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Olympus E-20 Digital SLR Review

Olympus E-20 Digital SLR Review - Olympus E-20 digital SLR test

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Category : Digital SLRs
Product : Olympus E-20 digital SLR
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Olympus E-20At the very top of Olympus' digital camera range sits the E-20, a fixed lens SLR camera with impressive specifications considering its price of around 1300. Compared to its predecessor, the E-10 the aluminium body and lens are the same with the only changes being to external cosmetics and internal electronics.

Main features

  • 5.0 megapixels (effective) for 2560x1920 pixel image
  • 4x optical zoom (equivalent to 35-140mm)
  • Bright f/2.0-2.4 lens
  • Optical SLR viewfinder, with photographic info incl. focusing screen
  • Raw CCD data, histogram
  • Noise reduction
  • Digital ESP Multi-pattern, spot, centre-weighted light metering
  • Tilt and swivel TFT display
  • Dual memory slots (SmartMedia and Compact Flash Type I/II - with possibility to support Microdrive up to 1GB)
  • Aluminium body
  • E-series accessories available
  • Available on-line for around 1300 or on the high-street for around 1500.

Olympus E-20 back viewThe body feels tough, and has a reasonable weight. The controls are all intuitively placed and the focussing and zoom rings are effective and straightforward to use.

Some people will find the shutter button spongy and lacking the defined two stage feel that more advanced SLR cameras have. The focussing was quick, though you may well struggle using this camera for some action shots. Helping to get around this the manual focusing ring provides quick and reasonably accurate adjustments and is also very useful in low light when the AF could sometimes fail.

Although not using the design of a traditional SLR in the strictest sense the grip, controls and build quality should satisfy most people looking to buy the cheapest digital SLR possible.

Menu system
The menu is controlled by buttons surrounding the colour LCD screen. Generally the functions this menu allows such as playback are slow to operate, even when compared to much cheaper digital cameras. This is one of the main problems with the E-20 and could prove irritating depending on your levels of patience. The best thing is to try before you buy, see how the menus and modes work for yourself and see if it meets your requirements. Olympus have done a great job with the E-20 manual and it is full of useful information all clearly laid out.

Menu Function settings
Olympus E-20 record menu

1. Card setup (delete, format), ISO (Auto, 80, 160, 320), Auto Bracketing (1/3EV, 2/3EV, 1EV), Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV)

2. Sharpness (Hard, Normal, Soft), Contrast (High, Normal, Low), Image Quality (RAW, TIFF, SHQ, HQ, SQ), Time lapse

3. Shutter sound (No sound, Low, High), Warning sound (Off, on), Rec view time (Off, auto, 5 sec), Select IS mode (Interlace Scan)/ PS mode(Progressive Scan)/ Noise reduction

Shooting menu  
Olympus E-20 play menu Start Slide show, Copy images card-to-card, Delete all images from card/format card, Monitor Brightness
Playback menu  

Camera modes
Olympus E-20 dialsAll the usual modes for a camera of this level are there: program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual. To change any parameters you use the dial above the lower mode dial. This is a good system and is quick to operate. Not so quick to operate is the change between recording modes and the playback modes. On a camera costing this much the time taken to move between modes should be a lot quicker.

The histogram feature is useful but basic when compared to some cheaper cameras. The Pentax Optio 230 for example manages to offer a real-time histogram. Overall these issues are of more importance to the hurried photographer than the more casual and slow photographer.

Viewfinder and LCD
Olympus E-20 LCDThe LCD can be flipped out and tilts down 20 and up 90 degrees. The clarity of this display isn't great but the optical viewfinder makes up for this shortcoming.

Olympus ViewfinderThe viewfinder is a pleasure to use compared to the electronic viewfinders on some digital cameras. It falls short of its superiors though, for example, the Canon D30.

To save battery power there is a DC input terminal for an optional power supply. The usual USB and Video output (PAL) sockets are provided with an external shoe type flash terminal, x synchronisation socket and remote controller jack.

Olympus battery gripThe E20 is supplied with two lithium CR-V3 batteries which give good performance but they are costly. A much better solution would be Ni-MH rechargeable batteries which you'll have to buy separately. Battery performance is average, but optional extras will give you more power. The lithium polymer battery set, although pricey, will greatly improve your shooting experience and essential if you want to use a Microdrive. The grip (right) provides the benefit of the Li-po battery, together with improved handling characteristics.

Image quality
Image quality is generally good. Thanks to a sharp lens, images show a high level of detail with no chromatic aberration. The extra benefit of RAW data capture is great allowing optimal image quality without JPG artifacts, but is sadly let down by slow write times. When using the JPG mode the choice of compression ratios mean you can obtain a high level of quality and the camera is faster to operate.

Olympus E20 flashWith a reasonable built-in flash unit and a variety of external accessory options available, the E-20 can be used in a variety of situations that you'd struggle with using a cheaper digital camera. Studio work, for example, could be carried out with great results using the E20, as one of our sample gallery links illustrates.

The E-20's metering system was hard to fault and can be checked using the histogram. Speed of operation could be improved as it takes too long for the histogram to be displayed.

The white balance settings provide adjustment for standard lighting conditions and the manual white balance could be set quickly. Colours were generally well saturated and levels of tonal range and contrast were more than respectable. A let down was the absence of colour adjustment settings in the menu.

Sample pictures

ISO80, 1/400 Sec f/2.0. Although the lens can't match the zoom range of some lesser cameras it makes up for it by retaining a high level of quality throughout, being very sharp and allowing quick manual focusing and fast zooming by the manual rings.

ISO80, 1/200 Sec f/7.1. Detail on this photo shows off the capabilities of the 5 megapixel CCD and lens with brick work being detailed and crisp. At ISO80 you have to look very closely at the image to spot an noise.

On a photo such as this we found the best results would be achieved through the RAW mode, ensuring there were no JPG artifacts. This also offers you a lot more configuration options for white balance, sharpness, contrast and colour correction. It's not suitable to use all the time though due to the large file-size and consequent long write time.

This photo illustrates that the multi-segment metering can't be totally relied upon, producing an over exposed shot. This can be easily corrected in digital imaging software but it's best to have it right in the camera stage.

Links to external E-20 galleries:

E20 photos by Richard Hunt.
E20 photos by Pro photographer Katsumi Oka.

The E-20 is a very capable camera and will be ideal for people looking for image quality approaching pro standards at a reasonable price. The lens, tough light weight body, SLR functionality and image quality should appeal to anyone wanting to buy a serious digital camera. People who already have a collection of SmartMedia or Compactflash cards will appreciate that they can continue using them both.

Negative aspects are the high cost of battery extras and the often slow operation speed. Some people may be put off by the fixed lens but be aware that there are optional lenses to provide telephoto and wide-angle functionality. Click here for some of the available accessories.

For those people who are not constrained by a budget and are considering this camera we'd recommend they first take a look at some of the recently announced digital SLRs such as the Canon EOS D60 and Nikon D100. These cameras although costing around 600 more than the E-20 may provide you a justifiable increase in overall performance.

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Photographs taken using the Olympus E-20 digital SLR

Tree NymphMerano BridgeSilenceStairway to HeavenFruit StallClifton Suspension BridgeClifton Suspension BridgeChurch Door

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