E-500 Reference WB Button Problem

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

No, don't be alarmed, this is not something really wrong with your favorite Olympus SLR, but rather a warning about a design flaw, which may lead to undesirable, unexpected, and puzzling results, unless you know what's going on and how to avoid it.

The problem

As nice as the ergonomics of the E-500 is, the camera suffers from one design problem: the Reference WB button can be too easily pressed by accident while a picture is being taken. This may lead to one of the following scenarios:

  • The best case: the camera will refuse to set the reference WB, you just loose the shot, but the following ones will be taken with WB as set before the incident. Bad, but not a disaster.
  • The worst case: if you keep shooting with your eye at the viewfinder and miss the confirmation screen (which is very likely), in addition to losing the current shot you will set the camera to the reference WB as unintentionally measured, obviously, not off a white or gray surface. All following pictures will be taken at that setting, until you change the WB again (on purpose or not). Aargh!

The reason is a seemingly trivial design error in the shape of the camera's back: the Reference WB button is quite close to the thumb rest area, and the protrusion on top of which it is located is not large enough.

Your thumb slips when you have your eye at the viewfinder eyepiece, and voila! — instead of taking a shot, you just got yourself a WB measurement! The next shutter release will confirm it, and the setting will be applied to whatever you shoot next — for the next five minutes or for a month, if you are not paying attention.

In a year of using the E-500, this happened to me just once, while on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbeans; most probably my hands got sweaty and I was holding the camera differently than usual. On the other hand, my friend and a fellow E-500 user from Anguilla (next door to St. Martin) suffered this problem on a regular basis, getting dozens of off-color images, until we understood the nature of the problem.

Interestingly, on the E-300 the AE Lock button is at precisely the same location, but the body protrusion underneath is about 2 mm thicker — enough to prevent such an incident.

What to do about it?

Now, how do we eat this frog? There is a choice of precautions which may help in avoiding something like this to happen.

  • Be aware of such a possibility and handle your camera carefully. Just watch where you place your thumb.
  • Develop a habit of checking your settings frequently on the Control Panel, especially for the Reference WB icon. (Unfortunately, the finder display only shows "WB" to signal a setting different than Auto; useless if you set WB manually.)
  • Assign the Reference WB button to depth-of-field preview (but then you lose the easy access to the Reference WB functionality).
  • Disable the button altogether (an option introduced in firmware Version 1.1; a clear sign that Olympus is aware of the problem). You lose the quick access again — but, hey, the E-300 never had it anyway and nobody (except me) was complaining!
  • Swap the functionality of Reference WB and AE/AF Lock buttons (an option introduced in firmware Version 1.2, another sign Olympus is not sure what to do about it). OK, so now I will be locking focus or exposure by accident? No, thanks.

If you do not use the reference WB (or do it very rarely), solution [4] is an easy choice. The button simply disappears. If you do, then, I'm afraid, you just have to use [1] and [2], take it or leave it.

My personal Hall of Shame

Here is an example illustrating what happens if you are not paying attention; a sequence of pictures from St. Martin (with the colors not corrected; just size reduction and re-sharpening):

Happily shooting with a 5300K manual WB (13:18). Then, instead of taking a picture of a colorful shack, I'm unknowingly taking a Reference WB reading (~13:27)... ...and the next frame (13:29) is already off-color. Having not noticed the changed WB settings, and not able to see the monitor colors well in the bright sunlight...
...I'm shooting the next 14 frames with a randomly set WB, until catching the problem after this image (13:57)... ...and correcting it in the next picture taken (13:58), reverting to 5300K. Well, at least this was just half an hour, not three months...

What can Olympus do?

Firmware work-arounds offered by Olympus (button disabling or swapping) are close to useless: moving the problem elsewhere, or hiding it by disabling the affected feature. The unaddressed source of the problem lies in using the shutter release for taking the reading, and then also for accepting the result. In the E-300 the WB reading was done by pressing the [OK] button instead, and so was the confirmation. It may be less convenient than pressing the release, but also most unlikely to be done by accident. A firmware update introducing such a modification would put the whole affair behind us. Does Olympus need me to tell them this?

In the meantime, consider yourself warned. Pay attention where you put your thumb.

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2006/10/14 Copyright © 2006 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.