The pro-level E-1 SLR was the first Four Thirds camera from any manufacturer, and good though it is, its 5-megapixel resolution was always going to be a perceived drawback.
The E-300 followed, with an 8-megapixel sensor and a decent entry-level price point. Despite a tastier CCD, the oddball design and slightly plastic construction didn't win a great deal of fans.
Olympus has obviously been listening to our gripes, with the E-500 looking like the camera the E-300 should have been all along. With more of a resemblance to the E-1 and a 'proper' digital SLR design, it also comes packed with clever photographic features.
The camera's RAW mode takes large files at 13-14Mb and takes a lengthy 12 seconds after you've taken a RAW photo before the camera is ready to shoot again. This is just too long if you need to take quality, fleeting shots.
This is a camera where you're going to have to rely on 'right-first-time' shooting in JPEG mode to get the best results, and there's loads of features to help you do this.
There are many parameters for adjusting the image tone, and it makes as much sense to sort these out when you take the shot, as it does to shoot RAW and then toil endlessly over the parameters back on your computer. The E-500 is about getting your hands dirty.
Let's start with the exposure system. You get the Olympus 49-point Digital ESP metering mode for point-and-shoot photography, Centre-weighted metering and a Spot metering mode. But the Spot mode has two extra variants - 'HI' and 'SH'. In the HI mode, the camera pegs the metered area as a brilliant white highlight, while in the SH mode it sets it to come out as a dense black.
In effect, you choose an area which you want to reproduce as a brilliant white or dense black, set the relevant Spot mode, position the spot metering point over that area then lock the exposure, reframe and shoot.
If you want to retain some shadow or highlight detail in these areas, you'll need to apply a degree of exposure compensation first. For example, to just retain detail in a bright sky, you might set the EV compensation to -0.3EV or -0.7EV before using the HI mode and taking a spot reading from the sky.
It's about time makers started producing smarter metering systems as opposed to making them merely more complex. You know what else we'd like? A multi-pattern variant that averaged the darkest and brightest points in the scene to arrive at the exposure. This is another classic metering technique and would be most welcome. Maybe they'll get round to this next time...
You can also adjust the 'Gradation' of images to produce high-key shots where the tones are stacked up towards the highlight end of the scale, or low-key images where they're stacked towards the shadows.
On top of this, there are Vivid, Natural, Muted, Monotone and Sepia colour modes. In the Monotone mode you can apply red, green, yellow and orange 'contrast' filters, just like you could with black and white film.
In the three colour modes, you can also modify the contrast, sharpness and saturation values, which can be slightly confusing. You'd expect the Vivid mode, for example, to simply have increased saturation and contrast than the others, however, the menus indicate starting values of zero for all three parameters in each mode, suggesting that there is a lot more to it than that.
The slightly sluggish RAW performance and the abundance of in-camera tone and colour controls will probably encourage you to shoot JPEGs and to try to get everything right at the time of shooting. That's actually not a bad thing, because it shifts the emphasis towards real photography and away from endless fiddling around with image-editing software on the computer. About time too.
The E-500's startup time of around two seconds is slightly longer than that of other D-SLRs because it's applying its Supersonic Wave Filter momentarily in order to shake off any dust on the sensor.
The viewfinder is bright and clear, but it's also quite small - presumably because of the smaller Four Thirds sensor/mirror/pentaprism assembly. On the back of the camera, the 2.5-inch LCD display also contains all the shooting/status information. There's no separate LCD for this data and the E-500 is like Konica Minolta's Dynax 5D in this respect.
The menus are clear and well-designed, though it can take a few moments to navigate through them to the options you want. The camera's been designed to avoid this as far as possible, though, with a set of 'Direct Function' buttons on the body itself, to make rapid changes.
The navipad on the rear of the camera provides four of them, and they control the white balance, AF mode, ISO and metering pattern. In each case, you press the button to display an on-screen menu, then use the control wheel on the top of the camera to cycle through the options.
While the menus and symbols are clear, they're also a bit on the crude side given the size and resolution of the LCD display. The Dynax 5D, for example, works in the same way but has a much classier interface.
But the E-500 does have one very clever touch. You can use the navipad to highlight any of the icons on the display, then press the OK button in the centre to adjust the setting you've highlighted.
This will appeal to those who prefer icons to dials.
Also on the back of the camera is a button for the drive mode, one for manual white balance and one for selecting the focusing point you want to use.
This is perhaps a bit of overkill. After all, there are only three focusing points to choose from in the first place, and even these don't cover a particularly wide area.
This isn't actually a criticism. Makers often use the number of AF points as a selling feature, but how many do you really need? Much of the time it simply introduces more uncertainty over what the camera is going to focus on and wastes more time as you fiddle about choosing an appropriate AF point.
It's usually quicker to lock focus using a single, central AF point and then re-compose and shoot. The E-500's three-point AF system isn't a serious limitation, and neither is the fact that the AF points aren't illuminated.
Besides, it has other advantages. In addition to single-shot and continuous AF modes, it has 'hybrid' variants whereby you can get the camera to auto-focus then turn the focus ring to fine-tune the focus point.
The trouble is that the E-500's viewfinder image just isn't big enough for accurate manual focusing, and perhaps with this in mind Olympus has just released an optional magnifying eyepiece (the ME-1) which provides a 1.2x magnification.
There's a lot of scope for customising this camera's operation and not just with optional extras. For example, you can change the focusing ring's direction of rotation (a bit frivolous, surely?), and you can set ISO increments of 0.5EV or 0.3EV rather than the usual 1EV steps we're all accustomed to. It's nice that you can do these things, but who wants to adjust the ISO in 0.3EV steps?
White balance bracketing is available, but you also get focus bracketing too, where the camera takes five or seven shots at slightly different focus settings - wouldn't you rather just get the focus right in the first place?
It would be better if the auto-exposure bracketing option had received this kind of attention. For one thing, it's buried so deep in the menus that it's a pain in the neck to get to and worse than that, you're confined to three frames only, with a maximum EV range of /-1. It's just not enough. The limited EV range is all the more bizarre given that the EV compensation control has a range of /-5EV!
When AE bracketing is enabled, it appears as an icon on the display. However, you can't select it and adjust it from here - the icon disappears when you switch to icon control mode. A shame, since that would have been the perfect opportunity to make it accessible.
Overall, though, the E-500 invokes a very positive response. It's not too heavy, yet it feels well-made. Most of the photographic options you want are readily accessible using buttons and the control wheel, and the LCD status display during shooting is extremely clear, well-designed and can act as an icondriven 'interface', as we've seen.
It's all about size
The Four Thirds sensor in the E-500 is a lot smaller than the APS-sized sensors in rival digital SLRs. The 8-megapixel resolution will be a selling point, but noise levels at higher ISOs could be a cause for concern.
Yes, the E-500 is noisier than its D-SLR rivals, but not disastrously so. It's still quite usable at ISO1,600 and pretty good at ISO800. Definition levels these days have as much to do with sensor size as megapixels, but the E-500 performs well.
Resolution is about what you'd expect from a digital SLR in this price bracket and while the lens is cheaper than the 14-54mm originally sold with the E-1, it's sharp, right into the edges. What's more, there's little chromatic aberration.
The lenses may prove to be the most compelling aspect of this camera. You can buy it in kit form with the 14-45mm zoom, but we'd recommend the twin-zoom kit which includes the 40-150mm zoom reviewed on page 75. This can be found for as little as £640. Both lenses are well made and have metal lens mounts. The 14-45mm has a nonrotating front element, which is perfect for fixing filters and both take 58mm threads.
We'd still put the Nikon D50 in front as the best D-SLR on the market, but the twin-lens E-500 kit is a highly tempting alternative. It has a wider focal range, the consistency of matched, purpose-designed optics and a refreshingly 'photographic' approach to taking pictures.
There are things we've found fault with, to be sure, but ultimately it's all down to whether you like a camera or you don't. And we like this one very much.