Olympus SP-800UZ review

Though it offers what its manufacturer claims to be "the world's strongest" zoom on a bridge camera - at a 35mm equivalent 28-840mm, or 30x optical zoom - it is the 14 effective megapixel SP-800UZ's overall size, or comparative lack of it, that impresses.

With dimensions of 107.3 x 73.4 x 84.7mm the SP-800UZ (or "Ultra Zoom") won't fit in your jeans but is noticeably smaller than competitors' high zoom models that can't match such a lens range. At 416g in weight with battery and card inserted it makes the Fujifilm FinePix HS10 - which comes closest with its own 24-720mm equivalent focal range - appear unwieldy and tank-like by comparison.

The SP-800UZ is also £100 less than that camera, and as with the Olympus Pen range, is available in black or silver livery, the titanium finish to the latter and rounded edges going some way to disguising the oddly boxy shape which lacks the charm of its manufacturer's retro Micro Four Thirds system cameras, though seems to be coming from the same place. In this way it looks a lot less deliberately like a baby DSLR than its rivals.

In terms of handling, in lacking the DSLR-like range of buttons and dials more typically found on bridge cameras - there's no bottle top-style shooting mode wheel for example - the SP-800UZ literally feels like it has had its functionality paired back to the essentials. The included basics comprise a springy shutter release button encircled by a rocker switch for operating the zoom, a recessed on/off button just behind, a manually raised integral flash sitting just above the zoom barrel and, on the backplate, a scroll dial/wheel with central OK button for variously navigating and selecting functional changes. Playback, menu and, more unusually "in-camera manual" also get their own buttons above and below the scroll dial, which are so slender as to require fingernail operation. 

The built-in help guide, denoted by the quizzical "?" symbol gives very brief textual explanations of key shooting functions and features and then asks whether the user would like to jump to that feature to try it out. All very useful for beginners who, like most of us, don't bother reading the hard copy or, even less likely, the CD ROM version.

Handily Olympus has seen fit to improve operability by including a record button for shooting video clips, located top right of the camera back so it falls under the thumb as you snake three fingers around the moulded grip at the front. Naturally the supplied lithium ion rechargeable battery and a vacant slot for optional SD/SDHC card are housed in the grip's base. For once, you don't necessarily need to make such a card purchase at the same time as the camera itself, as the Olympus comes with a whopping (for a digital camera at least) 2GB of internal memory.

The Olympus' grip is narrow and less comfortable than Samsung's 24x zoom WB5000 or Fujifilm's HS10, and, even so, there's only just enough room for your fingers to squeeze between it and the adjacent lens barrel. However with one hand on the grip and the other cupping the lens it's possible to hold the camera nice and steady in the palm for shooting handheld - even at maximum telephoto.

Images are composed via the camera's LCD screen in the absence of the alternative of an optical or electronic viewfinder - a compromise made in return for a slightly smaller form factor than its rivals. The wider format 16:9 ratio LCD screen is cropped at the left and right leaving black bands to more closely reflect what regular 4:3 ratio stills will look like once downloaded to your desktop PC. 

The large internal memory and the lack of a plethora of potentially mystifying controls or command dials, does however ensure the SP-800UZ is less daunting for anyone trading up from a point-and-shoot compact - surely the SP-800UZ's ideal user. Getting started is as simple as pressing the on/off button, the camera powering up in 2 seconds, followed by menu - which brings up an easily navigated toolbar down the right hand side of the screen - and away you go.

The zoom takes 3 seconds to travel the entirety of its range, sound-tracked by a low operational buzz. Criminally though, the optical zoom is disabled when recording video if you - quite reasonably - want to record sound at the same time, and after pressing the red record button there's a brief pause before filming kicks in. This is a real shame and seems to waste the camera's potential for amateur videographers; unless you delve into the camera's menus and deactivate sound recording the lens merely stays put where it was left when recording commenced. You do get HDMI output though, the port hidden under a flap at the side of the camera offering a separate AV/USB out port.

More positively, in terms of stills shooting, the options here are scene/subject recognising iAuto (or "intelligent auto") mode, along with Program, a dedicated Beauty mode for which Olympus seems to have taken inspiration from the Samsung range, plus scene modes, Magic Filters (on-board digital effects), plus an auto stitching panorama option that comes across as a lot more primitive than the Sweep Panorama style options offered by the Fujifilm HS10, the latest generation Sony compacts and NEX-5.

The Magic Filters meanwhile are basically the Art Filters otherwise found on its more sophisticated (but less optically powerful) Micro Four Thirds cameras. So here we again get the most attractive options of separate Pop Art, pin hole camera and fish eye lens effects, joined by the slightly less successful "drawing" which traces a thin black outline around prominent subjects in the frame and whites out everything else to give the illusion of a pencil sketch.

Slightly convoluted, however, is the fact that the user has to tab to the bottom of the toolbar presented on-screen and press the OK button to enter the further settings menu, which is where the more expansive options are secreted away. These include the ability to activate Olympus' exposure enhancing Shadow Adjustment technology, or leave it on the default of "auto". Unlike most big zoom competitors there's not the option to shoot in RAW mode as an alternative to JPEG. But as Olympus seems to be primarily aiming at those point and shooters wanting a broader focal range with the SP-800UZ, perhaps that isn't too big a deal. 

Maximum resolution JPEGs are committed to memory in 3 to 4 seconds, which, whilst not particularly fast, is a speed we can live with. Exposures are even, which suggests the Shadow Adjustment feature is doing its job, and colours as a default err on the side of realism. Images are reasonably sharp, but overall were a little softer than we expected from the brand.

Verdict

If you want a huge zoom in a relatively small and portable package, the class-leading focal range provided by the Olympus SP-800UZ is worth seeking out.

However, we could have done with a few more dedicated buttons in order to find certain functions quicker, and unlike competitors there's no EVF to fall back on as an alternative to the admittedly clear LCD. The fact that operation of the lens is disabled when shooting video with sound however is, for us, a bit of a shocker. For this reason it loses a point from our review.