DigitalCameraReview.com
Olympus E-420 Review
by Jim Keenan -  4/3/2008

When I was first exposed to photography as a hobby, it was in early 1975 with my roommate's 35mm Minolta. By mid '75 I was hooked and in the market for a camera of my own, but my roomie had me move out so his girlfriend would move in – bye-bye easy Minolta access. Two other friends had 35mms they were gracious enough to let me play with – a Nikon F2 and an Olympus OM-1. The physical contrast between the Nikon and the Olympus could not have been more dramatic: Nikon big and relatively heavy, Olympus compact and light. But they both cranked out nice images.

Olympus E-420
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Now it's 2008 and digital is here. I'm still shooting a big Nikon and Olympus is still making the compact, light cameras that began with that OM-1 so many years ago – the Olympus E-420 being the latest addition to a lineup that emphasizes smaller and lighter. Back then, film was the big equalizer, but today's digital cameras from different manufacturers use (generally) proprietary technology. Is Olympus still cranking out nice images? We'll see...


FEATURES OVERVIEW

Olympus hails the E-420 as the "world's smallest digital SLR," yet the camera boasts a wealth of features that should appeal to both users moving into their first DSLR as well as more experienced shooters who desire a compact platform. The camera provides a 2.7-inch monitor, a Four Thirds format 10.0 megapixel sensor, True Pic III processor, face detection and shadow adjustment technologies, a Live View monitor function that permits composing and capturing images, manual controls as well as auto and 18 pre-programmed scene modes, and a 100-1600 ISO sensitivity range. There is an on-board dust reduction system for the camera sensor and an approximately 3.5 frames per second continuous shooting rate.

The camera accepts Type I or II Compact Flash, Microdrive, or xD memory media – you can carry both CF and xD cards onboard simultaneously and select which medium to write to via internal menu, as well as write from card to card within the camera. Here's a closer look at the dual memory card slots:

Olympus E-420
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Olympus provides a battery and charger, USB and video cables, shoulder strap, CD-ROM software, and eyecap with each camera. The camera comes packaged in kit form with either the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 or 25mm f/2.8 lenses, or as a body only.

There are six primary shooting modes:

The E-420 allows the Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sport, and Night + Portrait scene presets to be accessed directly from the camera's mode dial, with all 18 available via internal menu.

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

While certainly compact, the E-420 is built along traditional SLR/DSLR lines.

Olympus E-420
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Styling and Build Quality

The black composite material body of the E-420 seems solid and well-built. There is some contouring in the right hand grip area along with strategically placed patches of a rubberized-like material to promote a firmer grip.

Olympus E-420
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Ergonomics and Interface

The E-420 is a small, light DSLR. That's the good news. Likewise, the E-420 is a small DSLR, and that may be the not-so-good news if you have large hands. I have what I consider to be medium-sized hands, and the E-420 is a bit small for my liking – my right ring finger is partially off the camera and my right little finger completely off when shooting. In addition, the camera strap eyelet and attachment ring near the shutter button is placed so that my middle finger falls across it in the shooting position – annoying at best, somewhat uncomfortable at worst. Potential buyers would be well advised to do some hands-on with the camera before purchase to make sure the size is something you can live with.

Olympus E-420
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I mentioned this camera has some contouring in the right grip area where apparently its predecessor (the E-410) had none. The changes are a good start, but I'd prefer an even more aggressive grip, at least at the front of the camera. However, this desire is probably born out of the fact that I can't grip the E-420 as I'd like due to size. Users with smaller hands may find nothing to complain about.

Olympus E-420
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Control placement leaves nothing to be desired to my mind. Despite its small size, I never had any problems with E-420 controls overlapping or being activated by mistake. There are a host of internal menus that allow the user to tailor a range of camera functions to suit their particular shooting needs, but Olympus has provided an interesting short cut to allow the "display and setting of shooting settings at the same time."

Olympus E-420
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The Super Control Panel is activated via the Info button on the camera's back, and fills the monitor with the following information: shooting mode, ISO, flash mode and compensation, memory media installed/selected, image quality, AF mode and area, metering, continuous shooting status, white balance and compensation, picture mode, sharpness, contrast, gradation, saturation, color space, face detection status, and number of shots available on the memory media.

At first use, the screen appears extremely cluttered with all of this information, but its operation quickly becomes quite intuitive: with the Super Control Panel screen displayed, a press of the "OK" button gets you into the screen; scroll to the setting you wish to change and press "OK" again to enter that setting, and then scroll to whichever adjustment you wish to select. Another "OK" makes the change and returns you to the initial display. Folks who are content to leave the camera in any of its many automatic modes may never have need for the Super Control Panel, but users who are more engaged will find it provides a quick and handy way to change shooting settings on the run. Here's what changing the contrast setting on the camera via Super Control Panel would look like:

The initial display – note the "0" next to the small "C" (contrast) under the word "NATURAL" at the right side of the screen.

Olympus E-420
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A push of the "OK" button gets us into the panel, which happens to show the ISO section selected.

Olympus E-420
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Scroll to the contrast section as shown, and push "OK" again to select contrast.

Olympus E-420
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After selecting contrast, a range of adjustment is offered on the next screen – scroll to make any changes (we'll increase contrast to the maximum allowed, +2) and push "OK" to implement the change.

Olympus E-420
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After making the change, we're returned to the original display, but note that the "C" section now indicates "+2" instead of the previous "0."

Olympus E-420
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Display/Viewfinder

The 2.7-inch LCD monitor is composed of approximately 230,000 pixels and offers 100 percent coverage of the field of view. It is adjustable for brightness through 15 settings. The monitor is a little better than most monitors during use in bright light, but still can be difficult to see, particularly if smudged.

The view finder offers 95 percent coverage of the field of view and has a diopter adjustment to help with varying degrees of eyesight acuity.


PERFORMANCE

The E-420 offers good overall performance in its role as the Olympus entry-level DSLR, particularly in good lighting conditions.

Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Timings and Shutter Lag

The E-420 starts up fairly quickly – I was able to start the camera, acquire focus (in good light), and take a shot in as little as 1.5 seconds. Shutter lag is in the vicinity of .05 seconds, and time to acquire focus and shoot is about .5 seconds. All of these times were achieved in moderate to good lighting conditions.

Olympus claims a continuous shooting rate of "approximately" 3.5 fps. I managed 4 fps with the 50mm/f2.8 lens in good light. Folks who plan to make use of this capability and shoot RAW may want to consider going to a high-speed memory card for a faster in-camera write speed.

I set up the E-420 to shoot a large/fine JPEG and RAW image simultaneously, then fired in continuous shooting mode until the camera filled the buffer and stopped capturing images: this turned out to be 6 images. Using a 40x CF card, the E-420 took 13.65 seconds to clear the buffer; 133x and 300x cards each took about 8 seconds. If your shooting won't include RAW, a standard card will work fine, but if you expect to push the buffer's limits with continuous RAW sequences, a 133x card will completely clear the buffer quicker. Download times to a computer would also benefit from the faster cards as well.

Auto Focus

While the E-420 offers good AF acquisition times for an entry-level product in moderate to good light, it struggles a bit in dim light. There is no dedicated AF assist lamp per se, but the built-in flash will act as such if it is deployed. Even with the flash functioning for AF assist, the E-420 generally took about 2 seconds to acquire focus in dim conditions; once it acquires focus, subsequent shots at a similar range find focus coming much quicker. If you're able, try to manually focus the camera on your subject in dim conditions to get the lens in "the vicinity" before using AF to fine tune the focus (but make sure you've set the AF mode to one that permits auto and manual focus via internal menu or the Super Control Panel – AF only is the E-420 default value).

While the E-420 uses 3 AF targets for auto focus, it can make use of 11 targets for Live View AF in Imager AF, the default setting. There are also Sensor AF and Hybrid AF modes available for Live View.

I'm not a fan of live view in DSLRs, despite the fact that both my newest Nikon DSLRs have it, and the E-420 has done nothing to change my mind. It's certainly a "nice to have" option for those cases where use of the viewfinder is impractical, but the focus acquisition and/or shutter lag times in live view with any of the AF modes make it of use primarily for stationary subjects. Imager AF required as little as 1 and up to 2 seconds to acquire focus, with about .5 seconds of shutter lag after that; Hybrid AF about 2 seconds to acquire and .7 seconds shutter lag; Sensor AF took anywhere from 2 to 3 seconds to complete the shot.

Users transitioning into this DSLR from compacts where they used the monitor for composition and shooting would be well advised to make the viewfinder their primary composition tool with this (or any) DSLR.

Flash

The E-420 flash produced good color quality and recycle time was very good. Less than full discharges would recycle in a second or less, with seemingly full discharges taking about 2 seconds.

Olympus E-420
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The flash will deploy automatically only in auto shooting mode, and only if "Auto Pop Up" has been enabled via internal menu. Manual deployment of the flash is required for all other shooting modes.

Image Stabilization

No image stabilization, at least of the mechanical kind that Olympus builds into their higher-end camera bodies, makes its way into the E-420. There is a "digital image stabilization" shooting mode in the scene menu, but this merely ramps up the ISO to maintain faster shutter speeds as a means to try and reduce the impact of camera shake on image quality.

This brings into focus the ongoing debate over camera body versus camera lens stabilization – Canon and Nikon go with the lens version, Olympus with the body. At the entry level, the most basic Canon or Nikon can have stabilization by mounting a stabilized lens, but the Olympus is out of luck. Once an Olympus user moves up into a stabilized body, any lens mounted benefits from the stabilization, while the highest-end Canon or Nikon body still needs to mount a stabilized lens.

Battery Life

Olympus estimates the battery life at approximately 500 shots using the viewfinder. I've shot a mixed bag of flash, viewfinder and live view shots totaling about 350 so far, and the battery fuel gauge has just moved below half. Carrying a spare battery is still a good idea, however.


IMAGE QUALITY

I had the ultra-thin Olympus 25mm f/2.8 and standard 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses available for this review, and images produced by the E-420 with either lens were quite satisfactory at default settings.

Olympus E-420
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I would personally prefer a bit more sharpness than was apparent at default, a condition easily remedied with a couple quick changes. Here are shots in the Vivid picture mode at default settings and with saturation and sharpness dialed up to the maximum.

Olympus E-420
Vivid setting, default sharpness (view large image)
Olympus E-420
Vivid setting, maximum sharpness (view large image)

Suffice it to say anyone can pick up an E-420 and expect to produce nice images with the default settings, while at the same time having the ability to modify image parameters to suit virtually any user.

Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Exposure, Processing and Color

There are 5 exposure metering options available with the E-420:

The ESP metering mode did a good job overall with most scenes, although like many cameras it would lose highlights in some extremely high contrast situations.

I found color rendition was pleasing and accurate at default settings across a range of lighting conditions from cloudy overcast to broken clouds and sun and fully clear skies. In addition to the Vivid picture mode illustrated in the section above, the E-420 also provides Natural, Muted, Portrait and Monotone picture options. Here's what the other three colored options look like:

Olympus E-420
Muted (view large image)
Olympus E-420
Natural (view large image)
Olympus E-420
Portrait (view large image)

Images may be captured in either the sRGB or Adobe RGB color space.

White Balance

Auto white balance worked well in the E-420, reproducing perhaps a bit warm with incandescent light, but quite good overall. There are 8 preset WB settings available, as well as a custom setting, but it's very tempting to just let the camera do the work unless you're in a predominantly incandescent environment.

Sensitivity and Noise

The E-420 provides satisfactory noise performance and color rendition across its normal ISO range.

Olympus E-420
ISO 100
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Olympus E-420
ISO 100, 100% Crop

Olympus E-420
ISO 200
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Olympus E-420
ISO 200, 100% Crop

Olympus E-420
ISO 400
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Olympus E-420
ISO 400, 100% Crop

Olympus E-420
ISO 800
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Olympus E-420
ISO 800, 100% Crop

Olympus E-420
ISO 1600
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Olympus E-420
ISO 1600, 100% Crop

Examination of the crops show 100 and 200 ISO to be clean and fairly indistinguishable from one another; there is a hint of noise showing up at 400 and certainly at 800, with a more dramatic jump from 800 to 1600, but the high settings are perfectly usable. Color fidelity holds quite well across the range as well. In spite of lots of concern over Olympus's use of the smaller Four Thirds sensor, there are really no nasty surprises with the E-420 as ISOs move through the normal range.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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Olympus E-420
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CONCLUSIONS

The Olympus E-420 is touted as the "world's smallest digital SLR" and there is no doubt the camera is compact and light – mounting the 25mm lens and ready to shoot with a CF card onboard, my review unit weighed in at just under 18.5 ounces. As DCR.com editor David Rasnake mentioned in his First Thoughts piece on this camera, with the 25mm lens onboard in particular, the E-420 is approaching mid-size ultrazoom territory: 5 x 3.5 x 3.75 inches, versus the Canon S5 IS at 4.6 x 3.15 x 3.06 inches and about 18 ounces. To be fair to the Canon, it does pack a zoom lens featuring a 36-432mm focal length range, while the Olympus is stuck at an equivalent 50mm, but it's still a fairly dramatic example of just how small a full-featured DSLR can be.

Make no mistake about it, the E-420 didn't cut out features or performance on its way to being small. Typical DSLR manual controls and a full suite of automatic modes, a better-than-average continuous shooting rate, live view (if you insist), a generous monitor, on-par ISO performance, and good image and color quality all combine to make this a nice little camera for folks moving into the DSLR field or more seasoned users who want or need good performance in a compact body.

I personally found the camera a bit small for my hands, and the placement of the strap attachment eyelet and ring near the shutter button rubbed my middle finger the wrong way. The camera also had some difficulty acquiring focus in dim light on occasion – perhaps not out of the norm for entry level units, but annoying none the less. All in all, though, there's not much to gripe about on this otherwise capable entry level unit.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Olympus E-420 Specifications:

Sensor 10 megapixel Live MOS, Four Thirds format (17.3x13.0mm)
Lens/Zoom Four Thirds system mount, 2x crop factor
LCD/Viewfinder 2.7", 230K-pixel HyperCrystal II TFT LCD; optical viewfinder
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600
Shutter Speed 60-1/4000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Apeture Priority, Shutter Priority,Manual, Movie, Scene Program, Scene Select
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Landscape+Portrait, Night Scene, Night+Portrait, Children, Sports, High Key, Low Key, Digital Image Stabilization, Macro, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Fireworks, Documents
White Balance Settings Lamp, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade
Metering Modes Digital ESP, Center-Weighted Average, Spot
Focus Modes 3-point TTL phase-difference detection system, 11-point contrast detection AF; Single AF, Continuous AF, Manual Focus, S-AF+MF, C-AF+MF
Drive Modes Single Frame, Sequential
Flash Modes Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, First Curtain Slow Sync, Second Curtain Slow Sync, Fill, Manual, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
Not Specified
Memory Formats CompactFlash Type I/II, Microdrive, xD-Picture Card
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, RAW
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
N/A
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery Lithium ion rechargeable
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Shadow Adjustment Technology, Perfect Shot Preview, Live View, TruePic III image processor