Cameras

Olympus SP-810UZ Review

The Olympus SP-810UZ excels in actually being compact, but sacrifices potential image quality to do so.

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Introduction

Olympus’s SP series aims to push the super-zoom category further, squeezing ever longer zoom ratios into bodies only slightly larger than a compact system camera. The SP-810UZ (MSRP $329) is the most ambitious so far, boasting an amazing 36x lens—one of the longest we’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, we know from experience that extreme focal lengths often produce worse image quality. Strong sensor performance and expert lens calibration will be required to make the SP-810UZ stand out.

Design & Usability

The grip is cramped and the construction feels cheap; usability issues follow suit.

Although the right hand grip on this Olympus is rubberized, the protrusion is neither sufficiently deep nor wide, resulting in a thin handle that doesn’t fit comfortably in the average hand. Furthermore, the shutter release far out of reach, the cheap, plastic back provides little to hold onto, and the rear control panel has a menu button that doubles as an in-camera help key—inconvenient, since the menu button is so important. A quick menu accompanies the main one, and while both are fairly legible and organized, we wish they were a bit more responsive.

There’s no program shift, and thus no ability to tweak aperture or shutter speed...

As for actually shooting with this SP-810UZ, there's a lack of precision that makes simple operation more difficult than it needs to be. Mechanical manual controls are absent and manual control is limited in terms of software, too. There’s no program shift, and thus no ability to tweak aperture or shutter speed. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the camera’s metering wasn’t so quirky, and we found ourselves constantly wishing for more detailed control. At least ISO and white balance can be selected manually...

The flash enclosure must be physically lifted into place before use—a cheap, lackluster way of getting the job done...

Some users will miss having a viewfinder, framing instead with a 3-inch, 16:9 LCD—a major concession that Olympus made in order to squeeze a super-zoom lens onto such a small frame. The LCD is bright enough, and the 460k-dot resolution is fine, but viewing angle is limited and the onscreen display isn’t legible from far away. An EVF is sorely missed. The flash enclosure must be physically lifted into place before use—a cheap, lackluster way of getting the job done—and zoom action for the plastic lens barrel is rather ponderous due to a weak, noisy motor. A chrome bezel surrounds the barrel, so shiny that it often reflects light directly onto your subject, and the optical zoom range extends all the way to 36x. This is just a crazy amount of zoom, more than enough to scope all the way across a football field or across the street and into your neighbor’s window… if that’s your thing.

Features

The Olympus SP-810UZ's most notable features are found in playback and in-camera editing.

For basic shooting, the SP-810UZ defaults to Program shooting mode, but less experienced shooters can enjoy Intelligent Auto mode, 16 Scene modes, Magic Effect modes, dedicated panorama mode, and 3D photography mode as well. The SP-810UZ is not equipped with a hardware mode dial, but the first option on the quick menu serves as an adequate replacement.

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As to in-camera editing, the most useful function is perhaps Beauty Fix, which smooths skin...

Playback mode features a full-screen display with zoom and shooting information, and a grid display of varying proportions. Calendar mode is missed, but that's no deal-breaker. The interface itself is intuitive, but processing speed is slow, often necessitating half-second pauses. As to in-camera editing, the most useful function is perhaps Beauty Fix, which smooths skin, or adds sparkle or shadow to the eye, or all three. Other basic functions are also possible, including resize, crop, voice memo, shadow adjustment, and red-eye correction.

Finally, DPOF tagging, which stands for digital print order format, may be applied either individually or all at once, with support for up to 10 copies each. The interface is too simple, with no easy way to skip through large sections of photos.

Performance

A lack of individual color modes yield average color accuracy, while a cursory glance at real-world images reveals a destructive noise reduction package.

To begin with, the SP-810UZ’s reproduction of color is fine but not great. Worse, the most inaccurate shades are those found in skin, so human subjects won’t appear as flattering as they would with a more expensive, more accurate model. On top of that, even a cursory glance at this camera's images reveals destructive, ugly noise reduction. The ISO range starts off at 64—good thing, since this is really the only setting that can reliably produce clean images.

As long as your ISO is set to minimum, this camera offers consistently high detail...

As for its resolution abilities, the SP-810UZ makes use of a sharp, well-machined lens that avoids common super zoom pitfalls. As long as your ISO is set to minimum, this camera offers consistently high detail in that regard.

If you're considering using this Olympus as a camcorder, however, you may want to reconsider. Video shooting is limited. Resolution maxes out at 720p, and frame rate seems to be locked at 30 (though we could find no documentation to confirm this). Control access is nonexistent during recording; optical zoom and all the menus are locked. Autofocus—at least—is active, but the contrast-based system is aggressive and sometimes distracting.

Conclusion

For us, innovation is always welcome in the saturated super-zoom market. Olympus’s SP series deserves credit here for trying something different.

With the SP series, Olympus set out to fit the capabilities of a clunky super-zoom camera into a smaller, more portable body—a reasonable aim, seeing as this company is known for their excellent compact system cameras.

Unless you plan to shoot exclusively in broad daylight, this camera’s small form factor is not worth the compromise in image clarity.

The problem with this series is that only one particular feature has been paid much attention: Optical zoom has skyrocketed since the SP-500 debuted with its 10x capability. This big zoom trend mirrors the industry at large, and image quality seems to have suffered for it. The SP-810UZ’s color accuracy is disappointing, but its noisy, blurred images—even at low ISOs—is absolutely inexcusable. Unless you plan to shoot exclusively in broad daylight, this camera’s small form factor is not worth the compromise in image clarity. For clean shots in any lighting situation, Nikon’s P500 is one of many better choices.

...we don’t recommend purchasing the SP-810UZ.

It is utterly tragic that a lens of this one's excellent caliber has been wasted on a sensor that seems incapable of rendering an appealing photo. In the end, the SP series’ latest is a proof of concept for lens and body design, and we’re looking forward to a future CMOS-based model. But in the meantime, we don’t recommend purchasing the SP-810UZ.

Science Introduction

At an MSRP of $329, the Olympus SP-810UZ is a testament to the rise of hybrids: its attempt to combine super-zoom ability with the space-saving design of a compact system camera is noble, but not without drawbacks. Design aesthetics and usability aside, the SP-810UZ does what it is trying to do, but a degree of natural degradation to picture quality is unavoidable.

Sharpness

So long as your ISO is set to minimum, the SP-810UZ offers solid detail.

Sharpness is arguably the most important aspect of picture quality that we test, if only because it can truly make or break the integrity of a picture: no matter how accurate its color is, if it's a blurred-out mess, you're not going to want to hang it above your mantle.

Detail also drops as focal length increases...

The SP-810UZ's average detail can approach 2200 MTF50 at the the center of the frame, though this drops off by about 25% as we approach the edge. Detail also drops as focal length increases, first to 2100 MTF50 midway, then to 1800 at the longest zoom. Detail loss at the edge of the frame is also much more severe at full 36x zoom, quickly dropping down to an average of 1200 MTF50—still very respectable.

Olympus’s sensor-shift image stabilization is very effective here. In our shaker test, image detail shot up by 39% with the stabilizer active. In fairness, detail is fairly low to begin with, since vibrations are compounded by zoom, but the results are impressive nonetheless.

Video Quality

This compact super zoom doesn't fare well as a video recorder.

Video shooting with this Olympus is a pain—partially because it locks out some of its best features during video capture, but mostly because it loses a heavy amount of color accuracy and picture detail, compressing image quality to an unfortunate degree.

Color accuracy plummets while shooting video [...and] sharpness also tends to dip...

Color accuracy plummets while shooting video, but this is fairly common. The vast majority of colors are too dark, though saturation is pretty close. Sharpness also tends to dip while shooting video. The camera resolves 450 LW/PH of detail horizontally and 500 vertically.

Color Accuracy & Noise Performance

The SP-810UZ's color accuracy is just average and its shots are grainy at most ISOs, since the lens has difficulty gathering sufficient light.

The SP-810UZ's reproduction of color is good but not great. We recorded an error value of 3.16 in our test, and 3.00 flat is average (lower scores are better). The most inaccurate shades, unfortunately, are those found in skin. Bright yellows are too dark, while reds are too close to brown. As a result, human subjects won't appear as flattering as they would with a more expensive, more accurate model. Blues are also a problem, with all tints darker than they should be.

Test shots became blurred as early as ISO 200.

Although noise scores are relatively high, a cursory glance at real-world images captured by this camera reveals a destructive and ugly noise reduction package. The SP-810UZ used smudging to fool our test. Test shots became blurred as early as ISO 200. The majority of noise came from luminance artifacts, so images were more grainy and less polluted by specks of color.

The camera's somewhat narrow maximum aperture and fast maximum shutter speed made gathering light difficult.

As far as our testing software is concerned, results were almost identical in low light, with an average noise increase of only 0.06%. Yet the experience was quite different in practice. The camera's somewhat narrow maximum aperture and fast maximum shutter speed made gathering light difficult. We had to increase our studio illumination to 75 lux (60 lux is standard) in order to achieve a proper exposure. So although low light performance seems equal by numbers, you'll end up having to use a more sensitive ISO to get the same results, at the expensive of image quality.

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