Our Take

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.

Olympus E-520 vs. Nikon D60 Sample Images
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  • steveyballme - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    I just prefer my ZuneCam because it's lighter!

    http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com">http://fakesteveballmer.blogspot.com
    Reply
  • illusionist - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Is it just me or ya'll get the feeling that this place is owned/heavily sponsored by nvidia?
    Reply
  • Rev1 - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Is it me or was the reply completely irrelevant to the review here? Reply
  • teldar - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Sounds like it may be interesting.
    I have to say that I would really like the new Pentax k20 when I graduate, but the new lenses for them start around $600. To get a 2 lens kit similar to what is available with this olympus, it's around $2300. I little on the pricey side for a definitely amateur photographer.
    Maybe in the next year, Olympus will upgrade their autofocus one more time.

    T
    Reply
  • trisweb3 - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Disclaimer: I am an Olympus user and I like the cameras, but I try to keep very objective about camera brands as it doesn't help anyone to argue over them - just use what's best to you. Okay then.

    Wesley, AnandTech, I know you are not digital camera specialists and you're trying to give this a chance, and I appreciate the attention you're giving to alternative brands and other option, kudos there, but putting real trust in your reviews is somewhat difficult for me personally. There's a lot of speculation, missed points, incomplete understanding, and a general misconception of what's important and what's not in a digital camera.

    For example (this was what really hit me in this review) the white balance preset for Tungsten light is absolutely 100% completely inconsequential to actual photography. It's meaningless, just use a different preset or set the white balance so white is white, every modern camera can do this, and it's no merit or demerit of any of these, yet it got a good three paragraphs of attention in the review.

    Also, it may be important to you, but you lambaste the 3-point AF system as a true failing of the camera. While I find that's true if you use multi-point autofocus extensively, on every camera I've ever used, I just want the center point so I know where focus is going to go. It is certainly a limitation that people should know about, but it's not going to have the same importance to everyone else as it did to you. Not bad though, it's good to know.

    The paragraph on Image Quality was entirely about noise - this is not the only aspect of the image that people care about. What about color balance and appearance? Highlight and shadow rendition? Dynamic range? I'd love to hear more depth to this important bit.

    On the other hand, things about this camera that are truly important features were relatively ignored. What about in-camera image stabilization? Most people don't know how useful it is to have every lens stabilized. What about the dust-buster that really works, so you never have to clean the sensor?

    On the positive side, it's great to see a review on a large site that really focuses on the amateur average user and brings everything to a good conclusion. It's nice to hear it from a "Well, here's what I thought of it, let me show you" perspective. Plus, it should also be telling that real users such as yourself actually enjoy using Olympus DSLRs. I know I have, and convincing people of the validity of the E-system is always a bit difficult.

    So, keep it up, keep learning, try to stay objective, and try to focus on what's really important and don't worry too much about trivial details if you can avoid it. Thanks!
    Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Thank you for your reply, but I still disagree with your claim that focus points don't matter. If they truly don't matter then why does Olympus use 11 double-cross points (44 segments) in the E-3 and only 3 in the E-510. Why then, does Nikon use 51 points in their top cameras and only 3 in their D60, and why does Canon use more points as the price goes up?

    I do agree that the number of points really don't matter in thoughtful photography when you have the time and know what you're doing. However, in action, sports, or even photographing active kids the number of points and focus tracking definitely DOES matter. Try shooting sports or playing kids with a D300 compared to the E-520 and you will also be convinced. ANY kind of focus tracking is very difficult to impossible with just 3 points. Can you take great photos with just 3 points or even one point or none - of course you can, but that is not the point.

    My point was that in a comparison to other cameras in its class the E-520 falls short in the AF module, and that does matter in the marketplace. Almost every other camera with which the E-520 competes has more AF points, better focus tracking, and faster AF, and that definitely DOES matter to many buyers.

    In other areas like color accuracy Olympus does a very fine job. The E-3 AF is SO much better in AF that its a fair question as to why Olympus won't bring some of that technology to their new, lower-priced cameras. It would definitely make Olympus even more competitive.

    I did overemphasize noise, as you point out. That was primarily because Nikon and Canon users often unfairly criticize Olympus for their noise as Inherently the case due to the smaller 4/3 sensor. The real size difference between 4/3 and Canon's 1.6X APS-C is fairly minimal and I was trying to put that concern to rest. Olympus has done a good job of bringing the excellent image processing and noise reduction from the E-3 to the E-520, and I believe it is important to show that to the rock-throwers.

    As for white balance Tungsten performance on Auto WB and Tungsten presets I confess that is a pet peeve. If you only shoot outdoors or in a studio they really don't matter. However, amateurs shoot indoors without flash - which is one of the reasons they step up from a P&S. How an entry level camera handles indoor available-light shooting is VERY important, IMO, in evaluating a camera - particularly an entry-level camera.

    Of course photographers and those who understand color temperatures and how to set up Custom White Balance can deal with poor Tungsten balance, but it still is very time consuming. For first time DSLR buyers, however, orange tinted photos are often a mystery. In case it wasn't clear the Olympus Tungsten preset did a pretty good job. Auto WB in tungsten lighting, however, was about as bad as Canon and Nikon. Actually Sony does the best job of handling Tungsten under Auto that I have seen in current DSLR cameras.
    Reply
  • melgross - Thursday, August 28, 2008 - link

    White balance settings don't matter at all if you're using RAW, in a proper converter. You can try setting a scene at any setting, and they will all become the same in the converter when the settings are changed there.

    But, when shooting JPEG, is sure does make a difference. Whatever setting is used determines the final quality. changing from one to the other can almost destroy the the image from a quality viewpoint.

    So I agree that whitepoint settings are very important if you shoot JPEC, as many amateurs sadly do. but for RAW shooters, it doesn't matter at all.

    I also agree that noise is very important. It determines the effective dynamic range of the camera.

    Color accuracy is like white balance. Shoot RAW, and it isn't too important (esp. when a camera uses 14 bit conversion). But when shooting JPEGs it is.
    Reply
  • trisweb3 - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Thanks for justifying all that, great response and I appreciate it.

    I wasn't arguing that focus points don't matter, I definitely see the value in having more and better of them, but I was just saying that it may not be as important to everyone as it is for you. But I've decided I sort of like your injection of opinion into reviews and while it's a different style than you usually see online, it's refreshing as well.

    I'm a happy Olympus user and fan as well, so I'm well up on all the noise, sensor size, and competitive comparison issues that normally come up. Just playing a little devil's advocate to try to keep you thinking :) Thanks again.
    Reply
  • pinto4402 - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Hey Wes,

    Keep up the good work. You bring a different perspective to camera reviews, and I appreciate it. I regularly read all the other review sites, but I actually look forward to your articles. Many reviewers tend to fetishize new technology for its own sake. You, on the other hand, actually evaluate whether a new technology is actually useful. Also, you take responsibility for your opinions as opposed to hiding behind statistics and "objective" tests which often times are quite useless to most photographers.

    You're not going to please everyone. Your article style is definitely not typical, but that's okay because we need a different voice in the camera reviewing universe.
    Reply
  • melgross - Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - link

    Compared to what? Everything other than Canon and Nikon?

    The two together have almost 90% of all D-SLR sales. That leaves the other 10% or so to Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Sigma, Panasonic, Samsung, etc.
    Reply

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