Olympus E-500/EVOLT E-500 8mp digital SLR
Anti-dust vs anti-shake
Review The E-500, announced in September 2005, was the third E-series digital SLR from Olympus; the fourth, the E-330, was announced in January 2006. The E-500 offers eight megapixel resolution and employs a 'FourThirds' mount which can accommodate an increasing range of lenses...
Unlike the older E-300 and the latest E-330 models, the E-500 is a conventionally-styled digital SLR with a control layout which closely resembles Canon's EOS 350D Digital Rebel XT. Indeed, sporting the same resolution and roughly the same dimensions, this is clearly the model Olympus sees as its closest rival.
While the Canon remains one of the best budget digital SLRs around, the E-500 has several advantages, including a unique anti-dust system which actually shakes foreign particles from the sensor's filter every time the camera powers-up. It also boasts a large, detailed 2.5in monitor, an impressive degree of control for a budget model and a great value twin lens bundle.
So far so good, but the budget digital SLR market is currently one of the most competitive around with some superb cameras fighting it out. Does the E-500 have what it takes to compete?
Measuring 10 x 9.5 x 6.6cm, it's roughly the same size and shape as Canon's EOS-350D / Digital Rebel XT, although the grip's a little wider and feels slightly more professional, with a thin rubber coating. There's also more space between it and the lens barrel for your finger tips. The body's built from fibre-reinforced polycarbonate and feels slightly more solid than several of its budget rivals - there's certainly no creaks to worry about.
The control layout borrows a great deal from the 350D/Digital Rebel XT, with many buttons and dials in pretty much the same places.
The upper right surface of the body houses the main command dial, sporting the usual Auto, Program, Manual, Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, along with a Scene option which allows you to choose between 14 presets; the five most common scene presets can alternatively be accessed directly from the command dial. Exposures from 1/4000 to 60 seconds and an eight-minute Bulb are available, while the flash sync is at up to 1/180. Like the Canon, the power switch is fitted around the right side of the command dial.
A thumbwheel is used for most adjustments, either by itself, or while holding a button down, such as for exposure compensation. Annoyingly though it's possible to spin the dial and not have every step registered by the system - so if you're in Shutter or Aperture priority for instance and spin the wheel quickly to rapidly change the setting, you may find only a few steps actually take place. This can be quite infuriating if you're used to a camera which responds to every click of a wheel.
Again following Canon's layout, four buttons to the right of the monitor allow you to adjust the White Balance, Auto Focus, ISO and Metering modes. This can be quite a laborious process though since you can only move left and right between the options, and not use the up and down buttons to jump around more quickly - this makes switching from, say, 100 to 1600 ISO slower than it could be.
In one final nod to the Canon control layout are five buttons which run down the left side of the screen: four have the same menu and playback functions as the 350D/Digital Rebel XT, although the top one pops up the built-in flash. Flash modes include the choice of Auto, red-eye reduction, slow syncro with red-eye reduction, slow syncro, rear curtain slow syncro, fill-in and off. Flash compensation settings of +/2EV are available.
On the left side of the body is a single connector which doubles-up for both USB and video-output, depending on which of the supplied cables are plugged-in.
The E-500's powered by a single Lithium Ion battery pack, rated at 7.2V 1500mAh, and the camera's supplied with a mains recharger. The remaining charge is shown as a three segment indicator on the main screen.
The most common lens bundled with the E-500 is the Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f3.5~5.6. This delivers a 3x optical range equivalent to 28-90mm on a 35mm or full-frame body. It is our policy to test budget digital SLRs with these bundled lens options, as they are normally the ones many owners end up using the most, at least initially.
14-45mm at 14mm, f8 (28mm equivalent)
14-45mm at 45mm, f8 (90mm equivalent)
Composition and screen
Like traditional digital SLRs, composition with the E-500 is performed using its optical viewfinder alone. The shooting information is shown on a vertical strip to the right of the focusing screen and includes aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, metering and shooting mode.
The view through any digital SLR with a cropped sensor can appear quite small compared to a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera, but the E-500's appears even smaller still. It may deliver the typical 95 per cent field of view, but thanks to the squarer 4:3 aspect ratio of its sensor, the view appears narrower than other digital SLRs. It really is like peering through a tunnel, although after a while you get used to it.
Compensating for the tiny viewfinder is a generous 2.5in colour screen. Since this occupies a large portion of the rear of the camera and there's no room on the top surface, this main screen doubles-up for showing shooting information - just like the Konica Minolta 5D.
Like the KM 5D, you can also cycle between two different formatting options, by pressing the Info button. The more detailed of the two shows an absolute wealth of information including the image pixel dimensions, colour space, sharpness, contrast and saturation settings. By pressing the OK button you can also move around this page using the four buttons and select the option you'd like to change without having to delve into menus.
This selection process works well in practice, although it's annoying to find the screen still illuminated as you move your eye to the viewfinder to take a picture. This can be quite distracting, but rather than sensibly fit an proximity sensor like Konica Minolta, you'll need to manually turn the E-500's screen off by pressing the info button again. Unlike the Konica Minolta D-SLRs, the information on the screen also doesn't rotate as you turn the camera body. This and the eye proximity sensor are small points, but illustrate the 5D's classiness.
What the E-500 lacks in this respect though it makes up for in detail and options. During playback the Info button allows you to cycle through no fewer than seven pages of information including brightness or RGB histograms and separate flashing Highlight and Shadow warnings. It's impressive to have this level of information available, especially on a budget model.
The E-500 allows you to zoom-in up to 14 times on images during playback, although unfortunately there doesn't appear to be any detail beyond the 8x position. Don't worry, there really is additional detail on images recorded at the full resolution, but annoyingly you can't see it all when zooming-in during playback. This is a disappointment for anyone who likes zooming-in to the maximum detail available, perhaps to confirm the focus.
The menus are based around five main sections, dealing with shooting, playback and setup. They're familiar to anyone who's used an Olympus digital camera before and again, like the Info button, allow you to change an unusually wide variety of options for a camera of this price. For example like earlier Olympus cameras you can configure the compression settings with much finer control than most rivals, and there's also a number of bracketing options, including White Balance, AE, Flash and Manual Focus.
Yes, you read that right: manual focusing bracketing on an SLR. Like the E-300 before it, the E-500 employs a motorised system for focusing in both auto and manual focus modes. There's even a menu option which allows you to choose whether the focusing ring operates clockwise or anti-clockwise.
This can be quite eerie for the lenses with focusing distances marked behind a small window though - imagine turning the focusing ring one way and seeing the markings turn the other. Interestingly the lens focus also resets itself to infinity when you power the camera down. It's important to state this focus-by-wire system is a world apart from the motorised manual focusing options on a compact or all-in-one bridge camera, and the increments really are impressively fine. But they remain finite increments none-the-less, and to us just don't feel as reactive or precise as the mechanical manual focusing on a traditional SLR. If you're into manual focusing, you'll really have to try the E-500 for yourself to see if this is an issue or not. On the upside, the auto focus performance is certainly very good.
Sensor and files
The E-500 is equipped with an eight megapixel CCD sensor which measures 17.3x13mm and conforms to the FourThirds format - this means any lenses you attach have their field of view reduced by two times, so the optionally bundled 14-45mm zoom would effectively perform like a 28-90mm lens on a 35mm or full-frame body. The FourThirds mount will take any FourThirds compatible lens such as the increasing range of Zuiko Digital models - 15 at the time of writing.
Images have a 4:3 aspect ratio and the maximum size measures 3264 x 2448 pixels. There are also six lower resolutions available, and any can be saved as a JPEG with the choice of four different compression levels from 1/2.7 to 1/12; the 1/2.7 setting is very mild and ideal for eliminating almost all compression artefacts. Highest resolution JPEGs recorded using this setting work out around 5MB each.
For better quality still, the top resolution can alternatively be recorded in either uncompressed TIFF or 12-bit RAW formats; RAW files can be recorded with an accompanying JPEG if desired. The supplied Olympus Master software can be used to process RAW files and also allows updating of the camera firmware through your computer.
Colour and white balance
The E-500 offers eight different white balance settings from 3000 to 7500K, along with white balance compensation and bracketing - both impressive features for a budget digital SLR. Adobe RGB and sRGB colour spaces are supported and there's five picture modes to choose from: Vivid, Natural, Muted, Black and White and Sepia; we used the Natural setting test shots.
Depending on the picture mode, you can vary saturation, contrast and sharpness by up to five different levels, while Black and White mode allows you to choose from four coloured filter simulations and four toning options. Again this is an impressive level of control, especially for a budget digital SLR.
One of the E-500's biggest selling points - and that of the entire E-system - is undoubtedly Olympus' unique SuperSonic Wave Filter, SSWF. This vibrates the filter in front of the sensor every time the camera is powered-on to literally shake any particles from its surface. Olympus seems to be the only manufacturer actively combating this problem to date and is to be commended for doing so. It's not all good news though. As the camera powers-up the screen shows a short animation to advertise the SSWF in action (see left), but the entire process takes about 2.7 seconds to complete. It's possible to reduce this time by about a second by disabling the animation, but it's still a slow startup compared to the 0.2 seconds of most Digital SLRs these days.
The timing of the SSWF process also seems a little odd. Surely it would be more appropriate to only activate the system when a lens is removed or swapped as oppose to every time the camera is switched on. Even if there was dust on the sensor, it would have been good to have the option to disable SSWF entirely on startup for times when you needed the quickest response - always assuming that the delay is entirely down to the anti-dust process of course.
That all said, we greatly appreciate the efforts of Olympus to eliminate the worries of dust, and having swapped lenses many times during the test period and checked the images closely, we could see no evidence of foreign particles on them.
The E-500 claims a continuous shooting capability of 2.5 fps. Equipped with a SanDisk Ultra II 1GB Compact Flash card and set to the highest resolution and mildest compression (1/2.7), we captured five frames in just over two seconds - this equates to around the quoted 2.5fps.
After shooting five frames with these settings, the camera paused for four and a half seconds to clear its buffer and record them to the card. Interestingly if you'd kept the shutter release button pressed after this burst, the camera won't continue to take frames once the buffer had cleared. Instead you'll need to let go of the shutter release and press it again for another burst. If you shoot with higher compression, you may achieve longer bursts.
To compare real-life performance we shot the same scene with using the Olympus E-500 and a Canon EOS-350D within a few moments of each other using their best quality JPEG settings. The Olympus was fitted with the Zuiko Digital 14-45mm while the Canon was fitted with the 18-55mm EF-S, both set to an aperture of f8 in Aperture Priority mode. The image below was taken with the Olympus E-500 using the 14-45mm Zuiko Digital lens at 32mm f8 (64mm equivalent); the original JPEG measured 5.69MB.
Viewed at 100%, the crops show very similar levels of actual detail, although the Olympus metered a slightly longer exposure with the result of some highlights being washed-out.
Olympus E-500 with Zuiko Digital 14-45mm - 1/200, f8, 100 ISO
Canon EOS-350D with 18-55mm EF-S - 1/250, f8, 100 ISO
For further, in-depth tests covering the test camera's resolution, CCD noise levels, chromatic aberration, purple fringing, corner sharpness, wideangle and telephoto geometry, wideangle and telephoto uniformity, and macro performance, visit Camera Labs here.
The following images were taken with the Olympus E-500, all using the Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f3.5~5.6 lens. The recording mode was set to SHQ, configured to capture the full eight megapixel resolution with the lowest compression ratio of 1/2.7. The Picture Mode (tone/colour/sharpness) was set to Natural. Unless otherwise stated, the pictures were taken in Program mode with the default settings. The crops are taken from the original files, reproduced at 100 per cent and saved in Adobe Photoshop CS2 as JPEGs with the default Very High quality preset, while the resized images were made in Photoshop CS2 and saved with the default High quality preset.
Market: 5.41MB, Program, 1/60, f4.5, ISO 400, 14-45mm at 14mm (equivalent to 28mm)
This photo of a market stall was taken under dim lighting conditions, so we increased the ISO to 400 to achieve a reasonable shutter speed and aperture. The crops are sharp and detailed, while an aperture of f4.5 at 14mm has ensured the depth of field is sufficient to cover the range of the composition. The crops reveal noise creeping in, although you're unlikely to notice in a print.
For many more sample images, visit Camera Labs here.
The Olympus E-500 is a mixed bag with plenty of things going for it, but equally a number of aspects which could be considered deal-breakers by some photographers. Highlights include the SSWF anti-dust system, an impressively high level of information and control for a budget body, along with an increasing number of high quality lenses.
On the downside though, the anti-dust process imposes a serious delay every time the camera powers up, the motorised manual focusing (and lack of anti-shake options) could seriously infuriate some photographers, the lack of detail when zooming during playback is disappointing, while the view through the viewfinder has to be one of the smallest from any digital SLR; it's also a missed opportunity not to automatically switch off the monitor when you go to compose a shot.
Viewed in isolation, many of the bad points could easily outweigh the good ones for some people, but to truly measure the E-500 you have to compare it against the competition. As our tests show, the eight megapixel E-500 out-resolves rival six megapixel digital SLRs and compares well with the popular Canon 350D/Digital Rebel XT. Canon's sensor and image processing may continue to enjoy an edge on noise levels, but the E-500 still performs well.
Interestingly, while the E-500's roughly the same size as the Canon, improved ergonomics make it more comfortable to hold, and of course it also sports a considerably larger screen. Throw in the anti-dust system and you've got a camera which looks strong against the competition.
Probably the most compelling aspect though are the lens bundles. In the UK, the E-500 body alone carries a recommended price of £580. The cheapest lens bundle with the 17.5-45mm comes in at £600, while another £20 gets you the slightly wider 14-45mm lens instead. So far so good, but for just £675 you'll get both the 14-45mm and 40-150mm giving you an effective range equivalent to 28-300mm for less than £100 more than the body price alone.
To be fair, most budget digital SLR bundles come across as cheap compared to the body-only price, but the Olympus twin lens package remains undoubtedly good value. The best part is you can happily switch between the two lenses without ever worrying about getting dust on the sensor. Make sure you check exactly which lenses are being offered by your supplier though, as some substitute the Zuiko Digital models for others.
So is it a better camera than the 350D? In terms of handling and ultimate image quality we'd have to say not. The delayed startup, motorised focusing, current lack of anti-shake options, restricted playback zoom and tiny viewfinder will also rule out the E-500 for some.
But it must be said the overall image quality is very good, the affordable twin lens bundle will cover most eventualities, while that short delay at startup ensures you'll rarely if ever worry about dust - and that's something the 350D/Rebel XT and its rivals can only dream of. That said, anyone seriously considering the E-500 should also compare it with Panasonic's long-awaited digital SLR. This camera also employs the FourThirds standard and we look forward to seeing if Panasonic's managed to address the E-500's shortcomings while retaining its best aspects.