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Review: Olympus E-420

By Joe Farace

The Olympus E-420 claims to be “the world's smallest digital SLR with all the features you need to take great pictures … .”  With the rapidfire pace of DSLR introductions, that last caveat may be there so Big Oly can say, “Yours may be smaller, but is it as wonderful as ours?” So let’s get this out of the way first, the doggone thing is small and makes an ideal second camera for an Olympus-shooting pro or as an SLR for an assistant catching ceremony and candid shots during a wedding.

The E-420 has the Olympus Live View function that lets you use the large 2.7-inch LCD as a viewfinder to get color-balanced ceremony shots in church or synagogue, but there’s no image stabilization, so be sure to use a tripod. The camera’s Shadow Adjustment Technology and Face Detection make reception shots easy, ensuring that you can deliver sharper images to your clients.

How small is it? Measuring 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1 inches and weighing just 13.4 ounces, the E-420 is small enough to fit into a purse or a jacket pocket and light enough to carry around and shoot comfortably all day. Face Detection is candid-photography friendly, distinguishes between people’s faces and the background, and will track up to eight faces within the image area while automatically focusing and optimizing exposure for portraits.

Dark sanctuaries? No problem. Shooting scenes with shadows can be tricky because of the extreme contrast between dark and bright areas but the E-420’s Shadow Adjustment Technology compensates for extreme contrast when shadow areas are underexposed and lack visible detail.

I was making photographs for a non-profit organization’s car show and used the Zuiko Digital ED l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens to make images such as this of a rare street rod crafted from a Chrysler Airflow. Exposure was 1/640 sec. at f/8, ISO 200, in Aperture Priority mode. This image and lens is so sharp that when enlarged to extremely large sizes on my monitor you could see the sharply outlined shapes of the metallic content of this paint. © 2008 Joe Farace

The E-420 offers three auto focus modes: Sensor AF is the phase detection type that’s used by most SLRs. It works well in low-light situations when shooting without the flash and is also the fastest setting. Imager AF is a contrast detection type that calculates focus off the sensor and is the default. This mode is optimized for use with the Zuiko 14–42mm and 40–150mm lenses, which are the ones I used most during testing. Hybrid AF is new with the E-420 and seamlessly combines Imager (contrast) AF and Sensor (phase detection) AF and works with all of the Zuiko lenses. All autofocus modes work in Live View mode. Sure, it may be slower that the faster manual focus Live View option used by Canon, but in real-world use it’s more practical.

Mary borrowed the E-420 to shoot some images for her “Urban Macro” series of photographs. This was made at what used to be the local airport using the Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens with an exposure of 1/640 sec. at F/6.3, ISO 100. ©2008 Mary Farace

Tip: Although the E-420 has three “official” autofocus points, here’s a trick that will extend their number and help you in fast-changing backlit situations: With Live View and Imager AF active, turn on the camera’s Face Detection mode to extend the AF area to eleven points and then turn on Shadow Adjustment. With this particular combination of settings, the camera will track and lock focus on the subject, and shadow adjustment will automatically extend the range of visible detail in the shadow areas.

This drummer with the dance troupe Chimatonali was captured during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The lens was the compact and inexpensive ($200) Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 that delivers an equivalent of 80-300mm focal length. Exposure in Aperture Preferred mode was 1/320 sec. at f/7.1, ISO 200. ©2008 Mary Farace

The new big 2.7-inch screen uses HyperCrystal II technology to deliver a broad range of color and a 176 degrees angle-of-view, making Live View usage even better. To keep image files clean, the E-420 uses Olympus’ Dust Reduction System with Supersonic Wave Filter to vibrate the image sensor and capture dust on a special adhesive membrane every time the camera is turned on. Of the hundreds of photos that I made with the E-420, all were spot-free. No real image stabilization is available, but the cryptically named DIS (Digital Image Stabilization), activated as one of the eighteen Scene Select Modes, automatically sets higher ISO sensitivity and faster shutter speeds. I’d say Professional Photographer readers have already figured out how to deal with these kinds of lighting situations and this feature points to the E-420’s consumer orientation.

I used the E-420 to capture this three-shot panorama of a new high school in my town. Exposure in Manual mode, to make sure exposure was consistent across all three frames, was 1/100 sec. at f/22, ISO 200. ©2008 Joe Farace

But it’s all about the pictures, and the E-420’s 10-megapixel sensor delivers high dynamic range, accurate color rendition, and relatively low noise characteristics that let you capture great images even at moderately high ISO settings. I have to say "relatively" because the small chip size and your choice of shutter speeds (longer ones will make more noise) ultimately dictate noise levels. If noise is a problem, I suggest using noise-reduction software such as my favorite, Neat Image, to rescue objectionably noisy images. Why not just use flash? Flash pictures will be better because the E-420 is compatible with the Olympus FL-50R and FL-36R wireless electronic flashes. These units wirelessly sync with either the camera’s pop-up flash or another FL-50R mounted onto in the E-420’s hot shoe.

Although the E-420 is, indeed, small, its ergonomics are excellent. The small size and high image quality make it a natural for travel photography when a large professional DSLR might intimidate the locals you want to photograph. The optional FL-50R wireless flash ($429.95) worked great off and on the hot shoe. In the studio and during an on-location shoot, I had trouble with a few different wireless (radio-controlled) transmitters that refused to fire monolights with the respective receiver hot shoe-mounted unless they were screwed down so tightly they were difficult to remove afterwards.

For this backyard portrait, Mary Farace used the FL-50R to fill the left side of the subject’s face to balance the strong light from the setting sun on the right. The lens was the incredibly sharp, versatile, Zuiko Digital ED l4-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Exposure was 1/160 sec. at f/9, ISO 400. For soccer action shots, the E-420 can shoot at 3.5 frames per second. ©2008 Mary Farace

The E-420 lacks a traditional synch connection, but that shouldn’t keep you from using it with your studio lights. Traditionalists might want to use a hot shoe-to-PC adapter to connect the synch cord from camera to main light. Because of the high voltages across the tip of a synch cord, using a cheapo adapter might fry the electronics inside your digicam, so it’s a good idea to use one like Booth Photo’s High Voltage Safe Hot Shoe Adapter that only allows only three volts to touch the camera’s synch circuit.

This test shot of Mary was made with an exposure of 1/60 sec. at f/11, ISO 200 in my studio. It was slightly underexposed, but I liked this pose and expression the best from that test session. Lens was a Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 at 53mm. Lighting was from a single 45-inch Westcott Round Halo Mono attached to a Westcott Strobelite monolight. Since the E-420 lacks a flash synch connection, the synch cord was connected via a Booth Photo Hot Voltage Safe Hot Shoe Adapter that only allows three volts to touch the camera’s synch circuit. ©2008 Joe Farace

Most Olympus digital SLRs I’ve tested over the years have had some sort of infrared sensitivity and the E-420 is no exception, although empirically it seems less sensitive than previous models that required shorter exposure time, but with IR you never really know. I tested the camera using Hoya Infrared R72 and Singh-Ray I-Ray filters, and both performed well, although because the I-Ray allows no visible light to pass through, it occasionally refused to allow the camera to autofocus. The other downside of the I-Ray is that it required longer shutter speeds (13 seconds at ISO 400 versus 5 seconds with the Hoya), producing somewhat higher noise levels. The upside is that the infrared effect was much more dramatic with the Singh Ray.

This view of the shoreline at Barr Lake State Park was captured directly in the E-420’s Vivid color mode. Exposure was 1/640 at f/10, ISO 400. Noise, while obvious with the long exposures produced when using an infrared filter is all but absent in this “normal” shutter speed obtained in the camera’s Program mode. ©2008 Joe Farace

The same scene Barr Lake State Park photographed in the E-420’s Monochrome mode with a Singh-Ray I-Ray filter attached to the tiny Zuiko Digital 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (28-84mm equivalent). Exposure was 6 seconds at f/3.5, ISO 400. The result was relatively noisy, but I selectively applied the Neat Image plug-in to tame the noise. ©2008 Joe Farace

While clearly aimed at consumers, the rugged construction of the Olympus E-420 and its extensive list of versatile features have much to recommend it to the working pro as a camera ideally suited as an adjunct to his or her E-3 professional SLR. The E-420 more than makes up for its lack of more upmarket features, such as image stabilization, with its extremely affordable price ($499), compatibility with Olympus’ wireless flash system, and its ability to capture great looking images. I rate it a “best buy.”

As of July 1, 2008, the current version of Adobe Camera Raw (4.4.1) software does not recognize the Olympus raw (.ORF) files captured by the E-420, although I’m betting that will change when the next update arrives. In the meantime, be glad that Olympus provides a Mac OS and Windows copy of Olympus Master software for viewing, opening, and tweaking raw files from the E-420. ©2008 Joe Farace

Olympus E-420 Specifications


Joe Farace is co-author of a new book entitled “Better Digital Available Light Photography,” published by Focal Press. It will be available in all the best bookstores, including Barnes & Noble and