Friday, November 20, 2009

Olympus E-410 Kit Review

Olympus E-410 with Zuiko Digital 14-42mm F3.5-5.6

After a month of use, and a few hundred photos later, here is the review of the Olympus E-410.  I was considering waiting a few more weeks, but with no sign of change in the rainy weather here in Vancouver, I figured that I would not get very many chances to test it outdoors any time in the next few weeks anyway. This review also includes thoughts on the Zuiko Digital 14-42mm kit lens.

Review
Overview: 
The Olympus E-410 is by no means a new camera,  and has been replaced by the Olympus E-420 and now the E-450, but that does not mean it is a bad camera to pick up used. The E-410, like its replacements has a 10MP Live MOS image sensor, that supports ISO100-1600, although the later models do have some improvements in high ISO performance. Little has changed with the body of the newer cameras, although the E-420/E-450 have a slightly larger grip. The biggest improvement of the E-450 over the older models was the introduction of image stabilization, that first appeared in the E-510.

There are numerous reasons to consider a 4/3s DSLR, like the E-410, first of which is size and weight. As a photographer who desires quality, in terms of the camera body itself, and the images that the sensor and lens are able to produce, I do not think I would choose a 4/3s camera as my primary picture taking device. That being said, it is more than good enough for the average person, including those who want improvements in low light shooting over a point and shoot camera. After my testing, I believe this camera can produce nice images right up to ISO800, and ISO1600 can be usable if properly exposed. I cannot say the same for any of the P&S cameras that I have used, or seen images from.


Another reason to choose a 4/3s DSLR over cameras from the major brands is price. Olympus's high end E-3 costs the same as Nikon and Canon's mid-range crop sensor cameras, which truth be told don't offer that much difference in performance, unless narrower depth of field, and 1 stop more speed is important. As for the E-410, and the other cameras in the same class, (E-420/E-450), they are a good value for the money. They offer similar performance to equivalent cameras, such as the Canon Rebel XS and the Nikon D3000, which also have 10MP sensors. The E-4xx line does have a major advantage over those cameras, size and weight. 100-300 grams may not sound like a lot, but for a person who goes hiking up the side of a mountain, that could make a big difference in the weight of their traveling gear. As for the E-410 itself, now I'll take time to look a little closer at it.

Build Quality:
The build quality of the E-410 is on par with the Nikon D40/D60/D3000, which is very good for a plastic camera body. I found the build quality to be slightly better than that of the Canon Rebel XS, which does have some give in the plastic construction. You will not be hearing any creaks or cracking sounds when you pickup the body, it feels very solid. The body is made of a higher quality plastic than the 14-42mm kit lens, although that may just be a matter of the rubber grips on the body combined with the texture on the surface, vs the smooth feel of the lens body.

This camera is by no means meant to be thrown around, it just is not that tough. The E-410 might survive a few falls, but if you were to drop it on pavement or rocks there is a possibility that it would break. The lens is more likely to break than the camera body, due to the plastic mount, but otherwise, neither the lens or the body is any more likely to break than the other. The only other possible weak point of the body is the card slot door, which does have a little give to it, but not much, and that may just be a result of use, more than anything else. It does not however, pop out easily, so you don't have to worry about it coming open during use.

Handling and Controls:
Due to the light weight of the body and lens combination, the E-410 is easy to hold, in spite of the small grip. In fact that there is very little in the way of a grip, so in that way the E-410 stands out as being different from most modern SLR cameras. In the case of the E-410 that is a good thing though, the small size of the body would not be very comfortable to hold if there was a large grip on it, because anyone other than adults with small hands or children would find their figures getting pinched between the lens and grip if it did have one. If you have not picked up an Olympus digital SLR, you might want to do so before purchasing one though, as they are a bit smaller than competing DSLR cameras from Nikon and Canon.

The first thing you will notice about the E-410 is how few buttons there are. There are no dedicated ISO, image quality or white balance controls, although these settings are easily changed in the menu system. There are dedicated buttons to control the popup flash, and the drive mode on the top right side of the camera body. The mode dial (which has the usual Auto, P, S, A & M and scene modes), exposure compensation, command dial and shutter buttons are all on the top left side of the body. On the back right side of the body, you will find the Playback, Erase, Menu and Info buttons. On the back left side you will see the AEL/AFL, Live View, 4 directional pads (one of which is a programmable function button), and an OK button in the middle of the directional buttons.  All of the buttons on the camera feel solid, and give a reassuring click when you press them. The E-410 was one of the first DSLR cameras in the world to offer LiveView, and right from the start Olympus included a dedicated LiveView button, which other DSLR makers are now including on their camera bodies.



Image Quality, The Lens, Auto Focus and the Built in Flash:
Image quality is reasonably good, far better than point and shoot cameras at levels over ISO200. It is hard for me to say what this camera is really capable of since I have only had the opportunity to use it with the 14-42mm kit lens. That being said, the camera is fully able to produce quality images, especially at ISO100-400.  As I mentioned earlier in the review, ISO800-1600 start to show noise, but well exposed images will not show much noise, outside of shadow areas. I would say the E-410 is very much on par with other entry level DSLRs from the same era.


Subject isolation can be hard to achieve with the 14-42mm kit lens, although it is possible to do so, by getting close to the subject. Thanks to the minimum shooting distance of 25cm (0.85 feet), it is possible to isolate the subject, and the lens does have decent bokeh. It becomes very difficult to shoot indoors with the lens zoomed into 42mm, because the lens is at F5.6. While that is fast enough for most outdoor shooting, even in well lit rooms it can be hard to get a reasonable shutter speed. As for image sharpness from the lens, it seems fine at almost all focal lengths from F4.5. At 42mm, you might want to stop down to F6.3 or F8 to improve sharpness.

Auto focus is fast and quiet, as well as being accurate in most lighting situations. The lens makes a low pitched wine while the lens auto focuses, but I doubt anyone who is more than two feet away could hear the auto focus motor working. The only time the camera failed to auto focus without the auto focus assist light (the flash), was in complete darkness. In all honesty the auto focus system's accuracy and speed surprised me, considering it is an entry level camera with a kit lens. That being said, I do find it somewhat annoying to be stuck with only three auto focus points, but that may because I'm spoiled by the 51AF points of the D300.

Manual focus on many Olympus 4/3s lenses is different that what is found on most traditional SLR lenses. Rather than physically moving the focus yourself, the camera uses a wire to adjust the focus as you turn the focus ring. Also note that as a result of this, you can only manual focus when the camera is turned on.


One thing to keep in mind when using 4/3 cameras is that you start to loose image sharpness over F10, and even as early as F8 at some focal lengths. For wide angel shooting I found the best results were between F4 and F5.6. For a kit lens the Zuiko Digital 14-42mm is not bad at all. I think I would give it an equal rating to that of the Nikon 18-55mm VR kit, which means it has a slight edge over the Canon 18-55mm IS kit lens. The 14-42mm lens does not have image stabilization, but all of Olympus's newer cameras (E-510, E-520, E-620, E-450) have image stabilization built into the camera body to make up for that.

The built in flash is not very powerful, but it does provide enough direct light to get decent indoor shots in low light. The flash also operates as the auto focus assist light. I do not like the way that the auto assist function works, as the flash buzzes loudly, and it runs down the battery. Also, if you are shooting on the wide end of the kit lens (between 14-25mm) you will see a shadow in your images, as the flash is not high enough away from the lens. You can improve the situation by not using the lens hood when shooting at wider angels, while using the flash.



Speed of Operations, Battery Life and LiveView 
General controls of the camera operate quickly, and I never got any sense of lag. The camera allows you to view photos and zoom in to see sharpness quickly, again without any lag. Continuous shooting speed is not very fast, but that is not a big deal to me, as I'm not going to be use the E-410 for shooting birds, a task I do not think it would perform very well at. The camera writes to the 2GB CF SanDisk Ultra that I use in the camera without any hiccups. You can take four or five frame in continuous shooting before the buffer starts to fill up. I purposely do not use fast cards in this camera, simply because I do not use it for action photography. Considering that it cannot take advantage of UDMA cards, I see little reason to buy faster cards either.

Battery life is not bad, allowing you to take a few hundred photos, although the number of photos you can take is far less with heavy flash or LiveView usage. The included battery holds a charge very well, and during periods of inactivity you will not notice very much fall off. It is hard to tell as the camera gives you very little information about battery performance. Two, green, bars show the battery is in good shape, and one, red, bar shows that the battery is getting low and needs to be replaced and/or recharged. As for the amount of timing it takes to charge the battery, it is not much different from any other cameras I've used that have lithium ion batteries, and three hours will give you a full charge. The battery itself is very small, and can be hard to remove from the camera.

LiveView, operates via the 3 AF points of the camera, and is slower than more modern cameras in LiveView. The E-410 uses the phase change auto focus system, and not a contrast based system that most DSLR and compact cameras can. This means that the mirror must flip down for the camera to auto focus. I would not recommend using LiveView for anything other than stationary subjects as a result. Since auto focus operates the same as it does for viewfinder based focusing, I wont be adding anything more on LiveView.

Conclusion:
The Olympus E-410 is a good backup camera for someone who wants a small light companion to a bigger, heavier DSLR. I use the E-410 as a camera to carry around on days when I find the Nikon D300 impractical, or just to heavy, such as on a long walk or hike. Due to the form factor, I am able to put the E-410 in a small camera bag, rather than in my Lowepro Flipside 300, which also makes transporting it more practical.

The E-4xx series would prove to be a great camera for anyone who does not want to carry a heavy camera, but also wants to take advantage of the superior image quality of a single lens reflex camera. Today there are the smaller micro 4/3 cameras, which are basically point and shoots with 4/3 sensors, which are also cameras to consider. I picked the E-410 because there is a wider range of lenses available to the standard 4/3 standard, and because I like to use an optical viewfinder, over an electronic one. Another advantage of the E-4xx series is price, which generally speaking is half that of the micro 4/3 cameras on the market today.

Added March 2010:
As much as I liked the small size of the E-410 I found it lacking in some areas, so I have sold the unit to someone who will hopefully give this little camera the use it deserves.