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DSLR Review: Olympus E-520
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DSLR Review: Olympus E-520

Affordable Pro Quality Digital SLR

A sweet spot for photo enthusiasts?


The 10MP E-520 is slotted in Olympus’ product line between the compact and inexpensive E-420 and the pro-level E-3. It shares the compact size—but it’s not quite as small—as the E-420, along with some of the key features, such as Image Stabilization, found in the E-3, making it the perfect ‘tween digital SLR for the photographer who wants pro quality features in a smaller, more affordable ($599.99) package.

Olympus E-520: Front view

Top view

Back view

Key features:
  • 10.1-megapixel image quality
  • Built-in Image Stabilization
  • Shadow Adjustment Technology
  • Face Detection Technology
  • Sensor Dust Reduction technology
  • Live View
  • 2.7-inch LCD screen
  • All-digital lens system
Camera options: Best suited for:
  • Sports photography
  • Low and available light (ISO 100 - 1600)
  • Wedding photography
  • Photojournalism
  • Portraiture
  • Landscapes
  • Close-up photography
Price: In the body

Built-in Image Stabilization compensates for camera movement so your images will be sharp and blur-free even at slow shutter speeds when used with any of Olympus’ thirty digital specific lenses. For the E-520, image stabilization is available in three modes plus “off” for those occasions when you want to mount the camera on a tripod. Mode 1 turns on “normal” mode and is the position you’ll use most of the time.

Tip: Set Image Stabilization in Mode 1 (“on”) when using a monopod. Mode 2 is designed for panning in a horizontal direction such as when photographing a racecar or any fast subject passing right to left or left to right. Mode 3 is used for vertical panning situations. I can’t think of one offhand—maybe ladder climbing contests?—but it shows the kind of engineering that goes into Olympus SLRs.

“Burst” mode: The E-520 offers 20 preset Scene modes for seemingly every imaginable shooting scenario from underwater photography to fireworks. Here Mary Farace mounted an Olympus E-520 on a Monostat monopod and set the camera’s Image Stabilization to Mode 1 for this photograph using the camera’s Fireworks mode. Exposure was automatically set at four seconds at f/11 and ISO 100. The photograph was captured using the Olympus Digital Zuiko 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens at 158mm. ©2008 Joe Farace

Face Detection Technology targets and locks onto faces to ensure they are in focus for blur-free portraits. Face Detection is candid and street photography friendly and distinguishes between people’s faces and the background. It can track up to eight faces within the image area while automatically focusing and optimizing exposure for portraiture. Shooting scenes with shadows can be tricky because of the contrast between dark and bright areas but the E-420’s Shadow Adjustment Technology compensates for contrast when shadow areas are underexposed and lack detail.

All work and no photography makes Jack a dull boy: Shadow adjustment even works in shots like this where I’m in the shade of a pine tree that would otherwise appear quite dark, while photographing the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. Yes, that’s the hotel in Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” and I drove there using the same roads that appear in the opening of the Stanley Kubrick thriller. Exposure in Aperture Priority mode was 1/200 at f/11 and ISO 200 using the amazingly sharp Olympus Zuiko Digital l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. ©2008 Joe Farace

Like all Olympus models since the E-330, the E-520 offers Live View and features a large, bright 2.7-inch LCD screen. Unlike other approaches to live view in SLRs, such as Canon’s, Olympus’s Live View is easy to use. Yes, Canon’s method is faster (less lag time) because it makes you put the camera into manual focus mode but photographers I’ve talked too, including some pros, prefer to keep Live View in AF mode even if it’s currently slower.

The big upside when using Live View under tricky lighting conditions is that it enables photographers to view and select the appropriate white balance and exposure compensation effects in real time on the LCD so you can immediately see how the image will look before capturing it. In the not-so-distant future I predict all digital SLRs will offer Live View.

In the field

The E-520 body is compact, measuring 5.35 x 3.6 x 2.68 inches, and weighs just 16.75 ounces. The camera uses a penta-mirror design that makes it light and compact enough to shoot with all day and features a comfortable ergonomic grip to ensure that the camera fits snugly in either large or small hands. Its ergonomics were an excellent fit for both Mary (small hands) and I (medium-sized paws.) The E-520’s small size and high image quality make it a natural for travel photography when a larger more professionally-sized SLR might intimidate any of the locals you want to photograph.

The 10.1 megapixel E-520’s TruePic III Image Processor produces crystal-clear photos using all of the pixel information for each image to provide digital image files with accurate color, true-to-life skin tones, and brilliant blue skies. Olympus claims that TruePic III also lowers image noise by one stop to reduce graininess for images shot at higher ISO settings. A small chip such as the E520’s 17.3 x 13.0 mm Four-Thirds system sensor is technically more prone to noise under low light situations and long exposures, but the TruePic III processor does such a good job controlling noise so it’s not really an issue except under extreme conditions.

The E-520 outfit includes a compact Zuiko Digital ED 14–42 mm (28-84mm equivalent) f/3.5–f5.6 lens that perfectly matches the imager so light directly strikes the sensor to ensure accurate colors and edge-to-edge sharpness. The lens weighs 7.5 ounces, uses ED glass, and covers the range most frequently used in everyday photography. Close-ups as near as 9.84 inches also are possible throughout the zoom range. The lens is so sharp that when magnifying images I made of hot rods to extremely large sizes on my monitor I could see the sharply outlined shapes of the metallic content of the paint.

Up close: Unlike the macro modes in point and shoot cameras that change the close-focusing capabilities of the camera, the E-520’s Macro scene mode produces optimal exposure settings for images such as this that were captured with the Zuiko Digital l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Exposure was 1/80 sec at f/8 and ISO 400. ©2008 Mary Farace

The E-520 uses Olympus’ Dust Reduction System to produce spot-free photos with a Supersonic Wave Filter that vibrates the imaging sensor to remove dust and other particles from the front of the sensor and capture it on an adhesive membrane every time the camera is turned on. Even though I schlepped the E-520 all over Colorado, many times under dusty conditions, I never had to spend any time later dust spotting image files using Photoshop. The system just works.

Wheely good: This water wheel on the Fall River in Estes Park Colorado was captured by the E-520 using the versatile Zuiko Digital l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Exposure was 1/60 at f/11 and ISO 200 in Aperture Priority mode and I even fired the pop-up flash to illuminate the inside of the wheel. The Four-Thirds system produces an image ratio that’s fine tuned to 4x5 and 8x10 prints but can be easily cropped into 2:3 aspect ratio for 4x6 prints. This particular image was cropped into a 2:3 aspect ratio mainly because there were some people in brightly colored clothes in the park area to the left of the frame. ©2008 Joe Farace

Like the E-3, the E-520 is compatible with Olympus’ FL-50R and FL-36R wireless electronic flashes that, like the lens system, are designed specifically for digital photography. The E-520 can control up to three wireless flash groups independently, with multiple flash units in each group and while the FL-50R is not inexpensive ($379.95 with rebate) a pair of the smaller FL-36R models ($174.95 with rebate) might be an option to consider if you want to do outdoor portraits of high school seniors or kids.

The E-520 lacks a traditional flash synch connection but that shouldn’t keep you from using it with studio lights. You can use a hot shoe to PC adapter to connect the synch cord from the camera to main light but because of the high voltages across the tip of a synch cord, using a cheapo adapter can fry the electronics inside your digicam. It’s a good idea to use one that, like Booth Photo’s High Voltage Safe Hot Shoe Adapter, only allows only three volts to make contact with the camera’s flash synch circuit.

Most Olympus digital SLRs that I’ve tested over the years have had some sort of infrared sensitivity and the E-520 is no exception. I tested the camera using Hoya’s Infrared R72 and Singh-Ray’s I-Ray infrared filters and both performed well, but because the I-Ray allows no visible light to pass through longer shutter speeds are required (ten seconds at ISO 400 versus 3.2 seconds with the Hoya) producing some but not excessively higher noise levels. The upside is that the infrared effect was much more dramatic when using the Singh Ray filter--and you can compose in the LCD using Live View even though the optical finder is blacked out.

IRresistable: The reference image on the left was captured in the E-520’s Vivid color mode with an exposure of 1/500 sec at f/10 and ISO 400 using the Zuiko Digital l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The infrared photograph on the right was made using the camera’s black-and-white Monotone mode with a Singh-Ray I-Ray filter screwed into the lens’ 58mm threads. Exposure was 3.2 seconds at f/5.6 and ISO 400 on the Bogen-Manfrotto tripod mounted camera. Image stabilization was turned off for maximum image sharpness. ©2008 Joe Farace

Usually when I test digital cameras I have something to kvetch about but the Olympus E-520 is like a golden retriever puppy: It’s just too cute and fun to be around. Sure I have a few a small quibbles but this is the best all around consumer digital SLR Olympus has ever produced and goes toe-to-toe and dollar-for-dollar with similar cameras from Canon, Nikon, or Sony. While the E-520 successfully combines features from the pro-level E-3 with the smaller E-420 it also adds a few features of it’s own for some additional “BAM!

Joe Farace is the author of “Getting Started in Digital Imaging” published by Focal Press (ISBN 024080838X.) It’s available in all the best bookstores as well as



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