I’ve had the Olympus E-420 since last June 2008 and had been a companion to my recent trips to Coron Palawan and Northern Vietnam. This field review is long overdue but I believe that in order to really know a camera, you really have to take some time with it to avoid posting just an impression or a superficial review. On the inside page is my field review of the Olympus E-420 with the 25mm Pancake Lens.
The Olympus E-420 was released March 2008 this year and is currently the lightest and one of the smallest DSLR available. It is positioned as an entry-level camera in the Olympus line of DSLRs. I won’t be delving much on the technical aspects of this camera as there are already a number of reliable reviews online at this time but instead will quickly site what I liked and didn’t like about this camera:
What I liked:
- Compact and light but with very good build quality
- Fast and Responsive Shooting (3.5 fps albeit 3-AF points)
- Advance options and control for an entry level SLR
- Slightly improved Dynamic Range (from previous models)
- Better noise control (Usable up to ISO 800)
- Fully controllable Kelvin Temperature controls for White Balance (2000 – 14000k)
- Live view 7x and 10x magnification with Perfect Shot Preview and Real Time Histogram
- Improved Color Rendition and Contrast
- Varying RAW+JPG Compression settings (JPG can be set to Large Fine, Large Normal, Medium Normal and Small Normal)
- Varied Noise Filter Controls (Off, Low, Standard, High)
- Tried and tested Anti-Dust (Super Sonic Wave Filter)
- Wireless flash capable (3 groups)
- Price vs specs value
What I don’t care for:
- Slightly softer images on default settings (sharpness can be adjusted though in camera settings)
- Live View still a bit slow for real outdoor and street shooting use
- Small viewfinder and only 3 AF Points
- The slight protruding grip may not be for everyone
- Shadow Adjustment Technology (Dynamic Range enhancer good only for lower ISOs)
- Still have a tendency to blow out highlights (but can be lessened on right settings and recoverable on raw)
- Face Detection and 11-AF points on live view only a novelty feature not that usable
- Less stellar battery life (especially when using live view often)
- Fewer Direct Buttons
- No image stabilization (Go for Olympus E520 for IS)
THE PANCAKE LENS
What would be the highlight kit lens that goes with the Olympus E-420 is the 25mm f2.8 Pancake Lens. The word ‘Pancake’ would describe the character of this lens as it is only .9in (24mm) thick, one of the smallest lenses currently available on any mount. It has a metal mount and focus-by-wire 5mm focusing ring at the front. The front barrel does not rotate which is good for fitting in filters (43mm). One major annoyance here though is the metal screw-in cap which would take time to remove and place back. Better find a good snap-in lens cap to replace it. This 25mm ‘prime’ is equivalent to 50mm in 35mm cameras and is considered as a normal/standard lens equivalent to the human eye’s field of vision.
FIELD TESTING THE OLYMPUS E420 WITH 25MM PANCAKE LENS
The Olympus E-420 fitted with the 25mm pancake lens exploits its diminutive size which you could easily take anywhere and even put inside large pockets. I find the Joby Gorrillapod SLR Zoom a good companion with this camera when you just want to travel light. In this series I took some Macro and interiors for indoor shots and some outdoor shooting at a park.
LIVE VIEW AND MACRO SHOOTING
Olympus pioneered Live View on DSLRs and currently it has become a staple feature in new DSLRs to date. The E-420 has the new implementation of live view which I find a lot more easy to use than the former since you only have to half press the shutter to focus using contrast detection. There are currently 3 modes for focusing using live view and the fastest is the Imager AF. Using the new lenses 14-42mm, 40-150mm and the 25mm, your focus points would extend to 11 AF on live view. Hybrid AF works with older lenses but a bit slower and also enables the Face Detection features. The AF Sensor is the old way of focusing.
Honestly I find the 11 AF points and Face Detection a novelty since Live View Shooting is slow with the mirror flipping up and down. Currently the strength of the Live View is for shooting Macro, Stills, Lanscapes and Studio. The 7x to 10x Live preview helps to see if you are focused and go manual mode to focus.
The 25mm Pancake Lens has only moderate Macro capabilities. It can go as close as 5-6 inches and bokeh is pretty nice with its circular blades but not exceptional. Sharpness however is quite good, as expected with any Zuiko Lenses even for a kit lens.
For outdoor shooting I took the E-420 and pancake to Rainforest Park in Pasig where they have strict security of not allowing ‘large’ cameras and tripods in the vicinity. My E-420 happily slipped through the security gates and I was able to shoot there without drawing much attention to the security personnel since the camera looks more like a compact with the pancake lens.
Shooting with the 25mm Pancake lens is a bit of a challenge since you are restricted to one focal length. I remember my first SLR having only a 50mm lens attached to it but I have to make use of that before. It’s actually both fun and a discipline as you have to practice moving closer and farther to get the right composition in the picture.
As for the lens performance, focus speed is pretty good, comparable with the 14-42mm kit lens. Color rendition ,detail capture and sharpness is also very good all throughout with the lens stopped down to f8. Lens flare control is exceptional for a kit lens. Though there is very noticeable Chromatic Aberration going towards the inner frame on some high contrast outdoor shots and negligible barrel distortion on the edges.
ON IMAGE QUALITY
The E-420 all in all delivered really pleasing colors which I really liked from Olympus even much better than their older models which is good. I find working with the camera output files need minimal tweaking and sometimes none on post processing. But I noticed that it has soften slightly from previous model even using their exceptional 12-60mm SWD lens. But this isn’t eally much of a problem to some since you can tweak in camera settings or apply a bit unsharp mask on post process.
There is still tendency to blow up highlights if you’re not careful on metering but again adjusting settings can control this. Since I’m a RAW+JPG shooter, the ORF file has a few stops headroom to recover highlights and shadows as well. And shooting down with -.3 to -.7 EV in high contrast situations help.
ISO performance indeed improved from previous models since ISO 800 is usable but there is some banding on ISO 1600 in the shadows. What I liked about Olympus is the ability to tweak the noise filter settings. On ISO 100-400 I find the Low setting giving much details while at ISO 800-1600 I set it on Standard. High settings tend to smear the details away.
The E420 also has the SAT or Shadow Adjustment Technology which extends the Dynamic Range of the image by lifting shadow details and preserving highlights. This is activated when you set the Gradation to Auto or applying it in-camera to a JPEG or RAW. I only find this usable on lower ISOs like 100-200 since I find the shadows a bit more noisy on higher ISOs. I avoid using it entirely and switch the gradation to Normal since I shoot RAW. Avoid using SAT when shooting long exposures since it will result to a lot of unwanted chroma noise.
With the Olympus E-420, we found Olympus finally delivering on their promise of a small and portable camera with a retro-style design which will truly attract old time shooters in the 80’s. It’s a true go-anywhere cam and fitted with the 25mm pancake lens to make it more portable for everyday shooting. The image quality may not break boundaries but it does deliver very good images which are well saturated, contrast and sharpness but you have to work around some of its weakness such as blowing highlights and extending its dynamic range.
The 25mm Pancake Lens is one of a kind that delivered very good overall sharpness, flare control and of course portability. But expect the Chromatic aberration problem as well which you can correct with the bundled Olympus Master.
On the age where other manufacturers are going for larger and bigger cameras, I appreciate little wonders such as the Olympus E-420 where you don’t have to be burdened by carrying heavy equipments to enjoy shooting and delivering DSLR quality images. The more I use the camera I find it more enjoyable since I can bring it most of the time. The slight protruding grip may take some getting used to but the rubber pads on the front and thumb pad on the back helps. The controls and specs are also noteworthy since its surprising to see mid-range DSLR controls like manual kelvin temperature controls for white balance, spot metering and wireless flash control on an entry level camera. The E420 is not only fun to use but is a good value for your money.
Whose this camera is for:
- Those who are looking for a light and portable camera system ideal for travel
- Those who are moving from compact cameras wanting to go into DSLR territory
- Those who wants a secondary light camera to go with their main camera system
- Macro and Studio shooters
This camera is not for:
- High ISO/ Low Light handheld shooting (go for it’s big brother the Olympus E-520 with Image Stabilization to compensate)
- High Sports shooting
- those looking for a sophisticated and fast AF metering system
Standard Retail Prices:
+ Php 38,995.00 (E-420 with 14-42mm and 40-150mm (28-300mm Equivalent) Kit)
+ Php 32,995.00 (E-420 with 14-42mm Kit)
+ Php 36,995.00 (E-420 with 25mm Pancake Lens)
+ Php 13,995.00 (25mm f2.8 Pancake Lens)
Competitive Set: Canon EOS XS(1000D)/400D, Nikon D40x/D60, Pentax K-m (K2000D), Sony A200/A300
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.