The biggest thing about the Olympus SP-500 UltraZoom is the lens: it's an impressive 10X model that is significantly longer than those on most point-and-shoot cameras. However, it has no type of image stabilisation, so this long zoom can be a mixed blessing.
It lets you get close to the action, but in anything other than bright sunlight you may end up with blurry pictures because the long zoom amplifies camera shake, especially with long shutter times.
The long lens also makes the camera too big to fit easily into a pocket. It's 2.8in deep when turned off, and the lens expands to a slightly ungainly 3.5in when it's turned on. Fortunately, it's not too heavy – about 300g with battery and memory card – and the wide grip makes it comfortable to hold.
You can easily shoot, use the zoom, or turn the mode dial with your right hand, but you'll need your other hand to access the on-screen menu. An auto-exposure lock button is handily located on the top of the camera.
Although the 2.5in LCD screen is viewable in daylight, the electronic viewfinder looks better in that setting, and also saves battery life. You can easily switch between the two with a button to the right of the viewfinder.
Power shouldn't be a worry – powered by four AA Duracell Ultra batteries, the SP-500 was still going after 500 shots, which is when we stop testing. And its use of standard AAs means you'll have no problem finding replacements. But there's something satisfactory about a solid rechargeable lithium battery powering your camera.
The Ultra Zoom is also great value for money – at £300, it's significantly cheaper than most of the other models we've seen with long zooms. The resolution of 6Mp (megapixels) is a little behind the 7.2 and 8.4Mp models that we are seeing now, but the Olympus's resolution is more than adequate for most people. You can easily blow up the images to A4-size and get photos that will look good on the wall.
Enjoy the scenery
There's a pretty good selection of scene modes – 21 in all – including 'museum' (which turns off the sound and the flash) and the unusual 'behind glass'. A workaround to avoid laboriously scrolling through the list is to create saved groups of settings using the My Mode setting. This allows you to switch among four groups of customisable options – a nice touch for advanced photographers.
We were impressed by the colour in the photos we took, and the SP-500 accurately exposed the images. We saw slight distortion when using the zoom lens at its widest settings, and the photos looked rather soft – details such as small text and fine lines were lost in a blurry haze. However, switching to the document scene mode helped improve sharpness by boosting the contrast.
Zoom! Shake the room
Long optical zooms open up a whole new world of possibilities for budding photographers – but things can get complicated if your camera isn't equipped with anti-shake functionality. Indeed, the fact that such technology surfaced relatively recently explains why it's only been within the past couple of years that we've started seeing long zooms on mid-range digital cameras.
The problem with these zooms is that unless the camera is anchored by a tripod – which is an unlikely scenario for most rank-and-file weekend photographers – the camera picks up on the most minuscule vibrations of your hand and magnifies them. Shoot full telephoto on a 10x optical zoom and you're going to get a fuzzy image with even the steadiest arm.
A camera such as the SP-500, without anti-shake functionality or a tripod, will have to be propped against something steady, so you're going to miss out on those impromptu long-zoom action shots. Anti-shake does add to the overall cost of the camera, but we think it's worth it.