Olympus E-500 SLR Review

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Olympus EVOLT E-500 Digital SLR

Steve's Conclusion

The Olympus Evolt E-500 is the third commercially-available camera that implements the "Four Thirds System" originally announced by Kodak and Olympus, later joined by Sigma. It follows the Olympus E-300, a product designed for the amateur dSLR market.

The E-500 marks Olympus' return to a traditional SLR body design with pentaprism on top; the E-300 used an unusual viewfinder light path that eliminated the typical pentaprism bulge. The E-500's viewfinder image is noticeably smaller than most dSLR's; this makes manual focus somewhat difficult, although the E-500's AF system monitors your MF effort and turns on the focus confirmation light when you've got it right. The viewfinder is located close enough to the left side of the camera body so that the photographer's nose comfortably rests outside the body and not pressed up against the LCD. (Note that Olympus has just made available the optional ME-1 Eyecup that magnifies the original view field in the finder by 1.2x (approximately 20%). The ME-1 will be available in mid to late December 2005 for US$39.99.)

The E-500 is even lighter than the E-300, weighing in at just under two pounds, 14-45mm lens with hood, battery, strap and CF card included, about the same as the Pentax *istDS2. Despite its compact size, I found the E-500 to be comfortable to hold and easy to operate, with its switches and controls well placed to avoid accidental activation. And battery life was good, capturing more than 500 images before its 1500mAh Li-ion battery was depleted.

Camera operation was a breeze. There's no top-mounted data LCD; the display of exposure settings is made on the large, rear-mounted 2 1/2-inch color LCD, allowing you to make changes with the camera at eye level. The display is quite complete, including such settings as sharpness, saturation and contrast that can be viewed on other cameras only by entering the menu system. And rather than forcing you to wade through a menu system to make changes, the E-500 provides buttons that directly access common shooting parameters, including white balance, exposure compensation, AF mode, ISO and metering mode; changes are made by rotating the control dial. The E-500's playback mode was responsive and informative; it provides as little or as much information as you want, including your choice of brightness or RGB histograms. Playback can to enlarge an image up to 14x, allowing critical examination in the field. Overall, the E-500's controls and LCD display were a pleasure to use.

Like the E-300, the E-500 imposes a 2x focal length factor on its attached lenses. That's great if you shoot a lot of telephoto, but it's a difficult pill to swallow for those who shoot wide angle. Olympus offers an 11-22mm (22-44mm in 35mm-equivalence) wide zoom, but its price exceeds the E-500 body! With the Zuiko Digital 14-45mm kit lens, Olympus is providing an inexpensive standard zoom; its 28-90mm effective focal length fits the bill for an every day walkabout lens, with sufficient field of view for landscape and interior shots, and a short telephoto focal length for portraits. The lens exhibits a moderate amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but is without any pin cushioning at telephoto. It's reasonable sharp throughout its focal length range, but is noticeably soft when stopped down to f/22. On balance, it's a good match for the E-500.

The Zuiko Digital 40-150mm kit lens also complements the E-500; its 80-300mm 35mm-equivalent focal length is an effective telephoto zoom range for your distant subjects. The 40-150 exhibits a bit of pin cushioning at 40mm and barrel distortion at 150mm. Images are a bit soft with the aperture fully open and stopped down, but sharpness is very good at moderate aperture settings.

The E-500's single image shooting performance is average in the consumer dSLR class of cameras. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 2 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 3/10 second including auto focus time for a high-contrast subject. Rapid shooting in single shot mode without flash captured 8 images at 8/10 second intervals, with subsequent shots at 1.6 second intervals. With flash, shots could be captured at intervals ranging between 1 and 5 seconds, depending on subject distance. A Zuiko Digital 14-45mm lens was used for the AF performance measurements.

Using CF memory, Continuous Shooting mode captured only 5 SHQ JPEG shots in 2 seconds, and you must remove your finger from the shutter button before the next sequence can be captured; buffer clearing took 6 seconds. Continuous shooting in RAW mode captured only 4 images in 1.5 seconds, but took 8 seconds to clear the buffer. Using xD media, the E-500 exhibited the same continuous capture performance, but buffer clearing took 20 seconds for JPEG images and 43 seconds for RAW; fast CF is clearly the preferred media of the E-500. A Lexar 1GB 80X CF card and Olympus 512MB xD-Picture Card were used for the continuous shooting test measurements.

While some may be disappointed by the E-500's limited continuous shooting depth capturing SHQ-quality JPEG's, dialing-back the E-500's quality setting to HQ enables it to capture images continuously at 2.5 frames per second. This is not a surprising result, considering the average size of a 3264 x 2448 SHQ image exceeds 5MB, while the equivalent HQ JPEG consumes less than 2MB. If you're willing to make a compromise in quality, continuous capture depth will benefit.

The E-500's auto focus system is accurate, but it has only 3 focus points organized horizontally across the frame while the competition has more, and it sometimes had a tendency to focus hunt in C-AF with a stationary subject. The E-500 provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF, Continuous AF and simultaneous use of MF with both single and continuous AF. AF point selection can be performed automatically by the camera, or the photographer can manually select the AF point. Low-light performance is good even without the use of focus assist lamps, and the E-500 will fire a burst from its internal flash, if raised, or turn on the focus assist lamp of an attached FL-36 flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. Manual focus is a fly-by-wire affair, with the focus ring actuating the lens focus motor; it is very responsive and is as effective as a manual focus control. Custom Functions are provided to give you control of shutter release priority in both S-AF and C-AF modes; the camera defaults to focus priority in S-AF and release priority in C-AF.

As an amateur dSLR, the E-500 competes with both prosumer digicams and other dSLR's. Borrowing features from its prosumer siblings and meeting the needs of less-experienced photographers, the E-500 incorporates scene modes that optimize camera settings for 15 distinct shooting conditions/subjects. But while most cameras shield the photographer from the exposure settings chosen by a scene mode, the E-500 displays all of the exposure settings on the LCD. This information can be educational for the intermediate photographer, providing a basis for experimentation using the E-500's more advanced shooting modes. In addition, it offers 5 "Creative" shooting modes, (Portrait, Landscape, macro, Sport and Night scene) that also automate camera settings but allow the photographer to override some of them.

The E-500's 8-megapixel imager offers plenty of resolution, an advantage over its 6-megapixel competitors both for producing large prints and high-quality cropped images. The E-500's results were well-exposed, and color reproduction was realistic. The E-500's image quality was very good at ISO 100 and 200. At higher ISO's, noise becomes evident; while 400 is very usable, noise becomes evident in shadow and midtone areas at ISO 800, and there's noise throughout the image at ISO 1600 as well as very noticeable reduction in image detail.

In-camera editing is not a feature you'll find on many dSLR's, but the E-500 provides an effective image editing function that can operate on RAW, TIFF and JPEG images. It allows you to convert an image to Black and White, apply a sepia tone, fix red eye and adjust saturation, saving the result as a separate image file. While it doesn't have the features and flexibility of an image editor, the E-500's in-camera editing feature may have appeal to beginners or those who print from the camera using DPOF or PictBridge.

Most dSLR's, even the professional ones, have a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics at small apertures. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a bulb blower handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. The Olympus E-500 has an ingenious feature it inherited from the E-1 and E-300 called a "Supersonic Wave Filter"; it vibrates dust particles off the image sensor every time you turn the camera on. While I didn't purposefully deposit any dust onto the sensor during the test, I can say that the sensor remained remarkably free of dust during our test.

The Olympus E-500 is a very capable amateur dSLR, offering terrific image quality, an extensive list of useful features and an automatic cure for a common dSLR annoyance - the dusty image sensor. The E-500 is also a terrific value; for under $900 you can get the E-500 with both the 14-45mm and 40-150 kit lenses, a package that covers an effective focal length range of 28-300mm. It competes well with other consumer dSLR's and offers a compelling alternative to those considering high-end consumer digicams; while its optical viewfinder is small by dSLR standards, it's quite an improvement over the Electronic Viewfinders found on prosumer models. The E-500's Auto and Scene modes will produce high quality snapshots for beginners, while its advanced operating modes will satisfy the enthusiast photographer - it's truly a camera the entire family can use. Please have a look at our sample images to see what the E-500 is capable of.

Olympus Posts EVOLT E-500 Firmware Update 1.1

The EVOLT E-500 Body Firmware Update 1.1 adds/revises the following:

  1. Improved Button Timer selection - Add a new time, 8 Sec as default as well as the current 3, 5 Sec and HOLD (for the person who has difficulty operating their camera quickly)
  2. Addition to the Customizable one touch WB button - Add the new state, OFF as well as the current One-touch WB, Test Picture, My mode and Preview functions. In "OFF" the WB button does not work. (in order to avoid unintentionally activating this button by accidentally pressing it.)
  3. New Warning message - When user selects the Erase RAW+JPEG images by Erasing Selected Frames under setting of "Erasing" and choosing ether only RAW or JPEG, the following warning message can be seen on screen wizard of Erasing Selected Frames. "Both RAW and JPEG are erased"

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's E-500 review

Imaging-Resource's E-500 review

DCView's E-500 review

LetsGoDigital's E-500 review

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