Review: Olympus E-420 is One Smokin’ SLR

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Let’s get one thing out of the way: Even though it’s called the 420, Olympus’ latest camera has absolutely nothing to do with illicit drug use. We tried to find a secret compartment for storing your stash: No dice.

In fact, the Olympus Evolt E-420 doesn’t have much room for stashing anything. It’s the most diminutive digital SLR we’ve seen — and that’s a good thing. Most SLRs are bulky, heavyweight beasts tipping the scales at two pounds or more. The E-420 is more of a bantamweight, weighing in at just 1.4 pounds with the included kit lens.

Olympus_e420_009That included lens continues Olympus’ trend of bundling inexpensive, lightweight, versatile optics with its SLR kits. This piece of glass is a 14-42mm, F3.5-5.6 zoom lens that goes from an unusually wide-angle film equivalent of 28mm to a reasonably telephoto 84mm equivalent.

The camera’s 10-megapixel sensor holds its own against other entry-level SLRs, and offers the full complement of image quality, exposure, autofocus and other settings that photo geeks expect from an SLR. Like other recent Olympus cameras, it’s even got a "live view" feature so you can compose shots on the LCD instead of the viewfinder.

But while we like the E-420’s size, we’re a little disappointed that it isn’t even smaller. With Olympus’ forthcoming ultra-compact 25mm, f2.8 Zuiko Digital lens, the E-420 comes close to being the ideal weapon for a photojournalist — a compact, high-megapixel camera with a low profile and a fleet footed lens.

But it’s not quite there yet: At 3.5 inches from the front of the 25mm lens to the back of the viewfinder, the E-420 is still too bulky to fit unobtrusively in a jacket pocket. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction. We’re looking forward to the next next version in the series, even if it Olympus forgets to add that secret stash compartment.  –Dylan Tweney

WIRED Light weight and small size make it far more portable than most DSLRs. Live view lets you compose on-screen instead of peering through the viewfinder. Speedy autofocus. No discernible shutter lag. Paging all photo geeks: RAW format support.

TIRED Fewer buttons means it takes more menu-surfing to adjust basic settings like ISO and white balance. Face-detection feature can be slow. Four Thirds lens compatibility is largely moot, as no manufacturers beside Olympus and pricey Sigma support the standard. No pop-up bong attachment.

$600 with 14-42mm kit lens, olympusamerica.com

7 out of 10

For more on using the E-420, scroll down to see Dylan’s field notes.

(Photos by Jim Merithew for Wired.com)

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Feature-wise, the E-420 holds its own against other low-cost SLRs. The10 megapixel sensor produces good quality images with little noise upto and including ISO 800 (it maxes out at ISO 1600).

The camera is fast, squeezing off shots with no shutter lag, just asyou’d expect from an SLR. Like other recent Olympus cameras, such asthe E-510, it has a "live view" mode, which lets you compose shots onthe LCD instead of peering through the viewfinder as you must do withmost SLRs.

The 2.7-inch LCD is bright and has a wider viewing angle than mostcamera displays, but images update more slowly in live view mode thanthey do on most point-and-shoot cameras, making this mode more suitableto slow-moving targets than fast-moving ones.

The E-420 sports a variety of autofocus modes including one thatautomatically detects faces in the frame and focuses on them. Thatfeature worked well in our tests but sometimes took as much as a secondto locate a face. It also only works when the camera’s live view modeis switched on.

In addition to the kit lens, we also tested the E-420 with a very trim$250 Zuiko Digital 25mm prime (fixed focal length) lens from Olympusthat drops the weight of the camera to a trim 1.2 pounds. The Zuikolens is just 1 inch from front to back — much smaller than almost anyother digital camera lens on the market. Its focal length correspondsto that of a 50mm lens on a standard 35mm film camera, which closelycorresponds to the viewing angle of the human eye, and is a popularfocal length for portraits and candid photography.

Unless you subscribe to the lens-size-correlates-with-penis-size theorytouted by many tourists, this compact lens’s miniscule dimensions makeit quite appealing. It’s especially good for unobtrusive "run and gun"photography: shooting street scenes, political demonstrations,footraces, or crime scenes. Or, if you’re less adventurous, it shouldwork pretty well at the family reunion picnic or the county fair.

The aperture of f2.8 is not as large as we’d like in a small prime lenslike this. One of the main reasons you’d use a fixed focal-length lensis to get the larger aperture it affords, so we’re disappointed thatthis doesn’t even offer f2.0, which would make it a true standout amonglow-cost lenses for digital cameras.

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Review: Olympus E-420 is One Smokin’ SLR