Magazine Article


The Digital Imaging Scene
Olympus Evolt E-500: The Fraternal Twin

Olympus Evolt E-500
Don Sutherland

These two shots compare the performance of the Olympus Evolt E-500 at two ISO settings (photos by Don Sutherland).
Don Sutherland

These two shots show that the E-500, although not the fastest, is quick enough to get different nuances of a smile (photos by Don Sutherland).
Don Sutherland

A Tribe Increasing

Whatever the excesses of its past, the industry can point to today’s DSLR with pride. It can make extravagant claims with a straight face. And with the prices declining, it can put that extravagance into the user’s hands fairly comfortably. Today there are eight DSLRs that sell for the same price as a VGA-quality point-and-shoot in 1996.

The trend’s barely more than two years old, but now there are more DSLRs priced under a grand than in any other range. Nikon and Konica Minolta each have one, Canon has two, Pentax has two, and now Olympus has two that sell for under a grand.

The exact rationale for the E-500’s arrival is not discussed by Olympus, and it would seem to be a puzzle. Both the E-300 and E-500 are 8MP Four Thirds format cameras, and except for a few minor additions to the newer model’s menu, they operate about the same. Pictures made of the same subject with the same lens on the two cameras look about identical side-by-side.

There’s an obvious difference between the two, in the form of the E-500’s prism-shaped top. This is the traditional fixture of the SLR, although there have been flat-tops in the past. The E-300 is the first digital specimen. We like that camera’s performance, so we’d bear with its looks, but we like the prism-top’s looks better. We don’t know if everyone agrees with us. Previous ZLRs from Olympus have a similar profile, and the company’s Sally Smith-Clemens says the design is expected to reappear in future Olympus products.

So the “why” of it all isn’t clear. If customers ask, change the subject. Say what Olympus says, which is that the new additions make the camera slightly more “professional.” The Rebel XT probably handles a little quicker, but the E-500 has a larger LCD. It also has Olympus’ supersonic wave filter, which kicks dust off the imager at camera power-up. This is a very good feature and represents real value in the cameras that have it: the E-300, E-500, and E-1.

The E-500’s monitor is larger, but its viewfinder image is smaller, noticeably so compared to the E-300. Since putting a camera to the eye is one of the first things a prospective purchaser does, this is bound to be an early observation. What its impact will be depends on the customer, but if the subject comes up, Olympus has announced availability of an eyepiece magnifier for the E-500. It should make the viewfinder image about equal to the E-300’s, although it’s optional, at about $40. The E-500’s SLR prism is composed of mirrors, where the E-300’s is the traditional block of glass.

The E-500 with its 8MP imager is bound to be compared with the Rebel XT, just as the E-300 was. To be exact, the Olympus makes a 7,990,272-pixel picture and the Canon makes a 8,185,344-pixel picture, the 195,072 pixel difference being a slender margin for the XT. But those 8MP are distributed quite differently in the two cameras, the 4:3 frame format of the Olympus versus the 3:2 of the Canon.

Which format is “better,” 4:3 or 3:2? We have no idea. We use both regularly, and sometimes we’re glad we used one or the other. The 3:2 format, being wider relative to its height, distributes its pixels over an area that favors horizontal, panoramic subjects. The 4:3 format distributes its pixels in a way that allows for a little more vertical. 4:3 is the traditional format of computer and TV monitors and 6xD-size prints, while 3:2 is the traditional format of the 35mm negative, 6x4-, and 12x8-inch prints.

Both of the Evolts are made in China, and for a time they were both being shipped by Olympus. The company says that the earlier model will phase out with existing stocks, and the E-500 will take over. It’s a nice little camera that takes great pictures. It’s one of just two 8MP cameras in its price range, the other DSLRs being sixes, and it sells for about a sawbuck less than the other one. It also accepts the full line of Olympus digital Zuiko lenses, the largest such line on the market. Although it’s more of a step sideways than a step forward compared to its predecessor, it should make a good place for itself in the market.

Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter, shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30 years. Don is a photo historian as well as a futurist, and is the author of the immortal slogan, “If you have one foot in the future and one in the past, you understand the present perfectly.”