Olympus E-420 (Live View) Four-Thirds Digital SLR Camera Review
I think we all know by now that digital SLR technology is “the standard” when it comes to choosing a camera. DSLR business has and continues to be very strong and popular among consumers this Christmas and coming New Year 2009 who are looking for change from their little point and shoot digital cameras. I’m sure you’ll agree with me regarding popularity as looking at the papers each week shows digital SLR deal after deals being offered.
However, when consumers want to upgrade from a point and shoot, there is a compromise. This compromise comes in the form of physical size. Digital SLR’s are bigger in size than their point and shoot counterparts because of sensor size and interchangeable lenses. A digital SLR sensor can be several times larger than ones on digital cameras. Rule of thumb is the larger the sensor, the better the image quality and better control of noise.
Olympus has created a niche it hopes to lure consumers who want a digital SLR yet still retain a small physical size. Enter the Olympus E-420 digital SLR camera. Read on to see if the Olympus E-420 is something that fits what you’re looking for, how it performs and if it should be your first digital SLR (DSLR).
How was Olympus able to make (currently) the world’s smallest, slimmest, and lightest DSLR? Well this is accomplished by utilizing the Four-Thirds standard. Four-Thirds is actually a standard created by Olympus in collaboration with companies such as Kodak, utilized by companies such as Panasonic, and supported by companies such as Sigma and Leica.
Currently all DSLR cameras use a sensor that falls under three categories. These categories have relation to the film formats we all used in the past. From biggest to smallest is full frame, APS-C, and Four-Thirds.
The size of a full frame sensor (this is the reference/benchmark) is the same size as a 35mm film frame that is 35mm wide. The size of an APS-C sensor (the most commonly used sensor format among consumer DSLR) is close to 25mm wide and lastly Four-Thirds is about 17mm wide, or about 30% less in size compared to the APS-C sensor. By knowing the size of the sensor, you have to understand a term called “crop factor”. Crop factor is the ratio between the imaging area offered compared to the imaging area offered on a 35mm full frame format.
Think of three rectangles representing full frame, APS-C, and Four-Thirds sensors and notice how APS-C and Four-Thirds doesn’t fill the whole 35mm frame. What this means simply is that if you compare cameras that utilize full-frame, APS-C and Four-Thirds and place each lens at the focal length of 15mm, you will notice among all three cameras that the distance of 15mm is actually different between each other even though they are at the same focal length according to the lens.
On full-frame, 15mm is really 15mm, while on APS-C, 15mm is actually about 22.5mm (if we use a crop factor of 1.5x), and on a Four-Thirds system like the E-420, 15mm is actually 30mm (using a crop factor of 2x). Using this example we can see one advantage is that the crop factor can actually give your lens more reach, however on the flipside the crop factor can actually work against when needing to use your lens at wide angles. And remember when I said the general rule of thumb is the larger the sensor, the better the image quality and better control of noise, well that still matters.
About Olympus (pulled from Wikipedia)
“Olympus Corporation (オリンパス株式会社 Orinpasu Kabushiki-gaisha?) (TYO: 7733) is a Japanese company specializing in optics and imaging. Olympus was established on October 12, 1919, initially specialized in microscope and thermometer businesses . It is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, while its United States' operations are based in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, and European operations are based in Hamburg, Germany.”
I pulled this quote from Wikipedia because it reflects more of what I wanted to share about Olympus than what was on Olympus’ own website. This company has been in business for a really long time specifically in the business of optics and imaging and it only made since for them to enter the camera business, both in the past and present. This is not some unknown brand that doesn’t have lots of experience in making cameras.
Sometimes when talking to people about cameras, the only names that come up all the time are Canon and Nikon. Sure Canon and Nikon have the largest market shares to date, but there are other companies out there and Olympus has been hard at work aiming for a larger percentage of that market share. And more competition is better for consumers. The more competition means better products and competitive prices.
Being touted as an entry-level DSLR, you’re bound to come across competitors. Direct competition includes the Nikon D60, Canon Rebel XS, Sony a200, Sony a300 and the Pentax K200D. These cameras are all in the 10-megapixel range with some models including their own Live View implementation.
The Olympus E-420 is among the more expensive models in its class in Canada. However, research shows that it is one of the most inexpensive starter models out there in America. Factor in that Olympus is providing an additional $50 off through instant rebate until December 25, 2008; you can get your E-420 for even cheaper!
The Olympus E-420 is capable of a very fast continuous shooting rate of 3.5 frames per second leading the competition in this regard. I’ve tested this and the manufacture claim seems true to its word.
The implementation of a dust reduction system is a definite plus and Olympus has one of the better dust reduction systems amongst DSLR’s. The Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) vibrates 35,000 times per second upon initial startup to release dust from the sensor. It’s inevitable that dust will creep into the sensor area when you change out lenses and having something like SSWF is a huge plus so it can prevent black dust spots from showing up in your pictures.
I was fortunate enough to have Olympus supply the E-420 Outfit bundle which includes the standard Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens for this review. Additionally, we also have the Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 Macro to our disposal.
The E-420 comes in a little compact corrugated box with product feature information around the sides of the package and content listing on the rear. The styling of the box is simple but I would dare say lackluster from the competition. The Olympus packaging is very subdued and could be considered boring. But as the saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
Upon opening the Olympus E-420, you’ll find these items with your purchase…
A couple of things I’d like to mention are the use of a proprietary standard for the USB and video cable. These cables have standard USB ends, but connect to the E-420 using their proprietary standard. In some cases I am not a fan of proprietary standards (especially with something as small like the video and USB cable) but I can understand why manufactures go to this length. The drawback of this decision is if you misplace your cable, be prepared to pay Olympus to attain another. Moreover, bringing the E-420 to a friend’s place, you best remember to bring your proprietary USB cable as the standard type won’t work on the Olympus.
Purchasing a DSLR is never enough as you have to make room to purchase a memory card among other items and accessories if you choose to do so. The Olympus E-420 does not support SD cards but rather the proprietary xD-picture card, CompactFlash or Microdrive. Surely enough, xD-picture cards were developed by Olympus and Fujifilm. The drawback to xD-picture cards is the price as they are significantly more expensive than SD and CompactFlash. A 2GB xD-Picture card can be purchased for $50CAD while a 2GB CF/SD card can be found for as low as $10CAD. In this case, I’d suggest going with a CompactFlash card since they are one of if not the fastest mediums out there for DSLR use.
A thing you’ll love about a DSLR is the battery life. Generally among DSLR’s, batteries last a much longer times than digital cameras with standard AA batteries. A DSLR battery is proprietary but in this case of having long life, I am fine with. A long battery life is appreciated by everyone owning a camera and I’m sure you’ve owned digital cameras that drain batteries like there’s no tomorrow lasting in the low hundred shots.
I used to dread changing out AA batteries when my digital camera died, even though I had good NIMH batteries. On a DSLR, when others have run out of battery life, you’ll continue to take shots with the battery in your DSLR. The PS-BLS-1 lithium ion rechargeable battery that comes with the E-420 is rated at 7.2v, 1150mAh but recharges longer than my Nikon D50 battery (2 hours for D50, 3 hours for E-420) which is surprising because the D50 battery is a much higher capacity. In the end though, you’ll be very impressed with the E-420’s long battery life. During my time with the Olympus E-420, I noticed that it took anywhere between 500 to 700 shots per charge under mixed testing (use of flash, LCD display).
General Impressions – Body
I like the way the Olympus E-420 feels. The body is strong, solid and feels like it can handle a beating. It does not feel cheap like plastic nor does it have any flex. It feels every way as durable as my Nikon D50 body, which has been through a lot in three years.
The E-420 body maintains a nice texture throughout the body and although there is limited space for a grip, Olympus has done a great job with what they had, creating a ridge to place your thumb onto the rubber. While the rubber is generally of good quality, I would like to suggest better quality rubber on the front of the camera so my fingers can grip more easily. There were times where my fingers would slip and could not find traction.
The front of the body contains few things. There is the Olympus body cap protecting the internals, a lens release button to the right, and the red indicator that is for self-timer and remote control use. I initially thought the red indicator was the AF Assist Lamp, but was disappointed to find out that the E-420 provides no such lamp for low-lighting conditions. The autofocus assist lamp is needed in poor lighting conditions and works wonders on my Nikon D50 which was made three years ago.
To compensate for the missing lamp, Olympus decides to utilize the on-board flash to act as the AF Assist Lamp. This is accomplished by making the flash strobe/blink multiple times quickly to provide light for the lens to focus on the subject. The problem with this is that it doesn’t work well, is really slow and really annoys everyone involved in the photo, including the photographer. I’m calling out this AF Assist implementation as plain crazy and there no substitute for the real thing. This implementation by Olympus blinds everyone, is real slow (eats battery life) and made me at times frustrated thinking I would get an elliptic seizure. It just works horribly and in fact letting the lens focus on the subject by itself works faster than using this crazy “assist” implementation in these low-lighting conditions. I have no idea what Olympus was thinking when they did this.
The right side of the body lays the memory compartment door (this has a sensor that knows when the door is open) and it feels and works really well.
Looking at the bottom of the camera we see the battery compartment and metal tripod mount. The battery compartment is good quality and does not dangle like a cheap piece of plastic. Upon opening the door you’ll find a red latch which releases the battery. The tripod mount is made out of metal and will likely last years of use and is dead center of the lens.
Where most of the work is done is the rear. We are presented with a large 2.7” LCD display that offers 230,000 pixels of resolution. The conventional viewfinder is sufficient but I’d like it to be bigger as sometimes seeing the settings located on the right hand side of the viewfinder screen is a problem. There are seven buttons in the rear all having good tactile response feel.
The top portion of the E-420 holds the flash release button, self timer/remote/sequential shooting button, external flash hot shoe, mode dial, control dial, exposure compensation button, and the shutter release button.
The power on/off is a switch that is located with the mode dial. Olympus didn’t have to make the power on/off with such a wide amount of play, there was no need as all this has done was make it that much harder to turn on the camera since the off switch side is too close to the control dial. This makes for a very small space to place your thumb and turn the camera on
Furthermore, the mode dial doesn’t rotate continuously in one direction like on the Nikon D50. When you are located in the SCENE function, you cannot get to the M (manual) function by continuing to turn clockwise. You have to stop, turn counter-clockwise and click 10 times in order to get M.
General Impressions – The 2.7” LCD display
The LCD display on the E-420 is average. In terms of resolution, on paper it is good, but in real life it’s not utilized to the fullest. Roaming around the menu, the text is not defined and detailed. The resolution looks like if you were to change your monitor resolution to 640x480. I was disappointed because the LCD looks similar to the one on the three year old Nikon D50, and that doesn’t even have the best screen. The only time when resolution becomes higher is when reviewing pictures you’ve taken.
Performance of the LCD when given great lighting performs very well being smooth and generally easy to use. The LCD is a little hard to see under outdoor sunny conditions, almost reflecting back a metallic look, it’s hard to explain but I think it has something to do with the coating it contains. The LCD changes for the worse under average and low-lighting conditions as the display begins to suffer becoming choppy, slow, monochromatic, grainy and really just unbearable at times.
General Impressions –Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Starter Kit Lens
Being the standard quality solution in the Olympus lens lineup, I think the Zuiko is really good. It does just about everything really well including its performance and picture quality under good lighting. It is not the fastest under low-light but for everything else it’s very much sufficient and a good walk-around lens. Under low-lighting the lens is simply not fast enough and you must utilize flash or increase the ISO speed. In these conditions, as I’ll talk about later on, it has a hard time focusing under such conditions.
The Zuiko 14-42mm has good construction but it does indeed feel like a standard lens. You won’t have problems but when you hold and touch it for the first time, it does feel a plasticky, lightweight and doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence as the lens mount is made out of plastic. The camera body being durable, I’m sure it’ll survive a drop, but I’m not counting on the lens mount to survive. The good thing is that the lens body doesn’t have any flex I’m aware of and is flush mounted with the body. This just makes handling easier.
A small observation is that the focus ring on this lens does basically nothing during camera usage. I know the lens is totally automatic but it’s just odd that the focus ring is just there for looks. The zoom ring on this lens feels perfect, providing just the right amount of stiffness. It is certainly better than other budget lens I’ve come across.
The Zuiko 14-42mm kit lens surprised me at how close it could capture objects but as I remembered, the crop factor has every reason to do with this. Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing. Taking the crop factor into consideration, the lens becomes essentially a 28-84mm unit on this body. Again the crop factor will provide you with longer reach but detract when you need to shoot wide.
General Impressions –Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 Macro Lens
The Zuiko 35mm Macro lens is a prime. A prime lens is one that has fixed focal length. Overall, I like this lens knowing what it can do well; providing life size 1:1 magnification and good sharp close-ups.
Construction of the lens is decent. Remember this is standard quality lens so it has to be affordable. To hold and touch it for the first time, it feels the same as the 14-42 being plasticky and relatively light. The bulk of the weight however is coming from the lens mount itself, not the actual lens body. This one contains a stronger metal lens mount.
How it performs
Flick on power switch and the E-420 comes to life with the SSWF cleaning system LCD illuminating. This cleaning takes one second and add another second for focusing in good light (focusing takes around half a second) and you’re able to take a shot in less than two seconds.
Olympus says the E-420 can shoot continuously (in good lighting) 3.5 frames per second and I think this claim is true. The E-420 shot 10 pictures in jpg fine (7 RAW) before the camera could not shoot any longer and cleared its buffer in 12 seconds with the supplied 1GB xD-picture card.
Like I said before, I like the 14-42mm kit lens as it’s almost perfectly suited for this body. The motor is relatively quiet, very fast focusing (0.5 seconds) in good lighting. But since Olympus decided to dump the AF Assist Lamp, it hurts the lens under low-lighting. Focusing under these conditions is like I described, annoying and slow. It could take anywhere from 3-6 seconds to focus on something with the lens hunting like crazy to do so. I noticed it extreme cases where the lens could not autofocus, it simply gave up trying to find what it could not. Seriously, Olympus did not give this lens justice by implementing a horrible AF Assist System.
The Olympus E-420 offers three matrix metering modes which is standard among DSLR cameras. The metering modes are matrix (default), center-weighted and spot metering (when you’re background is brighter than your foreground).
The E-420 offers three AF-target points under viewfinder mode. In this department, Olympus lacks some competitors who five or more and while I’m generally in favor of having more targets in the viewfinder, under testing I had no problems.
However, more AF-target points are available in Live View mode. Live View enables you to utilize as much as 11 AF-target points under the default Imager AF setting. I’m not going to talk much about Live View since I don't like it. For me, Live View is next to useless. Performance is relatively slow (3 seconds) and you’ll just end up missing out on action shots. The only situations I would use Live View is for tripod use (portrait, macro) where you can be patient and allow the extra 3 seconds it takes just to get one picture across. It is not instant. But Live View can be a great learning tool for total beginners as they can preview the difference a particular setting will make for their picture.
The internal flash on the E-420 is decent but I find it likes to underexpose the picture. You can try to up the flash exposure value if you want to make the picture a little brighter in the process but even that doesn’t fix everything. The E-420 on-board flash has a guide number of 12 meters or 39 feet @ 100ISO.
Feature Set, Menu and Playback
You have two menus. You have the main menu (by pressing the Menu button) and you have the Super Control Panel. The Super Control Panel is basically a shortcut menu that prevents you from digging deep around the main menu (the main menu is deep and somewhat confusing offering no HELP explanations). Pressing OK brings up the Super Control Panel where all the options are located (ISO, WB, WB custom, picture mode, flash mode, self timer/continuous shooting, metering, saturation, gradation, exposure compensation, AF mode, AF area, face detect, color space, image quality, CF/xD). You change the settings by pressing OK or using the dial (much faster) to make changes.
There are many options in this camera making it easy for the beginner to enjoy their first DSLR experience. Such things is a scene mode that relates to 18 different situations you might encounter such as candle light, fireworks, portrait, landscape, hi-key, lo-key, night mode, macro, etc.
There are six main shooting modes available which include Program (you choose the exposure value), Aperture Priority (you choose the aperture), Shutter Priority (you choose the shutter speed), Manual, Auto, and Scene.
Additionally, when shooting pictures, you can choose the way you want the photos to look like (natural, vivid, and monotone (black and white/sepia)).
Playback is very informative. Using the control dial you can zoom in/out of the picture you have taken while pressing INFO will provide shot information such as size, shutter speed, f-stop, white balance used and much more. Additionally there is Histogram information, and blown highlight indicator. Using the control dial you can also sort the pictures on your memory card by thumbnails and even by calendar.
There is no true mechanical form of image stabilization on the Olympus E-420. By true form, I mean the camera body offers no image stabilization nor does the lens offer image stabilization. But Olympus does offer a “fake” form of image stabilization where the camera basically increases the ISO speed to make the shutter shoot quicker but the bad thing about this is that the higher the ISO speed, the more noise introduced in your photos. I did get quite a few blurry indoor pictures so image stabilization could have come into handy in these situations.
White balance on the E-420 seems accurate and tungsten white balance seems much better the one on my D50. Every color seems the way it should be specific lighting (fluorescent 1, fluorescent 2, fluorescent 3, daylight, tungsten, cloudy, and shade) and additionally Olympus offers custom white balance where you can adjust the white balance Kelvin to meet a specific color temperature. This is a very nice addition I must say. I noticed the auto white balance always chose the white balance with a warm cast to the photo but wasn’t always totally accurate with tungsten conditions.
Face detection is a feature that seems to be mentioned a lot so I thought I would talk a little on it. Face detection is where the camera in Live View usage can adapt to the number of faces it senses on the screen. A small box will lie over the persons face. Face detection can focus on up to eight faces. For the most part, face detection works but sometimes is slow enough that it’ll force you not to even use it.
There are many more features that I’ve neglected to mention. Rest assured the Olympus E-420 is filled with features and options you can tweak in the menu. For a full list of features and more on the E-420, I suggest you download the user manual located on the Olympus website.
Photo Quality and Comparison
The Olympus E-420 picture quality is very good in the context of providing the camera with good amount of light. Under anything below daylight levels, the E-420 begins to introduce noise becoming visible between 800-1600ISO although still very much useable. From 100-400ISO there is minimized amount of noise (although there are more than DSLR’s that utilize the APS-C sensor) that you’ll be able to distinguish between each other and you won’t have any issues at these ISO speeds until there is low light involved in the equation. But for the most part noise is kept in check. Olympus provides a noise reduction algorithm in the menu that you can enable to help lessen noise but with the expense of a little less detail and the image becoming a little softer.
I’m surprised because I did not think the Olympus would provide such picture quality being the sensor is smaller than the norm but I was wrong. The E-420 provides relatively sharp out of the box pictures, good natural looking color rendition (you can make colors punchier with the use of Vivid Mode or saturation values), and overall it’s impressed me no doubt.
The negatives regarding its picture quality is dynamic range. When I talk about dynamic range it’s going to refer to blown white/bright highlights in the picture, and the E-420 has quite a few of these that stems from the size limitation of the sensor. There’s not much you can do about them (although you could try to lower the exposure on these problem spots in Photoshop), but the E-420 is way better than the digital cameras you were upgrading from, just not competitive against other DSLR models. Most if not all DSLR companies suffer from lack of dynamic range, especially in their entry-level products, and its something that I think everyone needs to develop further.
Going back to the issue of noise, being that Olympus is utilizing their Four-Thirds sensor (which is roughly 30% smaller than the common APS-C sensor); I’ve provided a 100% ISO crop comparison between the E-420 and my Nikon D50 (utilizes an APS-C sized sensor). This is just to show you a reference of the two different sensor format types and what they can do.
Picture Gallery and Comparison
Full out of the camera pictures below for download. JPEG Fine, 3648x2746
100% ISO crop comparison between Olympus E-420 and Nikon D50 is below.
Contrast comparison between one end of the spectrum (-2) and +2 on the E-420. Rollover to see the difference of what is possible.
Below will show you gradation and what difference it makes in a picture. It is basically playing with EV compensation. Rollover to see the difference of Low Key and High Key gradation.
In this comparison, what it is showing you is the least amount of contrast, saturation and sharpness compared to the most amount of contrast, saturation and sharpness possible on the E-420. This is just to show you that you can make the color as punchy as you desire. Rollover to see the difference.
Lastly, below we will finish off with full resolution comparison of picture modes available on the Olympus E-420. Remember these will show Natural Picture Mode, Vivid Picture Mode, Portrait Picture Mode, Muted Picture Mode, and Monotone Picture Mode.
There is no doubt that I really like the Olympus E-420 but I would have loved it even more if some of the negatives I listed hadn’t been present (like the bad AF Assist Lamp implementation, being a little noisy in low light, Live View being slow). But I was very impressed with image quality with the Olympus E-420 having surprisingly sharp out of the box pictures with accurate natural colors.
Additionally, you have many options to tweak the image and color to your liking. Noise is an issue over at 800 ISO but it is still usable, just not under low-light. The camera body was compact strong, easy to handle and felt very comfortable in my hands. Battery life is nothing short of great.
But in the end, would I recommend the Olympus E-420 to a person looking for an entry-level DSLR? Yes I would and it would be on their short list. It’s just that good.
Pros and Cons