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DSLR Review: Olympus EVOLT E-510

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Back on August 1, Olympus PR invited me to attend the Legg Mason Tennis Classic here in Washington, DC and shoot with their new DSLR, the EVOLT E-510. I enjoyed myself thoroughly at that event, and my thanks go out to Michael Bourne from Mullen, the agency that handles the PR for Olympus.

When I arrived there, I was given a review kit for the E-510, containing the camera, the FL-36 Speedlite, and the two-lens kit (14-42mm and 40-150mm). For my review, I did what I usually do: I used the review unit as my primary camera for a month, taking note of the experience. What you’ll get now are my impressions of the camera, after taking thousands of photographs with it in various light and weather conditions, indoors and outdoors.

You can choose to watch a hands-on video review or jump past it to read my written review.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 DSLR Review from Raoul Pop on Vimeo.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (front)The E-510 is a prosumer camera made to be portable, affordable, and easy to use. The E-510, a 10-megapixel DSLR, is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the E-500, which I reviewed this past January. Even though it’s smaller, the grip was designed so well that I could hold the camera comfortably, without missing the heft of the E-500 or that of my personal camera, the Canon 5D. (I like my cameras a little chunky, they’re easier to stabilize that way.) The E-510 was even lighter than I thought with a lens mounted on it. The two-lens kit includes two premium lenses designed for travel and portability. They’re incredibly light given their focal range. I expected the 14-42mm lens to be light, but I was blown away by how small and light the 40-150mm lens was. Olympus really did an amazing job with the lenses and the camera when it came to portability. The whole kit (camera, lenses, Speedlite, and charger) was so light I could carry it anywhere very easily. I could run with it and barely felt its weight — as a matter of fact, I did just that on a couple of hikes through the forest.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (no lens)The thing to remember when looking at focal lengths with any Olympus DSLR is that they’ve got a 2x crop factor. It’s because they use the 4:3 standard, which specifies a sensor size of approximately half the dimensions of a full frame sensor (17.3 mm vs. 36 mm and 13 mm vs. 24 mm). This means the surface area of the sensor is 1/4th that of a full frame sensor. It also means you need to multiply the focal length listed on each lens by two in order to get the effective focal length. If the math is a bit confusing, just keep remember the crop factor and you’ll do fine.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the two kit lenses. The wide angle zoom, 14-42mm, yielded an effective focal range of 28-84mm. The tele zoom, with a 40-150mm range, yielded an effective focal range of 80-300mm. Now do you understand why I was amazed by how light and small the lenses were? Try finding an 80-300mm zoom lens from another DSLR manufacturer, and I guarantee you that it won’t be this small and light. Olympus can accomplish this because of their sensor’s form factor. It’s a small sensor, 1/4th the surface area of a full frame sensor. That means they need less glass in the lenses, because there’s less sensor to cover with the glass. Because there’s less glass, the lenses are easier to make. You get the same optical quality, but the lenses are cheaper, lighter, and smaller.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (back)As long as I’m talking about the sensor, I should mention that it’s a Live MOS, which gives it the ability to do Live View (it lets you compose photos on the LCD instead of the viewfinder). This needs to be clarified a bit further. If you’re graduating to the E-510 from a point and shoot, you may say “Big deal, I’ve composed photos on the LCD screen all along. What’s the difference?” Well, the difference is huge. Until Olympus introduced Live View, no other prosumer DSLRs on the market offered it. The mechanisms were much too complicated. Because CCD sensors were in use on most DSLRs until recently, separate CMOS sensors would have needed to be installed in the camera, and light diverted to them with additional mirrors. As a matter of fact, Olympus’ first Live View DSLR, the E-330, functions through that mechanism. Things there are complicated, and the potential for breakdown is increased. But with the introduction of the E-410 and E-510, Olympus switched to CMOS sensors altogether. This allowed them to use the same sensor for both photographs and Live View, dramatically simplifying the mechanism involved. Other camera manufacturers soon followed suit, and now we have both Canon and Nikon DSLRs with the same capabilities. Nikon also switched from CCD to CMOS sensors in their recent DSLRs, the D300 and D3.

To get back to Point and Shoot cameras, they use CCD sensors. That means they have little rinky-dink CMOS sensors hidden away next to the CCD sensor, and they use those to let you compose on screen and record movies. But those tiny sensors have pathetic imaging capabilities, and understandably so. Point and shoot cameras are small and inexpensive. Manufacturers can’t afford to cram expensive components in there. Not so in the E-510 and other DSLRs that have Live View or its equivalent. They use the same large, expensive sensor for everything. While they won’t let you record movies, they will allow you to see very accurately what your camera sees, directly through the lens, and will automatically compensate for aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance settings so you can see how a photo will look before you press the shutter button.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (top)The camera also features Olympus’ SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) technology, which shakes dust off the sensor. Olympus was the first company to introduce this feature, and other DSLR manufacturers only recently introduced similar technology on their cameras. The SSWF light is located next to the shutter button on top of the camera, and it flashes blue when it’s active. I can tell you that it does work. I did not have to sit there with the Heal tool, removing dust spots from the photos taken with my E-510, whereas I have to do that on a regular basis when I take photos with other DSLRs.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (left)Another important feature built right into the camera is the sensor-shift image stabilization. It stabilizes the image by shifting the sensor on both the X and Y axis (horizontally and vertically). You can hear it working on longer exposures. It works pretty well. But don’t forget to switch it off when you mount the camera on a tripod, otherwise you’ll get blurry photos. This is a pretty common bug with image stabilization technologies, and it doesn’t matter when they’re built into the camera or the lenses. When the camera is kept very stable, they go nuts trying to stabilize what doesn’t need to be stabilized. The end result is a blurry photo. So switch off the IS.

The advantage of in-camera stabilization versus in-lens stabilization is that it’s cheaper over the long term. You can use any sort of compatible lens (older or newer) with that camera, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the image stabilization with every single lens. That’s not the case with in-lens stabilization, which, as its name implies, is located in the lens. That means each of those lenses will cost more, and their cost adds up as you buy more of them. To be fair, it seems that in-lens stabilization works over a greater range of f-stops in real-life use than in-camera stabilization. But you can’t argue with the price difference, and the results are pretty good, too.

Spot the crustaceanThe photo you see here was taken at a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second, as I was bent over a brook, looking at a crayfish. If you take photographs yourself, then you know that you can’t keep your body very stable when you’re bent over, unless you’ve stabilized yourself somehow, which was not the case here. Yet that photo came out clear and sharp, even at 100%. The water even managed to look a little oily, which only happens with longer exposures.

Other useful features of the camera are the many scene modes, and the ability to write to CF, Microdive, and xD cards. To find two-card slots on other DSLR brands, you have to look to the professional models (over $4,000). Yet Olympus includes that option on the very affordable, prosumer-oriented E-510. That’s a really nice touch.

Olympus EVOLT E-510 (right)The E-510 uses the new TruePic III image processor, which gives better colors and more accurate skin tones. I found that to be true as I used the camera. Where I found this image processor similar to the TruePic II (used in the E-500) was in the auto white balance, which tended to err on the side of colder color temperatures. Thankfully, I shot in RAW, so I was able to adjust the WB in post-processing, but those shooting in JPG mode may want to be aware of this and adjust the white balance accordingly before using the camera. Personally, I prefer cameras that err on the side of warmer color temperatures (but not too warm, because that can get pretty ugly). My Canon 5D does a great job with the auto white balance. But I expect that from it. It cost almost three times as much as the E-510.

The autofocus still uses only three focus points, and yes, that makes a difference. I found it to be slower than autofocus on cameras that use more focus points. It tended to hunt sometimes, even in broad daylight. But overall, it worked pretty well, and the focusing delay wasn’t significant.

Battery life is advertised at 650 shots per charge. In practice, I found that I got about 800 shots per charge. Maybe that’s just me. I always seem to get more shots per charge than the specs.

I use Adobe Lightroom to post-process all my photos, regardless of what camera I use. I noticed that RAW files created by Olympus cameras (both the E-500 and E-510 are subject to this), take longer to load fully in Lightroom than RAW files created by Canon cameras. I’m not sure why this is, and whether it occurs with other workflow-oriented applications, like Aperture, but I thought it worth mentioning. Just in case you’re wondering, I did upgrade to the latest version of Lightroom as of this date, which is version 1.2.

Sensitivity to low light was a point of contention in my review of the E-500, where I noted the CCD sensor was prone to lots of chroma noise at higher ISO. Presumably, the Live MOS sensor of the E-510 has better low light performance and generates less noise. In terms of ISO speeds, it goes from 100-1600, like the E-500. I did find less chroma noise when I used it. Luminance noise was about the same, perhaps a little more, but that has to do with CMOS sensors in general. Basically, I can’t give you a definitive opinion on this. The two kit lenses that shipped with my review unit were too slow to properly judge how this camera does in low light situations. The 14-42mm lens was f/3.5-5.6 and the 40-150mm lens was f/4.5-5.6. To judge a camera’s performance in low light, you’d need faster lenses, ones that can open up to at least f/2.0. Ideally, the lenses should open up to f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2. I asked Olympus to send me such a faster lens, but they weren’t able to do that within the review period. As I told them, I’d be glad to test the camera with a fast lens if they can arrange it at some point in the future, and report on my findings.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t also show you some more photos taken with the camera (see below). You can also view all of my published photos from the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, which were all taken with the E-510.

Appearance Uprooted

Diesel only Which direction to turn?

Under the cold glow of the big lights Something I must do

The E-510 is a great all-around DSLR. It’s light, affordable, packed with features and options, and it will help you get great photos. I would definitely recommend it to someone who’s looking to purchase a DSLR and lens kit for well under $1,000.

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