Olympus E-520 Review

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Camera Experience
When it comes to outdoor photography, where smaller and lighter really count, the E-520 is the first camera I reach for. Because it’s so compact and versatile, I particularly enjoy the E-520 for backcountry mountain bike photos. My regular mountain bike riding camera setup right now is the E-520 with the Zuiko Digital ED 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 and the Zuiko Digital ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD lenses. With the E-520′s 2x digital crop factor, that gives me easy-to-carry, image-stabilized coverage from 24mm all the way up to 600mm.

Olympus E-520 - Endings

The camera body isn’t actually smaller than the competition. It’s the lenses that really save space and weight. Since the Four Thirds sensor is smaller than an APS-C sensor (the Nikon DX bodies as well as the Canon Digital Rebel and EOS 40D/50D use APS-C sensors), the Oympus Zuiko Digital lenses are also smaller. The smaller sensor also means there’s a bigger 2x digital crop factor. The 12-60mm is comparable to a 24-120mm lens on a 35mm film or full frame camera. And the 70-300 has the same angle-of-view as a 140-600mm lens. The 70-300mm lens is one of my favorite things about the E-520 and the Olympus E-System. It’s smaller than my Canon 28-135mm IS lens and at 600mm on the long end, it has way more reach. (The Canon 28-135mm IS lens is equivalent to a 45-216mm lens with the 1.6x digital crop factor of the XTi/400D or EOS 40D) It also has excellent image quality – especially considering its compact size and reasonable $400 price tag.

Besides the compact size of the system, I also really like the E-520′s built-in image stabilization. Olympus applies image stabilization by moving the sensor instead of optical elements in the lens. So no matter what lens you’re using you benefit from image stabilization. A Canon or Nikon image stabilized lens with the reach of the Olympus 70-300mm would be huge.

The E-520′s auto focus is pretty good, although not as good as the Olympus E-3 or Nikon and Canon DSLRs. It only has three focus points, which is sparse compared to other cameras in its class. I pretty much only use the center point, anyway. But people who like to use off-center focus points will wish there were more than three and that they weren’t just in a horizontal line across the middle. I like cameras that have a minimum of five focus points, in a diamond pattern. However, the two side focus points are positioned perfectly for the compositional Rule-Of-Thirds. Canon’s consumer DSLRs have more focus points but the side points aren’t positioned as well as those on the E-520.

Pre-focusing works great with the E-520. It’s quick and accurate and works well even in low light. But continuous focus performance isn’t nearly as good and doesn’t measure up to what I’m used to with other cameras. Occasionally focus would lock up on me when the camera was in continuous AF mode. The lock-up isn’t just an E-520 issue as I experienced the same problem when shooting action with the E-3. Sometimes when I shift from a close subject to a distant one the auto focus system gets lost and can’t focus on anything. To fix it, you have to either manually focus or reframe so that the AF system has something contrasty to focus on. I definitely missed action photos when the auto focus system choked like this and I quickly decided that it was best to just pre-focus with the E-520.

I’ll go into it more in the next part of the review, but there is an image quality compromise if you compare the E-520 to the competition. But it’s a trade I happily make in return for the smaller, lighter, more packable digital SLR. For most purposes and in most conditions the E-520 delivers the quality I need and then some. It’s only in the most difficult lighting that the E-520 image quality really becomes a problem.

next pageOlympus E-520 Image Quality >>

About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of PhotographyREVIEW.com and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • Photo-John says:

    I posted a link for this review along with a request for feedback on the Flickr Olympus E-System Community group page. I got a little more than I bargained for – possibly because this wasn’t a 100% glowing review. Some people seemed to miss the fact that I really like the E-520 and encourage people to consider it seriously. But within the grumbling about details, I was offered some very good criticism, as well as some error corrections. I believe I’ve fixed all of my mistakes (thanks, Velocity of Sound). And I’ve tried to address the criticism within the review without completely rewriting it. Specifically, I’ve rewritten the Conclusion and added a note about how I shoot to the end of the Image Quality section. But like I said, I don’t want to completely rwrite the review. The intention was to clarify some things, not defend every detail. I do want the review to be as useful and accurate as possible, though. And to that effect I appreciate the feedback.

    If anyone wants more details about the criticism, you can check out the discussion about the review on the Flickr Olympus E-System Community forum. I have nothing to hide :-)

    Flickr Olympus E-520 Review Discussion
    And if you want to discuss the review with the PhotographyREVIEW.com community, here is a link to our home thread:

    PhotographyREVIEW.com Olympus E-520 Review Discussion

    If you actually own the E-520 and want to share your opinion and experience, commenting here is great. But we really need your reviews on the Olympus E-520 user review page. That way you can leave a rating and add to the overall body of knowledge about the camera. Here’s a link to that review page:

    Olympus E-520 User Reviews

    Thanks everyone – especially the Flickr Olympus E-System Community folks – for your feedback. I hope it helps make this review, and future reviews more useful and easier to read.

  • shimmer2 says:

    This is a fair review. I bought the E520 and two kit lenses after researching all aspects. I was not starry-eyed about it. The camera has been a delight to use and is very well thought-out. Most of the features are ones you actually want. The Zuiko kit lenses are excellent and the kit is unbeatable value. Size and weight are good.
    You have to learn to coax the best out of this camera, including in lower light / lower contrast situations. But it can be done. The in-body image stabilisation is excellent and there is faster glass available to offset the stop or two you lose on ISO compared with Canon or Nikon rivals. Image quality in normal range is excellent, and the colour rendition (of both lenses and sensor/processing engine) is superior.

    Since buying the kit I looked at the Nikon 300, 700, & D90 but after four months of using the E520 every day I decided to stick with, and invest in, the E-system. I’ve acquired three more Zuiko lenses and they are….quite fantastic!

  • Greg McCary says:

    Very nice review John. I don’t own the 520 but have owned the 510 and currently the E3. I must say the 520 will be a good addition to the Olympus line up. I look forward to your reviews on the E-30 and also the G1. I got my eyes on the G1.

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