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Olympus E-420 First Thoughts
by David Rasnake -  3/20/2008

When the Olympus E-420 was announced a few weeks back, there was lots of talk from the company about how compact and light their latest entry-level 10.0 megapixel DSLR was. With lots of smallest/lightest/fastest claims bandied about out there, we were appropriately skeptical. As it turns out, though, they weren't kidding.

Olympus E-420
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In its current group of competitors, if the Nikon D60 is a sedan, the Canon XSi an SUV, and the Pentax K200D a school bus, the E-420's like a Mini Cooper. While it's not that much smaller or that much lighter than its closest competitors when the hard specs are pulled out, reductions in key dimensions certainly make it look and, more importantly, feel smaller.

Olympus E-420
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Using the open-format Four Thirds lens mount and sensor size, the E-420 does quite a job of delivering on what has always been one of the selling points of this smaller-than-APS-C sensor technology: compactness. From a specs and features standpoint, Olympus has pushed all the right buttons with this one, offering up the kinds of features (live view, face detection, a bevy of scene modes) aimed to entice consumers over from point-and-shoots and ease the transition to a DSLR. (For a complete rundown of this camera's specs, take a look at the recent Olympus E-420 announcement.)

Olympus E-420
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As noted, with the conventional 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 kit zoom mounted, this setup has the size and weight of mid-sized ultrazoom. Mount up the kit-option 25mm f/2.8 Zuiko prime seen in our shots of the E-420 and things get even more compact. The diminutive 25mm, which performs like a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera with the Olympus's 2x crop factor, makes it easy to see (or remember, if you're of a certain age) why 50mm primes once dominated the amateur SLR landscape. It's wide enough to take in a landscape, compressed enough to take nice "people shots," and in the case of this lens, both small and fast enough to be unobtrusive to either shooter or subject. In spite of its physically small optics, initial impressions are that it's quite a capable piece of glass.

Olympus E-420
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I didn't do a good job of controlling the highlights in this outdoor shot, but there's still a lot to like here: good sharpness (even wide open), soft bokeh, plenty of contrast, and just a hint of added warmth in the color rendering versus the stock zoom. I personally believe that shooting with a prime changes the way you look at the photographic possibilities in a given scene, and I think lots of users interested in taking compelling snapshots (in the best possible sense of that word) will find that this lens does a lot of things well. We'll give it a more thorough look in the coming weeks, but pushing a new prime aimed squarely at entry-level shooters is an interesting move that has some potential if Olympus can sell general consumers on the concept.

Back to the E-420 itself, while I doubt I'll ever prefer live view over a good old-fashion viewfinder, the move to contrast-detection auto focus (the E-420 has Contrast AF and a "Hybrid" contrast- and phase-detection setting, as well as traditional Phase Detect AF) in this generation of DSLRs is making the system make a lot more sense. Olympus likes to boast that they pioneered live view, and with the E-420 they've definitely made it a lot better. We'll do some timings testing to see what the difference turns out to be, but Contrast AF makes the Olympus feel nearly as quick as a compact camera in good light.

With a slightly more pronounced hand grip area than we saw on the E-410, the latest Olympus is appreciably comfortable to hold for longer periods of time. Control placement is good, with an obvious button for activating live view. What's not always so obvious, however, are the arrangement of Olympus's menus.

Olympus E-420
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The shooting info screen, where all the basic parameters are adjusted, is a bit visually busy, but there will be more to say on menu navigation once we've had time to dig in and learn the system a little better. Check back soon for the complete review to see how well things play out for the E-420.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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