Olympus E-520: Update to a Top Sellerby Wesley Fink on August 26, 2008 3:00 AM EST
- Posted in
- Digital Camera
The Olympus E-520 is not a revolutionary new camera, nor was that ever the intention of Olympus. It is more another step in the evolution of the Olympus 5xx series, the most popular DSLR sold by Olympus and one of the most popular DSLR model series in the marketplace. In this update, Olympus has borrowed heavily from the E-3 in processing algorithms and noise control. Finally, we have an entry Olympus DSLR that is equally useful at ISO 100-800 and still excellent at ISO 1600. Were this a generation or two ago many would be singing the praises of this level of noise control and performance from a 4/3 sensor, but reality sinks in when you consider that Nikon and others have now made ISO 1600 a low-noise stop with ISO 3200 and even higher a new lower-noise possibility on some cameras. Still, in this class the quality of images from the E-520 is definitely competitive.
Another goal of the E-520 update was to bring Live View leadership back to Olympus. Olympus invented Live View, and yet the last generation was mostly just a flip-mirror AF Live View with screen blackout. The E-520, like the E-420 introduced just a short time ago, brings a very useful Contrast Detect AF option along with continuing Phase Detect with a brief image freeze instead of a full blackout. The new Contrast Detect AF also uses an 11-point AF system combined with Face Detection that can lock onto up to eight faces for a user experience that is sure to be familiar to point-and-shoot camera users. The Contrast Detect AF is slower than the regular Phase Detect but it is still very useful as implemented by Olympus. The new Contrast Detect AF, however, is limited at present to the three lenses new users will likely buy and use first - namely the 14-42mm (28-84mm), 40-150mm (80-300mm), and 25mm f2.8 pancake (50mm). It remains to be seen whether Olympus will add the Contrast Detect capabilities to other lenses. The update in this case required a firmware update to these lenses in Olympus Master II and voila, the new feature was then available.
It is now clear the new Panasonic Live View sensor, which drew heavily on the design of the E-3 sensor, is responsible for the improved quality, reduced noise, and new Contrast Detect AF features. It is likely the same sensor is now used in the Lumix L10, Olympus E-420, and Olympus E-520 since these are the three cameras that support the new Contrast Detect features with these three lenses and the Leica 14-50mm zoom sold as a kit lens with the Lumix L10.
The improved image quality, reduced noise, and 11-point Contrast Detect AF are all good news for Olympus users, along with a multitude of small tweaks and improvements. The E-520 has evolved into an incredibly customizable camera - particularly when you consider the very entry-level selling price. You can reassign almost anything to the function you want and make the E-520 your camera to work the way you want it to, but that flexibility brings greater complexity to the menus structure. Frankly, if you already use an Olympus camera you won't have any major problems with the E-520 menus. However, if you are used to Canon or Nikon and move to an Olympus you will likely be very confused by the menu arrangement. For users who find the menu structure a bit daunting, Olympus has provided a very easy to use Info key. Press Info, hit OK and maneuver around the Info screen to select whatever parameter you want to adjust. Most of the important adjustments are right there in Info, and there are quick buttons on the joy pad for ISO, Metering Pattern, White Balance, and Auto-Focus mode.
Some have criticized the E-520 for not providing a button to switch between Auto Focus and Manual Focus, but that is really unjustified when a press of the AF button allows you to choose AF+MF, a selection that allows you to touch up with manual after autofocus whenever you wish. Keep it on all the time and you will never wish for an AF/MF switch.
There are also some items that did not evolve in the E-520, the most glaring of which is the archaic 3-point AF system carried over from the E-510. With the flagship E-3 now featuring a super fast 11 double cross-point AF module (44 AF points), surely Olympus can find a way to bring a bit of this technology down the food chain. All of the other cameras in its class provide more phase-detect points and better image tracking except Nikon, which also puts just three AF points in their D60. Fortunately, contrast-detect AF provides 11 points but it is slower than the 3-point AF module. It is really a puzzle why Olympus continues to resist updating their mainstream AF module when the technology clearly now exists at Olympus to do just that.
Overall the Olympus E-520 was certainly fun to use. It handles well, the camera and kit lenses are small and easy to carry along, and the image quality is a notch above the last generation. The Olympus kit lenses have been widely praised as among the best kit lenses on the market and our time with these lenses certainly reinforced that impression. Other entry cameras - the Canon and Sony come to mind - focus faster and track moving subjects better. The Canon and Sony also offer the option of a battery grip, which is not available with the Olympus. However, if image quality is your first concern and sophisticated control capabilities you can grow with are what you are looking for, the Olympus is an excellent choice. No other camera in this class is quite so customizable, and options like spot metering with the added option of highlight spot and shadow spot provide tremendous creative control when you're ready for it.
The real penalties for the smaller 4/3 sensor are becoming less significant as the Olympus Live MOS sensor has evolved. In our opinion, the advantages of much smaller Olympus lenses and a very small body with three flavors of body integral Image Stabilization that works with all lenses make up for the small loss in image quality at the highest ISO settings. If Olympus could just update their AF module used in cameras in this class, it would be even easier to recommend the E-520. We like the E-520 and it delivers a lot for the money. Many users will be very happy with this camera. However, we would not personally buy the Olympus (or the Nikon D60 for the same reason) until Olympus finally updates that 3-point AF.