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FIRST LOOK: OLYMPUS EVOLT E-500 DSLR
An 8MP digital SLR suits up
By Michael J. McNamara, Popular Photography
Fashions come and go, and no camera company knows that better than Olympus—official sponsor of Manhattan's Fashion Week. The fickle fashion industry may have influenced the company's decision to shelve the flat-top design of the Evolt E-300 ($620 street, body only, reviewed November 2004) and dress its replacement, the new Evolt E-500 DSLR ($699 street, body only) more traditionally. Instead of the side-swivel porro mirror system that helped create the Evolt's signature profile, the E-500 returns to the flip-up mirror and the familiar prism-box hump found on most other SLRs and DSLRs. It also has a more centered optical viewfinder, and a normal pop-up flash and hot-shoe arrangement. But can this new camera compete in a category that already has its share of supermodels?
If size is important to you, the E-500 has an edge. It's billed as one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs, just about the same size and weight as the petite 6MP Pentax *ist DL body. The preproduction E-500 we examined felt light enough to be made out of wood, but in fact there's a die-cast aluminum rear frame for added rigidity, as well as a tough polycarbonate shell. (The E-300 was built far tougher, but it wasn't billed as an entry-level DSLR.) Despite the E-500's small size, we found that even large hands can hold it comfortably thanks to the design of the grip, which has a sticky elastic polymer surface. By comparison, the 8MP Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT is harder for big hands to grip.
As the third DSLR in the Olympus Four Thirds System family, the E-500 is compatible with all of the new Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses and third-party glass designed with a Four Thirds System mount. As a result of the E-500's 22.3mm diagonal, 4:3 ratio CCD, all of those lenses have a 2X 35mm lens factor. There are two E-500 lens kits available. One includes the Zuiko Digital 14–45mm f/3.5–5.6 lens for $799, and the other offers both the 14—45mm and the Zuiko Digital 40–150mm f/3.5–4.5 for $899. That's quite a bargain for an 8MP DSLR and two-zoom lens system.
Button it up
As with the E-300, controls on the E-500 are well arranged, and you can thumb the enlarged main mode dial without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. This dial's 11 settings give you rapid access to manual, program, shutter, and aperture-priority modes, plus six user-adjustable modes (auto, portrait, macro, sports, landscape, and night scene). The 11th brings up a menu on the LCD that lets you choose from 15 more preset modes, including fireworks, candle, low key, and high-key settings (25 shooting modes has got to be a record!). In addition, there are color settings (vivid, natural, and muted), plus Adobe RGB and sRGB color spaces.
The E-500 may be small, but its HyperCrystal LCD is large—2.5 inches. With 214,000-pixel resolution, a wide viewing angle, and a backlight booster that makes it easier to see in bright daylight, the LCD may be reason enough to trade in your E-300 or pass on the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (both have 1.8-inch LCDs). The large screen makes it easy to read the menus and exposure data. In playback, you can also see up to 20 thumbnail photos at a time, or compare zoomed-in details on multiple images simultaneously, helpful for checking details in a burst or exposure-bracket sequence. The screen also has enough space for separate RGB histograms along with an integrated histogram to confirm exposure.
Like the E-300, the E-500 packs a Supersonic Wave Filter Dust Reduction tool that shakes dust off the sensor, an 8.15MP (effective) Frame Transfer CCD Image files can be stored in JPEG, TIFF, RAW, or RAW + JPEG modes at up to 8MP (3264x2448 pixels). It also features a TruePic TURBO image processor engine and many of the same image-quality, white-balance, metering, and exposure controls. With this processor, Olympus expects burst modes of up to 2.5 fps for up to 4 RAW, TIFF, or highest-quality JPEGs, or a continuous burst of 2.5 fps for JPEGs in SQ mode (1:8 compression ratio) when written to a SanDisk Extreme III CF card. That processor also enables in-camera redeye removal, image editing, and several b&w conversion choices. The E-500 has dual media slots for CF Type I/II, Microdrive, and xD-Picture cards. Unfortunately, you can't store images simultaneously on both, but you can copy from one to another.
Circuit training Olympus also says that several internal circuits have been condensed, reducing both size and power consumption—but that happens with nearly every new camera model. The bottom line: despite its larger 2.5-inch LCD, the E-500 should deliver approximately 400 shots per charge depending on flash usage and image review.
The autofocusing engine on the E-500 is very similar to the E-300's, with three selectable AF zones (center area is cross type). However, there are now five AF modes, and you can customize buttons to access your favorites. The pop-up flash includes a focusing-aid light, and the focus-bracketing feature should improve your chances of getting a sharp shot in manual-focus mode. Let's hope it's as fast and sensitive as the E-300's AF system.
The E-500 features a newly developed AE sensor with an active pixel circuit for metering low-intensity light, and integral amplifiers for high-intensity light. This combination should help improve metering performance and accuracy in conjunction with the camera's 49 distinct metering areas.
Metering modes now include Digital ESP metering, centerweighted averaging metering, spotmetering, and what's called Highlight/Shadow basis spotmetering. This setting lets you choose the exposure based on a white subject's exposure value to provide an accurate white image with detail, or on a dark subject's exposure to provide an accurate black image with detail. Both differ from the E-500's 2-percent spotmeter, which always adjusts exposure based on 18 percent gray. Olympus added a green-magenta compensation control in addition to the red-blue compensation found on its other DSLRs, so you can fine-tune your color-space settings in up to 7 steps. (Stay tuned for test results on a production unit.)
Ready to wear The Olympus E-500 may not appeal to every DSLR shooter, especially those who already own a pile of 35mm lenses from another manufacturer. But its big LCD, powerful image-quality controls, and small, lightweight design should keep it in fashion for longer than its predecessor.