Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera - Review

Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera - Review

Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera - Review (Front)As compact cameras continue to evolve into commodity items, camera makers have shifted the way they approach their entry-level dSLRs. In Olympus' case, the E-410 and E-510 include LiveView LCD preview mode to mimic the way you frame a shot with a compact camera and scene presets in case you're not comfortable enough to set exposure using the program, aperture- and shutter-priority, and manual shooting modes that are the norm among SLR shooters. Of course, those modes are still available in the E-510, and can give you the same level of exposure control you find in other SLRs.

Design of the Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera

Olympus thinks of the E-510 as a small step above the E-410 and thinks that it should appeal to SLR newbies (or possibly former film SLR owners) that want more of a traditional SLR design than its smaller sibling. While the 410 has an extremely compact body design with almost no grip so it can fit into a pocket if you take the lens off, the 510 has a more prominent grip, making for a slightly larger body. Not only that, but the 510 also included mechanical, sensor-shift image stabilization, which the 410 lacks.

Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera - Review (Back)Like most newer entry-level SLRs, the E-510 doesn't include a separate status LCD. Instead, you can access info, such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, on the camera's main LCD screen. While we normally prefer a status LCD to this method, we do like the way Olympus built its status screen, since you can quickly navigate through the screen to change any of the settings included in that view.

Of course, there are also hard buttons for commonly changed settings, such as ISO, white balance, and AF mode, in case you want to bypass the status screen, which you access by pressing the OK button in the middle of the five-way touchpad. The layout of buttons on the 510 is very nice, making it a comfortable camera to use, though like most entry-level SLRs, its body is a tad short, and our pinky finger dangles from the bottom of the grip when we hold it.

Features of the Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera

As Live View modes in SLRs go, the 510's version is pretty nice, but it's still chunkier than shooting with a real compact camera or using the 510's optical viewfinder. Since the 510 has to get its mirror out of the way before you can use Live View, then needs to lower it to autofocus and raise it again before you can shoot, this mode is slow and noisy.

Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera - Review (Top)Also, if you do want the camera to autofocus while in Live View mode, you have to hold the AEL/AFL button to activate it, which also slows down the shooting experience. However, if you want to focus manually, you can zoom in on your subject to help you focus. You can also select the area that you want to zoom in on or use for autofocus; a small green box appears if you cycle through display modes (with the INFO button) and you can move it around the frame with the direction buttons in the five-way touchpad.

Since the E-510's 10-megapixel LiveMOS sensor adheres to the Four Thirds format, the camera has a 2x focal length multiplier. That means that you have to multiply the focal lengths of the two available kit lenses by two to come up with the effective field of view that you'll get with the lenses. For example, the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that comes with the single and double lens kits becomes more akin to a 28-84mm lens. Meanwhile the 40-150mm f/4-5.6 lens that comes with the double lens kit ends up more like an 80-300mm lens. That's a nice range of focal lengths, especially in an entry-level SLR kit, but if you want to go wide with a Four Thirds camera, you should be prepared to shell out some serious cash.

Olympus does offer a rectilinear (aka non-fisheye) 7-14mm f/4, which we was able to use to shoot Arthur Ashe stadium when Olympus invited me to the US Open this year (see my slide show for the shot), but it'll cost you almost as much as three E-510 bodies to buy that lens. The company's 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5 costs less than half the 7-14mm's price, but if you want to get wider than a 20mm-equivalent without resorting to a fisheye lens, you'll likely have to pawn your arm and leg.

Despite its being targeted toward entry-level users, the E-510 does have some nice customization features. For example, you can program the Fn (function) button to control a number of different functions. Its default setting is for depth of field, but it can also be turned off completely or set to set the custom white balance, let you shoot a test picture (without saving it to your memory card), or set the camera to My Mode, which can save all the current camera settings as your own custom shooting mode.

If the function button is set to My Mode, and you have saved settings for that mode, you can set the camera to all those settings by pressing that one Fn button. The AEL/AFL button can also be configured to control autoexposure and autofocus locks in various different combinations. In addition to custom white balance and the camera's white balance presets, you can also choose a Kelvin temperature from 2,000K to 14,000K.

Performance of the Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera

Outside of Live View mode, the E-510 performed well in our lab tests. The camera took 1.3 seconds to start and capture its first JPEG. Subsequent JPEGs took about 0.6 second between shots with the flash turned off and 0.9 second with the flash turned on. It took about 0.8 second between RAW images with the flash turned off.

Shutter lag measured 0.4 second in our high-contrast test and 1.3 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. In our continuous shooting test, the E-510 lived up to Olympus' claim of 3 frames per second. We were able to capture 3.1fps at the camera's smallest JPEG setting, and 2.9fps at full resolution.

Image Quality of the Olympus E-510 Digital SLR Camera

While you can achieve very nice image quality with the E-510, out of the box we saw the same issues with the E-510 that Lori Grunin saw with the E-410. In its default settings, and with firmware version 1.0, the E-510 underexposes and over blurs photos.

Switching the Noise Filter to "Low" or "Off" will fix the blurring problem, and using a shooting mode other than Program can help overcome the exposure issues. Also, when faced with incandescent lighting, the E-510's automatic white balance tends to produce overly warm images, you're better off with the camera's tungsten preset in this situation, or better yet a custom white balance. This is somewhat strange, given that Olympus' significantly less expensive FE series cameras usually do an excellent job of automatically setting white balance.

To its credit, the E-510 does a good job of keeping noise under control across its sensitivity range. While noise becomes noticeable at ISO 800 and is clearly apparent at the top setting of ISO 1,600, you should still be able to get acceptable prints throughout the camera's sensitivity range. We just wish that the camera went beyond ISO 1,600. Even an entry-level SLR should reach at least ISO 3,200 at this point.

While the exposure quirks mentioned above might sound bad, you really can create very good photos with the E-510, though it can be a bit frustrating when compared to competitors, such as Nikon's D40x. However, if you like the idea of the E-510's Live View mode or built-in Image Stabilization (something neither of the aforementioned competitors have), then you should give this a look.