The 10-megapixel Olympus E-420 is a purposely compact DSLR that features Live View and Shadow Adjustment technology.
Olympus has been at the forefront of this, most notably pioneering live view and its dust reduction system, technologies later adopted by other DSLR manufacturers for their own models. Needless to say its new E-420 and Olympus E-520 models features both of these, and continue the evolution of the live-view system. Their announcement came as a bit of a surprise – not least because of Olympus’s prolificity in releasing three DSLRs last year – though their keen price points stand to threaten the entry-level market, an area most manufacturers are muscling in on now more than ever.
As with the two models they replace, they vary in few areas from each other. Both have been therefore tested together, to avoid repetition and to gain a better understanding of the differences between them. In either case, I’m keen to find out what’s been tinkered with under the bonnet and whether their respective upgrades have been justified.
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Four Thirds System
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the Four Thirds system, the format was jointly devised by Olympus and Kodak, announced in 2002 and commencing a year later with the launch of the Olympus E-1. The system is unique in that it has been designed entirely for digital from scratch, breaking most of the constraints posed by 35mm-based cameras. We say ‘most’ because support is still offered for legacy Zuiko lenses via adaptors, though one of the system’s key points is that its lenses can be telecentric – that is, designed to direct light to hit the sensor at a perpendicular angle – as well as smaller and lighter, to correspond with the smaller size of the sensor. The E-420 was billed as the ‘world’s smallest DSLR’ on launch.
The E-420 houses an 11.8 megapixel LiveMOS sensor with an effective pixel count of 10MP. This allows for images measuring 3648 x 2736 pixels at their maximum resolution, equating to a print size of 12.1 x 9.1in. The LiveMOS sensor is said to have been redesigned to bring the dynamic range closer to that of the semi-pro Olympus E-3, while a new amplifier circuit is said to reduce noise and capture fine image details in highlight and shadow areas.
Shooting in Raw
Raw images are stored in Olympus’s ORF format, while JPEG capture allows the user to customise the four JPEG options available within the image quality menu, with regards to pixel count and compression ratios. So, for instance, you could set a large JPEG with fine compression, a medium JPEG with low compression and so on. Simultaneous Raw and JPEG recording is also available, with the option of varying the JPEG’s pixel count to either small, medium or large.
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New AF Modes
The E-420’s main upgrade over its predecessor, the E-410, is that its live view system incorporates two new autofocusing modes. The E-410 (and also the E-3) have just one option – sensor AF – which used phase detection in between a temporary mirror blackout to achieve autofocusing. This has been carried over here, and is joined by an Imager AF mode, the default setting which uses contrast detection working off the main sensor, and a Hybrid AF mode which combines both phase and contrast detection.
The former focuses in real time, with the mirror staying put until the shot has been taken. This happens automatically once the camera senses it has focused correctly, though at default, compatibility is only offered with three Zuiko lenses – one of which being the kit lens. Those with existing lenses needn’t worry about this, as a firmware update may be downloaded to provide support for additional lenses. The second mode, Hybrid AF, is said to be a touch slower than the Imager mode alone, but is compatible with all Zuiko lenses straight ‘out of the box’. The live view may be magnified by a factor of either 7x or 10x, to aid focusing and to check detail, with the effects of altering exposure and image stabilisation settings also visible in real time.
Live view and captured images are displayed on a 2.7in LCD screen, featuring the second generation of Olympus’s HyperCrystal technology. With a 230,000-pixel resolution, this is the same as that of the models these cameras replace, though the physical size of the screens now puts them in line with many other entry-level DSLRs such as the Sony A200 and Pentax K200D. An impressive viewing angle of 176° off centre is claimed, as is 100% coverage of the scene.
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Olympus has stuck with the same metering system seen in the predecessors; a 49-zone multi-pattern system offering evaluative, centre-weighted and spot options. In addition, the shadow and highlight spot metering options first seen on the OM series of Olympus’s film bodies are also available, allowing for more accurate metering in particularly dark or light conditions.
Dynamic Range Controls
The E-420 features Auto and PASM exposure options as well as 18 scene modes and sensitivity-based image stabilisation. Alongside this, Olympus has added Shadow Adjustment Technology, which is claimed to optimise the dynamic range, capturing highlight and shadow details more effectively. This can be set to Auto, with Normal, High Key and Low Key options also available.
There are eight white balance presets, plus an Auto mode and a manual ‘shoot a white object for reference’ setting. Colour temperature may also be adjusted over the Kelvin scale, which ranges from 2000K to 14000K.
With the TruePic III processor seen in the last few Olympus DSLRs, the E-420 manages to shoot JPEGs up to the capacity of the card and up to eight Raw images at a constant pace, though burst speed sees a slight increase now at 3.5fps. Lacking the 11-point biaxial AF system of the E-3, no claims are made of world’s-fastest focusing, with focusing limited to three horizontally arranged points. This expands to 11 points when used in conjunction with live view in Imager AF mode.
Sensitivity may be adjusted in full-stop increments over a range of ISO 100-1600. This is augmented by both a long-exposure noise reduction option and a high-ISO noise filter, with the latter’s intensity adjustable over three levels.
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The built-in flash has a guide number of 12 (at ISO 100) and is operated automatically through the camera or manually via a button on the top plate. An assortment of slow-sync, rear-curtain-sync and flash compensation options may be selected.
As was the case with the E-3, wireless flash operation is also possible. The camera is able to synchronise safely with up to three compatible off-camera flash units – at present, this will work with the FL36R and FL50R wireless flashguns. This allows individual positioning and control over each separate unit and is clearly something Olympus is pushing, having also recently made it possible on its SP range of bridge models. The camera is also compatible with Olympus’s non-wireless units, including the two ring and twinflash options, but not the FL-40 flashgun.
Face Detection and Perfect Shot Preview modes are both available, allowing you to view a preview of an image at different exposure and white balance settings so that you can select the most appropriate settings. Images are whisked onto the user’s choice of either CompactFlash, xD or the less common Microdrive media formats.
The influence of the 35mm film SLR Olympus OM-1 is ever present with the E-420. The mode dial and right selection wheel fall in the same place as the film speed dial and film advance level were on the OM-1, while the shutter release is also in a similar place.
The camera is housed in glass-reinforced plastic that helps to keep overall weight down, yet provides a feeling of solidity. Cosmetically, the changes between the E-410 and the E-420 are slight. The new model sports a redesigned grip to provide a better purchase, while the larger LCD screen has caused the thumb rest to be slightly smaller. Also, the sides of the mode dial and selection wheel have lost their grooves, now replaced by a fine dimpled patterning.
For the most part the camera handles well, with its buttons giving good travel and a satisfying click when depressed. Small aspects of its design, though, work against comfortable handling and general operation. For example, having the two strap eyelets positioned on the front of the body means that unless you’re holding the camera exactly the way the grip dictates, the right eyelet gets in the way of a comfortable hold, digging into the side of your forefinger. One way around this would be to have the option of unscrewing these, but unfortunately this isn’t possible.
Size Compatibility Issues
Perhaps more of an issue is that a number of compatible accessories – lenses, flashguns etc – can imbalance the body; this is because they were not designed specifically with the E-420 in mind. This wasn’t an issue with more substantial offerings such as the E-300 and E-330, but here it’s more noticeable. These issues stem from the E-420 being built for (a compact) size, and so it follows that some compromises with regards to handling are to be expected.
Of course, it’s advisable to handle any camera before you buy it but this is especially the case for the E-420. Having said this, it’s worth bearing in mind that together with the 25mm f/2.8 pancake lens it’s one of the few DSLRs that you’d be able to fit into a roomy coat pocket, and so it makes for a perfect ‘walkaround’ camera – much like the manual OM cameras were.
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Powering up the camera automatically activates the dust-busting Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF), after which the shooting settings are displayed on the ‘Super Control Panel’. This is basically the LCD’s interface containing all key (and some not so key) settings. Changing these is simple and quick, with the layout allowing you to quickly jump from one setting to the next, though in some cases you need to right-click through all the available options for the selector to zig-zag its way down to the one you want. Why can’t you simply press the ‘down’ button when you want to go down? The Graphic User Interface is also looking rather dated, and something which would benefit from a revamp. Olympus hasn’t deviated too far from its previous implementations and it shows; it’s very much the MS-DOS of menu systems.
We didn’t find the three AF points too limiting, though it’s worth noting that the three-point system is a little behind the times. Possibly as a result of the points not being biaxial (sensing focus along both vertical and horizontal axes) and lacking a cross-sensor centre point, it also seems as though they aren’t as sensitive as they could be. This was something we noticed more in impromptu situations. With the 7-14mm f/4 lens we also encountered a couple of false focuses, where the camera claimed to be in focus despite the viewfinder telling a different story.
Disadvantages of Four Thirds
Thankfully, Olympus is slowly kitting its lens range with the faster-focusing Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) technology, though as of yet only three fairly pricey lenses feature this. This is one of the disadvantages of investing in a relatively new system such as Four Thirds. Olympus needs to catch up with other manufacturers to provide faster AF performance for both the enthusiast and semi-pro end of its market. Other manufacturers have made the piezo-electric based technology more accessible over a variety of more affordable lenses.
We suspect the average Four Thirds consumer may need to wait a while for this technology to filter down to more affordable options. The important point though is that this technology is available – and with the 12-60mm SWD and 50-200mm SWD lenses, autofocusing shows not just an improvement but an impressive performance.
Autofocusing aside, we didn’t notice a single speck of dust on any images depsite frequently changing lenses on both bodies. Olympus has long claimed that its Dust Reduction is the most effective available, and given what we’ve seen we won’t argue otherwise.
That said, we would appreciate a better viewfinder as trying to see both the entire frame as well as the exposure information along the right-hand side can be tricky.
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With the minimum processing employed (deactivating noise reduction and so on), we managed to capture an average of eight Raw frames and six Raw+JPEG frames onto a formatted 133x speed CompactFlash card, before the buffer slowed down. The buffer also takes a good five seconds or so to clear after this, though JPEGs are captured at a slower but more consistent pace.
With the LCD screen having seen improvements, we still found it a little tricky to view images clearly in brighter conditions – particularly with regards to contrast. This meant that we often thought an image was underexposed when reviewing it, when in fact flatter lighting conditions showed it to be accurate. Nevertheless, brightness and contrast may be adjusted in the cameras’ menu system, and we’d suggest that in strong light this is used.
With live view, the addition of the two new AF modes is most welcome, with the system in itself appearing refined and capable. Focusing in Hybrid AF mode doesn’t quite match the benchmark set by Sony’s A350, but for more sedate subjects this type of system is still impressive and more than usable. It’s a touch noisy, though in good light the system works swiftly to find focus and the ability to zoom in to the image tenfold makes distant subjects and very fine detail easy to home in on.
RAW / JPEG
JPEG quality is good in comparison with the Raw files, with punchy colours and adequate sharpness. The supplied trial of the Studio software features a wide array of adjustment options, though it’s a shame it’s only a trial. If you’re spending this sort of money on a DSLR, you should expect it to come with a program that can open and manipulate all its files, without any additional expense.
The E-420 fares well with regards to exposure, with only the occasional underexposed image. Highlight control, at default, is still not too great, and means that either Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT), Raw shooting or exposure compensation needs to be called upon to ensure detail is rendered. In most conditions, there shouldn’t be many issues.
Up to ISO 800, noise is generally well controlled, despite a little texture even at lower settings. ISO 800 seems to be the drop-off point, where noise begins to degrade images, and at ISO 1600 there’s plenty of it. Even so, one benefit of having a relatively more populated sensor is that noise shows quite a fine texture and evenness, and so is easier to remove. Perhaps what’s most impressive is how well detail and sharpness manage to hold up, with JPEGs after ISO 800 receiving a visibile sharpening boost to counter the effects of noise. I wouldn’t recommend using the noise filter on any three of its settings; detail is severely compromised and a good deal of chroma noise still remains even on the ‘High’ setting.
Tone And Contrast
Images generally have nice colour to them, with the Natural picture mode not being too dissimilar to the more saturated Vivid mode. SAT does a good job bringing out tones at either end of the scale, though we found its effects a little extreme in certain situations. SAT may also be applied to images in-camera after they have been shot.
Colour And White Balance
We generally found Auto white balance to be accurate. At times, it produces a more accurate result than some of the preset settings, although a slight magenta cast sometimes can unexpectedly form over lighter tones. Even so, it fares very well under mixed conditions and means that it can be generally relied upon.
Sharpness And Detail
At times the E-420 really impressed with the sharpness of JPEGs produced, with JPEGs on the whole needing less sharpening than would usually be expected. Predictably, the worst performance came with the kit lens, though the sensor is clearly capable of capturing a lot of detail with good lenses.
Value For Money
Value For Money
Whatever else that’s said about the E-420 it’s hard to dispute the value on offer. Body-only options for the E-420 are currently retailing for around £330, while even the E-420’s double zoom kit – with the 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses – can be found for around £480. As the price of the camera drops, we imagine this will be something potential bridge-camera purchasers would consider investing in, even if it means paying a little more and sacrificing a little of the focal range.
Olympus E-420 Controls Layout
It?s rare to come across a camera that both pleases and irritates you in roughly the same proportions, and here I have found two. There is a lot to like about each; the E-420 for providing masses of features and a good standard of images in such a cheap and compact package, and the E-520 for its handling and effective image stabilisation and equally good image quality.
But as much as I?d like to report that it?s all roses, the 3-point AF system and limited ISO range are still disappointing. There are many other foiblies ? the E-420?s awkward handling, the inability to delete images straight after you?ve taken them and so on ? though once you get to know each camera these aren?t huge concerns. I am, however, concerned that as the last few Olympus models have all sported effective pixel counts of 10 megapixels, it may suggest that the technology may be reaching some sort of spatial plateau. This is despite the use of different sensors with increasing total pixel counts, and indicates that those manufacturers moving towards full-frame sensors may well have more scope for future development. I hope Olympus proves me wrong, and I?m genuinely interested to see what the Four Thirds future holds.
Nevertheless, as models in their own right they still impress, and being launched at such aggressive price points makes their features-to-price ratio particularly impressive. I won?t pretend that they?re for everyone, but as they are they both stand to make an good impression in today?s DSLR market.