What happens when entry-level is no longer entry-level? We've been pondering this quasi-philosophical question for awhile - ever since the major players in the DSLR world went from building one camera under $1000 to rounding out a lineup with two or three models in this segment. By what standards do you judge a camera that sits squarely between the once-clear consumer and enthusiast categories? For that matter, what do you even call these new "higher than entry-level but not quite prosumer" cameras?
With two DSLRs already positioned squarely in the entry-level category, as well as a recently released prosumer model, we were a bit surprised to learn that Olympus would be the latest manufacturer to add a mid-level camera to their rapidly expanding DSLR stable. On the one hand, with all the buzz around video capture making its way down to this category, the recently announced Olympus E-620 may not strike a chord with gadget geeks looking for the latest thing. At the same time, the inclusion of a slew of new technology developed for Olympus's high-end E-30 suggests that this camera might just have a few noteworthy tricks of its own up its sleeve.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The technologies inside the E-620 will be most familiar to those who know Olympus's prosumer model, the E-30. Size-wise, though, the E-620's closest sibling in Olympus's lineup is the tiny E-420, coming in just slightly larger all around than Olympus's smallest entry-level model. In this way, Olympus's new model does what a lot of upper entry-level DSLRs do, taking key technologies from an advanced model and grafting them into smaller, lighter bodies. But with a footprint almost identical to the nearly pocket-size E-420, the E-620 takes smaller and lighter a step beyond most of its rivals - making it a good match against Panasonic's well-rounded Micro Four Thirds model, the G1, in more than one respect.
For a quick run-down of the E-620's basic specs and features, check out our previously posted hands-on preview video of this model.
In terms of carry-overs from the E-30, the E-620 covers most of the bases. New 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor and TruePic III+ processor? Check. Tilt and swivel LCD? Check. E-3 derived, 11-point auto focus system? Yep. Art Filters, multiple aspect ratio shooting, in-camera multiple exposures, and even mechanical image stabilization? Sure enough, even the majority of the E-30's highly touted, creativity-unleashing features make the transition from Olympus's prosumer contender. In short, if the E-30 appealed to you, but you were turned off by its bulk, its relatively high cost, or both, a quick run-down of the E-620's functions and features suggests that this camera packs in the overwhelming majority of both the technical and creative tools that set its prosumer sibling apart from its peers.
Other key features include both a hot shoe and wireless control for up to three groups of compatible Olympus wireless flashguns, as well as a Four Thirds system lens mount - providing compatibility with current Four Thirds lenses from Olympus, Panasonic/Leica, and Sigma. The bigger news in this case is that behind that lens mount, you'll find that the E-620's sensor is mechanically stabilized. Given the camera's compact dimensions, packing in in-body IS was no small feat (the E-420 didn't feature IS), and for the moment, Olympus can still lay claim to building the world's smallest DSLR with mechanical image stabilization.
Externally, build quality is impressive as well, with textured plastic providing a nice feeling under hand on the camera's working surfaces. Buttons, knobs, and doors all feel tightly anchored, as does the camera's top-mounted multifunction control wheel. Even the "swing and swivel" display mount feels solid - at least as tightly constructed as the E-3's display mount, in fact. For a sub-$800 camera kit, the E-620 easily stands up to the build quality standards set forth by the best built models in this class.
The E-620 gets its power from a proprietary lithium-ion battery - the same one that powered the E-420 - and stores images to either a CompactFlash card or Olympus's proprietary xD-Picture Card memory type. You'll find separate slots for each memory type beneath the side-mounted card door.
Ergonomics and Controls
With its striking similarity to the E-420 - as with basically all current Olympus models, the control layout follows a single system-wide basic formula - navigating the E-620's ins and outs will be simple enough for transitional Olympus shooters. In trying to get up to speed on the control layout, those unschooled in Olympus's user interfaces expressed concerns we've heard before about buttons that are too small and too numerous. Those with big hands may also find the overall ergonomic experience here unrewarding: in spite of the fact that it's both light and provides a much more ample grip area than older "flat front" Olympus DSLRs, the fact remains that there's simply not much unoccupied surface area for your fingers to rest on with this camera.
Even finding the camera's small size and even smaller buttons hard to come to terms with, I was able to quickly re-adapt to Olympus's way of doing business. As we've said over and over, serious shooters tend to come to appreciate what may seem at first blush like "button clutter" to the uninitiated: in the case of the E-620, button position is generally logical and accessible (though I will note that I don't like the fact that the flash settings button, which sits on the top deck to the left of the flash and prism, can't be actuated with your right hand), and having direct access to commonly changed exposure and performance settings is an asset rather than a liability.
Menus and Modes
Continuing a theme from the previous section, Olympus menus can be a bit of an "acquired taste." The E-620's page menus can be a bit difficult to deal with in spots: things aren't always where you might expect to find them when it comes to the gray area between what's a shooting option versus a master or "setup" option, for instance. But while Olympus hasn't fundamentally reworked its UI structure, they did improve things by allowing you to turn off the advanced settings menu - significantly de-cluttering the menu structure when it's disengaged - as well as replacing the visually ambiguous wrench icons for setup menus with a more universally understood gear pictograph for setup options. And we can always hope that some small refreshers this time around on an interface that his been essentially unchanged for years signal a significant overhaul in the offing.
What continues to work well, though, is the E-620's shooting status display, which uses the LCD to provide a wealth of information about the camera's settings. As best we can tell, pretty much every conceivable option - from ISO to image size to noise reduction aggressiveness - is represented on this display, and you can use the d-pad to move around within this interface and change settings as desired. The sheer quantity of information in the E-620's snapshot view can be a little overwhelming, but this kind of quick access to major and minor functions tweaks alike sure beats digging into the menus.
Like most consumer DSLRs, the E-620's modes are a mix of novice-friendly auto exposure options and deep-level control for enthusiasts - with the added twist of Olympus's Art Filters technology. Olympus's latest in-camera processing and emulation system, Art Filters serve up six photo effects, including filters mirroring the look of shooting with a pinhole camera, a soft-focus filter, or on high-speed monochrome film. A complete list of the camera's shooting options is as follows:
Like most DSLRs, if you're looking for fun things to do with your photos in playback, you won't find those options on the E-620. Overall, while the camera's overall shooting experience clearly targets both enthusiasts and general consumers, the E-620's complex heads-up displays, many custom setup functions, and button-rich control layout will find more appeal with (and, at times, engender less frustration among) a slightly more serious and savvy set of photographers. At the E-620's price point, this camera serves up a whole lot of advanced tech, and while this is certainly a boon for serious shooters (especially those with a preexisting investment in Olympus gear), it also presents a steeper learning curve at the outset for shooters coming over from other systems or moving up from a point-and-shoot.
Comparing the E-30's 2.7 inch, 230,000 dot LCD to the simply fantastic screens on competitors like the Nikon D90 and Canon EOS 50D, we felt a little like Olympus had brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight. If the E-30's HyperCrystal II LCD was a little overmatched in the prosumer class, it's much easier to find praise for this same display on the E-620, compared to other entry- and mid-level consumer models. Specs are in keeping with current expectations in this group, and as before, the screen remains fluid in live view mode, and contrasty and vibrant everywhere else.
As before, we also noted a few color reproduction inaccuracies on the display compared to our final results. There's a slightly cool cast here as well that can leave you with some unnaturally warm shots if you spend too much time trying to compensate at time of capture, and predictably, on-screen saturation wasn't as strong as what we got from the final files. Nonetheless, it's a crisp, highly functional display that didn't give us any serious reasons to dislike it during our time with the E-620.
While the display itself may not be top-shelf in every respect, Olympus's articulating mechanism for its screens is. A two-axis hinge on the lefthand side of the screen lets you swivel and rotate the display into just about any position you can imagine - just like on the E-30 and Olympus's other high-end models.
Not surprisingly, this technology helps get maximum benefit from Olympus's live view technology in particular.
With all of this E-30 derived tech coming down to the E-620, costs had to be saved somewhere. One of the more obvious cost-reductions concerns the E-620's viewfinder: while magnification is improved over previous entry-level Olympus models, E-620 shooters are left to settle for a comparatively dark and small finder with 95% frame coverage. It's certainly usable, and generally performs on par with other entry-level viewfinders we've shot through. At the same time, I found myself manually focusing more and more using a zoomed preview from the E-620's live view system instead.
In-viewfinder information runs along the bottom of the frame and is basic, providing information on exposure settings, ISO, focus confirmation, battery life, and the number of shots available in the buffer for continuous-drive shooting.
On the surface, the E-620 appears to take one of our favorite approaches to the problem of designing a consumer DSLR: offer a compact but feature loaded camera at a price that's low enough to keep the model squarely out of serious enthusiast territory - which is to say, well under $1000. Users may have more choice than ever in the "step up" entry-level realm these days, but with so much technology carried over directly from the E-30, we approached the E-620 with the assumption that it would be a powerful camera fit for serious shooters, in spite of its size.
With performance numbers roughly equivalent to what we saw from the E-30 in most respects, the E-620 didn't top the list in terms of speed. No doubt the slower focusing 14-42mm kit lens played a role in the differential between the E-30 and the E-620 in our "straight from the box" AF tests. At the same time, there's a lot of solid performance to work with here.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon Rebel XS
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
|Canon Rebel XS
The 11-point auto focus system sourced from the E-30 was generally reliable, posting excellent numbers in good light in our studio tests. Performance definitely falls off appreciably when there's less light available, though: at longer focal lengths or shooting indoors, the E-620 was more prone to hunting for lock than the best performers in this class. Likewise, continuous focus drive is suitable for casual moving-subject tracking, but low contrast, low light, or high speeds can all give the E-620 more than it can handle in this regard. Given that we've seen similar performance from other current Olympus cameras, this isn't exactly surprising.
|Olympus E-620||6||4.1 fps|
|Canon Rebel XS
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Continuous shooting also did slightly better than expected when working with a high-speed CF. Per our testing, we were also surprised to learn that although the camera's in-viewfinder buffer readout only promises four continuous shots, we were consistently able to get six frames at just about 4.0 fps before the camera slowed appreciably.
Olympus makes a big deal about the live view capabilities of its DSLRs, and with good reason: the E-620, like many of its peers from the manufacturer, has a very sophisticated and relatively easy to use live view system, as well as a crisp, highly flexible rotating LCD. A dedicated live view button provides logical access to the technology, and the live view system's on-screen preview provides lots of information and loads of options (though at times we found navigating the camera's heads-up displays and function selection procedures in live view more than a little onerous).
It's generally agreed these days that no live experience is complete without contrast-detection auto focus. Instead of blacking out the live preview for a second or more to focus and capture a shot, contrast-detection AF uses the camera's image sensor to establish focus (just like a point-and-shoot), allowing you to see your shot on-screen during focusing.
In exchange for no long blackout periods, though, contrast-detection systems tend to give up a significant amount of focusing speed compared to traditional DSLR auto focus. In response to challenges from improving contrast-detection focus experiences from competitors (most notably, Panasonic's hybrid G1), Olympus has rolled out an update to its AF system for live view. But while we saw slightly better contrast-detection AF times on this camera than on previous models, without the live-view optimized Zuiko 14-54mm kit lens from the E-30 in its corner, the default Imager AF (Olympus's term for contrast-detection focusing) setting still averaged over a second to lock focus on a static subject in our studio test.
Counterbalancing focusing performance in live view that is, to say the least, uninspiring, the E-620's live view system is polished and very user-friendly in basically every other way. Like a point-and-shoot, you get a detailed readout of exposure settings in the righthand sidebar when you're shooting with the live preview enabled, and if you're exploring the camera's Art Filters, you'll even get to preview the effect on the display before you capture a shot. For macro shooting, in particular, the ability to magnify an area of the composition up to 10x for manual focusing or focus confirmation is also a nice touch - though getting to some of these more advanced features like the point magnification and live histogram functions is a bit of a tedious process (you use the Info button to cycle through a fairly long list of available options).
Built-in flash performance on the E-620 is about average, with average to slightly slow-ish full-power recycle times and a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100 - all "par for the course" compared to similar cameras at this price. Likewise, flash exposure was as expected from the pop-up strobe: flat, and slightly underexposed across the board, but without other significant concerns.
The E-620's hot shoe provides full TTL communication with Olympus's current flashguns. Additionally, the E-620 is the latest Olympus model to serve up wireless flash control: it's a simple, relatively flexible three-group system, and we had no problems getting the kinds of results we were expecting when triggering both FL-36 and FL-50 Olympus flashes remotely with the E-620.
As noted, an in-body sensor shift mechanism provides image stabilization for the E-620 - an unusual function for an Olympus model this small. A dedicated IS button (which shows just how far Olympus takes the whole "dedicated buttons" idea...) can be used to engage or disengage IS, and select from one of three (normal, plus two panning mode) options for the system.
Finally, the E-620 runs on a relatively slender 1150 mAh lithium-ion battery pack. The pack's slim form and low weight prove to be a double-edged sword when it comes to power depth: Olympus claims 500 shots from the E-620 with live view disabled, but in real world testing with some live view shooting, some flash shots, and image stabilization engaged full time, we were in need of a charger before the shot count crossed 300. The E-620's battery charger itself is also much larger than the one used for the E-30 and E-3 batteries, making it hard to pack, and like previous Olympus chargers, it requires that you tote an external AC cord as well. Olympus has made it known that they'll be bringing a battery grip to market for the E-620, and given the less than stellar battery performance seen in our testing, we're betting some shooters will trade the extra bulk of a battery grip for the prospect of all-day shot capture capabilities.
In the field, the E-620 certainly wasn't flawless. Widely variable AF performance - running the gamut from superior to merely mediocre, depending on shooting conditions - can be frustrating. Conversely, flash control is top-notch here, rivaling the best wireless control systems out there for what it can do: if you've wanted to play around with multi-flash setups, there's a lot to be said for giving Olympus a long look. By and large, how much you appreciate the E-620's capabilities seems to depend a lot on where you're coming from: while at least one point-and-shoot user who tried out the camera during my time with it found it frustrating and obtuse, a few advanced shooters who weren't familiar with Olympus found the camera's many capabilities both entertaining and highly useful.
Lens Mount/Kit Lens
Like all Olympus DSLRs, the E-620 is designed around Four Thirds format standards. Using a sensor that's smaller than the APS-C units in many entry-level models, Four Thirds cameras share a common lens mount standard, theoretically allowing the use of any system lens from any manufacturer. In practice, Olympus and third-party maker Sigma provide the bulk of the current glass for Four Thirds, with just a few options provided by third system participant Panasonic-Leica.
The availability of moderately priced glass - especially wide-angle glass - is a particular concern for all Four Thirds cameras; if you're hoping to do a lot of bargain shopping in the used market to round out your lens collection, Olympus certainly isn't the easiest place to do it. Conversely, the fact that Olympus builds some of the very best zoom lenses on the market means your investment is usually rewarded with super-sharp performance.
Like all Four Thirds models, the E-620 registers a 2x crop factor, meaning the 14-42mm kit lens performs like a 28-84mm zoom in familiar 35mm terms.
Speaking of the kit lens, we've always been favorably impressed with Olympus's 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 consumer glass, and this time around was no exception. The fact that it doesn't provide the (much) more expensive 14-54mm II's Imager AF improvements aside, the 14-42mm is an excellent performer that's capable of some seriously sharp captures in its own right.
Build quality is better than your typical kit lens for this class as well, and the Four Thirds format affords a smaller and lighter build than what you'll find with an APS-C camera's 18-55mm kit optic - a perfect match for the E-620's small all-around dimensions. And given that the kit lens only tacks about $100 onto the total package in this case, if you're new to DSLRs (or new to Olympus DSLRs), the 14-42mm might just offer the most bang for your buck in terms of long-term usability of any package lens deal out there.
When we reviewed the E-30, which sports the same processor and 12.3 megapixel sensor, we were generally very pleased with the shots it produced. Niggles about noise and dynamic range aside, the E-620's big brother produced pleasing, colorful high-res images that looked great on-screen and in print. With this in mind, we expected an equally solid performance from the E-620 in both our studio tests and field shooting.
It's not surprising, then, that the E-620's studio shots show the same basic package of default processing choices that we commented on in looking at the E-30: highlight roll-off is smoother than previous Olympus sensors, and shadow areas are less muddy and blocked up. Colors reproduction is accurate under default settings, and strikes a nice balance between saturation and neutrality. It's worth noting that the E-620's default multi-area metering tended to underexpose shots slightly if left to its own devices; to the positive, though, this seemed to keep highlight clipping more well controlled here than in previous Olympus models, and all of the basic metering options (plus those designed for high- and low-key shooting situations) are available to exercise more direct control over the E-620's exposure.
In-camera processing is the name of the game with the E-620, so if you don't like what you see there are plenty of options for tweaking it, as well as the option to shoot RAW or combined RAW+JPEG. In terms of in-camera processing, the E-620 provides basic presets including Vivid, Natural (default), and Muted color/processing modes.
You can also manually tweak parameters including saturation, contrast, and sharpness straight from the status screen in shooting mode. Olympus's standard array of "gradation" options also allow users to customize highlight-to-shadow balance (with both high-key and low-key presets, as well as normal and automatic settings) to better account for outside-the-norm subjects. For novices, having all of this control - plus all of the options afforded by shooting RAW and processing yourself - may seem a bit overwhelming.
In the same way, not even the E-620's image size or aspect ratio is set in stone. While the camera's Four Thirds sensor yields a 4:3 shot (as opposed to the 3:2 shot from most consumer DSLRs) by default, multiple aspect masks - another E-30 carry-over technology - allow the E-620 to output high-resolution shots at four different aspect ratios.
4:3 aspect ratio (default)
You won't find any of the more advanced models odd international-spec ratios on the E-620, but the camera covers the most commonly requested presets with 4:3 (default/full capture) as well as 3:2, 16:9 ("widescreen"), and 6:6 (square format) options.
2:3 aspect ratio
16:9 aspect ratio
6:6 aspect ratio
Note that the optical viewfinder will always show a 4:3 frame regardless, but if you're shooting in live view mode, the image will be framed out according to the aspect ratio you've selected.
If the E-620's myriad processing options may not exactly be novice-friendly, however, the same can't be said of its Art Filters options. Occupying its own space on the mode dial, the Art Filters processing options provide several unique image looks without the need for post-processing. Dial the camera into Art Filters mode and you get a list of preset options, complete with sample images that give a visual description of how each preset operates.
Shooting in Art Filters modes is about as straightforward as DSLR operation comes. One gripe with the E-30's implementation of this option was that you can't use advanced exposure control settings when capturing shots with Art Filters engaged: it's auto-exposure only in this mode, so forget dialing in your aperture or working in full manual mode.
As for the filters themselves, the image results run the gamut from average to truly excellent. I continue to be impressed with the grainy film filter in particular, which does a reasonably authentic job of mimicking the look of high-speed monochrome film. Likewise, the pop art mode provides a useful super-high-sat shooting option, and those who want to dabble in portraiture will love the built-in soft focus and pin hole filters. The following samples highlight the differences between each of the Art Filters modes.
Pale and Light Color
Overall, we're betting that the Art Filters package will really hit the mark with the E-620's target audience - perhaps even in a way that it might not with more advanced Photoshop-savvy shooters who would consider the E-30. Every filter isn't a home run; in fact, most folks could probably get by with just the two or three truly superior ones. But as a creative tool, ease of use goes a long way in making up for some of the system's minor deficiencies in this case.
Auto white balance under incandescent light is about as expected with the E-620.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Interestingly, though, the tungsten preset takes the correction too far for typical indoor light, resulting in an unnaturally cool cast.
Tungsten White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Both measured and Kelvin temp custom white balance options are available, and in this case, I found the user-set modes even more invaluable than is usually the case for getting natural looking JPEG output from the E-620.
When we reviewed the E-30 a few months back, the general feeling was that its sensor and processing couldn't quite hold their own against some very strong newcomers in the prosumer space. In the context of current consumer models, though, this same performance seems much more evenly matched.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Shots are impeccably clean through ISO 800, with a little softening creeping in at ISO 1600, and appreciably more noise showing up at ISO 3200. That said, I'd have no reservation shooting with the E-620 through at least ISO 800, and even ISO 1600 is very clean and colorful, and sharpens up nicely in post-processing. All in all, pixel peepers will be able to discern some differences at the highest sensitivity settings between shots from the Four Thirds sensor in this model and larger APS-C sensors in many of its competitors. But our experience working with the E-620's output suggests that unless you're looking to make poster prints or do a lot of low-light shooting, this may or may not be a serious concern.
Additional Sample Images
When we reviewed the E-30, we liked just about everything about the camera - except the price. When the E-620 came along, it seemed like exactly the answer we - and, we're betting, a lot of other shooters - are looking for: the E-30's creative advantages for casual shooters and those who don't relish the thought of hours of post-processing, in a camera that's more in line with what your typical student or advanced family photographer is willing to shell out. Likewise, shooters with an investment in Olympus who want to see what the bulk of Olympus's new creative technologies are all about without making the major investment that the E-30 represents now have a low-cost alternative to consider.
It's in no way a sleight on the E-620 to say that this camera could fairly be marketed as "E-30 Lite." Even in an industry where we're used to derivative models and trickle-down technology, the E-620 impressed with just how closely its performance - from shooting speed to image quality - aligned with what we saw from the much more expensive parent model. The E-620 may not have an edge on its strongest competition in measures of raw performance, but with quick continuous shooting, a boatload of processing controls, a full complement of Olympus's latest creative features, and the ability to get plugged in with Olympus's legendary lenses, the E-620 also has some advantages that no competitor can match.
No, there's no video capture, and novice shooters may balk at the camera's many features and modes. But if you're a current Olympus system user, this might just be the backup body you've been waiting for.