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DCRP Review: Olympus EVOLT E-500
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 26, 2005
Last Updated: April 6, 2008
This review has been completed using a production-level EVOLT E-500. Product photos have been reshot where necessary and all sample photos are from the production camera.
The Olympus EVOLT E-500 is a new entry-level digital SLR that's priced at just $799 (one lens kit) and $899 (two lens kit). Like the E-1 and E-300, the E-500 uses the FourThirds system, and it supports all of the Zuiko digital specific lenses that Olympus offers.
The E-500 has a much more traditional design than the E-300, which is a good thing in my opinion, as I was not a fan of the body design of the E-300. (Olympus did tell me that the E-300 design isn't dead yet.) In addition to the new look, there are these other new features on the E-500 when compared to the E-300:
Other features on the E-500 include an 8 Megapixel CCD, dust reduction system, full manual controls, hot shoe, and the kind of performance you'd expect from a digital SLR.
Ready to find out more about the latest D-SLR from Olympus? Then read on, our review starts right now!
What's in the Box?
There will be two E-500 kits available: a single lens kit and a dual lens kit. Here's what you'll get in each kit:
As is the case with all D-SLRs, Olympus does not include a memory card with the E-500, so you'll have to factor that into the total purchase price. The camera supports both xD and CompactFlash memory cards, though you'll get the most capacity out of CF cards (and they're cheaper too). I'd recommend a 512MB or even a 1GB card as good place to start. The camera takes advantage of high speed memory cards, so for best performance you might want to pick one up.
Regardless of what kit you buy you'll find the F3.5-5.6, 14 - 45 mm lens in the box. This is a good everyday lens, with a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 28 - 90 mm. If you get the dual lens kit then you'll also receive the F3.5-4.5, 40 - 150 mm lens, which is equivalent to 80 - 300 mm. With the dual lens kit you're ready for just about any situation that may come up.
If you want to buy additional lenses, Olympus has several for you to choose from, ranging from fisheye to macro to super telephoto. There's a focal length conversion ratio of 2X on the camera, which is higher than on other D-SLRs.
The E-500 uses the same BLM-1 battery as the E-1 and E-300. This battery has a hefty 10.8 Wh of energy, which is about as powerful as you'll find. Olympus says that the E-500 can take 400 shots per charge (measured using the CIPA standard) which is good but not mind-blowing.
When it's time to recharge, pop the battery into the included BCM-2 charger. It takes a sluggish five hours to fully charge the battery. This isn't one of those handy "plug it right into the wall" style chargers -- you must use a power cable.
Unlike with the E-300, Olympus will not be offering a battery grip for the E-500.
Being a digital SLR, there are endless numbers of accessories available for the E-500. They included lenses (of course), external flashes of all types, remote controls, and camera cases. Way too much to list here!
Olympus includes version 1.31 of their excellent Master software with the E-500. When you first start it up you'll be presented with the above screen. Options here include transferring images from a camera or memory card or browsing, sharing, and printing photos that have already been transferred. A backup option will save your photos to your hard drive or CD/DVD disk.
Here's the main image browsing screen. In the left pane you can choose how images are viewed: by date or category. Powerful searching features let you find images in a number of ways. The thumbnails in the center of the screen load quickly and you can adjust their size in real time. On the right side you'll find shooting data as well as links to Olympus and their partners.
Items in the toolbar include rotation, editing, printing, e-mailing, and RAW development.
Here is the editing screen, where you'll find rotation and cropping, "instant fix", redeye reduction, and color balance options.
Here's the nicely design photo printing feature. Lots of options, as you can see. There's a similar window for e-mailing your photos to friends and family.
The last thing to see here is the RAW development feature. Here you can adjust the exposure, white balance, contrast, sharpness, and saturation in your RAW image. There's a bit of a delay after you make changes while the software processes the image, so changes are not quite real-time. Once you're happy your RAW images can be saved in a number of formats, including TIFF and JPEG.
What are RAW images? Simply put, they contain the "raw", unprocessed image data straight from the camera's sensor. The beauty of RAW format is that a) they're smaller than TIFFs and b) they allow you to manipulate photos without losing any quality. Botch the white balance? Just change it later and it's just like taking the shot again. The disadvantage? You must process the images on your Mac or PC in order to export them to other formats. As you saw, the Olympus Master software can do this just fine. Adobe Photoshop CS2 does not yet support the E-500's RAW files.
Just like with their old Camedia Master software, Olympus has a "Plus" version available for $20 more. The Master Plus software adds movie editing capabilities, more printing options, and the ability to make Video CDs.
Unlike with their consumer cameras, the E-500 comes with a thick, detailed, and printed manual. While it won't win any awards for ease of use, the manual is complete, leaving no question unanswered.
Look and Feel
The E-500 is, thankfully, a much more normal-looking camera than the E-300. I'll be frank here: the E-300 was one ugly camera. In addition to its superior looks, the E-500 is also smaller and lighter than the E-300. The plastic body has a strong metal frame underneath, and it doesn't feel "cheap" at all. The camera is easy to hold, with a good-sized right hand grip.
The E-300 and the E-500, side by side; Image courtesy of Olympus
Now let's see how the camera compares with other entry-level D-SLRs in terms of size and weight (body only, of course).
The E-500 is actually one of the larger cameras in the entry-level D-SLR space, with only the monstrous Nikon D50 being larger. I think the E-500 is just about the right side -- I find some of the smaller cameras (e.g. Rebel XT) to be too small for my hands.
Let's begin our tour of the E-500 now!
In this front view of the E-500 you can see the FourThirds lens mount, where you can attach any Zuiko Digital lens. Olympus has built up a pretty good collection of lenses in the last few years, which will fit just about anyone's needs. As I said before, there's a 2X crop factor on whatever lens you put on the camera, so a 15 mm lens has the field-of-view of a 30 mm lens.
Just in front of the lens is Olympus' exclusive Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF), which uses ultrasonic waves to literally "shake" dust off the sensor. Anyone who has used a D-SLR for a while knows how annoying dust on the sensor can be, and Olympus is still the only one to do anything about it. The only downside to this feature is that it slows up startup times a bit.
Directly above the lens is the E-500's pop-up flash. Unlike on the E-300, this flash is released automatically when needed. Unfortunately Olympus does not publish the working range for this flash, but it seemed pretty strong based on my usage. For more flash power the camera features a hot shoe that you'll see in a moment.
To the right of the lens mount is the release for the lens mount. That red thing just below the E-500 logo is for two things: it's the self-timer lamp as well as the receiver for the (optional) remote control.
While there's no dedicated AF-assist lamp on the camera, if you pop up the built-in flash, the camera will use it as a focusing aid. Best of all you can set up the camera to not take a flash picture in that situation, unlike some other D-SLRs. If you're using an Olympus external flash, the camera will use the AF-assist lamp on that.
One of the big upgrades on the E-500 is its large 2.5" LCD display. This screen has an impressive resolution, too -- there are over 215,000 pixels on this screen, so images are nice and sharp. Do note that as with all digital SLRs, the LCD is only used for reviewing photos after they are taken -- you will always use the optical viewfinder for taking pictures.
And speaking of which, you'll find the E-500's viewfinder directly above the LCD. This large viewfinder shows 95% of the frame, and you can bring things into focus by using the diopter correction knob to its left. The shooting info display is located to the right of the field of view in the viewfinder, and it shows current settings and shots remaining.
To the left of the LCD are five buttons:
To the right of the viewfinder is the AE/AF lock button, which is also used to protect photos in playback mode. To the lower-right of that is the drive button, which has the following options:
The E-500 has a fairly average continuous shooting mode. It can take photos at 2.4 frames/second until the buffer is filled up. That happens after just four RAW or TIFF photos or five SHQ JPEGs. You can keep shooting until the memory card fills up at the HQ quality setting, assuming that you're using a high speed memory card. The camera was able to flush the buffer quickly, except when using TIFF format.
The drive button is also used for DPOF printing marking and for copying images between memory cards in playback mode.
White balance selection screen
Continuing downward we find the four-way controller. This is used for menu navigation and also changing the items listed below. When you press one of these "direct buttons" a little menu appears on the screen, and you then choose the desired setting. Here's what else the four-way controller does:
The E-500 has a complete set of white balance controls, as you'd expect. You can choose from several presets, and a custom feature lets you use a white or gray card for perfect color in any lighting. You can also fine-tune each WB setting in the red/blue and green/magenta direction. If that's still not enough, you can even set the color temperature yourself (range of 2000K - 14000K).
There are several focus modes on the E-500. Single AF is the usual "press the shutter release halfway to lock focus" mode. Continuous AF works the same way, but it keeps focusing while the shutter release is halfway-pressed. Manual focus is just as it sounds -- you use the focus ring on the lens to do the work yourself. The single or continuous + MF modes let the camera focus automatically first, and then you can tweak things manually using the focus ring.
The last set of buttons on the camera are located at the top-right of the photo. They include a custom button (with one-touch white balance as the default option) and another for choosing a focus point (left, center, right). All of the competition have more focus points than the E-500.
The first thing to see on the top of the E-500 is its hot shoe. This can take an Olympus (FL-20, FL-36, or FL-50) or third-party flash. Do note that if you use a third-party flash you'll have to manually choose its settings. The Olympus flashes integrated with the camera, and their AF-assist lamps can be used as well. If you use the FL-36 or FL-50 you can turn on a "Super FP flash" option which allows you to use faster shutter speeds than you normally could. The E-500 can sync at shutter speeds of 1/180 sec and slower.
The next thing to see is the mode dial, which has the power switch under it. Just to the upper-left of that is a light which illuminates when the Supersonic Wave Filter is being used. The items on the mode dial include:
As you can see, there are full manual controls plus many scene modes on the E-500, so it's good for both beginners and enthusiasts. To adjust things like shutter speed and aperture you'll use the command dial, which is located next to the mode dial. In manual mode you'll hold down the exposure compensation button (to the upper-right of the mode dial) while turning the command dial to adjust the shutter speed, while the command dial alone adjusts aperture.
Speaking of exposure compensation, this button lets you adjust it from -5.0EV to +5.0EV in 1/3EV increments. Just above that button is the shutter release.
On this side of the camera you'll find two of the E-500's I/O ports: USB and video out, which are protected by a plastic cover. Like its predecessor, the camera only supports the USB 2.0 Full Speed protocol, which is the "slow USB 2.0". The one we want (and which most of the competition offers) is USB 2.0 High Speed.
I should also point out that the focus ring on all Zuiko lenses is electronic -- you're not manually moving lens elements, you're telling the camera's brain to do it. The kit lens doesn't show you the current focus distance on it, which can be a bit frustrating.
On the other side of the camera you'll find its dual memory card slots (new to the E-500), which include xD and CompactFlash. As I said at the start of the review, you'll probably what to stick with CompactFlash cards: they're cheaper, faster, and higher capacity than xD cards. The door covering these two slots is of average quality.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. This compartment is protected by a somewhat flimsy door with a locking mechanism.
The tripod mount is inline with the lens, as you'd expect on an SLR.
The included BLM-1 battery is shown at right.
Using the Olympus E-500
It takes over 2 seconds for the E-500 to "warm up" before you can start taking pictures, which is on the slow side compared to other D-SLRs these days. Most of that delay comes from the dust removal process that is performed each time the camera is turned on.
When you're shooting there are two information screens available that are shown on the LCD. One's simple while the other is more complex. By pressing the OK button in the four-way controller you can navigate to anything on these screens to quickly change their setting. Nice!
Autofocus speeds on the E-500 are excellent, with typical focus times of 0.1 - 0.3 seconds in good conditions. If the flash is popped up the camera will use that for low light focusing assistance, and it works quickly and accurately.
I did not notice any shutter lag on the camera, nor would I expect any.
And, as you'd expect from a D-SLR, you can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot -- at least until the buffer fills up. When shooting at the SHQ, RAW, or TIFF setting, that happens after about five photos.
There is no way to delete a photo after it is taken -- you must first enter playback mode.
There are tons of image quality options available on the E-500. For several of the choices you can choose how much compression is applied to the image: the more compression, the smaller the file size and the worst the image quality. Here's the full list of options:
Please note that the number of images on a 512MB data are my only calculations based on Olympus' file size data. I'm a little suspicious of the 100KB number for the last two rows, but that's what's in the manual.
Anyhow, the E-500 supports the JPEG, TIFF, and RAW formats. I already explained RAW earlier in the review, but I should add that you can take RAW and JPEG images at the same time on the camera. This allows you to skip the post-processing step if the JPEG quality is what you were expecting. TIFF format is uncompressed image data that takes up a lot of space on your memory card, without any of the benefits of RAW. The only thing going for it is that nearly all image editors can open it.
Olympus uses one of the better file numbering systems that I've seen. Files are named Pmdd####.jpg, where m is the month (1-9, A-C), d is the day, and #### is 0001-9999. This way your file numbers are always unique (well, for one year at least). File numbering is maintained as you erase and switch memory cards.
Let's discuss the menu system now!
The E-500 has the same menu system as the E-300. It's not pretty but it gets the job done. The menu is divided into five "tabs": shooting 1 & 2, playback, and custom 1 & 2. Here are the menu options:
That's a pretty enormous list of options -- I hope I explained things well enough.
One nice thing about the E-series cameras is that the firmware on all components is upgradeable -- whether it's the lens, flash, or lens.
Enough about menus, let's talk about photo quality now. I used the 14 - 45 mm kit lens for all of these test shots.
While it took quite a few tries to get the white balance right, I did end up getting a nice macro shot out of the E-500. Colors are vibrant and the subject is nice and smooth. In retrospect I probably should've used a smaller aperture to increase the depth-of-field.
The E-500's minimum focus distance will depend on what lens you're using. For the 14 - 45 mm lens it's about 38 cm.
The night shot turned out quite well. The camera took in plenty of light (as you'd expect from a camera with full manual control of shutter speed), noise levels are very low, and purple fringing isn't much of a problem. The E-500 did blow out a few highlights (in and around the ferry building), though you could probably reduce that a bit by fooling around with some exposure settings.
I have two ISO comparisons in this review. First is the usual night shot ISO test, which uses the same scene as you see above:
ISO 200 is just a tad bit noisier than ISO 100, and it's sharper too. ISO 400 is still absolutely usable, and so is ISO 800, unless you're making huge prints. At ISO 1600 things are pretty noisy, but if you compare this to most fixed-lens cameras it's a dream come true. At that setting you'll probably be restricted to smaller-sized prints, even with noise reduction software.
I should point out that many other "in-between" ISO sensitivities are available -- I just showed a few choices here.
Barrel distortion levels at the wide end of the 14 - 45 mm kit lens are fairly high, as you'd expect from an ultra wide-angle lens like this. While there's some vignetting in this shot, I didn't see any of that in my real world photos.
Redeye was not a problem at all with the E-500, nor would I expect it to be. All you can see here is a little flash reflection.
Here's that second ISO test I promised. This, as you may know, is my test scene, now without chocolate (poor choice on my part):
Since I had all three of them around, I took this shot with the Canon EOS-20D (filling in here for the Rebel XT, which I do not have -- photo quality should be the same), the E-500, and the fixed-lens Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1. The Canon used the 17 - 85 mm EF-S lens, while the E-500 used the 14 - 45 mm kit lens. The aperture was locked to F9 on the 20D and F6.3 on the other two cameras. Below are crops from this test shot at three high ISO sensitivities. You can click on the link below each crop to see the full size image.
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
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Well there's certainly a lot to digest there, so I'll try to bottom-line it for you. One thing that sticks out immediately are the different sizes of the crops you see above. That's because the E-500 is 8.0 Megapixel, the 20D is 8.2MP, and the DSC-R1 is 10.3MP. Also, the three cameras handled the white balance differently, with the 20D and E-500 having a yellowish cast, and the R1 having a (more accurate) bluish cast. I used custom white balance for all three cameras.
As far as noise goes, all three cameras perform very similarly at ISO 400. At ISO 800, the 20D and DSC-R1 both have a slight advantage over the E-500. Things get a little more difficult at ISO 1600. Without question the EOS-20D (and by extension the Rebel XT) have the lowest noise levels here. The E-500 appears to have less noise than the DSC-R1, but the R1 keeps details more intact than the E-500 (check out the "Dragon Sauce" label to see what I mean).
Overall I was very pleased with the E-500's image quality. Looking back at the photos I took with the E-300, I find the E-500's photo quality to be noticeable better, in terms of both noise and sharpness. The E-500 compares well with other D-SLRs too, with low noise levels, accurate exposure, and saturated color. I did not find purple fringing to be a problem. The only thing I noticed is the occasional appearance "jaggies" on straight edges.
In the end you need to decide if the E-500's photo quality meets your expectations. Have a look at our photo gallery (I apologize for the gloomy weather, not my fault!) and print the photos as if they were your own. Hopefully I've helped make your decision a bit easier!
No digital SLR has a movie mode.
The E-500 has a playback mode typical of those on D-SLRs. The usual features are here, including slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.
The zoom and scroll feature lets you blow up the image by a factor of up to 14 and then scroll around. There's even a feature that lets you compare two photos side by side (zoomed in, of course).
You can rotate and resize photos, change them to black & white or sepia, or adjust the saturation by using the JPEG/TIFF edit function. There's also a redeye removal feature, but since I didn't actually have any redeye to deal with I couldn't test it!
The RAW edit feature lets you apply the current camera settings to a RAW image. Did you botch the white balance? Choose the settings you wanted to use, then use RAW data edit to fix your image (the original RAW image is saved). I described the more traditional way to edit RAW properties early in the review: by using the Olympus Master software.
By default the E-500 doesn't tell you much about the photos you have taken. But by pressing the Info button, you can cycle through various screens full of exposure data, including a snazzy new histogram.
The camera moves through photos instantly in playback mode.
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus EVOLT E-500 offers many improvements over its predecessor (the E-300) with photo quality and design being the most notable. One thing hasn't changed though, and that's the fact that the E-500 is an excellent value. Priced at just $699 (body only), $799 (one lens kit), and $899 (two lens kit), you get a lot of camera for very little money, which is why the E-500 gets my recommendation.
The EVOLT E-500 is a "regular size" digital SLR that uses Olympus' FourThirds system. Olympus has built up a nice collection of Zuiko Digital Specific Lenses, though the 2X focal length conversion ratio is higher than what you'll find on other D-SLRs. The E-500 thankfully sheds the rather grotesque design of the E-300, and the body is well built and easy to hold. On the back of the camera you'll find a large 2.5" LCD display which I found to be very easy to see outdoors. When shooting the LCD displays all kinds of camera settings, which can be changed at the push of a button. A hot shoe can be found on the top of the camera for addition flash options. The E-500 has dual memory cards slots, supporting both xD and CompactFlash Type II media.
The E-500 is packed full of handy features. The most useful is actually its Supersonic Wave Filter, which removes dust from the sensor -- a big problem with D-SLRs. The only real downside of the SSWF is that the E-500 takes longer to start up than the competition. As you'd expect from a digital SLR there are full manual controls on the E-500, white balance fine-tuning, multiple bracketing options, and support for the RAW image format. RAW images can be editing right in the camera or in the included Olympus Master software. If none of that makes any sense or you just want to put the camera on autopilot, there are numerous scene modes to choose from on the E-500.
Camera performance was excellent in nearly all areas. The camera focuses quickly, there's minimal shutter lag, and shot-to-shot and playback delays are minimal. In low light situations you'll want to pop up the flash, as it greatly aids in focusing. The only areas in which the E-500 falls short are startup time and continuous shooting. As I mentioned, the slightly long startup time is the trade-off for having a dust-free CCD -- which I think most people won't have a problem with. The continuous shooting mode limits you to four or five shots in row before the buffer is full -- the Canon Rebel XT and Nikon D50 both perform better in this area.
Photo quality was excellent for the most part. The E-500 took well-exposed photos with accurate color, good sharpness, and low purple fringing levels. Noise levels are competitive with other D-SLRs (and the interesting Sony DSC-R1) up until about ISO 800, at which point the other cameras (that I have on hand, at least) start to pull away.
There are a few other negatives worth mentioning about the EVOLT E-500. The viewfinder is on the small side, and I don't like having the shooting information on the right side of it. There's no LCD info display on the top of the camera -- instead the main LCD is used which, while nice, uses up battery power. The camera doesn't support the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, which should be "standard" on this D-SLR. And finally, the E-500 only has three selectable focus points, which is the lowest of any digital SLR.
Overall there's much to like about the E-500. While it's not the best digital SLR in its class, it may be the best value. It offers a lot of features, good performance and photo quality, and a nicely designed body that costs less than you'd expect. If you're moving up to a digital SLR and don't currently own any lenses, the E-500 should be on your shopping list. Even if you already have a couple of lenses from Canon/Minolta/Nikon/Pentax it's still worth a look.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other digital SLRs worth looking at include the Canon Digital Rebel XT, Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D, Nikon D50, and the Pentax *ist DL and DS2.
As always, I strongly recommend trying the E-500 and its competitors before you drop big bucks on a camera!
Photo GallerySee how the photos turned out in our gallery!
Want another opinion?
You'll find another review at Digital Photography Review.
Feedback & Discussion
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.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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