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DCRP Review: Olympus E-420  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 27, 2008
Last Updated: February 12, 2012

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The Olympus E-420 is a compact digital SLR that offers a host of nice features, despite being priced at just $599. This camera is the follow-up to the venerable EVOLT E-410, offering these new features:

  • Larger, 2.7" LCD display (versus 2.5" on the E-410)
  • Contrast detect autofocus (with select lenses) and face detection in live view mode
  • Faster continuous shooting speeds (3.5 vs 3.0 fps)
  • Improved right hand grip
  • Shadow Adjustment Technology brightens dark areas of your photos
  • Perfect Shot Preview lets you see the effects of exposure compensation and white balance settings on your subject before you take a photo
  • Wireless flash control

That's in addition to the features that haven't changed since the E-410. They include a 10 Megapixel "Live MOS" sensor, live view, full manual controls, dust reduction, dual memory card slots, and more. And did I mention that it's the smallest digital SLR in the world?

The E-420 has a close relative -- the newly announced E-520, which sports a larger body and sensor-shift image stabilization. If those features interest you, you can have them for $100 more than the E-420.

If you're ready to learn more about this "go anywhere" D-SLR, then I'm ready to tell you. Our review starts right now!

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What's in the Box?

The E-420 will be sold in three kits: body only ($499), with a 14 - 42 mm lens ($599), or with the new 25 mm "pancake" lens ($699). Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those:

  • The 10.0 effective Megapixel Olympus E-420 camera body
  • F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm Olympus Zuiko lens [14-42 mm kit only]
  • F2.8, 25 mm Olympus Zuiko lens [25 mm kit only]
  • BLS-1 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Eyepiece cover
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master software
  • 139 page camera manual (printed)

Olympus E-420 with the 25mm pancake lens
The E-420 with the 25 mm pancake lens. Image courtesy of Olympus.

There are two lenses that you can get along with the E-420. The first is the F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens, which has a field-of-view of 28 - 84 mm. By kit lens standards, this one is pretty good -- it's well built, and photos are sharp. The other available lens is the new F2.8, 25 mm "pancake" lens. When attached to the E-420 (or any FourThirds camera for that matter), you get an effective focal length of 50 mm -- all in a lens just 0.9 inches thick. The 25 mm lens produced photos with good sharpness from one end of the frame to the other during my time with it.

Digital SLRs never come with memory cards, so if you don't have an xD or CompactFlash card already, you'll have to buy one. The E-420 has two slots: one for xD and the other for CompactFlash. The CF slot supports Type I and II cards, including the Microdrive. I'd suggest starting with a 2GB, high speed CompactFlash card.

The E-420 uses the same BLS-1 rechargeable battery as its predecessor. This battery packs 8.3 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which isn't bad, considering the size of the camera. Here's what kind of battery life you can expect from the E-420:

Camera Battery life, live view off
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon EOS Rebel XSi 500 shots LP-E5
Nikon D60 500 shots EN-EL9
Olympus EVOLT E-410 500 shots BLS-1
Olympus E-420 500 shots BLS-1
Olympus E-520 650 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 450 shots DMW-BLA13
Pentax K200D 550 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 750 shots NP-FM500H

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The E-420 has the same battery life as the E-410 before it. In the group as a whole, the E-420 comes in about 10% below average. Keep in mind that these numbers don't take live view into account -- if you're using that feature, expect a 40 - 50 percent drop from the above numbers. Since neither a battery grip nor an AC adapter are available, what you see above is the best you'll get out of the E-420.

I feel compelled to mention a few issues about the proprietary battery used by the E-420, and most of the cameras in the table above. First, they're expensive -- an extra will set you back at least $45. Secondly, if the battery runs out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day. The only camera on the above list that takes AAs straight out of the box is the Pentax K200D, so it's a fairly uncommon feature these days.

When it's time to charge the BLM-1, just pop it into the included charger. It takes a rather lengthy 3.5 hours for the BLS-1 to charge fully. The charger doesn't plug directly into the wall, either -- you must use a power cable.

You shouldn't be surprised to hear that the E-420 supports plenty of accessories. Here's a quick summary of what's available:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The E-420 supports all FourThirds lenses, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio
External flash

FL-36R
FL-50R

From $175
From $375
More flash power and less chance of redeye; both of these can be used wirelessly
OM adapter MF-1 From $84 Use classic OM lenses with the E-420 (with lots of restrictions, though)
Wired remote control RM-UC1 From $48 Take a picture without touching the camera (34" cord)
Wireless remote control RM-1 From $23 A wireless remote is also available
Right Angle Finder VA-1 From $175 Lets you look into the viewfinder from above
Magnifier eyecup ME-1 From $36 Enlarges the viewfinder magnification by 1.2X
Semi-hard case CS-6SH $50 Holds the camera with a lens attached
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

As I mentioned earlier, there's no battery grip or AC adapter for the E-420 (or the E-520 for that matter). One thing that you can get by stepping up to the E-520 is an underwater case.


Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X

Olympus includes version 2 of their Olympus Master software with the E-420. Olympus Master is pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about everything you could ever want.

After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders on your hard drive) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related newsfeeds, if you're interested.

Here you can organize photos, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a bunch of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.


Editing JPEGs in Olympus Master 2

Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.


Editing RAW images in Olympus Master 2

Olympus Master also features a basic RAW editor. It lets you adjust exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, noise filter, and more. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master shows you the results after a few seconds of grinding away. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.


Olympus Studio 2 for Mac OS X

If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider Olympus Studio 2 ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, and batch processing.


Olympus Studio 2 - Camera Control Feature

Olympus Studio also lets you control the camera over a USB connection. You can adjust all the settings on the camera, and the images are saved right to your Mac or PC. Unlike with some other D-SLRs, you don't get live view on your computer here. You can get a quick still-image preview, but that's about it.

Oh, and if you have no idea what RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.

Olympus includes a nearly 140 page-long manual with the E-420. While it's fairly detailed, it's not exactly what I'd call user-friendly. You'll get your question answered, though you'll have to sift through confusing charts and lots of fine print to find what you're looking for.

Look and Feel

Unless you're looking really carefully, you'll be hard-pressed to see a difference between the E-420 and its predecessor. While the most obvious change is the larger LCD on the back of the camera, there have been some useful changes to the right hand grip, as well:


Image courtesy of Olympus

Previously, the E-410 had just a small "notch" for your fingers on the grip. That didn't give me a whole lot of confidence when the camera was in my hands. Olympus made that notch into more of a "ridge" on the E-420, which definitely helps. Still, if I was shopping for a D-SLR, I'd personally choose something with a more substantial grip.

In terms of build quality, the E-420 is very good, especially considering its $499 starting price. While the body is made mostly of plastic, it doesn't feel "cheap" like some of its competitors. The camera does have more than its share of buttons, though it's not quite as confusing to figure out as the E-520.

Now, here's a look at how the E-420 compares to other cameras in its class, in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel XSi 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 475 g
Nikon D60 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 46.3 cu in. 495 g
Olympus E-420 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 in. 38.6 cu in. 380 g
Olympus E-520 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 475 g
Olympus EVOLT E-410 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 in. 38.6 cu in. 375 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 5.3 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 62.4 cu in. 480 g
Pentax K200D 5.2 x 3.7 x 2.9 in. 55.8 cu in. 630 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

The E-420 remains as the smallest and lightest digital SLR on the market. It's the same size as the E-410 was, though its slightly heavier. Below you can see how the camera looks next to its closest competitors, the Nikon D60 and Canon EOS Rebel XSi:

There's really no comparison here -- the E-420 is way smaller than the D60 or the 450D. And yes, those are the kits lenses attached!

Let's start our tour of the E-420 now, okay?

Front of the Olympus E-420

Here's the front of the E-420 with the lens removed. The camera has the same FourThirds lens mount as the other E-System cameras, and there are plenty of lenses to choose from. As I mentioned, there's a 2X focal length conversion ratio on FourThirds D-SLRs, so a 35 mm lens has the field-of-view of 70 mm. You can release the lens by pressing the button located to the right of the mount.

Like all of Olympus' E-Series cameras, the E-420 has the SuperSonic Wave Filter dust removal system. This system literally "shakes off" dust with ultrasonic waves when you turn the camera on, greatly reducing the amount of dust that can litter your photos. Although most of the competition now offers dust reduction on their SLRs, Olympus was years ahead of them in this area.

Above the lens mount is the E-420's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number (GN) of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is unchanged from the EVOLT E-410. Checking the competition, the Canon Rebel XSi and Pentax K200D have guide numbers of 13, the Nikon D60 and Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 score a 12, with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10 holding up the rear with a GN of 11. If you want more flash power, you can add an external flash via the camera's hot shoe, or you can have up to three sets of wireless flashes if you want to cut the cord entirely.

If the flash is popped up, the camera may use it as an AF-assist lamp. These flash-based systems allow for much faster low light focusing than traditional AF-assist lamps, with the downsides being that A) you must pop up the flash when you want to use this feature, and B) the strobe can be rather irritating to your subject. You aren't forced to take a flash photo, by the way -- just disable the flash in the menu.

The last item of note on the front of the camera can be found on that newly redesigned grip. That red-colored thing is the self-timer/remote control lamp and also the receiver for the optional wireless remote.

Back of the Olympus E-420

The most noticeable change to the E-420 is its larger, 2.7" LCD display -- up from 2.5" on the E-410. While the screen is larger, the resolution is the same as below: 230,000 pixels. However, Olympus has improved the contrast, color gamut, and viewing angle of this "HyperCrystal II" display, so it's more than just a size increase.

Olympus was the first SLR manufacturer to offer a camera with live view (on the E-330), and the E-420 has the latest and greatest version of that technology. If you're used to to composing photos on the LCD on your compact camera, then you'll feel right at home here (well, sort of). You get to see 100% of the frame, there's 11-point contrast detect autofocus (with select lenses), and exposure and white balance appear as they will in the actual photo. There's even a live histogram available.

In general, the live view isn't as sharp or fluid as it is on a good compact camera. Outdoor live view visibility is decent, though many point-and-shoot cameras do it better. Low light visibility is very good, assuming that the "live view boost" feature is on (though everything will be black & white).

The contrast detect AF feature brings the camera closer to the point-and-shoot experience, though it's on the slow side, and only compatible with certain lenses. The chart below compares the three distinctly different AF modes on the camera, and their restrictions:

Live View AF mode Half-press of shutter release Full-press of shutter release Restrictions AF Area
Imager AF
(default)
Focuses using the sensor Photo taken Select lenses only 11-point
AF sensor - Focuses using the sensor, then photo taken None 3-point
Hybrid AF Focuses using the sensor Focuses using the AF sensor, then shooting None 3-point

Imager AF is a fancy term for contrast detect AF. The camera can autofocus without having to flip the mirror down first, and you get 11 focus points and face detection, too. The face detection system can find up to eight faces in the frame, making sure they're properly exposed. I wasn't overly impressed with the FD system -- it struggled to find more than one or two of the six faces in our test scene. Do note that Imager AF is only compatible with select lenses, including the 14 - 42 and 25 mm "pancake" kit lenses, plus the optional 40 - 150 and 9 - 18 mm lenses.

The AF sensor option is how the E-420's live view focusing operated. Press the AE/AF lock button and the camera flips the mirror down, locks focus using the main AF sensor, flips the mirror back up, and returns to live view. When you fully press the shutter release, the camera will focus again, so you can skip the AE/AF lock button if you'd like.

As its name implies, the Hybrid option mixes the two previous AF modes. Press the shutter release halfway and the camera uses the contrast AF system for (relatively) quick focusing. Then, when you press the shutter release all the way down, the more reliable AF sensor is used for final focus lock, and then the photo is taken.

None of these AF modes are terribly quick. Contrast detect takes around a second to lock focus, as the lens grinds back and forth. Thus, these modes are not great choices for shooting a subject in motion.

The green square shows the area that I want to enlarge And here it is, blown up 7X

When you're using manual focus in live view mode you can enlarge a part of the frame to verify proper focus. Just press the Info button, move the green square to the area you want enlarged, and press the OK button. The image can be enlarged by seven or ten times. This feature is especially handy when you've got the E-420 on a tripod.

Perfect Shot preview for exposure compensation.... ... and white balance

Another neat trick you can do in live view is called Perfect Shot Preview. This shows you the effect of different exposure compensation or white balance settings on your subject. The preview thumbnails are on the small side, though they're still quite helpful.

Info display on LCD when using viewfinder Changing settings on the "Super Control Panel"

When you're shooting using the viewfinder, the LCD displays a myriad of information about current camera settings (it's called the Super Control Panel). It's a bit cluttered, but it covers nearly every camera setting you'd ever want to change. If you want to change any of the settings displayed, you can press the OK button (in the four-way controller), navigate to the option you wish to adjust, and change away (see example). After a few seconds, the info display turns off the backlight (it kind of looks like a digital watch at this point), though outdoors you can still see it fairly easily.

Okay, enough about live view for now -- let's get back to the tour. Right above the LCD is the E-420's optical viewfinder. This viewfinder is good-sized, with a magnification of 0.92X. The viewfinder shows you 95% of the frame. To the right of the field-of-view is a column of shooting data, which tells you things such as focus status, shots remaining, aperture, shutter speed, and shooting mode. You can use a diopter correction knob on the right side of the viewfinder to focus what you're looking at.

Just to the right of the viewfinder is the camera's AE/AF lock button, which does just as its name implies. It's also used in live view mode (described above), and also "protects" images in playback mode.

Moving down, you can see the Display button (which toggles live view on and off) as well as the four-way controller. The four-way controller is used mostly for menu navigation, using the Super Control Panel I just mentioned, and browsing photos you've taken -- it doesn't have "shortcuts" for things like ISO as the E-520 does. The left "direction" on the controller is the customizable "Function" button. By default, the Function button turns on face detection and shadow adjustment technology when you're in live view mode.

Jumping to the left side of the LCD for a moment, we find four buttons, which do the following:

  • Playback mode
  • Delete photo
  • Menu
  • Info - toggles what's on the LCD

The last thing to see on the back of the E-420 is its sole I/O port. This port is for USB + A/V out, and is also where you'll plug in the optional wired remote control. The E-420 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol, so transferring photos to your PC won't take too long.

Top of the Olympus E-420

The first two items on the top of the E-420 are the two silver buttons on the left side of the photo. The top one adjusts the flash setting, with a lengthy list of options: auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash off, slow sync w/redeye reduction, slow sync, 2nd-curtain slow sync, full power, 1/4 power, 1/16 power, and 1/64 power.

The drive button lets you select from single-shot or continuous shooting, 2 or 12 second self-timer, and 0 or 2 second remote control. You can redefine the function of this button to handle other tasks, as well (details in the menu section). In continuous shooting mode, the E-420 can take 6 RAW+JPEG, 8 RAW, and an unlimited number of JPEGs in a row at 3.4 fps, which is competitive. If you're shooting live view mode, the LCD turns off after the first shot, so you'll need to use the optical viewfinder to track a moving subject.

Moving to the center of the photo, we find the E-420's hot shoe. The hot shoe works best with the Olympus FL-20, FL-36(R), and FL-50(R) flashes, which synchronize with the camera's metering system. Third party flashes will work too, though you may need to manually select the flash settings. The fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/180 sec, unless you're using the FL-36R or FL-50R, in which case you can use the Super FP mode, which lets you use any shutter speed. As I mentioned before, you can also control up to three sets of wireless flashes on the E-420, as long as they're the FL-36R or FL-50R.

Continuing to the right, we find the camera's mode dial, which has the power switch underneath it. A lamp that indicates when the dust reduction system is running is also close by. Here's what you'll find on the E-420's mode dial:

Option Function
Scene mode You choose the situation and the camera picks the proper settings; select from portrait, landscape, landscape+portrait, night scene, night+portrait, children, sport, high key, low key, digital image stabilization, macro, nature macro, candle, sunset, fireworks, documents, panorama, beach & snow
Night+portrait The most common scene modes, easy to access
Sport
Macro
Landscape
Portrait
Auto mode Point and shoot with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. A Program Shift lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, it's F3.5 - F22.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. Shutter speed range is 60 - 1/4000 sec.
Full manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.

Olympus has a nice balance of auto and manual controls on the E-420, so you can start simple, and work up to more advanced shooting when you're ready.

I do want to mention a few of those scene modes before I move on. The high key mode enhances bright areas of a photo, while the low key mode does the opposite (enhances the shadows). The digital image stabilization mode will boost the ISO sensitivity to reduce the risk of blurry photos. Normally I discourage people from using high sensitivity modes like this, but since it's a digital SLR (with much better high ISO abilities), I think it's safe.

To the right of the mode dial is the E-410's command dial, used for adjusting manual exposure settings. Moving upward, we find the exposure compensation (with a -5EV to +5EV range) and shutter release buttons.

Side of the Olympus E-420

There's nothing to see on this side of the camera.

Side of the Olympus E-420

On the other side of the camera you'll find its dual memory card slots, which is protected by a plastic door of average quality. The slots here include xD (left) and CompactFlash Type I/II (right).

Bottom of the Olympus E-420

On the bottom of the E-420 you'll find a metal tripod mount (in line with the lens, of course) and the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment comes off easily, but it reattaches in a snap (literally).

The included BLS-1 lithium-ion battery is shown at right.

Using the Olympus E-420

Record Mode

The Olympus E-420 performs its dust reduction "shake off" and is ready to start taking pictures in one second. There are faster SLRs out there, though they either lack dust reduction, or perform the cleaning at shutdown only.

Autofocus speeds will depend on a number of factors, including whether or not you're using live view, the chosen focus mode, and what lens is attached. Without live view, focusing is generally very snappy, with delays ranging from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle to around 0.5 - 0.8 seconds at the telephoto end (with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens). Low light focusing times generally hang around one second, though the flash-based AF-assist lamp can knock a fraction of a second off of that.

If you're using live view with the default Imager AF, don't expect miracles: focus times were around 1 second in good light, and nearly twice as long in low light. The other two live view AF modes are a bit quicker (and possibly more accurate), but not by much.

Shutter lag isn't an issue if you're shooting with the viewfinder, and it's barely noticeable with contrast detect live view. However, if you're using either hybrid or AF sensor live view, you can expect to wait about a second between the time you fully press the shutter release and when the photo is actually taken.

Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, regardless of the image quality setting or whether the flash was used. You can keep shooting until you fill the buffer, which isn't easy.

There's no way to delete a photo immediately after taking it -- you must enter playback mode first.

There are a ton of image quality options available on the E-420, and I've compiled them into this handy chart for you:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 1GB xD card (optional)
RAW
3648 x 2736
None 11.0 MB 91
Large
3648 x 2736
Super fine 6.8 MB 147
Fine 4.7 MB 211
Normal 2.2 MB 460
Basic 1.5 MB 687
Middle
3200 x 2400
Super fine 5.3 MB 187
Fine 3.7 MB 267
Normal 1.7 MB 597
Basic 1.1 MB 888
Middle
2560 x 1920
Super fine 3.6 MB 280
Fine 2.2 MB 466
Normal 1.1 MB 927
Basic 700 KB 1361
Middle
1600 x 1200
Super fine 1.3 MB 799
Fine 800 KB 1163
Normal 500 KB 2284
Basic 300 KB 3198
Small
1280 x 960
Super fine 800 KB 1230
Fine 500 KB 1776
Normal 300 KB 3366
Basic 200 KB 4920
Small
1024 x 768
Super fine 500 KB 1881
Fine 400 KB 2665
Normal 200 KB 4920
Basic 100 KB 7107
Small
640 x 480
Super fine 200 KB 4569
Fine 200 KB 6396
Normal 100 KB 10661
Basic 100 KB 12793

Enough options for you? RAW images may be taken alone, or with a JPEG at the size of your choosing. I told you why RAW is handy back in the software section of this article.

Olympus uses a rather unusual file naming convention on their cameras. Files are named PMDD####.JPG where M = month, D = day, and #### = 0001 - 9999. Photos taken with the AdobeRGB color space start with an underscore ("_"), instead of a "P".

The E-420 has a detailed, complex menu system. There are a lot of options to be found here, some of which are buried pretty deep. Unlike many of Olympus' consumer cameras, there's no help screen available for any of these. The menu is divided into five tabs, covering shooting, playback, and custom options. Here's what you'll find:

Shooting Menu 1
  • Card setup (All erase, format)
  • Custom reset setting (Reset, reset 1, reset 2) - reset to defaults or to the settings of your choice
  • Picture mode (Vivid, natural, muted, portrait, monotone) - more below
  • Gradation (Auto, normal, high key, low key) - see below
  • Image quality (RAW, Large/Fine, Large/Normal, Medium/Normal, Small/Normal, RAW+L/F, RAW+L/N, RAW+M/N, RAW + S/N) - you can customize what JPEG sizes/qualities are on this list
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, one-touch, color temperature) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Noise reduction (On, off, auto) - for long exposures only; increases shot-to-shot speeds
  • Noise filter (Off, low, standard, high) - amount of noise reduction applied to images
Shooting menu 2
  • Metering (ESP+AF, ESP, center-weighted, spot, highlight control spot, shadow control spot) - see below
  • Flash RC mode (on/off) - for controlling wireless flashes
  • Flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • AF mode (Single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF + MF, continuous AF + MF) - see below
  • AF area (Auto, left, center, right) - when you're using the optical viewfinder
  • Anti-shock (Off, 1 - 30 secs) - flip the mirror out of the way for a set interval before the shot is taken
  • AE bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV) - described earlier
Playback Menu
  • Slideshow (1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 49, 100 frames) - how many images are on the screen at once in the slideshow
  • Auto rotate (on/off) - rotates images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Edit - I'll discuss these later
    • RAW Data Edit
    • JPEG edit (Shadow adjustment, redeye fix, crop, black & white, sepia, saturation, resize)
  • DPOF print marking (One, all)
  • Copy all - from one memory card to another
  • Reset protect (on/off)
Custom Menu 1
  • AF/MF
    • AF illuminator (on/off)
    • Focus ring (Counterclockwise, clockwise) - which way the focus ring operates; for electronic focus rings only
    • Reset lens (on/off) - resets lens to infinite focus when camera is turned off
    • Bulb focusing (on/off) - whether you can focus during a bulb exposure
    • Live view AF (AF sensor, hybrid AF, imager AF) - described earlier
  • Button/Dial
    • Dial - select what the command dial controls
      • Program mode (Program shift, exposure compensation)
      • Aperture priority mode (Aperture, exposure compensation)
      • Shutter priority mode (Shutter speed, exposure compensation)
      • Manual mode (Shutter speed, aperture)
    • Dial direction (Dial 1, 2) - I guess this is for letting you select the effect of turning the dial in a certain direction
    • AE/AF lock - how this button works; I'll save the details for the camera manual
      • S-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
      • C-AF (Mode 1, 2, 3, 4)
      • MF (Mode 1, 2, 3)
    • AE/AF lock memory (on/off) - whether the lock "sticks" when you let go of the button
    • Left/function button (Face detection, preview, live preview, off, custom WB, live preview, test picture) - define what the left direction on the four-way controller does
    • Drive button (Drive, AF area, AF mode, white balance, metering, ISO) - you can redefine the function of this one too
  • Display/Sound/PC
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Sleep (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
    • Backlit LCD (8 sec, 30 sec, 1 min, hold)
    • USB mode (Auto, storage, MTP, control, easy PictBridge, custom PictBridge)
    • Live view boost (on/off) - boosts low light visibility in live view
    • Face detection (on/off) - for live view mode only, of course
    • Frame assist (Off, grid, golden section, scale) - composition aids
  • Exposure/Metering/ISO
    • ISO Auto set (100 - 1600) - select the top end of Auto ISO
    • ISO Auto (P/A/S/all) - when auto ISO is available
    • AEL metering (Auto, center-weighted, spot, spot highlight, spot shadow)
    • Bulb timer (1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 20, 25, 30 mins) - preset a time for bulb mode
  • Flash custom
    • Flash exp comp + exp comp (on/off) - I believe this links flash exposure compensation with exposure compensation
    • Auto pop-up (on/off) - whether the flash pops up as needed in auto or scene mode
  • Quality/Color/WB
    • All white balance compensation
      • All set (-7 to +7) - in either the amber or green directions
      • All reset
    • Color space (sRGB, AdobeRGB)
    • Image quality set (Large/Medium/Small, Superfine/fine/normal/basic) - select the size and quality of the four image quality slots
    • Pixel count - select the resolution for these two sizes
      • Middle (3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200)
      • Small (1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480)
  • Record/Erase
    • RAW+JPEG erase (JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG) - what's removed when you delete a RAW+JPEG photo
    • File name (Auto, reset)
    • dpi setting (Auto, custom) - the latter lets you select the dpi of your choosing
  • Utility
    • Cleaning mode - flips the mirror up, for manual sensor cleaning

Custom Menu 2
  • Date/time (set)
  • CF/xD - choose which card slot to use
  • LCD brightness
    • Brightness (-7 to +7)
    • Color balance (-7 to +7)
  • Language
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Rec View (Off, auto play, 1 - 20 secs) - post-shot review; the auto play option enters playback mode after a photo is taken
  • Pixel mapping - blocks out bad pixels on the sensor
  • Firmware - displays the firmware version of the body and attached lens

Before I tell you about the features that are in that menu, let me mention a few things that you'll find on the E-520, but not the E-420. These missing features include white balance and flash bracketing, a "custom" picture mode (more on this below), My Mode, and numerous custom functions.

Picture Mode menu Editing the Natural picture mode

Okay, now here's more on the features that you will find on the E-420.The presets are fairly obvious: vivid, natural, or muted colors, plus portrait for smooth skin tones. For each of those, you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, and saturation. For black and white shooting, there's monotone mode, where you can adjust contrast and sharpness, or add virtual color filters and tints to the image.

The Gradation feature takes advantage of Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology. When you set this to "auto", the camera will break the image into smaller sections, analyzing and adjusting the brightness in each individually.

Gradation Off Auto Gradation

The crop above illustrates how the SAT feature brightens the dark areas of your photo. The ground is more visible, as is the tree. The E-420 also handled the sky a bit better -- it's not as blown out as it is with SAT turned off. This feature is also available in playback mode, and I'll show you how it works there in a bit.

There are numerous white balance options available on the E-420. First, you've got the usual presets, and each of those can be tweaked in the amber/blue or green/magenta directions. The One-Touch WB function lets you use a white or gray card as a reference for proper white balance in unusual lighting. You must set the Function button to One-touch WB first, which makes things more difficult than they should be. You can also set the color temperature, with an available range of 2000K - 14000K.

The E-420 has two unique metering modes. Highlight control spot metering gives you accurate whites, while shadow control spot metering gives you accurate blacks. The metering area is the same as it is in regular spot metering mode.

What are those AF modes all about? Single AF locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release button. Continuous AF keeps focusing, even with the shutter release halfway-pressed. Manual focus does just as it sounds. The Single AF+MF and Continuous AF+MF modes let you manually focus after the camera has locked focus automatically.

Unlike the E-520, there is just one bracketing option available on the E-420, and that's for exposure. The camera will take three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. If you've got space on your memory card, then this is a great way to ensure proper exposure every time.

Alright, enough about menus -- let's move onto photo quality now!

The E-420 did a fine job with our standard macro test subject. The colors are both accurate and very saturated at the same time. The figurine has the "smooth" look that is common on digital SLRs. If you're looking for noise or other artifacting, keep looking: there isn't any. This photo was taken with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens.

The E-420's macro abilities depend on what lens you have attached. The minimum focus distance for the available kit lenses are 25 cm for the 14-42, and 20 cm for the "pancake lens". If you're a hardcore close-up shooter, then you may want to consider one of Olympus' dedicated macro lenses.

The E-420 did a very nice job with the night scene, using the now classic F3.5-4.5, 40 - 150 mm lens. It was kind of a dreary night, but the camera still brought in a good amount of light (as it should). The photo is nice and sharp throughout the frame, nd there's no shortage of fine detail here. I didn't find noise, noise reduction artifacting, or purple fringing to be a problem here.

I have two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you see above. Here we go:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 800, RAW -> JPEG conversion, noise filter off

ISO 800, RAW -> JPEG conversion, noise filter off, processed with NeatImage

ISO 1600

There's not much of a difference between the ISO 100 and 200 shots. At ISO 400, we see hints of noise and NR artifacting, but it's still very minor. Details start to get a little mushy at ISO 800, and I included two extra crops that show you the benefit of shooting RAW and post-processing in situations like this. There's even more detail loss at ISO 1600, though you may be able to squeeze out a small print after some cleanup work on your computer.

We'll see how the E-420 performs in better lighting in a moment.

No redeye to be found in our flash test. Should you encounter this pest, you can quickly remove it via a tool in playback mode.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 14 - 42 mm kit lens. You can see what this does to your real world photos by looking at this example. Neither of the two kit lenses I tested had problems with vignetting or blurry corners, which is a testament to the quality of Olympus' lenses.

Here's that second ISO test I promised you. This one is taken in the studio, and the results can be compared to those from other cameras I've reviewed. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the image quality at each setting, it's always a good idea to view the full size image as well. And with that, here we go:


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, RAW -> JPEG conversion, noise filter off

ISO 1600, RAW -> JPEG conversion, noise filter off, processed with NeatImage

The first three crops are as smooth as butter. Even at ISO 800, the photo is very clean, with just a slight amount of visible noise reduction artifacting. Only at ISO 1600 does this artifacting become more visible. I've included additional crops showing you (again) what you can get out of shooting RAW. I think Olympus has improved image quality on the E-420 compared to its predecessor -- there's a bit less noise and noise reduction -- and that's good news.

Overall, the photos produced by the E-420 were of excellent quality. The camera took well-exposed photos, with pleasing, saturated color. Images have the trademark D-SLR "smooth" look, though things could be a bit sharper, in my opinion. If you agree, you can adjust the sharpness using the Picture Mode feature. Noise and noise reduction artifacting aren't problems until ISO 800 in low light, and ISO 1600 in good light. Purple fringing was rare, and when it occurred, it was minor.

As always, don't take my words as gospel. Have a look at our photo gallery, perhaps printing a few of the images if you can. Then you should be able to decide for yourself if the E-420's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Digital SLR cameras do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The E-420 has a pretty nice playback for a digital SLR. Basic features such as slideshows, DPOF print marking, image rotation, image protection, and zoom & scroll are all here. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo by as much as 14X, and then scroll around to make sure that everything's in focus.

Photos can be viewing one-at-a-time or as thumbnails of varying sizes (some of which are tiny). You can also navigate to photos that were taken on a certain date by using the calendar view (pictured).

The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs, another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you downsize or crop an image, reduce redeye, convert to black & white or sepia, and brighten things up with Shadow Adjustment Technology. The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG.

Since the E-420 has two memory card slots, it's not surprising that it lets you copy photos back and forth between an xD and CompactFlash card.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button a few times and you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over and underexposed areas.

The E-420 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

With the new E-420, Olympus has created a true "go anywhere" digital SLR -- especially when paired with the new 25 mm "pancake lens". The E-420 offers great photo quality, snappy performance (in most respects), live view, and both auto and manual controls, all in a compact, well-built body. That doesn't mean that the E-420 is perfect, though. Its design isn't for everyone, images are slightly soft, there's no image stabilization available, and the contrast detect AF leaves something to be desired. Despite that, the E-420 is a great D-SLR, and one which I can easily recommend.

As I mentioned, the E-420 is currently the smallest digital SLR in the world. While Olympus has made some changes to the grip to make it easier to hold, the camera still isn't for everyone -- so check one out in person, if you can. Like all of Olympus' D-SLRs, the E-420 is very well built. It may cost $499, but you wouldn't know it; the body may be made of plastic, but there's not a single part of it that feels "cheap". The camera does suffer a bit from "button clutter", and I miss the shortcut buttons on the four-way controller on the more expensive E-510/E-520. The E-420 uses the FourThirds lens mount, which has a 2X focal length conversion ratio. The two available kit lenses (14-42 and 25 mm) are both of very good quality by kit lens standards, and that pancake lens turns the E-420 into quite the "spy camera". While the E-420 has the same dust reduction system as its more expensive sibling (the E-520), it doesn't have its sensor-shift image stabilization system. If this is an important feature to you, it may be worth spending the extra $100 on that camera.

Olympus was the pioneer of live view on digital SLRs, and the E-420 has the latest and greatest version of this feature. If you're coming from a compact camera, then you'll feel at home with the E-420 -- sort of. You'll compose your images on the 2.7" LCD, which has decent outdoor and low light visibility. If you're using one of the compatible lenses, you can take advantage of an 11-point contrast detection AF system, plus face detection. Unfortunately, contrast detect AF is quite slow (especially in low light situations), and the face detection feature did not impress, either. The other focusing modes are faster, though they require flipping the mirror each time. All things considered, I still think that live view is best suited for stationary subjects -- it's too slow for action shots.

The E-420 has quite a few automatic controls for a digital SLR. You'll find a host of scene modes, plus a regular auto mode for everyday shooting. More advanced shooters will appreciate the manual controls, RAW format support, and the ability to use wireless flashes, as well. Two other useful shooting features are gradation and Perfect Shot Preview. The auto gradation (Shadow Adjustment Technology) feature does an effective job of brightening the shadow areas of your photos. Perfect Shot Preview allows you to see the effect of adjusting exposure compensation or white balance on the LCD -- before you take the shot. There are some handy features in playback mode as well, such as redeye removal, shadow adjustment, and RAW editing.

Camera performance is quite good in most respects. The E-420 is ready to start shooting less than a second after you flip the power switch. If you're using the viewfinder, you'll find AF performance to be quite good. The only place it lags a little bit is in low light, where focus times can exceed one second. As I mentioned above, live view autofocus isn't nearly as responsive. Contrast detect AF is slow, with the camera frequently taking 1-2 seconds to lock focus, and the other modes aren't much better, due to the time required to flip the mirror into position. You'll encounter shutter lag when using live view for the same reason. Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, though, regardless of the image quality or flash setting. The E-420's continuous shooting mode is quite good, allowing you to take 6 RAW+JPEG, 8 RAW, and an unlimited number of JPEGs at 3.4 frames/second. I should point out that the live view turns off after the first shot in a burst sequence, so you'll need to use the viewfinder to track a moving subject. In terms of battery life, the camera scores about 10% below average. The E-420 doesn't support a battery grip, or even an AC adapter.

The E-420 is capable of producing excellent quality photos. I found that the camera took well-exposed photos with noticeably vibrant color. Images are just a bit soft, and if you agree, you may want to crank up the in-camera sharpening using the Picture Mode feature. Olympus has done a good job at keeping noise and noise reduction artifacting to a minimum until the highest ISOs. These issues don't really become problematic until ISO 800 in low light, and at ISO 1600 in good light, though do a little post-processing and the photos are quite usable. I didn't find redeye or purple fringing to be a problem on the E-420.

I've covered most of the camera's negatives in the preceding paragraphs, but here are two others that I want to mention. First off, if you're shooting with any focus mode besides contrast detect, you'll be stuck with just 3 focus points, which is way behind the times these days. Finally, I miss some of the features that are available on the E-520, including additional bracketing options and the ability to store several groups of camera settings.

If you're looking for a compact digital SLR, then the Olympus E-420 is absolutely worth a look. Heck, it's worth checking out if you don't care about the size of the camera and just want a good entry-level SLR. The only real caveats here involve the fact that the E-420 may be too small, and that the E-520 offers image stabilization, better battery life, and more, for just $100 more. Whichever you choose, you'll get a high quality camera -- you just need to choose between portability/price and image stabilization/comfort/battery life.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Good value -- starts at $500, body only
  • World's smallest D-SLR; excellent build quality
  • Dust reduction system
  • Live view with contrast detect AF and face detection (with some lenses) on a 2.7" LCD display
  • Full manual controls; RAW image format supported
  • Lots of scene modes for a D-SLR
  • Impressive continuous shooting mode
  • Handy gradation (Shadow Adjustment) and Perfect Shot Preview features
  • Redeye not a problem, though a removal tool is available just in case
  • Good quality kit lenses
  • Support for (optional) wireless flashes and remote capture
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Photos are slightly soft; noise reduction a bit heavy at ISO 1600 (shoot RAW to avoid)
  • Slow contrast detect AF, unimpressive face detection in live view mode; both features only available with a select few lenses
  • Low light focusing could be better in all shooting modes
  • Compact body not easy to hold (though your mileage may vary)
  • Only 3 focus points in most situations
  • No AC adapter or battery grip available
  • Hard to resist the E-520 for $100 more

Some other entry-level D-SLRs to consider include the Canon EOS Rebel XSi, Nikon D60, Olympus E-520, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Pentax K200D, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the E-420 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the E-420's photos turned out? Then check out our gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or technical support.