Olympus E-520 Digital SLR Camera
At a Glance
A good value for the price, but a few more bucks buys you better performance in low light
The Olympus E-520 digital SLR camera evolved from its predecessor, the Evolt E-510--but only just. Olympus has added a larger, more ergonomic grip, for one; the company has also increased the size of the LCD to 2.7 inches (from 2.5 inches), added a bigger battery and image stabilization, and tossed in some additional in-camera features to round out the package. The E-520 sells for $700 (price as of 11/15/08) with its sharp 14mm-to-42mm lens (the body-only price is $600).
The 10-megapixel E-520 uses the Four Thirds System for the lens mount and the sensor design. The system's sensor effectively doubles the length of your lenses. This means you can get an incredible 600mm telephoto from a 300mm lens without any added bulk (often, a 600mm lens is roughly the same size as an elephant gun and requires its own tripod).
The E-520 is light, and the new grip has made the camera extremely portable and comfortable to carry in the hand. The camera's advanced settings required quite a bit of digging, but they became easier to access after a little dedicated manual study. It has a high degree of customization, including several RAW+JPEG settings, white balance, noise-control levels, spot metering, and wireless flash controls. Unfortunately, the only way to view those settings is through the menu on the rear LCD; unlike some of its peers, the E-520 lacks a small LCD on its top for reading settings.
The E-520 also incorporates some entry-level features appropriate for SLR beginners. The large, easy-to-read dial at the top includes scene selections that are clearly labeled: portrait, landscape, macro, sports, and night portrait. You can also go with shutter or aperture priority mode, as well as auto or manual mode. The back of the camera has buttons dedicated to ISO, white balance, and exposure/focus lock.
The camera's Low Key and High Key settings, accessed through the menu, have their place and function reasonably well, but in my tests they worked best outdoors. The High Key setting is meant for scenes that are bright overall, such as a beach or snow environment, or other scenes where most of the subjects are light in color or well lit. The Low Key setting, similarly, is for scenes that feature predominantly dark items. I found that both settings brought out additional midtone detail and kept extreme darks and lights from going flat.
This model received an overall image-quality score of Very Good in the PC World Test Center's digital camera tests, although many competitors outscored the E-520, particularly on our exposure tests.
In my field tests, the camera sometimes took incredible shots, especially outdoors, at low ISOs (400 and below). The E-520 cranked out saturated but not unnatural-looking landscapes. Its autofocus was quick and accurate. Some of my RAW and JPEG images taken outdoors were incredibly sharp, some of the sharpest (yet not oversharpened) pictures I've ever seen from a camera in this class. Regrettably, the image quality falls off dramatically at higher ISOs, and the performance of the live-view screen also declines, losing saturation and sharpness.
Indoor shots taken above ISO 400 were often muddy and sometimes showed banding in darker areas of the scene. In low light, I also discovered that, even with the AF assist lamp, the lens hunted--and hunted--for focus.
Some cameras in this class are still priced quite a bit higher, and do some things better--such as handling noise at higher ISOs--but as an entry-level DSLR, the Olympus E-520 offers decent performance and consistently good results with outdoor shooting. It gives novices lots of features to grow into, as well.