Olympus E-510 DSLR camera review

4.5 out of 5
£500 body only, £600 with 14-42mm kit lens or £700 with double zoom kit: 14-42mm plus 40-150mm lens

For

Price, svelte FourThirds system, handling, anti dust system, image stabilisation, image quality, feature set, metering, low noise, live view

Against

Auto white balance foibles, modest 3-point AF set up, plastic feel to the build

The recent announcement of the new professional E-System Olympus E3 should not be allowed to overshadow the latest in Olympus enthusiast digital SLRs, the E-510. However, the new camera has a tough act to follow in the shape of the popular and extremely small E-410.

The E-510, its similar-looking bigger brother boasts a 10-megapixel resolution, Live MOS sensor, Olympus’ excellent Supersonic Wave Reduction anti dust system and Live View with a 7x and 10x magnification for accurate manual focus when in Live View mode.

The Olympus E-510, costs £100 more than the (almost as) highly specified E-410 but for the extra one hundred quid you get a physically bigger camera with anti shake and, and, that’s about it. So, is it worth it?

Well, the image stabilisation (IS) is a CCD shift system built into the camera body so that any lens sat on the FourThirds mount will be automatically stabilised. It provides a choice of two modes, either on, or vertically but not horizontally stabilised for better response when taking action shots.

"IS" comes in particularly handy if you should opt to buy the double zoom lens kit that forms part of the three purchase options open to you: Body only, single lens kit with the 14-42mm (28-84mm zoom 35mm equiv) and the twin lens kit with the same 14-42mm optic and the excellent, 40-150mm (80-300mm in 35mm equivalent terms). Here, the longer focal lengths on offer mean the IS set up really comes into its own. So, for the £700 asking price, the double lens kit must be the best option should your budget stretch to it and if you don’t already own FourThirds lenses.

Bulkier than the E-410, the E-510 is nevertheless compact when ranged against some of the similarly pitched DSLR competition such as the 10MP Samsung's GX10 or Pentax’s K100D. The increase in bulk (over the E-410) is largely down to the fact the 510 has an ergonomic and neatly rounded grip, that houses the battery in its base and the dual xD and CF Type I/II storage in its side.

The increase in size means the camera is very nice to use and reassuring to hold, plus, the 510’s extra real estate allows the camera sling to be mounted so that it does not get in the way as on the E-410.

The lack of a separate data LCD atop the camera is made up for by the excellent information panel displayed on the rear 2.5-inch colour screen, which can be used both as a data check facility or a way to quickly enter and adjust shooting options. This is achieved via a press of the large “OK” button sat inside a four-way jog control. The latter used to scroll and set features such as white balance, AF modes, metering and ISO settings.

A large dial on the top-plate affords fast adjustment of settings such as aperture and shutter speeds while a similarly large mode dial accesses the key shooting options such as the all auto snapping mode, portrait, landscape and sports modes (among others) and the four main manual controls of aperture and shutter priority, program and manual control. The same dial sits above a prominent on/off lever. Flash, exposure compensation, drive modes all have their own hard buttons (backed up by the four-way jog control and the LCD info panel) and each is well placed for fast and easy use while in the thick of the action.

The camera is responsive to use and while there's a wait of just over a second before you can fire off the first shot as the excellent anti dust system’s animation struts its stuff. A continuous shooting rate of 3fps (for 12-JPEGs or seven RAW files) allows for accurate capture of most moving subjects while the focusing performance is equally quick and very accurate. And while some may frown at the modest 3-zone AF system, it is an accurate and reliable one.

Also, because of the smaller area afforded by the FourThirds format sensor, three AF points provide enough scope most tasks and, like its predecessor, image you take are afforded the choice of JPEG, RAW or RAW + JPEG capture at various settings and compression values – for the JPEG side of the equation.

Overall, the camera is responsive and handles well, with the (often) seemingly complex operation (due largely to the sheer amount of kit you have to tweak and play with) quickly becoming second nature. Live View, which allows images to be composed and checked for sharpness via the large LCD and its excellent 7x or 10x magnifying modes beef up the small looking viewfinder, but it is exactly that, small. However, while seemingly gloomy when compared to some larger format viewfinders it is still bright enough for easy use and features comprehensive shooting info. In short, it takes getting used to but works a treat.

So let's look at the most important aspect of the E-510, namely, the image quality. Images are excellent “out of the box”, metering is reliable and offers plenty of presets including both Hi and Low settings to swing the metering bias towards highlights of shadows respectively.

White balance is temperamental in the auto mode but switch to a setting suitable for the ambient light and things are reliable indeed. Slight issues around the dynamic range and include the loss of highlights in brighter scenes, but shooting in and, with the use of the supplied RAW processing software, you can claw back missing highlight detail in JPEGs.

And said detail is superb with noise control also good from ISO100 to 800 while the top setting of ISO 1600 has obvious but not overly intrusive noise – easily on a par with much of the DSLR competition.

Colour rendition is natural (though strangely, the LCD provides a skewed colour balance compared to what you see when viewed on PC) but there is enough in the way of tailoring of colour modes (and just about every other mode on the camera) built into the camera to keep any photo enthusiasts happy. Be it black and white with built-in filters that mimic the effect of red, yellow and green filtration (to name a few modes) on a film camera, or desaturated or vivid snapping, there’s lots of scope. You can also adjust the noise processing, sharpness, contrast and the like to further enhance or simply tweak image capture performance and behavior to how you like it.

Verdict

With a stunning feature set and great handling in a (slightly) beefier body than its E-410 predecessor, plus great image quality, the only thing left to want is a great price. Oh! Hang on; it has a great price too – in a variety of tasty-looking kits or body only.

Okay, if you own a Canon or Nikon system you’re already locked into that are unlikely to swap due to the cost of switching all those lenses if nothing else, but if you’re trading up from compacts, across from film or simply need a compact yet superbly specified DSLR with anti shake, than the E-510 must be placed near the top of your list.