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Olympus E-20

Olympus updates their bargain-priced Pro SLR with a 5 megapixel sensor and improved electronics

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 11/28/2001

Executive Overview
Following on the heels of Olympus' highly successful E-10 SLR digicam, the E-20N (E-20P in Europe, with PAL video timing) offers all the features I liked in the earlier model, with a larger CCD and increased exposure options. As did the E-10 before it, the E-20 offers excellent exposure control with the convenient look and feel of a traditional 35mm SLR camera. Its 5.24-megapixel CCD sensor employs an interlaced scan mode at resolutions above 1,792 x 1,344 pixels, and a progressive scan mode with resolutions of 1,792 x 1,344 or below. The E-20 continues with the fixed lens design introduced on the E-10 model, and includes the swiveling LCD monitor as well.

Olympus addresses the issue of focal length flexibility by offering a range of front-element adapter lenses for the E-20, that combine with the camera's built-in 4x zoom to give focal lengths equivalent to 28-420mm in the 35mm film-based world. (And at impressively "fast" maximum apertures.) I didn't get a chance to play with the auxiliary lenses with the E-20, but have included below some information on them, from when I tested them on the original E-10. They appear to be of very high quality, much better than I'd normally associate with front-element auxiliary optics.

The E-20's SLR design works quite differently than traditional mirror-based SLRs, in that it uses a "beam splitter" to carry the image from the lens to the optical viewfinder and the CCD at the same time. The main benefit of this is that it allows a live preview image on the LCD in an SLR camera design. (The traditional SLR design, with a mirror to direct light to the viewfinder blocks the CCD when the optical viewfinder is in use, precluding a live preview image.) Oddly, there's still a brief "blackout" when the shutter trips though, which surprised me given the beam-splitter approach used. The camera features both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor for composing images, the optical viewfinder actually being a very fine-grained ground glass design that permits direct focus evaluation, the same as in a 35mm SLR. The 1.8-inch LCD monitor has the ability to pop up and off of the back panel, so that it can be tilted upwards 90 degrees or downward by about 20 degrees (beneficial when shooting from odd angles). Both viewfinders feature a fairly extensive information display, reporting the exposure values, modes, etc., as well as a histogram function that's available in all capture modes.

The E-20's built-in 4x, 9-36mm lens (35-140mm equivalent on a 35mm camera) features non-rotating 62mm filter threads for attaching conversion lens kits. Focus can be manually or automatically controlled, with a range from 1.97 feet (0.6m) to infinity in normal mode, and from 8.0 to 30.0 inches (0.2 to 0.8m) in macro mode. Zoom is manually controlled just as a film camera's lens would be, via a textured-rubber ring around the outside of the lens. A second adjustment ring at the end of the lens controls manual focus, although it uses a "fly by wire" connection to the camera's optics, rather than directly coupling to the lens mechanism itself. I found these manual adjustment rings quite comfortable and familiar, very similar to a 35mm lens design. A big plus of the E-20's optics and viewfinder design is that you can actually use the optical viewfinder screen to focus the camera with, just as you would on a conventional film-based SLR.

Exposure control is quite extensive on the E-20, with Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes available. Apertures can be manually or automatically controlled from f/2.0 to f/11.0, depending on the zoom setting. In Manual and Shutter Priority modes, shutter speed ranges from 1/18,000 to 60 seconds, with a Bulb setting for even longer exposures (up to 120 seconds maximum). The shutter speed range changes slightly in Aperture Priority and Program modes, varying from 1/18,000 to two seconds. (This is a huge boost in exposure range relative to the original E-10, but Olympus notes that the fastest shutter speed in the interlaced scan mode is 1/640-second. The highest shutter speeds are thus limited to image sizes of 1,792 x 1,344 or below.)

The exposure compensation adjustment offers a wider range than most current digicams, with settings from -3 to +3 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. The camera's metering system can be set to Digital ESP (a matrix/multi-segment metering system), Spot, or Center-Weighted Average, depending on the type of subject and the desired exposure effect. ISO is also manually adjustable, with options of Auto, 80, 160, or 320 sensitivity equivalents. An AE Lock button on the back panel lets you lock the exposure reading for a specific part of the subject independently of the shutter release, providing even more flexibility with the exposure.

I was very pleased with the E-20's white balance capability, which offers nine modes: Auto, Quick Reference (manual), or Preset. The Quick Reference setting allows you to manually set the white balance by placing a white card in front of the lens, while the Preset white balance mode offers a range of Kelvin temperature settings, from 3,000 to 7,500 degrees, with each setting intended to correspond to a particular light source (the manual has a table of temperatures and values). - I like the flexibility of direct Kelvin settings a lot, but would really like to see them extend further down into the color range associated with household incandescent lighting, used so widely here in the US. (That's as low as 2400-2500K, for reference.) Other image adjustments include sharpness and contrast, each allowing you to increase or decrease the effect. The E-20 features a built-in, pop-up flash that works in Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, and Fill-in operating modes. You can adjust the intensity level of the flash from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments. There are two ways to connect an external flash to the E-20, either with the hot shoe on top of the camera or the PC sync terminal on the side panel. Both the internal and external flash can operate at the same time, and the intensity setting applies to the external flash as well. (If the flash supports Olympus control scheme - Use the Olympus FL-40 flash unit for assured compatibility.)

A Sequence shooting mode captures up to four sequential interlaced frames at approximately 2.5 frames per second, or seven progressive scan frames at approximately the same frame rate (as many as three RAW files). An auto bracketing feature takes three images at three different exposure values to help you get the right exposure. A Time-lapse Photography mode takes an infinite number of images (or as many as the memory card will allow), at set intervals from 30 seconds to 24 hours for as long as the batteries hold out. The E-20 also works with an infrared or a wired remote control (the wired remote lets you halfway press the Shutter button to set focus and exposure, a function that the infrared remote doesn't support).

For image storage, the E-20 can accommodate both SmartMedia and CompactFlash Type I or II memory cards, with dual slots on the side of the camera (a 16-megabyte SmartMedia card is included with the camera). Five image sizes are available from 2,560 x 1,920 pixels on down, and images can be saved in JPEG, uncompressed TIFF, or RAW data formats. An Olympus RAW File Import Plug-in for Adobe Photoshop accompanies the camera, allowing you to process and color correct RAW files on a computer. A USB cable also comes with the camera, for speedy connection to a computer, and the Camedia Master 2.5 software package provides image downloading, organization, and minor correction capabilities (compatible with Macintosh and Windows operating systems). US and Japanese models come with an NTSC cable for viewing and composing images with a television set, and we assume that European models are equipped for PAL timing.

The E-20 can utilize several different power sources, with a sliding tray in the battery compartment holding either four AA alkaline, NiCd, or NiMH batteries, or two CR-V3 lithium ion battery packs. As an accessory, a vertical hand grip and battery pack accommodates a more powerful lithium polymer battery. An AC adapter is also available as an accessory, and highly recommended for tasks such as image downloading and playback. (If you're interested in a third-party external battery pack, I recommend the Li-Ion version of the Maha PowerEx PowerBank, which provides the higher terminal voltage the E-20 seems to need.)

I suspect some prospective professional users may turn away from the E-20 because it lacks interchangeable lenses and the long "motor-drive" run lengths of high-end professional digital SLRs. Given its other sterling qualities though, as well as its low price (less than half the cost of the average pro digital SLR body alone), I think the E-20 will be as successful as its predecessor, possibly even more so. The faster shutter speeds and larger CCD alone are welcome improvements over the previous model. The E-20 has enough exposure control and features for professional applications, while providing enough automatic operation for less sophisticated users. - An excellent combination.


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