Olympus EVOLT E-500
by Shawn Barnett
Having spent several days with a prototype sample, I must say that Olympus's new EVOLT E-500 has been a pleasant surprise. I have enjoyed shooting with it at least as much as my favorite digital SLR cameras, and that is saying something. I've so far only tried an early pre-release camera, but from my experience thus far, I think the E-500 is going to make a lot of people very happy.
It was September, 2004 that Olympus announced their first SLR aimed at consumers, the EVOLT E-300. I was glad to see them back in the market with a consumer SLR, and I found that though it was an odd shape that remained difficult to accept, I liked quite a bit about the original EVOLT. It captured stunning images. Some of the images I captured with it are hanging in my home and office. The original EVOLT E-300 had many unique features, some of which were useful. The pop-up flash could be used simultaneously with an external flash to serve as fill light. Most competing camera designs can't achieve this. But the E-300 was heavy and way off balance. Much of the weight seemed to be left of the lens, and the camera wanted to twist out of the right hand. There was also a critical metering flaw that we found, where a bright object at the center of the frame would trick even the normally excellent Olympus Digital ESP mode into underexposing the image. (For those unfamiliar with the term, Digital ESP takes readings from multiple areas of a frame to make its exposure decision and usually handles bright central objects well, without underexposing everything else; the common term is "matrix metering.")
The E-300 was frustrating. I loved the images, but not the design; and this metering problem made the camera difficult to trust (I think this has been addressed with a recent firmware fix, but we have not had time to test it). Further putting me off were all the claims the company was making about how much smaller the EVOLT was than competing designs. Technically, they were right, and their porroprism finder did flatten the top to enable that cool dual-flash trick. But the E-300 didn't seem smaller; and I've never had a problem with pentaprisms for all these years, so why were porroprisms better? It was a daring move, and no one was surprised that it was Olympus who took the chance. Other chances they've taken in the past have changed photography forever.
Though I am a long-time Olympus fan, I was ambivalent about the E-300. That's why I'm so pleased with the E-500. No more odd designs to overlook, no more unique optics for no apparent reason, no more long, heavy body that forces you into vertical shooting mode by virtue of its sheer weight. The Olympus E-500 feels like, looks like, and shoots like a nice camera. True to Olympus tradition, it's smaller and tightly built. If it ends up taking images at least as nice as its predecessor--without the Digital ESP metering bug--Olympus is sure to have a winner on its hands.
Just like the E-300, the Olympus E-500 has an 8 megapixel sensor, a Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) for sensor dust reduction, and access to what Olympus is calling the "largest digital lens lineup" among competing SLR systems. The list of new items includes a 2.5 inch HyperCrystal LCD, dual media card slots (xD and CF), an auto pop-up flash (the E-300's was manual), a 49 point ESP light meter, playback red-eye reduction, and a few more exposure and color options.
If you're interested in a detailed feature-by-feature comparison of the Olympus E500 with a number of its competitors, see the SLR comparison table we've prepared for that purpose. (It'll open in a separate window, as it's rather large.)
Whether a lot of the enhancements really matter or not will have to wait until we get a full review unit, because what we have here is not ready to have its image quality tested. But I can talk about a few of the enhancements, and what it's like to shoot with the E-500.
Since I've said so much about the E-300's feel, I should start with the E-500's presence. It has the most balanced feel of any digicam since the Nikon D70 hit the scene two years ago. This is the sort of quality you really can't describe; it has to be felt. It varies depending on the lens attached, of course, but with the 14-45mm kit lens attached, the Olympus E-500 is wonderful to hold and shoot. It weighs 28.8 ounces (816g, 1.8 pounds) compared to the E-300's 33 ounces (936.8g, 2.06 pounds) with a card, lens, and battery.
The grip isn't terribly deep, but it's wide enough that it offers a good long surface area to wrap your fingers around. The grip is nicely textured with a rubbery finish that is warm to the touch. Unlike the E-300, the Olympus E-500's grip is more conventionally cut, with a contoured trapezoidal shape, whereas the E-300 was a big round curve with a raised ridge for added traction. The butt of the grip rests perfectly in my palm, and the pads of all four fingers find a home on the inside of the grip, if only just.
My index finger rests perfectly on the shutter button, without having to twist and contort. I especially like how easy it is to reach the power switch with that same index finger while maintaining a right handed grip on the camera. This was well-planned. This switch actuates much like the switch on the E-300 and the Canon Digital Rebel models, jutting out from underneath the mode dial, but it's far better placed on the Olympus E-500.
Only two dials grace the Olympus E-500 (with the exception of the diopter correction dial). The Mode dial has a look of quality, and the main command dial reminds me of the dial on the back of the EOS 20D: loose enough that its easy to turn, but sure in its detents.
The rest of the controls are buttons, and I have no complaints about their operation or placement. The traditional five left of the LCD serve the right purposes, operating the menu, flash, and playback functions. On the right is a five way nav cluster, an AE/AF Lock button, Drive mode button, AF button, and custom function button. The five way nav has dual functions, including White balance, AF, ISO, Metering mode, and OK button. On top, behind the shutter is the EV button On the front, Olympus has emulated the easier position of the lens release button as seen on competing cameras from Nikon and Canon, instead of the rather distant and small button found on the E-300. This new placement makes it a one-motion operation to press this button and begin rotating the lens.
So the controls are pretty simple. Until you get to the menus. We recorded 276 menu screens on the Olympus E-500, so don't let the simple array of buttons make you think this is a camera with limited capability. Though I haven't explored every feature, I found the menu relatively navigable as Olympus menus go. More than normal, they've used full and sometimes multiple words to describe options, an excellent approach.
Getting back to the physical form of the Olympus E-500 for a moment, the door covering the dual-card slot is worth mention. It closes reasonably well with a plastic hook mechanism, and swings to lock open, much like the E-300's door. Competing models don't generally lock open, but I'd like to see it more often. Inside, the CF card releases with a button, while the xD card ejects with a push. Olympus's inclusion of xD card compatibility makes perfect sense, offering existing Olympus owners the option of using their xD cards in their new digital SLR. Offering CF cards similarly allows E-300 and E-1 owners to continue using their existing stock of cards.
I was also happy to see an orange spring-loaded retaining hook holding the battery in place behind the battery door, so the expensive lithium ion battery doesn't fall free when the door is opened. A fall can very often kill a camera battery. This retention latch was missing from the E-300.
With the major competition sporting between five and seven AF points at this price range, I am a little disappointed that the Olympus E-500 has only three. They're horizontally arranged, and the user can select any one of the three or let the camera choose to focus on the nearest object. One of the three AF dots lights red when an AF point is chosen and focus has been achieved.
Auto focus seems to be reasonably fast, but I'll have to wait until we get our final test unit to comment on performance, including shutter lag and shot-to-shot timing.
While we're here in the viewfinder, I have to confess that I'm not crazy about the exposure information being clustered on the right side of the viewfinder window. It just seems unnatural to have to look that far off to the right to see what's going on with the camera; perhaps if the camera had a higher eyepoint, but I find myself pressing my glasses way up against the viewfinder to see what's going on.
When I first sat down to start shooting real life with my E-500 prototype, I naturally pointed the camera at my family. We sat around the table taking shots, both flash and natural light, and had a blast. Now, I'm always taking pictures of my family, and my son is always asking, "Me see!" after each shot, so they're pretty used to it; that's why it's notable that we all had so much fun with the Olympus E-500. I think the reason was that big LCD. It wasn't just the 2.5 inch size: colors were vibrant, contrast was excellent, and images were sharp. It was like we had little prints we could see right away, instead of a small, slightly washed out image like we're used to seeing from a great many cameras. It wasn't until after I got back to the promotional materials that I remembered how Olympus reps had boasted about the quality of this LCD. They're calling it a HyperCrystal LCD, and it appears to not only deliver a vibrant image around the breakfast table, with a 160 degree viewing angle, but it also performs well out in direct sunlight. We were impressed.
Much like an Olympus digicam, the EVOLT E-500 has a wide selection of Scene modes for common shooting situations. The Mode dial covers the basic Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, and Night Portrait modes, but the Scene setting opens up even more. Landscape and Portrait, Children, High key, Low key, and Candle modes are among the interesting offerings that are not often seen on digital SLR cameras. Also missing from the E-300 but present on the E-500 are separate Full Auto and Program modes.
In addition to Black and White and Sepia, Olympus has added new filter and tint modes to the Black and White shooting option. Much as you can on the Rebel XT and EOS 20D, you can set modes that emulate color filters used in traditional film-based black and white photography, useful for darkening skies, for example. Filters include Yellow to darken skies, Orange to enhance sunset shots, Red to give dramatic contrast in skies, and Green to improve contrast in skin tones and foliage. Black and white images can also be tinted Blue, Purple, and Green.
Three color settings allow the user to select the type of color output they want, a common strategy among consumer SLR manufacturers. Film and digicam manufacturers have been amping the color on our images for so long that when a digital SLR comes along and gives us true color, we assume something's wrong; the color seems so dull. The human mind remembers colors more vividly than the eye sees them, so film companies like Kodak learned long ago to give our minds what they want. The E-500 does the same. The default setting is Vibrant, but you can set the camera to Natural and Muted if you like. Natural and Muted will be easier to modify later in programs like Photoshop, so experienced computer photo tweakers will want to use these settings, but consumers will probably be more happy with Vibrant mode (we'll see when we test the real deal).
Olympus is proud of the fact that they have the largest selection of digital-specific lenses on the market, and four more have been added at the E-500's announcement. As I mentioned earlier in this review, Olympus often sets trends in photography, and they were apparently right when they said it would be better to deliver more light straight at the sensor instead of continuing to use existing 35mm lenses. Most manufacturers have now come out with digital-specific lenses to better direct more of the light right to the sensor by tightening the image circle created by the lens.
While Olympus does indeed have more lenses, a great many of them are very expensive, built as they were for the professional using an Olympus E-1. Olympus now says they will have a total of 15 digital-specific Zuiko lenses available come late March 2006. Hopefully that will include a more healthy selection of prime (non-zoom) and affordable zoom lenses, both wide angle and telephoto.
The kit lens is a 14-45mm lens, which is equivalent to a 28 - 90mm lens on a 35mm camera, due to the 2x multiplication factor that must be applied. Though they offer a lens that will take you out to a 14mm equivalent, it costs around $2,600, too much for consumers. Another option takes you out to 22mm equivalent (the 11-22mm f/2.8 Wide Zoom), but that's also around $950 SRP. For the record, wide angle is the biggest problem for modern consumer SLRs and is not unique to the Olympus line.
Concurrent with the E-500 announcement, Olympus introduced four new lenses, two that are intended for pros with a price tag to match, and two that are more in line with consumer needs and price points. The 18-180 will probably make a good vacation lens, with a 36-360mm equivalent measurement. It will retail for $499.99. The 35mm f3.5 Macro has a 1:1 magnification ratio, making it good for online auctions and other types of Macro photography. It's expected to be about $229.99. The other two cost two and a half to six times the price of the E-500: the 90-250mm f/2.8 and 35-100mm f/2.0 zoom lenses, with price tags of $2,499.99 and $5,999.99. Most prospective E-500 buyers needn't even bother looking at those, but I suppose it's nice to know that they're there if you need them.
My first impression
I really like the Olympus E-500. It's comfortable to hold, handsome, and seems to work quite well. It has almost all the features I'd look for in a digital SLR, including a high enough resolution to stave off any feeling of obsolescence for the next year or so, and a number of modes to assist and enhance a user's photography as they learn (or re-learn) the craft. No other manufacturer offers a sensor that cleans itself every time you power it on, and few digital SLR currently on the market have a screen this big and beautiful.
While it was bold, the physical design of the original EVOLT E-300 didn't do justice to the legitimate technology that lay inside. The Olympus E-500 brings the company back to basics, with a time-tested design whose familiarity should attract more users. Here's hoping that the shipping version exceeds the abilities of the E-300 as is expected, because everything else about the camera just seems right.
With the 14-45mm lens the E-500 will have an estimated street price of $799. Their two lens outfit includes a second 40-150mm lens for $899 estimated street. The E-500 is expected to ship in October. Look for our full review soon.
Compare the upcoming E-500 with the Olympus E-300, Canon Digital Rebel (300D), Digital Rebel XT (350D), Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D and Nikon D70 on our SLR comparison table.