Aimed at novices and enthusiasts alike, the compact but versatile Olympus E-510 is one of the smallest and highly featured DSLRs available
“Unlike the majority of rivals at this price, the Olympus E-510 has an unexpectedly high number of shooting modes and, perhaps more importantly, a wealth of customisable options”
Building on the success of the manufacturer’s diminutive E-410, with its handy Live View features and 10-megapixel Live MOS sensor, the mid-range Olympus E-510 adds image stabilisation (IS) and an improved user interface with a raft of customisable options.
The built-in anti-shake system is a real plus and means any lens fitted to the E-510 – including third party offerings – becomes image stabilised. Although rivals such as Nikon or Canon have introduced a couple of budget offerings, there’s still the potential to make big savings on some of the more specialist lenses.
Other highlights for the E-510 include extensive image bracketing options for exposure, white-balance, and flash, burst shooting at 3.3fps for up to eight RAW files or unlimited HQ JPEGs with fast media and a full information viewfinder.
Although we really liked the handling of the tiny E-410, the new model has a large right-hand grip that makes it feel more comfortable to use over longer periods. And at 505g for the body, although it weighs around the same as rival Canon’s popular EOS 400D, it still manages to feel more compact.
Some savings in weight over the so-called semi-pro models with alloy outers, such as Olympus’s own E-3 and Canon’s EOS 40D,come from the choice of plastic outer shell. But it’s a high quality cladding and, over our test period at least, seemed pretty durable.
Thankfully, the Olympus E-510 discards the dark-looking viewfinder image of earlier models and is as bright and possibly clearer than its peers, but with the cropped 4:3 image format, it’s still small by comparison.
Like the other brands competing at this level, the bundled 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) kit zoom is cheaply constructed, having a plastic instead of a metal mount and a thin manual focus ring. But it’s a good performer and the small size and low mass complements the E-510’s body very well. If there’s one camera we would recommend for travel snaps, the E-510 is it.
Unlike the majority of rivals at this price, the E-510 has an unexpectedly high number of shooting modes and, perhaps more importantly, a wealth of customisable options.
We like the inclusion of a shooting mode dial on the top-plate for the most commonly used modes, but the rest of the choices, a further 14 scene-based presets, are relegated to the on-screen menu.
Fortunately, there’s a raft of well-placed, clearly labelled buttons for access to day-to-day functions. Image stabilisation can be switched off for tripod use, and comes in two modes. Mode 1 is the default and works well to reduce the wobbles with normal handheld snaps, while Mode 2 will reduce vertical shake while panning.
Although initially set up from the menu, we like the two custom MyModes. These commit various selections to the camera’s memory and are handy for specific settings that you can recall immediately with the Function button on the camera back.
White balance, ISO settings (up to ISO 1600), five metering options including three sophisticated spot metering choices for tricky lighting, AF and drive modes can all be selected from dedicated buttons. Alternatively, you can work the small d-pad to select the same features and more besides from the 2.5-inch data-panel that also serves as the monitor for playback and Live View duties.
A separate button at the rear for Live View isn’t immediately obvious, and can sometimes be triggered accidentally, leading to missed shots. If you’re expecting Live View to be as effective as that found on a compact then you might be disappointed; it’s not.
All DSLRs use a mirror that has to be moved out of the way before exposure, resulting in the LCD blacking out for a second and a half along with a disconcerting series of noises from the mirror and shutter. All of which can be pretty confusing and tardy in operation, but it’s not limited to the E-510, as most models work in a similar way.
That said, for macro and still life there are significant advantages. Maybe not many using the E-510’s simple three-point AF system, but when switching over to manual focus, the option to magnify the user selectable focus point by up to 10x provides excellent focus accuracy.
Tweaking the defaults
From our labs tests, the Olympus E-510 is capable of producing a good set of results, and better still if the default settings are tweaked.
In-camera image processing delivers somewhat soft-looking JPEGs, but turn off the noise filter and the results are sharp and detailed.
The downside is that images can be quite a bit noisier, and, by ISO 800 and at the maximum of ISO 1600, more so than the out-going EOS 400D.
Metering accuracy erred towards slightly darker-looking images in tricky, high contrast lighting, but, disappointingly, even slight (positive) exposure compensation often led to a loss of highlights.
Colour rendition was pretty neutral by default, we preferred to use the Vivid setting and increase saturation for punchy looking JPEGs. Also, some white balance inaccuracies were noticed using indoor lighting, producing more orange-coloured images than rivals.
Fortunately, the majority of these issues can be worked around using RAW capture and a good third-party utility, but not so easily with the bundled Olympus Master 2.0 software.
Ultimately, the E-510 has a lot going for it and recent price reductions only go to make the little Olympus all the more attractive. In many respects, the E-510 is the better featured and better handling camera than the rival Nikon or Canon equivalent. If you’re prepared for the slight learning curve, you’ll be richly rewarded.
Olympus E-510 Info
Typical price: £359 (body only), £399 (with Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens)
Compact and lightweight body
Effective anti-shake and anti-dust systems
Good optical quality from kit lens
Useful Live View option
Fast operation and good handling
Soft-looking JPEGs, with loss of fine detail from aggressive noise reduction
Some exposure and white balance inaccuracies
Easily lost highlight detail
Small, cramped viewfinder
Verdict: Packing handy anti-shake and Live View features, and boasting a new lower price tag, the Olympus E-510 is a serious alternative to the usual Canon or Nikon choices.
Rating: 4 stars
More info: Olympus website
- The shooting mode dial on the E-510’s top plate gives fast access to the most commonly used modes, but you’ll need to access the on-screen menu to select one of the other 14 pre-sets
- The 2 1/2-inch screen on the back of the E-510 combines with the directional pad to host a comprehensive menu system, and doubles up as a viewfinder in Live View mode