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You are hereHome > Best Digital Cameras > Olympus E-420 DSLR


Olympus E-420 Review

Review Date: May 15, 2008

Category: Family DSLR, Beginner to Serious

Olympus E-420

Photoxels Editor's Choice 2008 - Compact DSLR
Photoxels Editor's Choice 2008 - Compact DSLR


Tuesday, April 18, 2008 - Here's what I receive in the box:

  • E-420 DSLR
  • Body Cap
  • No memory card [though I received a 1GB xD-Picture Card for the review]
  • 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital Lens
  • Lens Shade
  • Lens Cap and Rear Cap (diam. 58)
  • Shoulder Strap
  • Li-Ion Battery BLS-1 7.2V 1500 mAh
  • Battery Charger BCS-1 & Power Cord
  • Interface Cables: A/V; USB
  • Instruction Manuals: Quick Start Guide (English, French & Spanish); Instruction Manual (English, French & Spanish)
  • Software CD-ROM: Olympus Master 2

If there was ever a downside to using a DSLR, it has always been the extra size and weight that too often resulted in the DSLR being left on the shelf and the photographer reaching for a lighter and more compact digicam. The allure of a compact DSLR that is full featured and produces quality images cannot be overestimated, judging by the ever-growing popularity of the Olympus E-420. The wonderfully compact and light E-420 earns our Photoxels Editor's Choice 2008 - Compact DSLR award.

The E-420 is an attractively designed DSLR with a tough polycarbonate body. Handling is good with a slim "handgrip" that works well to allow you to securely grip the camera. One small complaint I do have is the placement and design of the strap eyelets that get in the way; on such a compact camera, it would have been preferable that they were inset into the body.

Operation is fast. Half-press the shutter release button and your subject instantly zips into focus. The control buttons are laid out sensibly and the E-420 works quite intuitively. Even the menu structure seems more straightforward, though it could still do with some improvements. Two improvement wishes are: 1) add accompanying text to some of the Menu items that are currently just icons (I have had to resort to the Instruction Manual quite a bit); and, 2) provide the ability to navigate freely from one row of values to the next without having to sequentially scroll through every single value.

The optical viewfinder on the E-420 is not as big as the ones in some of the latest DSLRs but, if you wear strong glasses as I do, you can easily see the whole screen, including the exposure info, without having to peek into the corners. I like that the exposure info lists down the right side of the viewfinder; it makes it quite easy to quickly find the information you need at a glance instead of having to scan back and forth across one long row at the bottom of the screen.

The LCD is large at 2.7-inch with 230,000 dots resolution. Press the INFO button to display the Super Control Panel on the LCD. Press the OK button to activate it and use the ARROW KEYS to select a shooting setting to change. Then you have two ways you can select a value for that setting:

  1. Press the OK button to bring up a sub-menu of all possible values for that setting. Then use the ARROW KEYS or Control Dial to select a value (here, Olympus has stayed with its staircase design which means you can only go sequentially forward and backward from one value to the next but cannot jump from one row to the next). Press OK to confirm that value.
  2. A much faster way is to simply rotate the Control Dial to select the desired value. Learn to use it this way, and you'll find the Super Control Panel to be a very fast and intuitive way to change settings. Love it!

I like the fact that to engage Live View, you just have to conveniently press the Live View button. However, to select a mode, you then have to inconveniently go into the Menu (Menu - Custom Menu 1 - AF/MF - Live View AF Mode). [It would have been really nice if there were an easier and quicker way to switch between the 3 Live View AF modes, perhaps by a press and a 2-sec. hold of the Live View button to go into selection mode and then simply repeatedly pressing the Live View button to select one of the 3 modes; then press and hold again (or simply touch the shutter release button) to confirm selection.]

I like to default to Hybrid AF so I can get the best of both worlds: when I press the shutter release button half-way, Imager AF Live View uses fast enough Contrast-Detect to give me a clear view on the screen to permit composition. Then when I fully depress the shutter release button to take the picture, the camera switches to AF Sensor Live View which uses Phase-Detection AF for a fast and more precise focus lock on the subject. This way, Live View is always on and there is the usual expected mirror slap only when the picture is actually taken.

I find that Contrast-Detect AF does not work well terribly well in extreme low-light. If you use Phase-Detection AF and have set AF Illumination On in the Menu (Menu - Custom Menu 1 - AF/MF - AF Illuminat. - On), the flash will emit [potentially many] short bursts of light (that may well blind your subject) before finally locking focus.

It's also probably worth mentioning that, unlike the HyperCrystal LCD on other Olympus digicams (the one on the 1030 SW, for example) that gains up well in low-light, the one on the E-420 gains up only very slightly and you'll see a very grainy B&W image. The LCD image will gain up only if "Live View Boost" is set to ON in the Menu (Menu - Custom Menu 1 - Disp/Beep/PC - Live View Boost - On).

The E-420 can improve with a LCD that gains up better in low light. Also, it needs a more traditional and separate AF Illuminator light instead of using the flash to act as such.

The process to set custom WB using Olympus' One-touch WB can be somewhat involved:

  • Set the LEFT ARROW (also labelled as Fn) to One-touch WB first (Menu - Camera Menu 1 - WB - One-touch WB).
  • Then, point the camera to a white sheet of paper under the light source you want to use (ensuring the paper fills the screen); press LEFT ARROW / Fn; while holding LEFT ARROW / Fn down, press the shutter release button to bring up the One-touch WB screen; select Yes; and finally press OK.

Since I have LEFT ARROW / Fn set to Face Detection, it takes me 21 button presses to set custom WB. Then another 18 button presses to reset LEFT ARROW / Fn back to Face Detection. And I'll have to repeat the whole process whenever I need to reset custom WB under a different light source.

Would be great if "One-touch" had its own dedicated button and dispensed of superfluous steps: press button to activate One-touch WB; aim and fill the screen with a white sheet of paper; press button again to set the new WB.

Those who are upgrading to a DSLR from P&S digicams will find the E-420 an easy upgrade. There are two major reasons for this:

  1. Live View works pretty much like on a P&S digicam (minus the caveats mentioned above);
  2. there is an AUTO shooting mode, as well as automatic Scene Modes.

Overall, the Olympus E-420 is a very capable DSLR that you can use just like your P&S digicam. It is also compact and light so you will find it easy to take along anywhere. It provides lots of exposure flexibility for the advanced photographer, while allowing simple point-and-shoot operation for the beginner. More importantly, image quality is excellent. If you have been considering upgrading to a DSLR but have been put off by the extra weight, size and complicated operations of a DSLR, then the Olympus E-420 may just be what you have been waiting for.

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