Olympus SP-590UZ Review

April 2, 2009 | Mark Goldstein |


The Olympus SP-590UZ is the newest member of Olympus' extensive range of ultra-zoom digital cameras. The SP-590 UZ boasts the biggest lens of them all - a mammoth 26x optical zoom that provides an incredible focal range of 26-676mm! This covers every imaginable subject, from wide-angle landscapes to close-up action and nature shots, with Dual Image Stabilisation thankfully on hand to help keep your pictures sharp. The SP-590UZ also offers a 12 megapixel sensor, 2.7 inch LCD screen, macro mode of 1cm, 10fps shooting (at 3 megapixels), Advanced Face Detection, ISO 64-6400 and a full range of creative exposure modes (P/A/S/M). Available in black, the Olympus SP-590UZ has a launch price of $449.99 / £360. We find out if this really is the Swiss Army knife of the digital camera world...

Ease of Use

The Olympus SP-590UZ closely resembles the smaller and simpler SP-565UZ camera, rather than the larger SP-S70UZ model which has a more complex control layout. All three cameras are currently available, so Olympus are certainly offering a lot of choice in this particular segment of the market. In hand, the SP-590UZ feels good. The very deep rubberised grip provides a secure hold and a good resting place for your fingers. The shutter release is in a natural location for your index finger, with the tactile zoom lever surrounding it. Despite the plastic body, everything feels generally well built and "substantial", with only the rather cheap pop-up flash button feeling a little out of place. The camera comes with a printed quick start guide and a fairly well cross-referenced PDF manual on disk. Not really much use though if you're taking pictures and need to find out what a particular option does.

The SP-590UZ is powered by four AA-sized batteries. The battery compartment door is located on the bottom plate and has a plastic lock. Next to it is the tripod socket, which is unfortunately made of plastic and not aligned with the lens' optical axis. Moving to the right hand side, as viewed from the back, you'll find the memory card compartment door. The Olympus SP-590UZ has an xD-picture card slot only. This is a problem in so much as xD cards are slower and more expensive than the more popular SD cards, and fewer external card readers have a slot for them. In an emergency, you can only save about 3 full-resolution shots in the SP-590UZ's 22MBs of internal memory. On the left side of the body is a sturdy plastic door protecting the DC In, USB/AV Out and new HDMI ports, the latter allowing you to hook the SP-590UZ up to a HD TV, although disappointingly there's no cable included in the box.

The rear of the camera is dominated by the 2.7 inch monitor, which has an acceptable resolution of 230k dots. Directly above it is the electronic viewfinder with a dioptre adjustment wheel, a button that toggles between the LCD and EVF and and an AEL button that locks the exposure when pressed. To the right of the LCD is the ubiquitous four-way controller with buttons that provide direct access to exposure compensation, two macro modes, self-timer and flash modes. In the middle is the OK/FUNC button which is used to call up a L-shaped sub-menu containing 6 frequently used options, a system that's incredibly similar to the one used by Canon's compact camera range.

Olympus is playing the numbers game by packing a 26x zoom lens into what is a relatively small body. This makes the SP-590UZ the current super-zoom champion in terms of the focal length on offer. The zoom range has been extended both ways, and now spans 26mm up to an incredible 676mm. The lens' maximum aperture is a fast f/2.8 at wide angle and a respectable f/5.0 at telephoto. Those who feel a 26x zoom still doesn't provide enough reach may purchase a TCON-017 teleconverter and mount it using the separately sold CLA-11 adapter ring.

Olympus SP-590UZ Olympus SP-590UZ
Front Rear

Taking hand held photos, especially in the longer half of the zoom range, carries the risk of your photos being ruined by camera shake. This is where image stabilisation comes to the rescue. Olympus markets the SP-590UZ as having “Dual Image Stabilisation", a mechanical and digital system, but the latter simply boosts the ISO sensitivity to avoid having to use longer shutter speeds, so it's the former that really counts. The SP-590UZ, just like its immediate predecessors, counteracts camera shake by shifting the sensor in the opposite direction. Image stabilisation can only be activated from the menu, and is turned on by default. When set to On, image stabilisation kicks in whenever you depress the shutter release halfway, giving a faint, continuous sound. The live view on the LCD or EVF shows the stabilisation effect - the image appears to be floating in an almost surreal way. With image stabilisation, you can use about two times longer exposure times to take blur-free hand held shots than without it. This also means that image stabilisation is no cure-for-all - you will still have to mind your posture and hold the camera properly if you want sharp results, especially at the long end. Using the EVF instead of the LCD and pressing the eyepiece firmly against your head is also an advisable technique.

Speaking of the EVF and the LCD, I found them very nice to use. The LCD has an admirably wide viewing angle, and is fairly usable outdoors too, something that cannot be said of all LCD screens. You can always resort to using the EVF if the sunlight gets too intense or if it simply suits your shooting style better. It is of lower resolution and naturally smaller than the rear screen, but is still one of the better electronic finders around. Importantly, both displays can show you overlaid shooting information if you so desire, and this includes Rule of Thirds gridlines and a live histogram too - albeit not both at the same time, which is a shame.

The Olympus SP-590UZ has a comprehensive range of shooting modes. There is a fully automatic mode, marked AUTO on the mode dial, for those with absolutely zero photographic experience. In this mode you just zoom, focus and shoot without having to fiddle with the settings, which are all being taken care of by the camera. The only problem is that the camera hasn't the foggiest idea of what you are trying to photograph, and may therefore pick the wrong settings. Which is why it is a better idea to turn the mode dial to the SCN setting and choose from the 19 scene modes available. None of these require you to know anything about f-stops, shutter speeds, white balance or depth of field - all you have to do is tell the camera what type of scene you are planning to take a picture of by picking the appropriate scene mode.

The P, A, S and M modes are for those who already know the basics of photography - or are at least willing to learn them. The navigation pad buttons are called into action when working in these modes. In A mode, you press up and down to select the aperture, and in S mode, the shutter speed. In M mode, up and down selects the shutter speed and left and right the aperture. Not as slick as the control wheel on the SP-570UZ, but still fairly simple and straightforward. MyMode lets you store and retrieve four sets of your most preferred settings, a useful way to tailor the camera to your needs.

Olympus SP-590UZ Olympus SP-590UZ
Front Front

The new BEAUTY setting automatically smoothes people's skin, useful for giving your friends and family the Hollywood treatment. It automatically detects faces in the picture, then shows a side-by-side comparison of before and after the effect has been applied, before finally recording the slightly softened and more flattering image (the whole process takes about 10 seconds). The Beauty Fix playback option lets you apply 3 different effects (Clear Skin, Sparkle Eye and Dramatic Eye) separately or apply them all in one go, so its a better idea to beautify your subjects at this stage.

The Movie setting allows you to specify the resolution (VGA or QVGA), the frame rate (30 or 15fps), and whether you want to take a silent clip or one with sound. In the first case, you may use the optical zoom and sensor-shift image stabilisation, but you can't if you choose to record sound. Exposure compensation, white balance and metering mode are available in movie mode too. Depending on the type of xD Card that you use, there are various restrictions on the length of movies. The options when using an xD M, M+ or H card are 640x480 at 30 fps or 15fps and 320x240 at 30fps, with a maximum file size of 2GB. If you're only using a xD standard card, the limit is reduced to just 40 seconds at 30fps. Finally, there is a Playback mode marked on the dial, which is a little unnecessary given that there is a dedicated Playback button on the rear of the camera.

The Olympus SP-590UZ offers a variety of auto-focusing modes, including Face Detect, iESP, Spot and Area. Face Detect AF tries to find a face in the frame and if it succeeds, locks on to it. In iESP mode the camera uses several AF points and picks one of them at its own will. Spot AF is what most people would recognise as centre-point AF, while Area lets you choose the AF frame location yourself by way of the four-way pad, and then lock the chosen one by holding down the OK/FUNC button. There are two other auto-focus options, Fulltime AF and AF Predict, both of which can be useful if shooting subjects in motion. Be aware that you might not have access to the full range of AF modes all the time, as their availability may be restricted by other settings. Low-light AF accuracy can be enhanced by enabling the AF illuminator via the menu, although it doesn't always prevent the focusing system from hunting and failing to lock on a subject in typical room lighting.

There's also the welcome option of Manual focusing. In the MF Focus mode you focus the lens manually using the left and the right arrow keys on the navigation pad. To aid you in achieving focus, the camera displays a horizontal distance scale and magnifies the centre of the frame - apparently by interpolation rather than by showing pixel-level detail right off the sensor. Locking focus in MF mode is done by pressing the OK/FUNC button. Less welcome is the lack of RAW mode, a very strange omission given that it's offered by both the SP-570UZ and the SP-565UZ. This will undoubtedly put off quite a lot of this camera's potential buyers.

Olympus SP-590UZ Olympus SP-590UZ
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

When it comes to flash photography, the Olympus SP-590UZ has a good range of options. It has a pop-up flash which offers a wide range of shooting modes, including auto, fill, slow sync on the 1st or 2nd curtain or almost any of these combined with redeye reduction. Flash exposure compensation is also provided. Thankfully, the flash doesn't pop up automatically, only when the photographer presses a dedicated button. It can act as a controller for Olympus' new wireless flashes but can also trigger any optically slaved unit - for this, its output can be set to one of ten levels. The ability to wirelessly control the Olympus FL-36R and FL-50R flash units, which may be placed on separate stands for creative lighting, has been carried over from the SP-570UZ.

SAT, or Shadow Adjustment Technology, is similar to Sigma's Fill Light, HP's Digital Flash / Adaptive Lighting, Sony's DRO and Nikon's D-lighting. It lifts the shadows in an image without affecting the midtones or the highlights. Olympus thought it was such an important feature that it deserved its own button, located under the navigation pad. Since the best uses of this technology are in landscapes, cityscapes and streetscapes, when you can't control the light and the shadowed areas may be too big or too far away to be filled in with flash, I was utterly puzzled to learn the only AF mode available with SAT turned on is Face Detect, and that it's only available in the Auto or Scene modes. Another surprise came when, upon reading the relevant section in the manual, I found out Olympus recommended using this technology when shooting portraits against a bright background. What? That's one occasion when you DON'T need it - just set the ambient exposure for the background and use the flash to illuminate your subject's face. Note that the task of opening the shadows in a contrasty photo can also be performed post capture, under the Lighting Fix option of the Perfect Fix menu in playback mode, but the results are less than perfect.

The SP-590UZ has a wide range of continuous drive modes, accessible via the main menu. Full-resolution shots can be captured at a pedestrian 1fps, but the camera also offers a faster 6fps Hi1 mode at 5 megapixels, and a 10fps Hi2 mode at 3 megapixels. These sound a lot more exciting, but the quality is not what you'd expect, even when you consider the reduced pixel count. This is not just because the camera automatically increases the sensitivity to ISO 400. Apparently what happens is that the SP-590UZ takes a video at the specified frame rates, then takes the individual frames and blows them up to 3 or 5 megapixels. The resulting images don't print well except in the smallest paper sizes, so you'd better use these drive modes when shooting for the Web.

The SP-590Z starts-up in about two seconds - just don't forget to remove the lens cap, which will be knocked off by the lens zooming out slightly. Once powered up, the camera is reasonably responsive. It takes about 4 seconds to zoom from the widest to the longest focal length. Given its form factor and price tag, the SP-590UZ will inevitably be compared to an entry-level SLRs, but these comparisons are going to be tricky. Zooming and focusing speeds are no match for an SLR, but if you factor in the time it would take to swap, for instance, a wide-angle lens for a super-telephoto, the superzoom starts to look more competitive.