Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
- Great colour response and sharpness, Nice design, Good battery life
- Poor chromatic aberration, slow
With high levels of chromatic aberration and slow operation, the SP-350 is far from a perfect camera, but the images look great at smaller levels and so it could definitely be worth a look if you need a compact, powerful advanced model
Price$ 699.00 (AUD)
Have you ever met someone who you disliked at first but over time developed a grudging respect for? That was how it was for us with the Olympus SP-350. When it first came into the office the slightly odd design and slow operation left us under-impressed, however after a little more playing around we found several things to like about this model.
Image quality was a mixed bag. The 8 megapixel SP-350 produced sharp images with an MTU score of 1297, which is befitting such a strong sensor. In our test software, Imatest, images revealed a large amount of oversharpening, as high as 18% which was corroborated by our outdoor test. Our standard tree photographs showed some of the leaves standing out a little too strongly, looking almost drawn in, which makes the shot look a little fake.
This problem is worsened by the camera's high level of chromatic aberration. Imatest revealed a score of 0.149%, which is just under our rating for "extreme" (anything over 0.15% falls into this category) and this really takes its toll on the edges. To the average eye it won't be particularly noticeable, but if you get up close to edges where two colours overlap (a red block on black paper for example) you'll see the transition isn't crisp. In a 4X6 print you won't notice this and the great sharpness level means the SP-350 will produce excellent prints at smaller sizes. It isn't until you blow them up that you'll really notice the problem.
Fortunately, our tests revealed that whilst chromatic aberration may be a problem, colour response most definitely is not. With an Imatest score of 6.37 the SP-350 performed very well in this regard, with virtually flawless greyscale representation and brilliant reds (normally a trouble colour for most cameras). The areas that were least accurate were blues and particularly greens, but overall the result was very pleasing.
Whilst image quality had its ups and downs, the feature set was consistently high quality. Pretty much everything we could have wanted was included on this model. Shutter speed jumps extends from 1/2000th of a second (at f/8) all the way up to bulb mode; there are a host of white balance presets as well as manual mode and Olympus give you the option to save several configurations which can be easily accessed via the function wheel. We were slightly disappointed that ISO level only extended to 400 (its performance at this level was quite admirable) and the burst mode was less robust than it's competitors, operating at roughly 1.2 shots a second, but overall the SP-350 offered almost everything we could want.
Having had the camera for a few weeks we're quite enamored with the design, but when we first got our hands on it the slightly irregular shape left us a little confused. The SP-350 sports a large grip on the right hand side, reminiscent of those present on big zoom models, but we think it fits quite well here and makes the camera that little bit more comfortable to hold. Despite having more plastic than metal, this is one of the sturdiest small models we've seen and exudes a rugged sensibility. The slim, black aesthetic won't win any awards for originality, but you aren't going to be embarrassed be seen in public with it either. Full marks here.
The fact that the design scored so highly is fortunate, because the model subsequently loses marks when it comes to operating speeds. Most of the cameras we have reviewed have operated at with a shutter speed of about 0.1 of a second and that is perfectly acceptable. The SP-350 on the other hand hovered around the .25 mark, which is way above what we'd expect to see from an advanced model. Combine that with the poor burst mode, and you've got a less than ideal choice for fast moving photography. Shot to shot time was slightly better, with a two second gap between snaps. A one and a half second startup time rounds out a rather poor set of operating speeds.
When we first got a look at the SP-350 we were thinking "oh no, another AA powered advanced camera", and in one way we were correct. In another however, we were quite wrong. The SP-350 does have the capacity to take AA batteries if you so require it, but it comes with its own lithium ion cell out of the box, giving you the best of both worlds. You can be constantly recharging it and saving yourself money, but if you get in a tight spot and need to squeeze out a few more shots then you can stop in at the shops and fix yourself up. Furthermore, the battery life when operating with the lithium ion unit was very good, lasting for nearly 500 shots before needing a recharge. That's enough to satisfy all but the most hardcore of photographers.
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