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Olympus EVOLT
E-510 Overview

by Shawn Barnett
Review Date: 8/7/07
Updated 8/14/07: Kit lens comparison

As with the E-410 model it is announced alongside, the Olympus EVOLT E-510 offers rather more "traditional" styling than some of the past EVOLT line, but the two don't share identical bodies. Instead, the E-510 is a few millimeters wider and offers a significantly deeper handgrip that adds to the camera's thickness, and offers a more comfortable hand-hold. The larger body also allows more room to fit in a larger battery, with an attendant increase in battery life as compared to the E-410.

The Olympus E-510 uses a fixed eye-level pentamirror with a 95% field of view. The E510's LCD displays is a high resolution 2.5" wide-view LCD with a 230,000 pixel resolution. As with the previous E-330 model, the E-510 allows images to be framed on the LCD display. Where the E-330 could do this in two different ways (each with certain limitations), the E-510's live view function comes solely courtesy of its ten megapixel Live MOS image sensor. This does mean that autofocusing isn't possible without first dropping the reflex mirror, briefly interrupting the live view for the duration of the autofocus process. Still, that small limitation aside, Olympus has certainly found many fans of the ability to have a live LCD preview comparable to those found on compact cameras. The Olympus EVOLT E510 stores images either on xD-Picture cards, or on CompactFlash cards (Type-I or Type-II, inclusive of Microdrives).

The EVOLT E-510 couples its ten effective megapixel N-MOS image sensor with the same Four Thirds lens mount used in previous E-series digital SLRs, and compatible with lenses from all Four Thirds manufacturers. The image sensor is mounted on a platter allowing movement in two directions, so as to mechanically correct for camera shake in longer exposures. Other EVOLT E-510 features include a 49-segment iESP metering system, plus center-weighted average, spot, and two further spot metering modes called "Highlight Spot" and "Shadow Spot". These latter two modes basically bias the camera's metering system for predominantly bright or dark subjects, which would otherwise be incorrectly exposed since spot metering systems aim to expose the metered area as 18% grey.

As you'd expect, the E-510 retains Olympus' unique Supersonic Wave Filter, which couples a high-frequency vibration of the imager to remove dust from its surface, plus a range of seals to stop movement of dust through the camera body. The E-510 also includes the latest iteration of Olympus' TruePic image processor. Dubbed TruePic III, the new processor is said to offer a one stop reduction in image noise over past variants at higher ISO sensitivities, and today's new EVOLTs are the first cameras to include the technology. Other benefits of TruePic III include faster connectivity, faster flash card write speeds, faster startup, and improved image quality (detail, color accuracy, and color transitions).

The Olympus EVOLT E-510 ships June 2007, with pricing set at $799 body-only - a $100 premium over its sibling the E-410, which seems fair for a camera offering in-body stabilization on all lenses. A kit including an ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 Zuiko Digital zoom lens will cost $899, while a second kit including the same lens plus an ED 40-150mm f4.0/5.6 Zuiko Digital zoom lens will hit the market priced at $999 - impressively arriving at just under the magic $1000 point.

 

Olympus EVOLT E-510
User Report

by Shawn Barnett

While their basic specs are quite similar, the E-510 really is a different camera from its smaller, lighter brother, the E-410. They both share the 10.0 megapixel image size, Live View, and the basic control and menu structure, but the E-510 has added functionality, a few extra buttons, and body-based image stabilization. Overall, it's a better camera for the enthusiast photographer, a decision I came to reluctantly after using both in several different situations with some of Olympus's other lenses and accessories. I love the E-410's small size, but its lack of a sizeable grip make adding any accessories awkward. If you plan to expand your system beyond the 14-42mm and 40-150mm kit lenses, the E-510 is the better choice.

Note: if you've read the Olympus E-410 review, you can skip down to Look and Feel below.

History. Unlike most camera manufacturers, Olympus has only ever produced two lines of SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. The first was the Pen F, a small half-frame 35mm camera that was very popular, and the OM-series of full-frame SLRs. The OM-series spanned three decades, culminating in the OM-4T, an innovative, albeit manual-focus camera that was finally discontinued in 2002. In 1990, the company introduced a three-point AF system in their IS-1, a camera design that they dubbed ZLR, for Zoom Lens Reflex. It was essentially a film SLR without interchangeable lenses.

Olympus never produced an autofocus SLR system with interchangeable lenses, which is why it was easy for them to let go of the manual-focus OM-series and build an entirely new system designed around a smaller sensor, which they dubbed Four-Thirds (you can find out more about the Four-Thirds system at www.four-thirds.org.) Unlike other manufacturers, all with an existing base of AF lenses to support with their new digital SLR designs, Olympus could afford to start fresh.

Smaller, lighter. The main design goal of the Olympus E-system was to keep everything small. As such, they chose a small sensor and designed their lenses to make that goal easier to achieve.

Compared to Canon 20D. Though the E-510 has many of the semi-pro features of the Canon EOS 20D and 30D, you can see it's a little smaller.

Until these two latest lenses, it didn't seem like they were realizing their goal. The bundled lenses were as big as most equivalent competing designs, and sometimes bigger. But these two lenses finally deliver on the promise of smaller optics. The 3x lens is only smaller by a nose, but the 40-150 takes you to 300mm equivalence in a remarkably small space.

The other major goal of the Four-Thirds system was to be "designed for digital." At first, manufacturers like Nikon, Canon, and Pentax were using lenses that were designed for 35mm film cameras, while using sensors that were roughly APS-C sized. This was a smart way for these companies to keep their loyal lens owners by giving them a safe upgrade path. But Olympus argued that digital sensors themselves required a different approach to avoid light falloff in the corners, among other problems.

According to our tests, the approach seems to work. Though other manufacturers have come out with their own digital-specific lenses, it seems these two new lenses outperform the two most popular manufacturers' kit lenses. More on that later.

Look and Feel. The Olympus E-510 is less attractive than the E-410, but it's more about getting good photos comfortably than looking good doing it. It's a lot better balanced than its predecessor, the E-330, to be sure.

Now that's a grip. Olympus didn't skimp on the grip with the E-510.

Grip. Unlike it's little brother, the Olympus E-510 has a nice big grip. Your middle finger has a smooth contour to help position it, and there's sufficient room for all fingers on most hands. A good size ridge on the back gives your thumb a place to hold, and both surfaces have a soft, textured, rubbery pad to improve traction. This is the kind of grip you need for a day of shooting, especially with Olympus's big 50-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens. I wouldn't mind a little more of a lip under the shutter button, though, because it feels a little insecure when picking up the camera at first.

Controls. First, I'm happy that there was room to keep the power switch in the same location as on the E-500. It's easy to activate with a flip of the index finger without taking your hand off the grip, one of the best power switch locations on SLRs. Almost everything else is the same as the E-410, so I'll reiterate that it's an excellent control layout. They've added an IS button to control image stabilization, and a Fn and AF select button have been added beneath the Control dial. That dial is very well designed, with a great feel, reminiscent of manual cameras gone by. Unfortunately, while most higher-end SLRs, like the Canon 20D or Nikon D80, have a second control dial to control aperture while the first controls the shutter speed when shooting in Manual mode, the E-510 has only the one Control dial. So on the E-510 you have to press the EV adjust button behind the shutter release and use the Control dial to adjust aperture in Manual mode. It's only a small point if you'll use Manual mode often, because it's not that hard, but it's worth noting.

Simple controls. Most of what you need is easily controlled with your thumb or index finger on the right side.

The Mode dial sits atop the power switch, and has just the right stiffness to maintain its position while riding around in a bag. It also resists sticking between settings, springing to the next detent with stubborn determination.

On the back three buttons that are not on the E-410: the IS (image stabilization), Fn (Function), and AF point selector button.

The IS button brings up the IS menu, where you can select from having IS off, IS 1, which gives you compensation in two directions (up and down), and IS 2, which compensates for vertical movement when you're panning horizontally. This latter mode only compensates for vertical motion while you're holding the camera in "landscape" orientation; turn it vertical, and the IS 2 mode won't work.

Press the AF point selector, and a similar selection menu comes up, and you can select among the three AF points, or set it to Auto, and the camera will choose for you. I found the best focus with the center point, but often moved it around when there was time. I also shot a lot with it in Auto mode, especially in low light situations, because the camera was more likely to find focus with three active points instead of just one. Is three enough? I think so, for most situations. When it's important, go with the center point and recompose if you can, regardless of the camera (and learn how your AE-Lock button works).

The Function button can be assigned a few useful functions or disabled altogether. You can set which in the Menu. It will serve as the One-touch white balance button; it can be made to take a test picture that isn't saved to check things like white balance and depth of field; it can activate "My Mode," quickly switching to your previously saved settings; and finally it can drop you into Live View mode momentarily to give you the Live Preview without committing you to the mode altogether. You can even switch the Fn button with the AEL/AFL button, putting this important button in a better place to serve the creative photographer; it also minimizes the awkward reach required to focus in Live View mode. That's how I preferred to use the button once I learned about the ability to switch, and then I disabled the Fn button's function as the others didn't interest me much. I think the One-touch white balance is the most compelling, however.

The rest of the controls are labeled clearly for most of us familiar with SLRs. The navigator buttons on the E-410 are not labeled, which is a better decision for a consumer SLR, something I like on the Nikon D40 as well. But more experienced shooters need more buttons to quickly tweak settings to get the best shot, and the E-510 delivers.

Viewfinder. An optical viewfinder is where you get the best speed with any SLR, and that's true with the Olympus E-510. The viewfinder is cramped, unfortunately, and Olympus puts the status display off to the right of the viewfinder window, rather than across the bottom, which means I can't see it without pressing my glasses into the rubber eyecup and peering to the right of the viewfinder. There is good news, though. If I take off my glasses and press my nose in against the left of the camera, I can get right in there, and the diopter can compensate for my vision. No other brand makes a camera that compensates for my nearsightedness out of the box, with compensation from -3 to +1.0; that's good for me, but your results will vary. I think most users would appreciate greater magnification from the viewfinder, as well as a higher eyepoint.

Live View. Though it increases shutter lag, Live View offers some intriguing possibilities. As these roll by above, you'll see the different modes available by pressing the INFO button. The green box can be moved around the Live View screen; then you press the OK button to zoom in 10x and verify focus. Handy for fine tripod work. If you press the OK button when out of the zoom mode, a modified translucent Status display comes up allowing you to change major settings on the fly.

Live View. From a technology perspective, the company that gave us smaller SLRs, Focal Plane flash sync, and automatic dust removal is once again taking the lead, deploying the second generation of full-time live preview SLRs for consumers. Unfortunately, their implementation doesn't jibe with consumer expectations. It's not just expectations, but the problem of the marketing department promising something that the engineering department hasn't quite built.

So I'm concerned about Live View, and how it will be seen by the public. I can tell you that it's useful, but I think a lot of folks will be disappointed, mostly because it's being presented as "just like your digicam."

Digicam users seldom look through their optical viewfinders. They've grown accustomed to holding their cameras out in front of them and composing on the LCD. Never mind that this method introduces more shake than holding the camera to your eye; it's more comfortable, usually more accurate, and easier to envision your print on a larger, backlit screen.

But there's a problem with the implementation of Live View on the E-510 and E-410. It introduces terrible shutter lag. If there's one thing digicam owners quickly grow to dislike more than small, cramped optical viewfinders is extreme shutter lag. That's the time between when you press the shutter button and when the camera actually captures an image. Well, Live View introduces significant and widely varying shutter lag, ranging from a half second to three or more seconds depending on whether the camera can focus on the subject.

It's not that Olympus is entirely marketing these two cameras exclusively as Live View SLRs, but because they're the first with Live View, people will expect the E-510 to work just like their digicam; and further, because it's an SLR they will also expect it to have lower shutter lag than their digicam. But both notions are incorrect.

The problem is that SLRs are designed to set autofocus and exposure with the shutter closed and the mirror down. But to draw a live image from the sensor, the mirror must be up and the shutter open, blocking the autofocus and metering sensors. I haven't found out why they can't make their system focus and set exposure from the imaging sensor, like any point-and-shoot digicam can do, but I imagine it would be more of a challenge to get both systems to produce matching results that didn't reveal flaws in one or the other.

Though Live View does give you a live image onscreen, that image won't be in focus until you press the AEL/AFL button. When you do, the image freezes and the mirror and shutter flip closed until focus is achieved. Then your live image returns and the selected AF point illuminates onscreen. Depending on how contrasty your subject is, you can focus in around a half second, or it might take a few. It also might never focus. You can move the camera to a more contrasty subject, but you won't be able to see just where you've moved it until the camera focuses and your live view returns. Sound frustrating? It is.

You can also just trust that the Olympus E-510 will focus properly, press the shutter all the way, and it will usually focus right before it fires. Shutter lag in this mode is 0.84 second, provided it has a good target and sufficient light to focus. If you prefocus by pressing the AEL/AFL button, this time goes down to 0.66 second. For comparison, if you shoot with the optical viewfinder, the shutter lag does full autofocus and fires in 0.35 second; and if you prefocus, it's a blazing 0.091 second. That's what you buy an SLR for: Fast AF and fast capture. But in Live View mode, the E-510 is slower than most digicams, let alone most SLRs.

Add the pop-up flash to Live View, and the full AF shutter lag actually gets slower than the Panasonic L1. The preflash is a lot faster, but somehow the E-510 manages to be slower overall. Having a faster preflash is surprisingly helpful, however, because I found that with all the shutter and mirror flipping as the L1 focused, adding a preflash 1/2 second before the actual exposure added the last bit of confusion to the mix, leading my subjects to think I'd taken several shots.

Live View can be confounding to the subject and the photographer if you're not patient.

And that's the true pitfall of Live View: Those who choose it as their main shooting mode will think the E-510 is the slowest camera they've ever used. It's the perception, not the truth that stands to hurt Olympus's reputation. But that need not be the case, which is why I've bothered to explain all that.

To enjoy the beauty of the E-510 or E-410, you'll want to use the optical viewfinder for most shots, because you want to eliminate as much shutter lag as possible. But as I've spent time with both cameras, I have been surprised by just how often I use Live View mode.

Taking a picture of my son sleeping on the floor, I realized the shot would be a little better if I could get directly above him, but without my feet in the shot. If only I could hold the camera out over him and still see through the viewfinder, I thought to myself. Then I remembered Live View. Just press the button on the back, compose on the LCD, and press the shutter button. So long as there's sufficient contrast under one of the three AF points, and I hold the camera still, the mirror will flip down, the camera will focus, and the mirror will flip back up to capture the image. In this situation, I don't care that it's slow. He's sleeping, after all. The noise of the multiple shutter sounds might wake him up, but not in this case.

Live View is a feature of the Olympus E-510 that you won't get many other places, but it's not the main mode you should use. Most of the chief benefits of an SLR are found in the optical viewfinder: You're seeing exactly what the lens sees, and what the sensor will see once you press the shutter. Compared to an LCD display, you're getting your information at the speed of light, not filtered and delayed through oodles of electronic circuits before it gets to the LCD. Live View is great -- a worthwhile feature -- but it's nowhere near as great as an actual live view at 186,282 miles per second (299,792 km per second).

Keep it in perspective, and the E-510 is a little more versatile than most digital SLRs because it offers both.

I was also surprised to see the Live View image change to black and white in very low light. This presumably allows the Olympus E-510 to gain up without significant color speckles dancing on the screen. It also gives clearer detail.

Dust. You can't see it in the first shot, but open the Auto Levels version and the dust becomes visible (click on the images to see larger versions). The good news is that Olympus's method blurs the dust so much that it seldom affects the final image. But it's there, and will need to be cleaned periodically.

Dust suppression. Olympus was also the first to take on this challenge. Dust was always a problem with film, but now it's worse. Film caused scratches on the emulsion while moving through the camera, and stuck to negatives and slides in storage. Seldom did it affect a single frame during capture; and if it did, that would change when the film advanced to the next frame.

With digital, there is no advance to the next frame. The sensor is the same shot to shot, so any dust that sticks to the glass just sits there, affecting each frame the same as the last. Now that Olympus has enabled Live View, the problem is magnified because the sensor can be exposed to dust for minutes instead of fractions of a second.

So far, it looks like Olympus's dust solution is still the most effective. What dust it doesn't shake off is substantially blurred in the final exposure. I'll have to take brief issue again with the marketing strategy, because once again they're overselling a good thing. Dust can still get into the E-510, and it does. The SSWF is good, but not that good.

Their Super Sonic Wave Filter works well to remove many types of dust, and the body is sealed to keep most dust out. Be aware, however, that even if the body were perfectly sealed and you never removed the lens, dust still enters through zooming and focusing the lens, and dust can even come from the camera's internal components, especially the fast-moving shutter and mirror mechanism. My understanding is that while some of Olympus's high-end lenses are sealed to resist dust and moisture, these two new lenses are not. The good news is that Olympus's system works well; but the truth is that you'll still periodically need to clean the sensor, as you will with all other brands.

Interface. Buttons are one thing, but the digital interface is important too. Olympus's implementation of the Status display makes adjusting most settings very easy. Unless you're in Live View mode, the Status display is present for about ten seconds after you release the shutter button. In this time, if you press the OK button, one of the blocks on the status display turns yellow. You can use the four arrows to move around to the item you want to change and press OK again. The selection menu for that item then appears, and you can use either the arrows or the Control dial to make your selection. Press OK again, and you're back to the Status display. There are two displays, a simple and a more intricate one, selected with the Info button.

Fireworks mode. I had a terrible location, with a telephone pole and street light right in front of me, and most of the fireworks were bursting right behind that pole. But with zoom I managed to get a few good shots that I later cropped. This was taken with the 50-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens.

The menus are fairly straightforward, but oddly organized, and it's often unclear which button you should press to move onto the next screen. If you decide you want to change the Picture Mode item, you press the right arrow to bring up the next screen. If you press OK instead, you leave the menu entirely. If you own the camera, it won't be a problem; if you use dozens like I do, it's annoying.

They also use an odd combination of icons and letters that are frequently unclear. And the manual is poorly organized, with menu items listed out of order. Even when using the PDF version, it can be very hard to search for what you want, because it's hard to run a "find" for an icon.

Features. Nearly all the advanced features you expect from a mid-range SLR are included in the E-510. Flash exposure compensation; multiple color modes, including black and white tones and filters; High and Low key settings; Preset and Kelvin White balance capability; mirror lockup; and even AE bracketing. There's also White balance bracketing and Flash bracketing. You can set a high ISO limit with the E-510, define a color space, turn on shading compensation, and an array of other custom functions that were left out of the E-410 to keep it simple.

Conspicuously absent from the Olympus E-510 are two scene modes: both of them Underwater modes. That's because there is no underwater housing available from Olympus for the E-510. So the E-510 has only 18 Scene modes instead of 20. I managed to make good use of the Fireworks mode this past Fourth of July. I was pleasantly surprised by how little I had to do to get great results. A tripod was required, of course. It was pretty easy, just set the mode and press the button. I tried using Live View mode at first to help me frame the shots, but the shutter lag did get in the way after a bit. I finally just stopped trying to anticipate the next shot and kept press the shutter over and over.

Olympus Studio. With Studio 2.0, you can remote control the camera and instantly upload pictures from the camera to the computer. You do not get a live image onscreen, however.

Remote control. The E-510 and E-410 have the ability to work with Olympus Studio 2.0 software, which is a more advanced version of the Olympus Master software bundled with the camera. It's available for $200, but a demo version can be installed from the included disk.

One of the more interesting features of the software is the ability to remote control the E-510 via USB connection. Just click a button onscreen and your image is captured and downloaded to the computer. If you can't imagine why you'd need that, it's probably not worth buying the software. You'll get most of what you need to handle RAW images with the included Master software. The good news for studios, whether pro photographers or ebay stores, is that this software is there if you need it. (The Canon Rebel XTi comes with the software for this trick at no extra cost.)

Optics and Accessories. Buying an E-510 avails you of the entire suite of 20 Zuiko Digital lenses, as well as flashes, cables, finders, and there's even a lens adapter for using old OM lenses. You can also use other lenses from other Four-Thirds manufacturers, currently 28 in number.

300mm equivalent. Found this little dragonfly to be unusually cooperative, flying back to this favorite flower over and over so I could make use of the 150mm f/2.0. Looking at it now, I wish I'd have stopped down just a bit. To get better composition, I cropped this a little, as this was as close as I could get. Then I ran Auto Levels in Photoshop, but you can see the original image in the Gallery as YP8060339.JPG, or click on the one above to see a larger version of my modified file. It was shot in full sun at about 3:00 pm.

Lenses. Olympus has some impressive lenses available for the E-410. I played with a few during this review, and was impressed with both their size and overall sharpness. It took some time to get used to them and their idiosyncracies, especially the very narrow depth of field wide open (not unusual, but I find I have to play with a lens a few times before I tune in to its habits and capabilities on a given body). I used the 150mm f/2.0 and the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5. Both were very sharp, but I got better results locking them to the center AF point due to the narrow depth-of-field. These were large and heavy enough that they really required a tripod, and were better suited to the Olympus E-510, with its bigger grip and sensor-shift image stabilization.

*UPDATE 8/14/07* Digital lens design. We're in the process of starting our tests of Olympus Four-Thirds optics on SLRgear.com, and the initial results show that my experience and Olympus's claims for their edge-to-edge sharpness are indeed valid, at least in the first lens we've tested. Jim Tanner, our lens technician, tested the Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6, and plotted the average results against the average results from Canon's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and Nikon's Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G. While all three lenses are pretty close when compared by center sharpness, it's at the corners where we see a significant difference. As I've mentioned in other reviews, the Canon lens looked much better when used on a 6-megapixel camera, but the 10-megapixel Rebel XTi reveals significant softening in the corners. The same goes for the Nikon D40's performance with its kit lens when compared to the 10-megapixel D40x. The Zuiko 14-42mm kit lens does much better, as you can see in the plots at right.

Center vs. Corner. The charts above plot "blur factor" from our DxO test charts against aperture (lower blur factor numbers are better). We start at 5.6, because this is the first aperture that all three lenses share in common at all focal lengths. We attribute the slight increase in blur at f/22 to diffraction limiting due to the Four-Thirds sensor's smaller pixels. Otherwise, the Olympus clearly outperforms Nikon and Canon's Kit lenses in terms of corner sharpness.

Flash. I only used the FL-36 external flash occasionally. While it was fine with the E-510's kit lenses, and worked reasonably well in bounce situations, the flash recycle time was a little too long; and the camera wouldn't fire until the flash had recycled. That is probably fine if you're shooting in a darker setting, but very often I was using the flash for fill, and would have preferred to just take a shot without fill so that I didn't miss the moment. I'd recommend the FL-50, as the FL-36 doesn't recharge quickly enough after a full-power shot, probably due to its use of only two AA batteries. It turns out that you can actually change the release priority to allow the camera to fire if the flash isn't fully charged, but it also removes the condition that the camera achieve focus before shutter release.

The on-camera flash is very small, and offers very poor coverage at the camera's wide angle setting. It's fine for telephoto shots, if a little underpowered. I also found that the E-510 didn't always make the right decision for proper exposure, producing underexposed, flat images.

Homage. Olympus says they hid a little tribute to the OM-1 under the E-410 and E-510's pop-up flash.

Though you need to use the lens hoods for best quality, the E-510's flash doesn't pop up high enough to clear even the small hoods of these two kit lenses. Sometimes even without the hood the lens throws a shadow. At wide angle, the flash doesn't even come close to covering most of the 14mm frame area.

Olympus took an extra step to invoke the memory of their OM-series cameras. If you pop up the E-510's flash, you can see the same shape found on the OM-1's pentaprism housing. It's subtle, but an interesting homage. Because of the natural shape of a pentaprism or penta-mirror, you'll find a similar shape under the Rebel XTi's flash; but I'll take Olympus's word that they did this on purpose.

Storage and Power. The E-510 uses both CF cards (CompactFlash) and xD cards. This is great for those already invested in either kind of card. Most pro SLRs use CF, so E-1 owners will already have storage for these new cameras; but consumers who own a digicam that uses xD can also step into the E-510 with less initial cost.

Card door. The card cover conceals not one, but two types of memory card slot.

There are two benefits to using CF, however: speed and capacity. According to our tests, the Olympus E-510 captured 15 Large/Fine JPEG images before the buffer filled, then it took only two seconds to save all images to the card. Using a regular speed xD card, we managed only 9 frames, and it took 14 seconds to save the data off (both buffer clearing times were faster than the E-410, by the way). Currently, the largest xD card you can get is 2GB, while the largest CF available is 16GB.

Given that the E-510's Large/Fine JPEGs can be as large as 8MB each, you'll want one or two large CF cards for vacation. If you're shooting RAW or RAW+JPEG, each image can be 17.3MB and 25.6MB each, respectively.

With Live View mode off, the E-510 can capture around 650 shots with its 7.2V, 1500mAh lithium-ion battery (Model: PS-BLM1).

Focus issues. I've shot both the E-410 and E-510 indoors a lot, and my biggest complaint is the poor autofocus speed. I really had to work to get it to focus at times, which is bad for photos of kids. Using the AF assist, which consists of pulsing the pop-up flash, I had better success focusing, but it took a lot longer, with several bursts of illuminating flash that's pretty annoying to those around, especially the subjects. Most cameras will give you some trouble focusing in low light, but this was more trouble than I'm used to.

We also ran into an odd problem with hot spots appearing only at ISO 400 and above, and only at certain exposure times (e.g.: ISO 400 at 2.5 seconds and f/3.2). This will not affect most shooters, but anyone doing time exposures for cityscapes might want to take note. See the Exposure tab for more (scroll down to Low Light).

While shooting our Outdoor Extreme Sunlight tests, we ran into a bad front-focus problem. Dave had to focus on the background and shoot at f/8 to keep it all in focus, and still the images were soft (we've noticed overall softness in most images, but it responds well to unsharp masking). When shooting our Indoor test shots, with a consistent AF point selected, one out of eight shots was badly out of focus requiring a reshoot.

We're trying to start testing the Olympus lenses for posting on SLRgear.com, but we're having a tough time getting the test camera to focus on our target.

Image Stabilization. The Olympus E-510's image stabilization seems to work pretty well. Unlike other sensor-shift IS systems, you can actually see the IS at work thanks to Live View mode. Just hold down the IS button for a few moments and suddenly the live image will be stabilized. You can't do that on the Pentax and Sony SLRs that integrate sensor-shift image stabilization.

I've found it can give me a little extra stability when shooting fairly wide, and certainly helps when using a long lens indoors; but very often those images still come out smudgy. You just can't know what the limit is until you try, because you can't tell for sure how much the camera will be moving when you press the shutter. As with all IS systems, I find I can push them it further than their ability to compensate. Stabilization is nice to have, but like Live View and Dust removal, don't depend on it to make all your images perfect. You have to learn its limitations and adjust your expectations --and your settings -- accordingly.

Image quality. Take a look at the Exposure and Optics tabs for the full breakdown on image quality. It's a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately. The test results do indeed show the corners to be quite a bit sharper than the competition's kit lenses, so it's likely that Olympus's digital-specific lenses do indeed offer an advantage.

High ISO images are also pretty good, with admirable control over noise, especially considering the smaller size of the Four-Thirds sensor. Below, I've compared the E-510's ISO 1,600 shot with the Canon XTi and Nikon D40x.

Canon
Rebel XTi
Nikon
D40x
Olympus
E510

Respectable high ISO. The Olympus E-510's ISO 1,600 performance was pretty good, producing somewhat soft images, but with little noise. Whereas the Canon XTi on top left much chroma noise to preserve detail, and the D40 effectively smooshed out chroma noise along with some detail, the E510 strikes a balance between the two extremes. The image is softer overall, however. Note the darker mid-tones, as well. The E-510's detail here is a bit softer than the E-410, which also may be due to the E-510's tendency to front-focus -- at least our sample. Still, this image was good for a decent 8x10, once it was adjusted with Auto Levels in Photoshop (it's a little dark out of the camera).

Odd Tone Curve. I've been shooting the E-410 and E-510 for more than a few weeks, living with the cameras and using them for my personal photography.

In the E-410 review I mentioned a problem I had with shots from the camera having strangely underexposed mids, with blown highlights. Especially when shooting in shadow, I found the E-410's images to be darker than they should have been, with dark shadows and skin tones. We identified the problem as being due to an odd tone curve, one that the E-510 shares. But I'm happy to report that it's not as bad as we saw in the E-410, making the images more usable overall.

In bright sunlight, we found that reducing the contrast to -2 in the Normal mode kept shadows from clipping too badly, but highlights were still too strong.

See our Imatest page for more on the different tone curves generated by these two cameras. Unfortunately, they are both among the worst we've tested.

Also note that because the LCD is somewhat dim in bright sunlight, these images seem badly underexposed; but if you adjust the exposure for a better appearance on the LCD, you'll blow the highlights even worse. It's frustrating.

Appraisal. The Olympus E-510 is a good quality SLR with great controls and the added advantages of image stabilization and Live View. Though its Live View mode is not what it many will expect, introducing extreme shutter lag, it is quite useful on occasion, allowing you to get shots you couldn't otherwise.

Autofocus in low light was weak, resulting in many a missed shot; and its tendency to blow highlights and underexpose the mids left some shots similarly out of reach. As has been the case with every Olympus SLR I've reviewed, though, I managed to get some very good shots with the E-510. Some of them, unfortunately, were a lot of work, either before or after capture. Manually tweaking the contrast to a lower setting helped reduce the blown highlights, so there is a way to deal with it if you know how.

Overall, I had a better experience with the E-510 than the E-410, turning my initial impression of each upside down. I was sure I'd prefer the E-410 for its small size, but the E-510 won me over with its greater utility and image stabilization. The E-510 has a better tone curve than the E-410, though it could still be better. I had fewer difficult images with the E-510, so I feel better recommending the camera to those who will be tweaking their settings and images anyway. Learn to do that, and you get the benefits of Four-Thirds, namely that edge-to-edge sharpness.

 

Features

 

In the Box

The Olympus E-510 kit packages can contain the following items depending on the kit purchased:

 

Recommended Accessories



 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Small and light compared to competing designs
  • Excellent lens beats others in its class
  • Lens is sharp corner to corner
  • Wide range of Four-Thirds optics to choose from
  • Image stabilization works well, helps indoors
  • Live LCD preview allows shots from odd angles
  • 2.5 inch LCD is bright, adjustable
  • 10x digital zoom for sharper manual focusing
  • Good grip, extremely comfortable to hold and use
  • Power switch is easy to flip while still gripping camera
  • Good resolution
  • Good control of chromatic aberration
  • Smart control layout
  • Command dial has excellent feel
  • Mode dial is also robust
  • Uses both CF and xD memory cards
  • Good high ISO performance, with low noise
  • Color doesn't fade as ISO increases
  • Continuous mode is fast at 3.1 frames per second
  • Smart status display doubles as quick link to oft-used menu items
  • Scene modes work well
  • Supersonic Wave filter removes (most) dust from sensor when camera is turned on
  • Good Prefocus shutter lag
  • Quite customizable
  • Well-placed lens release button (compared to E-300 series)
  • Battery capable of 650 shots per charge (without using Live View)
  • Slow startup and shut-down times
  • Live View mode is very slow, introducing extreme shutter lag
  • Optical viewfinder is small and information is displayed off to the right, rather than beneath the image
  • Has trouble focusing in low light
  • Manual focus is electronic, not physical
  • Images are slightly soft overall
  • Greens are undersaturated
  • Skin tones are somewhat pale
  • Auto White balance leaves incandescent shots quite warm
  • Continuous mode is sometimes inconsistent, slowing every three to four frames
  • No second Command dial for quick adjustment of both aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode
  • Tendency to underexpose images indoors, requiring +1.3 EV compensation
  • Less dynamic range compared to other SLRs means blown highlights and plugged shadows
  • Flash coverage doesn't fill most of the wide angle frame
  • Mids of images are often underexposed
  • Tone curve makes highlight detail hard to maintain as you work on other parts of the image
  • Hot spots appear at high ISO at very specific exposure times (not good for those doing night photography and certainly not astronomy!)
  • Menus can be confusing to understand and navigate
  • Manual is poorly organized
  • No DC input

 

With a better grip, image stabilization, a big battery, and all the optical benefits of the Four-Thirds system under its belt, the Olympus E-510 is currently the most well-rounded choice among Four-Thirds SLR cameras. Compared to competing designs in the same category, the E-510 is smaller than most prosumer digital SLRs, and it includes almost everything found on those, save for the faster frame rate of some slightly more expensive models.

I was particularly impressed shooting the E-510 with its kit lenses, which are small and sharp even in the corners, and the 40-150mm telephoto lens makes for a small 10.7x combo that will fit in a very small camera bag. The E-510's Scene modes are great for the novice, and I found the fireworks mode particularly useful. The E-510 also works with a pretty impressive array of high-quality optics that are small for their equivalent focal lengths, making for a good, robust wildlife camera kit that won't take more space than necessary.

I'm happy to report that the Olympus E-510 had less trouble with shadows than the E-410, though its tone curve is still less than adequate at keeping detail in highlights and shadows. Turn down the contrast in the Natural Picture mode, and these tendencies improve. Grass still comes out a little too blue in daylight shots, so be prepared to tweak your settings a bit, or else shoot in RAW mode.

The Olympus E-510 has a somewhat dizzying menu system, with unclear titles that often include icons that can't be looked up alphabetically in the manual. Get past that, however, and you'll find that the E-510 can be customized to do a lot of convenient tricks, like swapping the Function button with the AEL/AFL button for easier autofocus when in Live View mode.

It's the E-510's special features that push it over the top. Live View mode, while easily misunderstood, is actually quite useful so long as you know its limitations. Shoot with it all the time, and you'll find you miss a lot of important shots due to increased and unpredictable shutter lag; but use it properly, and you'll get a lot of shots you'd have otherwise missed. The same holds true for the E-510's sensor-shift image stabilization. Learn where and when it works, and take several backup shots, and you'll get pretty good results; certainly better than you would without it. Add the ability to manually focus on a 10x zoomed area via Live View, and the E-510 is clearly a great solution for the experienced photographer wanting a closer look at what he's about to capture. Despite its foibles, the Olympus E-510 is a very good digital SLR, one I'd recommend to photographers who want to travel light, anyone with a need for Live View on occasion, and anyone wanting to learn more about photography with a digital SLR. Add it all up, and the Olympus E-510 is worthy of a Dave's Pick.

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