The Olympus EVOLT E-510 is a compact consumer DSLR based on the Four Thirds digital camera standard created by Olympus and Kodak. The E-510, as tested, is available in a kit that includes the body and two Olympus Zukio Digital lenses-the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 and the 40-150mm f/4-5.6. The E-510 is also available as body only or in another kit with the 14-42mm lens only.
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Olympus delivers a well-rounded Four Thirds System digital SLR to the sub-$1,000 camera space. The EVOLT E-510, like the Pentax K10D I reviewed early this year, offers a balanced combination of technical features, usability, and customization that works well in the field.
The Olympus EVOLT E-510 comes with everything we expect from a modern digital SLR. This includes mechanical image stabilization, long-exposure noise reduction, and an automatic sensor cleaning system. The E-510 also offers a Live View shooting mode that enables the rear LCD display to be used as a viewfinder (just like point-and-shoot digital cameras).
For me, the EVOLT E-510′s most important feature is the image stabilization system. Mechanical image stabilization, like the E-510′s sensor-shift system, enables you to handhold the camera at slow shutter speeds. This is especially valuable for low light photography. I found that Olympus’ image stabilization works very well at normal to wide focal lengths (i.e., with the 14-42mm zoom lens). It also works, but not as well, with the 40-150mm telephoto lens. This is to be expected from sensor-based image stabilization, as opposed to optical image stabilization systems, which are designed for and built into specific lenses. The benefit of Olympus’ mechanical system is that it’s built into the camera body and therefore works with any lens mounted on the body. I think the E-510′s image stabilization system works well overall-even better than the Pentax K10D, which I tested and own. I consistently captured sharp handheld photos at 1/8th of a second. And when I used Live View, which automatically locks up the mirror, I was able to handhold for up to half a second and get usable photos.
Live View is another key E-510 feature. It allows you to use the rear LCD to compose and shoot, instead of the viewfinder. Olympus was the first to introduce live view to digital SLRs, with their EVOLT E-330. This is particularly useful for macro photographers because you don’t have to contort your body to see through the viewfinder when you’re shooting at odd angles. It appears that Olympus had macro photography in mind with the Live View mode, because mirror lock-up is only available in Live View mode. In fact, mirror lock-up is required for Live View as the mirror normally blocks the Live View sensor. Live View is a benefit for macro work and landscape photography. It would also be useful for portrait and product photographers working on a tripod in the studio.
Olympus Evolt E-510 playback
Olympus Evolt E-510 playback with RGB histograms
Olympus Evolt E-510 playback with brightness histogram
Olympus Evolt E-510 Live View mode w. histogram
Olympus Evolt E-510 detailed control panel screen
Olympus Evolt E-510 main menu
Digital SLRs under $1,000 have matured to the point where the differences between models are less about features and performance than about the specific trade-offs a photographer is willing to make in order to satisfy their particular photographic needs and style. These distinctions can be subtle and personal to be sure. But they can mean the difference between a satisfying camera and a frustrating one. As with a tough photo competition’s final round of judging, camera usability comes down to the smallest details and can be a very personal thing. In this regard, Olympus’ engineers made some thoughtful design choices for the EVOLT E-510.
Like most DSLRs, clicking on one of the directional keys on the back of the E-510 (up-down-left-right) accesses primary camera settings like white balance or ISO. Olympus takes this one step further: clicking the center “OK” button allows you to navigate around the rear LCD’s INFO display and change any setting shown. It’s easy and intuitive to navigate this visual grid and that makes it easier to access secondary settings normally buried in the menu tree.
|Olympus Evolt E-510 Back and Top Controls|
Another thing I liked about the E-510 was the flexibility of the exposure controls. There’s a rear thumb-activated control dial on the top right side of the camera, with function buttons just below. I find using the rear dial preferable to an index-finger dial next to the shutter button It’s more comfortable and secure to change exposure with your thumb while maintaining a light touch on the shutter button. Thus most E- 510 exposure changes are just a quick twist of the thumb. I also feel that finger-thumb combos such as changing exposure compensation (by holding the top button down with your index finger while turning the thumb dial) are easier with the E-510 than the opposite arrangement (e.g., with Canon’s Digital Rebel XTi, you hold a button with your thumb while dialing with the index finger). The E-510′s arrangement feels more secure to me. This makes a subtle but positive difference for aperture-priority and metered manual shooters like me.
Since the four-way keypad on the back has become standard for most digital SLRs, it’s difficult to judge the usability of the E-510 controls without some hands-on shooting time. The camera doesn’t seem unusual in your hands. But after shooting a few hundred photos with it, I think that the Olympus engineers put more than cursory thought into the design of the camera interface. I’ll be looking for “thumb-priority” control dials on future digital SLRs from Olympus and camera makers.
Overall, the Olympus E-510 performed reliably in many everyday situations. It easily handled landscapes and close-up photos, which don’t usually require rapid control operation. It was also fast and responsive enough for chasing erratic butterflies around with the 40-150mm zoomed out all the way to 150mm. As I reviewed (“chimped”) my shots throughout the test, I noticed that the E-510′s exposure metering performed consistently well across a variety of lighting conditions. It held highlight detail pretty well and exposures generally needed little or no post-processing. Automatic white balance was often right on, outdoors. Indoors it came close, although it wasn’t as consistently as I would like. Fluorescent lights, the bane of all automatic white balance systems, were handled reasonably well by one of the three fluorescent presets. If anything, they tended to have a slight magenta cast, although it wasn’t objectionable.
The E-510′s auto focus, while not the fastest in its class, was quick and accurate for most subjects, short of pro sports. I found it performed best with the 14-42mm zoom lens. The AF system isn’t perfect – it missed occasionally (especially with the 40-150mm telephoto zoom lens) and took a little longer to focus in low light than I’m accustomed to.
The Herbie Hancock snapshots (crops at 100%) were taken at 150mm (300mm equivalent) at a shutter speed of 1/640th second, easily fast enough to eliminate camera shake and freeze motion. The first frame (above left) demonstrates how sharp the E-510 and 40-150mm lens combo can be. But the other photo (above right) is soft, probably as a result of auto focus inaccuracy. It appears that the camera focused on the audience instead of the performers, in spite of my using only the center AF point and recomposing the shot – the most accurate auto focus technique
On the other hand, I felt the AF was tracking fairly well as I chased butterflies on the ground. It seemed to me that little focus errors tended to occur with distant subjects at long telephoto zoom lengths. Despite this minor issue, I generally was confident that the E-510 would acquire focus without my having to double check.
A lot of customization is possible with the E-510. One custom function I found useful programs the E-510′s Function (Fn) button to activate the auto focus. I’ve used rear-activated auto focus for almost my entire career and was pleased to be able to do so with the E-510. By swapping the operation of the AEL/AFL button with the Fn button to activate auto-focus, the most important exposure controls are literally right under my thumb. I can operate the shutter independently of the AF system, as well as lock exposure if my desired exposure differs from the metered composition.
There were a few things about the E-510 that bugged me. One is the itty-bitty optical viewfinder. Like Canon’s Digital Rebel XTi /EOS 400D, the E-510′s viewfinder image is so small that it makes some photographic situations difficult. For example, I found it difficult to see people’s facial expressions when shooting environmental portraits. If you can’t see the subject’s facial expressions clearly, you have to either take more pictures as insurance, or you have to get out from behind the camera to see their face better – thus taking your eye from the viewfinder and possibly tilting your horizon.
Another minor inconvenience is the inability to erase an image file during the immediate playback after capture. With a high contrast scene like the chairs below, you may want to see if the highlights are blown and make an exposure adjustment immediately, before the light changes. You can’t rapidly review, delete, and reshoot with the E-510. The obvious workaround is to bracket your exposures and just keep shooting although that requires more memory cards. The E-510 does have an optional “Quick Erase” function. And if you do enable Quick Erase, I recommend caution, as there is no “are you sure,” confirmation step. One click and the picture is gone.
The memory card door popped open a few times while I was using the camera one-handed. When I reached with my thumb to push the AEL/AFL or Fn buttons, my palm sometimes pulled the memory card door open. If the camera happened to be writing to the card at the time, that data would be lost. Maybe my hands are a little big for the E-510. But this is something that should never happen, regardless of the size of the photographer’s hands. Perhaps Olympus will design a better memory card door latch in the future. The E-510 needs a lock mechanism to prevent this situation from occurring.
The Olympus E-510 body and lenses also look and feel much more like a traditional film camera than a digital SLR. The body is compact and almost as small as an XTi, and the kit lenses are proportionally sized for the body. The E-510 also has one of the most comfortable grips I’ve ever used on a small DSLR. There’s a gradual bulge in the middle of the grip, along with an indent that cradles your middle finger under the shutter button. This gives you a secure grasp on the camera and is a big reason why I was shooting one-handed so much during my testing. This grip should be suitable for a wide range of hand sizes as well. The compact size of the E-510, combined with the very comfortable grip and control layout, makes handling the camera a breeze.
About The Four Thirds System
A little discussion about the Four Thirds digital format and its underlying philosophy is important for a well-rounded Olympus digital SLR review. The Four Thirds system was conceived in 1999 with the premise that the ideal digital sensor should be large enough to produce a quality image file, yet small enough to keep the camera body and lenses small. The Four Thirds moniker comes from the sensor’s 4:3 aspect ratio, as opposed to 35mm film’s 3:2 ratio. The first Four Thirds camera, the Olympus E1 digital SLR, was introduced in 2003. Because the Four Thirds sensor is smaller than full frame or APS-sized sensors, lenses can be smaller with approximately twice the effective focal length power of 35mm camera lenses. So the Olympus Zuiko Digital 40-150mm kit lens used for this review is comparable to an 80-300mm lens in the 35mm format or a 60-225mm lens on digital SLRs with a 1.5x digital crop factor (most).
Although the Four Thirds system was intended to produce smaller cameras and lenses, the E-510 is about the same size as other digital SLRs in its class – think Canon XTi / 400D, Pentax K10D, or Nikon D80. It’s the lenses the set it apart. They are definitely smaller than comparable 35mm and dedicated digital SLR lenses – especially with the two lenses in the kit we tested. The tradeoff may be a sacrifice in image quality compared to cameras that have sensors with more surface area. But with improved sensors and better noise-reduction technology it may not be a real issue to anyone but people who have to compare everything with a magnifying glass. And it’s always important to consider how much image quality is really necessary. How much is good enough?
Personally, I find the 4:3 aspect ratio a bit cramped and narrow. I frequently cropped E-510 images to 3:2 proportions, thinking to myself, “what a waste of pixels.” The 3:2 ratio may feel more natural to me because I grew up with it. It’s also closer to the proportions of Euclid’s Golden Mean (1.618:1). The 4:3 ratio does feel well suited to portrait orientation (vertical) images, however. And, the Four Thirds sensors also deliver image files with a subtle character, which I’ll discuss in the Image Quality section of my review. So what to make of Four Thirds? In the end it’s a personal decision. The cameras and lenses are smaller, but a smaller sensor means restricted image quality compared to cameras with more sensor surface area. And the appeal of the 4:3 aspect ratio depends on the individual photographer.
The Olympus E-510 generally has very good image quality. But as with the camera design and performance, it’s the balance of elements, rather than one characteristic, that makes it noteworthy.
The color palette is natural and pleasing while the highlights are well controlled with realistic gradients. I still recommend shooting a little dark to hold highlights, as you would with any digital camera. Shadow areas have plenty of detail, so underexposing a bit isn’t a problem, if you’re willing to do a little post-processing. Other professional reviews have indicated that Olympus E-System cameras might have a little less dynamic range than some other cameras in the same price range. My experience with the E-510 suggests that this may be true. But not enough to make photos unusable or make me overly concerned.
I primarily shot RAW files and converted them using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I found that the colors captured by the E-510 often needed little, if any, correction. And I did substantially less post-processing than I normally would with other cameras. The E-510 produced files that almost had a film-like color palette (perhaps a bit like Fujifilm Provia slide film). This aspect of the E-510′s character may be more valuable than a wider dynamic range because it means less time sitting in front of the computer.
The E-510′s image files are a cross between DSLR and small sensor, compact digital camera image quality. The E-510 renders fine details well, but with a slight “pastel” color smearing – probably from noise reduction or contrast enhancement. This is most noticeable in fine details like distant tree limbs. It’s less of an issue with close subjects that fill the frame. This detail/pastel-smearing is not necessarily a bad thing and is common with point-and-shoot digital camera images because of their smaller sensors and the processing algorithms they use. Digital SLRs tend to produce smoother-looking images due to their physically larger image sensors. The E-510 combines the best of both worlds, in my opinion. You can see detail in the building as well as the broader “brush strokes” of distant rocks and trees.
In this image of Crater Lake in Southern Oregon, you can see some of the pastel effects in the foreground trees and distant cliffs. The image itself is a bit muddy due to my (over!) use of a polarizing filter.
The detail captured by the E-510 is quite good if you turn off the Noise Filter feature (Note: there are two noise-related features on the E-510. Noise Reduction corrects for noise in exposure of half-a-second and longer. The Noise Filter looks for and softens “random pattern” noise in low contrast areas and solid fields of color like skies). I found reducing the in-camera sharpness to -2 also helped. In the butterfly image below, I shot with the 40-150mm zoom lens at f/8 to see if I could get a vaguely impressionistic background and use the sensor’s “pastel” rendering characteristics for dramatic effect. I also bumped up the color saturation is a hair in this photograph with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
The Olympus EVOLT E-510 eventually won me over thanks to its overall usability and image quality. Because of my bias for a 3:2 aspect ratio, I often caught myself feeling that the E-510 somehow wasn’t “serious enough” as a photographic tool. However, I found that photos I took with the E-510 compared well to photos from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax bodies I’ve recently tested or owned (even though I did crop a lot of my E-510 photos back to a 3:2 aspect ratio). The Olympus E-510 yields images with a well-balanced, film-like color palette, right out of the camera. The kit offers the camera body with two great starter lenses at a very attractive price. This combination of camera ergonomics and image quality does a lot for the E-510′s fun-factor. Compact size and light weight make the Olympus E-510 a natural “take-with-you-always” digital SLR.
Who Should Buy It
The Olympus EVOLT E-510 is an attractive alternative for photographers who value out-of-the-camera image quality and light, compact portability. The E-510 offers a unique design philosophy with the Four Thirds system, and enables the use of other manufacturer’s Four Thirds lenses (currently, Leica and Sigma). The two lens kit is a great value for beginning photographers. Based on my experience, the E-510 may not appeal to serious sports or wildlife photographers who require their DSLR to be part of a large system of lens and lighting accessories. On the other hand, it’s the simplicity of the Olympus E-510, along with its light weight, compact size, and great ergonomics that should appeal to photographers who want DSLR quality without DSLR bulk and weight. In addition, the E-510′s pleasing, film-like image quality will satisfy photographers looking for good images right out of the camera without the time and hassle of post-processing.
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