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Olympus E-500 review

As the third model in their Four-Thirds system Olympus have released the Evolt E-500, an entry level DSLR designed to be used by photographers of all skill levels. Apart from a large 2.5" LCD screen and an 8-megapixel sensor, its special features include dual card slots for XD and CF cards; digital black and white filters and even more shooting and metering options than before.

front of the Olympus Evolt E-500 back of the Olympus E500

Although the Olympus Four-Thirds cameras have as yet failed to reach the same level of popularity as the Nikons and Canons of this world, we believe Olympus have introduced enough innovative features in their digital E-series to be granted a prime spot in the DSLR arena, and we believe their new Evolt E500 could well be the camera to change Olympus' fortunes for the better.

Using the camera

With the shape of the E500, Olympus have returned to a more traditional design. The "flat top" of the E-300 has been replaced by the more conventional hump where the flash and hot shoe are located. An added advantage of this is that the pop-up flash now sits even higher making it still more effective in reducing red-eye.

The balance of the camera is exactly right with all buttons and dials where you would expect them to be. The E-500 is not too light or too heavy and the body shape and the pronounced hand grip make it very secure to grip. The shutter release requires only a very light touch to take a picture and this in combination with the secure hold make it perfectly possible to capture images with longer shutter speeds without causing camera shake.

Olympus have kept their exclusive and by now almost legendary SSWF anti-dust reduction system, and although all DSLR users know how annoying dust on the sensor can be, Olympus is still the only one to do anything about it. Every time the camera is switched on, ultrasonic waves shake dust off the CCD at 32.000 cycles per second, effectively keeping the sensor free from dust spots.

sample image of the Olympus E500 sample image of the Olympus Evolt E-500 sample image of the Olympus E-500 sample image of the Olympus Evolt E500

The back of the camera is dominated by a large 2.5" LCD monitor with 215.000 pixels which is bright and clear in use. To the left of this are four buttons for preview, delete, menu and image info. The latter shows as much or as little information about an image as you may wish. Besides a screen that informs you about file number and date, image size and quality, there is another screen that shows detailed exposure information with a separate histogram for each RGB colour. It can also indicate whether parts of an image are over or underexposed by highlighting shadow or highlight detail.

To the right of the monitor are separate buttons for AE-lock; choosing one of three AF-areas and a custom button which can be set to control One Touch WB, Depth of Field preview or one of the My Mode settings. The four-way dial offers direct access to white balance; ISO from 100 - 1600; single or continuous AF or Manual focusing; plus single/continuous shooting. There is no separate LCD panel on the top plate as all camera information is visible on the large 2.5" monitor every time you press the OK button. Settings can be changed by navigating to the required function with the 4-way dial and rotating the command wheel to cycle through the various options for each function. In fact it is more complicated to explain here than it is to use.

On the top plate we find the large on/off switch, which activates the supersonic wave filter every time the camera is switched on, a chunky program dial with the four core program modes (PASM), Auto and five scene modes, and the command wheel to control every camera function. Just behind the sensitive shutter release there is a tiny button for exposure compensation over five stops in 1/3 or 1/2EV steps. Apart from a powerful pop-up flash the E500 has a standard hot shoe for dedicated Olympus flash lights or third party flashes. The viewfinder is quite small but clearly set out with all the shooting information visible on the right hand side. Thanks to a large rubber eye cup even spectacle wearers will have no trouble using it.

Although there are only five scene modes on the program dial, the E-500 has 15 subject-biased programs which are accessible through the menu or the "scene" setting on the program dial in combination with the 4-way switch. Apart from the usual modes such as portrait or landscape, they range from subjects as diverse as macro or sports to high or low key portraits or documents.

It is good to see that many functions are directly accessible through a separate switch or button so there is no need to consult the menu that often. That said, the menu is clearly laid out in tabs for image related functions and camera settings, that can be controlled by navigating them with the 4-way switch. It is here that the comprehensive user manual comes in handy. Contrary to some time ago when Olympus only supplied a basic manual with their cameras, leaving owners to look up the rest on the accompanied CD, you can now read all about the camera's many functions in the 125-page booklet from the comfort of your arm chair in front of the telly if you like.

It is impossible to list all the advanced functions of this camera here. We will restrict ourselves to mentioning a few more striking items which make the Olympus E500 just that little bit more special than the competition. Considering that the E-500 is meant as an entry-level DSLR we have to say that many of those functions would not look amiss on a professional model.

We have seen that camera manufacturers like to include one or two customisable buttons on their cameras to let users personalise their camera to some extent. Olympus goes one better by not only offering the option to personalise several buttons on the E500 but users can completely adapt almost every camera function to their own preferences. We have already mentioned the OneTouch white balance button that can be set to determine Depth of Field or act as a One Touch white balance switch. Besides this it will call up one of the MyMode settings made previously or it can be set as a "test picture" button, which lets you preview an image before you decide whether it should be saved to memory card or not.

There are seven white balance settings which - apart from Auto and One Touch WB - include 3 fluorescent settings. On top of this, every preset can be customised by dialling in some more blue or red to adapt to individual lighting situations. Alongside this there is a handy scale in degrees Kelvin, so that you know what you are doing and what effect your changes will have. Finally there is a custom setting where you can dial in a straight value in degrees Kelvin to set a colour temperature between 14000 and 2000K. As a reference you could keep in mind that daylight on a clear day has a colour temperature of 5300 degrees Kelvin while tungsten has a value of 3000K.

The Delete button can be personalised by removing the confirmation before deleting a picture when pressed in preview mode. The AE/AF-lock can be made into an on/off switch so that you do not have to hold it down when you want to lock exposure or focusing. Focus direction of the lens can be set to clockwise or counter clockwise so as to reflect what you are used to on your other cameras. The three colour modes - vivid, natural or muted - can each be customised by adjusting saturation, sharpness or contrast in two steps over or under the standard setting.

When you want to change camera or exposure functions you can mostly do this in three ways. The first is by using the dedicated switch on the back of the camera. Secondly you can resort to the camera menu and as a third option you can press the OK button and set functions directly on the LCD monitor by rotating the command wheel. Should you have made a total mess of things and lost your way around the camera completely, you can always reset the E-500 to factory settings. In fact you could even return to one of your own settings (Reset 1 or 2) provided you have laid them down previously.

There are five exposure metering options. Apart from 49-segment evaluative metering which is used in day to day photography, we have centre-weighted and spot metering plus two modes called Hi-spot and Sh-spot. The latter two are used when you want to spot meter for a small area in the centre of the image with a predominantly light or dark background respectively. Both modes will compensate for the light or dark background by over or underexposing the scene just a tiny bit to prevent the background from turning medium grey.

Several forms of bracketing are available on the Olympus E-500. Exposure bracketing is the most familiar one, with 3 frames being taken at 1/3EV to 1EV over or under the metered exposure. Apart from this there is white balance and flash bracketing. Quite an unusual feature in cameras of this class is the possibility to bracket Manual focus. Here is how it works: you manually focus the lens on your subject and when you press the shutter, the camera takes two or three shots just in front of the focus point and two or three shots just behind it, so a total of five or seven images. A tripod is recommended for this sequence of shots.

The E500 has quite a number of flash modes. The built-in flash with GN13 at ISO100, can be set to pop up automatically in low light levels and with back lighting or manually. Apart from the usual modes like flash on/off and fill-in flash with or without red-eye reduction, the E500 has the possibility of first or second curtain flash as well as full manual flash. The latter can be adjusted from full power to 1/64. Reducing flash intensity for all automatic flash modes can be done through the menu and this can be set from +/- 2 stops in 1/3EV steps. Sync speeds are user adjustable and range from 1/60 to 1/180s.

Apart from more common functions like automatic noise reduction, the E-500 also has some less familiar options like anti-shock, anti-shading or pixel mapping. Anti-shock can be used with long shutter speeds to reduce mirror vibrations when the shutter is fired. Anti-shading might be useful with some wide angle lenses where darkening of the corners may occur especially at wide apertures. Anti-shading will automatically compensate for this. The pixel mapping function can locate hot pixels on the CCD and render them inactive. Olympus advice is to use this function sparingly. Once a year would be more than adequate.

ISO800

The camera menu is in English but five other languages can be selected such as French or Spanish. However if you connect your camera to a computer through the USB connection and use the Olympus Master software to update your E-500, you can visit the Olympus web site where you can download many more languages. Among these we found Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Italian and even Portuguese, Russian and Korean. This is what Olympus mean by customer care.

There are not really that many negative things to say about the E500. The camera is responsive enough, auto focus is quick and positive, there is minimal shutter lag and it handles like a dream. The only niggle we might have is when focusing in low light levels. With the pop-up flash acting as a focus assist light it blasts out a rapid strobe of bright light to find something to focus on. This can prove very dazzling for your subject and instantly draws attention making unobtrusive picture taking impossible. Besides the fact that we hated using it, successful focus could not always be achieved in these situations.

In the box

Apart from all the usual goodies like cables and caps, what is in the box depends on what "box" you have got. The simple package would be the kit with the Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom lens, but for just a few dollars, pounds or euros more you could have the dual lens kit with two lenses - the 14-45 standard zoom plus the 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 tele lens. The last option is especially attractive as you get an extra lens for a really small outlay. Bear in mind that this kit would make a complete system to cover most photographic situations, and you wouldn't need much else to start your photographic "career". If you still wish for more there are now 15 Zuiko Digital lenses available, ranging from ultra wide angle to extreme tele lenses, and the Four Thirds system is still growing.

ISO100 ISO400 ISO800 ISO1600

Shame to say that this advanced camera does not support the USB 2.0 high speed standard, which should really be standard issue on any DSLR today. The BLM-1 lithium ion battery has a capacity of 1500mAh and should be good for about 400 images according to CIPA standards. The BCM-2 battery charger will charge an empty battery in about 5 hours. As an aftermarket extra you can buy the Olympus LBH-1 battery holder, which holds three CR123A batteries to act as an emergency back up if there is no mains to charge the BLM-1.

As already mentioned the supplied user manual is much more elaborate than we are used to from Olympus. In 125 pages all camera functions are clearly explained. There is also an extensive users guide on DVD in which all functions are clearly demonstrated plus you will pick up some general photography tips about composition and colour along the way.

Image quality

But despite all the extra functions and gadgets does the E500 deliver the goods? After our complaints about the exposure system of the E-300 in February, we were really curious to see if the new camera possessed the same erratic behaviour with dark or light areas in the central area of the frame. We are pleased to say that the E-500 showed none of these characteristics and delivered constant and well balanced exposures all the time. The 49-segment ESP metering system worked as it should do. And also centre weighted and spot metering delivered consistent results as could be expected from a class camera like this one. With a maximum resolution of 3264x2448 pixels, images can be saved as RAW, TIFF or JPEG in three quality settings, with compression levels ranging from 1/2.7 to 1/12.

muted colour natural colour vivid colour vivid with extra saturation and contrast

All images showed excellent colour, good sharpness and a good dynamic range. There was no evidence of purple fringing and noise was on the same level as with other DSLRs. Low ISO settings were virtually noise free but some noise becomes present above 800ISO, although these images are still perfectly useable. Colour reproduction is very good with neutral rather than saturated colours. This can be tweaked in the menu where you can opt for muted colours for portraits or choose the "vivid" setting for landscapes for instance. Saturation, sharpness and contrast of all three colour modes can be customised to your own preferences. In monochrome mode you can dial in several colour filters, much the same as with conventional BW photography. A yellow filter for instance will increase contrast of a blue sky with clouds, whereas a red filter will dramatically darken blue skies with bright clouds. A green filter can be used to improve skin tones and bring out facial expressions in portraits.

We were very pleased with the performance of the standard zoom lens, which shows some mild barrel distortion at the wide end, which disappears when you get to the tele end of the zoom. The 40-150mm tele lens, which we had on test as well, starts off with hardly any distortion and this slowly gives way to some pincushion distortion when you get above 100mm. Both lenses showed no signs of vignetting in the extreme corners.

Conclusion

What we liked about the Olympus E-500 is the fact that, for the price of an entry level camera, you get a very advanced machine. The E-500 has so many features that it will take the real enthusiast some time to figure them all out, whereas relative beginners can simply leave the camera in Auto and get great results every time. We believe that this camera might well put Olympus back in the top three of camera manufacturers where they belong. The dual lens kit especially makes it the best value DSLR in its class as you get a complete system to handle almost every photographic situation for a very competitive price. Thanks to its excellent picture quality and delightful handling, we are sure you would find this a great camera to own.


Additional information: Olympus E-500 product details and other reviews
January 20, 2006

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