Field Test: Olympus Evolt E-510 at the US Open

This 10-megapixel, advanced enthusiast DSLR is a major improvement over the Evolt E-330 for sports action.

Field-Test-Olympus-Evolt-E-510-at-the-US-Open

Field-Test-Olympus-Evolt-E-510-at-the-US-Open

Photo By Jack Howard

Last year, Olympus invited me to test some of their premium glass at the US Open. If you remember, I loved the lenses, but was disappointed with the performance of the Evolt E-330. A year later Olympus has released a new advanced enthusiast camera, the 10-megapixel E-510, and while it doesn't perfectly address all my complaints from last year, it's a major improvement over the Evolt E-330 for sports action.

Mind you, the E-510 can't perform at the level of a Nikon D3 or a Canon EOS 1D Mark III. But then again, those cameras cost more than face value for courtside seats during the singles finals (and don't even talk to us about the secondary market for these tickets!). The E-510 (body only), on the other hand, ships for just under $800, and competes in price and performance with the Canon EOS Rebel XTi and Nikon D40x, which both performed very well in our lab tests. Lab results are extremely important to us, but so is real-world, challenging photography situations to see how a camera really handles under pressure. And for a sub-$1,000 camera, The E-510 did very well, as the photo gallery shows.

Keep in mind this is a Four Thirds camera, meaning that its lenses have a ton of effective reach due to that 2x sensor factor. A 600mm f/2.8 that can be handheld for night sports? I'll take that in a heartbeat! Sure, you say it's really just 300mm and lens factor is marketing myth, but think about it like this: If you have a 300mm f/2.8 lens on the E-510, and a 300 mm f/2.8 on a Rebel XTi with its 1.6x sensor and a Canon EOS 5D with its full-frame 12 megapixel chip, you'd still have to crop in on both the XTi and 5D shot to get the same tight framing on a player on the far baseline -- dropping pixels and output resolution along the way. So even though the fullframe 5D starts out with more pixels, there's more dead space to crop out to get the same tight framing as with the 2x factor. And your output image will then be less megapixels than the tight framing of the effective 600mm reach of the E-510. The Rebel XTi, which starts at 10 megapixels, would shed less pixels overall than the 5D, but still wouldn't be full resolution for the same effective 600mm framing. Of course, your depth of field is more like a 300mm f/2.8 than a 600 f/2.8, but for reach and light-gathering power in a relatively compact package, we'll take it! (And when you do have to crop in with the E-510, it's not as much as you'd have to with a similar focal length lens on a 1.6x or 1.3x camera, if that makes sense.)

Our single biggest gripe? If you'll recall from last year, it was burst rate.

It still is.

It's better, but not spectacular. It's on par with the Canon EOS Rebel XTi and Pentax K10D at 3 fps for a bunch of shots -- but none of these are pro-level speed demons. So we had to slow down, wait for the right moment, and rely on intuition and experience to nail winners on the first shot rather than swing through each play with a blast of machine gun shots at near-video capture burst rates.

Our other big gripe about the E-330 last year? If you'll recall, there was no way to disentangle Autofocus from the shutter button. There is now, with a twist. Once we got comfortable, we actually liked it. But it is a bit weird at first. When the E-510 is set to a custom setting to switch continuous autofocus from the shutter button to the back AFL/AEL button, the camera constantly searches and finds focus once you tap the AFL/AEL button on the back of the camera. Even if you take your thumb off the button, it keeps searching, which is kind of spooky. But the big Zuiko glass we were using, including the 90-250mm f/2.8, 300mm f/2.8, 150mm f/2 and the 35-100mm f/2, all have AF-stop buttons on the barrel, which freezes the autofocus. This feature comes in handy for locking focus during point service. And not having to hold the AFL/AEL button constantly for several hours is actually easier on the hand than it is with competing cameras where AF only operates when the button is depressed. Again, it's a bit of an adjustment, but it actually works quite well once you get used to it.

Autofocus feels faster on the E-510 compared to the E-330. While we're not going to say we didn't miss our fair share of shots that were too soft, we did manage to nail a lot of winners that were spot-on in sharpness, even at peak action times that really challenge a camera.

Even though we weren't doing a lot of burst shooting, we stuck to JPEG-only capture to make sure that we'd never hit a RAW buffering downtime, and we never missed a shot because the camera was chugging away. We did however miss shots because of courtside obstruction, operator-error timing, and some focus-searching, but that's par for the course with any sports action event, be it US Open Golf or US Open Tennis.

Shooting JPEG only does mean that you are hard-cooking your shots (for the most part), and since we prefer spot-metering and full-manual exposure, the occasional blown highlights in the image gallery are based upon our meterings of the court, not due to the E-510 misgauging the exposure. But blown highlights on sneakers and light-colored shirts I can live with in order to retain great muscle definition and facial expressions on a world-class athlete like Venus Williams.

We say "hard-cooking (for the most part)" because we processed our JPEGs through Adobe Camera RAW 4, which can be enabled to treat JPEGs like RAW files. True, you're only working in 8-bit space and there's already in-camera processing applied, but it's a great way to make RAW-style global adjustments prior to final tweaks in Adobe Photoshop. If you have not enabled Adobe Bridge CS3 to treat straight-from-camera JPEGs and TIFFs like RAW files, you don't know what you're missing! (In Bridge CS3, activate this under Preferences>Thumbnails>Checkbox on for "Prefer Adobe Camera Raw for JPEG and TIFF Files.)

Overall, the Olympus E-510 performed well for its camera class at the US Open. You won't be seeing many of these on the sideline of the Super Bowl or in the photo pits during the World Series, but for the Four Thirds advanced amateur photographer, it will do just as well on the sidelines of little league, recreational tennis, and Pop Warner games as many of its sub-$1,000 competitors. As it stands now, the E-510 is among the best cameras for sports on the Four Thirds platform, but we'd like to see Olympus finally bring out their long-rumored pro camera to really make the most of their impressive supertelephoto lenses for sports and safari action.

There is exceptionally tight security at the US Open this year. Big bags are not allowed. Video cameras are out. Digital still cameras are not on the officially banned list, and we saw a great number of spectators with compact digicams, EVFs and small DLSRs with compact superzoom lenses capturing shots of the action, but don't think you'll get through security with a couple of pro-level DSLRs and big f/2.8 telephotos unless you've got a media credential. Before you go, read this information from the official US Open Web site about security and prohibited items. Don't even think of bringing a laptop!

Inside the big stadiums such as Arthur Ashe, Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand, you'll have to be in the lowest level to get really tight action shots, even at 300mm, regardless of lens factor. So unless you're in the first 15 or so rows, you're better off going for overall environmental shots that capture the excitement of being there. During the daytime, especially if it's sunny, you'll be able to make nice "I was there" shots just as you normally shoot. Nighttime in stadiums is a bit more challenging. Check out this handy piece on making the most of it.

The great thing about the US Open, especially early on in the tournament, is the field courts. There's so much tennis to be played in the first week that even very popular, highly ranked players will often be on the more intimate field courts early on. Credentialed media get the first few rows in the center section, but there's no real difference between the second and third row on these courts. You are right there on top of the action. In direct sunlight, even a superzoom with a slowish f/5.6 telephoto aperture is fast enough to get action-freezing shutter speeds at ISO 200 or 400.

Nighttime is a bit more challenging, and whatever you do -- DO NOT USE FLASH! It is a really good way to annoy the players and get you ejected from the match. Instead, crank up the ISO, open the aperture as wide as possible, and shoot a lot of shots with the understanding that there may be some motion blurring due to slower shutter speeds.

For action-stopping tennis, here are some tips that work, whether it's the US Open, or the local recreation league:

1. Set your camera to Aperture Value and choose maximum aperture. Make sure you have selected a fast enough ISO to get a shutter speed of at least 1/800 to freeze action.

2. Pre-focus and focus-lock on the player that is serving. Make sure your camera doesn't attempt to re-focus as you re-frame your shot during the serve, otherwise you're likely to get blurry players and sharp backgrounds.

3. Anticipate the action -- watch the rackets! Shoot as soon as the player begins to swing. If you can see the ball in the frame before you shoot, odds are it won't be in your picture!

4. Only shoot one player at a time. It is amazingly difficult to try to shoot both ends of tennis at the same time. You'll get more winners if you concentrate on one end at a time. I generally focus on the player who is serving each game.

5. Respect the game and the players. Do not change position during a live point. Be quiet between plays, and especially during a serve.

6. Mix it up! Stop your aperture way down to f/22 or so, and drop your ISO to 100, and try to get a shutter speed around 1/15 second for some creative drag-shutter motion blur shots.

7. You'll often get a great reaction shot, whether it is anger or celebration, after a particularly long point, or following a very dramatic return that is either in or out. Resist the urge to jump right to the LCD after a great point -- look for the reaction!

8. Time yourself to get the winner on the first shot, and if you've got a fast burst rate, follow through for some back-up. But just wildly squeezing the shutter button doesn't necessarily lead to better pictures -- it just leads to more of them!

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