Olympus Drops Everything
Earlier this year, Olympus brought out the SP-550 UZ, a DZLR-style compact with an 18X optical zoom, and a maximum ISO equivalency of 5000. Gasp. 5000? Gulp. Be still my heart. Are those misprints? Are we dreaming? Does it really say $500 and change? (The new Canon 1D Mark III reaches 6400-speed, but it's priced like the high-end pro camera it is.)
In order to achieve its 5000 speed, the 550 UZ does something to its pictures that nobody would have thought a camera could do in 1990: it redraws them. The result is highly photorealistic, sort of a high-res rotoscope of the original optical image. Maybe instead of being a photograph as we've always thought of one, it's really sort of a computer graphic. It's all in pursuit of deleting "artifacts."
At a high "ISO equivalent" of 5000, we would expect a picture to show a whole mess of noise, which definitely needs reducing. Some noise-reduction systems search for pixels that seem out of place, and are probably noise, and when they find them, they often replace them with the nearby color they think most likely to imitate what would have been there, if noise hadn't.
In the SP-550 UZ, Olympus goes a step beyond that. They describe a process whereby each group of nine pixels is reduced to three. In the course of this downsampling, a lot of noise gets pulled out by the roots—it is "disappeared" from the final picture. Of course, the final picture now has only one-third the number of pixels it began with.
Since it began with seven million pixels and a picture measuring 3072x2304, the final result in the 5000-speed mode isn't too bad in its XxY dimensions—2048x1536 pixels. Digital cameras had been on the market for almost a decade before they routinely delivered pictures that large. It's big enough to print at most of the popular sizes.
And it is, at normal viewing distance, a very fine picture for one taken at ISO 5000. If you zoom-in on-screen to 100%, you can sometimes see the handiwork of the noise-reduction process, artifacts of its own. For if it never saw what was covered by the noise, how can the system be sure what to put there? Perfectly straight edges weren't always perfectly straight in some of our test pix, but were very slightly serrated. The program did its best, and it did very well. The artifacts it leaves are far less intrusive than the ones it replaced.
But the reweaving isn't completely invisible.
The next Olympus DSLR was announced last February, when we joyfully lauded it as a first-of-kind. For all that we love in-camera image-stabilization, we also love live-view monitors and dust-reduction systems, too. These have been the hot new features over the past three years, but where some cameras had one or two of them, no camera had all three—until now, with the E-510. (The companion E-410 is the same camera without the image stabilization—fine for people who always take pictures in bright daylight and/or always with a tripod, but for the majority of the market we think the IS is worth the extra hundred bucks.)
The E-510 is quite compact and lightweight. It's comfortable to handle and use, but it doesn't feel like the battleaxe that its illustrious armored ancestor, the E-1, showed itself to be. When we started looking at the pictures, though, we were surprised. We were impressed. We were overjoyed. The E-510 takes very good pictures.
Very good pictures at 1600-speed.
The improvement over past Evolt models was substantial. We called up the company's Sally Smith Clemens, who attributed the low noise at the high speed to the latest Olympus processing engine, called TruePic III. "Before this, we had TruePic Turbo," she says, one of the features of the SP-550 UZ, and before that, TruePics back to the original in the 2.5-megapixel C-2500 that came out about nine years ago. Olympus is hardly the only, but they were probably the first to make a big deal out of internal processing systems, and to give theirs a daring, snazzy, marketable name.
Future implementations of TruePic III hadn't been announced by press time, and at present it's available in just three cameras—the Evolt E-410 and E-510 DSLRs, and the Stylus 780 point-and-shoot.
An Olympus document attributes the following to TruePic III:
"Advanced Noise Filter II—This technology has evolved further to reproduce subjects faithfully and reduce noise by isolating the image and noise signals accurately." It also cites, possibly reflecting observations about the SP-500 UZ, "Advanced Digital Reproduction Technology, [which] accurately detects edges and reproduces them smoothly."
We're guessing that such systems as these wouldn't find broad adoption in, say, the medical-imaging industry. The docs would probably opt for some other recording form, one that does not make decisions about whether to keep the spot on the picture of the patient's kidney.
Digital photography already involves a lot of inventions, including the colors of the recorded pixels and the results of various forms of interpolation. Where there could be theoretical arguments that the interpretative nature of digital pictures make them less accurate records of actual events, in practice the pictures seem correct to us.
Meanwhile, the E-510 takes such great pictures that we quickly decided it was against our best interest to keep it holed up in its case. Working on bright days, we used the 80-150mm zoom that comes with the kit and found we really liked it. It doesn't have a fast aperture, but digital technology via TruePic III seems to be making the compensation.