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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 3:Design

Review First Posted: 11/28/2001

The Olympus E-20 looks like a twin of the previous E-10 digicam, the sole differences being that it offers increased exposure options and a larger, 5.24-megapixel CCD. With enough features and sophistication to lure professional photographers and novices alike, the E-20 offers full exposure control in a familiar 35mm camera design. Its durable cast aluminum body (along with its rather substantial lens) make the E-20 a hefty 37 ounces (1,048 grams) without batteries or media, but drop-in-the-pocket portability isn't exactly what the E-20's designers were after. An accompanying neck strap should make things a little easier, although the camera lacks the exceptional balance I so admired in Olympus' C-2100 Ultra Zoom model. Dimensionally, the E-20 measures 5.1 x 4.1 x 6.3 inches (129 x 104 x 161 millimeters).

The cast aluminum body design of the E-20 (shown above) is actually important for several reasons. Not only does it provide a very rigid, rugged housing for the optics and electronics of the camera, but it also serves as a heat sink for the E-20's 5.24-megapixel CCD. I see this last as a significant feature, and it's very likely a major contributor to the E-20's superb low-light performance. Noise currents in CCDs are very strong functions of temperature, doubling about every six to eight degrees C. Thus, if you're interested in minimizing noise in a digital camera, controlling the CCD temperature becomes quite important. Due to their compact size, many consumer-level digicams run quite hot internally, particularly after being used in capture mode with the LCD running for an extended period. In the E-20, Olympus has done two things to dramatically reduce the normal operating temperature of the CCD. The first thing I noticed was the LCD panel, which is packaged as a separate unit that can tilt out from the back of the camera. Just having it external to the main camera body cavity will reduce its contribution to the camera's heat load, and when swung out from the body, it's impact is reduced even further.

The most important factor in reducing thermal noise in the E-20 though, is the way Olympus has designed the entire body as a heat sink for the imager. The illustration above (courtesy Olympus) shows a cross-section of the camera, with the metal body parts highlighted. The dark vertical rectangle at the center is the CCD imager, which you can see is in direct contact with a metal insert that in turn connects to the aluminum body casting. This arrangement conducts heat away from the imager much more efficiently than in any consumer-level cameras we've seen in the past, and could easily result in CCD operating temperatures 20 degrees C lower than in competing models. Using the "2x noise per six degrees C" rule of thumb mentioned above, a 20 degree C reduction in operating temperature could mean as much as a factor of eight difference in image noise. While I don't have any specifications from Olympus as to the actual temperature reduction due this design, I can vouch for the fact that the E-20's low light performance not only exceptionally good, but seemed to degrade much less than that of other cameras I've tested if the camera was operated for a long time. Overall, an intelligent, innovative design that seems to have a real impact in daily use.

The E-20's SLR design features a "beam splitter" rather than the traditional mirror, which directs the image to the optical viewfinder and the CCD simultaneously. This makes it feasible to have both optical and LCD viewfinders on an SLR camera, something not normally possible. I didn't get a chance to play with them on the E-20, but our test unit of the original E-10 arrived with several accessory components, including lens attachments with grips, the lithium polymer battery and grip, and a wired remote. - Consequently, I've shown the accessories below attached to an E-10 model.

Because the E-20's lens is not interchangeable, Olympus offers a range of accessory lenses that attach to the camera's main lens via the 62mm filter threads. This stacking of lenses can get rather long and heavy, but Olympus provides supports and grips to help balance out the camera's weight and make it a little easier to hold with the longest telephoto lens attached. Like the E-10, most of the E-20's exposure functions are accessible through external exposure controls. This not only simplifies camera operation, but also requires less reliance on the LCD menu, which in turn, equates to lower power consumption.

The front of the E-20 features the lens, autofocus sensor, shutter release button, infrared remote control sensor, and the Quick Reference white balance button. As noted earlier, the E-20 doesn't allow for interchangeable lenses, but there are significant advantages to this approach, as well as the obvious disadvantage of less flexibility in your choice of optics. Advantages include optimal mating of lens and sensor, and no chance of getting dust on the CCD's surface. (The E-20's lens is designed specifically to provide an optimal light path for the CCD, with incident rays more nearly perpendicular to the surface of the sensor than with conventional lenses.) The Shutter button rests at an angle on the hefty hand grip, which features a textured-rubber that grips the fingers well.

The hand grip side of the camera features little other than a neck strap attachment eyelet and the memory card compartment, accessible from the camera's back panel via a sliding lever. The compartment holds both SmartMedia and CompactFlash Type I or II memory cards thanks to dual slots, and is protected by a hinged, plastic door.

The opposite side of the camera displays a wealth of controls, including the popup flash release button, PC sync terminal for an external flash, sync terminal for the wired remote control, auto/manual focus selector switch, I/O connector compartment, DC power socket, and a handful of exposure controls. The flash and wired remote control sync terminals are both protected by small, black, threaded, plastic caps that screw into place. While these small caps provide good protection, I found them a little difficult to unscrew and very easy to lose. The DC power socket is covered by a flexible, rubber flap that remains attached to the camera and simply folds out of the way when the camera is plugged into its AC adapter. The I/O connector compartment is located under the neck strap attachment eyelet, and accessed by opening the hinged plastic door. Inside the compartment are the Video Out and USB jacks. Exposure controls on this side of the camera include the Macro, Metering, Exposure Compensation, and Drive buttons, as well as the focus selector switch and the release mechanism for the LCD monitor, which I'll detail a little further on.

On top of the camera are more exposure controls and dials, as well as the hot shoe for mounting an external flash unit, the popup flash, a small status display panel, and the power switch. The external flash hot shoe features a sliding plastic cap that protects the contacts from accidental scratching, dirt, or other harm. A command dial is present for changing camera settings, as is a mode dial for changing the exposure mode. Other exposure controls include the White Balance, Flash Mode, Image Quality, memory card selector, and status display panel backlight buttons. We always like to see status display panels like this, as they help avoid use of the camera's LCD menu system, saving power and making control setting much faster. The status display panel's backlight feature illuminates the panel with a soft yellow light (LED?), so you can check camera settings in the dark.

The remaining exposure controls, LCD monitor, and optical viewfinder are all on the camera's back panel. The SLR optical viewfinder features a notched dioptric adjustment dial around the outside of the eyepiece, to accommodate eyeglass wearers. The small lever just left and below the eyepiece controls a shutter that can be used to block the viewfinder to prevent ambient light from affecting the exposure when using the camera on a tripod. Camera controls on the rear panel include a subcommand dial, the display and menu buttons, a set of arrow keys, and the OK, Info, Protect, and Erase buttons. I liked the design of the LCD monitor, which actually pops off of the back panel and rotates upwards as much as 90 degrees for better viewing when shooting from low angles. Because it lifts off of the back panel slightly, the LCD monitor can also face downwards at about 20 degrees for high-angle shooting. Overall, not quite as flexible as the fully articulated LCDs on some cameras, but a big step ahead of a fixed LCD panel nonetheless.

The bottom panel of the E-20 is just slightly uneven, holding the battery compartment, speaker, and metal tripod mount. While the camera bottom isn't perfectly flat overall, there's a very broad tripod mounting flange for good stability, and the tripod mount also incorporates recesses to receive the anti-rotation pins some tripod heads have on them. (Overall, a very rugged-looking tripod mount, in my opinion.) I'm also glad to report that the tripod mount and battery compartment are far enough away from each other to allow for quick battery changes while mounted. The battery compartment features a small, silver lock that turns to unlock the compartment, releasing a sliding tray that holds either two CR-V3 lithium batteries or four AA alkaline, NiMH, or NiCd batteries. The tray slides in and out of the compartment, which is also nice when working with a tripod.

To head off the emails before they arrive, I'll note here that the speaker on the camera bottom has nothing to do with multimedia capabilities, but rather exists for the sole purpose of giving the camera the familiar "click-whir" sound of a film-based SLR. In fact, Olympus was so dedicated to verisimilitude in this respect that the E-20 offers your choice of two camera sounds, corresponding to the digitized sounds of their OM-1 and OM-2 film cameras! I confess that I'm not sure I see the value in this, but can report that camera sounds are very handy when shooting portraits and other people-pictures, as it gives the subject(s) some idea of when the picture was actually shot, so they can relax and avoid "posing fatigue".

The optional lithium polymer battery and grip kit provides not only a more powerful, longer lasting power source, but also a thick grip and secondary shutter release for holding the camera vertically. (That's the nearly-indistinguishable E-10 above, with the power grip attached.)

I found the shape of the hand grip a little uncomfortable for my hands, as the placement of the Shutter button pushed my hand down a bit on the grip. Combined with the rather diminutive dimensions of the camera overall (when compared to large professional film SLRs), the result was that the bottom of the hand grip rested in the center of my palm, rather than against the heel of my hand. This meant I had less leverage on the camera, and it contributed to an unbalanced feeling when using the grip vertically, singlehanded. I assume that Olympus placed the secondary shutter button below the top corner of the grip to prevent any accidental triggering, but I would rather see it higher on the grip, with a lock feature like that of the Nikon D1 series.

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