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Olympus Evolt E-510 Review
by Howard Creech -  7/16/2007

The diminutive Olympus Evolt E-510 looks and feels like its iconic 35mm OM series predecessors, but the similarities end there.  The E-510 is Olympus' flagship digital SLR and at this point in time it may be the ultimate bridge camera - an imaging device that almost perfectly spans the gap between P&S (point & shoot) prosumer digicams like the Canon Powershot S5 IS and mid-level digital SLRs like the Canon EOS 5D.  The E-510 has all the bells and whistles users have come to expect from high-end prosumer digital cameras, but it also provides the modularity and creative flexibility one expects from an SLR system camera.

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The feature rich E-510 is a Four Thirds format, 10 megapixel dSLR with on-board mechanical/digital image stabilization and a cutting edge Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system. More important to P&S digicam users graduating from fixed lens digital cameras to modular SLR imaging platforms, the E-510 sports a new N-MOS (live CMOS) sensor that allows (unlike the vast majority of dSLRs) the LCD screen to be used as a viewfinder - for composing (not just reviewing) images.  Equally impressive is the E-510’s ergonomic footprint - this digital camera is as compact and easy to use as many of today’s long zoom P&S digital cameras.  Consumers who like the convenience and immediacy of P&S prosumer digicams like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 will adore the E-510.   

NUTS & BOLTS

Optical Viewfinder/LCD Screen

The E-510 features a bright TTL (through the lens) pentamirror optical viewfinder that shows 95 percent of the image frame (magnification rate is 0.92X).  There’s a comprehensive settings/status/function info readout displayed along the right side of the image frame.   The (fixed) Neo Lumi-Micro matte focusing screen shows a very retro looking circular metering zone and the three AF points.  The rubber/plastic eyecup is removable and Olympus supplies an eyepiece blind that can be inserted to prevent stray light from entering the viewfinder during long exposures. There’s also a diopter correction dial for eyeglasses wearers.

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The E-510’s 2.5 inch (230,000 pixel) LCD screen is bright, fairly sharp, and, unlike the vast majority of dSLRs can be used as a viewfinder - to frame and compose images, just like with fixed lens P&S digicam LCD screens. The LCDs on most digital SLRs can be used only for menu navigation and post-exposure image review.   Engage live view (via the Display button) and the E-510’s reflex mirror swings up out of the light path and a live TTL image appears on the LCD screen – users can then zoom, frame, compose, and expose – it’s that simple.

I’m an old school photographer and I prefer optical viewfinders for framing and composition – I don’t like using the LCD screen for these important chores.  Optical viewfinders narrow the photographer's vision of the world (by eliminating everything except the field of view through the lens) and that’s a good thing - because it forces shooters to see photographically. Arms length LCD composition causes shooters to see their images as a picture within a picture, a smaller part of the whole rather than as a completely self-contained mini-environment and that is (IMHO) a very important consideration.

In Live View mode the E-510’s LCD screen isn’t as bright or as sharp as it is in review/playback mode – and it is not as fluid (a higher refresh rate would result in smoother movement) as most P&S digicam screens.  More troubling is the inability to use pre-focus in Live View mode.  Press the shutter button (in Live View mode) and the reflex mirror drops back into place momentarily to measure light levels and adjust AF and then rises back out of the light path – this adds about a second of shutter lag, making the Live View mode essentially useless when shooting moving subjects or action.  What is neat about Live View (with stationary subjects) is the ability to view your composition on the screen, even from awkward angles, and to adjust exposure and white balance and then view the changes in real time. 

Optics/Lensmount

The E-510 features a stainless steel Olympus Four Thirds lens mount.

Image Stabilization (IS)

The E-510 is the first Olympus dSLR to feature image stabilization.  The E-510’s new N-MOS (live CMOS) sensor also facilitates mechanical/digital image stabilization – the camera detects shake/movement and compensates by shifting the sensor.  Unlike optical image stabilization (which works by shifting lens elements in each OIS capable lens), mechanical IS works with every Four Thirds lens mounted. 

Image stabilization allows photographers to shoot at slower shutter speeds than would have been possible without IS. For example, if a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second is required to avoid the effects of camera shake (without image stabilization) the E-510 can capture a reasonably sharp image of the same subject (everything else being equal) at 1/30th of a second. Image stabilization can also be very useful when shooting in poorly lit indoor venues where flash may be prohibited, where higher shutter speeds may not be possible, or where shooting would result in dark images with poor shadow/highlight detail. In addition, IS combined with higher ISO settings significantly increases exposure options in dim/low or natural lighting. Users also benefit from IS outdoors when shooting handheld with telephoto lenses and long zooms.

The E-510 provides three IS options - OFF, Mode 1 – full time IS, and Mode 2 – for horizontal panning.

olympus e-510 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) IS made it easier to capture this mid air shot of a BMX biker (f4.0-f5.6/40-150mm)

Auto Focus (AF)

The E-510 features the same TTL phase difference detection 3 point auto focus system as its predecessors. AF is consistently and dependably fast and accurate.   The E-510’s AF system is noticeably slower (although no less accurate) in Live View mode. 

Manual Focus (MF)

When precise focus is critical just turn off the AF and focus manually (using the MF focus ring on each lens) just like they used to do in the old days, before auto focus.   

Flash

The E-510's on board TTL auto/manual multi-mode pop-up flash (guide number - 12 meters at ISO 100) provides an average range of lighting options including: off, auto (fires when the camera determines that ambient light isn’t sufficient), red-eye reduction, slow sync (balances flash output and a slower shutter speed with ambient light for a more natural look), slow sync with red-eye reduction, fill flash (useful for close-ups and backlit subjects), and second curtain synch effect (flash fires at the end of the exposure).  X-synch is 1/180th of a second.  Flash output can be adjusted +/-2 EV in 1.0, ½, and 1/3 EV increments.

Like most built-in flash units the E-510’s flash is positioned too close to and on essentially the same plane as the lens, so redeye can be a problem. E-510 users can easily defeat redeye by turning off the flash and relying on the IS system – a shake stabilized slower shutter speed will cover many lighting situations and naturally lit portraits almost always look better than flash lit portraits. The E-510’s red-eye reduction mode will also help to eliminate red-eye, but at a cost - it will substantially slow down the exposure process.

The E-510 also provides a dedicated hot shoe.  Olympus’ FL36 and FL50 speedlites may be used in full TTL auto mode.  Third party flash units may be used, but only in manual mode.  

Memory Media & Image File Format(s)

The E-510 provides memory card slots for Compact Flash type II (including micro-drives) and xD picture cards. 

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Images can be saved in JPEG or RAW format.

Connectivity

USB 2.0HS, A/V out, and DC in

Power

The E-510 draws its juice from a proprietary Olympus BLM1 rechargeable Li-ion battery. I didn’t keep track of exposures (my shooting style precludes this – I shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot continuously), but power depth was impressive.  I used the camera extensively for two weeks and never ran out of juice, but I barely used the Live View feature and I’m betting that Live View is a real power hog.  Moderate to heavy shooters who plan to utilize Live View a lot should probably buy a back up battery – the combination of Live View, full time image stabilization, and the E-510’s Supersonic Wave Filter are going to create a substantial power drain.

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EXPOSURE

The E-510 provides most of the automatic photographic capability casual photographers are likely want and all the creative flexibility more serious photographers are likely to need, including: Auto, Program AE (flexible), Scene (Portrait, Landscape, Landscape & Portrait, Night Scene, Night Scene & Portrait, Children, Sport, High Key, Low Key, Digital Image Stabilization (high ISO), Macro, Natural Macro, Candlelight,  Sunset, Fireworks, Documents, Panorama (requires an Olympus brand xD-Picture Card),  Beach & Snow, Under Water Wide, and Under Water Macro), Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and full Manual modes.

In Auto (point & shoot) mode, the E-510 makes all exposure decisions. In Program AE mode, the camera automatically selects the aperture and shutter speed, but users can select all other exposure variables. In all Scene modes the camera automatically optimizes exposure parameters for the specific Scene type selected. In Aperture Priority mode, shooters select the lens aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode, users select the shutter speed (high shutter speeds to freeze action or slower shutter speeds to blur motion) and the camera automatically selects the best aperture. In Manual mode users select all exposure variables.

I used the E-510 primarily in Program AE mode.  I noted a slight tendency toward underexposure (generally by 1/3 to 2/3 EV) in Program AE and Auto mode, but this shouldn’t be problem for most shooters.  Slight underexposure produces more intense colors and harder contrast, and better preserves highlight detail.  The other side of the coin is that even minor underexposure causes some loss of shadow detail.  Photographers who are bothered by the E-510’s consistent tendency toward minor underexposure in the Auto modes can simply dial in +1/3 EV of exposure compensation (in Program AE mode) or shoot in one of the manual exposure modes. 

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(view medium image) (view large image) – This neighborhood cat was shot in Program mode with all settings (ISO, WB, etc.) at Auto (f4.0-f5.6/40-150mm)

Movie Mode

Digital SLRs (at this point in time) don’t provide video capability. 

Metering

The E-510 provides several light metering options: Default is a 49 segment multi-pattern (evaluative) metering mode, there’s also a center-weighted averaging mode, and 3 spot metering options (spot, highlight spot, and shadow spot).

White Balance (WB)

The E-510 provides a very nice range of white balance options, including TTL Auto, Overcast, Shade, Tungsten, Sunlight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Manual “one-touch” (custom), Kelvin (2000 – 14000 Kelvin in 7 steps), Red – Blue (warm-cool) +/- 7 steps (in 2 mired increments), Green - Magenta +/- 7 steps (in 2 mired increments) and two color space options - sRGB & Adobe RGB.  The Custom setting permits users to manually set white balance with a white card (wall or ceiling), but here’s a quibble – why must users assign the left button on the compass switch to one-touch WB mode? Users can tweak all WB settings (including Auto) +/- 7 steps and then press the AE/AF lock button to preview the results.  The E-510’s Auto WB setting is dependably accurate in most outdoor lighting.

Sensitivity

The E-510 provides an adequate range of sensitivity settings including TTL Auto and user selected settings for ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600.  The ISO 800 and 1600 settings provide photographers with the flexibility to shoot indoors without flash, shoot at faster shutter speeds (to freeze action) outdoors, and to better capture images in low/dim lighting (although, as most shooters know, image noise rises exponentially as sensitivity increases).

Noise Reduction (NR)

The E-510’s default noise reduction does a very good job, but there really is no free lunch.  Aggressive NR naturally and unavoidably results in softer images and the E-510 doesn’t get a pass in this department.  Compromise is the soul of photography, so shooters who need tack sharp images will want to set the E-510’s noise filter to low or off.  Images will be sharper, however they will also be noisier.  Personally, I think some geek types overrate sharpness when assessing image quality.  Unless you plan to use the E-510 for poster-size art prints or commercial/product photography, the camera’s default images are plenty sharp enough. 

In-Camera Image Adjustment (Tweakability)

The E-510 is one of the most tweakable dSLRs I’ve used to date.  In-camera image adjustment capabilities are often overlooked by casual users, but more demanding shooters know that the ability to make subtle color/saturation/contrast/sharpness/WB/NR adjustments is a very important creative tool and the most direct method for overcoming minor exposure problems. The E-510 provides serious shooters with a very impressive range of creative tweaks that can be applied in-camera - eliminating or greatly reducing the need for post-exposure processing.

DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS

The E-510 is a very compact dSLR, reminiscent of Olympus’ iconic OM series 35mm film cameras.  The pro-black E-510 is stylish and remarkably easy to use, especially in Auto mode, Program mode, and the Scene modes.  Ergonomics are superb.  Construction is robust (polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame) and all controls are logically placed and easily accessed - plus the E-510 provides direct access to white balance, AF mode, ISO/sensitivity, exposure compensation, and metering options.  This snazzy little dSLR is targeted at serious amateurs and semi pros and was obviously designed by photographers for photographers.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

Digital SLR image quality is primarily dependent on the quality of the glass in front of the sensor.  I had the two lens kit – an Olympus Zuiko Digital f/3.5-f5.6/14-42mm (28mm- 84mm equivalent) ED zoom and an Olympus Zuiko Digital f4.0-f5.6/40-150mm (80mm – 300mm equivalent) zoom.  Both zooms were designed specifically for the Olympus E-410/E-510.  Both are quite good optically, noticeably better than comparable "kit" lenses from most other manufacturers.  In addition, both lenses are lightweight and very compact – although some users may be bothered by the polycarbonate lens mounts featured on both optics.

Color rendition is dependably accurate and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled in both lenses.  I did notice some visible barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the 14-42 zoom, but no pincushion distortion or vignetting (dark corners) with either optic.  Both lenses are sharp in the center, even at maximum aperture, although both are, typically, a bit softer in the corners.

The E-510’s auto white balance is accurate even in difficult lighting. Colors are bright and hue accurate, but slightly oversaturated.  Default contrast is slightly hard. Images shot at ISO 100 have extremely low noise levels - dependably very good to excellent images with decent shadow detail, acceptable highlight detail, and accurate (Caucasian) skin tones. Noise levels start to pick up at slightly at ISO 200 and ISO 400 shots show some noticeable loss of detail. The E-510’s ISO 800 and ISO 1600 images are soft with flat contrast and dull colors.

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(view medium image) (view large image) - Backlit Magnolia blossom (f/3.5-f5.6/14-42mm) note slight softness

Timing/Shutter Lag

The E-510 is a very quick dSLR, equal (or very close) to any digital camera in its price class.  Even with the Supersonic Wave Filter (dust reduction) function at start-up the E-510 is ready to go in about 1.5 seconds.  AF lock (in good light with the 14-42 zoom) is about 1/3 of a second from scratch and essentially real time with pre-focus (using the optical viewfinder). Shutter lag in Live View mode is about 1 second. Shot to shot times (even in RAW mode) are noticeably quicker than average - about ½ a second for a full resolution JPEG with no flash. Write to card times are also a bit faster than average.

olympus e-510 sample image
(view medium image) (view large image) – The E-510 was quick enough to lock on (with no pre-focus) and capture this grab shot of a leaping American Bull Dog puppy (f4.0-f5.6/40-150mm)

Technical Specifications

Included

Olympus BLM1 rechargeable Li-ion battery, A/V cables, USB cable, Software, and user’s manual – everything else depends on purchase configuration (body only, 1 lens kit, 2 lens kit)

Optional 

Zooms and prime lenses from Olympus and other manufacturers, an Olympus underwater housing, and Olympus’ FL36 and FL50 external flash units

A Few Concerns

I have only a couple minor concerns. Why isn’t there a shoot-only (IS engaged only during exposure) IS mode and why can’t users delete an image immediately after it is taken?  (Correction: The IS system is engaged only during exposure. While in Live View, IS can be enabled on the preview by pressing a button during which IS is enabled for a few seconds).

Conclusion

If I were buying a mid-level dSLR today I would probably purchase the competitively priced, compact, capable, and responsive Olympus E-510. For casual photographers, Canon Powershot S3/S5 owners, and Panasonic FZ7/FZ8 owners looking to move up to a dSLR – the E-510 is the camera you’ve been searching for.  For Olympus E-300, E-330, E-400, and E-500 owners looking to upgrade, the E-510 is the camera you hoped Olympus would build. 

Pros

Excellent image quality, fast, very tweakable, good noise management, compact, easy to use, Live View LCD, excellent Dust Reduction system, full manual controls, and dual memory card slots

Cons

Default images are a bit soft, there’s slight tendency toward underexposure, and no ability to immediately delete an image