The 10-megapixel Olympus E-510 replaces the E-500 with improvements to the Live View and dust removal systems.
Arguably, the original E-500 was the first ‘proper’ Four Thirds camera for the enthusiast, even though it was actually the third DSLR to join the Olympus range. When it arrived, we had already seen the Olympus E-1, but that came at a price that few could justify. And then there was the E-300, which, though billed as ‘for the hobbyist’, didn’t deliver in either looks or performance.
Yet when the E-500 arrived it set the standard for Four Thirds cameras. Combining an affordable price, decent performance and the look and feel of a ‘traditional’ DSLR, it was perhaps the saviour of an E-System that appeared to be losing its direction. Does its successor follow in its footsteps or is it but a further footnote in the potted history of Olympus DSLRs?
Cast an eye down the respective spec sheets of the E-500 and E-510 and it’s immediately clear that the newer model features a number of Olympus technologies not found on the older one.
For a start, the E-510 employs a 10-million-pixel LiveMOS sensor and a new processing engine, dubbed Truepic III that boosts the continuous shooting rate to eight Raw frames or unlimited High Quality (HQ) JPEGs at a rate of three frames per second. In addition, the E-510 now uses a USB 2.0 Hi-Speed connection.
However, the main thing that marks the E-510 apart from its smaller sibling is the inclusion of in-camera Image Stabilisation. This is achieved through the inclusion of a ‘mobile’ sensor that moves to counter the effect of camera-shake. This has the effect of turning any Four Thirds lens into an image-stabilised one. Two stabilisation modes are available in this instance – one that works to counter both horizontal and vertical shake and a second that counters only vertical shake, so if you’re panning with your subject (at a motor sport event, for example) the camera doesn’t try to correct for this deliberate movement.
The E-510 also provides one of the most comprehensive exposure metering systems on any digital SLR, comprising 49-zone ESP metering, centreweighted and spot patterns, with the obligatory highlight and shadow spot options that only Olympus uses.
The E-510 features the standard PASM range of shooting modes, along with 18 Scene modes and fully automatic. In Auto ISO it will be restricted to ISO 100-400, whereas more adventurous types can manually set the ISO between 100 and 1600 in precise 1/3EV increments. The camera can shoot in Raw or JPEG (or both), with dual media slots for xD and CompactFlash cards.
Bulkier than E-410
While the photographic side of the E-510 appears to be lifted straight from the E-410, the design hasn’t. Unlike the slimmed-down E-410, the E-510 carries a bit of bulk with it – weighing in at 460g (the E-410 is 375g), it’s wider and deeper too.
But don’t for a second think that just because the E-510 is bigger and heavier it’s somehow unwieldy; it isn’t. In fact, the E-510’s chunkier right-hand finger grip feels much more secure and comfortable. In addition, the E-510 doesn’t have the inconveniently placed strap lug on its side like the E-410 does.
Aside from the grip, the control layout is ultimately very familiar – not only echoing the E-410, but also the E-500 before it. The size of the body means the controls appear to have a little more space to ‘breathe’ than they do on its smaller sibling, which in turn makes the camera look less cluttered. On the top there is the on/off switch sitting at the base of a neatly designed mode selector dial. Unlike some DSLRs, the mode dial doesn’t try to cram all the camera’s scene modes onto its small circumference, instead offering the most commonly used settings, automatic and the PASM quartet for more experienced users. The ‘lesser’ scene modes are accessed through the ‘scene’ setting on the dial.
Just behind and to the right of the dial is the E-510’s control wheel, which operates either the aperture or shutter setting in the relevant priority mode, or allows you to adjust the paired setting in Program. In Manual mode the wheel takes control of the shutter speed, while pressing and holding the exposure compensation button near the shutter release and simultaneously turning the dial adjusts the aperture. Like most Olympus cameras, this configuration isn’t set in stone, and you can customise the set-up so the control wheel activates exposure compensation in Program mode, or switches the aperture/shutter speed adjustment method depending on which you use more often. However, two control wheels (one front and one rear) would still be preferable to the sometimes finger-contorting rituals demanded by a single control point.
As with the E -410, the controls on the back of the camera are neatly laid out to either side of the rear LCD. Like most enthusiast DSLRs there’s the option of accessing common settings directly on the rear LCD display, as well as through the four-way pad or the menu system. For me, using the LCD readout is the quickest and most intuitive method, as the various parameters are already on the screen, and making any adjustments becomes second-nature after only a short while with the camera. Moreover, as you don’t have to hunt around the menu screens or remember which buttons to press in what order, it encourages you to be a little more experimental, perhaps trying options you may otherwise ignore. In turn, you’ll learn more about the camera and its capabilities.
The original E-500 could never be described as a ‘fast’ camera. Its processing engine and modest buffer restricted both the continuous shooting speed and the number of frames that could be recorded in succession, while images weren’t transferred to the memory card instantly. As a result, the E-510’s predecessor – while acceptable at the time – feels decidedly slow in modern company.
With its new Truepic III processor the E-510 has taken a massive step forward – just as the E-410 stands head-and-shoulders above the E-400. The E-510 still only achieves a modest eight-frame ‘burst’ in its Raw continuous shooting mode, but it’s unlikely that sports enthusiasts would want to shoot in Raw mode, and if you switch to SHQ JPEGs (the highest-quality JPEG) you can happily fire off a dozen frames before the camera needs to clear its memory. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a little extra compression you can shoot unlimited HQ JPEGs.
As mentioned previously, another technology to make its way into the E-510 – and a first for Olympus DSLRs – is Image Stabilisation. Accessed via the ‘IS’ button on the rear, there are two operation modes for the IS (three if you include ‘Off’), which basically allow you to set the E-510 to try to counter all camera shake, or ‘lock’ the system so that it ignores the panning action you might employ when tracking a moving subject at a sports event. The effectiveness of the Olympus stabilisation is noticeable, and will consistently give you a two-stop advantage when it’s activated. This means you can use shutter speeds two stops slower than are normally recommended when handholding a camera: for example, you can enjoy shake-free images at 1/100sec with a 400mm equivalent lens, rather than having to use 1/400sec or faster. It also means you can use a slower ISO setting if you choose, so you can get away with shooting at ISO 200, when ISO 800 would normally be required to achieve your ‘safe’ shutter speed.
A further Olympus-developed technology is the live view LCD, which was covered in detail in last month’s test of the E-410. Essentially the E-510 uses the same system, so you press the display button once to flip up the mirror in the camera and activate the rear LCD. You can then press the ‘OK’ button to zoom in to 7x magnification and focus manually, using the LCD screen as a guide. However, just as it has the benefits of the E-410 for landscape, macro and still-life photography, so it has the shortfalls too, and you have to remember to set the camera to manual focus before activating live view – the camera doesn’t automatically switch it itself.
Sharing the same three-point AF system of the E-410, the E-510 delivers a comparable performance, proving perfectly capable in most situations where the light’s good, but hesitating a touch in low contrast and/or low light situations.
Similarity to E-410
As the Olympus E-510 appears to share the same sensor as the E-410, and certainly the same processing engine, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that it will produce similar images – especially when their identical metering systems and kit lenses are factored in.
But, as we saw in last month’s test of the smaller camera, this is certainly not a bad thing. The E-510’s white balance proves to be reliable in all situations, and even when faced with a mixture of tungsten lighting and daylight, the automatic setting can be relied on to deliver a perfectly acceptable image.
The 49-zone ESP metering is also reassuringly consistent, and if you want to set the camera to its multi-area metering pattern, you will be guaranteed a high success rate – it’s only when you start pointing the camera at predominantly light or dark scenes that it under or overexposes accordingly. It is typical of this kind of metering pattern in all DSLRs, so it would be unfair to describe it as ‘wrong’ in any way.
However, as with the E-410, it’s the way in which noise is dealt with from the LiveMOS sensor that really impresses. At the lower reaches of the ISO range – which is the full ISO 100-400 range if you use automatic ISO selection – noise just doesn’t appear, even when you take 10MP images and produce A3 prints from them. Even beyond ISO 400 there’s not much to complain about. At the maximum ISO of 1600 it’s true that there’s some texture in the images, and this does start to take the edge off fine detail to deliver slightly soft pictures. However, it’s nothing a touch of sharpening in your image editing package can’t fix.
Yet, just as the E-510 carries all the positive traits of the E-410, so it suffers in the same area too – it has a somewhat limited dynamic range, which is most likely due to the tiny photosites on the E-510’s Four Thirds sensor. This means that while the metering system will give the ‘correct’ exposure, this can be accompanied by a loss of detail in highlight or shadow areas – or both if the scene is naturally quite contrasty.
Value For Money
Worth Paying Extra For
The E-510 costs roughly £100 more than the E-410, regardless of whether you buy the single or twin lens kit. Given that the camera is largely the same (photographically speaking) this means you’re paying a £100 premium for Image Stabilisation. As this effectively converts any lens fitted to the camera into a ‘stabilised’ optic (including manual OM lenses) we say it’s worth every single penny.
In-camera image stabilisation and dust-reduction figure prominently on most enthusiasts DSLR shopping lists, but all too often we see one without the other, or we get a weak compromise. With the Olympus E-510 we’re getting both of these things and, more importantly, they both work. On top of that, you’re able to turn the rear LCD on and use the camera like a compact (albeit with manual focus), which is exactly what you want for macro, still-life and landscape photography. Throw in a high-resolution 10MP sensor that delivers largely noise-free images, and all the secondary features you?re ever likely to need and there’s no doubt in my mind that the E-510 is currently the definitive Four Thirds DSLR.