and quality settings, including RAW - something still rare on this class of camera, especially in a 'budget' model.
The right arrow takes you to full - and extensive menus. There's four 'tabs'; camera, picture, card (formatting) and setup. The menus have options for virtually every shooting variable, from macro, burst and drive mode to ISO, white balance, focus mode, sharpness, saturation and contrast.
The setup menu is where you change basic camera settings; audio, color schemes (for the menus) and startup images, LCD brightness and date/time. This menu is also accessible from playback mode. One nice touch is that the AE lock button can have almost any function assigned to it, including ISO and white balance.