Operation and controls

Olympus obviously decided that the best approach to its return to the stabilized super zoom market was to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the SP-550UZ, and so as well as that huge zoom there's a real wealth of photographic features on offer here, and it's a challenge to find anything that's been left out.

As with most such cameras the SP-550UZ inevitably suffers in comparison to even the cheapest entry-level digital SLR when it comes to actually using all those features, and it could really do with a control dial of some sort to make using the manual and semi automatic exposure modes a little more fluid. But the FUNC menu and level of customization do help keep the important stuff at your fingertips and the user interface is clean and relatively intuitive.

Rear of camera

The rear of the camera doesn't break any new ground; the controls are built around the ubiquitous four-way controller (which also provides direct access to self-timer, flash mode, macro/super macro and AE compensation. There are also buttons for switching to playback mode, deleting images, bringing up menus and changing the amount of information displayed on-screen. The button above the LCD screen is used to toggle between the main monitor and the electronic viewfinder.

Top of camera

From the top the SP-550's excellent front and rear grips are obvious, as is the debt the overall styling owes to traditional SLR design. When powered down the lens retracts into the wider fixed barrel.

Display and menus

Overall there is little to complain about here; the SP-550's user interface does a good job of taming the huge feature set, is easy on the eye and relatively intuitive. There are some inconsistencies and foibles that take some getting used to, and I cannot see the point of the two-level menu system (other than to offer a pretty screen when you press the menu button), but for most everyday photography the interface rarely gets in the way.

As usual you can choose the amount of detail displayed on-screen, from very basic (nothing but the focus brackets) to this, the full works, including a 'memory gauge' - the blue line on the right, which turns green as the buffer fills. You can also display a large, clear RGB histogram. Hidden away in the record menu there's also an option called 'direct' that uses color overlays to highlight overexposed areas directly on the preview image.
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 full auto mode (or any of the scene modes), 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. In all other modes you do get full exposure info. 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). To accept the setting and use the keys to change, for example, the self-timer (or bring up a menu), you have to press 'OK', which I found annoying in the studio, but isn't a problem when out shooting.
The image stabilizer is turned on and off using the dedicated button on the top of the camera (this can be reassigned using the custom button menu). The manual focus mode has an option for enlarging the central portion of the frame. As with all such systems the low resolution of the focus aid makes it almost pointless.
This rather Canon-like 'Function' menu is activated by pressing the OK/FUNC button in most modes. Here you get quick access to white balance, ISO, drive and metering options (note that the menu is normally displayed as an overlay on the live preview). There is a special Shooting Guide position on the mode dial, which brings up three pages of basic advice on how to use the camera.
The SP-550UZ has a grand total of 23 subject modes. That not enough for you? Then create up to four of your own with Olympus's highly customizable 'MyModes'.
Pressing the menu button brings up a page of icons covering Camera Menu, Setup, Image Quality and (if the mode dial is set to SCN), Scene mode. There is also a 'Silent Mode', which quickly turns off all camera sounds. This was apparently at the request of the Trappist monk community... Selecting the Camera Menu option brings up an extensive menu system with five pages of options (many of which are duplicated in the quick 'FUNC' menu, so you don't actually need to visit here that often.
The Image Quality option lets you choose from a fairly wide selection of image quality / size variations, including RAW. Unusually you can choose the size / quality of the JPEG duplicate saved with each RAW shot (or turn it off altogether).
The setup menu is where you change basic camera settings; audio, card formatting, LCD brightness and date/time etc. This menu is also accessible from playback mode. It's worth noting that the Image Stabilizer button (on the top of the camera) is highly customizable, and can be set to control something you're more likely to want to change on a regular basis.