Olympus E-520: Camera Test

The Olympus E-520 is a serious bargain DSLR.

Olympus-E-520-Camera-Test
Olympus-E-520-Camera-Test

Jaded? Amid all the new DSLRs and jaw-dropping technology, it's easy to feel ho-hum about an Excellent image-quality rating from the Pop Photo Lab, topshelf image stabilization, live view, and a price so friendly it damn near invites you over for drinks. That's certainly the case with the 10MP Olympus E-520. Especially at $550, street, body only; $630 with 14- 42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital lens.

Yes, it's easy to dismiss it as a mere upgrade of last year's E-510, but it offers much more than just a bigger LCD (2.7-inch vs. 2.5) and a faster processor (for a burst rate of 3.5 frames per second vs. 3).

It's also easy to wave it on as the fifth-place finisher in our August "Midlevel Marvels" DSLR shootout, but that doesn't do this camera justice, either. Up against the Canon EOS Rebel XSi, Nikon D60, Pentax K200D, and Sony Alpha 350, the Olympus didn't score high in terms of a system (lots of lenses and accessories) or easy control of the settings. But all is not lost. Especially for those who want to join the Four Thirds system and don't expect to buy pro-caliber arsenals of add-ons in the near future -- and who don't share our views of menudriven camera controls.

In the shootout, there was space only to summarize our findings from both the Lab and field tests. Here's a deeper look.

SHARP SHOOTING

Image quality? Impressive. The E-520 showed great consistency, both across the ISO range and in RAW and JPEG capture. It's one thing to garner Excellent imaging scores at ISO 100 in a huge TIFF made from a RAW file, and another in a JPEG at ISO 1600 -- exactly what the E-520 did. With Medium noise reduction on at ISO 1600, it scored Low on noise while resolving just under 1900 lines. With no NR applied, noise moved up slightly to Moderately Low and resolution reached 1930 lines. Color accuracy at ISO 1600 nosed into Excellent with an average Delta E of 7.85.

This tied it for third in image quality in August's shootout. With the five cameras averaging better than 2,000 lines of resolution, though, middle of the pack here would have been top of the heap not long ago. And there's no slamdunk champ in this category. The 12.2MP Canon EOS Rebel XSi topped the E-520 in resolution, but was slightly behind in noise performance. The Nikon D60 had superior noise numbers but a near-insignificant edge in resolution. And we judge the E-520's imaging superior to that of the 14.2MP Sony Alpha 350, whose noise was such that images at higher ISOs lost significant resolution when cleaned up with noise reduction.

NO WEIGHTING

The solid feel of the E-520 is belied by its weight -- 1.7 pounds with the kit lens, among the lightest in its class. And, unlike its stablemate the E-420, which some bigger-handed photographers find too petite, the E-520 feels good in hands large and small.

The shutter button, thumb rest, command dial, and exposure comp button are in just the right places. We wish there were a second command dial, but that's the impossible dream in this class.

The pentamirror viewfinder has 0.91X magnification, just earning an Excellent rank, but it still has a tunnel-vision effect. This is partly perceptual -- the squarer 4:3 aspect ratio of the Four Thirds frame seems smaller than the wider-screen 3:4 rectangle of APS-C and full-frame cameras. Eyeglass-wearers may have to shift to see the readouts next to the image.

Every control can be reached through the menus. One layer up, the LCD serves as a status and control panel; press the OK button to scroll around the panel with the command dial or four-way controller, then adjust settings. The control panel is reasonably quick in use and gives you an extensive (if crowded) view of key settings. One layer further up, a dozen buttons are dedicated to specific settings, and you can assign a function button to any control. Again, pretty quick in use.

But the dedicated buttons bring up submenus you have to scroll through -- fine for things like ISO and white balance, but irksome when switching from auto to manual focus. That takes a button press, two clicks of the dial or controller, and another press of a button or the shutter release. So the AF/MF switch can't be done at eye-level, as on most DSLRs. To set "onetouch" custom WB, you assign it to the function button -- a scroll through three menu screens. These controls could be less cumbersome and more logical.

LIVELIER LIVE VIEW

The live view is easy to access and use. Just hit the display button, and the mirror flips up and a live image appears on the LCD. Opt for camera status readouts overlaid on the image, or a live histogram, or a plain screen. Switching among them requires just a button press. Change white balance or exposure comp, and you can see the effect live. Switch the display another notch, and view comparison thumbnails for those settings.

The E-520 has three methods for autofocusing in live view, as well as manual focus. You can use the conventional AF sensors with a momentary flip down of the mirror. You can prefocus with the focus lock button. Or just press the shutter button fully, and the camera focuses, takes the shot, and resumes live view. This creates a delay of only about half a second -- not bad.

You also can autofocus with contrast detection by the sensor at one of 11 points covering about 2/3 of the frame. This can be slow, particularly in low light, where it can take several seconds. When you shoot, there's again about a halfsecond delay while the shutter closes and reopens for the actual exposure.

And there's hybrid AF, in which, Olympus says, the AF sensors "touch up" the focus initially made by contrast detection. It's also a method of keeping both AF systems on: A half-press of the shutter button focuses by contrast detection, and a press of the focus lock button flips the mirror and uses the AF sensors. A full press of the shutter does both -- and takes the shot.

Want more? Face detection finds a face anywhere in the 11-point area. Contrastdetection AF takes its time, so this isn't the best way to photograph kids. With normal viewing, it engages one of the three AF points closest to a face.

We wish the E-520 had the tilting, swiveling LCD of the E-3. But with its 170- degree viewing angle, you can compose high- and low-angle shots well in live view.

STEADY AND IN CONTROL

The E-520's image stabilization adds a unique capability to sensor-shift systems: Panning stabilization that works with the camera held horizontally (racecars) or vertically (rollerbladers).

We tested the IS at focal lengths of 100mm (200mm equivalent with the 2X lens factor of the Four Thirds system) and at 200mm (400mm equivalent). At 100mm, our testers averaged 2 to 3 stops of extra handheld leeway; at 200mm, 1 to 3 stops. So we got acceptably sharp results at 1/13 sec at 100mm, and 1/25 sec at 200mm! This is great performance, and it works with any lens you can put on the camera.

The sensor of the E-520 was updated to improve dynamic range, and there are several ways to exploit this. Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT) brings up shadow detail. You can also apply SAT to a JPEG after the shot, and it engages automatically when you use face detection. But it also brings up noise at higher ISOs, so we recommend it only at lower ISOs. If you need to use high ISOs, set noise reduction to Standard or High, trading some resolution. The E-520 can also be set to produce high-key or low-key gradations.

Besides white-balance presets and the custom setting, you can set WB in Kelvin degrees and tweak it using two-axis slider controls. In addition, there are five image profiles for JPEGs (Vivid, Natural, Muted, Portrait, Monochrome) -- or you can custom-design one of your own and adjust the individual parameters.

RAW files can be converted to JPEGs in the camera using these settings and profiles, but it's awkward. Unlike some cameras that let you preview adjustments before processing, the E-520 applies the current settings of the camera to the new JPEG. So if you want to process a RAW file with different settings, you have to change the camera settings, then do the conversion blind. Sure, you can look at the new JPEG and see if you like it, then change the settings if you need to. (Just remember to change your settings back to where you started before shooting again.)

BOTTOM LINE

For a Four Thirds system enthusiast, the Olympus E-520 is a no-brainer -- you get much of the performance and controls of the flagship E-3 for nearly $1,000 less. And uncommitted photographers would do well to look at the bang for that rock-bottom price: Excellent imaging across the board, very effective image stabilization, live view with clever setting previews, and a slew of useful picture fixes, wrapped in a nicehandling, ergonomic body. It's enough to wipe the ho-hum off anyone's face.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, we had initially reported that the E-520 has weather seals. It does not.

Imaging: 10MP effective Live MOS sensor captures images at 3648 x 2736 pixels with 12 bits/color in RAW mode.Self-cleaning sensor.

Storage: Dual slot, CF Type I/II and xD. Stores JPEG, RAW,and RAW + JPEG files.

Burst rate: Up to 13 Fine-quality JPEGs at 3.6 fps, upto 7 RAW at 3 fps (tested).

AF system: 3-point wide-area TTL phase-detection AF. Single-shot and continuous AF, with manual touch-up possible. Sensitive down to EV 0 (at ISO 100, f/1.4), tested. Live-view AF uses either the 3-point AF system with momentary flip down of the mirror, contrast-detection AF on the sensor over 11 points covering most of the frame, or hybrid AF using both.

Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 60 sec plus B (1/3- or 1/2-EV increments).

Image stabilization: Sensor-based, works with all lenses. Standard plus two panning modes for horizontal or vertical orientation.

Metering: TTL metering with 49-zone evaluative, centerweighted, and spotmetering (2%). EV 1-20 (atISO 100).

ISO range: 100-1600 (in1-EV increments).

Flash: Built-in pop-up unit with TTL autoflash with +/- 3-EV exposure compensation (1/3- or 1/2-EV increments), GN 39 (ISO 100, feet), covers 14mm lens field of view, can serve as wireless controller for dedicated Olympus flash units. Flash sync to 1/180sec. Dedicated hot-shoe.

Viewfinder: Eye-level, fixed pentamirror.

Live view: From imaging sensor with flip up of themirror.

LCD: 2.7-in. TFT with 230,000-dot(76,000-pixel) resolution.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, NTSC video. PictBridgecompatible.

Battery: BLM-1 rechargeable Li-ion; CIPA rating, 500 shots, 50% withflash.

Size/weight: 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in., 1.26 lb, body only, with card and battery.

Street price: $550, body only; $630 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital lens.

VIEWFINDER TEST

Accuracy: 96% (Excellent)

Magnification: 0.91X (Excellent)

COMPETITIVE SET

Canon EOS Rebel XSi ($700, street, with kit lens):
The latest Reb has a definite edge in sharpness, but not in noise control, over the E-520. Its 9-point AF system leads this class in speed and sensitivity. You get an IS lens standard in the kit, but the Olympus gives you IS with any lens, no extra charge. Unlike the E-520, the Canon can't control wireless flash by the pop-up unit. We found the E-520's dynamicrange controls more effective.

Nikon D60 ($620, street, with kit lens):
Priced a little lower than the E-520, but lacks live view. Its noise controls lead this class, and it has ISO 3200. Resolution is a bit better than the E-520's. The kit lens has VR, but if you want image stabilization with other lenses, you have to pay for it with each optic. The D60's dynamic range controls are competitive with the E-520's. Also lacks wireless flash control via the pop-up, which the E-520 has.

Olympus-E-520-001
Olympus-E-520-001
Front View
Olympus-E-520-002
Olympus-E-520-002
On the back: A press of the screen button (below the IS button) brings up live view. The OK button and four-way controller access most shooting settings via the LCD.
Olympus-E-520-003
Olympus-E-520-003
On the top: Scene setting on the mode dial accesses 15 subject modes, including children, high key, candle, and fireworks. All told, the E- 520 has a dozen buttons dedicated to various controls such as drive mode.
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