Olympus E-520 Overview
by Alex Burack and
Review Posted: 01/28/09
The Olympus E-520 is a solid sub-$700 Four Thirds digital SLR with point-and-shoot appeal. It supplies all the staples of the EVOLT line -- 10 megapixels, Live View, Face Detection -- while integrating a number of features tailored to hands-on shooters. For all intents and purposes, the Olympus E-520 is basically a slightly-larger E-420 with mechanical image stabilization. The additional real estate on the body offers a more formidable grip and comfortable shooting experience, though the added perks come at an extra $100 cost.
The moderately compact, yet highly versatile E-520 carries an exhaustive degree of control and customization potential, and is backed by reliable point-and-shoot defaults.
Here's a list of notable improvements found in the new Olympus E-520:
- New 10-megapixel Live MOS sensor
- Face Detection in Live View
- Contrast-Detect autofocus: Auto Focusing in Live View enabled by partially depressing the shutter release button (as you would on a point-and-shoot camera)
- Shadow Adjustment Technology (opens-up underexposed shadow areas)
- Increased maximum burst speed up to 3.5 frames per second
- Wireless remote flash capability (compatible with Olympus FL-36R or FL-56R flash units)
- Perfect Shot Preview -- Live exposure effects displayed in a thumbnail view on the LCD for easy selection/adjustment prior to capturing the image
- Larger grip with deep finger groove affords a more comfortable, controlled hold on the camera
- Enlarged 2.7-inch HyperCrystal II LCD Display shows twice the contrast of its predecessor for improved visibility in extreme lighting; broader color gamut displays a greater range of color detail; wider view up to 176 degrees off center
Olympus E-520 User Report
by Alex Burack
The Olympus E-520 came to market roughly two months after the E-420, bearing nearly identical features in a slightly larger, image-stabilized body. Formed around a familiar 10-megapixel Four Thirds sensor, the E-520 sports two new consumer-friendly modes in Live View intended to lure point-and-shooters away from their compact digicams and into the digital SLR space: Contrast-Detect autofocus and Face Detection.
The inclusion of wireless remote flash control, along with an increased burst rate up to 3.5 frames per second should also work to make the camera more enticing to enthusiasts. Listing for $599 for the body alone, or $699 with a Zuiko ED 14-42mm f3.5/5.6 kit lens, the Olympus E-520 sits within reach of first-time digital SLR owners and seasoned shooters on a budget.
Look and Feel. I found the Olympus E-520 more comfortable to hold than the relatively condensed E-420. While it sacrifices some in terms of portability, the E-520 was far more usable in the field; the enlarged grip afforded me control that was lacking on the E-420 because the latter's small frame couldn't hold all of my fingers. I expect shooters with average-to-large size hands will agree.
In terms of appearance, the 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7-inch Olympus E-520 is not as sleek and visually distinct as the E-420. It presents a stretched rectangular form with a low-profile silhouette. The top of the camera, outside of the viewfinder hump, appears flatter than some competing models from other manufacturers, though it remains a fairly traditional form.
Grip. While portability and compactness are hallmarks of the Four Thirds line, Olympus's E-520 offers a much more comfortable shooting experience than its more compact sibling, the E-420. Much of this is due to its larger shape and deeper handgrip. The deep-cut grip is defined by a deep finger groove that curves up like the pouring lip of a water pitcher. The indent is well-formed and deep enough to comfortably support my middle finger, and help control the camera. Some of the handling features on previous Olympus digital SLRs have been lacking in comfort and control, but the E-520 offers a refined design that affords a great deal of control over the camera, and feels more like its APS-C-sized competitors.
Controls. Externally, the Olympus E-520 mirrors the layout of the E-510. Arrayed about the E-520's frame is an orderly collection of controls, grouped into logical clusters to render quick, intuitive adjustments in the field.
Conveniently opposite the shutter release on the top panel is a large control dial to adjust exposure. The dial is placed right where your thumb naturally falls, and is fairly loose and easy to rotate. I appreciate Olympus's positioning of the power switch -- located around the mode dial and out of the way of accidental depression. It is also quicker to engage from the off position than a switch on the back of the camera.
The size and placement of key controls on the E-520 is also laudable. Olympus logically drops the viewing selection button (live-view, viewfinder, display) just next to the LCD screen. Above it is a similarly sized Image Stabilization (IS) button, which sets the stabilizing mode. Its options are horizontal stabilization, vertical stabilization, or horizontal + vertical stabilization, which is the default setting. Refreshingly, Olympus shows restraint with the moderately-sized IS button, illustrating one of the manufacturer's strong suits: designing from a photographer's perspective, rather than a marketer's.
A customizable Function button is also applied to the back of the camera, placed on a curved protrusion opposite the shutter button and within reach of the user's thumb. The Function button can be assigned to control one of a number of key settings: Face Detection, custom White Balance, and Depth-Of-Field Preview among them. This enables users to customize the camera to some extent and speeds up access to a frequently-used setting that lacks a dedicated external control.
The camera's general layout is orderly and efficient, and is one of the most comfortable consumer digital SLRs made by Olympus.
Viewing. Like other live view-enabled models in Olympus's arsenal, the E-520's viewfinder options are split between the viewfinder and the LCD screen. I personally prefer the immediacy and direct interaction with the scene afforded by an optical viewfinder for the bulk of my shooting, though for select tripod work and shooting handheld at extreme angles, Live View is a real asset.
Viewfinder. Although Olympus heavily markets the E-520's Live View capabilities, the optical viewfinder is where you get the fastest performance and most immediate view from the camera. Though Olympus has experimented in the past with viewfinder design, the E-520 sticks to convention, employing the same viewfinder as the E-420 and E-510.
Within the E-520's eyecup is an Eye-level singe-lens reflex viewfinder, with .92x magnification that shows 95% of the composed frame. The view of the scene is small and relatively dim, and unfortunately lags a bit behind its competitors. However, the view is adequate and makes an ample fall-back for pure Live-View shooters.
I found it irritating that the shooting information is clustered into a vertical strip along the far right portion of the viewing window. With a 14mm eye point, it was a strain to view the information. It's certainly not a major issue, but it was less comfortable to direct my vision toward the right side.
Like the E-420, Olympus offers a couple of accessory eyecups for the E-520, including the ME-1, which magnifies the images by an additional 1.2x.
Live View. Olympus made its initial foray into live view digital SLR design in 2006, with the EVOLT E-330. Though the camera was released to mixed reviews by both photographers and reviewers, its unique design ushered in the Live View era of digital SLRs. From that point on, nearly all digital SLR manufacturers have followed suit, incorporating a version of Live View into their own collection of digital SLR cameras.
Two core consumer technologies arrive in the E-520's Live View mode that work to make the camera a more formidable point-and-shoot counterpart than the E-510: Contrast-Detect autofocus and Face Detection.
Contrast-Detect AF essentially transforms the E-520 into a point-and-shoot digital camera. It enables you to focus as you would when using a compact digicam by partially depressing the shutter button. This is significant because it allows for more seamless, fluid shooting and also paves the way for Face Detection technology.
In use, however, I found the E-520's Contrast-Detect setting disappointing; it doesn't quite live up to the promise of point-and-shoot fluidity. The shutter lag is much longer than even the slowest point-and-shoot digital camera on the market, and will disappoint those drawn to the E-520 for its live-view capability alone. (Note that in the video we shot, Contrast-detect seems pretty quick, but that speed varies depending on the subject, and in the case of our video, it was a high-contrast, well-lit subject.)
With contrast detect autofocus also comes Face Detection -- the camera's ability to recognize human faces in the frame (up to eight in a single image), and set the focus and exposure for them. The technology is basically ubiquitous at this point. In truth, other than the rare (though thoughtful) addition of white balance to the Face Detection algorithm, the most critical measure to me beyond sheer effectiveness (in terms of exposure and focus) is its treatment of faces in profile and blinking eyes. The Olympus E-520 handling of partially visible faces isn't great, with profiled visages presenting the most trouble for the camera. Blinking eyes, however, were not an issue.
The opportunity to display a direct feed off the sensor on the LCD screen affords digital SLR shooters a number of advantages beyond ease of use. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of a live histogram as much as any digital-specific feature in photography for the accurate display of tonal values across the entire scene -- highlights, shadows, and mid-tones. Histograms in playback mode can be a job-saving asset to photographers that only have one opportunity to visit a scene -- when they leave for the day, they must leave with the shot or the opportunity is lost. Here, the live histogram will indicate whether or not the shot will be properly exposed before you commit to even one frame. This offers tremendous opportunity to improve speed (without constant metering) and exposure precision on the fly. Having it available on a digital SLR is enormous.
Like the E-420, Contrast Detect is not the only Live View setting available. Olympus has included two additional settings to select from: AF Sensor (phase-detection) and Hybrid AF, which is a combination of the two other technologies. Users can also magnify the view 7x/10x and add a Grid line display.
Autofocus (viewfinder mode). Autofocus typically stands as one of the primary areas digital SLRs can justify their price and validate the upgrade from a point-and-shoot. Olympus has once again taken a minimalist approach to autofocus design on the E-520. With three autofocus sensors clustered near the center of the frame, there is more than enough coverage for most shooters to compose a shot, achieve focus, and capture the image. However, relative to its competition, the E-520 is a bit behind the curve. Current sub-$1,000 digital SLRs typically carry five to nine autofocus sensors, though like the E-520, the center sensor is usually the most sensitive. The additional autofocus points generally do more for flexibility and shooting comfort than for performance. However, the opportunity to focus on an object beyond the center of the frame without recomposing goes a long way for comfort, and the additional points do play a part in assisting with tracking focus. Additional points near the periphery are also advantageous for some tripod work where you have a carefully composed frame you wish to preserve and the subject nears the edge of the frame.
In low light, however, the Olympus E-520's AF shortcomings emerge. In minimal illumination, the camera often hunted for focus and inhibited me from capturing the image. At times, I felt more confident manually focusing in dim lighting, which could be inconvenient if trying to quickly capture a shot. None of the digital SLRs at this price point focus incredibly well in low light, but most exceed the E-520.
Interface. With Live View digital SLRs, the digital interface becomes a more direct extension of the button and control layout. Both the graphic interface and external design contribute to operation speeds and ultimately comfort; key determinants as to whether or not you enjoy the shooting experience with the camera.
The Olympus E-520's electronic interface is oriented to meet the demands of Live View shooters. Much of the E-520's graphic interface revolves around the digital Status display, which overlays the live composition, and is accessible by pressing the OK button in the center of the navigation panel. It's an effective design; the virtual overlay is visually distinct from the backdrop and easily legible.
The Status display supplies a quick, direct means to access critical shooting settings with minimal interruption to the shooting process. It creates a more fluid shooting process than a larger digital SLR that houses settings in separate monochromatic display on the camera's top deck. In those instances, users need to take their eye out of the viewfinder cup and direct their attention away from the scene and to the settings. However, Live View cameras like the E-520, which displays both settings and the live composition on the same 2.7-inch LCD monitor, afford minimal distraction from the scene. Since the display overlay is semi-transparent and superimposed over the live scene, the composition never completely fades from view. This works to minimize the transition between shooting and rendering adjustments. It sounds like a small distinction, but when working with human subjects (particularly kids), a lapse in focus often breaks the connection with the subject and results in a missed shot. It could ultimately make the difference between a candid moment and one that comes across as posed or contrived.
Overall, the E-520's display is one of the more effective overlays on current digital SLRs. The superimposed Status display covers a little more than two-thirds of the screen, keeping the scene visible, and striking a nice balance between the information shown and scene visibility.
Image Stabilization. A key performance differentiator between Olympus's two current sub-$1,000 digital SLRs is the E-520's inclusion of built-in mechanical Image Stabilization. Olympus's current iteration of the technology promises up to four stops of compensation and increased flexibility, with three distinct stabilization settings to handle different shooting occasions. These modes work to stabilize images along the vertical, horizontal, or both vertical and horizontal axis, enabling you to use IS in a range of situations (even when panning or tilting during the shot). The system is flexible, and goes beyond what other mechanically-stabilized digital SLRs provide.
I found the E-520's IS system to be most useful when shooting static subjects under available light with the camera set to a high ISO rating. I can't confirm Olympus's claim of four full stops of latitude, but I can say that most of the shots I took in low light at 1/30 of a second were sharp -- something that otherwise would not be true. In that same setting, images captured at 1/15 second were a mixed bag, with a bit less than half (I snapped about 150 images) seemingly sharp. Ordinarily, I do consistently shoot at 1/60th without IS and return an extremely high number of crisp, sharp images (I'd say over 90%). So the math doesn't quite add up, but the effectiveness of the system within a two-stop range is undeniable. In my experience, this is typically of most stabilization systems -- mechanical or optical.
While these same shots would be attainable with a Nikon, Canon, or Fuji digital SLR body with an IS or VR lens mounted, the cost of optically-stabilized lenses would make the system significantly more expensive than the E-520.
Dust Reduction. Since the introduction of its E-1 digital SLR, Olympus has long trumpeted its Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system, and for good reason: the system is reliable, effective, and has remained at the top of the industry in spite of other manufacturers' efforts to emulate the design. The E-520's Supersonic Wave Filter shakes particles off the sensor and collects them, keeping them out of the way of the imaging path.
Though its difficult to measure the amount of dust cleared by the SWF system, I can say the system is effective, though it's not infallible. With any digital SLR, dust will collect and attach itself to the imager over time, making it necessary for users to clean it manually or send the camera in for a professional cleaning. The E-520's long-standing SWF system will delay this process longer than most.
Wireless Flash. One of the more interesting updates on the E-520 is the addition of wireless remote flash control. Added to the consumer end of the line on the E-420 earlier this year, the E-520 similarly includes the option to control up to three groups of wireless flashes (Olympus FL-50R, FL36R) directly from the camera. Multiple flash units can be assigned to each group, with the output power, ratios, and operating modes of each flash set in the E-520's menu.
The feature is similar to Nikon's commander mode, which it offers on some of its prosumer-oriented digital SLRs. However, with the integration of the feature into the E-520, all current Olympus digital SLRs on the market now offer it.
Some consumers may initially feel intimidated by this feature, assuming it's solely intended for seasoned photographers. In truth, wireless remote flash distills photography down to its basics and makes dimensional, multi-light setups as simple as using a Program Auto mode on a point-and-shoot. Users can control the flash output and lighting ratios by merely dialing up or down a particular group's flash exposure compensation levels. It's a tremendously powerful feature, and should be seen as a tool to help budding photographers learn and explore the medium, as well as a portable means to create studio-like setups.
Speed. The current generation of Olympus consumer digital SLRs offers an increased maximum burst speed of 3.5 frames per second (fps), up from the 3 fps mark reached by the preceding E-410/510 models. The E-520 can hold 12 high-quality JPEGs (Large, Super Fine) or 9 RAW files in its buffer before pausing to write the data to the card. Conversely, the E-510 could only stomach eight RAW files in a burst.
At 3.5 fps, the Olympus E-520 is quick for its class. It offers ample speed and endurance for casual motion, though it's not really fast enough for sports or rapid action.
In terms of operation, the Olympus E-520 has a penchant for both speed and sluggishness. With snappy shutter response in viewfinder mode, the speed drops off significantly when the camera is switched into live view. This is disappointing because the camera is heavily marketed for its Live View; consumers upgrading to their first digital SLR may be surprised when the shutter lag surpasses their point-and-shoot cameras. However, all-in-all, the E-520 is about as responsive as its direct competitors, even in Live View mode.
While the collective image quality among entry-level and just post-entry-level digital SLRs continues to improve with each generational release, the performance gap between the leading models seems to diminish. Among the leading sub-$600 digital SLRs on the market, the Canon Rebel XSi, Nikon D60, Sony Alpha A300, and Pentax K200D, along with Olympus's E-520 all vie for the same consumers' love, affection, and dollars. It is worthwhile to note that with the exception of the E-520, the leading cameras in this area all feature CCD sensors that approximate APS-C dimensions, while the E-520's Four Thirds sensor is smaller.
The Essentials: Color and Sharpness. The Olympus E-520 renders good colors with mostly muted saturation. This treatment is ideal for shooters intending to post-process most or all of their images; for these photographers, a simple Photoshop action might be all it takes to get the images exactly as they'd like them. This method also allows the corrected colors to be tweaked, intensified, or diminished in a controlled environment. However, shooters upgrading from a point-and-shoot digicam may interpret the neutral colors as bland and slightly dull.
With the array of digital-specific lenses available, the E-520 is capable of impressive edge-to-edge sharpness. Photos from the Olympus E-520 contain a good deal of detail, though its default settings leave images appearing a bit soft. With the application of an unsharp mask in post-processing, the images become crisp, with a nice, dimensional pop to them. However, point-and-shooters drawn to the E-520 may not care to take this additional step, and the apparent sharpness of the images will suffer as a result.
Low Light. The larger grip and weight of the Olympus E-520 provides additional support in low light. I often find commercial assignments taking me to dimly lit clubs, tasked with capturing a performance that's largely dependent on moody lighting and performer mannerisms to tell the story. In these instances, the inclusion of mechanical stabilization is invaluable; however, it really only takes care of half of the equation -- reducing the subtle shake from my hands handling the camera. It does nothing to freeze subject movement in the frame. For this, you'll need to boost the ISO to increase the shutter speed. Of course, additional noise will be introduced every time you push the ISO and amplify the signal.
This is one instance where digital SLRs distinguish themselves from compact point-and-shoots. With a larger imaging chip, digital SLRs generally produce superior images with less high ISO noise and more detail retained near the edge of its sensitivity range. In terms of image clarity and detail, I found the E-520 held its own with competing cameras in its class right through ISO 800. The E-520 showed slightly more overall noise at ISO 800 than some of its rivals, though its noise appears fairly fine-grained, minimizing its impact on the images. This is right in line with the theory that a smaller sensor equals more noise.
Pushing the sensitivity to ISO 1,600, image quality took a very noticeable hit. Noise at ISO 1,600 remained somewhat fine-grained, but the overall quality of the images at ISO 1,600 was badly diminished, with a lot of detail apparent at ISO 800 smoothed over. Still, we were able to get decent 8x10-inch prints out of ISO 800 shots, so it's still usable for most consumer shooting.
The core camera mechanics of the E-520 were disappointing in low light. Generally speaking, Olympus's E-520 is mechanically one of the stronger cameras in its price range, though its autofocus and metering really stumble when the lights go down. The autofocus trouble has nothing to do with the number of AF sensors included, and everything to do with the effectiveness of the sensors that are available, as the camera often hunted for focus even using the center (cross-type) AF point in low light, having a far harder time than competing cameras.
Tone Curve, Dynamic Range. Dynamic Range may be the least credited and most critical measure of digital camera performance available. It refers to the range of tones a camera can capture from the deepest black to paper white. In use this becomes critical in high contrast scenes, such as those lit by direct, overhead daylight. In these shots, there are usually deep, hard-edged shadows and radiant highlights splashed across the objects in the scene, making it difficult for the camera to capture the entire tonal range of the composition. If the tonal range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of the camera, information will be lost in either the highlights, shadows, or both.
Consistent with previous models in the line, the E-520 is somewhat limited when it comes to overall dynamic range, ranking among the lowest cameras we've tested. However, as with the E-420, the most troubling aspect of the E-520 wasn't its struggle to maintain highlight values, but rather the camera's tendency to muddy the shadows and lose mid-tones to noise. A number of the shots I took at lower ISOs (400 and below) required slight compensation (-0.3 -1.0 EV) to keep the highlights from blowing out, and consequentially lost most of the shadow tones and some of the darker mid-tones.
Consumers accustomed to shooting with compact digicams aren't likely to notice the slight deficiency, as the E-520 is on par with most point-and-shoots in terms of dynamic range. However, digital SLR owners changing from a different manufacturer may notice the limited tonal pallet. I found it took some finesse to get the images I captured with the E-520 to look the way I wanted them to -- a single auto fix or global correction didn't seem to suffice.
Black and white images suffer from the limited range of the sensor, producing photos that look flat and often take on a high-key-type of aesthetic. The narrow tonal range, however, can produce striking dramatic blacks and whites with a contemporary look about them; however, gray tones (usually the hallmark of black and white prints) will appear sparse. This will make it difficult to produce a richer monochromatic print with subtle mid-tone values, which gives the image depth.
It should be noted that the E-520 supplies a contrast control slider in the custom menu; however, I found that there wasn't enough flexibility on the low end to sufficiently compensate for the camera's natural contrast curve.
Appraisal. At $699, the E-520 is an affordable, though not quite entry-level Four-Thirds digital SLR, with accurate colors and exceptional underlying sharpness to accompany its headlining features that include built-in image stabilization and a live-view LCD. The E-520 faces stiff competition in the increasingly-ubiquitous sub-$700 digital SLR category, and although it possesses a number of enticing elements, it lacks key differentiators to elevate it significantly above its rivals. The E-520 is, however, a highly-capable digital SLR that should please any user already invested in, or intrigued by, the Four Thirds system. The bonus as of this writing is that the online price is closer to $550 than $700, raising its relative value when compared to other offerings.
Olympus E-520 Features
- 10.0-megapixel Live MOS image sensor
- Interchangeable lens mount accommodates Olympus Zuiko Four Thirds Digital lenses
- Built-in Image Stabilization (3 Modes: Horizontal + Vertical, Horizontal, Vertical)
- 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)
- 20 Scene modes
- ISO 100 - 1,600
- +/- 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
- Olympus E-520 digital SLR body
- Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED Lens (kit only)
- Lens hood (kit only)
- Shoulder strap
- PS-BLS-1 lithium-ion battery
- PS-BCS-2 battery charger
- USB cable
- Video cable
- Software CD containing Olympus Master and USB drivers.
- Manuals and warranty registration information (CD)
- Additional battery pack
- Large capacity CompactFlash memory card or large capacity xD memory card. (At least 2GB cards are recommended.)
- FL-50R or FL-36R external flash
Olympus E-520 Conclusion
The E-520 is a logical step in the Olympus's digital SLR evolution. With headlining features that include Face Detection, Contrast-Detect AF in Live View, Wireless Remote Flash control, and an increased maximum shooting speed of 3.5 frames per second, the 10-megapixel Olympus E-520 is basically a slightly larger E-420 with built-in image stabilization. The two share nearly identical features, key specs, and imaging characteristics, though the inclusion of mechanical stabilization elevates the E-520 over some of its chief competitors while the E-420 falls short. For deliberating consumers considering the Four-Thirds system, the choice really boils-down to whether or not image stabilization justifies the extra $100 and slightly greater bulk. For me, the answer is yes, without hesitation. While we weren't able to give the E-420 a ringing endorsement, we think the E-520's feature set and image quality warrant a Dave's Pick, thanks to the very good optical quality and printed results.