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Olympus E-520 Gordon Laing, June 2008
 
 

Olympus E-520 verdict

The Olympus E-520 is the successor to one of the most popular DSLRs of the past year. With the earlier E-510, Olympus packed 10 Megapixel resolution, image stabilisation, live view, effective anti-dust and a broad array of controls and customisation into a compact, affordable body; the kit lens was pretty good too. Subsequent discounting saw the E-510 with a decent twin lens bundle fall to the price of many rivals with only one lens, and become a justified best-seller.

The new E-520 doesn’t mess too much with a winning formula. Indeed it follows an almost identical approach taken with the recent E-420. So externally the screen has been slightly enlarged to a 2.7in model with superior colour and tonal reproduction, and the labelling changed from green to a blue colour that’s more easily visible by those with colour blindness.



 





It’s also good to see Olympus extending the focus points to 11 in Imager AF mode and supporting face detection, which along with Shadow Adjustment Technology can ensure strongly backlit portraits rarely need manual intervention.

The Imager AF mode currently only works with three Olympus lenses, but the new Hybrid mode works with any lens and uses the contrast technology to get the focus pretty close without interrupting the view, meaning the traditional AF sensor has little work to do once the picture is actually taken.

All Live View modes on the E-520 also offer exposure compensation, white balance and depth of field previews, while additionally delivering 100% coverage, a choice of alignment grids, a live histogram and useful magnified manual focus capabilities. It’s a decent implementation.

Olympus has also updated the Image Stabilisation system with a new mode. The earlier E-510 could already disable stabilisation in the x-axis for horizontal panning, but the E-520 now offers an additional mode which disables the y-axis for horizontal panning with the camera held vertically. We’re not sure how many times you’ll use it, but it’s a considerate feature to add.

Like the E-420, the continuous shooting speed has also received a small boost from 3 to 3.5fps, and the E-520 manages to deliver close to that figure, taking it beyond the 3fps of most entry-level bodies. Again like the E-420, the E-520 also inherits a number of advanced options from the flagship E-3 including wireless flash control and a vast array of customisation. And while company’s like Sony are taking them out of its latest Alphas, the E-520 still offers mirror-lockup and optical depth of field previews. The E-520 also inherits the SSWF anti-dust system which remains the most effective of any we’ve tested.

So Olympus has built-upon what was already a feature-packed body with some worthwhile enhancements, but it hasn’t addressed the major concerns facing the earlier E-510: primarily the small viewfinder and basic 3-point AF system.

The new 11-point AF system in Live View may be able to better lock onto subjects around the frame, but since the Imager AF mode is relatively slow in operation and continuous AF not possible in the E-520’s Live View, it’s not going to help those who shoot action. Instead it’ll be back to the optical viewfinder and basic 3-point AF system of its predecessor.

And speaking of the viewfinder, the E-520, like its predecessor offers a smaller view than most DSLRs, although it should be said Sony’s A300 and A350 are no better. If you’re used to a decent DSLR viewfinder though, you’ll find the view through these models can resemble peering down a tunnel.

It’s also revealing Olympus hasn’t boosted the resolution of the E-520. It may sport a new sensor which Olympus says offers a similar dynamic range to the flagship E-3, but anyone hoping for more Megapixels will be disappointed.

So before our final verdict, how does the new E-520 compare against key rivals?

Compared to Olympus E-510

 
Olympus E-510
 
 

The popular E-510 ticked all the right boxes when it was launched last year: 10 Megapixels, Live View and built-in anti-shake which worked with any lens you attached. Indeed there was little it didn’t have. The new E-520 has the same body and resolution, but adds a slightly bigger screen, contrast-based AF in Live View with Face Detection, slightly quicker continuous shooting, a new IS mode, improved dynamic range and live previews of several adjustments. You also now get the option of an underwater housing, which sadly isn't compatible with the E-510.

They’re nice features to have, but only minor enhancements, so existing E-510 owners looking for a significant upgrade will be better-served by the flagship E-3. Potential E-520 buyers should also keep an eye on E-510 prices as this model is gradually phased out. The new features of the E-520 are certainly worthwhile, but most of the core specifications remain the same, so if you can find a bargain-priced E-510, you’ll still have yourself a great compact DSLR. See our Olympus E-510 review for more details.


Compared to Olympus E-420

 
Olympus E-420
 

The Olympus E-420 shares most of the E-520’s new features, including contrast-based AF, a 2.7in screen, improved dynamic range, 3.5fps continuous shooting and live previews of several adjustments. It also employs the same sensor and image processor, so the quality is essentially identical.

The major differences between it and the E-420 remain the same as both predecessors: the E-520 boasts built-in stabilisation, while the E-420 boasts smaller size and weight. Interestingly though, this time it's the E-520 which has an optional underwater housing, while the E-420 has to remain above the water.

But underwater housings aside, the main decision between them boils down to choosing between portability or stabilisation. Sadly there aren’t many stabilised lenses available to bring anti-shake to the E-420, so for most people it will be used as a non-stabilised camera. But its key selling point is size – it’s the world’s smallest and lightest DSLR, and eminently portable when coupled with compact lenses like the recent Olympus 25mm pancake model. As an f2.8 lens, this is also sufficiently bright for camera shake to rarely be an issue anyway. For more details, see our Olympus E-420 review.


Compared to Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi

 
Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi
 

Every new budget or mid-range DSLR will be up against Canon’s latest model, the EOS 450D / XSi. Both it and the E-520 feature contrast-based AF and 3.5fps continuous shooting, but in its favour, the Canon boasts two extra Megapixels, a bigger 3in screen, 14-bit image processing, a bigger viewfinder, and PC remote control software which includes a live on-screen preview.

While the Canon 450D / XSi is now bundled with a stabilised kit lens, the E-520’s key selling point is having built-in stabilisation which works with any lens you attach. The E-520's anti-dust is also very effective, although in our tests the Canon actually performed well in this regard. Crucially, the E-520 worked out cheaper at the time of writing, but keep an eye on prices in the future.

After comparing features, much will boil down to which looks and feels better to you in person, so as always, be sure to check out all your shortlisted DSLRs in person before buying. Check out our Canon EOS 450D / XSi review for full details.


Compared to Sony Alpha DSLR-A300

 
Sony Alpha DSLR A300
 
 

Sony’s middle model in its latest Alpha range is priced roughly the same as the E-520. Both cameras share 10 Megapixel resolution, built-in stabilisation which works with any lens and small optical viewfinders, but take different approaches to Live View.

The A300 (and A350) employ a secondary sensor in their viewfinders to deliver the live video feed. This allows the Sonys to use the same quick AF system as you would normally with the optical viewfinder – and it’s a more sophisticated 9-point system. Additionally, the A300 (and A350) sport vertically tilting monitors which allow you to more easily compose at high or low angles.

On the downside, the A300’s Live View is not as accurate as the E-520, and the Olympus also boasts slightly faster continuous shooting, more effective dust reduction, greater customisation, mirror lockup and depth of field previews. Many will however fall for the Sony's tilting screen and quick, fuss-free Live View implementation. See our Sony Alpha DSLR-A300 review for more details.


Also consider...

There's only so much room we have here for comparisons, but also consider Nikon D60 and the Pentax K200D.

Olympus E-520 final verdict

With the E-520, Olympus has added a broad array of enhancements to what was already a feature-packed camera. So on top of a DSLR which offered built-in stabilisation, live view and effective anti-dust, you now also get faster continuous shooting, a slightly bigger screen, contrast-based AF with face detection, a new IS mode, improved dynamic range and live previews of several adjustments. A surprise bonus is also the optional underwater housing.


So a DSLR which was already good has just got better, but Olympus hasn’t actually addressed any of the bigger concerns which faced the earlier E-510. The viewfinder remains smaller than most DSLRs and the main AF remains a fairly basic 3-point system. It’s also revealing while companies like Canon have boosted the resolution of models like the EOS 450D / XSi, Olympus has remained static on the Megapixel front. To be fair, 10 Megapixels is sufficient for most of us, but it does beg the question whether we’re at the acceptable quality limit offered by the Four Thirds sensor size. Certainly we found there’s already less latitude for retrieving blown highlight detail than some rival models.

So with the core specifications remaining essentially the same as its predecessor, there’s no compelling reason for E-510 owners to upgrade. Existing owners with money to spend should either consider the significant upgrade to the flagship E-3, or investing in additional lenses, such as the excellent Zuiko Digital 12-60mm or the 25mm pancake.

If you’re shopping for your first DSLR though or upgrading from an older model, the E-520 makes a great choice. It may not feature 12 or 14 Megapixels, but still records a decent degree of detail and as our outdoor comparisons illustrate, you’d be hard pushed telling much difference between it and the Canon 450D / XSi.

Unless you regularly switch between other DSLRs, you also get used to the E-520’s small viewfinder and it’s important to note the Sony A300 and A350 are no better in this regard. As for the AF system, 3-points may not be great for tracking off-centre subjects, but it’s fine for general use and certainly not put off an army of E-510 owners or those who went for the Nikon D40, D40x or D60.

So while it’s disappointing Olympus hasn’t made any major changes, like boosting the resolution, improving the AF system, enlarging the viewfinder, or fitting a flip-out screen, it’s testament to the earlier E-510’s specs that by making a few small enhancements, the E-520 remains a serious contender. Indeed while the competition now offers some key features you should carefully weigh-up, we can still confidently award the E-520 the Highly Recommended rating of its predecessor. If you’re shopping for a new DSLR at this price-point, it should be on your shortlist.

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Good points

Built-in stabilisation which works with any lens.
Very effective anti-dust system.
Live View with contrast AF and face detection.
Quick handling and broad customisation.

Bad points
Smaller viewfinder than rivals.
Can't see stabilisation in optical viewfinder.
Relatively basic 3-point AF system.
Screen doesn't flip-out.



Scores

(compared to 2008 budget DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

17 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20

87%


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All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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