For shutterbugs upgrading from a point-and-shoot, the Olympus Evolt E-520's manual controls and continuous shooting options will feel like an improvement. But despite this camera's large LCD and professional feel, even in this budget category it's possible to find faster cameras that take sharper, more vibrant pictures.
Design and Interface
Compared with the Canon EOS Rebel XS andNikon D40, the E-520 has a boxy shape: it's longer, taller, and more rectangular than either. At 1.6 pounds with the included lens it's also the heaviest, but advanced shooters might take its solid build more seriously.
The deep hand groove provides an easy grip. On top is a hot shoe flanked by buttons for flash, self-timer, and continuous shooting controls, as well as a mode dial. Annoyingly, there's no option for no-flash mode (the camera does come with a ring to diffuse light entering the lens).
The bright 2.7-inch LCD has a large field of view and is the biggest screen in the budget DSLR class. The buttons running along the left side of the screen are for playback, deleting photos, and menu and info buttons. On the other side are AEL/AFL, image stabilization (IS), and Live View buttons, as well as a five-way pad whose outer buttons double as white balance, autofocus, ISO, and metering controls.
The E-520's interface lets you adjust many of the camera settings using the buttons on the back, as opposed to drilling into the menu systems. Although intuitive, these menus have a cruder look than those on the D40 or Rebel XS.
Overall, the E-520's image quality was mediocre. Indoors and out, many shots looked oversaturated; on a blustery day, for instance, the camera imbued the sky with shades of blue that weren't there.
At the same time, our photos were usually underexposed. In a backlit shot we took of a gilded statue, we could make out less shadow detail than we could with the D40 or XS, and the cloudy sky appeared even more overcast than it should have. A portrait of friends, taken in a dim room, revealed a dark background with flash-splashed faces; the lighting was hardly natural. Moreover, with a maximum ISO of 1600 (the D40's is 3200) the E-520's low-light sensitivity is relatively limited.
Moreover, our photos just didn't look as artistic as they could have. In a Macro shot of flower buds the background was hardly blurry. Similarly, our shots of a friend in her wedding gown failed to make her pop against her background.
In continuous shooting mode only a few of our shots with the E-520 looked crisp, showing razor-sharp subjects against a blurred background. On the whole, though, most of our action shots looked blurry. Despite the fact that it's rated for 3.5 shots per second (as opposed to the XS' 3 shots per second), the camera felt slow while we were shooting: it didn't focus as quickly as the Canon EOS Rebel XS, and our succession of shots wasn't as rapid.
Accessing Live View is as simple as pressing a button on the camera's back side. Once in Live View, however, we didn't like how slow the action appeared on screen. As with other DSLRs, the shot-to-shot speed is slower in Live View than with the optical viewfinder. After each shot, the photo hung on the screen for 6 seconds before we could take another; with the viewfinder there was almost no shutter lag.
External Storage and Battery Life
Like other Olympus cameras, the E-520 has a CompactFlash and xD Card slot; only some notebooks--and no Macs--have a reader that can accommodate the xD format. xD Cards are more expensive, too: at press time, Best Buy was selling 2GB SD Cards for $13.99, and 2GB xD cards for $39.99. The E-520's rechargeable battery was still going strong after more than a hundred shots, though.
Although the Olympus Evolt E-520 made a good first impression with its solid, ergonomic build and intuitive interface, it quickly lost points for its slow speeds and lackluster image quality. Although the Nikon D40's ($499) interface takes getting used to, we still recommend it to DSLR newbies over the E-520.