The E-520 arrives packed full of clever kit the likes of which would make any enthusiast snapper salivate and some pros a little envious. Like the E-510 before it, the E-520 has a 10-megapixel resolution, Live MOS sensor equipped with Olympus’ excellent Supersonic Wave Filter anti dust system and Live View with a neat 7x and 10x magnification for accurate manual focus when in Live View mode.
Priced at around £500 (body only), a simple way to sum the new camera up is simply to say it’s a semi-professional level DSLR but with a budget DSLR price. However, it is true to say the camera is more an evolutionary step up rather than a radical rethink and to that end it has everything the E-510 had before it, which was substantial indeed but with some significant improvements.
Improvements include an excellent body design and while perhaps not up to the ruggedness coefficient of recent (similarly specified) Pentax K200D and Samsung GX20 DSLR offerings in terms of weather sealing, the ergonomics are excellent with a large handgrip aiding control of the lightweight compact body.
This is certainly one of those cameras you look forward to picking up and some of those new additions to the comprehensive specification line up are a new wireless TTL flash control set up and a new Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT), similar to Nikon’s D-Lighting or Sony’s DRO systems where highlight and shadow detail are adjusted to pull out detail without affecting other areas of the image.
And SAT worked well, though it has to be activated within menus, as there’s no external direct control. You now have a more accurate and faster contrast detect AF set up in Live View (along with a hybrid system that combines the imager focus control and AF sensor focus systems) that is faster more accurate system than before.
As with the E-510, the image stabilisation (IS) is a CCD shift system built into the camera body so any lens sat on the FourThirds mount will be automatically stabilised. It provides vertical and horizontal modes and significantly, it provides around 4-EV steps of compensation making hand holding in low light at lower sensitivities a realistic proposition.
This is particularly handy for the double zoom lens kit that forms part of the four purchase options open to you: body only, single lens kit with the 14-42mm (28-84mm zoom 35mm equiv), the twin lens kit with the same 14-42mm optic and the excellent, 40-150mm (80-300mm in 35mm equivalent terms) tested here and a “tele double zoom kit” featuring the 14-42mm lens and a longer zoom ratio lens in the shape of the 70-300mm (140 to 600mm in 35mm equiv) F/4-F/5.6 optic.
A cursory glance across the E-520’s spec is enough to make a keen photographer smack their lips in anticipation and it’s testament to the camera’s designers that it is all more or less manageable in terms of control, even if it might take DSLR novices a while to acclimatise to its giddy control heights.
That control layout includes a traditional looking DSLR top plate with a large mode dial and its incumbent on/off switch that gets you into the meat of the camera’s control options and includes the full manual controls and an auto (point and shoot) mode. There’s fast access to five popular subject modes (portrait, landscape, macro, sports and night scene) and a “scene” setting that allows you to choose from another 15-scene modes.
The shutter release is closely shadowed by a useful exposure compensation button while a control dial, easily controlled with the right thumb alters settings such as apertures, in aperture priority mode. As a hint at the level of control on offer, with in the many custom menus you can even adjust the direction in which the control dial turns to make changes if prefer to have it turn clockwise rather than anticlockwise, for example.
The angular hump that is the pentaprism viewfinder housing sports a hot shoe and rather underpowered pop-up flash with a guide number of 12. Flash modes and drive modes (including a rather good 3.5fps continuous mode, the buffer’s improved on the 520 with up to eight frames in RAW shooting or up to the capacity of the card in Large/Normal JPEG shooting) are adjusted via buttons over the pentaprism hump.
The back plate host the new, larger 2.7-inch colour screen and its excellent Super Control Panel (SCP) where the majority of your imaging controls are displayed, a press of the “OK” button that sits inside a four-way jog set up on the right of the screen, activates options on the SCP (the last used is highlighted, for example) and you can then dip and adjust these settings directly from the back of the camera.
Add in the deep level of tunnel down you can implement via the “normal” menu button and you quickly realise there’s very little on the new camera that you cannot adjust or customise. This even extends to the compression levels of the JPEG modes offered with a "Super Fine" option offered over and above the default Large/Fine setting.
This is an excellent alternative option if you don’t have room on your remaining CompactFlash Type I/II or xD PictureCard storage (it accepts both types together) to shoot the 11MB RAWs this camera can create, making instead 6.8MB files with the default Fine files set at around ¼ compression ratio and producing a 4.7MB file.
It becomes quickly evident when shooting on both CF and xD that the xD cards are much slower and so if you’re planning on shooting bursts of RAW images, the CF option is probably best, as you’ll lock up less often.
Nevertheless, 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 – the excellent anti dust system’s animation displays first – the focusing performance is quick and very accurate despite the E-520 retaining the (arguably) limited 3-zone AF system from the E-510.
The excellent Live View allows you to compose images with a 100% field of view, you get a 95% field of view in the rather gloomy optical viewfinder and although it has a 14mm eye point, I found this, and the small physical size of the finder’s eye aperture, difficult to get to grips with when wearing spectacles (there’s dioptre control built-in though) but features comprehensive shooting info nonetheless.
Checking for sharpness via the large LCD in manual focusing is aided by 7x or 10x magnifying settings and although the 230,000-dot screen is excellent and now has the benefit of a very good LCD boost system, a finer resolution LCD would have made things even better.
Moving to the image quality now and to put it succinctly, I was very impressed by the E-520. Noise issues have been very well controlled indeed, the cameras sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 1600 can be used across the range with only very fine noise "grain" appearing above ISO 800 and the noise suppression system incorporated here can reduce its impact. The best "Low" setting provides the best result leaving a not unattractive film like appearance to noise.
The shadow noise at lower ISOs of the E-510 has gone and the 49-zone metering set-up proved flexible and reliable. But in case it is not, you get ESP metering, centre weighted and three types of spot metering: normal, highlight priority and shadow priority. These last two help achieve high and low key images at the press of a button and add provided me with some neat wow moments for the right subjects.
Apart from a little practice to get the highlight and shadow metering right, it’s straightforward to use and no matter what you’re snapping, there’s enough control here for anything you can throw at the camera.
Focusing includes Face Detection AF (you can switch it off in menus if desired) but the new TTL phase difference/contrast detection system works well and the three main AF zones are supplemented by a clever 11-zone set up in contrast detection using Live View, so once again, extra layers of flexibility come built-in, you just have to find them!
Captured detail is excellent though the 14-42mm kit zoom is a little limiting so using Olympus’ 35-100mm F/2 zoom can really pull an impressive level of detail out of the sensor. White balance was very temperamental on the E-510 but less so here, which is a relief as you no longer have to spend extra time sorting colour balance issues after shooting using the auto WB mode.
Issues around the dynamic range including the loss of highlights in brighter scenes have been addressed but you still need to process RAWs to get the detail back so be aware of that if you intend to shoot JPEGs.
Colour reproduction is excellent in the default "normal" setting, but as you’d expect, there are a host of extra adjustments and fine-tuning options including usual suspects such as vivid, monochrome muted and portrait modes.
The E-510’s built-in filters that mimic the effect of red, yellow and green filtration (to name a few modes) on a film camera provide lots of scope and so ensures if there’s something to tweak on this camera, then you’ll be able to tweak it.
A superb feature set and great handling plus great image quality are combined in a camera that is a great price and available in a variety of lens kits to suit almost any photographers desires. The FourThirds format means a 2x field of view adjustment needed for the lenses you use but this also means that lenses are compact and lightweight too, making the system’s cameras ideal travel companions.
To sum up then, the Olympus E-520 is a compact, lightweight system camera with the specification of professional level camera at a budget price. It has superb image quality at its core and although it may take a month to find out all the adjustments that are at your disposal, at least you’ll have a rewarding time getting out there and exploring them.