Zoom range

Olympus created the first 18X zoom camera with the rather disappointing SP-550UZ. While it may not have been the greatest all-round camera, it does appear to have grabbed the attentions of the technicians and marketers at other camera makers. As a result, the SP-550UZ's successor no longer has the advantage of being the only 18X zoom on the market.

One of the most useful aspects of the lens is not so much the extraordinary length of the telephoto end of the zoom (which is only truly useful in a very specific situations), but the wide-angle end of the lens that extends to a really handy 27mm. This is as wide as the kit lens supplied with most contemporary DSLRs and obviates the need to lie in gutters, back yourself into corners or only befriend contortionists and structural elements of human pyramids, in order to get your chosen subject in shot.

27mm (equiv) Wide framing compared 486mm (equiv) Tele

Image stabilization

The SP-560UZ, like its rivals from Panasonic and Fuji, features an optical Image Stabilization system (in this case, like the Fuji S8000fd, using a moving sensor). This is pretty much essential with such a long lens because the longer the zoom, the more it will tend to show signs of being shaken. As a result, a long focal length usually requires fast shutter speeds so that there simply isn't time for the camera to noticeably shake while the shutter is open. The traditional approximation used was that most photographers can consistently, steadily hand-hold a camera down to around 1/equivalent focal length. Consequently, a 486mm equivalent zoom requires high shutter speeds or some kind of stabilization to be useful.

The stabilization test

In this simplified version of our SLR IS test, eight hand-held shots were taken of a static scene with the stabilization off and on. The shutter speed was decreased by a third of a stop and repeated (from 1/250 sec to 1/50 sec). The zoom was set to its maximum position (486mm equiv.), the test chart was 4.5 m away from the camera. This procedure was repeated ten times.

The resulting images were then inspected and given a blur score - 'Sharp' (no visible blurring at 100%), 'Mild Blur' (the kind of camera shake that is tolerable at small print sizes) 'Heavy Blur' (unusable due to camera shake) and 'Very Heavy Blur' (little discernible detail).

As the charts below show we were able to get a measurable one and a third stop advantage. More importantly we were able to get 'usable' results around half the time at shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second, rather than the one-in-ten hit rate we could manage hand-held.

Hand-held, no stabilization (486mm equiv.)

Already at 1/250th of a second we're not guaranteed to get a sharp shot every time and below 160th of a second, less than half of the images we take are properly sharp.

Image stabilization on (486mm equiv.)

With IS on, you're still not certain to get steady shots every time at 1/200th of a second. However, we found that you could still expect around half your photos to be sharp at 1/60th of a second, when you would be very lucky to get any at all with IS turned off. Overall, this doesn't appear to be quite as effective as the system employed in the Fuji S8000fd and means you'll still benefit from taking a couple of shots to be sure of getting a perfect one. It is still a feature worth having, not least because it stabilizes the image on the viewfinder, rendering distant detail distinctly.

Expression Edit

In one of the stranger features tucked away in the SP-560UZ's labyrinthine menus (and afforded one whole sentence in the full instruction manual), is the heroically gimmicky Expression Edit function. And, to be fair to the limited space given to it by the manual, it is pretty self-explanatory: it's a post-shooting special effect that manipulates the facial features of a picture in which the camera has detected a face.

Here is a picture of the glamorous model whose services we use for the fine detail noise reduction test. She may not be one of London's great beauties but she is nothing if not amenable. And, when the moment came, was the only 'person' we could find willing to have the end results of this function shown in public.
So there you have it, a function that turns your friends into the four rather un-nerving caricatures: Happy, Grumpy, Skeptical and Terrified. And turn them into ex-friends if you put the images up on the Internet.

Shadow Adjust

On a slightly more sensible note, the SP-560UZ has a 'Shadow Adjust' mode which uses a combination of changed exposure and tone curve alterations to brighten faces it has recognized (it will also lift shadows in contrasty scenic shots). Here are the results of switching the mode on and off:
Shadow Adjust off (Face not recognized) Shadow Adjust on