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Pro Review: Olympus E-620

In-Camera Effects in an Affordable, Compact Package

By Joe Farace

There is no doubt that the wonderfully versatile E-3 is Olympus’ professional standard-bearer, so where does the E-620 fit into their product line-up? The E-620 is a throwback to the glory days of Olympus film SLRs exhibiting the precision and jewel-like design of the legendary OM-series of cameras, wrapped up in a digital package that’s oh-so this millennium. For openers, the E-620 combines a 12.3-megapixel imaging chip with the Art Filters introduced with the semi-pro E-30. Like the Live View feature that was launched with the E-330 and continues with this new camera, I expect in-camera special effects filters to become standard on other manufacturers’ models (and that those mfgs will act as if they invented it).

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Fun with Filters

The E-620 offers six in-camera Art Filters that are easily accessed by the nice analog knob on top the camera. When you spin it to ART/SCN, the 2.7-inch swivel-LCD screen displays a list of the filters. Using the other jewel-like analog control knob on top or the camera’s four-way control on the camera’s back, you can scroll down the list that also displays example photos.

 

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Pop Art enhances colors, making them more vivid and deeply saturated and was one of my favorite filters to use when capturing images that needed a little extra impact.

Yes, you can use the Pop Art filter for portraits. I decided to take Mary to the source of all true Pop Art—a comic book store. While the filter can make skin tone look too saturated, I hedged my bets by simultaneously capturing both RAW+JPEG files. This gave me a (RAW) color photograph and a Pop Art image (JPEG) that I layered together in Adobe Photoshop, then used the Eraser tool (at 50% opacity) to lightly brush Mary’s face, allowing half of the normal skin tone to show through, while punching up her hair, clothes, and the comic books. ©2009 Joe Farace

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Soft Focus creates the familiar soft focus effect that works with still life or portrait subjects. Since there is no way to control the degree of soft focus, one way to use this filter may be to simultaneously capture RAW+JPEG images and apply the soft focus JPEG file as a layer to the unaltered RAW file so you can control the amount of soft focus by changing that layer’s opacity or the area of soft focus with a mask.

Using the Soft Focus Art Filter has some advantages over softening in post production, mainly that you can see it now and show your subject the results. You have little control over how much soft focus is used, but the traditional methods such as aperture selection and focal length still apply, and I found the filter works great in strong light as with this portrait. Exposure was 1/640 second at f/11, ISO 200, and this is how the unmanipulated file looked directly off the memory card. ©2009 Joe Farace

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Pale and Light Color uses muted color tonalities, and photographers who are fans of on-camera filters, who I suspect will be big fans of all of the Art Filters, might liken this to Cokin’s Pastel filter.

This photograph of balloons shows how the Pale and Light Color Art Filter works to create soft, pastel colors. When using Art Filters, you can adjust some aspects of the image’s exposure to enhance the filter effect, such as white balance, exposure compensation, ISO, flash intensity, and wireless flash control, but I found that exposure compensation was the most used control. ©2009 Mary Farace

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Light Tone subdues highlights and shadows and both areas are rendered softly (but not soft focus) while maintaining detail. Users of Tiffen’s Contrast filters will like this filter’s ability to control contrast.

The Light Tone Art Filter is also a useful tool in macro photography when you don’t or can’t use flash to control contrast. Here the decidedly non-macro but eminently useful Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 lens was used with an exposure of 1/320 at f/7.1, ISO 200.

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Grainy Film recreates the grainy look and high contrast tonality of black and white film and produces images with a decidedly dramatic feel. This is a great effect for studio and fashion photography as well as adding gritty reportage looks to street photography. It could even be used as a bold look for portraiture.

With contrasty subjects, the Grainy Film Art Filter, deliberately overexposed, can take on the look of a photograph made using Kodalith in the traditional darkroom. Exposure was 1/500 second at f/9, ISO 200 with a plus one-stop exposure compensation. Kevin Kubota’s (www.kubotaworkshops.com) sloppy borders effect was added to complete the analog darkroom look. ©2009 Joe Farace

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Pin Hole Camera reproduces the color tone and the vignetting of photos made with a toy camera, so it’s more of a digital Holga effect than a true pinhole. The illustration, for example, was made at an aperture of f/9 while my Zero Image (www.zeroimage.com) pinhole camera has an aperture of f/256 or thereabouts.

The Pin Hole Camera Art Filter can add some drama to an otherwise normal-looking scene. Here it was used with an exposure of 1/400 second at f/9, ISO 200, to add some pizzazz to a photo of a sculpture of Chief Little Raven who was the principal chief of the Southern Arapaho tribe. ©2009 Joe Farace

In Live View mode you can see the effect of a filter before capturing an image, making it easy to apply the right Art Filter to the right subject, because only one can be applied to an image, and only at the time it’s captured. The examples you work for the kind of subject matter I photograph. You may find other subjects that will be enhanced with any one of the Art filters and when doing your own explorations, look beyond the obvious.
 

More Than Filters

The E-620 is small and lightweight and its 16.76-ounce body is lighter than the 23.1 ounce E-30. It’s even lighter than Pentax’s tiny K-2000. Olympus claims it’s the world’s smallest digital SLR with in-body image stabilization, and I believe them. The camera’s multiple exposure function lets you tell a visual story your way. If Bill Stockwell’s misties and double-exposure style of wedding photography come back into fashion (and you know it’s just a matter of time) the E-620 is ready. Even if it doesn’t, the compact size and image quality produced by the camera make it a natural for wedding photographers enabling them to capture images on the go while adding effects from monochrome (Oly calls it monotone) to soft focus.

One accessory I would highly recommend for wedding photographers or any other pro who shoots a lot of photographs is the optional ($149.40) HLD-5 Power Battery Holder. It can hold up to two Lithium Ion BLS-1 batteries to extend the life of the E-620 and its single BLS-1 battery. With its separate shutter button and control dial, the battery holder becomes a pseudo grip that enables vertical shooting. It enhances the camera’s excellent ergonomics, makes shooting vertical images a snap, and lets you keep shooting long after the Energizer bunny has called it a day.

The E-620 delivers two autofocus options including Fast Imager Autofocus in Live View. AF Live View on the E-620 lets you compose, focus, and capture the shot quickly and easily without taking your eye from the LCD screen. When using the optical viewfinder Phase Detection AF provides fast and accurate focusing using twin cross target points that measure focus vertically and horizontally.

You can capture sharp images on the go by utilizing one of the three modes of in-body image stabilization. IS-1 is designed for general shooting and adjusts the sensor along both the horizontal and vertical planes to compensate for camera movement. For moving subjects, the E-620 offers IS-2 mode for capturing action traveling horizontally, preserving a sense of motion in the captured image when panning. IS-3 mode achieves the same goal when the camera is held vertically.

Good and Bad

While there is no doubt that being able to shoot what many film photogs call “ideal format” using the E-620’s native 4:3 ratio to deliver minimally cropped images to clients in paper sizes we all know and love, I like shooting other aspect ratios such as the old, beloved (by me anyway) 3:2 ratio. OK, the E-620’s got you covered and lets you shoot that, as well as 6:6 for all those Hasselblad and Rollei fans out there, and 16:9 ratio for images intended for display on a widescreen television.

The camera’s Face Detection capability reduces the chance of blurred subjects by distinguishing between people’s faces and the background, something wedding photographers will find handy. Even if people are moving, it tracks up to eight faces within the image area and automatically focuses and optimizes exposure for sharp, group photographs.

Shooting scenes with both highlights (like white dresses) and shadows can be tricky because of the extreme contrast between dark and bright areas. The E-620’s Shadow Adjustment Technology adjusts for extreme light variations and maintains detail in both the shadow and highlight areas of the scene. You can preview the effect in Live Mode, and if that one feature doesn’t make you a Live Mode believer, then nothing will.

Olympus’ Dust Reduction System uses their Supersonic Wave Filter that vibrates every time the camera’s turned on to remove dust from the front of the image sensor before capturing it on a special adhesive membrane. Like Live View, this is a feature that works perfectly, so perfectly you won’t even notice that you don’t have to dust spot your image files.

One of the things I like about all Olympus SLRs is their ability to capture digital infrared images by using filters. Although during testing the weather refused to cooperate and Spring arrived later than usual in the Rocky Mountains, I tested the camera’s IR capabilities using Hoya’s (www.thkphoto.com) Infrared R72 and Singh-Ray’s (www.singh-ray.com) I-Ray filters. Both performed well, although the I-Ray, which allows no visible light to pass through, refused to allow the camera to autofocus. The I-Ray also required longer shutter speeds (3.2 sec at ISO 3200) producing somewhat higher noise levels. On the other hand, its infrared effect was much more dramatic than the Hoya that allows autofocus.

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The IR effect in the photo was less than you might expect mostly because of the lack of leaves on the deciduous trees and weather in the Rocky Mountains that refused to give us beautifully crisp days to make IR photographs. Using Singh Ray’s I-Ray filter I was able to capture this image with the E-610 with an exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 3200. Noise was somewhat tamed with Nik Software’s Dfine and the image was slightly tweaked with the Tonal Contrast filter that’s part of Color Efex Pro 3.0. ©2009 Joe Farace

Olympus has abandoned the kitchen-sink approach to menus that was previously used for all its digital SLRs, and the E-620 sports a new “Gear” menu that expands to give you access to controls similar to what you would find in other Olympus SLRs. The menu structure is simpler, but sometimes important controls, such as Noise Reduction, get tucked away in a menu labeled “Image Size/Aspect/Color/WB.” That’s not where I would have thought to look for noise reduction.

I ran the E-620 through a series of low-light tests using the real-world example of photographing a building at night and saw that noise levels produced were admirably low for a camera with a relatively small (17.3 x 13.0mm) imaging chip. I shot the JPEG files with the camera’s built-in Noise Reduction system set on Auto and used the Standard noise reduction filter to maximize image sharpness while reducing noise levels. At ISO 100, even with a 6-second exposure that should have produced accumulative noise, none was visible even at high magnification. Performance was similar at ISO 200 for a two second exposure. At ISO 400 noise was extremely fine and evenly distributed and clearly visible at high magnification. Noise was visible at ISO 800 but fine and surprisingly low. At ISO 1600 and 3200 noise was visible at normal viewing distances. In fact, at 3200 it was visible on the E-620’s LCD screen, even with the in-camera reduction.

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This image of the Brighton Colorado city hall building was made at night but when there was still color in the sky to provide separation. It was part of a series of bracketed exposures where I used different ISO settings to determine where sweet spot for noise. I started at ISO 100 where this image was captured with an exposure of 6 seconds at f/16. At ISO 3200 the shutter speed was 1/6 sec. The longer exposures gave the streaks of lights from cars that I feel add to the composition of the photograph. See 100% close-ups below (click for large view). ©2009 Joe Farace

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One way to minimize noise is to use RAW capture to minimize JPEG artifacts and any noise that remains on your processed RAW file can then be eliminated or least minimized using noise reduction software. I also applied Nik Software’s (www.niksoftware.com) Dfine noise reduction plug-in to the ISO 1600 image and produced an image that was remarkably noise free. Applying Dfine to the 3200 image produce something that wasn’t perfect but was also nothing to worry about.

Flash of Inspiration

The E-620 is compatible with the Olympus FL-36R ($207) and FL-50R ($450) wireless electronic flashes and can independently control up to three wireless flash groups, with multiple flash units in each group for dramatic flash effects. The system works great indoors or out and is the same one found on the E-30 and the pro E-3. (See “What’s the Diff?” sidebar below.) It even works with the E-620’s pop-up flash, so having multiple light setups only requires one additional FL-36R and FL-50R shoe-mount flash to get started.

Not surprisingly, considering its price point and non-pro designation, the E-620 lacks a synch connection for studio flashes but does have a hot shoe. When my wife, Mary, and I began our studio tests with the E-620 using Adorama’s Flashpoint II monolights, they tripped flawlessly with Booth Photo’s wireless Flash Waves PRO transmitter and receiver. What was most striking about all of the photographs made using studio lights was how correct the color, especially skin tone, was right out of the camera. Unlike a lot of cameras I’ve tested lately, including some high-end models from the Big Two, no additional tweaking in Adobe Photoshop was required to get accurate skin color.

I really liked using the E-620. Its ergonomics and build quality call to mind the very best of pro level Olympus OM-series film cameras, a feeling that’s carried over to the actual shooting experience. For an inexpensive camera, there is not a trace of corner cutting. Olympus has packed enough technology into this tiny package to make it an incredible value as an additional camera for the E-3 shooter who wants another body for wedding or event photography. But I also see photographers who do senior photography jumping on it because of the ability to create unique in-camera images with these clever Art Filters.

The Art Filters are part of the image at-capture, similar to if you’d put a filter on your lens, not developed in some process that happens between the sensor exposure and the LCD review. The RAW image remains unaltered; only the JPEG image will display the Art Filter effects. The engineering of the Art Filters is a pas de deux of light coming through the lens and the Live MOS sensor, meant to create a unique image that’s not the same as using any old plug-in effect. For those of you who worry about losing the original image and only having the filtered file, shoot RAW+JPEG. You’ll end up with one image that has the Art Filter and one that’s a color file. Use the same technique when capturing monochrome images in-camera. High capacity CompactFlash cards have never been cheaper, and while two files may take a little extra time to write, I don’t expect that will be a problem for the photographer looking to do on-the-fly special effects. Don’t forget that you have the extra slot for an xD Picture card—get one and keep it there for a back up you can switch to faster than changing a card.

In a digital world overrun by clever SLRs, Olympus has managed a trick of pulling one of the cleverest cameras out of their hat in a long time. If you’re shooting Olympus system, you know you want one and if you’ve been wondering what the fuss is about this whole Four-Thirds thing is about, the E-620 is the answer.


E-620 v. E-30: What’s the Diff?

So what’s the real difference between the E-620 and the E-30? Not as much as you might think. (See chart at end of article.) I decided to do a side-by-side test of the cameras in the studio using the same camera settings and same exact lens, a Digital Zuiko 40-150mm f/4-5.6. While the camera settings and exposure (1/60 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 125) were also identical the E-620’s exposure seemed more correct by just the tiniest amount of extra exposure. Color on both cameras’ image files was superb, but the E-30 had the ever so small extra amount of warmth in the model’s skin tone. The E-620 produced perfect skin tine that should save you time in post-production and increasing productivity but in the real world, no correction would probably be required for images from either camera. The E-620 images seemed slightly snappier (with a bit more contrast) producing what to my eyes, and Mary’s too, was a more pleasing look. When blowing up both image files to extremely large size on a 23-inch monitor no significant image differences in sharpness or overall quality could be observed.

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At the end of the shoot, Mary and I made a few test shots with the E-30 (right) using the same Digital Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 with the E-620 (left). Overall the quality of both images is identical with the E-620 shots exhibiting just a trace more contrast producing an overall “snappier” photograph that we liked. ©2009 Joe & Mary Farace

The differences in exposure and contrast between the two can be easily attributed to differences in two different cameras that could have easily been observed in differences between two E-30’s or two E-620 but it was still there and noticeable, albeit only under critical examination. Similarly my noise tests with the E-30 while made under different circumstances than my noise tests for the E-620 gave the E-620 a slight edge but again this could still be a production variance between two cameras.

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In all of the important categories shown on the chart the biggest difference it that the E-620 has fewer focusing points, slower continuous shooting speeds, slower shutter speed at the high end, and image stabilization that delivers one-stop less performance. The E-30 is bigger ala the E-3 takes a real jumping up and down battery grip (same as the E-3) and probably, although I’m not positive about this, might be more rugged than the E-610. These are big things, yes. Important things, also yes. But the body price is almost one-half (OK, it’s 45% less) than the E-30. The E-620 also has the way-cool backlit controls as in Apple’s MacBook Pro laptop that the E-30 lacks and will take an underwater housing. You can quibble about fewer aspect ratio options, lack of a “digital level” and less viewfinder accuracy but the E-620 still costs 45% less. Am I saying that the E-620 is a better camera or is just as good? Not really. You’ll be hard pressed to see a difference in image quality but if you need to add another body to your Olympus digital SLR system and want Art Filters, you won’t go wrong with an E-620.

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Joe Farace is co-author of a new book entitled “Creative Digital Monochrome Effects” published by Lark Books. It’s available in all the best bookstores, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.


Olympus E-620 Specifications