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Testing / Performance
To test the color accuracy of the Olympus E-510, we photographed an industry standard GretagMacbeth Colorchecker test chart, which consists of 24 strategically picked color tiles. The colors correspond to commonly photographed colors such as blue skies, green grass, and flesh tones, as well as a sample of other colors from around the color spectrum. We ran these photographs through Imatest, which compared the actual color of the tiles with the colors the camera produced. In the image below, the outside square of each tile corresponds to the color the camera produced, the inside square is the ideal color of the chart corrected for luminance, and the small rectangle is the ideal color of the chart.
The camera produced the most accurate colors when 1/3 of a stop underexposed, which is the reason why the small color rectangles look lighter than the colors the camera produced. With luminance taken into account, most colors look very accurate. The following graph shows precisely how far off the camera’s colors are from those on the test chart. The squares indicate the ideal, while the circles represent the colors the camera reproduced. The line between them illustrates the degree of error.
With an uncorrected mean color error of only 5.87, the E-510 scored very well. The colors to have significant drift are mostly the blues, which are often shifted on purpose to enhance skies. However, the saturation level of 96.46 percent means it is also fairly undersaturated.
*We tested white balance accuracy by photographing the ColorChecker in four different types of light: flash, fluorescent, outdoor cloudy, and tungsten. The E-510's automatic white balance was not very good. Flash accuracy using the Auto setting was solid, and under cloudy light it was decent, but under fluorescent and tungsten it was miserable. The images below show what kind of color cast your photos will have in these different situations.
The E-510's white balance presets faired a little better than the Auto setting, but not by much. The cloudy preset was very accurate, but fluorescent and tungsten were as miserable as using auto. Under tungsten light, the Auto setting will give you a very strong yellow cast, while the preset will turn everything blue. Considering the difficulties the camera had manually white balancing in low light, users should bless the camera gods that the E-510 can shoot in RAW, so that you can adjust the white balance later.
**Still Life Sequences
***Click on the thumbnails below to view the full resolution files. *
Packing 10 megapixels onto its small Four Thirds sensor, the Olympus E-510 entices consumers with higher resolution than ever before. To test the E-510's performance we shot an industry standard resolution chart at varied apertures, shutter speeds, and focal lengths, to see where the camera was sharpest. We did this for both kit lenses, the 14-42 mm wide angle, and the 40-150 mm telephoto.
We ran the images through Imatest, which calculated a value for resolution, measured in Line Widths per Picture Height (LW/PH). This value describes how many theoretical alternating black and white lines could fit across the image frame before becoming blurred. The E-510 was sharpest using the 40-150 mm telephoto lens, at an ISO of 100, an aperture of f/9.0, and a focal length of 40 mm.
The 10-megapixel E-510 scored well, capturing 1646 lw/ph horizonally with -14 percent undersharpening, and 1589 vertically with -15.5 percent undersharpening. Undersharpening is advantageous for DSLRs, because it enables users to post-process the files to their specifications and control artifacts that emerge from oversharpening. However, the E-510 pretty severely undersharpened the images. We would have liked to see a little more sharpening applied, particularly since much of the camera's targeted demographic often favor usable JPEGs right out of the camera.
Interested in which of the two kit lenses is better to use for medium focal lengths? The answer is clear: the telephoto lens produced images with much more information and fine detail, scoring far better than the wide angle images shot in the same setup. Use the telephoto kit lens as much as you can with this camera!
Noise – Auto ISO*(4.45)*
We photographed a GretagMacbeth color chart at auto ISO, and calculated the noise levels with Imatest. Pointed at our brightly-lit chart, the E-510 selected ISO 400 for the shot. This is an unusually high ISO to use under our bright studio lights, and risks ending up with an unnecessarily noisy image. However, with the Noise Filter set to Standard, the noise levels stayed quite low. Though this was a much different story with the Noise Filter turned off. The Noise Filter smoothes over noise at high sensitivities, resulting in parts of the image looking fuzzy. The tradeoff here is clear, turn on the Noise Filter to remove ugly noise, but sacrifice sharpness.
Noise – Manual ISO*(11.73)*
We also shot our test chart at all ISO sensitivities, to see how the noise levels varied over the whole range. The graph below shows the amount of noise measured by the percent of the image it obscured.
With the Noise Filter set to Standard or High, noise levels stayed very low and rose slowly at higher ISO settings. However, with the Noise Filter off, the noise levels were quite high, with a large jump from ISO 200 to 400. Using the Noise Filter sacrifices sharpness for noise removal, as described above.
Dynamic range is a measure of how many tonal gradations a camera can reproduce from pure black to white. We measure dynamic range by photographing an industry standard backlit Stouffer test chart. The chart consists of a row of rectangles that are all slightly different shades of gray and range from brightest white to darkest black. We run the images through Imatest imaging software to measure the amount of the chart the camera can expose while retaining detail. The more rectangles the camera can reproduce, the better the dynamic range. We shoot the Stouffer chart at every ISO setting, and for the Olympus E-510, we tested three of the Noise Filter settings: Off, Standard, and High.
The graph above shows the dynamic range plotted at all ISO sensitivities. Noise levels have a strong impact on dynamic range, and as you can see, more noise reduction yielded higher dynamic range. The E-510’s dynamic range levels at low ISO settings are not very good, but the camera does manage to keep them from dropping very much at higher ISO settings. Unfortunately, if the Noise Filter smoothes over too much detail for your liking, turning it off will yield very poor dynamic range. This is due to the very high noise levels with the Noise Filter off.
*To test the E-510’s performance in low light, we dimmed the studio lights and tested color and noise performance at 60, 30, 15, and 5 lux. This corresponds to a room softly lit with two lamps (60 lux), down to very low light that would cause you to squint (5 lux). We always shoot low light levels at the highest full resolution ISO sensitivity the camera offers, which in the case of the E-510 was ISO 1600, using the Noise Filter set to Standard (the default).
The Noise Filter kept the noise levels quite low, but the main issue here was the difficulty getting the E-510 to manually white balance correctly. The camera had enormous difficulty manually white balancing in low light, and this often resulted in a green cast in the photos. Because of this problem, the E-510 had trouble reproducing accurate colors in low light, having a mean color error of 10.2 at 5 lux.
We also took a look at low light performance from another angle, long exposures. For this test, we shot the ColorChecker at shutter speeds of one to 30 seconds at ISO 400. The graph below shows the noise levels at each shutter speed, with both Noise Reduction on and off.
Noise levels are admirably low, and rise slowly but steadily with increasing exposure length. The Noise Reduction appears to kick in with 20-second exposures, where the two lines on the graph start to separate. Color accuracy was maintained well in long exposures, ranging from a mean color error of about 8 at one second exposures, to about 9.8 at exposures more than 20 seconds. Noise levels also stayed quite low, but it is very important to note that with the Noise Reduction set to Off, there was an abundance of "hot" pixels throughout the images. This caused lots of little points of bright white to be speckled throughout images. These hot pixels were removed with the Noise Reduction turned On, so the lesson here is to always shoot long exposures on the E-510 with Noise Reduction on.
**Speed/Timing - ***All speed tests were conducted using a SanDisk Ultra II 2.0GB Compact Flash card.*
Startup to First Shot (8.8)
The Olympus E-510 took 1.2 seconds to start up and snap the first shot. While this may not seem terribly slow to users upgrading to a DSLR from a point-and-shoot camera, most DSLRs now keep it under 1/2 second.
In Burst mode, the E-510 took 11 shots 0.3 seconds apart, and after the eleventh shot slowed down to shooting one shot every second. This 11 shot quick burst took a total of 3.5 seconds.
With the shutter held halfway down and prefocused, the camera took the shot instantly. Without being prefocused, it took 0.2 seconds to take the shot.
*The E-510 takes approximately one second to process a 7MB 3648 x 2736 JPEG image shot at ISO 100. However, while the camera is processing, the playback cannot be viewed.
Some earlier E-series digital cameras had porromirror optical viewfinders, but they weren’t very bright and required the camera to have two separate image sensors to support the live-view LCD. The E-510 has an eye-level single lens reflex optical viewfinder that is 95 percent accurate, which is just shy of its competition.
The brightness issue isn’t completely solved in the Olympus E-510, however. Though it is easy to see the full frame and the view of the data displays on the right, the view is smaller and darker than competing cameras. It is also not convenient for manual focus.
The viewfinder is best used when shooting action because the live-view LCD stutters and blacks out. It also works well when photographing in bright light; at the beach, for example. When it’s very bright it is hard to see the LCD screen - the darker and shaded viewfinder works better in these situations.
The following information is displayed within the viewfinder: Aperture Value, Shutter Speed, Recording mode, Auto Focus confirmation mark, Flash, White Balance, Auto Exposure lock, Number of storable still images, Exposure Compensation value, Metering mode, Battery warning, Exposure mode, Auto Focus frame, and Image Stabilization mode. All the information is displayed on a black strip to the right of the view except for the superimposed Auto Focus frames.
The viewfinder has a fixed Neo Lumi-Micron Mat screen with a 14 mm eyepoint. The viewfinder has 0.92x magnification. There is a small, plastic diopter adjustment to the right of the viewfinder. It is difficult to rotate, but shouldn’t need to be accessed often. It adjusts the view to -3 to +1m-1. The viewfinder is surrounded by a cushy rubber eyecup that is secured to the camera. If for some reason this is lost, they retail for $7 on the Olympus website. There are also a few other viewfinder accessories available on the site.
**LCD Screen ***(8.0)*
One of the Olympus EVOLT E-510’s most hyped features is its live-view LCD. The screen measures 2.5 inches and is populated with a robust 230,000 pixels. The HyperCrystal LCD gets its feed straight from the Live-MOS sensor, so its view is 100 percent accurate, one of a few advantages over the viewfinder.
The trouble comes in the method. In order for the live view to work, light has to hit the image sensor. But for the autofocus system to work, the mirror box has to fold out of the way. The image can be seen all the time in the optical viewfinder because some of the light is always reflected upward. However, the LCD’s live view darkens while the autofocus does its job and locks (via the AE/AF button) and then returns to normal view. While the camera is doing all this, there are all kinds of mechanical sounds that make users wonder, "Have I already taken my picture?" The noise of the mirror box flipping around and the autofocus system working confuse users because the shutter doesn’t sound much different.
The sound isn’t the only problem - it takes way too long to actually shoot an image. Another disadvantage is the LCD blacks out when shooting in the Burst mode. This is a common annoyance of all digital cameras’ live LCD screens, compact and DSLR alike. In this case, it is better to use the optical viewfinder. The view can be changed by pushing the view button to the right of the LCD screen. The viewfinder also wins out over the LCD in bright lighting. It is hard to see the LCD in bright lights, even with the 15-level brightness adjustment, so the shaded viewfinder was the best choice in that case.
The live view has its advantages. It is meant to attract more of the mass consumer crowd that enjoyed live-view LCDs on compact digital cameras and are moving up into the DSLR realm. Olympus made sure this camera was affordable to these consumers by nixing the folding LCD that was available on the E-330. That camera had a monitor that folded outward and tilted, but Olympus claimed the component drove prices up and out of range for most consumers. A company representative said in a phone interview with DCI the LCD wasn’t durable enough for a mass consumer market which considers portability a top priority.
While the LCD screen doesn’t fold out and look as cool as the one on the E-330, it does have a 176-degree wide viewing angle. The INFO button changes what is displayed on the LCD screen. Portions of an image can be magnified 7x to check for what Olympus calls "critical focus." A green rectangle can be moved around the image with the multi-selector to check focus in specific parts of the image. Information can be hidden or fully displayed, with the option to show a histogram.
An additional step can be added to the button’s function. In the setup menu, users can choose from Off, Golden Section, Grid, and Scale to include in the views. The Golden Section shows a 3 x 3 grid with a small central square. The Grid shows a grid of 6 x 8 squares across the frame. The Scale shows a circle with a cross going through it and extending to the edges of the frame, much like in flight simulator games. In the setup menu, users can boost the brightness of the live view and adjust the backlight to stay bright for eight, 30, or 60 seconds after inactivity.
Olympus promises all of its new DSLRs will have the live-view LCD in 2007, but we hope the technology can continue to improve so it’s more functional. The slowness of snapping pictures and the confusion of all the mechanical noise make the live view far less appealing.
The Olympus EVOLT E-510 has a popup flash unit that can be set to automatically spring upward when needed or to open only when you tell it to. Pushing the flash button to the left of the unit opens the flash, and pushing it a second time brings up the flash menu, which has the following choices: Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Red-eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Fill-in, Slow Sync (first curtain), Slow Sync (second curtain), Manual, and Off. The Manual flash mode allows users to adjust the output to Full, 1/4, 1/16, or 1/64 power.
The flash itself pops up in a fairly solid fashion, although it only extends about an inch taller than the Olympus logo. The rectangular flash is so small it could be covered by a quarter. But despite its petite size, it works surprisingly well. It covers the frame from edge to edge and lights subjects nicely. In the pictures that we took, no red eyes peered back at us. However, the proximity of the flash to the lens ups the chance of red-eye.
The flash output can be manually adjusted in the recording menu. It has typical +/- 2 EV choices in steps of 1/3 and offers 3-frame bracketing as well. Users can even link the flash intensity and exposure compensation selections.
Behind the built-in flash is a hot shoe for flash accessories. Olympus recommends the FL-50 and FL-36 flash units, but we did not get to review these accessories. The FL-36 model can adjust its output in 1/8-step increments. Other compatible flashes include the FL-20, SRF-11, and STF-22. The flash sync can be manually set to 1/180, 1/160, 1/125, 1/100, 1/80, or 1/60th of a second in the setup menu. Users can purchase a Olympus hot shoe flash cable for $80.
**Lens and Mount ***(8.5)*
The E-510 is compatible with Four Thirds format lenses. While the camera can accept Four Thirds lenses manufactured by Sigma, Panasonic, and Leica, Olympus touts its own lineup. Olympus’ Zuiko Digital lenses are advertised to be specifically made for digital cameras, bending light optimally for an image sensor strewn with pixels instead of onto a sheet of film. Another advantage to a digital lens is that its firmware can be updated much like a camera. As Olympus spokeswoman Sally Smith Clemens said in a conversation with DCI, "If new technology comes out, you can update it rather than buying a whole new lens."
The Olympus EVOLT E-510 has an optical image stabilization system built into the body so each lens won’t need its own set of floating optics. This is meant to keep the cost of individual lenses down and include wider focal lengths. Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon include the image stabilization in some lenses, which are marked up to pay for the technology. The E-510’s image stabilization can keep images relatively blur-free and the live view steadier. The image stabilization is activated with a button on the back of the camera intuitively labeled "IS." There are two modes: one all-purpose mode (IS 1) and one specifically for panning shots (IS 2).
The same motors that move the sensor in response to motion on the image stabilization system serve double duty to shake dust and grime off the sensor. The dust reduction system can be turned on and off, although the default has it perform a split second of self-cleaning every time the camera is turned on. The dust reduction system is meant to purge the camera of any foreign particles that may have settled on the image sensor when changing lenses. Some people may think this is a bit frivolous or unnecessary, but I’ve Photoshopped one too many dust spots off pictures, so I must admit I’m a fan.
The DSLR is sold in two lens kits with Zuiko-branded glass, of course. One package sells with a wide 14-42 mm, f/3.5-5.6 lens, equivalent to a 28-84 mm lens, for $899. The second package includes that lens and adds a midrange 40-150 mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, equivalent to an 80-300 mm lens. It retails for $999 and is the set we reviewed. Both lenses are similar to other offerings already in the Zuiko line, but these were made specifically for the E-510. They will fit on other Four Thirds cameras, but were tailored to be small and light to match the E-510’s body. While "small and light" is one way of saying it., "cheap and flimsy" is more accurate.
The kit lenses come with caps to keep the glass well-protected. Hoods are also included for each lens; those are convenient for shooting in the sunny outdoors. Both lenses have nice textured rubber zoom rings that rotate easily. The focus ring has tighter grooves to texture it, but is made of plastic and located near the front edge of the lens.