Olympus E-620 Review

Tiny Happy Pinhole

You have to hand it to Olympus, for a comparatively 'tiny' Japanese corporation they stream out interesting things at an impressive rate. Some smooth evolutions, some wild innovations, while at the same time they just keep pushing features down their range. Now the E-620 pitches up as the world's smallest SLR with in-body image stabilisation. Looking like the offspring of a liaison between the tiny E-450 and the muscular E-30, it retains almost all the features from its larger parent (itself virtually an E-3 minus the armour plating) while barely bigger than the smaller one. It creates a new niche – the very compact enthusiast SLR.

The Olympus E-620 doesn't replace an older model. The 600 series is new and fits nicely between the 400s and the Olympus E-30, below the Olympus E-3. Exactly how it sits with the Olympus E-520 isn't quite so clear. Numerically and functionally it ranks above, even though it's smaller. As the only SLR system designed to be digital the E series has always held the promise of smaller cameras. This was made flesh with the entry level E-400, whose progeny the E410, 420 and 450 have remained the smallest SLRs on sale. With the E-620 as small enthusiast model, this strategy still leaves space for a weatherproof small pro model. The popular E-520 may well stay on as an option for people with bigger hands.

The Olympus E-620 and the 14-42mm kit lensThe Olympus E-620 and the 14-42mm kit lens

Nice body, same about the face

The E-620 has definitely inherited the Olympus family looks. Some of the best of the E-4xxs and a little muscle from the E-30. It is still small, barely thicker and taller than an E-450, despite squeezing in a flip out screen and in-body stabilisation. It feels small in your hand but good and dense. Olympus have build quality sorted. Not in the sense that all their models are indestructible, but so that every model feels great. They really are nicely made and make competitors feel quite clumsy in comparison.

When I first handled the E-620, after using both the E-420 and E-3 for some time now, it strangely felt both too big and too small. Compared with the E-420 it's deeper, and more angular as a result of the hinge on the articulated LCD. Compared with the E-3 the grip is less exaggerated and the lens plays a larger part in holding the rig steady. But it just took a few minutes to drop into a groove between the two which the Olympus E-620 digital SLR fits like a glove. The grip is big enough to provide the secure monkey hold that I like and the stronger angles help to lock your hand into place. I soon felt quite at home. My better half who has smaller hands found it an ideal fit – while she finds the E-3 more than a handful.

Feature count

The E-620 cherry picks features from various models, and still has a few of its own. It collects the 12.3 Megapixel sensor from the E-30 and E-P1, the Art filters from the E-30, and the IS unit from the E-P1.

Where it might be fair to suggest that some brand's lower echelons are dumbed down, that's not the case with the E series which are the most configurable cameras amongst the crowded SLR market. The E-620 sets some kind of record here with a few controls even I won't ever use – and I love controls. The bulk of controls are familiar from previous models, but the expanded menus are logical and more rewarding. The depth of the configuration is quite striking. Beyond normal stuff like shutter release priorities and bracketing methods, there's a wealth of unexpected extras like custom battery warning levels, separate exposure offsets on the metering modes and even fine tuning of focus - on a per point basis.

Some of the review sites have taken exception to this, whining that it's all just too much, but you never need to enter the menu system if you don't want to. All Olympus SLRs have what is known as the Super Control Panel which gives instant display and control over a very well chosen set of the most used parameters. Just by pressing OK you can navigate thorough all the displayed parameters and set them, fast. It's a very natural way to set the camera, although you do have to lift your eyes from the viewfinder.

The rear view of the E-620 and E-420 with 9-18mm for comparisonThe rear view of the E-620 and E-420 with 9-18mm for comparison

On the button

The spread of keys is somewhat different from previous E-Series. The hinge for the tilt and twist display bars buttons on the left hand side and it's not tall enough to have them under the display, like the E-3. Moving the review and live view buttons into the thumb radius above the cursor pad is a home run, gathering the menu and info button on the top left makes sense but takes a little more getting used to.

One 'surprise and delight' feature makes its debut the first time you power the camera up after dusk; the control button cluster lights up. It's surprising how much this helps; perhaps you spot a night scene you want to capture and, whether you want to use the super control panel via the cursor pad or go straight to ISO, metering, AF or white balance you can simply see the buttons you need. The glow also highlights review, live view and IS controls. What a great idea!

Back to back with the Olympus E-420Back to back with the Olympus E-420

The card door has had a work over, not the release lever of the E-3, but a slide and latch mechanism which can't be brushed or idly flicked open. Like all other Olympus SLRs there are two card slots behind that door; Compact Flash and xD. The slightly newer Olympus E-P1 PEN EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) camera has moved to SD, so this pairing may not be seen in public much longer. Whatever the cards, I'm very pro this twin slot set up as it effectively gives the E-series the option of built in memory. I use the CF slot as the primary shooting memory and leave the xD as a safety net. Many times I've needed a bit more space, not wiped a card, or forgotten to replace the CF and smiled broadly at my 2GB reserve tank.

Gardening leave

My first stop with a new camera (in Summer) is a trip into my garden. With a macro lens on I hoped to test the resolution of that new sensor (excellent by the way), but what struck me first of all was the colour. Olympus have a reputation for good colour, but the E-620 pulled out some very hard delphinium blues and held on to some outrageous oranges and reds. The session was instructive as I found it was very easy to remove face detection - using the Super control panel - and then to select the centre focus point - panel again - and then to reduce the centre spot size - that did need a trip into the menu. So with a few presses I was back to my favoured set up, already wasting the extra six focus points!

I was impressed with the colours in the gardenI was impressed with the colours in the garden

What macro sessions also show is whether focus is accurate, using the equivalent of a f2.8 140mm lens (Zuiko 50mm and 1.4x converter) you don't get much margin for error and I didn't need it. I got razor sharp results on moving insects; the stabilisation helped, but I was pleased. Outdoors the ambient light was ample, but I thought I should be thorough and so I played in our kitchen cobwebs - I keep plenty of spiders for situations like this :-) These days I use the wireless control mode as it means I can just perch the flash somewhere and control it from the camera. The RC mode is beautifully simple; set remote flash ON in the menu, set mode on the FL-36 or FL-50 to RC too and you're away. It works like wire but better, you can control 3 channels of numerous flashes in any mode including FP TTL - where shutter speeds up to 1/4000th are available. I love it for impromptu macro as you can just perch the flash anywhere and only have to handle the camera.

Precise focus is vital for macro portraitsPrecise focus is vital for macro portraits

Angles and demons

Even though Olympus introduced SLR live view back in 2007, it's fair to say that it's still a work in progress. Their pioneer E-330 used an extra sensor which worked better than the system that's on this and pretty much every new SLR now. They all lock the mirror up to expose the main sensor and relay the view to the screen. While you see a live view all the camera can do is try to focus like a compact, only when the mirror drops can it use its fast phase detection focus system. It's the same for all the current (mirror flapping) systems. The Olympus E-620 can use a hybrid of both methods to refine live view focus using phase detection when the photo is taken. This works well, but isn't as fast as direct view and phase detection alone. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have the contrast detect algorithms from the mirrorless E-P1 or Panasonic GH1 on board.

Live view is way more useful with a versatile, mobile LCD. Without one, you have to accept an oblique view of the subject. With a tilting LCD you can work higher or lower but once it swivels too you are released from standing behind the camera. The screen swings 180 degrees out to the side and can then twist 270 degrees, this allows you a front row seat from any position except lying beneath the front of the camera. So it has all the useful options covered. The 2.7" screen is bright and clear, not the highest resolution available, but one of the few I've used which can actually hold its own in bright sunlight. For manual focus in live view you can enlarge the focus area by 10 or 14x.

OK so I enjoy taking pictures of insects!OK so I enjoy taking pictures of insects!

Another useful option the LCD offers is to turn inward for protection from scratches. If you feel nostalgic looking at the blank camera back after doing this, why not try playing 'film camera'. No reviews or extra info, see how long you can stand it!

Wide Boy

I've used the Olympus kit lenses for years now, so they are a well known quantity – some of the best budget lenses and a bargain at the kit prices. Their new stable mate is a 9-18mm wide angle lens. I've used the fantastic pro grade 7-14mm a lot, but would be the first to admit it isn't light, cheap or easy to hide. Olympus needed an affordable ultra wide option and here it is. For all the difference in cost, it's the difference in size which hits home most. It is a very little larger than the kit lenses - which are themselves very small - and it doesn't expand to any extent. Unlike the other 'budget' range members, it has a metal lens mount. The front element is a fair size, but by no means extreme and unlike the 7-14mm you can use filters, or just protect it with a 72mm UV.

For the price, I've got no complaints with the build or operation of the lens but the design is very low key. It actually looks like a nice lens disguised to look like a standard lens. I'd suggest Olympus gave it nicer focus and zoom rings to cosset users and emphasise that it's worth 3x as much its range mates.

What do points make?

Before the E-3 arrived, Olympus SLRs had just three focus points (not something I ever found a problem as I like to use just the centre). The Olympus E-620 has a slightly cut down version with 7 points rather than the 11 the E-3 and E-30 have. Much to my surprise, I soon found a use for them; in shooting fish underwater with a macro lens, the wider net of points allowed the camera some warning of objects in its wafer thin depth of field and had a positive effect on lens ballistics (nerdspeak translation = it was faster). With less specialist lenses this wasn't needed and with static macro I prefer to choose the focus point my self, rather than let the camera decide what's important.

This abstract sail ceiling really tests dynamic rangeThis abstract sail ceiling really tests dynamic range

Unlike its big brothers the focus points aren't all created equally. Five of the seven points are fully biaxial - with four sensors at each crosspoint. In common with other brands, the only way to fully exploit focusing speed is with ultrasonic lenses. Supersonic Wave Drive or SWD in Olympus speak, so the 12-60mm was my next stop. This lens is a pleasure to use on any E-series body, but really flies on the new models with updated focus systems. On the E620 the 12-60mm feels as fast as the 'fastest in the world' E-3, and turned out some great results before I swapped onto a longer lens to give the stabiliser a work out.

Shake rattle and roll

The Zuiko 50-200mm is another super sharp lens, but at those focal lengths - effectively doubled on a 4/3 format E-series body - you need plenty of light to avoid shake. The in-body sensor based stabiliser on the E-series has been reviewed extensively and rates very well. The consensus seems to be that it's just as effective as in-lens systems. The E-620 adds extra utility to this; if you want to try some non standard glass the stabiliser can be configured to work with any length of lens between 8 and 1000mm. With so many adaptors available for the E-series, you can try almost anything. The stabiliser has 3 modes, which are just numbered and not described, 1 - both axis, 2 - horizontal and 3 - vertical. With in-body IS all your lenses become stabilised - including wide angles and kit lenses, everything. IS does use more power, but you can turn it off whenever you like. My favourite use is for interior and dusk candid shots, no flash needed to retain the atmosphere of candles and firelight.

The limiting factor in low speed shooting tends to be the natural movement of the subject, engaging Auto ISO helps strike a balance. I'm easy for high ISO shooting as I remember the film days when 400ASA was fast, but I'm impressed with the performance up to 1600. Sure a Nikon D3 is better, but these ordinary SLRs, the E-620 and contemporaries such as the Canon 450D and Nikon D90, are giving much better performance than rose tinted films ever did. They get closer scrutiny too, as we peer into the shadows looking for noise after downloading, rather than just flicking through prints. I thought that ISOs up to 1600 were fine, attractively grainy at the top end, but sharp and usable. ISO 2000-3200 got noisy, and although they're sort of OK, I'd prefer to set a lower shutter speed and try to hold still!

Holly singing in the dark - ISO1600 at 125thHolly singing in the dark - ISO1600 at 1/25th

Using the 50-200mm I'd need shutter speeds between 1/100th and 1/400th to avoid shake – equivalent focal lengths are doubled for 4/3 cameras. At a gig in a very dark village hall I didn't get offered any faster than 1/25th and most shots were at 1/10th, but I got sharp results without too much trouble. The IS adds about 3-4 stops to what you can handhold, if you're careful. Used in conjunction with the Auto ISO it pretty much frees you from using flash indoors and makes sniping for candid shots in crowds much more successful.

Noise reduction and noise filtering can be adjusted on all Olympus SLRs so you can play with the balance of noise/grain and the softening filtering causes. The default balance is towards a filmic grain, not a super clean, cold digital look.

Dust devil

The IS is driven by the same technology as the dust buster which keeps the sensor clean. So far it's the only system which has worked in independent testing, although almost every SLR has one now. Despite this I'm always very careful to avoid dust when changing lenses; while dust isn't a big deal for Olympus shooters, there's no point tempting fate. We don't have to fret like the others do, but dust can still creep in and good camera hygiene is just common sense.

Battery Life

The Olympus E-620 uses the same BLS-1 battery as the 400 series and EP-1. It's small, at 1050mAh, but I've been nothing but impressed by the way it lasts in my E-420. In the E-620 it can be worked harder, features like stabilisation and live view do drain power, but that's up to you of course. After lots of flash, live view play and using the IS full time I pulled the number down as low as 250 before I saw the battery warning. Using it as a normal SLR on a country walk we were back to E-420 levels of 400-500 shots per charge, where you don't usually see the battery warning as you change it before you go out the next time.

Extras

As always there's a whole pile of accessories for any new SLR, but for me the headline act is the underwater housing, the PT-E06. As a diver it's a huge positive for a camera to have purpose designed case. I've taken it for few dives in a companion test, I hope you'll have time to read that too!

If you read other reviews of this camera you'll see that the Olympus E-620 is rated ahead or on par with its competitors in all respects bar one – which is faint praise if you compare the build quality and feature set which are markedly better. There's only one aspect where it apparently trails on the spec sheet, and it's a strange one. Video recording is starting to creep into the SLR market – although it's rarely full frame rate and clunky to say the least. It has a lot in common with the reservations about live view and it seems that the new Micro Four Thirds cameras are the only ones which have done it right from the outset. It may be that Olympus are trying not to muddy the waters with a half baked option, but given their leadership in live view, the omission is a pity.

Obscure colour test number 28B - ladybirds & faded plastic!Obscure colour test number 28B - ladybirds & faded plastic!

And finally, the six art filters are an interesting diversion. No honestly! I did try them and while I thought they were an amusing idea couldn't immediately think of a time when I'd use them. Then I casually mentioned them to a friend and he was full of enthusiasm. After rattling off a few frames to see how they worked, his view was that he'd seen plenty of photo exhibits where the six options could have covered most of what filled the 'creative' categories. Maybe he was a little jaded but the effects are fun and can be applied to pictures as they're taken as well as after the fact in-camera (and in the Olympus software). I think they'd be more useful if there was some control over the strength of each effect.

Conclusion

After you've read this far you won't be surprised that I liked it. It takes an awful lot of the things I like about my current cameras by packing E-3 functionality into an E-450 sized body. Short of being weatherproof, the build couldn't be much better. It's a light companion for travel and days out without compromising features. The 400 series is still smaller, but if you can stretch your budget a little you get a lot of useful goodies. The image stabiliser and high ISO performance make natural light shooting a breeze. Little touches like the backlit buttons fit right into this mindset. I really enjoyed using it and will be sad to see it go!

Ratings

Build: 9/10 - Great, only better if it was weatherproof
Performance: 9/10 - Strong true, natural colour with lots of detail
Handling: 8.5/10 - Secure grip, logical control, fun
Overall:
The Olympus E620 digital SLR is an excellent, full featured compact SLR which loves travel.

Thanks to Holly Pickford, who was playing with the Travellin Soldiers.

Read Rob's review of the Olympus PT-E06 waterproof housing for the Olympus E-620.
Read Rob's review of the Olympus UFL-2 strobe for use with the PT-E06.