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Olympus E-20

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

Review First Posted: 11/28/2001

MSRP $1999 US


True 5-megapixel sensor for resolution to 2,560 x 1,920
High-quality 4x zoom lens, 35-140mm equivalent
Unique SLR design with beam-splitter for live LCD preview
Very flexible exposure controls, good user interface
Exceptional low light capability

Manufacturer Overview
Olympus continues to be one of the real powerhouses of the digital photography world, with on of the broadest lines of camera models in the industry. Their products range from rock-bottom entry level models to the 5 megapixel "Pro" SLR that's the subject of this review.

The E-20N is clearly intended to compete at the highest image quality levels of the digital SLR field, thanks to its true 5.24-megapixel CCD resolution. This review is based on a full-production model of the E-20N, and the results are impressive indeed. With an initial selling price of $1,999 US, the E-20 is thousands cheaper than most competing models, and actually outperforms them in some areas. After spending a week or so with the camera, I found myself liking it quite a bit, although there are a few quirks in its design that I'd change if I could: The combination of high image quality, good optics, excellent low light capability, and a relatively compact design (smaller than many film-based SLRs) added up to quite a package. I suspect there will be a lot of people for whom $4,000 plus for one of the competing SLR models (including a lens) would be an uncomfortable stretch, but who can happily find the $2,000 for an E-20. Olympus' earlier E-10 digital SLR was very popular, the new E-20 looks like it will continue in the same vein. Read on for the details...

High Points

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.

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.

For composing images, the E-20 features an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor. The optical viewfinder's SLR design utilizes a "beam splitter" method rather than the traditional mirror design. Oddly, although the image is carried to the CCD and viewfinder simultaneously, there's still a brief "blackout" each time the shutter trips. I'm not sure why this is, since the optical path looks as though it should support light going to the viewfinder and CCD at the same time. One benefit though, is that the beam splitter design should reduce vibration significantly for shooting under dim lighting conditions with long telephoto lenses, since there's no mirror slamming up as the exposure begins. Another benefit is that, with no mirror to flip up, the maximum cycle time can be very fast. (Some very high-end film-based SLRs have what are called "pellicle" mirrors, which are partially transmissive, and remain in place as the shutter opens. This approach is usually adopted in order to achieve very high frame rates of 10-frames-per-second or so though, quite a bit beyond the 2.5-frame-per-second capability of the E-20.) The illustration below shows the optical path through the camera: The beam-splitter is the squarish unit at the rear of the camera, where one light path branches off vertically to go to the eyepiece, and the other proceeds straight through to the CCD.

While the beam-splitter approach does have the advantages described above, there is a tradeoff in light sensitivity associated with it: Since some portion of the light must be sent through the viewfinder, there will be that much less reaching the CCD. If the light were split evenly between the two, this would be a one f-stop loss in ISO. That said, I was impressed with the E-20's low light performance, among the best I've seen among cameras I've tested, regardless of price.

Inside the optical viewfinder are central autofocus target marks and an LED display that reports shutter speed, aperture, flash, metering system, exposure compensation, and whether or not the image is in focus (indicated by a full circle that lights solid when focus is set). A soft, rubber bezel around the outside of the eyepiece comfortably cushions the eye, and a notched, dioptric adjustment dial (also around the outside of the eyepiece) adjusts the focus in the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers. The notched dioptric dial is a little difficult to turn while looking through the viewfinder. I found it easier to pull the camera away from the face, move the dial a notch, and then look back through the viewfinder to check the view. This is only slightly annoying, as I'd ideally like to be able to look through the viewfinder as we adjust the dioptric dial. I did appreciate that the dioptric adjustment had very definite click-stops in its rotation though, so it isn't likely to get jostled out of adjustment inadvertently. It also seemed to offer a wider range of adjustment than I'm accustomed to seeing, but I don't have any quantitative measure to support that conclusion. As with most SLRs, light entering the rear viewfinder element can affect exposure, so the E-20 incorporates a lever-actuated shutter to block off the eyepiece when you're using the camera on a tripod. (That is, whenever your eyeball isn't blocking light from entering the viewfinder eyepiece.)

The 1.8- inch, color, TFT (Thin-Film Transistor) LCD monitor features 114,000 pixels and a tilting design. A small release lever on the left side of the monitor pops the top of the LCD monitor outwards from its compartment, allowing you to tilt the display down by about 20 degrees, useful for times when the camera is slightly overhead. By lifting it off of the back panel slightly, the LCD monitor can also face upwards at a 90-degree angle, handy for low-angle shots. The Display button next to the LCD monitor turns the image display on or off, and the Menu button just below it calls up the LCD menu system for whatever mode the camera is currently in.

Just like the optical viewfinder, the LCD monitor features an information readout at the bottom of the screen, reporting the exposure settings, focus lock, and flash mode. Pressing the Info button repeatedly cycles between two information screens and no information at all. The first information display reports the shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation. The second screen displays a focus range indicator in both meters and feet, reporting the approximate distance between the camera and the subject. The focus indicator is great, both in autofocus mode, when it provides a rangefinder capability, or in manual focus mode, where it would be useful for situations in which you know the distance to the subject. For more detailed information on battery power, the number of available images, and more extensive exposure information, the small status display panel on top of the camera features a more complete information readout. Olympus estimates that the LCD monitor represents about 100 percent frame accuracy, but I found it only showed 90-92 percent of the final frame.

The E-20 offers a fair bit of exposure information during playback, optionally available by pressing the Info button on the rear panel while rotating the Subcommand dial. Three levels of information are available, as shown at right. We liked the control over the amount of information displayed, but would liked to have been able to simply switch the information overlay on or off just by pressing the Info button. (That is, without having to resort to the Subcommand dial.)

The E-20 also offers a histogram function displaying the distribution of brightness throughout the image, although you may have to read the manual (as I did) to find it. To access the histogram function, you have to first put the camera into the PC Connection mode (?!) on the Mode dial and then activate the histogram through the settings menu there. (This settings menu also controls other camera functions, such as the function of the Macro button, date and time setting, file naming scheme, and RAW file format enabling.) Once activated, you can toggle between the normal exposure-information display and the histogram by pressing the Info button. I liked the E-20's histogram display because it was fairly large, and seemed to show good detail in terms of the number of pixels at various brightness levels. It seemed to do a bit better job than other histogram displays we've seen of telling us when a relatively small percentage of the image was blown out, but I also really like camera displays that show blown-out regions as black or blinking, to help see just where you're losing highlights in an image. The E-20's playback display doesn't offer this option however. (Note to Olympus: Any chance of seeing this feature as a firmware upgrade for the E-20?)

The histogram display wasn't "live" in capture mode, but rather I had to first capture a frame, then switch to the "quick review" mode by pressing the display button twice in rapid succession. This actually puts you in Playback mode, in that you have all the normal playback functions available to you. The advantage is that you can switch back to capture mode instantly, just by touching the Shutter button. (The camera will also revert to capture mode automatically if you don't touch any of the controls for 60 seconds or so.)

In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers a playback zoom function, which enlarges captured images for closer inspection of fine details. It appears to offer magnifications up to about 4x, a very useful level, but I've seen higher magnifications on some competing models, and would prefer more magnification than the 4x offered here. There's also an index display mode, which displays up to sixteen thumbnail images on the screen at one time, perfect for selecting images to protect, delete, or print.
In my testing, I found the E20's viewfinder to be just a little tight, showing about 94 percent frame accuracy at wide angle and about 96 percent at telephoto. As noted above, the corresponding numbers for the LCD finder were 90 and 92 percent.

Like the E-10, the E-20 has a unique fixed-mount lens design. It's a departure from other professional SLR digicams, in that it doesn't accept interchangeable lenses. For some photographers, this will undoubtedly be seen as a limitation. On the other hand, Olympus offers a pretty wide range of front-element auxiliary lenses, the 4x zoom range is probably sufficient for the bulk of normal studio and location shooting, and there are advantages to the fixed-lens design that I'll delve into shortly. Aside from the fixed-mount design, the E-20's optics are unique in their incorporation of several elements normally found only in very high-end lenses in the 35mm world.

The diagram above shows the E-20's lens optical system in cross-section, with several key parts of it called out. The first noteworthy feature is that there are two aspheric elements, and no fewer than three low-dispersion or extra-low-dispersion elements, both of which are costly to manufacture, and a hallmark of high-end optics. The second design element is the "Gauss Type Lens Group" appearing in the middle of the diagram. Gauss groups are normally found only in high-end wide-aperture telephoto lenses, and significantly reduce chromatic aberration and other optical defects in such designs. Another consequence of the arrangement of elements in the E-20's lens is that the light arriving at the CCD will be pretty highly collimated, with all the light rays hitting the CCD surface more or less at a right angle. Olympus feels that this is important for digital imaging systems, due to the strong three-dimensional structure of the CCD surface. (I didn't have this confirmed by Olympus, but we strongly suspect that the "purple fringe" problem found on many consumer-level digicams is due to a too-high angle of incidence of the light falling on the CCD surface.)

Another aspect of the E-20's lens system that Olympus calls particular attention to is that it is designed to have a "circle of confusion," matching the dimensions of the CCD pixels. This is a bit of a technical area, but lens systems are generally designed to be able to deliver a particular maximum resolving power, measured by how tightly they can focus a hypothetical point source of light. Most film-camera lenses are designed with the resolution limits of film in mind (no surprise), which apparently results in "circles of confusion" (sounds like a planning meeting at The Imaging Resource ;) or "blur spot" size of six microns or more. The problem with applying such lenses to digital imaging is that the lens ends up being the limiting element in the overall optical path. Olympus' contention is that lenses need to be designed to match the requirements of the new medium. We don't have any way of verifying the impact of all this optical technology, but can say that the lens on our E-20 evaluation sample looked exceptionally sharp.

Turning to the more mundane aspects of the E-20's lens, its 4x, professional ED (Extra-low Dispersion), glass, 9- 36mm lens (equivalent to a 35-140mm lens on a 35mm camera) design. With a very fast minimum aperture of f/2.0 ~ f/2.4 (depending on zoom setting), the lens features 14 elements in 11 groups. As noted above, these groups can be broken down into one extra-low dispersion glass element, two aspherical glass elements, two aspherical elements, and two high index low dispersion elements. Aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted, with a range from f/2.0 to f/11.0, depending on the zoom setting, in 1/3 EV steps. Focus ranges from 1.97 feet (0.6 meters) to infinity in normal mode and from 8.0 to 30.0 inches (0.2 to 0.8 meters) in macro mode. Macro mode is accessed by pressing the Macro button and turning the Command dial until the traditional macro flower symbol appears in the status display panel. Zoom is controlled by turning a textured-rubber bezel around the lens, rather than by pressing zoom control buttons. I like this method, as it gives you the same feeling as zooming a traditional 35mm lens, and provides more precise and positive-acting zoom control. The E20 captured a tiny macro area in our testing, approximately 2.92 x 2.19 inches (74.29 x 55.72 millimeters).

Focus can be automatically or manually controlled, with an AF/MF switch on the side of the camera to designate the mode. The E-20's autofocus system uses a Dual AF-Active (IR and Passive TTL) contrast detection method to determine focus, basing focus on the center of the subject. What this means is that the camera uses two methods to measure focus. First, the Active Triangulation Reflective AF bounces an infrared beam off of the subject to judge the distance between the subject and the lens. The subject is then roughly focused by moving the lens, followed by a more precise focus based on what the CCD is seeing. Once the subject is in focus, a green circle in the optical viewfinder lights solid. When shooting with manual focus, the focus is adjusted by turning the focus ring on the outside of the lens. When using manual focus, the camera-to-subject distance is also optionally reported in the bottom of the viewfinder screen, in both feet and meters. Like most other digicams with manual focus options that I've tested, the E-20's manual focus is a "fly by wire" system, in which the focus ring isn't coupled to the lens elements directly, but rather simply commands the camera's stepper motors to adjust the focus. It still does a pretty decent job of giving you the feel of actually adjusting the lens, because the direction and distance the ring is turned translates pretty directly into focus adjustment. The one downside of this system I see though, is that the maximum focus-adjust rate ("slew rate") is limited by the camera electronics, rather than by how fast you can crank the control ring. If you're used to the fairly loose focus adjustments on modern autofocus 35mm film camera lenses, you may be frustrated by the focusing speed of the E-20. On the other hand, it is one of the better-feeling manual focus adjustments I've seen on a digicam.

As first mentioned in the "design section, although the E-20 does not accommodate interchangeable lenses, its built-in lens does feature 62mm filter threads for attaching accessory lenses. Available lenses are a 28mm f/2.0 wide angle lens, 200mm f/2.4 and 420mm f/2.8 telephoto lenses, and a macro lens. Accessory grip and support kits are also available, and necessary, since the added lenses increase the weight and the length of the lens unit.

The optional 420mm-equivalent, f/2.8 lens (shown above attached to the E-10 camera) makes the camera quite long and heavy, requiring a lengthy support bar to hold the camera and lens together. This lens extension evolves the camera into a rather large, somewhat awkward device. Still, I applaud the availability of such a long, fast accessory lens, and found the resulting images to be very sharp. (Take a look at a 400mm f/2.8 lens on a 35mm film camera though: If your wallet can get past the several thousand dollar sticker price, you'll find the resulting lens probably weighs more than the E-20 and it's long telephoto combined.) The 420mm accessory lens can only be used with the camera's own lens set at maximum telephoto: Any excursion toward wide-angle focal lengths will result in vignetting. "Street" price for the 420mm lens is less around $600 pretty cheap by 35mm standards for a lens of that length and aperture.

A 200mm, f/2.4 extension lens can also be attached to the camera. Though no support device is required, the longer lens definitely requires a second hand to hold the camera steady. As with the 420mm lens, the 200mm unit can only be used with the main lens set to telephoto focal lengths.

A 28mm wide angle lens attachment is also available, with a maximum aperture setting of f/2.0. This shorter lens doesn't require any additional support, and does not vignette at any focal length setting of the primary lens.

As mentioned earlier, the E-20 accommodates both an infrared and wired remote control. What I really appreciated with the wired device is the ability to halfway press the shutter release to set exposure and focus. Most external remotes don't provide this capability. The wired remote is also necessary to take full advantage of the bulb exposure capability: Pressing on the shutter during a 30 second exposure is likely to introduce camera shake, even with a sturdy tripod. The infrared remote control is the same unit that Olympus includes with many of its other digicams, allowing you to trip the shutter and access several playback functions, but not half-press the shutter button to lock focus, nor press and hold it for bulb exposures.

The E-20 offers excellent exposure control, with a range of manual and automatic exposure modes available. Through the Mode dial on top of the camera, you can set the exposure mode to Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual. In Program exposure mode, the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed settings, while you can adjust the exposure compensation, metering mode, ISO, flash, and white balance. Aperture Priority mode allows you to set the lens aperture (from f/2.0-2.4 to f/11.0, depending on the zoom setting) while the camera selects the best corresponding shutter speed. Shutter Priority modes works in the exact opposite, allowing you to set the shutter speed (from 1/18,000 to 60 seconds - see below for a discussion of maximum shutter speeds though) while the camera selects the appropriate lens aperture. In both Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, you have control over the same exposure variables as in Program mode. Shooting in Manual exposure mode gives you control over both the shutter speed and aperture setting, with a Bulb setting for exposure times all the way out to 8 minutes(!). Manual exposure mode also allows you to change all other exposure variables, with the exception that exposure compensation and metering mode aren't available. (Which makes sense, since the camera's metering system isn't involved when you're in full-manual mode.) In both Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the designated variable is changed by simply turning the Command dial on top of the camera. In Manual mode, aperture is set by turning the small Subcommand dial on the back panel, and shutter speed is changed by turning the main Command dial on the top panel. The camera doesn't offer any preset shooting modes (as do many more consumer-oriented cameras), for shooting in special situations such as night scenes or sunsets. However, the camera's instruction manual provides detailed information and tips for shooting portraits, backlit subjects, action subjects, etc.

Three metering modes are available on the E-20, in all exposure modes other than Manual. Digital ESP Metering reads multiple locations across the entire image area to determine the correct exposure value. Center-Weighted Average Metering reads light in a relatively large area at the center of the subject to determine exposure (the metering area takes up about 11 percent of the total frame area). The third mode, Spot Metering, takes a light reading from the very center of the subject (about 1.6 percent of the viewfinder image area). The metering mode is selected by holding down the Metering button and turning the Command dial (or Subcommand dial) until the desired icon is displayed in the viewfinder. Like metering, exposure compensation is adjustable in all exposure modes except Manual. By pressing the Exposure Compensation button and turning the Command dial (or Subcommand dial), the exposure can be adjusted from -3 to +3 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments.

An exposure lock function is controlled by the AE Lock button on the back panel of the camera. To use AE Lock, simply point the center of the viewfinder at the part of the subject you want the exposure based on, press and hold the AE Lock button, reframe the subject, and trigger the shutter. The separate AE Lock button is a nice feature, because it lets you completely recompose your shot (including zoom and focus adjustments) without losing the desired exposure setting.

You can use the AEL and Shutter buttons to effect a focus-lock function. Half-press the Shutter button to lock both exposure and focus. Then center on your exposure target, and press the AEL button. This *re-locks* the exposure, while not affecting the focus. Finally, while still holding down the AEL button (and still half-pressing the Shutter button), reframe your picture and fully press the Shutter button. Not the most straightforward implementation I've seen, but the function is nonetheless there and usable.

White balance on the E-20 offers three operating modes: Auto, Quick Reference, and Preset. The Auto setting selects the whitest portion of the subject and adjusts the color balance to achieve the best white value. The Quick Reference setting is equivalent to a manual white balance mode, in that it allows you to set the white balance by placing a white card in front of the subject to balance the color. You then press the Quick Reference white balance button on the front of the camera to save the setting as a preset value. This saved white value will automatically be used the next time the white balance is set to Quick Reference, unless the value is changed again through the same method. Under the Preset white balance mode, the camera offers a selection of Kelvin temperatures, from 3,000 to 7,500 degrees, to match a variety of light sources. The instruction manual provides a detailed chart reporting the temperature setting and the lighting situation it's intended for. While I'm a big fan of the sort of fine-grained white balance control provided by the color temperature preset option, I'd really like to see the range extend below 3000K. - Household incandescent lighting of the type almost universally used in the US generally has color temperatures in the range of 2400-2800K, so even the 3000K setting doesn't go far enough. (Although the Quick Reference option has no trouble dealing with light sources as warm-hued as this.)

Image sharpness can be adjusted to Hard, Soft, or Normal on the E-20, through the Record menu. These affect the amount of in-camera sharpening applied to the images, although the three options operate across a fairly narrow range. "Soft" still seems to leave some sharpening applied, while "Hard" is a relatively modest boost over the Normal setting.

Progressive vs Interlaced Scan.
I wasn't sure just where to put this part of the discussion, as it isn't normally part of a still camera review. - Here in the "Exposure" section seems to make the most sense, so here it is:

The E-20N supports two exposure modes, Interlaced and Progressive. It appears that the camera's normal operating mode involves clocking data off the CCD array in two chunks, corresponding to the even- and odd-numbered lines of the CCD. This results in a maximum shutter speed of 1/640 of a second, governed by the camera's mechanical shutter. (Not terribly fast, and one of the principle limitations of the original E-10 model.) If you need higher shutter speeds, you can optionally put the camera into Progressive Scan mode, in which it only uses every other row of sensor elements, dropping vertical resolution in half. The benefit though, is that the camera can then cycle the CCD itself to effect an electronic shutter, with minimum shutter time of only 1/18,000 of a second. That's *fast*!

I was very surprised to find mention of interlaced scan on a high-end digital still camera, as interlaced scan is a principle cause of distortion and artifacts when shooting rapidly-moving subjects with video cameras. It appears that what's happening in the E-20 isn't so much that the image is being built up by successive scans of the CCD, but that the information captured is read out in successive cycles after it has been captured. Thus, no moving-subject distortion, only a limitation on maximum shutter speed, since the CCD can't be electronically gated in this mode.

Regardless of the specifics of its implementation, the E-20's progressive scan option lets you trade off half of your vertical resolution in order to achieve very brief exposure times.

The E-20 features a built-in, pop-up flash with five operating modes, including Automatic, Redeye Reduction, and Fill-In. Flash mode is controlled by pressing the Flash button and turning either the main Command dial or the Subcommand dial. The Automatic flash mode places the camera in charge of when to fire the flash, based on the existing light level and exposure. In Redeye Reduction mode, the flash fires a rapid burst of 10 short flashes to contract the pupils of the subject's eyes before the main flash fires. The Fill-in flash mode fires the flash with every exposure, regardless of the light level. Finally, the flash can be completely disabled by returning it to its compartment. The built-in flash intensity level can be adjusted through the record menu, from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments.

Olympus estimates the built-in flash as effective from 0.6 to 18.3 feet (0.2 to 5.6 meters), at the normal intensity and ISO 100 settings with the lens set to its wide angle focal length, or 0.6 to 12.5 feet (0.2 to 3.8 meters) with the lens at telephoto. This agreed well with my own testing, which showed constant brightness to 12 feet with the lens in its telephoto position, and then gradual dimming after that point.

A hot shoe on top of the camera accommodates an external flash, as does the PC sync terminal on the side of the camera. You can use the internal flash and an external flash together, as the camera automatically sets the internal flash to Automatic if popped up when the external flash is connected. Flash intensity level can also be controlled through the camera for a dedicated external flash, via the same method as for the internal unit. Olympus offers the FL-40 external flash as an accessory, and the instruction manual contains detailed instructions for connecting the flash and setting it up. (Note that the flash exposure adjustment option likely will not be available with third-party accessory flash units, as it requires extra connections on the flash shoe to implement this function.)

In the E-20's manual, Olympus notes that the flash "may not be effective" at shutter speeds higher than 1/250, although it isn't clear whether that's due to issues with sync timing, or the duration of the flash itself. - Testing the E-20N with my White Lightning studio strobe (UltraZap 800 model), I found I could get perfectly good flash exposures out to shutter speeds of 1/4000 of a second.

Auto Bracketing
In all exposure modes except for Manual, an auto bracketing feature takes three exposures of the same image at different exposure values (one at the set exposure value, one overexposed, and one underexposed). Through the record settings menu, you can set the EV increment you want each image to differ by, with options of one-third, two-thirds, or one EV step in either direction. The camera's internal flash must be closed for auto bracketing to work, and the self-timer is unavailable when this feature is enabled.

Sequence Mode
The Drive button on the side of the camera accesses the Sequence shooting mode, which allows you to capture up to four successive shots at roughly 2.5 frames per second with one press of the Shutter button.

Self-Timer and Remote Control Photography
Also through the Drive button, the E-20 offers the Self-Timer and Remote Control shooting modes. The Self-Timer features a 12-second countdown before the shutter is fired, allowing you to get into the image after pressing the Shutter button. As with normal exposures, the camera sets focus with the half-press of the Shutter button, meaning that you shouldn't stand in front of the camera to start the countdown and press the Shutter button.

The E-20 works with an included infrared remote control as well as an accessory wired remote control unit. The Remote Control shooting mode, accessed through the Drive button, sets the camera to receive signals from the infrared remote control unit, which works as far as 16.6 feet (5m) from the camera's front.

The wired remote control unit can be used in any capture mode and doesn't require you to set the Drive setting to Remote Control mode. Instead, when the remote control wire is connected to the camera via the side terminal, the remote functions are instantly available. With the wired remote, you can halfway press the shutter button to set focus, a function that the infrared remote doesn't allow. The wired remote is perfect for shooting with the Bulb shutter setting or any slow shutter speed, to reduce any camera movement caused by pressing the shutter button.

Time-lapse Photography
Through the Record menu, the E-20 offers a Time-lapse Photography mode. You can set the shutter intervals from 30 seconds up to 24 hours, and the camera will continue to take pictures at the set interval until the batteries die, the memory card fills up, or the camera is turned off.

Low Light Photography
I don't normally have a separate section in my reviews on a camera's low light capability, but the E-10 was so exceptional in this respect that I thought it warranted separate coverage. The E-20 appears pretty impressive in this respect as well, but we didn't receive a wired remote with our test unit. I've asked Olympus for one so I can shoot some really long exposures on the tripod, and will try to come back here (time permitting) to fill-in with some shots of the sort I took by moonlight with the E-10. - See the E-10 review for some impressive examples of shots taken by moonlight with that camera.


Shutter Lag / Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, I routinely measure it using a custom-built electronic test system. Here's what I found when I tested the E-20's timing:


Olympus E-20N Timings
Time (secs)
Power On -> First shot
Rather slow - seems to spend a fair time checking the card.
No lens to retract, so zero time to put away. 2.7 seconds is time to finish saving one large/fine file after capture.
Play to Record, first shot
Camera is always "live" for shooting. This time is time to capture when shutter release is pressed while an image is being displayed on the LCD monitor. (Quite fast.)
Record to play (max res)
Time to display a large/fine image after pressing the "monitor" button.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
AF time varies for wide vs tele lens setting. First number at left is for wide, second is for tele.
Shutter lag, manual focus
About average, actually a bit on the slow side for a pro camera.
Shutter lag, prefocus
Very fast. - That's 58 milliseconds, about as fast as any camera I've tested.
Cycle time, large/fine files
Quite fast for first four shots (while writing only to buffer), then slows dramatically. - I'd like to see the buffer clear a good bit quicker than it does, too.
Cycle time, small/basic files
Same behavior as above, but doesn't slow quite as much, and buffer clears faster.
Cycle time, TIFF files
Same speed as above, while writing to buffer, but takes ~35 seconds for each image to clear the buffer.
Continuous mode, JPEG files
(2.51 fps)
Continuous-mode timing for JPEG files is very consistent, at 0.398 seconds per frame (2.51 frames/second). Bursts of four frames, then must wait for buffer to empty (20-30 seconds, depending on card speed), then another 4, and so on.


Overall, the E-20N is a pretty fast-operating camera, with very decent shot to shot and shutter lag times, and in fact has about the fastest shutter response when used in prefocus mode of any camera I've tested. Speed while working off the 4-frame buffer is quite good, but once you overshoot the buffer, things slow dramatically. A faster memory card does make some difference, chopping buffer-clear times by about a third, but the write speed to the memory cards is really a good bit slower than I'd like to see in a high-end camera. Most annoying though, is that many of the camera's settings are locked-out while the buffer is emptying. You can change the exposure compensation between rapid shots, but white balance, image quality, and any of the rear-panel LCD menu settings remain off-limits until the camera finishes flushing its buffer memory to the card. In an otherwise excellent camera, with good speed and great controls, this was perhaps my biggest gripe. - If Olympus could only get the camera to multi-task to the extent that the menus would remain "live" during memory writing, the E-20's perceived speed would jump dramatically. Not a crucial flaw, but professional sports shooters and others needing long buffer runs and quick cycling will need to look elsewhere.

Operation and User Interface
I found the user interface on the E-20 quite straightforward, though the large number of external camera controls may seem a bit complicated at first glance. I always appreciate being able to change camera settings without resorting to the LCD menu, as it helps conserve battery power and makes for much quicker navigation of the camera's functions. The majority of the E-20's exposure settings are changed by pressing a control button while turning either the main command dial or sub-dial, and the status of these settings is reported on the small status display panel on the top of the camera. While this works rather well, it does mean you have to use two hands to change many camera settings. This can be a little hard to do when you're trying to make changes while maintaining your shooting position. When I did use the LCD menu to change settings, I found it to be uncomplicated and easily navigable, as the arrow buttons allow you to scroll up and down through options and screens. The tilting LCD monitor was also helpful, as it kept the viewfinder visible when shooting in awkward positions, and I enjoyed the ability to manually control the optical zoom and focus with the lens collar. Overall, the E-20 has the look and feel of a traditional 35mm SLR, which made for a very comfortable user experience.

The picture above shows the contents of the small status display panel on the top of the camera. The E-20 provides a goodly amount of information there, making settings changes very fast.

Control Enumeration

Quick Reference White Balance Button: Located on the very front of the camera, just beneath the infrared autofocus sensor, and right under your middle finger as you grasp the hand grip, this button adjusts the camera's white balance based on a white card held in front of the lens. (A very handy position for this button.)

Shutter Button: Resting at an angle on the large hand grip, this button sets both focus and exposure when halfway pressed, and fires the shutter when fully pressed. When shooting in Self-Timer mode, this button triggers the 12 second countdown before the shutter is fired.

AE Lock Button: Positioned in the top right corner of the back panel, this button locks the exposure when pressed and held. Pressing this button locks the exposure at the current setting, and holds it as long as the button is held down.

Main Command Dial: Just above the shutter button, this notched dial sets a variety of camera settings when rotated while a control button is pressed. In Aperture and Shutter Priority exposure modes, this dial used by itself sets either the aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode. In Manual mode, turning the dial without a control button pressed sets the shutter speed.

White Balance Button: Situated on the outside edge of the command dial, this button controls the camera's white balance mode. Holding down this button while turning either command dial cycles through the Auto, Preset, and Quick Reference white balance modes.

Record Mode Button (Image Quality): Positioned on the top of the camera, just inboard of the main command dial, this button lets you cycle through the available image quality settings by pressing it and rotating either command dial. Available modes are RAW, TIFF, SHQ (Super High Quality), HQ (High Quality), and SQ (Standard Quality). (The RAW option is set by turning the control knob one notch past the selection for TIFF, at which point the TIFF indicator in the top-panel LCD readout blinks, indicating RAW mode.) The specific resolution/compression settings for SHQ, HQ, and SQ are configured via the LCD menu system. - This struck me as a neat feature, in that you can set up the E-20's three "standard" image quality choices to match your exact needs. When pressed in conjunction with the Flash button just beside it, all of the camera's exposure and control settings are reset to their factory defaults.

Flash Button: Directly to the left of the Record Mode button, this button controls the camera's flash mode. Pressing it and rotating either command dial (while the flash is in its operating position) cycles through the Automatic, Slow Synchro, Redeye Reduction, Redeye Reduction with Slow Synchro, and Fill-in flash modes. When pressed in conjunction with the Record Mode button, all of the camera's exposure settings are reset to their factory defaults.

Mode Dial: Located on the far right edge of the camera's top panel, this notched dial rests on top of the power switch. Turning the mode dial controls the camera's operating mode, with the following choices:

Power Switch: The power switch is located underneath the Mode dial, in the form of a rotating collar with a projecting tab. A flip of the thumb turns the camera on or off.

Light Button: Situated just beneath the small status display panel, this button turns on a gentle backlight for viewing the panel in the dark. The backlight stays on for eight seconds after the button is pressed.

SM / CF Button: Just to left and back of the Light button, this button selects either the SmartMedia or CompactFlash memory card slot for saving or retrieving images. (The camera can carry both types of cards simultaneously, which could be handy for squeezing out a few extra megabytes of storage space on an extended sortie.)

Subcommand Dial: On the camera's back, just left of the AE Lock button, this dial duplicates the function of the main Command dial for many functions. (A convenience factor.) In Manual exposure mode, turning this dial adjusts the lens aperture setting. In Playback mode, turning the dial to the left activates the index display mode, while turning the dial to the right activates the playback zoom feature. (Five zoom steps ranging from 1.5x to 4.0x are provided.)

Display Button: Just below the subcommand dial, this button enables and disables the LCD monitor display in any mode. Also in any capture mode, pressing this button twice in quick succession puts you into "quick image review mode", displaying the most recently captured image. This quick review mode is actually offers all the standard Playback functions, but is instantly canceled when you touch the shutter button again.

Menu Button: Just below the Display button on the E-20's back panel, the Menu button calls up the settings menu in all camera modes. It also cancels the menu display.

Arrow Keys: Located to the right of the LCD monitor, these four arrow buttons each point in one of the four cardinal directions (up, down, left, and right). While in any settings menu, these buttons navigate through menu options and selections. In Playback mode, the left and right buttons scroll through captured images. When playback zoom is enabled, the four arrows let you scroll around within the enlarged image to check on the details.

Memory Card Slot Release Lever: On the far right side of the camera's back panel, next to the memory card slot, this lever releases the spring-loaded card slot door.

OK Button: Centered between the arrow key pad and the Memory Card Slot Release lever, this button confirms menu selections in all settings menus.

Erase Button: Situated beneath the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button lets you delete the currently displayed image, with an option to cancel.

Protect Button: To the left of the Erase button, this button write-protects the currently displayed image while in Playback mode. Once protected, a key symbol appears in the LCD monitor. This button also removes write-protection.

Info Button: Beneath the lower left corner of the LCD monitor, this button controls the information display in all capture modes, as well as in Playback mode. In any capture mode, pressing this button repeatedly cycles between the exposure information display and the distance display on the LCD monitor. The exposure display reports the current exposure settings, and the distance display reports the approximate distance between the subject and the camera. In Playback mode, pressing this button and rotating either command dial selects one of three levels of exposure information overlaid on the images. Pressed by itself, it toggles between the histogram (when enabled) and the image information display.

Viewfinder Shutter Control: Located to the left of the optical viewfinder eyepiece, this lever flips an internal shutter into the optical viewfinder's light path, preventing light entering the viewfinder eyepiece from affecting the exposure.

Dioptric Adjustment Dial: Surrounding optical viewfinder eyepiece, this rotating collar adjusts the focus of the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers.

Metering Button: The topmost button of the camera's lens side, using this button with either command dial cycles through the three metering modes: ESP, Center, and Spot. Metering mode selections are available in all exposure modes except for Manual.

Drive Button: Just below the Metering button, this button cycles through the camera's shooting modes when pressed while turning the either command dial. Available drive modes are Sequence, Self-Timer, and Remote Control.

LCD Release Switch: Situated next to the LCD monitor (but on the lens side of the camera), this latch releases the LCD monitor allowing it to swivel upward by 90 degrees, or downward by 20 degrees.

Popup Flash Release Button: Located on the side of the popup flash compartment, this button releases the popup flash into its operating position.

Macro Button: Directly below the Popup Flash Release button, pressing this button and rotating either command dial puts the camera into macro mode or returns it to normal shooting mode again. The Macro button is only active in Autofocus mode: In manual focus mode, you can focus the lens across its entire range without switching modes.

Exposure Compensation Button: To the left of the Macro button, this button controls the amount of exposure compensation in all capture modes except for Manual. Pressing the button while turning the command dial adjusts the exposure from -3 to +3 EV in 1/3 EV increments.

AF / MF Switch: Centrally located on the lens side of the camera, this switch selects Auto or Manual focus mode.

Battery Compartment Lock Switch: Located on the bottom of the camera, in the center of the battery compartment door, this switch locks and unlocks the battery compartment. When unlocked, the battery tray slides out from the compartment for changing batteries (holds either four AA alkaline, NiCd, or NiMH batteries, or two CR-V3 lithium ion batteries).

Camera Modes and Menus

(Because the capture modes all share the same menu options, we'll discuss each capture mode individually and then list the record menu selections.)

Manual Exposure Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the "M" position, this mode allows you to control the shutter speed (from 1/18,000 to 60 seconds, with a Bulb setting) and lens aperture (from f/2.0 to f/11.0, depending on the zoom setting). You also have control over all other exposure variables, except for metering mode, exposure compensation, and AE Lock.

Shutter Priority Exposure Mode: Marked on the mode dial with an "S," this mode puts you in control of the shutter speed while the camera controls the lens aperture. The lens aperture range remains the same, but the shutter speed range changes to 1/18,000 to 60 seconds (no Bulb setting). All exposure variables are available, including flash mode, ISO, metering, exposure compensation, AE Lock, sharpness, contrast, and white balance.

Aperture Priority Exposure Mode: This mode is noted on the mode dial with an "A," and allows you to set the lens aperture while the camera selects the best corresponding shutter speed. Aperture values remain the same as with Shutter Priority mode, as does the amount of exposure control available with other features, though shutter speed ranges from 1/18,000 to two seconds.

Program Exposure Mode: Denoted on the mode dial with a "P," this mode puts the camera in charge of both aperture and shutter speed, basing the exposure values on the available light. Aperture and shutter speed ranges remain the same as with Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, and all exposure features are available.

Record Menu: Available in all four capture modes, this menu is accessed by pressing the Menu button. The following options are available:

Playback Mode: This mode is marked on the mode dial with the traditional green playback symbol. In Playback mode, you can scroll through captured images, delete them, protect them, or copy them. You can also view an index display of nine thumbnails on a page, or digitally enlarge the captured image and check fine details. Pressing the menu button displays the following selections:

Print Mode: Marked on the mode dial with a green printer symbol, this mode allows you to mark images for printing on a DPOF compatible device, and set the number of prints. You can also create index print files. Pressing the Menu button calls up the following Preprint menu:

PC Connection Mode: This mode, marked on the mode dial with a crooked arrow, sets up the camera for connection to a computer. It also accesses the main camera settings menu, once the Menu button is pressed. Options are:

Image Storage and Interface
The E-20 can store images on either a SmartMedia (3.3V) or CompactFlash Type I or II memory card, with slots for both cards available on the side of the camera. The SM / CF button on top of the camera selects whether the camera accesses the SmartMedia or CompactFlash card slot. The E-20 also features an internal 32-megabyte, SDRAM buffer memory, for capturing burst sequences. A 32-megabyte SmartMedia card comes with the camera. The E-20 is certified for both normal CF cards and the IBM MicroDrive miniature hard disk cards.

SmartMedia cards can be write-protected by placing a small sticker in the designated area. Stickers must be clean to be effective and can only be used once. CompactFlash cards cannot be entirely write-protected, but the E-20 allows you to write-protect individual images by pressing the Protect button on the back panel. Write-protecting an image doesn't save it from being erased through card reformatting, however.

The E-20's image resolution/quality selection scheme is a little different than I've encountered on other cameras, but having seen it, I wonder why it isn't the rule, rather than the exception. Rather than a family of preset size/quality settings, the E-20 has four "standard" settings of TIFF (uncompressed), SHQ (super high quality), HQ (high quality), and SQ (standard quality). Historically in Olympus cameras, the SHQ, HQ, and SQ designations have been associated with image quality levels corresponding to the names given them. In the E-20 though, you're free to program them to be whatever you'd like. Each of the three standard settings can be programmed to correspond to any of the five image sizes supported by the E-20, namely 2,560 x 1,920, 1,792 x 1,344, 1,280 x 960, 1,024 x 768, and 640 x 480 pixels. Likewise, you can assign any of the three compression levels supported by the E-20 (1:2.7, 1:4, or 1:8) to any JPEG setting. The beauty of this approach is that you can preprogram the image size/quality combinations into the camera and switch rapidly between them without having to resort to the menu system. You're not tied to what some camera designer thought you ought to have available, but can tailor the camera's image settings to your own needs. Very nice. (Oddly though, the uncompressed TIFF format appears to be restricted to the 2,560 x 1,920 size only.)

The smaller image sizes are an area in which Olympus claims special technology: Their "TruePic" image technology supposedly incorporates a more intelligent subsampling algorithm than commonly used in digicams, meaning that images at resolutions lower than that of the full CCD pixel count should be of higher quality than with other cameras. We didn't do any close study of this, but the smaller image sizes we saw shot with the E-20 were indeed very smooth, with no jaggies or other artifacts evident in them.

There's also a RAW image mode, which records images as 10 bit/channel data files directly from the CCD. RAW files feature the .ORF filename extension. An Olympus RAW File Import Plug-in comes with the camera, so that you can process images later with Adobe Photoshop. The plug-in allows you to perform RGB color adjustments without affecting the white balance or any other color adjustment, or automatically process the image to adjust the white balance, color, sharpness, and contrast.

Following are the approximate number of storable images and compression ratios for a 32-megabyte SmartMedia card. The compression numbers listed in the column headings correspond to the compression values listed on the E-20's setup menu. I found these to be quite a bit more conservative than the actual compression the camera used in practice. - The number of storable images and the resulting file sizes were based on what the camera reported as space available on a freshly-formatted card. The "Actual Compression" numbers are derived from the card capacities reported by the camera in each mode. (Of course, your mileage may vary, as the actual amount of compression achieved for each JPEG quality setting is a strong function of the image content. These numbers should be reasonable guidelines though, in calculating how many shots cards of various sizes should give you.)

Image Capacity vs
16MB Memory Card
2560 x 1920
(Avg size)
14.7 MB
5.5 MB
2.9 MB
1.6 MB
Actual Compression
1792 x 1344
(Avg size)
1.8 MB
1.2 MB
0.62 MB
Actual Compression
1280 x 960
(Avg size)
0.93 MB
0.63 MB
0.33 MB
Actual Compression
1024 x 768
(Avg size)
0.60 MB
0.42 MB
0.21 MB
Actual Compression
640x480 Images
(Avg size)
0.25 MB
0.17 MB
0.09 MB
Actual Compression

Interface software and a USB cable also accompany the camera, for high speed connection to a computer. Like the rest of Olympus' current digicam lineup, the E-20 is a "storage class" device, meaning it will be automatically recognized as a removable disk drive under Mac OS 8.6 or later, and Windows ME, 2000, and XP. Besides the ease of connection this provides, it makes for very efficient data transfer to the host computer. I clocked the E-20 at 546 KBytes/second while copying a large TIFF file down to my G4 Mac, an impressive rate of speed.

One of the first things any new digicam owner will need is a larger memory card for their camera: The cards shipped with the units by the manufacturers should really be considered only "starter" cards, you'll definitely want a higher capacity card immediately. - Probably at least a 32 megabyte card for a 1.3 or 2 megapixel camera, 64 megabytes or more for a 3, 4, or 5 megapixel one. (The nice thing about memory cards is you'll be able to use whatever you buy now with your next camera too, whenever you upgrade.) To help you shop for a good deal on memory cards that fit the E-20, we've put together a little memory locater, with links to our price-comparison engine: Just click on the "Memory Wizard" button above to go to the Olympus memory finder, select your camera model , and click the shopping cart icon next to the card size you're interested in. You'll see a list of matching entries from the price-comparison database. Pick a vendor & order away! (Pretty cool, huh?)

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...


Video Out

The E-20 has a video-out port which supports the NTSC timing format on US and Japanese models (the PAL standard is supported on European models, designated as E-20P models). The video output can be used for reviewing previously shot images or running slide shows from the camera, but also shows all the LCD menu screens as well as the preview display from the LCD viewfinder. Combined with the flexible infrared remote control we mentioned earlier, the availability of a live viewfinder display via the video signal opens interesting possibilities for portrait photography, using a video monitor as a remote viewfinder.


The E-20 can use a variety of power sources. The battery compartment features a sliding tray design, in which a tray pops out from the compartment for easier battery loading. The camera's internal battery compartment can accommodate either four AA alkaline, NiCd, or NiMH batteries, or two CR-V3 lithium battery packs. An AC adapter is available as an accessory, and plugs into the DC-in port in the connection compartment. Also available as an accessory is a lithium polymer battery pack, which provides twice the power capacity of even the highest-capacity NiMH cells (15.4 vs 7.7 watt-hours) and requires an external battery holder. This external battery compartment doubles as a vertical grip for the camera, complete with a secondary shutter button. Olympus estimates that two CR-V3 batteries should provide approximately 300 minutes of operating time, and four AA NiMH batteries should provide about 150 minutes. Current battery status is reported on the status display panel with a small battery icon. When the icon appears full, the batteries should be fully charged. If the icon blinks, the batteries are getting low, and if it lights for a short time and then disappears, the batteries are dead.

In my own testing, the E-20N showed typical to better-than-average power consumption with the LCD on, and very low power usage with the LCD off. The table below summarizes the results of my testing, and shows the projected run times in each operating mode with a set of four 1600 mAh NiMH batteries.

Operating Mode
Power Drain
(@ 6.5 v)
Estimated Minutes
(1600 mAh AAs)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
630 mA
Capture Mode, no LCD
180 mA
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
630 mA
Half-pressed w/o LCD
390 mA
Memory Write (transient)
480 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
1420 mA
Image Playback
370 mA

Battery life overall is quite good, a good thing for a camera intended for professional use. As always, I recommend packing several sets of batteries, and using a good-quality charger to maintain them. (See my review of the Maha C-204F charger, my overall favorite.)

External Battery Packs with the E-20N
Although its external power terminal is labeled for the same 6.5 volt terminal voltage used by many cameras, the E-20N apparently likes higher voltages than most digicams, with the result that it won't operate from the typical NiMH external battery packs available on the market from several manufacturers. Like the E-10 though, it does work just fine from the LiIon PowerBank from Maha Energy. Thus, if you'd like to get extended run times for the E-20N, without the high cost of the Olympus power grip (but also without the added convenience of the portrait-format grip itself), the LiIon PowerBank is an effective choice. Read my review of the PowerBanks for more info.

Included Software

The software they didn't include...
(But that you should)
Few people realize just how *much* you can improve your digicam images through clever processing in Photoshop. Greatly (!) increased sharpness, reduced noise, and even ultra-wide dynamic range (light-to-dark range) by combining multiple exposures. Fred Miranda and uber-Photoshop expert Fred Miranda has packaged some of his Photoshop magic in a collection of powerful and affordably priced "actions." Check out his site, the results are pretty amazing!
Camera manuals are (sometimes) fine for knowing which button does what, but where do you go to learn how and when to use the various features? Dennis Curtin's "Shortcourses" books and CDs are the answer. (Cheap for what you get, too.) Order the Shortcourses manual for the camera reviewed in this article.

The E-20N ships with two CDs of software, Adobe's Photoshop Elements v 1.0 for both Mac and PC, and the dual-platform Olympus Camedia Master v 2.5. Together, these two pieces of software provide an excellent range of capabilities, including very effective panorama stitching and photo-organizing (Camedia Master), and a wide range of image-manipulation tools (Elements). A nice package overall.

In the Box

Packaged with the E-20N are the following items:

Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, my comments here are rather condensed, summarizing my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the E-20N's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the E-20N performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the E-20N performed very well, with very good color and image quality throughout my testing. The camera's White Balance system handled most of the test lighting well, with the Manual setting producing the best results in most cases. The Auto setting had a tendency to produce warm images, in a variety of lighting scenarios. I found the range of Kelvin color temperatures effective in dealing with a wide range of light sources, although the Manual setting produced the best results on the Indoor Portrait (without flash). Saturation was a little weak overall, noticeable in the Outdoor Portrait and Davebox test target, particularly in the large color blocks of the latter. I was left fairly convinced that the E20 is actually using some broader-gamut color space than the sRGB standard that most digicams default to. This is purely speculation on my part (Olympus has made no such representation about the E-20), but would explain the slightly muted color that I consistently found in my testing. If true, it's actually very good news for photographers wishing to use a color-managed workflow, as the attainable gamut could be much larger than with purely sRGB-based cameras. The downside though, is that color right out of the camera is more subdued than it would be otherwise. Except for the slightly understated saturation, color on the E-20 seemed very accurate, apart from a tendency to push the always-difficult blues of Marti's pants and the blue flowers in the "portrait" shots toward purple. (For some reason, these specific shades of blue seem to cause problems for a wide range of digicams.)

White balance was generally very good, and I really like the E-20's use of white balance presets calibrated in degrees Kelvin rather than the customary "incandescent", "fluorescent", etc. - If you're not used to thinking in degrees K, it'll take a bit of an adjustment, but the net result is much finer-grained control over white balance. (And if you happen to have a color temperature meter, you'll be able to get the white balance right first time every time. - Although I'd like to see even smaller steps in degrees K between adjacent settings.) One note to the camera designers on this point: The lower end of the Kelvin white balance scale really needs to extend down to 2500 or even 2300K, given how reddish the incandescent lighting used in residential environments in the US is. The manual white balance option worked very well, producing excellent results under a wide range of lighting conditions.

Perhaps my strongest criticism of the E-20 is that I felt that its default contrast was really set too high. It had a tendency to want to blow out the highlights, while the midtones and shadows were still too dark. With some of the harshly-lit test subjects (outdoor portrait and far-field test), I found myself routinely setting the contrast down and the exposure up slightly to get the look I wanted. Again, not a big problem for people working in color-managed environments, you could easily profile the camera with the contrast set down, to preserve tonal range, and then correct the overall tonality in the profile itself. Something to note though.

The E-20N performed very well on my "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 1,000 - 1,100 lines per picture height, in both horizontal and vertical directions. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,200 - 1,300 lines though, an excellent performance. "Extinction" of the target patterns occurred at about 1,600 lines.

Optical distortion on the E-20N was higher than I like to see at the wide-angle end, where I measured an approximate 0.93 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared much better, as I found only a pixel or less of pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration is moderate, showing about two or three fairly bright pixels of coloration on either side of the target lines. (Given the Gauss lens group and extensive use of ED glass, I'd have expected to see less C.A. than I did here.)

The E-20N offers full manual exposure control and a maximum shutter speed of 60 seconds (outside of the Bulb setting), which gives the camera excellent low-light shooting abilities. The camera captured bright, clear images at light levels as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) at all three ISO settings, including ISO 80. Color balance was slightly warm with the Auto white balance setting, but was still fairly accurate. Noise levels remained low throughout the series, even at the ISO 320 setting. We shot sample images without the camera's Noise Reduction system at the 1/16 foot-candle light level, and noticed only subtle differences between the two shooting modes.

The E-20N's optical viewfinder was pretty accurate, just slightly tight. I measured approximately 93 percent frame accuracy at wide angle, and about 94 percent at telephoto. The LCD monitor was a little less accurate, showing approximately 90 percent of the frame at wide angle, and about 92 percent at telephoto. I'm accustomed to seeing better accuracy in LCD monitors, so the E-20N's LCD monitor leaves some room for improvement. Still, I was very pleased with the optical viewfinder's performance, and recommend using it for more accurate framing. - It's a really nice viewfinder compared to those I'm accustomed to seeing on more consumer-level digicams. It's bright, clear, sharp, and easy to use in manually focusing the lens. (!)

The E-20N performed pretty well in the macro category, though I expected a slightly smaller minimum area than the 2.92 x 2.19 inches (74.3 x 55.7 millimeters) that the camera captured. Still, the camera did a great job here, with very high resolution and crisp, sharp details. Some corner softness was present in all four corners, though it didn't extend too far into the image area. The E-20N's flash throttled down fairly well for the macro area, though it was still a bit bright.

The E-20N also did exceptionally well in my low-light tests. It's hybrid active/passive autofocus system works well down to fairly low light levels (although I don't (yet) specifically test that parametrically), but I disliked the fact that it always indicated that it had achieved focus, even when it was obviously not able to. (For instance, with the lens cap on.) It would be far preferable for it to clearly signal non-focus when it wasn't able to achieve a positive lock, so you'd know that you needed to switch to manual focusing.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the E-20N's performance. I'd really like to see its default contrast dialed down a little, and personally would probably end up shooting with it in its low-contrast mode most of the time. Likewise, I'd really like it if the camera would tell you when it was out of focus. Color and image quality were very good though, and resolution was excellent. It's low light capabilities are exceptional, and overall exposure and white balance control excellent as well. All in all, a powerful tool for advanced photography.

Offering a true 5.24 megapixel CCD, extensive exposure control, SLR format, advanced lens design, and improved electronics, the Olympus E-20 is a solid incremental upgrade from the E10 model. With a selling price thousands less than its competitors in the professional SLR world, it also offers higher resolution than any pro SLR within two or three times its cost. As an added bonus, Olympus' use of metal castings and other metal components to heatsink the CCD appears to have paid real dividends in the form of reduced CCD noise on long exposures. The E-20N looks like a worthy successor to the excellent E-10N before it. Highly recommended.

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