Olympus' latest super-zoom packs a massive 18x zoom range that goes from a wide 28mm to an amazing paparazzi-busting 504mm equivalent, and all with a full spread of manual controls.

You'd be forgiven for expecting some ungainly beast of a camera with that sort of optical spec, but handling the SP-550UZ is actually a pleasant surprise. It's nicely compact and lighter than its nearest rivals (weighing in at less than 500g with a full set of AA batteries), and the rubberised right-hand grip is simply excellent.

The top-mounted mode dial and menu thumb-pad are both within easy reach, and even the delete button has been sensibly located to avoid accidental erasures.

Turn the SP-550UZ on and that enormous lens lumbers into life. It takes about three seconds to move from wide-angle to telephoto, during which time the lens extends by a further 65mm - that's about the width of three ultra-compacts.

However, despite its size, the lens is surprisingly light on distortion, if not chromatic aberration: a swathe of purple fringing is clearly visible when the lens is fully extended, although details remain crisp right to the edges.

Olympus has wisely chosen the SP-550UZ with which to debut a mechanical image stabiliser in its compact range. The CCD shift system works very well, kicking in when you hit the shutter and adding a stop or two of blur-free shooting in low light.

Even without the stabiliser, the maximum aperture of f/4.5 at telephoto is nice and bright. The optics are equally flexible when it comes to focusing: you can focus as close as 10cm, even in normal AF mode, and down to 1cm in Super macro - although here the focal length is fixed at mid-point.

Manual focusing doesn't really work well, even with a sharp, responsive 2.5-inch display. The electronic viewfinder isn't quite as good as the main screen, but it's well worth having for shooting in bright conditions. Menu navigation is logical, and helped by a Canon-style Func menu for basic settings (ISO, drive, white balance, metering).

There are a few irritating quirks, though. For instance, if you're in a menu and half-press or hit the shutter, the camera will show live view only briefly before returning you to the menu. The prim SP-550UZ insists that you exit the menu system properly, which requires at least two button presses.

Feature-packed

The SP-550UZ's feature list is commendably comprehensive and includes both tracking and continuous focus. Exposure-wise, there are full Manual as well as Auto and Priority modes. One especially welcome feature is Bulb mode, something that appears to have fallen out of favour in the digital era.

The 1.2fps Burst mode only really takes off when you drop the image resolution, and the size is similarly downgraded if you choose to shoot at an ISO above 1600.

When it comes to sensitivity, Olympus has decidedly upped its game with some seriously higher settings. Even the ISO 5000 setting manages to maintain some semblance of colour and detail amid all the chroma noise, although for smooth results it's best to keep things at ISO 400 or lower.

In general, image quality is very good. It would seem that 7 megapixels is the sweet spot for the 1/2.5-inch CCDs found in many of today's compacts. Edges are confident and there's a good degree of fine detail, though certainly rather less than you'll get from a budget 6MP SLR.

Colour rendition is a little on the muted side of natural, but there's room to tweak the saturation, alongside contrast and sharpness, of your JPEGs. And, if you still can't get those colours quite right, then you've always got the option of slipping into RAW and fixing things later on.

For most situations the ESP metering setting is smart enough to deal with almost any subject, but the centre-weighted setting offers results that are almost as good and comes with fewer unpleasant surprises. With so much manual control and customisation on offer, there seems little need to delve into the 20-odd scene modes available.

The VGA Movie mode is worth playing with, especially as you can use the zoom while filming. Unfortunately, super-sharp, detailed clips are let down by clunky shifts in exposure when the light changes.

In the past super-zooms have suffered a reputation as the also-rans of the digital world, never quite being as easy to use as a compact nor as competent as an SLR. The SP-550UZ is the first camera to explode that myth. Its huge lens and extensive manual features could even tempt some DSLR owners back to the fold - at least for use as a second camera.

The fast and responsive interface, coupled with simple operation, is the ideal for introducing novices to the delights of wide-angle and extreme telephoto shooting.

In fact, Olympus may have succeeded in answering that age-old question: it's both what you do with it and size that matters.

Via PhotoRadar