Olympus SP-620UZ review

In recent months we’ve witnessed super zooms or "bridge" cameras straying into the luxury bracket. We’ve seen the Leica V-Lux 3 and Fujifilm X-S1 for example, matching semi-pro DSLRs for cost and many of their specifications. Though, like the aforementioned, it resembles a mini DSLR if you squint a bit, Olympus’s new 'ultra zoom" SP-620UZ is not one of those cameras however.

Massive zoom

Upgrading the 14-megapixel SP-610UZ, this model predictably boosts the effective resolution by a couple of million pixels to 16, from a total of 16.6MP on a 1/2.3-inch CCD. Its noteworthiness is not resolution however, but that it fields a 21x optical zoom, slightly curtailed from its forebear’s 22x. The S-620UZ’s focal range now starts wider but stops shorter in offering the 35mm equivalent of 25-525mm, as opposed to 28-616mm.

Without the optical or electronic viewfinder of more expensive models - which would add bulk as well as cost - Olympus users are left with the 3-inch LCD at the rear. It's a pretty standard 230k-dot screen resolution with which to compose stills and 720p HD videos and is unchanged from the previous iteration.

There is a SP-720UZ model that sits just above the SP-620UZ in the range, offering a better 460k-dot screen plus a 26x optical zoom. However resolution is a lower 14-megapixels, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The SP-620UZ’s overall dimensions are officially 109.7 x 74.3 x 73.7mm, while it weighs 435g with batteries and card inserted. It’s available in silver or black body finishes.

All the above has to be set against the fact that the Olympus SP-620UZ has a manufacturer’s suggested asking price of £179.99, with street prices bound to shave £20-30 off that. This indicates a lack of frills and tells us that this is very much a budget model among bridge models.

Built to a price

The mass market, as opposed to enthusiast-pitched pricing, makes itself felt initially only in the SP-620UZ’s rather plasticy exterior and its frill-free control layout. Although, the latter is as much to do with providing ease of use and an ‘approachable’ first impression as anything else.

The cost-cutting is also apparent in this Olympus being powered by four, bog-standard, alkaline AAs instead of the usual lithium ion rechargeable cells. Of course, any user can buy their own set of rechargeables relatively inexpensively. We can live with this to an extent, as here the combined weight of the batteries adds solidity to the SP-620UZ’s frame. Even if they do fall out each time you want to remove the DS/SDHC/SDXC media card that shares a slot next to them. The cover is also fiddly to slide shut, because the batteries don’t always sit flush in their loading tubes.

As this cover requires a degree of force to shut, and means gripping the camera tightly with both hands, it’s easy to accidentally activate the power button at the same time.

Fast enough

Still, the camera is reasonably responsive, powering up from cold in a couple of seconds if date and time have been set first. The lens is protected when not in use by a slip on (rather than clip on) plastic cap.

If shooting stills, nudge the zoom lever that handily encircles its shutter release button with a forefinger and it powers through its range from maximum wideangle to extreme telephoto in three seconds.

Zoom action is automatically slowed right down in movie mode to prevent jarring transitions however. If you do want to use the zoom you first have to turn off the sound via the movie menu. With HD video shooting (usually) being such a big feature of stills cameras these days this is a bit rubbish, as effectively the zoom is disabled if you want sound on your video clips.

Controls and design

It’s as a stills device then that the SP-620UZ serves amateur photographers best. A half squeeze of the shutter release button triggers the auto focus, which, while not quite as quick as the Olympus Pen range, it’s fast enough to get the shot. A full, fine compression quality JPEG is written to the card in 3-4 second; not massively quick, but not a deal-breaker either on a camera costing what it does.

The SP-620UZ’s control layout is clean-looking, sparse even. Up top we just have the on/off button, and large shutter release encircled by the zoom lever, both set forward on the tip of the handgrip. There is integral flash, the self-raising variety - by which we mean it has to be manually raised. There is no dedicated lever to do this, nor does it suddenly swing into action if you happen to select a flash mode on the camera. Indeed flash modes are disabled until you’ve activated it by hand.

At the back we have the fixed, 3-inch, 230k dot resolution LCD presented in standard 4:3 ratio. It's shunted to the left, leaving space for six controls to its right, located where they easily fall under the thumb.

A central "OK" button for selecting any menu or setting changes sits in the middle of a control pad-come-scroll wheel. The latter is especially sensitive, so much so that it largely negates its feature as a time saver. We found it all too easy to scoot past the setting we actually wanted, and so had to take a more gentle approach.

Playback, menu and dedicated video record buttons are also present and obvious. Less so is a button marked by an enigmatic question mark. Give this a press and you’ll discover Olympus’s built-in help manual. This allows users to search alphabetically by keyword if they know a function they’re looking for.

Aimed at less-experienced users

The emphasis here then is on a camera that is user friendly enough to just point and shoot. Olympus obviously expects us to do this, as no shooting mode dial or dedicated button is provided. The likes of intelligent auto and program mode are instead selected via an on-screen toolbar.

It’s via this same toolbar that we find 11 pre-optimsed scene settings for common subjects. There are daytime and night-time photography modes, and, slightly more interestingly, automatic 3D and panoramic image generation Plus the ability to apply digital effects filters at the point of capture.

The 3D feature, which generates an MPO file can be "seen" only via a 3D equipped TV, takes two images and merges them. The panorama option takes three shots in succession – the user lining up each successive shot via a floating ‘target’ on screen – and automatically blends them together. Neither mode is as sophisticated as, say, Sony’s 3D Sweep Panorama feature on its Cyber-shot cameras, but they do work, and the Olympus does cost less.

For those looking to shoot handheld in low light, the SP-610UZ is not massively exciting. With the lens supported by dual image stabilisation, there’s the ability to manually select ISO sensitivity up to ISO1600. While that’s modest, results at this top setting, though displaying some grain upwards of ISO800 are perfectly usable.

We were surprised to find that the SP-620UZ displays a live histogram revealing the areas of brightness in an image in capture mode if you press the top edge of the control dial/scroll wheel the requisite number of times. Exposure can be manually adjusted +/- 3EV.

Verdict

While the SP-620UZ is plasticy and basic looking compared with a top-of-the-range bridge camera, the feeling here is that we are more or less getting what we’re paying for, which can’t be bad.

Furthermore, using natural daylight we were able to get sharp results shooting handheld at maximum telephoto setting which isn’t often the case on more expensive models with broader focal ranges – so perhaps there’s something to be said for the SP-620UZ’s modest ambitions. Good edge-to-edge sharpness and minimal fisheye effect at maximum wide angle also further suggest this camera as a good value all-in-one.

It’s not flashy, but if all you want is a camera with a bit more "poke" in the lens department than your more style orientated point and shoots, and without it voting almost as much as an actual DSLR, this is one worth checking out.