Yes, there are DSLRs available from companies other than Canon and Nikon. But give the devils their due, since they account for over 75 percent of the approximately 3 million DLSRs sold annually. While the top two continue to cram things like HD video in their new models, competitors like Olympus, Pentax and Sony introduce cameras for people who just want to shoot high-quality stills. Amazingly, these creatures still exist! A new model designed for this crew is the new E-620, a lightweight, mid-range 12.3-megapixel DSLR that pulls some very cool tricks. Let’s see if it holds it own with the big boys.
Features and Design
We hate to say it, but if you covered the front logos, you’d be hard pressed to tell the E-620 from its competitors. DSLRs are basically locked into this bulky style due to the mirror-pentaprism-interchangeable lens setup. But hey, you want fast response, tons of lens options, and a larger imaging sensor, you have to deal with the tradeoffs compared to slick-looking digicams like the Sony T900 or Panasonic DMC-G1.
The camera measures 5.1 inches wide, 3.7 tall and 2.4 deep. The body alone tips the scales at 16.8 ounces, but with the battery, which is how you’ll use it, it weighs 26 ounces. By comparison, the new 15.1MP Canon EOS T1i is 26.2 fully loaded, so they’re pretty darn close.
The front is dominated by lens mount, which accepts all Four Thirds format glass. Compared to Canon and Nikon, you’ll find far fewer lenses available (25 versus 60 plus) but most of the key focal lengths are covered. With the Four Thirds system, there’s a 2x digital factor, so the equivalent 35mm spec is doubled. Therefore, the supplied 14-42mm kit lens is actually 28-84mm, and so on. Canon and Nikon APS-C DSLRs have 1.6x and 1.5x multipliers, respectively. This is fine on the telephoto end, but wide-angle buffs should keep this at the very top of mind. Olympus has a new 9-18mm f/2.0-5.0 model (18-36mm) for these folks, but it costs over $500.
You’ll also find a white balance sensor on the front, as well as a remote sensor on the smallish pistol grip, a lens-release button and assorted logos/emblems. There’s no dedicated autofocus-assist lamp, unfortunately. The key is “iS Image Stabilization,” which means the camera has built-in anti-shake technology. Any lens you attach is stabilized, so there’s no need to purchase more expensive glass with IS, which Canon and Nikon force you to do. Olympus, Pentax and Sony all offer this feature, a major point that first-time buyers should seriously consider when zeroing in on a new DSLR.
The top of the E-620 is cluttered, with buttons and decals galore, but anyone with a reasonable IQ should figure them out in about 60 seconds. One pops open the flash and gives access to the flash options. Another offers self-timer and shooting modes (single, burst). The E-620 rips off 4 frames per second at the best 12-megapixel resolution, and up to 5 frames in RAW or the capacity of the card if you use a high-speed CF card for JPEGs. This is a good rating, slightly better than the usual 3 or 3.5 fps of competitors. On the top of the auto pop-up flash is a hot shoe, with a classic mode dial next to it, and a power switch at the base. You’ll also find a separate dial for moving through menus, along with a shutter button and an exposure compensation key. Just turn the dial to adjust it and other settings. Next to the shutter is a SSWF decal and light indicator for the Supersonic Wave Filter, Olympus’ system for cleaning the image sensor.
The rear has its blizzard of buttons and decals too, but the backlit keys are a real boon when shooting at night. Another feature not found too frequently on mid-range DSLRs is the articulating 2.7-inch LCD screen, rated a decent 230K pixels. You can swivel it into a variety of positions, then use it to frame subjects when you’re in Live View mode. Buttons of note are IS, to change the stabilization mode, and the aforementioned Live View. The viewfinder is solid, with 95 percent coverage and .96x magnification; a diopter dial lets you easily fine-tune it to your eyesight. On the lower right is a compartment for the multi-connector jack, a proprietary hookup for downloading images or displaying them on a TV (thankfully, cables are supplied).
On the right side is a compartment for CompactFlash or xD Picture cards. Choose a high-speed CF card, since they’re much cheaper than xD. The bottom of the Made In China DSLR has a metal tripod mount, and a battery compartment.
What’s In The Box
The solid Olympus E-620 bundle includes the camera, lens and hood (if you go the kit route), strap, battery/charger and cables (USB and A/V). You also get a 156-page owner’s manual and a CD-ROM with Olympus Master 2 software and a trial version of Olympus Studio 2 for developing RAW files.
After popping in a 2-gig M+ xD card and attaching the kit lens, it was time to start taking photos.
Performance and Use
The Olympus E-620 is a 12.3MP camera, so it captures 4032 x 3024 pixel files, more than enough for 13 x 19 prints. We started off in auto with all major parameters set to default, but the camera was in burst mode, and JPEGs had the best compression. Even so, the card held over 300 shots. Move to RAW+JPEG and it drops to a measly 85 so. Definitely go with an 8GB UDMA-compliant CF card, for around $75.
Before getting into handling, quality and so on, let’s note that Olympus should upgrade the onscreen menu system; it looks really dated and needs a refresh. The main splash screen is crammed with boxes to navigate through, including arcane items such as color space. These should be culled, and the key ones (picture mode, resolution, ISO, white balance and so on) made larger. There’s no sense scaring amateurs off with these features, since hard-core enthusiasts and serious shutterbugs won’t play in this sandbox.
After shooting in auto, we moved to the various manual modes via the dial. However, the art setting beckoned, since this really sets this DSLR apart. With it, you can add some cool effects to your images such as Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Light Tone, Pale, and Light Color. Pop Art and Grainy Film were our faves, with Pop adding bizarre colors straight from the ‘60s. Grainy Film and vegetation made for some fascinating images. Unless you’re sure you want these effects, your best bet is shooting in RAW+JPEG, since the RAW file will be “clean,” while the JPEGs have the effects. Art is an enjoyable add-on, but it definitely slows the camera down as it processes the images. Anything that encourages photographers to experiment with their cameras is fine by us.
On our indoor test shot, even with the 12.3MP Live MOS sensor, noise is kept under control at ISO 640 and 800, but tends to go down steadily at 1000, 1250, and is pretty poor at 3200. At the lower range, it really isn’t a major issue, which was good to see.
After extensive shooting, it was time to review the images, and make a batch of 8.5 x 11 full-bleed prints with no tweaking. Sad to say, the results weren’t really impressive. Colors weren’t nearly as accurate as the Canon T1i just tested. We’re partial to the “feel” of Canon cameras, and there clearly was a big difference between the two. Another bummer: although the E-620 has a 7-point Twin Cross autofocus system, it does not have a dedicated autofocus-assist lamp, so focusing wasn’t nearly as sharp as the Canon T1i. Yes, you can flip open the flash to use that as a lamp, but that means the flash goes off with every shot. This is major faux pas, and the results – or lack thereof – really showed it.
We’ve had issues with the sub-par quality Olympus aim-and-forget cameras, and the E-620 has its issues as well. Even though the kit with a single lens is only $699, or $799 with the 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses (both real world prices), it’s hard to recommend. On the plus side, it’s light, speedy and feels comfy (although we’d prefer a deeper pistol grip). The built-in IS is a winner, the articulating screen is extremely useful and the art filters are cool, even though they slow down shot-to-shot time. That said, after using Canon and Nikon DSLRs, it’s easy to understand why they lead the pack by a mile. Watch for our upcoming review of the new Sony alpha DSLR-A330, a 10.2MP DSLR with built-in IS. It goes for $649 with an 18-55mm lens, so it’ll be a good comparison. Hopefully, it’ll give Canon and Nikon some real competition.
- Compact, lightweight
- Fast 4 fps
- Art filters are fun tricks
- Built-in image stabilization
- Focusing not crisp, no dedicated autofocus-assist lamp
- Colors not as accurate as competition
- Uses Four Thirds system; limited lens options
- Main screen should be edited, updated