Compact SLR? Olympus E-420 Review

It’s the world’s smallest SLR or at least the smallest with interchangeable lenses. The Sigma DP1 is the “smallest.” Compared to other entry SLRs, this thing is miniscule measuring under 5 x 3.6 inches without a lens attached. All that compactness doesn’t mean Olympus went cheap on power. It’s packed with features! The composite body is solid and feels like it should be heavier than a scant 18 oz. Hit the jump for a full review.

To preface, I’m a Nikon user. I know them inside and out and am used to the myriad of lenses available to the brand.  I have never used an Olympus SLR before so color me surprised, the entry level E-420 is a powerhouse capable of equaling and in some cases surpassing the more expensive Nikon D60 and Canon Rebel XSi.

I don’t want to focus too much on technical specs so lets get them out of the way. The E-420 possesses a four thirds (awesome) 10 megapixel sensor with digital stabilization, a built in dust reduction sensor cleaner, 2.7″ LCD display with Live View, True Pic III image processing, auto face detection and shadow adjustment, multiple scene modes, and a 100-1600 ISO sensitivity range. Supported memory formats are Compact Flash (both types), Microdrive, SD and xD cards.

You can purchase the body for under $400 but beginners will probably want a starter package which includes the Zuiko Digital 14-42mm kit lens pictured below. Olympus was kind enough to send what I call the super duo; the 35mm macro and the tiny 25mm pancake lens along with the kit lens for testing.

Right out the gate I was disappointed with the kit lens. Unless you’re in a well light area, pictures come out soft and a bit under saturated. White balance was spot on but I prefer my images a little sharper and richer. Even with custom settings I still wasn’t happy. The lens focuses very quickly and snaps instantaneously but I couldn’t find anything remarkable about it. Compare it to the kit lenses that accompanies the Nikon D60 and Canon XSi both of which offer optical image stabilization and sharper focus, the Zuiko 14-42mm kit lens is outclassed.

But throw in either the Zukio Digital 35mm macro or the 25mm pancake lens and almost every photo comes out perfect. Simply put, both lenses are tack sharp, beautifully constructed, and for the money produces images rivaling $800 lenses. The bulk of my review time was spent with these lenses and since they’re small, toting the whole camera around wasn’t a problem.

Start-up on the E-420 is instantaneous and despite its small size, Olympus clearly worked on ergonomics. The little gem slid comfortably in my hand. There are basic scene modes for sporting, landscape, and night etc… but if you really wanna see what this baby can do, you’ll use either the aperture or shutter priority modes. Just check out the galleries below to see what I mean.

Those of you who want the camera to do all the thinking for you, no problem. In auto mode the camera takes less than 2 seconds to focus and if you so prefer, the LCD screen gives you a live image of what the lens sees. In poorly lit situations, you have total control over the flash intensity and output of the camera. I dare say it’s the best automatic flash on any entry level SLR. Both analog controls and digital UI are intuitive with no menu drilling. The screen is bright and the backlight automatically turns off in direct sunlight. The only time auto mode produced less than pleasant results are indoors in incandescent or dim lighting. The camera has a “warm” tendency bathing everything in a yellow glow. However a quick setting change in the white balance or post processing fixes is quickly.

 

What we liked:

  • Very small and compact for a digital SLR
  • Affordable, $100-200 less than the Nikon D60 and Canon Rebel XSi
  • Modern and more powerful four third lens system
  • Built in sensor cleaner
  • Solid build yet lightweight
  • Controls and UI are intuitive. No menu digging
  • With the right lens, beautiful images
  • Supports almost every open memory format
  • JPG and RAW format support
  • Compatible with wireless flashes

What could be improved:

  • No optical stabilization
  • No AF assist lamp
  • LCD screen has poor pixel resolution and contrast. Doesn’t offer a good representation of your photos when reviewing them
  • Very loud shutter
  • Odd proprietary USB cable

I know a lot of you spend months if not years developing your concepts only to be shot down because of poor photography. You really need to invest in a digital SLR to get the best results but with budget constraints and current economic conditions, it’s very hard to find the right camera to fulfill your needs. The Olympus E-420 is that camera. It’s affordable, compact, lightweight, powerful, compatible with the full range of Zuiko Digital lenses, and produces images even seasoned pros would go gaga over. The E-420 is the best bang for your buck.

I can’t say enough about the 35mm macro and 25 pancake lenses. Both do great portraits in low or bright lighting. Colors are rich, vibrant and the 35mm macro gives you a 1:1 scale ratio. I saw parts of flies I don’t think I ever wanna see again. My favorite is the 25mm pancake lens. It’s so flat, it barely adds any bulk to an already tiny camera yet produces some of the most beautiful images I’ve seen from a prime lens. You can purchase both lenses for under $200 and coupled with the kit lens, you pretty much everything you need for work photography and just hanging out with family and friends

Company: Olympus

 

Zuiko Digital 25mm prime lens

 

Zuiko Digital 35mm macro lens

15 Comments

  • D'Edwards says:

    I've been looking for an SLR as a late Christmas present to myself. Those photos you took are so nice. I'll check it out in stores today after work. Thanks!

  • D'Edwards says:

    I’ve been looking for an SLR as a late Christmas present to myself. Those photos you took are so nice. I’ll check it out in stores today after work. Thanks!

  • Lee says:

    Your post starts off by saying, “It’s the world’s smallest SLR or at least the smallest with interchangeable lenses.” You know the internet; you will be corrected, even if you were right in the first place. I just wanted to state that the Panasonic G1 is smaller in every dimension and weighs less as well. Of course, the E-420 is a four thirds camera and the G1 is a micro four thirds camera. I see that dpreview posted a review of the G1 today.

    • Markus says:

      The Pannie G1 may be a tad smaller but at a huge cost. It’s incompatible with nearly every single lens out there and any pro photographer knows it’s all about the lens.

      • shagster says:

        the G1 isn’t not an SLR! it doesn’t have a miror.

      • Hakon says:

        Au contraire, Markus. The G-1 is actually compatible with nearly every single lens out there since its short flange distance makes it possible to add adapters for basically every lens ever made.

  • Marek says:

    Interesting article, definitely. Especially as the E-420 is already around for quite some time, and sometimes there are really good deals including the standard 14-42mm lens.

    Unfortunately, searching the web for other kits or even for the 25mm or 35mm lens themselves was frustrating – they are way more expensive than mentioned in the article!

    Is there a special source where the lenses can be found for under 200 bucks?

  • Lee says:

    Markus, I will not argue with you on that point. I’m not even sure we can call the G1 an SLR because there is no mirror to reflex.

  • Robin says:

    Is relay nice post……..

  • Devin says:

    Stabilization in the body saves you a lot of money instead of paying to have each lens stabilized the body does it instead making each lens able to perform this way. For example the canon 75-300 is ~279.99 without IS with IS it is 799.99. I would not mark down the Olympus line since their stabilization is just as effective. For more info visit this site. I shot with the 420 and the E3 I am quite fond of them and would recommend this camera to anyone looking for a small DSLR which does not way much and still preforms great.

    http://www.olympus-europa.com/consumer/dslr_16742.htm

  • Hmm iss anyone els having problems with the images oon this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or
    if it’s the blog. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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