by Alex Burack
Review Date: 06/03/08
Basing its digital SLR offerings on the Four-Thirds System, Olympus has produced a whole line of unusually compact digital SLRs suited to entry-level users. The new Olympus E-420 will replace last year's E-410 in the market. As is generally the case with new digital camera models, the E-420 sports a number of enhancements relative to the previous model. Here's a brief list of notable improvements found in the new Olympus E-420:
- Auto Focus in Live View by depressing the shutter release button halfway (Contrast-Detect autofocus)
- New grip on the front of the body for a more secure hold
- Face Detection Technology (Taking advantage of contrast-detect AF)
- Shadow Adjustment Technology for greater detail in the shadows
- Larger 2.7" HyperCrystal II LCD Display - Twice the contrast for better viewing in extreme lighting conditions, broader color gamut displays a greater range of color detail, wider view up to 176 degrees off center
- Perfect Shot Preview - Live exposure effects displayed in a thumbnail view on the LCD for easy selection/adjustment prior to capturing the image
- 10MP Live MOS sensor with improved dynamic range - more detailed images
- Improved Auto WB (white balance) performance with a new algorithm for more accurate color - Similar color reproduction to the Flagship E-3 model
- Increased sequence shooting speed up to 3.5fps
- Wireless flash capability with the FL-36R or FL-56R
The Olympus E-420 began shipping from May 2008.
by Alex Burack
The 10-megapixel Olympus E-420 is a versatile digital SLR, yet is principally point-and-shoot-oriented. Aimed at general shooters upgrading to a more capable camera, its deep feature set emphasizes point-and-click functionality, adding Contrast-Detect autofocus in Live View, and Face Detection Technology; though it also extends aptly to more hands-on shooters. Tagged the "World's smallest digital SLR," the Olympus E-420 body spans just 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 inches, and weighs well under a pound. Its condensed frame, however, may be hard for some to grip.
Applying Olympus's new 25mm f/2.8 pancake lens (equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm SLR), transforms the E-420 into a true pocket-sized digital SLR that you can stow in your jacket and take to the streets. With the "normal" field of view (loosely equivalent to what your eye naturally sees) of the pancake lens, along with the camera's wireless flash control, dust reduction, and +/-5 EV compensation range, the E-420 is also poised to appeal to seasoned photographers in search of a affordable walk-around digital SLR. Starting at just $499.99 (body-only), the Olympus E-420 is priced within reach for both demographics. Two kits are available. The standard kit includes a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED glass lens that performs very well, for $599.99. And a third kit includes the new 25mm f/2.8 pancake lens for $699.99.
Look and Feel. The Olympus E-420 has a low profile and flat form that sits in the hand similarly to a 35mm SLR. The key difference is the weight: at just 13.4 ounces (16 oz with battery and card), the Olympus E-420 is so light it feels a bit toy-like. Trumpeted as "The World's Smallest" digital SLR by Olympus, the E-420 spans 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1-inches, though it's actually slightly heavier than the E-410. I found the additional heft, marginal as it may be, to be beneficial, as the Olympus E-420's lightweight frame presents more handling issues for me than its slight frame/dimensions/diminutive form. The weight becomes particularly problematic when long, heavy lenses are attached, throwing the camera off-balance and forcing your hand to compensate.
Despite the handling challenges, with the application of the 25mm pancake lens, the Olympus E-420 is essentially a pocketable digital SLR system, something a collection of digital SLR shooters have been yearning for. Though the E-420's feature set is clearly tailored to help point-and-shooters step-up to a digital SLR, the inverse is also true: the size of the system (E-420 with pancake lens) puts a highly-capable, interchangeable-lens camera into the pockets of knowledgeable shooters.
Handling and Grip. The Olympus E-420 lacks when it comes to handling. Along with the small frame, the camera's lack of a substantial grip takes a lot away from the shooting experience. Unlike flatter 35mm SLRs, digital SLRs have embraced large, bulbous grips that afford users a sturdy, comfortable grasp on the camera. Beyond just comfort, the grip can actually be the difference between getting a sharp or slightly blurred shot when shooting on the threshold of handheld shutter speeds (e.g. Shooting at 1/40th of a second with the 25mm pancake lens).
A scalloped rubber protrusion (Olympus calls it a "double crescent line") on the front face of the E-420 is an improvement from the E-410's grip. It is strikingly similar to Fujifilm's higher-end F-series point-and-shoots, and only slightly more effective. For many shooters with average-to-large-sized hands, the Olympus E-420's grip still won't cut it.
The curved rubber applied to the front isn't that tall or wide; I found myself often shifting my grip to hold it with the ends of my fingers, rather than grasping it a little further down in a more controlled position. The grip is intended to support the inner portion of your finger as it curls against the camera; however, for it to do so, you'll need to have large hands or long fingers. And in all likelihood if that's the case, the short body will be problematic since your pinky and possibly your ring finger will dangle off the camera body below.
Olympus does balance the rubber contour on the front with a flared segment on the back of the camera, which is coated with textured rubber to help secure your hold.
The main gripe shooters will have with the body is the short frame and small grip. Many will find their pinky finger (and for some, their ring finger as well) dangles off the bottom and leads to a less-than-stable hold. Consumers considering the Olympus E-420 as a primary body should give this some consideration and would be advised to handle the camera with a couple of different lenses prior to purchasing. Unfortunately, the E-420's underdeveloped grip is what helps make it pocketable; there are other small digital SLR bodies out there, but they have a larger grip; and though they're pleasant to shoot with, many prevent these digital SLRs from slipping easily into a pocket.
Controls. The external controls strewn across the Olympus E-420 are styled in a fashion typical of entry-level digital SLRs and almost identical to the E-410. Notable, however, is the lack of icons or text around the navigational pad. Also, the flash button is on the camera's top deck, rather than on the flash/viewfinder hump.
The power switch on the Olympus E-420 is sculpted around the mode dial, just behind and to the side of the shutter button. The mode dial is one of three major controls on the top right portion of the camera. The other two are the exposure dial and the shutter button.
The placement of the power control makes it easier to access than if it were on the camera's back, though not as fast as wrapping the power button around the shutter release, which is common on Nikon and Pentax cameras. The close proximity of the exposure dial makes turning the E-420 on and off a little more difficult, unlike when it's integrated into the shutter release. It may sound subtle, but for me it meant the difference between walking around with the camera off, confident I could turn it on and snap off a shot, or just leaving it on constantly for fear that I'd miss that shot, and draining the battery.
Storage and Power. No longer relegated to just professional digital SLRs, the Olympus E-420 is graced with dual card slots for CompactFlash and xD media. CompactFlash is the conventional form of storage for digital SLRs, typically offering the most in the way of speed and capacity, while the additional xD slot supplies a nice backup for overflow or to split media when shooting RAW + JPEG. I appreciate the inclusion of both media options, and expect previous Olympus shooters, who likely own xD cards, will as well. I'd recommend stocking up on a couple moderately-large (2GB or larger) CompactFlash cards for longer outings, though.
The Olympus E-420 fits a lithium-ion battery with decent stamina, though not stellar, achieving roughly 500 shots on a charge when using the optical viewfinder exclusively. Its endurance drops dramatically when relying on the Live View mode, however. Consumers drawn to the Olympus E-420 for constant, point-and-shoot-like Live View may want to consider an additional battery for longer shoots.
Viewing. Optical viewfinders were a hallmark of SLRs. This is still true, though live-view LCDs are becoming prevalent. The optical viewfinder is still the means by which you get the best speed and performance (response), though it's somewhat subjective which one gives the best view of the scene. There are many users who appreciate the inclusion of a live view LCD, because it allows them to perceive the scene from a slightly more distanced perspective and approximates looking at a print. For many shooters, this will be preferred, and could help visualization prior to the shot. Conversely, there are many photographers who prefer the intimacy of an eyecup. In a sense, it gets closer to the roots of photography, in the spirit of pin-hole cameras, view cameras with cloth hoods, viewing boxes, and even zoetropes. Personally, I prefer this type of interaction with the scene because it lets me filter out the distractions of the surroundings and concentrate only on the image, moving the lens to isolate the action I want to capture. The beauty of the Olympus E-420, and all live view digital SLRs to date, is that they provide both alternatives, and allow the user to select which approach is preferred for a given shot.
Viewfinder. A common knock to previous Olympus digital SLRs in the line are their small, somewhat dim viewfinders. While various technologies have been used (E-330), only the E-3 really puts forth a bright, large viewfinder that meets the demands of enthusiasts. The E-420 follows more in line with previous consumer digital SLR designs. Its Eye-level single-lens reflex viewfinder carries 0.92x magnification and shows about 95% of the captured frame. Its backed by a fixed Mat screen with decent contrast.
Olympus places all of the shooting information within the viewfinder off to the right, and with a 14mm eyepoint, I found I had to push my eye into the cup to see all of the shooting info. The eyecup isn't particularly deep, or particularly comfortable, though Olympus does offer other cups. I didn't have an opportunity to look at those, but the ME-1 in particular looks much more comfortable: it's a circular, Nikon-like cup that magnifies the view an additional 1.2x.
LCD Screen. The Olympus E-420 is primed for Live View functionality. With a 2.7-inch LCD screen composed of 230,000 pixels, the display on the E-420 is ostensibly similar to most contemporary digital SLRs. The screen, however, has been primed to excel in bright overhead conditions, and is endowed with a wide angle of view, purportedly visible to up to 176-degrees off axis. These last two elements are of particular importance when using the Live View to compose images.
With a live feed that comes directly off the sensor, the Olympus E-420's LCD screen can be used to gauge exposure (though using the live histogram is strongly recommended) or white balance adjustments. I found the highly-touted screen had good contrast and tonal response. True to Olympus's advertising, it also performed better than previous models in the line in direct sunlight, remaining visible even with light glaring down from directly overhead. The screen does show an odd, metallic-like sheen in direct light though, the mark of a transflective screen, which can also be quite distracting when you're trying to gauge proper exposure in direct sunlight. The upshot is that it's great for making settings, but difficult to trust when checking images after in direct sunlight.
Live View. Olympus took the lead in bringing Live View capabilities to digital SLRs with the introduction of the E-330 in early 2006. With the E-420, they introduce a hybrid AF system and forge a strong attempt to improve upon it. Unlike the E-330, the E-420's 2.7-inch screen is affixed to the back of the camera body and does not extend and tilt on axis. Articulated displays go a long way toward realizing the potential of Live View on digital SLRs, helping users see areas they themselves can't squirm into, and capture images that would be otherwise unattainable. For instance, if you're trying to get a shot of a speaker at a crowded event and are unable to muscle your way to the front of the crowd, the articulated screen enables you to hold the camera above your head, compose the image, and capture the shot from a higher vantage point. Likewise, you can put the camera on the ground and flip up the screen for an bug's-eye-view, adding interest to otherwise banal scenes. The LCD on the Olympus E-420 does have a wide angle of view, particularly when viewed from above and below the center-point, but it's not the same as an articulated display, which would have made the camera body much deeper and less portable.
With a 100% field-of-view and increased comfort at stake, there's also something to be said about the advantages of using Live View for tripod shooting. Most LCD screens these days show 100% of the recorded composition during framing, while the majority of digital SLR optical viewfinders are in the 95-96% range. For most shooters, the variance will be mostly academic, and is likely to go largely unnoticed; however, for a small portion of tripod shooters, sensitive to the perimeters of their compositions, the 100% coverage offers a significant advantage. Composing images on the LCD screen will also allow you to zoom in on details and inspect areas of the frame in detail without having to zoom the lens in.
Olympus promotes the E-420's Live View foremost to point-and-shooters looking to step up into a digital SLR yet retain a familiar shooting experience. The E-420 marks the first time Contrast-Detect autofocus has graced an Olympus digital SLR camera. It enables point-and-shoot-like autofocusing in Live View mode, with focus engaged by partially depressing the shutter release button. The Olympus E-420 is not the first digital SLR to implement Contrast-Detect autofocus, however: Panasonic's L10, also a Four-Thirds digital SLR, along with Nikon's prosumer-grade D300, and the Canon Rebel XSi all carry it in some capacity. You can expect to see more digital SLRs integrating it in future releases.
Olympus packages the Imager setting with two other Live View AF modes: AF Sensor (phase-detection) and Hybrid AF (a combination of the two), giving you the option to choose the method that works best for a given shot.
In practice, the Olympus E-420's Contrast-Detect setting isn't really all that similar to using a current point-and-shoot camera with the degree of shutter lag that's introduced by the SLR's mirror system. It's a small irritant for casual shooting, though in low light the delay is enough for movement to be introduced and blur the subject. If the subject's moving, it's not likely they will be in the same place in the captured image as they were when you saw the shot on the LCD screen (particularly if shooting sports, or kids), so the real time element of the live view needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Ironically, its inclusion also compromises a core advantage of shooting with a digital SLR: speed.
One of the Olympus E-420's intelligent features in Live View is its auto gain in low light. In dark settings, the LCD goes monochromatic to improve visibility. The black and white appearance helps to remove colored or chroma noise that would be distracting, particularity when the view is magnified. The feature worked to design and did not bother me too much. However, I expect some point-and-shooters who purchase the Olympus E-420 for its compact-like visualization will find it unsettling at first.
Another core benefit of Live View is the availability of a live histogram. The live histogram is really one of the great gifts of digital photography. It gives you true insight to the shot's actual tonal information, as it would be captured. A histogram is always a much better means of judging exposure than using the LCD display. Since the screen itself has variable brightness levels, it isn't calibrated to the exposure and will often mislead shooters to believe the highlights are protected when in fact they are not, or that detail is visible in the shadows when the shot is actually going to be underexposed.
Autofocus (Viewfinder). The discussion of necessary autofocus points usually goes in two directions: those who believe more is always advantageous, feeling the expanded coverage gives you increased speed and control, and those who contend that a single AF point is sufficient for most types of shooting; any more just gives some room for comfort.
With the E-420, Olympus sticks with a three-point AF system that's seemingly less dynamic than some competing digital SLRs in terms of number of points and coverage. By contrast, Canon's XSi supplies nine focus points, while Pentax's K10D has 11. The Olympus E-420's AF sensors are placed horizontally across the frame. The center point was more sensitive than the two side points, though all three were effective in bright conditions, and reliably locked in on subjects with moderate contrast. It was also reasonably quick when using its viewfinder, though not the fastest in its class. Point-and-shooters stepping up from a compact camera, however, will find it offers a pleasant upgrade.
In low light, the autofocus was frustrating. Shooting with a 50mm f/2.0 lens with minimal available light, I found the camera often struggled to find focus, hunting to no success. Also, with some of the Zuiko lenses (I was using Olympus's 50mm f/2.0 Macro ED), focusing was quite loud. Though the camera is small, you can forget about being inconspicuous.
Interface. The Olympus E-420's primary control panel is a virtual status display, overlaid on the LCD screen in most shooting modes except for Live View. In Live View, pushing the select/OK button calls it up. The status display functions more like a monochromatic LCD on a higher-end digital SLR than a camera settings menu, housing primary shooting settings. It's well-organized and intuitive; push the select button to call up the display or to gain access to it, then use the directional buttons to navigate. This setup is becoming more common among entry-level digital SLRs with Live View, positioning the LCD screen as the camera's main control hub (composition, review, setting adjustments), as it is on point-and-shoots. I found the Olympus E-420's design to be consistent with most entry-level consumer digital SLRs, offering convenient and intuitive access to shooting settings, but clearly oriented toward consumers. The interface favors accessibility over speed. Though the settings are displayed on the same screen that shows the composition, the camera needs to flip down the mirror and exit Live View to display them. Conversely, shooting through the viewfinder allows users to render setting adjustments without taking their eye off the scene, but negates the purpose of the status display.
I've found the menu structures on Olympus's digital SLRs have always been bit confounding. The Olympus E-420 unfortunately doesn't innovate enough in this regard; it has a more complicated menu structure than it should for the camera's target user. I will say that the E-420's menus are much more intuitive and will be more immediately familiar to most users than designs integrated into older Olympus cameras, where the initial menu screen just had a few icons that may or may not be familiar to you, leading to all other adjustments. Those who purchase the E-420 will obviously become familiar with the menus over time, though it may take a little longer to work out some of the settings on the E-420 (do they really have to call "mirror lock-up" "anti-shock?") than it would on competing digital SLRs.
An element of the camera's digital interface I greatly value is the ability to tag/mark images in Playback mode. This allows you to batch or globally delete groups of images without having to erase them individually or wipe out the entire card or folder's worth of photos all at once. It's a brilliant feature with seamless integration, drastically simplifying operation and begging the question: why don't all cameras have this?
Features. You can count on Olympus digital SLRs to pack in a dense feature set and well considered control selection, and the E-420 follows suit. It stocks a full array of manual controls: aperture and shutter speed, metering, white balance, ISO, flash exposure compensation, and file size are all adjustable by the user. Accompanying its manual control suite is a collection of intelligent automatic features tailored to point-and-shooters. Notably, Face Detection and Shadow Adjustment Technology make their first appearance on Olympus's consumer-oriented digital SLRs, to go along with 18 Scene Modes. Other key features include a wireless flash system, in-camera editing (including basic RAW conversions), and of course, dust reduction. These are discussed in greater detail below.
Face Detection. Olympus's digital-specific mantra gains further credence with the arrival of Face Detection technology, ushered in with Contrast-Detect autofocus in Live View. Similar to most other digital camera manufacturers, Face Detection has established a presence within Olympus's point-and-shoot line, and with the E-420, it migrates up to higher-end offerings.
Panasonic was first to bring the consumer-oriented feature to Four-Thirds digital SLRs with the L10; the E-420 contemporizes it. The near-pocketable E-420's take on the technology is designed to focus and expose on up to eight faces in the frame at the depression of the shutter. Face Detection is a nice transitional feature for those stepping up to their first digital SLR, and in many ways helps to characterize the E-420 as a point-and-shoot digital SLR.
Face Detection has always struck me as a significant benchmark for digital photography, marking a starker divergence from 35mm photography and further embrace of the computer element of the medium (a bit ironic that it's geared to technophobics, though).
The Olympus E-420's Face Detection system performed well in use. It recognized, focused, and exposed on visible faces in the frame, though only a few. I tested the claim of eight faces on a two-dimensional photo (admittedly, I could only get four real people at most to play along). The two-dimensional faces were all looking directly at the camera and were amply lit. It recognized all eight in the image, but not immediately, or without prodding. This is to be expected to an extent; most digital cameras -- digital SLRs and point-and-shoots -- struggle to recognize more than a handful of faces in a large group at once. You can angle and manipulate the camera to guide it to the specific faces you want, but it will still require a little bit of work. It's up to shooters to determine if this is an issue for them. I suspect it won't be; the E-420's face detection system is quite responsive to a single person or even a few in the frame when they're facing the camera. However, the E-420's system wasn't as effective as competing designs with people in profile, though it didn't struggle a bit with blinking eyes. All-in-all, point-and-shooters drawn to the E-420 for the feature won't be disappointed.
Whether you use Live View or not, the Olympus E-420's Face Detection system is still active, recording at least one face location so that you can zoom in and check focus after capture, a very helpful feature.
Shadow Adjustment Technology. Accessible within the Olympus E-420's short editing suite in Playback mode, Shadow Adjustment Technology offers a one-button solution to brighten underexposed areas and retrieve shadow information in captured images. The setting was introduced to Olympus's digital SLR line on the E-3, though the E-420 is the first consumer-oriented offering to carry the feature. Functionally, it bears some resemblance to Nikon's D-lighting system, which is intended to yield similar results (though D-Lighting is designed to retain detail in both the shadow and highlight areas).
In my testing, the E-420's Shadow Adjustment effectively boosted shadow areas, but the adjustment wasn't as controlled as I would have liked, bleeding over to the mid-tones a bit too liberally. Corrections seemed to affect the majority of the tone curve, except the brightest highlights, without appearing to extend the tonal range of the image. The feature seems better fit for a quick, in-camera fix on slightly underexposed images.
In-Camera Conversion. Olympus provides an opportunity for users to convert RAW files to JPEGs in-camera and apply some basic image effects. It's a nice inclusion, though it's not as flexible or intuitive as Pentax's in-camera RAW processor on some of its digital SLRs. Provisions are given to adjust the white balance and sharpness, but to do so, you need to move the camera's current settings to the corrections you want applied to the JPEG. After executing the conversion, a preview of the adjustment is displayed, along with a dialogue box, inquiring if you would in fact like to render the effect, "yes" or "no." Toggling between these two options works as a sort of before and after comparison, overlaying the original image with the adjusted photo. If you select "yes," the altered image is saved as a separate image on the card. In all, it's a clumsy adjustment, but it's nice to have on hand in a pinch. At this point, Pentax seems to be leading the pack in this department.
Wireless Flash. Arguably the most advanced upgrade in the Olympus E-420, from the E-410, is the addition of wireless remote flash. Like Nikon's Commander mode, the Olympus E-420's pop-up flash can trigger up to 3 groups of remote flashes (Olympus FL-50R, FL36R), with the output power, ratios, and operating modes of each controllable in the camera.
As compact as the Olympus E-420 is, carrying a couple additional flashes gives you a powerful, flexible lighting system that's capable of adding depth and dimensionality to your images with little extra weight. Most seemingly complex lighting setups -- well-lit glamour shots, dramatic portraits, or moody interiors -- can be created with two or three light sources.
The wireless flash system holds tremendous potential for a range of photographers. First time digital SLR owners or beginning photographers can take the Olympus E-420 out of the box the first day, set it to Auto or Program mode and open up three FL-50R flashes (should they be so fortunate) and set those to "TTL" and go. When the remote flashes are in TTL mode, various lighting ratios can be set by merely dialing the exposure compensation on each flash group up or down, just as you would on a camera. Right in the camera, users can set the compensation for each group, removing the burden of having to get to the flash units to change the power level or use a wire to sync the camera to a power supply. It's really an amazingly flexible system that I'd love to see in all digital SLRs down the road.
Dust Reduction. Staying in the all-digital theme, dust reduction, a hallmark of Olympus digital SLRs, shows up once again in the E-420. The camera's Supersonic Wave Filer vibrates 35,000 times per second to shake dust free of the imaging path. Consistent with previous Olympus digital SLRs, the E-420's dust reduction system is quite effective. Having pioneered this feature, Olympus's iteration seems to be slightly more effective than competing manufacturers' digital SLRs. It does a pretty good job of removing the bulk of the dust from the sensor glass; however, as we noted in previous reviews, it's no panacea. There are still particles that settle on the face of the sensor and need to be manually removed at times. This is to be expected; all digital SLRs will suffer from this, it's just part of the medium; however, rest assured, Olympus's digital SLRs seem to suffer the least.
Performance Speed. Olympus upped the top-end speed on this generation's entry-level digital SLR, boosting the E-420's maximum capture rate to 3.5 frames per second (fps) in continuous mode. This is plenty quick for casual shooting and even most events, but it won't cut it for sports (maybe golf) or quick action. It is on the faster end of entry-level digital SLRs, however; the E-410 and Nikon's D60 both max-out at 3 fps, while Canon's XSi keeps pace at 3.5 fps as well.
13-14 JPEG files can be stored in the Olympus E-420's buffer before it needs to pause and write the data to one of its cards. It drops/falls to nine shots when shooting RAW, and to seven shots when capturing both RAW + JPEG (Large/Super Fine).
The Olympus E-420 plays both extremes when it comes to response speeds, with very quick shutter response when using the viewfinder, but slowing significantly in Live View. When using the default 11-point "Imager AF" mode, as much as 2.6 seconds can fall between the time the shutter is pressed and the image is captured. With that much lag, I found it was nearly impossible to capture moving subjects with the Live View (particularly my four-year-old nephew). This might frustrate point-and-shooters upgrading to a digital SLR for its performance speeds; however, this can be easily remedied by switching over to the viewfinder. The Hybrid mode does improve the experience, making time more like a slow digicam, turning in times like 0.7 seconds. That's still slow, but considerably better than the system on the E-410.
Low Light. I do some shooting of bands and performances, sets that often rely on lighting for ambiance, with little overall illumination. In these situations, the Olympus E-420's unobtrusive and pocketable form are ideal (particularly at a sporting event or at a venue that only allows "snapshot" cameras). If you're shooting an event that restricts flash shooting, higher ISO settings will be required. I often find myself at ISO 800 or 1,600, and rely on solid performance near the camera's boundaries. The Olympus E-420 seemed to hold its own among entry-level digital SLRs up through ISO 800, striking a good balance in the amount of noise and detail retained, but at ISO 1600 the limitations of its smaller, Four-Thirds sensor emerged.
Editing images I shot at 1,600, I was able to remove a good amount of the chroma noise, but it was again at the expense of detail. Likewise, the E-420 contains two adjustable in-camera noise reduction settings, one for high ISO and one for long exposures, but pushing them too far will sacrifice a lot of fine detail the camera is capable of rendering.
Tone Curve, Dynamic Range. As was the case with preceding models in Olympus's digital SLR arsenal, the E-420 produces bright, high-contrast images that pose some challenges during post-processing. The E-420's "stock" look using its default settings is prone to losing highlight detail, and thus I found myself often underexposing images to compensate (-2/3 or -1-EV) and protect them. This approach, however, would yield images with deep, thick shadows that were then difficult to open up without blowing out the highlights. I found it was necessary to really break my corrections, working on different portions of the files' tonal distribution separately; it was difficult to render global changes to the levels to good effect. The images also didn't take well to Auto Levels, frequently pushing highlights over the edge and skewing the otherwise reliable/accurate color balance.
Compounding the issue is the limited tonal range in the mid-tone values. For me this meant creating three different curve adjustment layers (one per channel - RGB) and trying to manually "flatten" the mid-tones some to smooth out tonal transitions to the highlights or shadows. Involved post-processors can also bracket the sequence (use a tripod for this) and make a composite of the various images. With the E-420's +/-5 EV range, it's quite flexible in this capacity, however, this degree of involvement during post-processing requires patience, and I suspect most people interested in the E-420's simplicity and automation will likely want to spend more time shooting than processing.
Correcting the mid-tones was much more demanding of my efforts than altering the peak tones (extreme highlights/shadows), and seemed to also have a greater overall effect on the images. Most point-and-shoot cameras produce high-contrast images like the E-420 with limited dynamic range; however, the subtle tonal transitions in the mid-tone areas have an impactful, emotional effect on the images and do require some treatment with the E-420. Unfortunately, most editing software doesn't provide a quick fix for this.
With effort, I was able to tweak many of images I took with the E-420 to good effect, and come away with prints I was quite pleased with. However, bear this in mind, particularly if you're interested in making black and white images (in-camera or converting); the limited tonal range is particularly apparent on monochromatic images, which come across as a bit lackluster because of it. Strong black and whites revolve around tonality, and from an image quality perspective, this seems to be the Olympus E-420's weakest area.
Olympus does include an in-camera contrast adjustment setting on the E-420 with a healthy range; however, it's unlikely that users are going to switch over to Face Detection AE/AF and then fiddle with the contrast adjustment. It is a nice inclusion and I found it worked to good effect, though it would be nice to see more options on the low-contrast end of the setting. Fortunately, the adjustment also had little effect on the overall saturation of the image.
The Essentials: Color and Sharpness. The Olympus E-420 is at its best when it comes to color accuracy and sharpness -- conventional characteristics of photographs that seem to consciously matter most to the majority of people. Hues are rendered with spot-on accuracy with impressive overall resolution. Add in the impressive edge-to-edge performance of Olympus's digital-specific lens line and general shooters, which Olympus markets the E-420 to, will likely find the E-420's images pleasing to their eyes. Saturation levels, however, are equally neutral, but may come across as dull or lackluster to those upgrading from a point-and-shoot.
Appraisal. At $499 (body only), the Olympus E-420 will appeal to point-and-shooters stepping up to an interchangeable lens system and advanced shooters awaiting an inexpensive, pocketable digital SLR. Headlining features on the 10-megapixel, Live View E-420 include Face Detection AF/AE, Shadow Adjustment Technology, Wireless Flash control, and Dust reduction. Image quality improves on previous models in the line with excellent color accuracy and resolution, though evidence of its small Four-Thirds sensor is pronounced at its highest ISO settings. Photos suffer from limited dynamic range and high-contrast mid-tones, as did the E-410. This presents challenges in post-processing, and lends images a "consumer-like" aesthetic. However, feature-shoppers are likely to find the E-420's eclectic selection of automation worthy of the sacrifices.
In all, the E-420 aims big, striving for a digital SLR with mainstream accessibility and the utmost in portability, and to a large extent, it succeeds. However, prosumers and professional shooters hungry for a pocketable digital SLR will be better served by the image-stabilized E-520 and Olympus's new 25mm pancake lens. But if small's what you need, the Olympus E-420 is the smallest on the block.
Olympus E-420 Features
- 10.0-megapixel Live MOS image sensor
- Interchangeable lens mount accommodates Olympus Zuiko four thirds Digital lenses
- Live View with hybrid AF system (Phase-Detect, Contrast-Detect)
- 2.7-inch 230,000 pixel LCD screen
- 3-point TTL phase-difference detection AF
- Supersonic Wave Filter (dust reduction)
- 49-zone TTL metering (Center-weighted, Spot with Highlight control, Spot with Shadow control)
- 18 Scene modes
- ISO 100 -1600
- +/- 5 EV compensation range
- 3 frame exposure bracketing
- Adobe RGB and sRGB color space options
- Face Detection AE/AF
- Shadow Adjustment technology
- Eye-level viewfinder: 0.92x magnification, 95% accuracy
- Eyepiece shutter EP-4
- Interchangeable eyecups (comes with 1)
- Optional remote control RM-1
- Analog video cable for connection to a television set
- Shoots RAW (12-bit), JPEG, and RAW + JPEG
- Contrast, Saturation, Monochrome (Sepia, Blue, Purple or Green tone), and Gradation image adjustments
- In-camera RAW conversion
- Pop-up flash with six operating modes, flash exposure compensation adjustment
- Hot Shoe for attaching external flash units - compatible with Olympus's line of dedicated flashes
In the Box
- When you get the E-420 home and unbox it, you'll find the following items:
- Olympus E-420 digital SLR body
- Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED Lens (kit only)
- Lens hood (kit only)
- Shoulder strap
- PS-BLS1 lithium-ion battery
- PS-BCS-1 battery charger
- USB cable
- Video cable
- Software CD containing Olympus Master and USB drivers
- Manual (CD)
- Warranty registration information
- Additional battery pack
- Large capacity CompactFlash memory card or large capacity xD memory card. (At least 2GB cards are recommended.)
Olympus E-420 Conclusion
The Olympus E-420 picks up where the E-410 left off, advancing the feature set and underlying characteristics within Olympus's line. While the addition of Face Detection and Contrast-Detect autofocus clearly target point-and-shooters, the introduction of a 25mm pancake lens and incorporation of Wireless Flash control shows potential for a new digital SLR design. Up to this point, small, compact digital SLRs have been relegated to entry-level offerings with point-and-shoot interests in mind. The Olympus E-420 still very much fits into this camp, though it alludes to the prospect of a full-featured, pocketable digital SLR line with rangefinder-sized optics. If Olympus continues to develop additional pancake-styled primes and tailor the feature set to more hands-on shooters, at this price point, I could see the Olympus E-420 garnering wide appeal. I presume even a number of Canon and Nikon shooters would be willing to pick one up as an everyday, walk-around camera.
For the time being, though, the Olympus E-420 will primarily resonate with snapshooters exploring the digital SLR space. And while it lacks image stabilization, the incredibly small camera packs familiar features and solid image quality at an impressively low price point.