Olympus E-520 SLR Review

Steve's Conclusion

The Olympus E-520 is the 2008 replacement of the EVOLT E-510 from last year, and shares many of the same features. This is also the "big brother" to the E-420 we reviewed earlier this month. Like its predecessor, the E-520 offers the same 10-megapixel "Live MOS" image sensor, Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system, built-in Image Stabilizer 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 (BLM-1), 49-point Digital ESP metering system, and Live View capture. New features include a 2.7" Hypercrystal II LCD, improved burst rate (up to 3.5fps), TTL contrast/phase-difference AF system, Face Detection AF in Live View mode, full wireless flash control (with FL-36R/FL-50R), and two new Underwater scene modes for use with the optional PT-E05 underwater housing.

While the E-520 is a powerful photographic tool, it can be used comfortably by everyone in your household or office. With 20 pre-programmed scene modes that are tailored for specific shooting situations as well as full Auto, the most inexperienced photographer can capture pleasing images. Novice users will appreciate the automatic exposure control of Program AE mode, with the ability to get there feet wet by having access to controls like ISO, White Balance, Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Color Space, etc. Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sport and Night+Portrait can be accessed directly via the Mode dial, and also offer advanced exposure options like those found in Program mode. These same settings are not available when you select the Scene position and choose Portrait, Landscape, etc. 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 the novice to experienced photographer to be more creative.

The E-520 is Olympus' "mid sized" dSLR offering, measuring 5.4 in. x 3.6 in. x 2.7 in. (136 mm x 91.5 mm x 68 mm) and weighing in at 16.8 oz. (475 g, body only). While capturing our sample photos, I found it was a pleasure to use. The enlarged hand grip on the right-hand side offers a comfortable, yet secure grip with nice rubberized grips and a thumb pad on the back. With a CF card inserted, the ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko lens attached, and the battery loaded, the weight does increase a bit. However, I still felt the camera had a good weight to it, in fact, I didn't use the neck strap at all while out shooting. The control layout is identical to that of the E-510, with the buttons arranged in a comfortable manner over the top and back of the camera. The menu system was very easy to navigate, and we especially liked the "Super Control Panel" display. This feature 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. Like the E-420, the E-520 offers a 2.7-inch "Hypercrystal II" LCD screen. This is a high-quality display, and I found it worked well in most lighting situations. Indoors the display was bright, and when using the Live View function, the LCD gains up well without a grainy picture. While shooting outdoors, I did find that it could benefit from an anti-glare coating as there were a few angles which reflected the sun. However, I still had no problems viewing the LCD while accessing the menu, reviewing images or framing 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/E-510, the added size does make menu text a bit more legible as well as offers a large view for framing.

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.

Shooting performance was impressive. From power-on till the first image was captured measured just 1.1 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 4/10 of a second without the flash and just 5-6/10 of a second with the flash. In continuous capture or burst mode, I was able to capture 19 frames in just 5.1 seconds, without any buffer slowdown; approx 3.7fps, surpassing Olympus' claim of 3.5fps. When switching to RAW mode, I was able to capture the first 10 frames in 2.4 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 8 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 spontaneous moment; like a child making a silly face that lasts for just an instant. Our tests were done using a Sandisk Extreme IV 2GB CF card, the kit ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko lens, Program AE mode, ISO Auto, 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.

Due to the fact that the E-420 and E-520 share the same 10-megapixel sensor, Truepic III image processor and 49-point Digital ESP metering system, image quality results were similar. When shooting outdoors, the E-520 captures beautiful images with pleasing exposure and rich colors. We had the noise reduction and filter options set at the factory defaults (Auto/Standard) during our testing, and found the E-520 handles image noise rather well for a camera in this price range. When reviewing our M&M man shots, noise seems to start making an appearance in shadow areas at ISO 400, however there is only a very slight amount visible. ISO 800 starts to show a small degree of speckling, but these images still have the ability to create rather large prints. The maximum setting of ISO 1600 also looks very usable for 8x10-inch or larger prints, especially if you have a well light subject. Olympus provided the kit ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko lens for us to use, and overall I found this is a very nice "starter" lens. It offers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 28 - 84mm, and exhibits slight barrel distortion at the wide angle extreme, however I saw virtually no signs of purple fringing in our sample photos. Using this lens allowed us to capture sharp results throughout the zoom range, and overall complements the E-520's 10-megapixel imager well.

The E-520 also did very well at capturing portraits, whether indoors or out. The built-in flash performed well when shooting close-ups. However, if you plan on trying to illuminate a mid-large sized room, we highly recommend attaching an external unit; like the FL-36 we used. I was able to capture pleasing individual portraits when using either Program AE or the dedicated Portrait scene mode. Portrait changes the Picture mode from Natural to Portrait as well as changes the sharpness setting to soft. This gives your faces a softer look with a bit more saturation to produce rosier skin tones. The only negative I found was the AF system was a bit slow in marginal lighting (like a typical living room at night). The flash acts as an AF-assist lamp to aid in focusing, but I found it would fire several times before the camera would lock focus on the subject. When using Live View mode, the E-520 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. Like we saw with the E-420, 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. However, if you plan on using Live View to capture portraits, be certain your subject is very still. I had a hard time capturing smiles of small children due to the slower shutter lag performance in Live View mode.

These days, some sort of in-camera editing is becoming more and more popular in dSLR models. The E-520 provides an effective image editing function that can operate on RAW and JPEG images. It allows you to enable Shadow Adjustment, fix Red-eye 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-520 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 the 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-BLM1 7.2V 1500mAh Li-ion battery pack. They claim a fully changed battery will allow you to capture up to 650 shots using the optical viewfinder. I found battery life was good, capturing over 230 photos and concluding all or our other tests with plenty of power to spare (battery indicator still shows green).

Bottom line - The Olympus E-520 is a welcomed addition to Olympus' line of consumer level dSLRs. While they have included many new features that help increase the appeal of the, there hasn't been any major changes over the E-510 from last year. Overall, I feel this is a well balanced dSLR model that is sure to offer pleasing results not matter who is behind the viewfinder. With excellent shooting performance, great image quality, plenty of manual adjustments and control, and a very well built feel, I have no problem recommending the E-520 to anyone who is in the market for an affordable, yet capable digital SLR. With an MSRP of US$599 or US$699 bundled with the ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko zoom lens, the Olympus E-520 dSLR system offers a great value for its combination of high-end features at an affordable price. If you love the features and performance of the E-520, but want a smaller package. Check out our review of the E-420, which shares most all of the same features packed in the smallest body available with a standard 4/3 mount.

Olympus Posts E-520 Firmware Update

The E-520 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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Sample Photos

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