Olympus E-510 — Quick Notes

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

This article is not a review of the Olympus E-510 SLR — rather some quick notes, based on (as of this update) two months of using and testing this camera, also showing the changes (for better or worse) from the previous model, the E-500.

See also a Class of 2007, a general introduction to the E-510 and its E-410 sibling; for full details refer to my E-510 review, or see the image samples.


Introduction

Judging from the email I'm receiving, and from a casual visit or two to Internet discussion forums, few cameras experienced as much pre-release hype it as the most recent model by Olympus, the E-510.

Now, a disclosure. Generally, I like the way in which Olympus engineers make their design compromises, mostly result-driven, and not aiming at those of potential buyers (or reviewers) who specialize in counting features. "Camera A has twelve custom settings, while B only seven" — no, I'm not inventing this!

I'm also a a supporter of the Four Thirds standard, for a number of reasons I will not elaborate upon now. Having invested into a moderate number of Four Thirds lenses and other accessories for the Olympus SLR system, I'm not likely to jump to another one on a whim, although my investment is not really large, and I may still do it if some other manufacturer impresses me enough with what they offer. So far nobody did, and I'm trying to stay on top of the developments, both by reading and hands-on experience.

Still, I do not think that whatever Olympus brings to the market must be the greatest thing since sliced bread. For example, I found their latest ventures into the mid/up-scale non-SLRs quite disappointing (after the great, late C-5050/5060/7070WZ), and their recent compacts — not worth much attention; certainly no more than anyone else's offerings.

To put it shortly: I do not believe in the so-called brand loyalty. If I choose one brand over another, it is not because of the manufacturer ("If it ain't Nikon, it's crap!"), but because of what the manufacturer has to offer.

Still, as my voice comes from within the Olympus user camp, it may be not quite impartial, as much as I may try to the contrary. Keep that in mind when reading this article.

Back to the camera in question. Its predecessor, the E-500, released in October of 2005, is giving me results better than anything else I've tried before; it is also well-built and a pleasure to use. Discounted to less than $600 for a two-lens kit (and the lenses are way better than those bundled by other makers), it became, without doubt, the best buy on the digital SLR market, competing against models costing more than twice that much (no names, please). It was also, from what I know, selling better than any previous Olympus SLR.

Now, does Olympus really need a new model, aimed at the same market, this year? (Really, two models, with the very similar E-410 missing only the image stabilization feature.) I did not think so, but, obviously, Olympus thought otherwise — maybe trying to drastically expand their market share by offering more features than competition, or maybe their designing team went on a work rampage, and this was the only way to keep them from hurting each other.

The bottom line is that, regardless of what I might have thought, the new E-510 is here. Because I was looking for a spare E-500 body anyway, I decided to give the new model a shot. Besides, a friend of mine already decided to get an E-510, and offered to buy mine if I do not like it. I wasn't risking a penny here.

Another friend got hooked on the E-410 as soon as she put her hands on that camera, and now wouldn't be persuaded to think about anything else. We'll be getting her E-410 soon, so I will have one more review to write.

The new body

Let us start from the body shape, size, and controls, comparing the E-510 to its predecessor, the E-500. (For the complete size and weight data see my Class of 2007 comparison of the E-510 and E-410.

While there is some family resemblance, the E-510 body is not just an update of the older one; it is an entirely new construction.

(All pictures in this article are from promotional materials © Olympus Corporation)

Being 6 mm wider and 3 mm less tall, the E-510 looks more like a film SLR, at the expense of some of the "cuteness factor" (a subjective matter). Right-eyed users will not be pleased, pushing our noses into the LCD; the E-500 was better here. Left-eyed ones do not gain much, which at least leaves everybody equally unhappy.

The extra room at the left shoulder is now used for flash and drive controls. The place of the latter (top left of the cursor cluster) is now taken by two new buttons, activating image stabilization and live preview. The other external controls seem to be unchanged, which is a good thing. (The old Reference WB button is now marked as Function [Fn], but it was already re-assignable in the E-500.)

The intelligence-offending HyperCrystal LCD below the monitor has been replaced with the Olympus logo. Thank you.

A good news: the new body finish is the crinkled surface I liked so much in the E-300 (although not at the same quality level); the thumb rest is now padded, and the function button area is more raised, which should protect us from pressing this button by accident.

Unfortunately, the hot-shoe placement still prevents the use of the built-in flash as a fill for a bounced external one; one of my major complaints about the E-500.

New features

These were ite external changes, visible at a glance. What the camera attracts most of the interest with, however, are the two significant new features:

  • The Live View: an ability to preview the image on the LCD screen, not just through the SLR viewfinder (which still remains a better alternative for most applications). See my remarks on the subject in the next part of this article.
  • Body-based Image Stabilization. A dedicated device detects camera shake (small movements of the optical axis) and compensates by moving the sensor in the right direction. This allows for shooting without a tripod at shutter speeds longer that it would be otherwise possible.

    I have to admit my initial skepticism about this feature. It prompted me to perform a thorough test of how effective it is — now, indeed, I can say that it adds 1 or 2 EV to the range of handholdable shutter speeds (with gain at longer focal lengths larger than at shorter ones).

    Let us, however, not overlook another side of the coin: the extra mechanical complexity introduced into the system (with the sensor no longer rigidly attached to the rest of the body). This may become a source of reliability issues: image plane misalignment and other mechanical problems.

    Still, the market wants image stabilization — the market will have image stabilization...

A significant change, often overlooked, is the switch from the excellent KAF series of Kodak CCD sensors used in all preceding Olympus dSLRs (except for the E-330) to NMOS ones, developed, I believe, by Panasonic. Being a believer in colors and tonality of Kodak sensors, I consider this the riskiest decision made by Olympus with the new models (see also here).

Impressions and remarks

All this said, here are my impressions based on the current experience with the camera, in no particular order.

  • Image resolution with the kit lenses is just outstanding — if you set noise filtering to Off (which is now my all-time setting). Did Olympus tweak the anti-aliasing filter? Actually, it is higher than I need.
  • The colors and tonality seem to be at par with the E-500 and E-300 (or, at least, close), and this is a lot. I haven't experienced problems with the dynamic range (reported on some discussion groups): most probably the E-510 loses about 0.5 EV here, compared to the E-500, but this is a minor difference.
  • Exposure metering seems to be a bit more to my liking than that in the E-500: while with that camera I used to apply -.3 or -.7 EV for contrasty outdoors scenes, with the E-510 I feel more comfortable with 0 to -.3 EV, with 0 being OK for flat, low-contrast subjects.

    The 49-segment metering matrix does not guarantee that highlights will be protected from burning out; eposure still remains a thinking-man job.

  • I really like the new kit lenses! They are delightfully compact and lightweight, especially the 40-150 mm, F/4.0-5.6 ZD, when compared to its predecessor (which had a better maximum aperture of F/3.5-4.5). As far as the optical performance goes, the "short" zoom, 14-42 mm, is clearly better than the "old" 14-45 mm, quite surprising. Even more surprisingly, my side-by-side test sessions show that the new 40-150 mm delivers better resolution than the old one, and this is something!

    Here I have to take back my initial statement, that the new tele zoom is "not quite as good" as the old one. That was a casual observation, based on pictures of different subjects shot under different conditions; now I have at my disposal a number of series of comparative images. I have no doubt the new 40-150 mm is sharper — but for some uses I may still prefer the old one: sharp enough, but with wider aperture.

  • The electronically coupled manual focusing is much improved from any previous ZD lenses I've seen, regardless of price range. I mean the tactile feedback of the MF ring: more positive and precise. I disliked that in all previous Olympus lenses I've tried, and while it may be of importance only to some users, still, this time Olympus got it right. On the flip side, I'm wary of the plastic lens mounts (on lenses, not the camera, which still uses a stainless steel bayonet).
  • As you may know, lots of my skepticism was related to image stabilization. Various reports, often based on anecdotal evidence, quote a handholdability gain between one and four EV stops (exposures longer by a factor ranging from two to sixteen).

    Two experiments I've performed in this area clearly indicate that the image stabilization really works, although the gain is not as revolutionary as some sources claim. The first one is described in my review and shows a dramatic increase in the percentage of sharp images at the focal length of 150 mm and shutter speed of 1/15 s; the second, more involved, is discussed in a separate article and shows the gain as ranging from about 1 EV (14 mm focal length) to more than 2 EV (150 mm).

    I'm still not certain, however, how image stabilization may affect the reliability of the camera.

  • Live View: more useful than I expected it to be (see my remark below), but I didn't have high expectations to start with. If you want the camera to use the same autofocus and autoexposure circuitry with the Live View and without, you have to accept the extra lag after the shutter is released: the mirror has to go down and than back again; the shutter has to close and re-open.

    Anyone complaining about that is just being unrealistic, or technically illiterate, or both. Remember: this is not a general snapshot mode, and the only non-Olympus camera sharing this feature (with its all limitations) is the Canon EOS Mk. III, at four times the price (as of this writing, July 2007).

    I also feel that the Live View would be more useful with a tilting LCD monitor, which I found so handy for tabletop shooting with the C-5050Z or C-5060WZ; both a delight to use for that application. I understand this would make the camera more bulky (and more expensive), but I would gladly pay a $100 extra to have it, and the distinction of the smallest and lightest dSLR on the market belongs, anyway, to the E-410.

  • Larger image buffer. This was one of my complaints about the E-500, addressed in the E-510. Here the improved performance exceeds manufacturer's claims: with a Sandisk Extreme III card I was able to shoot series of 10 images in the raw format, 20 in SHQ JPEG (1:2.7 compression), and in 1:4 HQ the camera managed to keep up with the nominal serial shooting speed indefinitely (i.e., until I ran out of patience).
  • Faster USB interface. With the USB 2.0 "Hi Speed" interface (at long last, included by Olympus, why so late?), uploading images from the camera to a computer is six or seven times faster than in the E-500 (depending on the computer used), a welcome difference from the misleadingly named USB 2.0 "Full Speed". Copying 150 image files (about 560 MB) took me just 102 seconds.
  • Autofocus: the speed and precision (especially the low-light performance) are supposedly improved from the E-500, but I remain to be convinced; so far nothing indicates that. According to the official specs, the E-300, E-500, and E-510 can autofocus at the light level above 0 EV, so there seems to be no change here.

    I've heard complaints about the E-510 having "only" three AF spots, and about these spots being too close to each other. I think, however, that for most uses one spot is enough, although I want the AF based on that spot to be as fast and accurate as possible. Yes, under some circumstances moving that spot around the frame would be useful — but not a dozen of spots, with the camera making the choice between them. If you want that, buy a good point-and-shoot, and just keep pressing the big, shiny button.

  • High ISO noise: I've done some more experimenting since the original release of this article, and I'm very happy with the results: results at ISO 800 are quite pretty, and those at ISO 1600 — quite usable.

    I still believe the default amount of noise filtering is too great. For lower ISOs (certainly up to ISO 400) my trials convinced me to keep this setting at its lowest (Off), and for ISO 1600 — at Low. Higher setting would result in images looking like those from Canon Rebel cameras: no noise, no detail. (See also this article.)

    While the noise, especially from ISO 400 up, is lower in the E-510, this difference is most visible in infrared shooting, where I'm using exposures of one second and longer.

  • Infrared capability: I wasn't expecting much here, as newer cameras have more restrictive anti-IR filters in front of the sensor.

    Still, the E-510 seems to be a tad more sensitive to the infrared than the E-500, with the exposures needed being from 9 to 10 EV larger than for visible light (a factor of 500-1000).

    As I mentioned above, the E-510 exhibits less noise in long IR exposures at ISO 400. This makes it more usable in infrared photography than the E-500 — although it will never compete with a camera (any digital SLR!) customized by the anti-IR filter removed — another story.

  • Body: construction, look and feel. I'm not sure I like the new body shape, with the left-hand protrusion like in film SLRs. Right-eyed users will find it more difficult to use the viewfinder without sticking their noses (especially those on the larger end of the spectrum) into the LCD monitor. From this viewpoint I think I prefer the E-500.

    The quality of make and finish is high; it looks slightly improved from the E-500 (about which I had no complaints in this department), but not at par with the E-300. The crackled finish is a welcome addition, and so is the padded thumb rest.

    Thanks to the slightly more profiled back of the camera, the Function button (formerly: Reference WB, still assignable to that role) is now less likely to be accidentally pressed. Still, I would prefer some additional protection from that happening, as described elsewhere.

  • Ergonomics and controls. As good as in the E-500, and with only minor changes from that model. This is good news: don't fix it if it ain't broke. The flash and drive mode buttons have been moved to the left end of the top plate, with Live View and image stabilization buttons taking the space of the latter. This makes sense: the most frequently used controls belong under your right thumb.
  • Shutter release: not as smooth and soft as in the E-1. Most probably, Olympus wanted to protect inexperienced users from releasing the shutter by accident when trying just to lock the autofocus and/or autoexposure. This may be a matter of taste, but in this point I respectfully disagree with Olympus designers.
  • Wired remote capability: why did we have to wait so long? If the previous models could be triggered remotely from a computer via the USB/AV socket, then I see no prevailing reasons for this omission, except for the "most people do not need this" attitude.

    Now the bad news: the (optional) wired remote still cannot be used with the E-500 or E-300. Come on, I would think this can be implemented purely in the firmware!

The downsides

Not all is good news, though. I found one feature I liked so much on the E-500, strangely dropped from the "new, improved" model; some others are of a rather secondary nature.

  • Manual focus bracketing — a very useful feature, especially, but not only, when combined with autofocus "on demand" in critical macro work (see here). Why, for crying loud, why? This, I would think, was done, again, entirely in the firmware! Another "who'll ever need that" feature?

    Dear Olympus, if you had to drop something, why not the "direct print" idiocy (I've never heard from anyone who used it on an SLR), or the white balance bracketing (which is very much like "digital zoom")?

  • Choice of color schemes for the Control Panel — just cosmetics, but I liked it.

If I find something else, I will update this list. Now, to the features I was missing in the E-500, and are still missing in the E-510.

  • Lapsed-time sequences. Is this too much to ask? See my remark above.
  • An external flash in the hot shoe still blocks the built-in unit, which therefore cannot be used as a fill-in when the former is bounced off the ceiling. Worse, the accessory flash cables (like FL-CB05 and FL-CB02) cause the same effect, so that using the flash bracket does not help.

    The last Olympus cameras not suffering from this were the E-300 and E-330; thanks to the fill-in, my bounced-flash pictures using the FL-36 unit are much better from the E-300 than from the E-500.

  • A larger viewfinder. The nominal magnification increased from 0.9 to 0.92×, but I failed to see any difference handling both cameras side by side. Comparing this against the E-300 (a magnification of 1.0×) shows a noticeable difference.
  • The illogical, messy menu system remains in place, not improved since 2005. This is disappointing, but it the camera is set right, the menu does not need to be accessed in the field (unless you want to use exposure bracketing or adjust noise filtering — the only painful points).

So, what do I think so far?

After two months, I like the E-510 a lot, although it took me some time to accept that this is not the E-500.

While I still think that the importance of its main two additions (image stabilization, live preview) is often exaggerated, I cannot deny that they make the E-510 more tempting. I might say that even without these two the camera would be, in my book at least, the most attractive offer now on the market, within, and far beyond, its price range. (This is why the E-410, lacking only the IS, may also be worth your attention.)

Well-designed and built (way above the best-selling dSLR on the market, let it remain nameless), offering brisk performance, lots of features, exemplary ergonomics, and (most probably; so far, so good!) an excellent image quality — come on, what else do you need?

Plus, did I mention I believe in the Four Thirds system?


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

Evolt® and Olympus® are registered trademarks of Olympus Corporation.
This page is not sponsored or endorsed by Olympus (or anyone else) and presents solely the views of the author.

Home: wrotniak.net | Search this site | Change font size

Photo Tidbits | The Gallery


Posted 2007/07/22; last updated 2007/10/04 Copyright © 2007 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak