The Olympus E-520 is an upgrade of the E-510, a 10Mp Digital SLR aimed at enthusiast or the first time SLR user with a larger budget. The E-510 was awarded Best Digital SLR 2007-2008 by EISA (European Imaging and Sound Association) and the E-520 has the same easy to use options along with a few improvements over its predecessor and some advanced features borrowed from the pro-spec E3. Are these improvements enough to make you upgrade? Is the camera a better model than competitor options from the likes of Nikon and Canon? Is it worth waiting for an E-540 or whatever? All these and more will be answered here. So first let's look at the specifications of the Olympus E-520.
Olympus E-520 specification
- Built-in image stabiliser for all lenses
- Comfortable viewing with Autofocus Live View
- Excellent dust reduction system
- 100% D-SLR quality
- Professional functions
- 6.9cm / 2.7'' HyperCrystal II LCD
- 10 Megapixel Live MOS sensor
- 3.5fps with up to 8 images in RAW buffer
- Built-In flash and wireless flash control
- 32 shooting modes
- Optional Underwater Case available
Face Detection for perfectly focused and exposed faces
Key differences between Olympus E-520 and E-510
*11.8million pixels on Live MOS (E-510 has 10.9m)
*Three mode IS with Vertical + Horizontal, Vertical Only and Horizontal Only (Two on 510)
*Color temperature on monitor with 15 levels
*High-speed imager AF with 11 points
*AF lock available with AFL button on Live View
*Four Gradation settings (Auto Gradation
*30min bulb option (8min on E-510)
*Anti shock Mirror lock up
*Fast flash sync Super FP: 1/4000sec
*49/100 frames lightbox in playback
*Shadow adjustment and trimming in image editing mode
Key advantages of E-520 over E-420
*Built-in image stabiliser
*Slightly larger with handgrip
- Shadow Adjustment Technology
- Four Thirds Standard
- Compact and ergonomic design
- Bracketing functions
- ISO 100-1600
- AF / AE lock functionality
- Depth of field preview
- Anti-shock (Mirror lock) function
- One-touch white balance
- Perfect image control
- 100% field of view via LCD
- TruePic III image processor
- Detailed playback info screen with histogram
- Hi-speed USB 2.0
The E-520 is in a tough arena, up against the likes of the Pentax K200d, Nikon D60, Canon 450D and Sony A200. With beginner modes, and focusing options this is a camera that could easily convert a compact user to the delights of the world of SLRs, while tempting the early adopters of Olympus digital SLRs to upgrade from their E300 and E20s etc. As it's an upgrade to the E-510, which recently won an EISA award, it's already favoured in the eyes of magazine journalists around Europe.
If Live View is important, that narrows down your choice, if lightweight is important that puts the E-520 in favour and if you're after great battery performance it's ahead there too. It will even take older OM lenses with an adaptor, so it's not being intimidated by Pentax or Nikon on that score.
I'm not convinced we will see an existing Canon owner switch brands, but if you are only lightly invested into a system it's highly possible. So, here's an enthusiast model with a few pro spec features thrown in and some compact camera tempting auto options to give it mass appeal.
Olympus E-520: Modes and features
This second generation upgrade from the original E-500 brings you a mix of already proven features with some tweaks to add icing to the cake. Those who followed the recent E-410 to E-420 update will see similarity with some of the changes here, as Olympus have applied a similar strategy. The rear LCD screen has been enlarged slightly to 2.7in and features HyperCrystal II which makes it really easy to see even in bright light.. A subtle change for those with colour blindness is that body menus have changed from green to blue, while from a more cosmetic approach there's a more classy range of black buttons that were previously grey.
The Live MOS sensor has had a bit of a tweak to improve dynamic range as it did on the E-420. And, like the E-510 it features the same sensor shifting technology found on the E3, meaning you have body based image stabilisation, primarily used to help you get sharper shots with longer lenses or in lower light or wider lenses from very unstable shooting platforms.
The camera shares the same battery as the pro-spec E3 which promises one of the best performances in the E-520's price point.
Olympus have added Face detection and Perfect Shot Preview to make our life easier. These are arguably not features for those who're used to using SLRs and focusing zones will be bothered with, but for novelty factor Face detection is up there. The features are clearly there to attract those who're moving up from a compact camera who are used to such luxuries.
The E-520 sports an impressive 11 point contrast AF, but don't get too excited, it only works with Live View. When using the viewfinder it reverts to three point focus which can be set up to any one of the three points or to auto where the camera automatically selects the point based on subject position.
In Live View you can check depth-of-field preview as well as exposure compensation and white balance you can also see the effects of Face Detection and Shadow Adjustment Technology in real time as well as autofocus changes.
The top plate mode dial incorporates the on/off switch and contains the usual familiar of auto, program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority and manual modes along with portrait, landscape, macro, sports and night portrait program modes. There's also scene selection to choose from 20 different scenes. To take advantage of Underwater Wide and Underwater Macro, without writing off your camera, you'll need the optional PT-E05 underwater case which is waterproof to a depth of 40m.
You have the usual options to set a variety of metering and focusing modes found on almost every SLR but Olympus have a few unique options for experienced users. Spot meter with highlight or shadow being one. This was first introduced by Olympus on the 35mm OM4 and found its way onto the E3 (both pro spec machines) so it's good to see it on a lower priced model. Likewise an anti shake feature, where the mirror lifts at a preset time before the shot is taken - this is becoming a nostalgia trip - mirror lock was a featured included on several OM cameras. So one feature that hasn't appeared is a flash sync socket. You will need a wireless trigger or hot-shoe adaptor if you want to use studio flash.
Not so much a feature of this camera, but one benefit for Olympus in general is the lens range. In just four zooms Olympus can cover a stabilised zoom range from 9mm up to 300mm (18 to 600mm in 35mm terms). This range is covered using the 14-42mm and 40-150mm kit lenses and adding the soon to be released Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm and 70-300mm the combined effort is a huge 33x zoom range. It's something Olympus are, quite rightly, very proud of.
The downside is the Zuiko lens range is lacking in some areas, such as macro where you have just two options from Olympus compared with three from Nikon and Canon. It's the longer 180-200mm that's missing. There's also an absence of a shift lens that Canon and Nikon have, although it is possible to buy a converter and hunt down an old OM Zuiko 35mm. Anyone considering this camera would be unlikely be concerned about either of these omissions. And, as with most camera brands, their are third party options that can be considered to fill any gaps.
The bracketing mode can be set to adjust for not only exposure but focus or white balance too.
Images are stored on CompactFlash, but there's also an xD-Picture Card slot too, so you could shoot images and store in separate locations.
Like other Olympus models the E-520 has the Supersonic Wave Filter to shake dust off the sensor.
Olympus E-520: Build and handling
While producing one of the smallest and lightest cameras in its class has the obvious benefits, it does feel plasticky. This won't matter to those moving from a compact where the extra size will already be something to get used to, but would possibly influence someone holding a variety of models in the camera shop.
Coming from a film background I prefer a substantial camera and this is far from that, but that's a similar story with the Canon EOS 450D - holding either of these alongside the Pentax K200D and you'll feel a difference in favour of the Pentax. I do prefer the E-520's handgrip though, which seems to have been shaped to fit a human hand, unlike the EOS 450D.
Areas that need to be metal are such as the tripod mount, lens mount and battery catch. I like the simple clip open memory card door rather than the locking one found on the likes of Pentax.
The E-520's body is festooned with mode buttons - they're everywhere - and it does take a while to get your head round the system. This is because Olympus have given us various methods of accessing the modes. And once you are familiar it's a really easy system to use, but be prepared to be scratching your head for a while. It really is worth sitting down with the manual for a few hours to get to grips.
I have always liked a front dial that I can adjust exposure with my index/shooting finger. It's absent on the E-520. You have just one dial at the back that is easy to adjust with your thumb but doesn't feel natural to me. What I do like is the incredible number of custom functions. You can assign modes to certain buttons making it easy, for example, to set focus lock or exposure lock together or independently.
There's even a depth-of-field button, although it did take me a while to find that! I reiterate you really do need to spend time with the instruction manual to make the most of this camera. And the manual is quite wordy. They try to mix technique in at the same time which, while being a nice idea, does make accessing help more time consuming than some manuals.
The LCD has a field of view that covers 100% of the frame when used in Live View so you can accurately frame shots to save you time in the computer cropping bits that you didn't see when shooting. 100% viewfinders are only found on expensive cameras so this is a useful second best.
A big thing is made about viewing this high contrast Hyper Crystal II LCD, so we put it to the test. To the right is a shot taken of two cameras, LCD face up, on a window ledge. The Olympus is on the left, the Canon 450D to the right. Both have a preview of a chess board being displayed. The Canon is brighter, but any detail is lost in the reflection (lower section). This would be the case in bright light. The Olympus is easier to see and, as claimed, is higher definition.
Olympus E-520: Flash options
For low-light shooting you can select the built-in flash which has a guide number of 12. Some SLRs stretch to 13 but there's hardly anything in it. At the end of the day it's a small flash that will give you a bit of fill in or exposure for close range shots, but if flash is your thing you need to add a detachable one to the hot shoe, and here Olympus have taken their system into the pro arena by having an optional wireless flash system, like the one on the E-3 where multiple flashes can be fired remotely. Third part options, from the likes of Metz, are also available.
The usual on/off, red eye reduction and auto modes are provided along with 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64 power reduction and the 1/180sec flash speed can be increased to 1/4000sec in Super FP mode with the FL-50R or FL-36R. You also have total control of exposure using flash bracketing or exposure compensation, and for fans of slow sync flash you have first and second curtain options.
The test shot on the right was taken to show the fill-in flash mode. Here it was set at 1/4 power and shows the balance is good, although I would have liked the metering to have coped better with the highlight areas. The camera was set on auto gradation so the whole system is maybe not as clever as Olympus suggest. In such situations you'd need to know to underexpose using the exposure compensation mode, but that defeats the object of the new advanced Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT) features being bragged about.
Olympus E-520: Performance
Olympus E-520 SAT set on auto
We've just mentioned SAT the first test was to see if that that worked effectively. I did two shots, one a fairly untaxing shot and the second a more challenging scene. The first (right) was on auto and is a portrait taken in bright sunlight I would hope that the camera would detect the high contrast and reduce this accordingly. As you can see it hasn't and the model's right side is deep shadow.
And if we then look at the harsh street scene below you will see that in auto it's done a much better job, ensuring there's detail in the pavement, but the shadow of the canopy of trees lacks tone. Switching to highkey has lifted detail in the building. Without reading the manual I would have hoped that if I had a problem (ie high key scene) the camera would compensate when set to high key. Quite the opposite it creates a high key scene. Similarly lowkey has darkened tones reducing the range of contrast.
I recall the Olympus E-3 doing a far better job in auto, so there's probably some lesser technology used here.
I'm arguably being too unfair here, but the sales talk does suggest the E-520 will almost perform miracles with Shadow Adjustment Technology. The camera's metering without these expectations, however, is first rate. I rarely shoot on a camera and obtain 100% correct exposure, but here it did in everything I threw at it. The metering system coped with just about everything accurately. From backlit high contrast to low light interiors. And check out the shot to the right. Few cameras (including pro models) would get this shot better, where sun is reflecting off a highly reflective building. Normally this would be totally unusable. Here you can see detail in the shadow areas. Maybe SAT woke up!
Being able to shoot a sequence at 3.5fps with up to eight images in the RAW buffer is an improvement over the 3 frames of the E-510. The shutter sound is less whiny than the Canon 450D's.
When using Live View the focusing is sluggish, always going out of focus first before it settles. While it's an advance over those that focus before the Live View is activated it does slow you down. It's the same on all brands and no doubt this will be improved in the future, but early adopters often have to compromise to get new features. Having AF in Live View puts it one step above the competition, and if you're a macro photographer it has a very nifty feature that enlarges a pre-selected area of the scene by 7x or 10x to aid manual focus.
The Live View autofocusing may not be perfect, but being able to set up the custom function to focus manual with a 10x magnified screen on any part of the scene is brilliant feature. Check out the shot of the pen nib below. I've included a shot where autofocus was used and then a version where I've focused manually. Click on each image to see the full size version.
Olympus E-520 Live View Autofocus
Olympus E-520 Live View manual focus
The E-520's conventional focus system is a different story, fast and very accurate. I pointed the lens at various subjects and it performed as well as higher spec cameras from Canon and Pentax. I tend to use the centre point for most photography so don't feel restricted to a larger number, but three focusing zones for a camera of this spec is stingy.
|The Live MOS Sensor provides a very good accuracy of colours, tonal range and resolution
There's just a small amount of fringing of colours evident if you really magnify the image. Above left is a display of fruit under the shade of a canopy. There's good saturation and colour range displayed here. The shot to the right illustrates the fringing - if you open the full size version and magnify the dome's pillars to the left.
Image Stabiliastion (IS) is a feature that's on the E-510 and pro-spec E3. Being body based it means that any lens fitted to the camera can benefit. While most manufacturers with lens based IS systems concentrate on the telephoto end, you can shoot with ultra-wide on an Olympus. I spoke with one pro who shoots from the back of a motorbike and welcomed the IS system when the E3 was launched, as he uses wide-angles while shooting from the back of a moving bike.
To check to see if the camear can cope with four steps I shot a door across a corridor with and without IS and magnified a sign on the door. The results are below.
|The door above was taken across a corridor with IS turned off using the 40-150mm set at 150mm (35mm equivalent of 300mm) The exposure with ISO100 was 1/8sec at f/5.6. The area indicated by the red outline is then shown to the right at 100% and it's very blurred as a result of handshake, even though I was determined to hold it solid. The shots below these were taken with IS switched on. The left hand side at 1/8sec and the right hand side at ISO200 to get a faster shutter speed of 1/15sec. This is almost five f/stops slower than the 1/300sec that is typically a safe speed to use on a lens of this magnification. So Just ike the E3 it's a thumbs up for Olympus' IS system!
Red and blue have been given a decent amount of boosting with the mono tones looking balanced. The skin tone is more pink than skin but isn't too shocking.
| The colour of the skin and wall behind compared to the portrait shot shown below shows a red cast applied to warm the image.
The flash has worked quite well. It's not over exposed any areas, put some nice catchlights in the eyes and filled in the shadows found on the shot without flash.
A cooler tone to the Aperture-Priority shot. White balance on all portrait shots was set to daylight.
A miserable day reduces any kind of contrast so fringing would be minimal anyway, but none is showing on the white bars. Good detail in the foreground and the landscape mode has boosted the greens nicely. Landscape mode has set the aperture to f/4.
Deleting photos is a quick process, zooming in on pics equally fast and what is really impressive after using a Pentax for years is the speed you the image preview appears after a long exposure. One of the real benefit of the Live MOS sensor in my view
Olympus E-520: Noise tests
The E-520 has a sensitivity range of ISO 100-1600 with a custom function option to limit the auto setting where it decides what ISO to set. This is useful if you never want it to stray over, say, ISO400. In low light the camera will increase ISO to 400 and then open up the aperture or reduce the shutter speed to reach correct exposure. TruePic III image processor helps produce very impressive low noises shots as you can see here.
The ISO100 test.
The ISO200 test.
The ISO400 test.
The ISO800 test.
The ISO1600 test.
Olympus E-520: Verdict
First impressions are important, as that's where most of us make a decision in the camera shop. As soon as I picked up the camera I was on the wrong footing. Had someone forgot to add the meat to the flesh? The light weight sent out the wrong signal. Then I tried Live View and was instantly disappointed by the slow focusing speed. Yes it's one of the few that has AF in Live View but I couldn't help wanting something that didn't hunt around while using it. And to top it all I got confused with the menu system.
It took me a while to become familiar with the Olympus E3 and as I had't handled that for a while I'd forgotten the different system. So It's not going well. But then as I start to take photos, switch off Live View and get back to using the real camera I begin to see that there's a very impressive set of features housed in a mid-priced camera.
As the images start to build up on the memory card I'm seeing a very good metering system that delivers consistently accurate exposures, a budget lens that's razor sharp, and a collection of features that can adapt to any scene. Then as I go through the manual I start to get a feel for custom features, adapting the camera exactly to my needs and it starts to become clear that there's a beast in this featherlight package.
Then, back in the test lab, and playing with the Live View more, I start to see the incredible benefit of the MF system and magnification in Live View. I'm suddenly all ears, sorry eyes.
Image proceesing is superb, noise minimal, sharpness is good, exposures are 100% and the IS system is a lifesaver. Overall a very impressive piece of kit worthy of its price.
Olympus E-520: Plus points
10x magnification in Live View
Long lasting battery
LCD easy to view, even in bright light
Impressive low noise at ISO1600
Variety of custom functions
Olympus E-520: Minus points
No front exposure dial
AF slow in Live View
Menu not as intuitive as some
The Olympus E-520 costs around £397.99 and is available from Warehouse Express here:
Olympus E-520 & 14-42mm