Olympus E-420 SLR Review

Steve's Conclusion

Building on the success of the popular EVOLT E-410 from last year, Olympus has released the upgraded E-420 for 2008. These two models are the world's smallest dSLRs that use the standard 4/3 lens mount system. Like its predecessor, the E-420 offers the same 10-megapixel "Live MOS" image sensor, Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system, TruePic III image processor, dual memory card slot (CF2/Xd), USB 2.0 High-speed connectivity, sensitivity range from ISO 100-1600, sRGB and Adobe RGB color space choices, Li-ion battery pack (BLS-1), 49-point Digital ESP metering system, and Live View capture. New features include a 2.7" Hypercrystal II LCD, improved burst rate (up tp 3.5fps), TTL contrast/phase-difference AF system, Face Detection AF in Live View mode, and full wireless flash control (with FL-36R/FL-50R). Two options that did not get carried over from the E-410 were Flash and White Balance bracketing.

The E-420 is a very capable camera, that offers an exposure mode that will complement various users skill levels nicely. The more experienced photographer will appreciate the advanced control of Aperture priority, Shutter speed priority and the full Manual exposure modes. There are also various other advanced settings via the Custom menus that will allow them to "dial in" that certain look. For the novice users, or those who have just made the leap over to the dSLR world, there are several fully automatic exposure modes that will allow the E-420 to be used much like a point-n-shoot. The Full Auto and 18 scene modes will allow beginners to capture nice photos in various shooting situations, while Program AE offers fully automatic control, with access to more advanced settings that the novice user can "play" with. These users will also appreciate the Live View or "Live Preview" function, which adds to the point-n-shoot feel of this camera.

One feature that is becoming standard on almost all dSLRs these days is some sort of dust reduction system. The Olympus Supersonic Wave Filter is a high-tech function that uses ultrasonic vibrations to remove dust and other particles from the image sensor's filter surface. Any debris is then captured on a special adhesive membrane. This feature is activated every time you turn the camera On, indicated by a small "SSWF" LED mounted next to the shutter release. Not only will this help you capture the best possible photos, but it also saves precious time that might have been spent post-processing photos that showed signs of dust on the imager.

Like it's predecessor, we were pleased with the design of the E-420. While this is a very compact dSLR, Olympus added some nice comfort features. The rubberized hand grip and thumb pad on the back help offer a secure feel in your hands. The hand grip itself has a unique design with a contoured edge that allows you to wrap your fingers around it. The various camera controls are also placed in a comfortable manner, and were just within reach of my index fingers and thumbs. The only issue I saw was the position of the neck strap eyelit on the right-hand side. It sits right where my middle finger would rest, and did cause a bit of discomfort at times. Overall, I feel Olympus has created a nice compact package that will be great for those with smaller hands, or for a quick shoot when lugging a larger camera around would be a hassle.

The menu system of the E-420 was a pleasure to use, and I especially liked the "Super Control Panel" display. This features uses the LCD as a shooting information display, like that of almost any new dSLR. However, this unique display is also a shortcut menu that offers access to various often used camera settings, depending on the exposure mode being used. These include: ISO, Image size/quality, White Balance, Saturation, Sharpness, Contrast, Metering, Drive mode, AF mode, AF area, Color space, memory card used, etc. The 2.7-inch "Hypercrystal II" LCD seemed to do well in most lighting situations, even though it does have a reflective finish. Indoors the display was bright, and when using the Live View function, the LCD gains up well without a grainy picture. Outdoors, there are a few angle which reflect the sun, but I had no problems seeing the display when browsing the menu, reviewing captured images, or framing a shot with Live View. While an extra 0.2-inch might not seem like a huge improvement over the 2.5-inch LCD on the E-410, the added size does make menu text a bit more legible as well as helps with framing using Live View.

The E-420 is quite the performer for an "entry-level" dSLR. From power-on till the first image was captured measured just 1.4 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused, and as fast as 1/10 second including autofocus time. Rapid shooting in single shot mode allowed me capture images every 6-7/10 of a second, both with and without the flash. In continuous capture or burst mode, I was able to capture 19 frames in just 5.1 seconds, without any buffer slowdown; that's about 3.7fps. When switching to RAW mode, I was able to capture the first 10 frames in 2.5 seconds (4fps!), then the buffered filled slowing the camera down to about 2fps. Our timing test in continuous mode beat Olympus' claims in burst rate and depth; they claim 3.5fps and a max of 6 frames at that rate in RAW mode.

Like most dSLRs that offer a Live View function, shooting performance does slow when using this feature. With Live View on, the shutter lag time slowed to 6/10 of a second when pre-focused and 2.1 seconds including autofocus (using the Imager AF option). These times were better than I expected, however I still feel this function is too slow to capture a spontaneuos moment; like a child making a silly face that lasts for just an instant. Our tests were done using a Sandisk Extreme III 1GB CF card, the kit 25mm f2.8 Zuiko lens, Program AE mode, ISO 100, Preview on, Large Fine JPEG image quality, flash off, and all other settings a default unless noted. Times may vary depending on camera settings, media, and lighting conditions.

Image quality is similar to what we saw with the E-410, considering these cameras share the same 10-megapixel sensor, Truepic III image processor and 49-point Digital ESP metering system. Overall, our image quality results show that the E-420 has the ability to capture pleasing photos with accurate exposure and color balance. The E-420's Noise reduction system seems to do well, as imager noise at higher ISO settings is rather good for a camera in this category. At ISO 1600, there is slight detail loss, but I feel these images still have the ability to make nice 8x10-inch or larger prints. Outdoors the camera consistently captured sharp, well exposed photos. We used the default Natural Picture mode, which helped the camera produce true to life colors. For our testing, we used the ED 25mm f2.8 Zuiko Digital kit Lens. While I normally like using zoom lenses, I found the 50mm (equivalent) field of view was easy to work with for all types of shooting. This lens also adds the compactness of this camera, making it very easy to carry along. I found the lens was able to produce sharp results at various Aperture settings, with moderate barrel distortion and very small traces of chromatic aberrations. Overall, I found it complements the E-420 nicely for taking day to day snap shots.

The E-420 was a pleasure indoors. Using Program AE mode, I was able to capture nice flash portraits with both the built-in flash as well as our FL-36 external unit. The 50mm (equivalent) view of the kit lens worked relatively well for close up portraits. When using the built-in flash, I achieved the best results from 4 feet or less. When using Live View mode, the E-420 offers a Face Detection AF mode that works just like that of a consumer digicam. It uses the Imager AF (11-point) system to find and lock onto a person's face. I found this feature worked extremely well. It locks onto your subjects face almost immediately, and unlike many Face Detection systems, the subject does not have to be looking directly at the camera. The only issue I found when shooting indoors, was the extremely slow AF and shutter lag times when using Live View. When using this function to shoot portraits, you have to be sure your subject is Very still. This means, if you have small children, the optical viewfinder will be your best bet.

These days, some sort of in-camera editing is becoming more and more popular in dSLR models. The E-420 provides an effective image editing function that can operate on RAW and JPEG images. It allows you to enable Shadow Adjustment, fix Redeye in people photos, Crop, convert an image to Black and White, apply a Sepia tone, adjust Saturation, or Resize an image. All image adjustments are saved as a new file, insuring you do not overwrite the original. While this feature does not have the power or flexibility of an image editor, these in-camera functions will appeal to beginners or those who plan on printing directly from the camera using a PictBridge compatible printer.

For out of camera editing the E-420 is supplied with a CD-ROM containing Olympus Master 2 - simple image transfer, browsing, basic editing, simple RAW conversion, printing and sharing- as well as a Trial of Olympus' Studio 2 software - a 30 day trial copy of Olympus's more advanced image editing and RAW conversion application. Ease of use combined with clever functions make these programs a perfect choice for all types of users. Incorporating a special Quick Start Guide, the software even lets complete beginners get great results with minimum effort.

Power is supplied by an Olympus proprietary PS-BLS1 7.2V 1150mAh Li-ion battery pack. They claim a fully changed battery will allow you to capture up to 500 shots using the optical viewfinder. I found battery life was good, capturing over 150 photos and concluding all or our other tests with plenty of power to spare (battery indicator still shows green).

Bottom line - The Olympus E-420 is a nice improvement over the EVOLT E-410 from last year. This is a very capable compact dSLR with great image quality, robust performance, impressive burst mode shooting, and loads of useful exposure options. Users will be able to capture great photos, regardless of their photography experience with this camera. The only issues I had with the E-420 were the sluggish Live View shooting performance results and poor placement of the neck strap eyelit on the right-hand side. With a street price of US$499 (body only), US$599 with ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko Digital Zoom Lens or US$699 with ED 25mm f2.8 Zuiko Digital Lens, I feel the Olympus E-420 offers a great value in the "entry-level" dSLR category.

Olympus Posts E-420 Firmware Update

The E-420 Firmware Update Ver 1.1 adds/revises the following:

  1. Improved brightness level of optical viewfinder AF target points.

For more information, visit Olympus Japan's Support Site.

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