The Olympus E-500 digital SLR offers many improvements over its predecessor in terms of design and value for money. At a budget price of AU$1,199 for the kit which includes a 14-to-45mm, F3.5 to F5.6 Zuiko Digital lens, the E-500 is an alternative for the budget-conscious over Canon's EOS 350D and Nikon's D50. The camera comes with a Supersonic Wave Filter, large 2.5-inch LCD monitor and a full range of shooting modes and functions. Most importantly, the E-500 competitive pricing won't break your bank if you are not investing in a couple of extra lenses right away. In terms of performance and picture quality, the E-500 certainly did not disappoint. Our major gripes with the unit are its small optical viewfinder, lack of a status LCD and a USB 1.1 connection.
We are placing our bets that photographers won't be using their heavyweight arsenal as offensive weapons. In the other camp, this lightweight entry-level digital SLR manages to beat its competitors at 435g (body only). Even Canon's highly popular EOS 350D is a tad heavier at 55g when you weigh both of them on the scales.
Though not the most minute in its class, the E-500 holds a slight ergonomic edge over the popular EOS 350D. The button layout on this shooter, as compared with its predecessor the E-300, is logical and well-thought out. Its four-directional buttons double as dedicated keys for white balance, autofocus, ISO and metering. There is only one control dial on the E-500 located right beside the mode-selector atop the unit. Our fingers feel more comfortable given the additional breathing space around the rubberised hand grip as the lens is positioned slightly more to the right (from the front) as compared with the EOS 350D which has its lens smack in the centre. Even though the E-500, according to Olympus, has the lightest dSLR body, the 14-45mm lens kit which weighs 285g ups the total mass to 720g. Nonetheless, you can still shoot comfortably with one hand and the camera won't feel like a brick.
To complete the look, the E-500 comes with a prism-styled optical viewfinder, built-in pop-up flash and hotshoe on the top edge of the unit. Even though there is a larger LCD on the E-500 (compared with E-300), the size of the viewfinder is compromised. We find slight difficulties focusing and it's a strain to look through the screen for longer periods of time. Fortunately, the company has released the eyecup magnifier, ME-1, which is said to increase the viewing size 1.5x when used on the camera. The ME-1 will be available in Europe by December. Asia Pacific users, however, will have to wait till early next year. Consider that along with a high-capacity, high-speed CompactFlash or xD-Picture Card for your accessories list. Previously on the E-300, you had the choice of using only CompactFlash cards.
A departure from the usual infrared, the E-500's pop-up flash doubles as an assist-lamp in ambient situations, releasing several quick flashes of light. In most cases, the flash works well due to its height which can potentially reduce the amount of red-eye. However, when it doesn't, the focus assist actually frightened off our shooting subjects.
There is no top LCD panel for camera status so you will have to rely on the unit's 2.5-inch screen to change your settings. Frequent use of the LCD will logically drain the camera's battery at a faster rate. Otherwise, when you peer through the viewfinder, the screen will show a status column on the right with various information like aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, battery life, metering mode, etc.
The E-500 uses a Four-Thirds system which should be familiar to Olympians -- Olympus dSLR users we mean. This 8-megapixel shooter employs a full-frame transfer CCD which has a wider light-receiving area, making it possible to capture a richer range of graduations.
With a dSLR, we are expecting users to switch lenses for different shooting conditions. Keeping that in mind, the Olympus E-500 incorporates a Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF) in between the shutter and low-pass filter in front of the camera's CCD. The dust reduction system generates on the average 30,000 ultrasonic vibrations upon receiving power and the debris is caught by a dust absorber at the bottom of the filter. If you own the E-300, you will probably find that the number of buttons on that dSLR is similar on the E-500. The layout on the E-500 is logical and has a gentle learning curve. Besides, if you don't wish to use the dedicated buttons, you can surf your way through the various settings on the LCD screen using the directional keys and the control dial. There are two available display modes on the E-500: normal and detailed. In normal mode, the characters are larger and easier on the eyes, although you can view only limited, but essential, settings on the screen -- just don't look for fancy or colourful menus for you ain't going to get it.
Shooting options on the E-500 are numerous and varied. This dSLR offers a breathtaking total of 15 scene modes typically available on point-and-shoots, along with four advanced shooting settings (Programe AE, Aperture-priority AE, Shutter-priority AE and Manual Exposure). Canon's EOS 350D and Nikon's D50 pale in comparison with only six scene modes to match. In our opinion, the E-500 effectively bridges the gap that has traditionally deterred enthusiasts from jumping onto digital SLRs by providing the necessary comfort which these people are already used to.
The one-touch white balance button doubles as a shortcut for magnifying your images 10x their original size. However, we notice at that magnification and above, you won't get any more details to determine if your pictures are actually sharp.
Other features on the E-500 include a new 49-division light-metering sensor. According to Olympus, this system will ensure a wide dynamic range enabling accurate and high-speed light metering. With a dual-card slot option, users can opt for CompactFlash or xD-Picture Cards. For our tests, we used Imation's 1GB ultra-high-speed CompactFlash card.
When you preview images, you can select a total of seven different display modes. We particularly like the histogram on a semi-transparent background and screens that show the highlight and shadow properties -- giving us warning that our pictures may be incorrectly exposed so that we can reshoot immediately.
In terms of performance, the E-500 certainly didn't disappoint. Shutter lag was barely noticeable and autofocus was responsive in our tests. When the SSWF startup screen was disabled, we managed to shave nearly 1.4 seconds off to clock a startup time of about 1.5 seconds.
Time-to-first shot came in slightly under 1 second when we turned off the startup screen with the camera in manual focus. You can continue shooting without flash at about 0.5-second intervals in both JPEG SHQ and RAW formats. With flash, timings obtained were approximately doubled. We measured the file-write time for the E-500 on our ultra-high-speed 1GB CompactFlash card to be around 4.2 seconds when shooting in RAW and one second faster in JPEG SHQ. Burst mode on this dSLR was a joy to use. Our initial burst in JPEG SHQ quality came in at about 2.5fps for a total of five frames. While users can shoot until their memory card runs out of capacity, they have to release and re-press the shutter button to continue shooting because the camera cannot capture any more frames once the buffer is full. In RAW format shooting, our initial burst lasted for only four frames before we had to release the shutter.
In comparison, when you use a non-high-speed CompactFlash card on the E-500, be prepared to wait nearly twice as long for the image to write onto the memory card. Though the timings won't be overly critical for general photography uses, it could affect a user who shoots a lot of action pictures. Because the camera cannot continue writing once the buffer is full, a slower file write speed translates into a longer time for the unit to flush the images out of its buffer -- which in turn would affect the burst mode on the shooter. All our above tests were done with the camera in manual focus mode.
The E-500's 1,500mAh Lithium-ion battery pack performed reasonably well in our tests. We managed to capture over 300 frames on a single charge with plenty of card formatting, picture review and use of LCD to check camera status etc. We didn't like the fact that the E-500 has an ancient specification on the unit: A USB 1.1 connection -- and turned to our memory card reader for transfer of images. As a gauge, it took us slightly over 6 minutes to transfer 1GB of images using our card reader and a staggering 23 minutes on the E-500's USB cable.
This should have been categorised in features but we felt it is more appropriate mentioning here that the E-500 allows for a variety of file-compression formats: RAW, TIFF, SHQ, HQ and SQ. For each of the JPEG configuration -- SHQ, HQ and SQ -- there are four different compression ratios that will result in varying file size images. For instance, at maximum resolution in JPEG SHQ, a 1/2.7 ratio will generate a 6.4MB file; 1/4 ratio for a 4.5MB file; 1/8 ratio for a 2.5MB file; and 1/12 ratio for a 1.8MB file. Depending on the capacity of your memory card, you can decide how many pictures you are able to take with some simple calculations.
Generally, the colours in our pictures are vibrant though we did encounter occasional blowout highlights which could otherwise be fixed by tweaking the compensation values. In addition, some of our over-exposed pictures exhibited hard clip properties, giving the images teeth-like edges. ISO levels are usable up to a value of 800 if you are looking at small prints. Due to the height of the pop-up lens, we didn't notice any red-eye in our subjects.
The Olympus Master software that comes with our E-500 kit allows you to edit your RAW images. You can adjust the compensation values, white balance, contrast, sharpness and saturation. There is no preview option so you will have to apply your adjustments before knowing how the image will turn out.