Olympus Camedia E-10 and E-20 — a Technical Review
|My other articles related to the Olympus E-10 and E-20 cameras|
|How is this review different than others?|
There are a number of other reviews of the E-10 and E-20 on the Web, offering detailed description of the camera's specs and controls. If you haven't seen them, I would recommend using them as a starting point. The links are given here.
What you will find in this review is the camera's specs, annotated with the discussion of their significance and real meaning, plus my own, often subjective and opinionated, impressions.
The article is addressed to the advanced amateur who would like to gain some knowledge of the camera beyond the bare specs or the description of control placement.
The review, originally posted in December, 2000, is based on production-run cameras I bought through regular retail channels. At the time of this update (June, 2004) I have used the E-10 for more than two years before selling it to a friend; E-20 — for almost three years, and the text is still being updated from time to time.
(If you have to know: the pictures at the right were also taken with the reviewed cameras, about 1s exposure at F/8, diffused daylight.)
E-10 vs. E-20
Resolution & storage
The bottom line
|A significant development|
With the Camedia E-10, Olympus successfully bridged the gap between the best sub-$1000 advanced amateur ("prosumer") cameras and the "professional" ones, costing $5000 and more. Its follow-up, the E-20 is basically the same camera, increasing resolution from four to five megapixels, and adding some minor improvements.
If these efforts succeed on the market, we may expect other camera makers to follow shortly, possibly bringing prices of digital SLRs down to $1000 within two years or sooner. This would be comparable to the price of a good, film-based SLR with a decent lens or two.
With the SLR convenience and precision of controls, and with image quality comparable to that of film (let's face it: for me a break-even point was at three megapixels), only the price advantage may prolong the period of phasing out the 35-mm film.
Judged by my own experience with the E-10, the Olympus engineers and designers really succeeded. The camera competes well against models selling at 2-4 times the price, and it should appeal to advanced amateurs and professionals on one hand, and wealthier tyros on the other, providing high-quality images and being surprisingly easy and pleasant to use. The E-20 (with which I have equally positive experience), being an incremental, if not revolutionary, improvement, continues the trend.
|E-10 vs. E-20 — similarities and differences|
Actually, both cameras are almost identical. The main difference is the new CCD sensor in the E-20, with five megapixels, as opposed to E-10's four (see below for more on the CCD resolution).
The other differences, in addition to being pointed out in the Annotated Review which follows, are listed below.
In my opinion, most of these differences are nothing to write home about. Except for the CCD, I suspect that all changes are entirely in software. Don't take this as a criticism: E-10 (still in production) is an excellent piece of gear, and giving it more pixels is a good thing to do. On the other hand, keeping the mechanical design the same means no messing with something that works, but also keeping the cost down.
The E-20 is offered in three flavors: E-20N (North American market, NTSC video output), E-20P (Europe and most of the world, PAL video output), and just an E-20 (Japan?). I'm referring here to all three as just "E-20".
To make differences between E-10 and E-20 easier to spot, references specific to the latter are shown in color.
Die-cast aluminum, some external hardened plastic.
The black aluminum body assures not only dimensional rigidity (improving the optical quality of the image), but also acts as a heat sink, reducing image noise.
The finish is first-class. Handling this camera is a pleasure.
The few plastic parts do not feel cheap, and the grip is additionally covered with a soft, textured layer. Very nice.
The tripod socket is well-positioned and solid.
Look and feel:|
Big, soft handgrip, thumb recess.
|Although quite big and heavy (bigger than my spare SLR body), the camera has a good balance and feel to it. My first impression was that of a Nikon N-100 SLR with the part of the body to the left of the lens chopped off.|
129x104x161 mm, including lens.
|The substantial body depth is increased by the length of the lens (see below). I think I would prefer something just a little, maybe 15%, smaller, very much like a compact SLR (remember Olympus OM-1?).|
1.05 kg (37 oz), w/o batteries.
|Cutting this down by 30% would be nice, still providing enough heft to avoid camera shake. On the other hand, Olympus must have had good reasons. Oh well, I still keep my Oly C-3000Z for traveling light and for long hiking trips.|
In a camera costing $2000, this is a subject of much discussion going around. Olympus gives three main reasons for their decision:
|The proof is in the pictures. And indeed, here my impressions are very, very favorable. Here is a small page of E-10 sample images, showing reduced full-frame images next to the original-size, not manipulated fragments.|
|And here is a set of samples from the E-20. The loss of image quality in the progressive scan mode is also shown here.|
The lens is sharp (hardly any difference between center and corners, quite amazing), and has the flare well under control — with the help of good internal finish and the deeply sculpted hood. The distortion at the wide end will be visible in some applications, however.
Based on my preliminary observations, the amount of in-camera postprocessing applied in the E-10 and E-20 (even at "normal" settings) is less than that in most other digital cameras (including Oly's 3000 series), leaving more room for image manipulation with external software. This is what I would expect from the professional-class camera, although at the first glance it may seem less pleasing than images from many lower-end cameras.
After some experimentation I decided to avoid any in-camera postprocessing in most of the situations, setting sharpness to "Soft" and contrast to "Low". The default "Normal" settings may result in more pleasing snapshots straight from the camera, but the images at "Low/Soft" give better results when submitted to postprocessing on your computer.
A note on comparing images between various cameras: some Web sites have a nice collection of comparison images. The caveat is that often these are not images of real objects "at large", but shots of 2-dimensional, previously taken pictures of such objects. While some aspects of the image quality can be judged from such images, many (like handling of glare, high-contrast transitions, white balance, and more) cannot.
At this moment (mid-2002), the E-10/E-20 line still faces no competition in its class; well, it is a class of its own in the two-dimensional plot of performance and price.
Olympus seems to have caught other camera makers with their pants down, and they were not able to catch up in the following year.
Some offerings from Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Sigma, come close, but on one hand, they cost significantly more (if you include a comparable lens), on the other — they use standard, 35-mm format lenses.
Some people may consider the latter an advantage. It would have been one, possibly, if these cameras had the image sensor of the size of a 35 mm film frame. Their sensors, however, are about 1.5 times smaller (linear size), and this means that using a 24 mm wide-angle lens gives us the equivalent focal length of 36 mm, hardly an impressive wide-angle performance.
Moreover, every lens involves some compromises. Among others, the sharpness at frame edges can be improved at the expense of that in the center, and both are judged in terms of the confusion circle, usually expressed in terms of the linear frame size. Now, for the 35-mm cameras adapted to digital this value should be 1.5 times less than for film cameras, but I don't think it is. Need I say more?
Of course, I expect these makers to come up with some lenses specifically designed for that breed of cameras. They will be, however, still facing a number of "legacy problems".
As one of my friends used to say: "If you add a big engine to a scooter, it won't become a racing car. It will still remain a scooter, with a big motor attached."
In the price range just below the E-xx there are some nice models out there made by Minolta, Sony, Olympus, and Fuji, but all of them are crippled by one main shortfall: lack of the true, optical TTL viewing. An electronic TTL viewfinder will not replace a true optical one; try them side by side and you'll know what I mean. Please don't send me emails to the contrary.
With the E-10/E-20 Olympus brings a professional-level camera within reach of an advanced amateur — the one who has to have the best (and who can afford it). This is a strong attempt at excellence. The cameras are capable, highly flexible, easier to use than most, and, most importantly, produce high-quality images.
Choosing a tool to be used in your favorite pastime is a highly personal thing. Almost every camera has some good points, and all have some shortcomings. The trick is choosing a model with pluses making your photography better and more enjoyable, and minuses you can either work around or get used to. While I'm highly satisfied with the E-xx cameras, and the results they provide, your mileage may vary.
Keeping the above in mind, here is my personal and, possibly, opinionated recommendation: if you can afford the E-20, go for it. If not — there is no excuse for not at least having a serious look at the E-10, with the image quality high enough to guarantee that the camera will not become obsolete in the next few years.
I have been using an E-10 since '2000, and I like it even more now than then. Having voted once with my own, hard-earned money I didn't hesitate to do it again for the E-20, and yes, I'm glad I did.
Anyone can grab a camera, run around with it for two days, then rephrase manufacturer's press release and specs sheet, throw in some fluff, and call it a "camera review". Unfortunately, that's what most computer magazines are publishing. Majority of their reviewers seem to have no previous experience in photography (and not too much in computers, either).
We are lucky, however, to have a number of Web sites with people who know what they are writing about (well, at least most of the time). Don't look for the big "consumer sites"; these are not very useful. Stick to specialized digital photography ones like these listed below, run by dedicated individuals.
These pages, run by photography buffs like myself, can provide quite a lot of useful information from people who actually use the equipment on a day-to-day basis. They are not frequently updated, but still worth visiting.
Olympus presence on the Web is just an embarrassment; don't waste your time trying to find any information there.
There is one exception: the Olympus Japan site, with extensive sections on the E-10 and E-20. The only minus is that all this is in Japanese. Still, with help of the Altavista's Babelfish translation engine I was able to find there quite a lot of information not available anywhere else. An entertaining byproduct of a visit there is the Babelfish translation itself, with quite a few unintentional comical effects.
|My other articles related to the Olympus E-10 and E-20 cameras|
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