Olympus E-420 Test / Review

PhotoComment.co.za is pleased to introduce you to on of the first tests of the Olympus E-420, likely the worlds most compact digital SLR to date. My initial opinion of the Four Thirds system adopted by Olympus, Kodak, Panasonic and the like was rather negative, however with time comes wisdom and experience, and I shall be the first to admit that the Olympus E-420 has enhanced my experience and opinion of the Four Thirds system and concept.

A reminder to the reader that our approach to testing and subsequently reviewing a camera is focused predominantly on overall user experience, encompassing ergonomics and user friendliness, which is overlooked all to often in current tech talk circles.

Excitement and curiosity preceded the delivery of the Olympus E-420 from JEL Distributors for Photocomment’s first review of an Olympus camera. With a sense of urgency I signed for and took delivery of Olympus’s latest offering and what I found inside was a wonderfully compact, light and comfortable camera body with a standard 14-42mm Olympus zoom lens.

My Personal Camera, a Canon 350D, only really ergonomically suits my hand with the vertical grip attached which defeats the purpose it was initially chosen for – a compact travel worthy DSLR. Not so with the Olympus E-420. Side by side one would be hard pressed to notice a size difference between the 350D and the smaller body Olympus, however the E420 is ergonomically pleasing and ones hand fits perfectly onto the grip without the addition of a vertical grip. In short it is a Mighty Mouse. The Olympus E420 instantly instills a sense of confidence I have often found lacking in many of its contemporaries. Having worked in photographic retail extensively I can testify that this is often a factor in the buyers final decision.

The Gauteng Motor Show was calling and my trigger finger was itching. So I charged the camera battery assembled everything and headed out taking great care not to reveal my enthusiasm.

Olympus E420 Features

The Olympus E420 brochure reveals three main features, noticeable on the brochure cover and the camera’s box, namely Face Detection, AF Live View and Dust Removal System. Then there is still the 10MP Four Thirds sensor, TruePic III processing engine, 2.7 inch screen, 3-point standard AF and low light condition 11-point contrast AF system, 49 zone light metering system, in camera image editing and 18 different ‘Scene Selection’ metering modes including fireworks, sunsets, and candlelit scenes.

A novice or first time buyer might find him or herself utterly confused and frustrated looking at that long list of techno jargon, when all they want to do is get outside and start shooting. A seasoned, more ‘knowledgeable’ buyer might look on some features with disdain and consider them mere marketing ploys. These two varying viewpoints aside, I am of the opinion that one can’t really buy a bad DSLR camera, It really comes down to how much more one can get within the budget one has allocated, and the Olympus offers great value for money. All that being said, how well do the above mentioned features work?

Let me be clear that there is still no substitute for good photographic grounding and even basic instruction and understanding of photographic principle could turn any camera into an artisan’s tool in the hands of the novice buyer helping them learn the limits of their chosen camera.

Not much can be said about the dust removal system, a novel idea which is now nearly standard on all digital SLR cameras. The light meter is on par with most of it’s competitors and in all honesty, I forgot that I had different scenes selection modes to choose from when shooting in auto. White balance is wanting, struggling to correct the orange cast from the tungsten lights at dinner which seems to be an obstacle not only Olympus is battling with.

Auto Focus Live View?

Regular readers and personal acquaintances will know my aversion to live view as found in many DSLR cameras these days. Unfortunately the Olympus E-420’s Live View does little to sway me from my belief that this feature is a rather over rated marketing ploy opposed to a refined and useful tool – perhaps with time this will change. While the concept is great, the lack of full time auto focus and subsequent delay this causes at the moment of capture renders it almost entirely useless for many of the purposes one would foresee using Live View for. The lack of a flip out screen still renders live view inconvenient for macro photography purposes. The inverse is also true and portrait photographers shooting subjects in a studio may find the interaction of being away from the viewfinder beneficial. Landscape photographers may also enjoy the relief of not looking through a viewfinder for long periods of time.

Image Quality

The low noise levels of the E-420 was an unexpected surprise.

Clicking on the image at left will produce a 100% crop of the above dinner scene shot at ISO1600. Considering the E-420’s small, image sensor, the low noise levels equal or in some cases surpass it’s competitors.

The colour rendition is good and in general the detail is acute the sharpness high, and the overall satisfaction with the end result immense. The standard 14-42mm lens, disappointed with distortion, i.e. curvature, even in it’s mid range. While the sharpness was good falloff was apparent in the image corners. One would expect performance of this sort from a wide-angle lens and not from a standard zoom.

The only other complaint that I have with this little marvel is the menu interface. When first accessing the menu on the rear LCD display, the grid layout and scrolling system handles easily and logically. Sadly however this logic evaporates when one selects a submenu, for example, ISO selection options display in the same grid format but the ability to jump from the top row to the bottom row by simply pressing down on the toggle button falls away and one has to scroll through all the ISO values with the sideways toggle buttons. The menu layout is deceptively easy, but shows it’s shortcomings with the lack of information about the purpose of custom functions, a feature which other manufacturers have included to avoid the need of referencing the instruction manual. This slowed down the handling of the camera for me but it isn’t likely to be a hindrance to a first time buyer.


Having owned and used more cameras in my lifetime than I can remember, one has to consider the point of view of a first time buyer, purchasing from a little to no knowledge point of view

Olympus have a gem in the E-420 particularly if one needs to travel light or if one is buying for the first time. At under R10 000 the E420 is in the same value for money league as the Nikon D60 and Canon 400D. Consumers wanting a camera thats a step up from the E420 and offers Image Stabilization as well, may buy the Olympus E-510 or wait for the newer E-520 (to be tested or reviewed soon) which will likely hit the shelves at just over the R10 000 price bracket.

My concluding thoughts about the E420? Well I certainly wont overlook or under estimate Olympus again when shopping for a digital single lens reflex system.

Thanks to JEL Distributors for the Loan of the production version Olympus E-420 and to Wilhelmus Moller a PhotoComment contributor and member of the editing team.