It’s no secret Nikon and Canon dominate the market for D-SLRs leaving Sony, Pentax and Olympus to pick up the crumbs. That said, D-SLRs from these companies are far from crummy—in fact they can be pretty good as we reported over a year ago with the Sony alpha. Many people opt for Canon and Nikon because they have older 35mm lenses from those systems and want to use that glass in the digital era. However, if you never bought a lens in your life it’s worth looking beyond the Big Two just as we’ve done in the past. Olympus recently introduced a pair of 10-megapixel D-SLRs using the Four Thirds Standard mounting system (the Evolt E-410 and E-510). Claimed to be digital from the ground up, there are plenty of Olympus Zuiko lenses to choose from (17 to be exact) ranging from fish-eyes up to a 300mm f2.8 super telephoto. Since the Four Thirds Standard has a digital factor of 2x, lenses are actually double the stated focal length (600mm in the case of the 300mm f2.8) giving you a very nice range of glass. Granted it’s nothing near the options of Canon and Nikon but for those dipping into the D-SLR waters there’s enough to keep you happy—and broke. Olympus models also have a feature called “Live View” that lets you frame your shots on the 2.5-inch LCD screen, not just the viewfinder, something very few D-SLRs offer. The Canon EOS 1D Mark III does but it costs over $4,000 USD and so does the new EOS 40D ($1,299 USD body only). We were sent the $999 USD Evolt E-510 two lens kit and proceeded to give the camera a workout…
Features and Design
First things first—the difference between the E-410/510 is a lot more than a hundred bucks. The E-510 is larger and heftier than the E-410 making it easier to hold. The E-510 is still pretty lightweight and won’t wreak your shoulder—it tips the scales at 16.6 ounces for the body only compared to 13.2 for the E-410–which is the lightest D-SLR available. Besides the heft, the E-510 has built-in sensor shift image stabilization so no matter which lens you attach you get the benefits of IS. While it’s no panacea it does help you shoot in low light with less chance of blur and helps eliminate most jitter when you’re in extreme telephoto settings. I’m a big fan of any type of stabilization other than electronic and always suggest you spend a bit more to get it—even if it’s in a point-and-shoot digicam, a camcorder such as the Sony HDR-CX7 or anything else that offers it—including binoculars. Canon and Nikon do not have IS in their D-SLRs so you have to buy expensive lenses with the circuitry built in. This definitely adds up. Sony and Pentax also have D-SLRs with IS built into the body as well so there are lots of options out there.
The Evolt looks like almost every other D-SLR but it does have a textured black finish. The camera is nothing to write home about but it’s not ugly by any stretch. The front is dominated by the lens opening which accepts glass for the Four Thirds Standard. Also on the face of the E-510 is a lens release button, a remote control sensor on the hand grip and a few decals highlighting 10 megapixels, IS and so on.
The top has buttons on the far left to pop open the flash and to adjust the shooting mode (single shot or burst of up 3 frames per second, the standard for sub-$1,000 USD D-SLRs). Behind the flash—which also acts as an AF Illuminator–is a hot shoe. On the right is the main mode dial with power on/off switch, access to exposure compensation and dial to help you scroll through menus. The mode dial gives quick access to your shooting options starting with Auto, program, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual as well as five common scene modes (portrait, landscape and so on). There’s also a Scene setting that gives you access to 17 choices—all are nicely described and a sample shot is shown on the LCD. This is very nicely done and Olympus gets an extra point for it.
The rear is dominated by a 2.5-inch monitor rated a solid 230K pixels; it works well under most light conditions. Although the E-510 has Live View most of the time you’ll be using the viewfinder which has a nice rubber surround. Naturally it has a diopter control to adjust to your eyesight. The usual controls are located around the LCD screen. On the far left are buttons for Playback, Delete, Menu and Info (a screen that shows all your current settings). On the right are button for AEL/AFL (auto exposure and auto focus lock) and an IS key to change the type of image stabilization. With IS1 image stabilization is constantly on while IS2 lets you achieve a blurred background when panning horizontally (only the vertical stabilizer is activated). There’s a dedicated button to move into the Live View mode. Next to it is the four-way control with center OK key. The four points of the compass give you access to white balance, auto focus (five choices), ISO (100-1600) and metering (five options). The USB out port is located just below the controller. Near the top right are buttons for Fn (Function) and AF area (three options).
On the right side is the compartment for either a Compact Flash or xD Picture Card which is another good thing since you can get CF cards for a lot less money than xD. On the bottom is the battery compartment and tripod mount.
The Evolt E-510 comes with a nice package. As noted, I received the box with two lenses (14-42mm, 40-150mm) and it really has everything you need. You get the strap, battery, charger, body cap, USB/Video cables, a 140-page Owner’s Manual, Quick Start Guide and Olympus Master CD-ROM. After charging the battery and loading a 2GB CF card, it was time to start clicking.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
Testing and Use
Testing loads of cameras—point-and-shoot as well as D-SLRs—one can readily see why more expensive models with interchangeable lenses are catching on. Speed is one of the best features of any D-SLR. From the moment you turn on the power to snapping the shutter, there’s practically no lag. Just zoom in, focus and click away. Anyone who has twiddled their thumbs waiting for an aim-and-forget camera to focus and save images can appreciate this real-world benefit. Of course you have to spend a lot of cash to get this convenience but if you’re really into taking photographs, it’s hard to overestimate what this fast performance does for you. Like its competitors this new Olympus is a quick performer, even though it’s a 10-megapixel camera.
The Olympus E-510 saves 3648 x 2736 pixel files in RAW and JPEG. Make sure you use a high-capacity, high-speed card of at least 2GB since a single RAW file is 11MB. And if you shoot RAW+SHQ JPEGs it’s almost 20MB a pop. The camera will take up to 8 RAW shots before gagging and blitz through 3 frames per second in JPEG, about the same speed as most D-SLRs in its price range. Helping speed things along is Olympus’ new TruePic III processor. Note: the camera has a Supersonic Wave Filter that “shakes” dust off the sensor that can cause annoying spots on your shots. This slightly slows down the start-up and power-down but it’s well worth it.
As usual I started in Auto then moved to the many manual options available. I also shot in the IS1 setting which meant image stabilization was on all the time and switched between both kit lenses. As an uber point-and-shoot digicam, the E-510 was fun to use. It felt very comfortable and all of the controls were logically placed. Basically there’s very little learning curve for simply using the camera as a point-and-shoot. And the quick response is a pleasure.
Once you move out of Auto things fall down a bit. The Olympus menu system does a good job with Scene modes as mentioned earlier but it looks very dated and is not as intuitive as it should be when adjusting the many manual options. And there are plenty of them which is a good thing. The printed Owner’s Manual is a real plus here and I’d make sure to carry it with me.
Image Courtesy of Olympus
Now on to Live View, one of key features that separates this camera from other sub-$1,000 USD D-SLRs—I don’t like it. It dramatically slows the camera down and images on the LCD screen are a smeary mess (because of poor refresh rates). Auto focus takes a long time and the camera makes a loud clunk every time you snap a shot. I know the Live View is supposed to give you additional shooting angle options but I’d rather crane my neck to use the viewfinder instead of the LCD screen. Olympus does say Live View is best used with stationary objects but I don’t get what the hype is all about. Maybe that’s just me—any happy Live View users are welcome to send an email.
I took a ton of shots indoors and out, then proceeded to turn out full-bleed 8.5×11 prints. And how was the quality of the photographs? Simply stated they were very good. Colors were very accurate particularly the subtle shades of my orange tabby’s fur and his copper eyes. Detail was also very good with nice detail even in shadows. Noise didn’t become an issue until hitting ISO 800. The sensor-shift stabilization did a good job holding steady focus even in dim settings.
There have been some reports on various sites about the relative softness of the images in the default settings but I didn’t find this annoying at all. That said there are enough tweaks on the camera to dial it in to your liking.
I have no problems recommending the Olympus Evolt E-510 two lens kit for D-SLR newbies or those who don’t have an extensive collection of older lenses. However if you have a collection of glass, go with similar 10MP Canons or Nikons. And, as noted, any fans of Olympus’ Live View let me know what I’m missing.
• Solid image quality
• Quick response
• Live View
• Live View
• Menu system needs updating