By Gordon Lewis
In the previous two installments I explained why I decided to get an Olympus E-510 and how I figured out how get reliable and consistent results from its meter. And once again, just so there’s no misunderstanding, the E-510’s meter is no less reliable or consistent than any other. You just need to take the time to understand how it works, the same as you (hopefully) would with any other camera.
My primary reasons for buying the E-510 were its portability, flexibility, in-body image stabilization (IS), and the availability of high-quality, compact, reasonably fast, yet reasonably priced lenses in the range I wanted. My only lens so far is the 14–54mm ƒ/2.8–3.5 Zuiko, which will soon be followed by the 40–150mm ƒ/3.5–4.5 Zuiko. I’ve been shooting for over 30 years, so I know exactly what I need to get the types of photos I like to shoot, which include travel, architecture, street scenes, candids, portraits, and abstracts. Needless to say, your needs may differ.
My normal photo routine while vacationing in London consisted of day trips with my camera in a small (10” x 6” x 4.5”) Domke F-5XB shoulder bag. The only accessories I carried were a second Compact Flash card and battery. I had no hesitation about slinging the bag over my shoulder and carrying it with me everywhere I went. Aside from brief subway or bus rides, I walked from place to place. The E-510 never became a burden or an impediment; in fact, the E-510 is one of the best handling, most comfortable cameras I’ve ever owned.
This gentleman was seated next to a large window. Even so, the exposure was 1/30 second at f/4.0 at ISO 400. I was zoomed to 45mm (90mm equivalent for 35mm format), which is close to the maximum focal length, and I was at maximum aperture. The E-510's image stabilization helped steady the shot. As you can see from the 100% enlargement below, the E-510 can deliver excellent results handheld at ISO 400. Another bonus is that I was only about six feet away in a quiet coffee shop and he never noticed the sound of my camera.
This is a crop of the above photo enlarged to 100%. The camera's noise reduction feature was turned off. I find this improves image detail with minimal sacrifice of noise. Above ISO 800, noise becomes more obvious; however, it's mostly luminance noise and therefore more "film-like."
Once I got used to the single display on the back, I liked the fact that I could tell at a glance what ISO the camera was set to, whether IS was on or off, what shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation I had set, and so on. Changing settings was no slower than with other DSLRs I’ve used, and in some cases faster. The display was bright enough to be usable in daylight, even when using the Live View feature. Glare and reflections can be a problem at times, but all essential information is visible through the viewfinder.
The situation where I most often noticed the E-510 reaching the limits of its abilities was in low light (EV 5 or below). Autofocus speed slowed noticeably and its accuracy became less consistent. Because the E-510’s viewfinder magnification is low (0.92X), accurate manual focusing was next to impossible. In theory, it would have been possible to switch to Live View mode and to magnify the image up to 10X. In reality, this was practical only when the camera was mounted on a tripod.
As for the IS feature, I didn’t expect any miracles nor did I witness any, but it definitely reduced hand-shake with borderline shutter speeds such as 1/60 or 1/30. Lower than that, subject motion and low-light focusing errors conspired to make the results hit-or-miss.
With proper exposure and with the recording mode set to RAW, the E-510 can handle highlights quite well. There's even enough dynamic range (and low enough lens flare) to see inside the door in the foreground.
If you judge image quality based on how well a camera does at ISO 3200 and print sizes of 30 x 40" (the E-510 is a Four-Thirds camera, remember) then you will find the Olympus E-510 a disappointment. Keep saving up for that Canon 5D, Canon 1DS Mark III, or Nikon D3. If, on the other hand, you can live with smaller print sizes and with ISO 800 as your practical limit, the E-510 will often surprise and delight. I was shooting with the 14–54mm Zuiko, and found its resolution, micro-contrast, tonality, and flare resistance outstanding. Linear distortion was remarkably low at all focal lengths. Bokeh was buttery smooth. The images required minimal sharpening. Frankly, I think this camera is worth considering for the quality of the lens alone.
This photo was a test of the E-510's Live View feature. I exposed it at 1/60 second at ƒ/4 at ISO 400, with IS on and with the camera resting on my knee. Using Live View results in a one-second shutter lag, but in this case the subject wasn't moving and neither was I, so it wasn't a problem. I converted the image to black and white in Photoshop and sharpened it a bit, but the resolution, tonality and bokeh are all typical of what the E-510 and 14–54mm ƒ/2.8–3.5 Zuiko can do.
There are a few negatives, of course: The viewfinder is small, low-light focus is dodgy, and the default image settings are sub-optimal; but if you’re looking for a small but full-featured DSLR that can produced professional quality results, the Olympus E-510 should be on your short list.