Olympus E-420 Digital SLR Review

Olympus have done it again. They've released a successor to a previous DSLR that looks the same but has changed enough for Matt Grayson to not be able to copy and paste.

|  Olympus E-420 in Digital SLRs
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Along with the E-520 reviewed by our Pete, the E-420 has Live-View that doesn't blank out when focusing.

Olympus E-420 Olympus E-420: Specification

  • Resolution: 10Mp
  • Sensor type: 4/3 Live MOS
  • Lens mount: 4/3
  • Metering system: 49 zones Multi-pattern Sensing System
  • Frames per second: 3.5fps
  • ISO min: 100
  • ISO max: 1600
  • Screen size: 2.7in
  • Card format: CompactFlash card (Type I and II), Microdrive and xD picture card
  • Battery model: BLS-1
  • Weight: 380g
  • Size: 129.5x91x53mm (without protrusions)
  • Resolution: 3648x2736
  • Aspect ratio: 4:3
  • Autofocus system: 3point, Automatic and Manual selection for contrast detection
  • Exposure modes: AE/P/M/A/S/Scene
  • Screen resolution: 230,000 dots
  • File formats: JPEG/RAW
  • Connectivity: USB2.0 Highspeed, Combined V & USB Output
  • Flash type: Built-in pop-up, Hot shoe
  • Flash guide number: 12
  • Flash metering: TTL
  • Flash sync speed: 1/180second
  • Image stabilisation: No
  • Integrated cleaning: Yes
  • Live view: Yes
  • Shutter speed max: 1/4000second
  • Shutter speed min: 60second

Coming in at £379 with the 14-42mm lens, 10Mp sensor and Live View, the E-420 is sat at the classification reserved for consumers entering the DSLR arena for the first time and want to ease their way into it.

For £20 more, you could consider using a bridge camera which gives you all the features of a DSLR without the interchangeable lens. The Fujifilm S100fs costs £399 and has 11Mp and a zoom that ranges from 28-400mm.

The Sony Alpha A200 is now £339 with the 18-70mm lens has the same pixels as the Olympus and also enjoys good lenses as it incorporates Minolta's old lens system. It also employs Sony's association with optical specialists Carl Zeiss.

Olympus E-420: Modes and features

Perusing the review of the E-410, the physical changes to the layout of the E-420 are so small they border on insignificance which is great if you're a current E-410 owner wanting to update.

Olympus E-420 The few small differences that do exist on the outside are the screen being resized to 2.7in, the buttons on the back being shinier than previously and the green lettering has been changed to company blue. The thumb pad has changed shape slightly pushing the navigation pad lower and the USB/Video out has been combined into one creating a thinner port.

The top plate has the flash button on the right of the hotshoe joined by the drive button for self-timer, continuous and remote shooting. The hotshoe is dedicated to the Olympus standard so using a dedicated flash gun will work with the TTL metering of the camera and adjust its power accordingly.

The mode dial is in the same place just on the other side of the pentaprism with the pre-programmed options of Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Nightshot and Scenes if you turn it clockwise and the programmable PASM modes if you turn anti-clockwise. The power switch is sat under the mode dial in a space-saving Ikea way. The small wheel at the back is for adjusting shutter speeds in Shutter-Priority or Manual and the aperture in Aperture-Priority or Manual when the Exposure Compensation button is pressed.

Exposure compensation is found a gnats hair from the shutter release. When its not being used to adjust the aperture, it's used for increasing or decreasing the light entering the lens.

The back of the camera has been kept as simple as possible with only six access buttons adorning it. The left side of the screen has four of them for playback of images, deleting them, main menu and rotating the information on screen. An AEL/AFL button is tucked away to the right of the viewfinder with the display button to the right of the screen which enables the Live-View feature.

Olympus E-420The left navigation button has an "fn" symbol denoting a function menu. It doesn't actually enter into any menus but shows you what options on the back screen are covered in the function area. If you want it to do more than just look pretty, you can assign a function to the button for quick access and this is done in the main menu.

Information on the screen is vast but not confusing with the top right showing the shutter speed and aperture and the current selected mode in the top left. A large blue band separates the top of the screen from the bottom with the date and time and a few other functions showing such as the Noise Reduction and Flash status.

The other functions on the screen can be accessed by pressing the OK button found in the centre of the navigation pad.

These functions are to make life easier for picture taking and includes simple features such as ISO, White Balance, Continuous Shooting, AF modes, Metering, Quality and card choice between CF or xD.

There are also a few other features that are more in-depth than the usual suspects such as Colour Tone, Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Gradation and even a manual override for White Balance colour temperature.

The Olympus E-420 isn't designed to offer tonnes of features and these days, the ones included in it are classed as standard.

Olympus E-420: Build and handling

Lightweight but sturdy, the Olympus E-420 differs from its bigger brother by the distinct lack of a hand-grip but it's a feature that's been retained from the E-410. The screen is bright and works well in sunlight, though not perfectly. When the camera is in Live-View the mirror doesn't flop back down to focus which is a great improvement on other models with this feature.

The Zuiko lenses are well known by now but if you're unfamiliar with them then you'll be happy to know that they were designed from the ground up to work especially with the four thirds system. The four thirds name comes from the size of the sensor. It's distinctly smaller than other sensors found in cameras by other manufacturers. This was originally thought to cause a potential problem with noise which is what a smaller sensor usually spells. However, this has never been a problem as the Olympus DSLRs have the Trupic Turbo dedicated processors fitted to reduce noise and process images faster.

Because of this smaller sensor, focal lengths have a 2x magnification instead of a 1.5x or 1.6x. This makes calculations easier for those of you who, like me, are terrible at maths. The disadvantage of this is that wide angles need a wider lens which is why the standard is a 14-42mm as this will be a 28-84mm in 35mm terms. The advantage however, is that telephoto lenses go further: A 300mm lens goes to 600mm instead of the 450mm found on other lenses.

Olympus E-420: Flash options

Olympus E-420The built-in flash is activated by pressing the shiny, silver flash button on the left shoulder of the camera. Pressing it again will access the flash options which are Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Flash On, Flash Off, Slow with Red-Eye, Slow Forced On, Slow Forced On with two flashes. Finally, there are four options of firing the flash with different power outputs of Full, Quarter, 16th and 64th power.

The menu also holds some secrets to the flash. The second tab for shooting options has the RC mode to be switched on or off and below that is Flash Compensation.

In the custom menu two more flash options are available: One is for disabling the automatic pop-up of the flash and the other is for coupling the Flash Compensation with the Exposure Compensation.

Olympus E-420: Performance

Olympus E-420
The colour chart test.

Olympus E-420

The Olympus E-420 has given the usual treatment to the primary colours by boosting blue, red and green. Yellow is nice and bright but I don't like the colour of the skin tone square as it looks a bit murky.

The mono tones are balanced nicely, but I can't help but think that the whole image has a slight cast to it. The picture was taken under studio lighting with the white balance set to tungsten after tests revealed the auto white balance not getting it quite right.

The macro feature works best with a macro lens and Olympus produce a fine 50mm 1:2 version.

However for the beginner who doesn't necessarily have the funds for extra lenses, the kit lens can manage a close focus of approximately 25cm. Not even the slightest near a macro result so if you want to get closer, you may want to consider close up adapters or the Olympus MF-1 manual adapter for attaching cheaper manual lenses which can be bought second hand.

In Landscape mode, the green has been boosted and if any blue were in the sky, I'm sure it would be boosted too. Despite the lack of contrast available from a bright day, the white bars set against the darkness of the lock usually show something up if fringing is a problem. When enlarged more than full size, a slight tinge can be seen, but it's unlikely you'll do this to your photographs, so it doesn't seem too much of a problem.

Olympus E-420
The Landscape test.
Olympus E-420
Vivid colour.
Olympus E-420
Natural colour.
Olympus E-420
Muted colour.

In the top right corner of the quick access menu on the rear of the screen, the Olympus E-420 has a colour definition menu where you can alter the amount of saturation as a set value. There are four colour parameters and monochrome. Three of the options are above with the fourth being portrait, I didn't feel it appropriate to use on a landscape shot. The Vivid shot is in the top right and shows significant saturation of the greens and an over exposure of the rocks in the foreground.

The Natural setting is in the bottom left of the table and is the standard setting for picture taking while the Muted setting gives a lighter colour to the leaves and also brings some detail into the rocks in the foreground suggesting slight under exposure.

If these settings are too over the top for you, the on-screen menu offers you the ablility to change the Saturation, Contrast, Sharpening and Gradation manually.

Olympus E-420
Manual flash at 1/4 power.
Olympus E-420
Manual flash at 1/16th power.
Olympus E-420
Manual flash at 1/64th power.

Horses are great unless they're bearing down on me trying to eat a camera that I don't own. In that situation, I prefer to beat a hasty retreat.

Luckily, I wasn't too far from the stile and the horse was stopped in its tracks. Conveniently for me, the stile was under the canopy of a tree and so the horse was silhouetted against the bright background of the field it was in. I flipped the flash up to get a shot using fill-in flash as the E-420 has a manual setting where the flash can be restricted to a lower output.

Some mathematics have to be included with these settings but for illustration purposes, I've kept the camera at the same settings to show the difference in illumination.

The formula is: Guide Number (GN) multiplied by the ISO sensitivity divided by the distance to the subject in metres equals the aperture value.

The chart in the manual has to be used to know what the ISO sensitivity value is (eg, ISO400 = 2.0) and the Guide Number for the amount of light (eg, 1/4 power = a GN of 6). So my shot at 1/4 strength 1m away at ISO400 achieves an aperture of f/16. However I felt that I wasn't quite 1m away, so I dropped the aperture by a stop and got a more balanced result.

The great thing was that the horse wasn't in the least bit frightened by the flash and simply sauntered off when he got fed up.

While I was in the woods, I found a nice area that had a mixture of light and dark so I tested the metering. I shot the same scene using Centre-Weighted, Spot and Pattern settings. I focused the shot on the leaves in the foreground to the left of the frame and to make it fair I metered with the leaves in the centre of the frame in each instance.

Interestingly, Spot has given roughly the same results as Centre-Weighted in this instance with a slight boost in exposure on the Spot mode image as the Centre-Weighted shot has a little more contrast in the ripples on the water.

Pattern metering has worked the best here taking samples from separate areas of the shot and working out the best exposure. The low-key areas are less exposed than the Spot and Centre-Weighted shots, but not to an unusable degree, and the high-key area is much more balanced with little over exposure from the sunlight or the reflection on the water's surface.

Olympus E-420
Centre-Weighted metering.
Olympus E-420
Spot metering.
Olympus E-420
Pattern metering.
Olympus E-420
Portrait mode.
Olympus E-420
Portrait mode with flash.
Olympus E-420
Portrait in Aperture-Priority.

I took a series of portrait shots using the camera's portrait mode and and Aperture-Priority mode to see what the E-420 does to skin tones when it's taking pictures of people.

The skin is definitely softer than Aperture-Priority, which is nice but also serves to lose definition in the hair which I'm not all too impressed about. The flash has brought that detail back out and given a spread of light that's balanced and complimentary.

Aperture-Priority has gone brighter on the highlights but has brought out the detail that lacks in the portrait shot without the use for flash.

Olympus E-420: Noise tests

Like its bigger brother, the E-420 is fitted with the Trupic Turbo III processor and so produces really good results at low ISO. That aside, I'm actually very impressed with the resolution of the high ISO images too.

The E-420 is limited to ISO1600 which is unfortunate as the camera has the potential to go much higher. ISO400 only shows a fraction of noise coming in on the grey card at full enlargement and I'm being picky here.

Download the images for yourself because I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Olympus E-420
The ISO100 test.
Olympus E-420
The ISO200 test.
Olympus E-420
The ISO400 test.
Olympus E-420
The ISO800 test.
Olympus E-420
The ISO1600 test.

DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Olympus E-420.

Olympus E-420: Verdict

For the beginner in photography, the Olympus E-420 is a very capable camera that will accept some extremely good lenses made by Olympus, Leica and Sigma as the FourThirds system is used by a number of companies allowing you to interchange between them.

There are enough features to give a user who's new to DSLR photographer plenty to play around with and evolve their skill and current owners of a mid-range model such as the E-520 could look at this as a suitable lightweight back-up body.

Olympus E-420: Plus points
Small and lightweight
Great noise control
Uses FourThirds standard

Olympus E-420: Minus points
Lack of a grip





The Olympus E-420 costs around £379 with a 14-42mm lens and is available from the ePHOTOzine shop here.


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Photographs taken using the Olympus E-420

Colour bytesA balanced partnershipBerriesOrb floaterHugsThe AwakeningWell - look at you :o))A red-hot tipNight owlExiledNurturingOut of this worldFIFOOkay - PLAY BALL !!!!!Constellation

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