originally published in Wired.com, 2008-05-09
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.
That 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
For more on using the E-420, scroll down to see Dylan's field notes.
(Photos by Jim Merithew for Wired.com)
Feature-wise, the E-420 holds its own against other low-cost SLRs. The 10 megapixel sensor produces good quality images with little noise up to and including ISO 800 (it maxes out at ISO 1600).
The camera is fast, squeezing off shots with no shutter lag, just as you'd expect from an SLR. Like other recent Olympus cameras, such as the E-510, it has a "live view" mode, which lets you compose shots on the LCD instead of peering through the viewfinder as you must do with most SLRs.
The 2.7-inch LCD is bright and has a wider viewing angle than most camera displays, but images update more slowly in live view mode than they do on most point-and-shoot cameras, making this mode more suitable to slow-moving targets than fast-moving ones.
The E-420 sports a variety of autofocus modes including one that automatically detects faces in the frame and focuses on them. That feature worked well in our tests but sometimes took as much as a second to locate a face. It also only works when the camera's live view mode is 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 Olympus that drops the weight of the camera to a trim 1.2 pounds. The Zuiko lens is just 1 inch from front to back -- much smaller than almost any other digital camera lens on the market. Its focal length corresponds to that of a 50mm lens on a standard 35mm film camera, which closely corresponds to the viewing angle of the human eye, and is a popular focal length for portraits and candid photography.
Unless you subscribe to the lens-size-correlates-with-penis-size theory touted by many tourists, this compact lens's miniscule dimensions make it 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 should work 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 lens like this. One of the main reasons you'd use a fixed focal-length lens is to get the larger aperture it affords, so we're disappointed that this doesn't even offer f2.0, which would make it a true standout among low-cost lenses for digital cameras.
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