Olympus SP-800UZ Review

April 12, 2010 | Zoltan Arva-Toth |


Announced in the run-up to PMA, the Olympus SP-800UZ is one of only two digital cameras in the world to boast a 30x zoom lens (the other one being the Fujifilm FinePix HS10, which was unveiled on the exact same day as the Olympus). On the SP-800UZ, the lens covers a 35mm equivalent focal range of 28-840mm. Other highlights of the camera include a 14-megapixel sensor, a 3-inch wide-screen LCD monitor, 720p HD movie recording capability, mechanical image stabilisation, high-speed continuous shooting at various speeds and resolution settings, and 2GB of internal storage plus SD card compatibility. The Olympus SP-800UZ is available at the manufacturer's suggested retail price of £369.99 / $349.99 in the UK / US, respectively.

Ease of Use

For the past three years, Olympus has continuously been at the forefront of the super-zoom race. The Olympus SP-550UZ was the first camera with a 18x zoom, the SP-570UZ was the first 20x zoom model in the world, and the SP-590UZ, reviewed here almost exactly a year ago, broke yet another record by becoming the first digicam to offer a whopping 26x zoom ratio. The new Olympus SP-800UZ continues this trend by being the first camera to boast a frankly incredible 30x zoom, although this time around, it has to share the glory with the  Fujifilm FinePix HS10, introduced on the same day, 2 February 2010. The key difference between the lenses of these two models is that the Fuji goes wider, whereas the Olympus offers more telephoto reach.

This is not to say that the Olympus SP-800UZ has no wide-angle capabilities though. Its 4.9-147mm lens has an angle-of-view range equivalent to that of an imaginary 28-840mm lens on a 35mm camera (which will never actually become a reality, as it would be completely unmanageable, of course). With specifications like that, it's hardly surprising that the lens is the most prominent part of the camera, although we do feel that the rest of the body is disproportionately small. It looks almost as though the designers took a latest-generation mju body, added a small grip and a pop-up flash, and welded that huge lens to it.

This impression is reinforced when we take a look at the camera's back. Putting aside the new, 3" screen with its still-unusual 16:9 aspect ratio, the rear panel looks very much like that of the mju 9010 or the mju 7040, both of which we recently reviewed. There is the all-new movie record button that allows you to start recording a video clip without having to enter a dedicated movie shooting mode beforehand. Below that we find a slim Playback button that can be configured to act as a secondary Power button too - a good idea as you sometimes only want to turn on the camera to review your shots rather than to take new ones, in which case you do not need the lens to extend. A half-press of the shutter release takes you (back) to Record mode when you need it. A four-way pad with a centred OK button and an all-new control wheel, plus a Menu and a Camera Guide button round off the controls inventory, discounting the shutter release found in the expected place on top of the right-hand grip, encircled by the zoom lever.

This means that the SP-800UZ's user interface is entirely menu-based, which is quite unusual for this type of camera. There is no mode dial and no shortcut buttons for oft-used functions like exposure compensation, ISO setting, AF mode, macro or drive mode. To change any of these settings, you need to dive into the menu. This approach is understandable on a mju series camera, where functionality is subordinated to miniaturisation, but questionable on a true ultra-zoom camera whose size is pretty much dictated by the lens anyway. Had the designers opted for a slightly larger body, the camera would not only have better proportions; it would also be easier and quicker to use as the larger size would allow more hard buttons and other dedicated controls.

Fujifilm FinePix HS10 Fujifilm FinePix HS10
Front Rear

To be fair, there are a couple of functions mapped unto the four-way controller, but these are rather limited. The Up button cycles through the available information displays in Record as well as Playback mode. These include no info, restricted info and full info. In Record mode, the latter means all shooting menu icons plus a shooting grid and a very useful live histogram, whereas in Playback mode it comprises a thumbnail image, a luminance histogram and detailed shooting data. The Down button gives you quick access to the main shooting menu in Record mode, while it acts as an erase button in Playback.

The main shooting menu offers up a set of user adjustable shooting variables, including the shooting mode - P, iAuto, Scene, Magic, Panorama and Beauty  - and a range of other settings. These are limited to the flash mode and the self-timer in iAuto mode, while the full set - available in P mode - includes the macro mode, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO sensitivity and drive mode as well. The other shooting modes offer varying degrees of user control that fall between these two extremes. Alas, the advanced Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes that were found on the SP-590UZ have gone missing in action.

Irrespective of which shooting mode you are in, the last icon in the shooting menu is invariably a >> sign, which takes you to the setup menu. It is here that you can adjust the file quality settings, the autofocus mode, the metering mode, the Shadow Adjustment feature - which lifts the shadows in a photo taken in contrasty light -, the image stabiliser, the video settings and a number of less frequently accessed items.

Overall, I have found the user interface of the Olympus SP-800UZ a bit awkward for my taste. Accessing the setup menu is a notably sluggish affair, as is toggling between Record and Playback. And I really missed a one-button shortcut to exposure compensation - it takes way too many button presses and too much time to get to this important function. On a more positive note, I liked the ability to manually position the AF point within the frame - this was something I missed from the mju series cameras, which otherwise share a very similar user interface. But again, changing the AF mode is way too complicated because of the menu-based approach.

Some of the Olympus SP-800UZ's features are worth expanding upon. These include the four Magic Filters - Pop Art, Pinhole, Fish-eye and Drawing -, the Beauty and the Panorama modes, as well as the several sequential shooting modes and the video mode. Olympus' Magic Filters made their début on the E-30 digital SLR camera of 2008 under the name “Art Filters". That's what Olympus still calls them when they appear in a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera, but ever since the introduction of the mju Tough 6010, they have been calling them Magic Filters on their compacts. The Olympus SP-800UZ is the first SP series model to offer them. The Pop Art filter boosts saturation and contrast, the Pinhole filter alters the colours somewhat and adds a very obvious vignetting effect, the Fish-eye filter causes straight lines to bend outwards as if the picture was shot with a fish-eye lens (it does not recreate the ultra-wide angle of view though), while the Drawing filter does exactly what it says on the tin and converts your photos into black-and white drawings.

Fujifilm FinePix HS10 Fujifilm FinePix HS10
Top Side

The Beauty mode, already seen in last year's Olympus SP-590UZ, is an on-board solution to touch up portraits. In this mode, you take a picture of a person, then the camera identifies the face and tries to remove blemishes and other minor imperfections, giving the skin a smooth look in the process. The resulting image is then saved alongside the original. Unfortunately, the whole hocus-pocus takes way too long, and renders your camera useless until it's over.

The SP-800UZ's Panorama mode is more interesting, at least on paper. There are three options on offer, including Auto, Manual and PC. In Auto mode, you only have to press the shutter release once. After that, all you need to do is move the camera to the next position, so that the target marks and pointers overlap, and the camera automatically releases the shutter for you. Three frames can be taken this way, which are then combined into a single panoramic image automatically in camera. The problem with this mode is that it's almost impossible to stop moving the camera exactly when the target marks and pointers overlap, which ultimately results in image blur and poor-quality stitching. In Manual mode, you can also take three frames with the help of an on-screen guide, but you have to release the shutter manually. After that, the camera stitches the frames as above. Finally, in PC mode, you can take up to 10 photos, which can be stitched using the supplied [ib] software after being downloaded to the computer. My  take on the Panorama mode is that it would be easier to shoot panoramic images if the tripod mount was aligned with the optical axis of the lens, but this is not the case.

The Olympus SP-800UZ offers a comprehensive range of sequential shooting modes. Three of these are for high-speed continuous capture, but these are only available at reduced resolution (10.2fps at 5 megapixels or 15.2fps at 2 megapixels - use these only when you do not plan on making big prints). Time-lapse photography is also supported by the SP-800UZ. The interval is user selectable in the 1-99 minute range, and you can also tell the camera how many pictures it is supposed to take (2-99). To conserve power, the camera goes to sleep mode automatically between shots.

One feature offered by the Olympus SP-800UZ that wasn't present in the SP-590UZ is the ability to shoot 720p high-definition movies. As mentioned earlier, you can begin filming at any time by pressing the dedicated movie record button on the back of the camera. The video settings can be adjusted beforehand via the setup menu. The options are limited to resolution (720p, VGA or QVGA) and quality (Fine or Normal). You can also tell the camera whether or not to record sound along with the footage, and whether or not to provide image stabilisation. If you opt to turn off the sound recording, you can use the optical zoom while filming. If you want video with sound, however, you need to give up the ability to use the optical zoom while recording a movie - which is a bit frustrating on a camera whose main claim to fame is its 30x zoom lens. Videos are compressed using the H.264 codec and stored in MPEG-4 format. The maximum file size of a single clip is 4GB regardless of the capacity of the memory card used. The Olympus SP-800UZ has an HDMI port that allows users to play back their movies on an HDTV.

Fujifilm FinePix HS10 Fujifilm FinePix HS10
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

A big novelty on the SP-800UZ - and all Olympus models in the Class of 2010 - is the presence of an SD card slot. While Olympus offered SD card support for its Micro Four Thirds cameras from day one, it had hitherto stuck with xD-Picture cards in its compacts. It appears that xD is officially dead now, though owners of older Olympus compacts wishing to trade up can probably use their existing xD-Picture cards via an adapter. New owners have the choice of getting an optional SD or SDHC card - strangely enough, SDXC memory cards are not supported - or relying on the SP-800UZ's generous 2GB built-in memory. Just remember that while 2GB is plenty for stills, it may prove inadequate if you plan on shooting a lot of high-definition video.

The Olympus SP-800UZ is powered by a proprietary Li-ion battery that shares its compartment with the memory card. You can charge the battery in camera, via USB. You need to connect the USB cable either to a computer running Windows 7, Vista or XP SP2, or to the supplied USB-AC adapter, which must, in turn, be plugged into a mains socket using a mains cable. So unless you want to charge the battery via a Windows computer, you will need two cables, an adapter, and the camera itself... not the most user-friendly solution, and that's an understatement! [Olympus does offer a conventional charger as well, but only as an optional accessory.

Using the Olympus SP-800UZ has left us with slightly mixed feelings. On one hand, having a 30x zoom literally at your fingertips is a fantastic experience. Being able to photograph everything from wide vistas to extreme close-ups of faraway subjects without having to change lenses is something that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. The zooming action is pretty smooth for a power zoom, and reasonably fast too; certainly much faster than changing lenses on an SLR. The new, wide-screen rear display may not have record-breaking resolution, but it is at least fairly easy to see outdoors, even in direct sunlight. Still, it is surprising that the SP-800UZ has no eye-level viewfinder - most monster-zoom cameras have an EVF, as holding them up to your eye and pressing them firmly against your forehead adds extra stability, an important consideration when using a long lens. The biggest concern from an ergonomics point of view is the entirely menu-based operation of the camera, which can be frustrating at times, as it slows you down considerably. With respect to autofocus speed, it's sufficient for stationary subjects, but does not cope particularly well with moving ones. Bear this in mind if your primary reason for considering this camera is that you would like to shoot wildlife with it.

This concludes our evaluation of the Olympus SP-800UZ's ergonomics, handling and feature set. Let us now move on to the image quality assessment!