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DCRP Review: Olympus E-520  
   

Front of the Olympus E-520

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 12, 2008
Last Updated: February 13, 2012

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Our review of the Olympus E-520 has been completed using a production-level camera. Thank you for your patience!

The E-520 ($599, body only) is the follow-up to Olympus' popular EVOLT E-510 digital SLR, which was introduced in March of 2007. The E-510 featured a 10 Megapixel CCD, sensor-shift image stabilization, dust reduction, full manual controls, and live view on its 2.5" LCD.

What's new on the E-520? Pretty much the same stuff that you'll find on its sibling, the E-420. Those items include:

  • Larger, 2.7" LCD display (versus 2.5")
  • Contrast detect autofocus (with select lenses) and face detection with live view
  • Faster continuous shooting speeds (3.5 vs 3.0 fps)
  • New vertical and horizontal panning IS modes
  • 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
  • Built-in wireless flash control

While not revolutionary, those are some nice new features. Olympus has also dropped the "EVOLT" moniker from their digital SLRs, and that's fine by me.

The E-520 finds itself in the very competitive entry-level D-SLR market. How does it perform? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The E-520 is available in two kits: body only ($599), and with a 14 - 42 mm lens ($699). Here's what you'll find in the box for both of those:

  • The 10.0 effective Megapixel Olympus E-520 camera body
  • F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm Olympus lens [lens kit only]
  • BLM-1 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Eyepiece cover
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master
  • 147 page camera manual (printed)

If you purchase the E-520 lens kit, then you'll get Olympus' fairly new 14 - 42 mm lens. On the E-520 (and all other FourThirds cameras), that's equivalent to 28 - 84 mm. This is a pretty nice lens, as kit lenses go, with good sharpness and decent build quality. There are plenty of other FourThirds lenses available, ranging from macro to super telephoto.

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-520 has two slots: one for xD and the other for CompactFlash. The CF slot supports Type I and II cards, though I don't believe that it takes advantage of super fast UDMA-enabled cards. I'd suggest starting with a 2GB, high speed CompactFlash card.

The E-520 uses the same BLM-1 rechargeable battery as its predecessor. This is one of the most powerful lithium-ion batteries on the market, with a whopping 10.8 Wh of energy. Here's how that translates into battery life:

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 E-510 * 650 shots BLM-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-A300 * 730 shots NP-FM500H

* Has sensor-shift image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The E-520's battery life is the same as its predecessor, and that's fine -- it was great before. In the group as a whole, the E-520 scores well above average. Olympus does not offer a battery grip for the E-520.

I want to mention two other things about the proprietary battery used by the E-520. First, they're expensive, with an extra one costing at least $43. The camera cannot use AA batteries, which can bail you out when the BLM-1 dies, but it can use three CR123 lithium batteries via the optional PS-LBH1 battery holder. CR123 batteries are more expensive than AAs, but it's still something to keep in mind.

When it's time to charge the BLM-1, just pop it into the included charger. And then prepare to wait for five hours for it to be charged. If you want a faster charger, Olympus would be happy to sell you one -- for $70! Whichever charger you use, you'll have to use a power cable with them, since they don't plug directly into the wall.

Being a digital SLR, you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the E-520 supports a ton of accessories (with two notable exceptions). Here's a quick summary of what's available:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Lenses Varies Varies The E-520 supports all FourThirds lenses, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio
External flash

FL-36R
FL-50R

From $189
From $399
More flash power and less chance of redeye; both of these can be used wirelessly
OM adapter MF-1 From $90 Use classic OM lenses with the E-520 (with lots of restrictions, though)
Wired remote control RM-UC1 From $49 Take a picture without touching the camera (34" cord)
Wireless remote control RM-1 From $27 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 $39 Enlarges the viewfinder magnification by 1.2X
Fast battery charger BCM-1 From $70 Charges your battery in two hours instead of five
Battery holder PS-LBH1 From $17 Lets you use three CR123 lithium batteries in place of the BLM-1
Underwater case PT-E05 $955 Take your camera up to 40 meters under the sea, for a price
Semi-hard case CS-5SH From $49 Holds the camera with a lens attached
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

Two things not on the list include the aforementioned battery grip, and an AC adapter. If you want to power the camera by plugging it into the wall (instead of using the battery), you're out of luck on the E-520.


Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X

Olympus includes version 2 of their Olympus Master software with the E-520. Olympus Master is pretty snappy (except when loading a RAW image -- that took eight seconds), 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 news feeds, though it wasn't yet working when I tried it.

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 pretty complete 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 the heck 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 good (but not great) manual with the E-520. It's pretty light on details, and it's not what I'd call an easy read, either. While the manual touches on the software bundle, you'll find the main documentation for that installed on your computer.

Look and Feel

The E-520 looks almost exactly like the E-510 that came before it, with the only major cosmetic change being its larger LCD. Despite its low price (and plastic body), the E-520 doesn't feel cheap when its in your hands, though it's easy for the battery compartment door to come off (it's easy enough to snap back on, though). The rubberized grip is just the right size, allowing the E-520 to fit comfortably in your hands.

The E-520 is a bit of a poster child for what I call "button clutter". There are buttons, dials, and switches all over the place. I found that I had to do some hunting to find the button I was looking for, though clearly this will go away with time.

Now, let's see how the E-520 compares to other D-SLRs 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-520 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 475 g
Olympus EVOLT E-510 5.4 x 3.6 x 2.7 in. 52.5 cu in. 470 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-A300 5.1 x 3.9 x 2.9 in. 57.7 cu in. 582 g

The E-520 is the same size as the EVOLT E-510, and just a tad bit heavier. In this group of entry-level digital SLRs, it's right in the middle when it comes to size and weight.

Enough about numbers -- let's begin our tour of the camera now!

Front of the Olympus E-520

Here's the front of the E-520 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. 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.

The E-520 has an enhanced version of the sensor-shift image stabilization system first seen on the E-510. New to the E-520 are two new IS modes: one for horizontal panning, the other for vertical. Here's how the camera's IS system works: sensors in the camera detect the shaking caused by tiny movements of your hands, which can blur your photos. The camera then shifts the sensor itself to compensate for this motion. This won't freeze a moving subject, nor will it allow for multi-second handheld exposures, but it certainly does a good job at reducing blur. And, since the IS is built into the camera body, every lens you attach to the camera will have shake reduction.

Here's an example of the E-520's IS system in action:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken at the very slow shutter speed of 1/4 second. I don't have to tell you that the IS system produced a much sharper photo -- it's quite obvious!

Like all of Olympus' E-Series cameras, the E-520 has the "SuperSonic Wave Filter" dust removal system. Although most of the competition now offers dust reduction on their SLRs, Olympus was years ahead of them in this area. This system literally shakes dust off the sensor with ultrasonic waves, greatly reducing the amount of dust that can litter your photos. The dust reduction cycle is run when the camera is turned on, and you can manually activate it by using the Pixel Mapping feature, as well.

Above the lens mount is the E-520'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 E-510. Checking the competition, the Canon Rebel XSi and Pentax K200D have guide numbers of 13, the Nikon D60 and Sony Alpha DSLR-A300 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 cut the cord entirely and have up to three sets of wireless flashes.

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 each 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 the 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-520

The most noticeable change to the E-520 is its larger, 2.7" LCD display (the E-510's was 2.5"). 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-520 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, 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 good, especially if you use the "live view boost" feature, which brightens things up, though everything will be black & white.

The contrast detect AF feature, first introduced on the E-420, 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 two or three of the six faces in our test scene. Do note that Imager AF is only compatible with select lenses, including the 14 - 42 and 40 - 150 mm kits lenses, the 25 mm "pancake", and the 9 - 18 mm that was announced with the E-520.

The AF sensor option is how the E-510'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 (Imager AF) is the slowest of the three, easily taking two or three seconds to lock focus as the lens grinds back and forth. Live view is definitely NOT suited for action shots... at least on this camera.

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-520 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 images 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-520's optical viewfinder. The viewfinder, along with the one on the E-420, is the smallest one on the market (magnifcation is 0.92x, equivalent to 0.46x). It can display 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.
[Paragraph updated 9/26/08]

Just to the right of the viewfinder is the camera's AE/AF lock button, which is also used to protect images in playback mode. Continuing to the right, we find the Function and AF Target buttons. The Function button is customizable, and by default it turns on face detection and "auto" gradation. I disabled this button quickly, as there are many times when you don't want these features to activate. The AF Target button lets you select from three focus points when using the viewfinder, and eleven when using live view.

Now, onto the buttons to the right of the LCD. The first two are the IS and Display buttons. The IS button toggles between the three modes that I described earlier (normal, horizontal panning, vertical panning). The Display button toggles the live view feature on and off.

Next, we have the four-way controller. You'll use this for menu navigation, changing settings on the Super Control Panel (as shown above), and also for:

  • Up - White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, flash, one-touch, color temperature)
  • Down - ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600)
  • Left - Metering (Digital ESP, center-weighted, spot, spot w/highlight control, spot w/shadow control)
  • Right - AF mode (S-AF, C-AF, MF, S-AF+MF, C-AF+MF)
  • Center - OK + Super Control Panel

I'll describe all of those features in more detail in the menu section of the review.

The last thing to see on the back of the E-520 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-520 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol, so transferring photos to your Mac or PC won't take too long.

Top of the Olympus E-520

The first two items to see on the top of the E-520 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 second button (drive) 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). So how did the E-520 perform in continuous shooting mode? Here's a quick summary:

Resolution Frame rate
RAW + Large/Fine JPEG 6 shots @ 3.5 fps, then 0.8 fps
RAW 10 shots @ 3.5 fps, then 1.7 fps
Large/Fine JPEG Unlimited @ 3.4 fps

Not too shabby for an entry-level digital SLR, I say!

Moving to the center of the photo, we find the E-520'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 cut the cord entirely and use the two "R" flashes wirelessly -- up to three sets worth.

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-520'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, underwater wide, underwater macro
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 (up to 30 minutes).

Olympus has a nice balance of auto and manual controls on the E-520, 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. Since the camera already has an optical IS system, using this feature probably isn't necessary. Finally, there are two underwater scene modes, for use with the optional U/W case.

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

Side of the Olympus E-520

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

Side of the Olympus E-520

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-520

On the bottom of the E-520 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 BLM-1 lithium-ion battery is shown at right.

Using the Olympus E-520

Record Mode

The Olympus E-520 performs its dust reduction "shake off" and is ready to start taking pictures in one second. There are faster SLRs out there, though I don't view this as a big deal.

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 performance was good, especially when the flash is used for AF-assist.

If you're using live view with the default Imager AF, don't expect miracles: focusing times were at least one second, often two or three. In low light, the camera had a terrible time locking focus, sometimes just giving up. The other two AF modes are more accurate, though not necessarily any faster.

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-520, 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
RAW 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
Small
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

A few quick notes before we go on. First, you can take a RAW image alone, or with the JPEG at the size of your choosing. I didn't put in all the RAW+JPEG combinations in the chart, since this list would be even longer than it already is. The super fine JPEG option is something you have to turn on manually, using the custom settings menu. By default, only fine, normal, and basic are available. If you have know idea what I'm talking about when I refer to RAW files, then I suggest heading back up to the software section of the review.

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". You can customize the first two characters of the file name in the setup menu, if you wish.

The E-520 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 are no help screens on the E-520, and the manual doesn't explain things terribly well, either. 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, custom) - 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)
  • 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) - see below for these next three
  • WB bracketing (Off, 3 frames/2 steps, 3 frames/4 steps, 3 frames/6 steps)
  • Flash bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV)
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
    • Function button (Face detection, preview, live preview, one-touch WB, home focus point, manual focus, RAW quality, test picture, program mode, My Mode, off) - define what this button does
    • Drive button (Drive, AF area, AF mode, white balance, metering, ISO) - define what this button does
    • My Mode setup (My Mode 1, 2) - save your favorite camera settings here
    • Button timer (Off, 3, 5, 8 sec, hold) - how long the "direct buttons" are active
    • AE/AF lock <--> Function swap (on/off) - swap the functions of these two buttons
    • Arrow pad lock (on/off) - keeps you from accidentally changing settings with the four-way controller
  • Release/Continuous
    • Release priority S (on/off) - whether focus lock is required for shutter release
    • Release priority C (on/off) - same as above, but for continuous AF mode
  • Display/Sound/PC
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Sleep (Off, 1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
    • Backlit LCD (8 sec, 30 sec, 1 min, hold)
    • 4 hour timer (Off, 4 hr) - turns off camera after 4 hours
    • 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
    • EV step (1/3, 1/2, 1 EV)
    • 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
    • X-sync (1/60 - 1/180 sec)
    • Slow limit (1/30 - 1/180 sec)
    • 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)
    • Shading compensation (on/off) - supposed to help reduce vignetting
    • 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
    • Quick erase (on/off) - whether camera prompts you to delete a photo
    • RAW+JPEG erase (JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG) - what's removed when you delete a RAW+JPEG photo
    • File name (Auto, reset)
    • Priority set (No, yes) - initial position of the cursor when All Erase or Card Format is selected
    • 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
    • Scene mode swap (Sport/Night Portrait, underwater wide/macro) - swap these spots on the mode dial

Custom Menu 2
  • Date/time (set)
  • CF/xD - choose which card slot to use
  • Edit filename - modify the file naming system a bit
    • AdobeRGB (Off, A-Z, 0-9)
    • sRGB (Off, A-Z, 0-9)
  • 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

Picture Mode menu Editing the custom picture mode

There's plenty to talk about here, and I'll start with the E-520's Picture Modes. 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 a monotone mode. There you can apply virtual color filters, or add a color tint to the image. Finally, a custom option lets you select a Picture Mode as a starting point, and you can then adjust the settings I just mentioned, plus the gradation, which I'll cover below.

The gradation feature takes advantage of Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology. The normal option is your standard automatic contrast feature. Auto gradation breaks the image down into smaller segments, and adjusts the contrast for each of those areas. This should result in more shadow detail. You can also use the high and low key options for subjects that are mostly highlighted and shadowed, respectively.

Normal gradation
View Full Size Image
Auto gradation
View Full Size Image

If you flip between the two images above, you can see what auto gradation does to your photos. It's a nice improvement, but keep in mind that it will increase visible noise, especially at higher ISOs where that's already an issue.

There are numerous white balance options available on the E-520. First, you've got the usual presets, and each of those can be tweaked in the amber/blue or green/magenta directions. The camera can also store up to four sets of custom white balance settings, which you set by taking a photo of a white or gray card. You must set the Function button to One-touch WB first, though. I don't know why Olympus (and Nikon, for that matter) makes this so difficult. You can also set the color temperature, with an available range of 2000K - 14000K.

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.

The E-520 has three types of bracketing, covering exposure, flash exposure, and white balance. In each of those situations, the camera takes three shots in a row, with each one having a different exposure or white balance value. Seeing how I had a lot of trouble with exposure on the E-520, bracketing for exposure is probably a good idea.

Alright, enough about menus -- let's move onto photo quality now! With the exception of the night test shot, all of these were taken with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens.

The E-520 did a very nice job with our standard macro test shot. The camera produced a photo with bright and saturated color, with the "smooth" look that is a trademark of digital SLRs. I don't see any evidence of noise or noise reduction artifacting here, which is always good news.

How close you can get to your subject depends on what lens you're using. The 14 - 42 mm kit lens has a minimum focus distance of 25 cm. If you do a lot of close-up work, you might be interested in the two dedicated macro lenses from Olympus. One is an F3.5, 35 mm lens with a 15 cm minimum focus distance, while the other is a fast F2.0, 50 mm model that has a 24 cm distance.

The night shot turned out fairly well. I initially took this shot with the Olympus 70 - 300 mm lens, and wasn't pleased with the results (the photo was quite soft). I went out the night and used my trusty Olympus F3.5-4.5, 40 - 150 mm lens, and got a sharper photo. The photo is a little darker than I would've liked, but the slower shutter speeds resulted in more highlight clipping than is already there. There really isn't any noise to speak of here, and purple fringing was not a problem.

I have two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you see above. Here we go, starting at ISO 100 and going to ISO 1600:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

There's not a whole lot of difference between the first two shots. At ISO 400 we start to see noise creep in, though it shouldn't keep you from making a midsize or perhaps even large-sized print. Things start to go downhill at ISO 800, with noticeable detail loss from noise and noise reduction. Things get even worse at ISO 1600, and there's some slight horizontal banding, as well. It's worth turning the noise filter down to "low" when shooting at high ISOs, which gets rid of some of the "smudging" from noise reduction, though you'll get quite a bit of noise in return.

Speaking of RAW, I wanted to show you the effect of shooting RAW in low light situations. The first lesson is: don't use Olympus Master to convert your RAW photos! If you have Photoshop CS3 or above, make sure you have the latest version of the Camera Raw plug-in, and use that instead. You'll see why below (and you might want to open these side-by-side to compare them):


ISO 1600, JPEG

ISO 1600, RAW->JPEG, Olympus Master, no changes

ISO 1600, RAW->JPEG, Olympus Master, noise filter set to low

ISO 1600, RAW->JPEG, Adobe Camera Raw, no changes

All three of these crops came from the same RAW+JPEG photo. The first one is the JPEG, straight out of the camera. As I said above, it's noisy, with detail loss and banding. If you use Olympus Master to convert the image to a JPEG without changing any settings, the result is about the same -- blah. If you must use Olympus Master to process RAW images, turn the noise filter to "low" -- you can see above that it brings back some detail. The last crop is from the image processed with Adobe Photoshop -- it has better dynamic range (look at the lights in the building, and the "US Bank" sign) and more pleasing color, in my opinion.

I'll take a look at how the E-520 did in better lighting in a moment.

I never expect to see redeye on a digital SLR and, what do you know, there isn't any. If you do encounter this annoyance, you can remove it using a tool in the camera's playback mode.

There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 14 - 42 mm kit lens. The lens has good sharpness across the frame, even in the corner. Vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem, either.

Alright, here's the studio ISO test for your reading pleasure. This one is comparable with other cameras I've reviewed recently, so now's the time to load up some of my other reviews. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the image quality at each ISO setting, viewing the full-size images is strongly recommended.


ISO 100

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 1600, low noise filter

ISO 1600, noise filter off

ISO 1600, RAW->JPEG conversion (ACR)

Everything looks great through ISO 400. At ISO 800 things soften up slightly and there's a bit more noise, but still, very clean. The ISO 1600 isn't so hot -- it's soft, with muddy details -- not what I like to see on a D-SLR. If you want to get back some of that detail you're going to either have to shoot RAW, or turn down the noise filter a notch. Above are crops of the test scene with the noise filter both off and at the low setting, plus a RAW->JPEG conversion. I ran the low noise filter shot through NeatImage and applied a little Unsharp Mask, and you can see the results here. Much nicer, if I do say so myself.

Overall, the E-520's photo quality was very good, though there are some areas in which it can improve. Exposure was generally good, though the camera seemed to overexpose by about 1/3 stop fairly often. The camera clipped highlights more than I would've liked, as well (see the columns here and here, and this tennis player for examples). Color was very pleasing -- it's accurate and vivid. Images are on the soft side, though you can turn up the in-camera sharpening or shoot RAW to improve that. The E-520 didn't have any problems with purple fringing.

Noise isn't the E-520's strong suit. At low ISOs, everything's fine, though I think this leads to the aforementioned photo softness. At higher ISOs you start to see noise reduction kick in (as shown in the tests above), so turning the noise filter down (or, again, shooting RAW) might be a good idea. I shot literally hundreds of tennis photos at ISO 400 with the noise filter set to "low" and I have to say, they were pretty noisy for a digital SLR. If you're a high ISO shooter, especially one who makes large prints or partakes in "pixel peeping", you might want to consider a camera with better noise performance at high sensitivities.

Don't just take my word for all this. I've got two big photo galleries for you to browse! Check out our standard gallery or the special tennis gallery, and then decide if the E-520's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Only two digital SLRs have movie modes, and the E-520 isn't one of them.

Playback Mode

The E-520 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 everyone's smiling.

Tons 'o thumbnails Calendar view

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 an image, apply shadow adjustment technology (described back in the menu section), remove redeye, crop a photo, or convert it to black and white or sepia. 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.


Side-by-side image viewer

Another nice feature is a side-by-side image viewer. Press the focus point selection button to split the screen, select the image you want for the right half, and then you can compare them easily. When you scroll one image, the other one scrolls with it. Very handy!

Since the E-520 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-520 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

The Olympus E-520 is a solid, full-featured digital SLR and an excellent value. For around $600 you get a camera that has features for both beginners and enthusiasts, good photo quality (in most situations), image stabilization, and responsive performance -- plus one of the better kit lenses on the market. The E-520 does have its flaws, though, including soft images, high ISO performance that's just fair, and the tendency to clip highlights. However, these issues shouldn't be much of a problem for the typical entry-level D-SLR buyer. While I'm not jumping up and down about it, the E-520 is still good enough to earn my recommendation.

The E-520 is a midsize digital SLR made mostly of plastic. Despite that, and its low price, the camera doesn't feel "cheap". The only build quality related item that bugged me was how easy it was to snap the battery door off. Thankfully, it snaps right back into place. The camera is easy to hold thanks to a nice-sized grip, though I wasn't a fan of the cluttered button arrangement. The camera has a standard FourThirds lens mount, and it supports all Zuiko digital lenses with a 2X focal length conversion factor. Since the E-520 has a sensor-shift image stabilization system, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. The camera also features Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter, to help remove unsightly dust from the sensor.

On the back of the camera you'll find a 2.7" LCD display that can be used for live view, in addition to menu navigation and reviewing photos you've taken. The live view feature is decent, but it's been done better. It supports contrast detect autofocus on certain FourThirds lenses, but it's very slow. Face detection is available, but it didn't perform well in our tests. Visibility is just okay in bright outdoor light, but better in low light (even if it is in black and white). If you're using the E-520's viewfinder (which is the smallest of any digital SLR), the LCD turns into an information display, and you can quickly change most of the camera's settings at the push of a button.

The E-520 has a surprising number of automatic controls for a digital SLR, but don't worry enthusiasts, your manual controls are here too. For beginners there's an auto shoot mode, plus many scene modes. The Perfect Shot Preview option (only available when using live view) shows you the effect of changing exposure compensation or white balance in real time. You can also use a "gradation" feature to brighten dark areas of your photos, though be warned, it can bring out a lot of noise in your photos. Manual controls include the usual exposure controls, white balance that can be set by color temperature and fine-tuned, and numerous bracketing options. You can shoot RAW images, either alone or with a JPEG of the size of your choosing. The included RAW editor is capable, though Adobe Photoshop does a better job converting the images, in my opinion. Naturally, the E-520 allows you to attach an external flash via its hot shoe, and it also supports wireless flashes right out of the box, which isn't common budget D-SLRs.

In nearly all respects, the E-520 is a quick performer. The runs its dust reduction cycle when you turn it on, so it takes around a second to prepare for shooting (which is a bit slower than some D-SLRs). Focusing times are very quick when you're shooting with the viewfinder, even in low light (assuming that you're using the flash as an AF-assist lamp). If you're using live view with Imager (contrast detect AF), be prepared for focus times that can be 2-3 seconds long. Even if you use the "traditional" focusing method in live view mode (which requires some mirror-flipping), shooting with the viewfinder will always be the fastest way to go. Shutter lag isn't a problem, except if you're using one of the live view modes that requires the mirror to do its thing. Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, regardless of the image quality setting, or whether you're using the flash. The E-520's continuous shooting mode allows you to take 10 RAW or an unlimited number of JPEGs at around 3.5 frames/second, which is pretty nice for an entry-level D-SLR. The camera has above average battery life, though it loses points with me for not supporting an AC adapter or a battery grip.

While good overall, the E-520's photo quality could be a bit better. On the positive side, the camera produces photos with accurate, vivid colors and minimal purple fringing. Redeye wasn't a problem, either. Exposure was a mixed bag: the E-520 had a slight tendency to overexpose, and it also clips highlights more than I would've liked. Photos are on the soft side, and when the ISO rises, noise reduction just makes things worse. Turning down the noise filter helps get some detail back, but you get some pretty noisy photos in return, even as low as ISO 400. At the highest ISO settings, you may also encounter horizontal banding in your photos. Personally, I would bump up the in-camera sharpening for my low ISO shots, and shoot RAW at high ISOs in order to get the most out of the E-520. For the average shooter, I don't think these issues are a big deal. If you make large prints, view images at 100% on your computer screen, or shoot at high sensitivities frequently, you may want to consider a camera that performs better at high ISO settings.

Two last things to mention before I wrap things up. First, when you're shooting with the viewfinder, there are only three focus points, which seems a little outdated in the year 2008. Second, while the manual mentions all of the E-520's features, it does so with very little detail.

All things considered, the Olympus E-520 is a good, but not spectacular digital SLR. Whether you're a first-time D-SLR buyer or someone moving up from an older model, it offers excellent value for your money. I can certainly recommend the E-520, though I'd take a close look at the competition before you buy anything.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Good value for the money; doesn't feel "cheap"
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • 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
  • Impressive continuous shooting mode for an entry-level SLR
  • Handy Perfect Shot Preview feature
  • Lots of scene modes for a D-SLR
  • Redeye not a problem, though a removal tool is available just in case
  • Good quality kit lens
  • Support for wireless flashes right out of the box
  • Above average battery life

What I didn't care for:

  • Photos on the soft side, especially at high ISOs
  • Images are noisy when noise filter is lowered; banding at highest sensitivities
  • Tends to clip highlights easily; occasional overexposure
  • Small optical viewfinder
  • Slow contrast detect AF, unimpressive face detection in live view mode; both features only available with a select few lenses
  • Only 3 focus points when shooting with viewfinder
  • No AC adapter or battery grip available
  • Manual could be more detailed

Some other entry-level D-SLRs to consider include the Canon EOS Rebel XSi, Nikon D60, Panasonic Lumix DMC-L10, Pentax K200D, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A300.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the E-520 and its competitors before you buy!

[Conclusion updated 9/26/08]

Photo Gallery

You want photos? I've got plenty! Check out our standard and tennis galleries for lots of samples.

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.