Olympus E-20 SLR Review

A year ago I said, "The 4-megapixel Olympus E-10 is currently (November 2000) the highest resolution SLR digital camera available for less than $10,000."   So I guess it's only fitting to say ... The 5-megapixel Olympus E-20 is currently (November 2001) the highest resolution SLR digital camera available for less than $8000.  To avoid any confusion, the E-20 is available as the E-20N in N. America and Japan and as the E-20P in Europe and the U.K. The difference is the video signal format, the E-20N is NTSC and the E-20P is PAL.

The Camedia E-20 and the E-10 are nearly identical on the outside, the difference is the name on the left side and a big, gold "5.0 megapixel" label on the front. The major difference is internal, the 4-megapixel imager has been replaced by a 5-megapixel imager. Olympus has designed the E-20 to be a dual-mode digital camera. By default it captures high resolution 5-megapixel images in Interlaced mode but it's limited to a maximum shutter speed of 1/640 second. To work around this you select the Progressive Scan mode and get shutter speeds up to 1/18000 second. The "gotcha" is that the horizontal resolution is halfed (2.5-megapixels) in Progressive scan mode. To insure that your image is not flawed by "hot" or "stuck" pixels, there's a Bad-Pixel Mapping option in the menu. The E-10 had to be sent back to Olympus service for this procedure to be performed, now the user can do it whenever necessary. Another new feature is the Noise Reduction mode, it uses a dark frame subtraction routine for even cleaner long- exposure images. The shutter speeds available are as long as 60 seconds in Manual and an incredible 8 minutes with the Bulb setting.

The E-20's lens is a large-diameter, fixed mount 4x zoom made from ED glass with dual aspherical elements to help reduce chromatic aberrations. Because the lens is NOT removeable, the CCD imager is never exposed to dirt or other airborne contaminants, a real problem with the D1, S1 and D30 cameras. It features a fast F2.0 maximum aperture with a multi-bladed diaphram to give it true depth of field control. The zoom's focal length is manually controlled by turning a ring on the barrel of the lens and it also has a manual focus ring too. The focus is what is technically termed as "fly by wire," you turn a mechanical ring but the actual focusing is done electronically elsewhere. The focus range is from 0.6m to infinity in normal mode and from 0.2 to 0.8m in macro mode. This is an internal focusing lens so any conversion lens or filter attached to the 62mm threads will not rotate.

The E-20 has a real solid feel to it thanks to the all-aluminum body and the large hand grip. It's by no means a "compact" camera measuring 5.0 x 4.1 x 7.0 inches and weighing 37 ounces without batteries. You'll make good use of the included neck strap, it's too heavy to hand carry for long periods. Anyone that has used a professional camera knows that extra mass also means extra stability and that means sharper pictures. The metal body and mirror box is used to dissapate the heat away from the imager and internal electronics to produce less (electronically) noisey images, especially when shooting long exposures. A cooler running camera helps the components last longer too.

Unlike most other SLR cameras, the E-20 does not use a mirror to send the image up to the viewfinder. It employs a light-splitting prism instead which sends the same image to the viewfinder that it does to the imager. The E-20 (and E-10) allows the color LCD screen to be used as a live viewfinder, although the color and refresh rate is not quite as nice as most consumer-priced digicams. For those that miss the usual "mirror slap" noise when the shutter is tripped can enable the built-in shutter/mirror sound effect. It is emitted from a speaker on the bottom of the camera and can be turned on or off and made loud or soft. When the image is captured the viewfinder also "blacks out" momentarily to give the photographer even more 35mm-like shutter feedback.

The camera requires about 5 seconds to go from Off to ready to shoot. This time can be quicker or slower depending on the memory device being used as it is checked during the boot up sequence. The E-20 is now fully Microdrive compatible, the 1GB Microdrive is now going for about $350, that's a lot of storage for the bucks. And you need it, the E-20's SHQ/Fine JPEGs are between 3.3 and 4MB each, the raw files are 9.5MB and TIFF images weigh in at 15.2MB.

The user controls are plentiful, there's dedicated buttons on the top, left side and all over the back of the camera. Changing recording modes, flash modes, drive modes, white balance, metering, storage device, focus and exposure compensation can be accomplished without a menu system on the color LCD. Most settings are changed by pressing a button, turning a dial and checking the results on the top-mounted data display. In this respect the camera operates more like a conventional 35mm SLR and saves battery power by not using the color LCD.

And speaking of color LCDs ... the E-20 has a rather unique 1.8-inch TFT display. You can pull it out away from the body and then tilt it upwards about 90 degrees or tilt it downwards about 20 degrees. This lets the LCD emulate a waist-level viewfinder and also lets you operate from many different shooting angles. The amount of information displayed on the LCD can be controlled by pressing the INFO button. The user can toggle between no information, exposure information or distance to subject information overlayed across the bottom. In playback mode the images can be magnified up to 4x with scrolling pan or as small thumbnails. When viewing an image fullscreen you can toggle the overlay information with the INFO button. Full camera and exposure data can be displayed as well as a histogram to indicate the captured dynamic range. When the color LCD is active the remote drive mode is disabled. This holds true even if the video signal is being sent to an external monitor.

The eyelevel viewfinder is large and bright with a clearly defined AF target mark and spot metering area in the center. The somewhat narrow viewing angle requires that you have your eye firmly up against the eycup. The accuracy of optical viewfinder varies depending on the focal length of the lens and shows 92-95% of the captured image. This is well within normal tolerance found in 35mm film SLR cameras. Due to the location and height of the viewfinder the color LCD is not prone to nose smears from right- or left- eyed users. Along the bottom of the viewfinder you will find a digital status display line that includes an autofocus "OK" indicator, a flash status icon, macro mode icon, shutter speed and aperture value, metering mode icon, exposure compensation value, AE Lock icon and white balance if other than auto.

The E-20 can be powered by two Olympus CR-V3 lithium batteries, four AA type batteries or the optional battery grip (B-HLD10) and high-power lithium polymer battery (B-10LPB). Besides offering a lot more battery power the grip also provides a vertical shutter release and a more stable portrait grip. For most average users the camera's internal batteries will be more than adequate if you limit your color LCD useage.

The ergonomics of the E-20 are excellent. As mentioned earlier, it has a large hand grip that gives you a very secure means of holding the camera. The controls are well laid out and easy to get to with a minimum amount of movement. Your right index finger falls naturally on the shutter release and your right thumb when lifted slightly off the contoured back finds the rear command dial. Your left hand cups the underside of the lens to support the heft of the camera and your fingers easily find the zoom ring. The most used controls are located right around the data LCD and Mode Dial on the top and the rest are located on the left side. You only need to operate the E-20 for a short time before you feel right at home with it.

Exposure options are as abundant as those found on any professional SLR. There's a fully automatic Program AE mode for grabbing quick shots without having to do anything other than turn it on, point and shoot. From there it can be as simple or complex as the shooting situation requires. Shutter speed and aperture priority modes will probably get the most use and if you're really an "old school" photographer there is the full manual mode where you set everything. There are no fancy pre-programmed modes (Night, Beach, Portrait, Landscape, etc) but I doubt that most buyers of the E-20 will miss them. If you absolutely have to make sure that you get that "perfect" exposure then switch it into the AE Bracket mode. Everytime you press the shutter button the camera will capture three images and automatically vary the exposure value used by 1/3, 2/3 or 1.0EV. Bracketing is available in every mode but Manual and the flash head must be closed.

Aperture settings range from F2.0/F2.4 to F11 depending on the focal length of the lens. Shutter speeds are a mixed bag depending on the image capture mode selected. In the Interlaced mode you can select from 2 seconds to 1/640 seconds in Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority modes. In Manual the user can select from 60 seconds to 1/640 second or use the Bulb setting may be used for up to 8 minutes! Selecting the Progressive Scan mode gives you 2 seconds to 1/4000 or 1/18000 second in PSA modes, in Manual you can select from 60 secs to 1/4000 or 1/18000, Bulb is good up to 8 minutes.

Metering options range from Olympus' iESP mode that reads from many different "cells" across the entire frame to Center-weighted that reads an 11% area with the calculation determined mostly by what is in the center of the frame. For critical exposures in heavy backlit conditions the 1.6% Spot metering allows for pinpoint accuracy. You can select the desired metering in every recording mode but full manual. Using the AE Lock allows you to meter a scene and then re-compose the shot to put your main subject wherever desired in the frame.

The E-20 has a very capable white balance system with settings for Automatic, Quick Reference or Preset. Automatic is just as its name implies, it automatically sets the white point depending on the rest of the frame data. Quick Reference is the best way to insure the proper white point is set to match the existing lighting. Just put a white card in front of the camera and press the Quick Reference white balance button and the camera does the rest. The Preset white balance option may be a little confusing at first because rather than use the familiar terms like Sunny, Incandescent, Flourescent and etc., Olympus chose to use the color temperature measured in degrees Kelvin. You need to read the manual which explains in detail how the everyday light sources we encouter range from 3,000 to 7,500 degrees.

You can also manipulate the image capture process in-camera by using the menu and selecting an image sharpness or contrast value other than the default. Sharpness options are Hard, Soft, or Normal. The Hard setting sharpens the edges but at the cost of also enhancing any noise in the image. Soft does exactly the opposite and can be used to hide or blur borders between objects. It is always advisable to use the softest sharpening level in the camera and do your sharpening via software where you have much more control over the process. The Contrast options are High, Normal, and Low. As you would expect, raising the contrast to High will make the transition from light to dark much more apparent at the cost of lost detail in highlight and shadow areas. Low decreases the contrast level and allows highlight and shadow areas to be more graduated. What is missing here is a Saturation setting, something we see on almost all of the high-end ($700-900) consumer digicams.

The builtin flash is very capable and has specific modes for Automatic, Slow Synchro, Redeye Reduction, Redeye Reduction with Slow Synchro, and Fill-In. The operating range is from 0.6 to 18 feet at ISO 100 and default output power. The flash output is variable from -2 to +2 in 0.3EV steps. The hot shoe on top has the TTL contacts for the more powerful Olympus FL-40 external flash. Besides more flash power the FL-40 gives you the ability for bounce flash and gets the flash somewhat "up and away" from the lens which helps reduce occurence of red-eye. The FL-40's output intensity is fully controlled by the E-20's exposure system. Any pro will tell you that you need to get the flash off the camera whenever possible but Olympus doesn't have an off-camera cord. Not to worry, you can use the Canon Off-Camera Shoe Cord 2 and then use the FL-40 on a bracket like the Stroboframe. Finally, the PC flash sync connector lets you connectto studio lighting or other external strobes.

Alternate exposure control consists of remote control via the included RM-1 remote which is active when you select the Remote Drive Mode. This small wireless remote control works up to 16 feet away from the camera and also controls the playback functions on the TV set. As I mentioned earlier, the infrared remote is disabled if the color LCD or video output is active. You can also use the optional RM-CB1 wired remote control cable, it lets you trip the shutter in any mode, the camera does not need to be in Remote Drive mode. The RM-CB1 is essential for using the Bulb mode. The E-20 can also be used to record images in Time Lapse mode. You can capture an image every 30 seconds or up to once every 24 hours. The camera continues taking pictures until either the memory card is filled or the batteries go dead.

Performance is my big gripe with the E-20 (or the E-10), I just believe that a camera in this prosumer price range and category should be more robust. You can capture up to four frames at about 2.5fps in Interlaced mode but it's a good fifteen seconds before the buffer is written out and you can do anything else. You can't access the menu or make changes to camera settings, all you can do is watch the red LED blink. This is not an issue of the type of storage media being used either, SmartMedia, CompactFlash or Microdrive, it makes no difference in the processing speed. This severely limits this camera for sports shooters. With all the advances in digicam technology over the last year I really expected to see some major improvements in image processing but in this respect the E-20 is simply a higher resolution version of the E-10. Autofocus still suffers in low light conditions in spite of the dual-mode AF system that includes infrared. The manual focus function would be better served if Olympus had used a split- screen type of focusing screen.

The bottom line -- the E-20 delivers excellent image quality and offers all of the controls found in the more expensive professional digital cameras. The fixed mount 4X zoom is a fast F2 lens and yields sharp and colorful images and eliminates the problems of dirt and other contaminents getting on the imager during lens changes. The build quality of the E-20 is top notch, it is a highly durable camera thanks to an all-metal exterior. The E-20 is fully Microdrive compatible, the dual-mode imager allows for high quality 5- megapixel images in Interlaced mode or faster shutter speeds (up to 1/18000 second) in the 2.5-megapixel Progressive Scan mode. In operation the E-20 has a very secure feel thanks to its large handgrip, the controls are well designed and placed for easy access. The autofocus is quick in normal lighting conditions but is not optimal in low-light conditions. Once focused the E-20 has virtually no shutter lag. The tiltable color LCD can now be used a live viewfinder. Image processing is adequate but in my opinion it could (should) be more robust for a camera in this price/performance category. This applies to both the capture and the review modes.

If you need a high resolution digital SLR and your budget will allow spending $2000, the Olympus E-20 will fill the bill nicely. Just be aware that there are other less expensive but very capable 5-megapixel cameras available now or very soon like the Sony F707, DiMAGE 7 and the Nikon Coolpix 5000. The number one question from many E-10 owners has been whether or not they should upgrade to the E-20. Please don't ask me to answer this for you, I can't, only you can. Read this review, read the other reviews, compare the sample images and then make an informed decision. And don't forget that the E-20's arrival has discounted the current inventory of 4-megapixel E-10's which can now be had for about $1500.

Go to my
E-20N Sample Photos

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