When it comes to camera brands, Olympus has a touch of Marmite about it: people seem either to love or loathe its camera designs. At this point, I should declare an interest: I've been an Olympus fan since the late '70s when I owned two OM SLRs and a clutch of Zuiko lenses.

However, since Olympus chose to plough its own furrow with the Four Thirds digital system, with its relatively small sensor, I've had my doubts.

When Olympus launched this system, the idea was to create a common standard for SLRs that would enable smaller and lighter cameras to be made. However, many Olympus SLRs looked as slender as a sumo wrestler.

The promise of compact Four Thirds SLRs was finally fulfilled with the launch of the E-400 a year ago; and that model has been superseded by the E-410 and is now joined by the E-510.

This latest model draws inspiration from the old OM-series SLRs so beloved by photographers of the '70s. And with the E-510's Image Stabilisation and Live View functions, it looks like the Four Thirds advantage might be starting to materialise.

Exquisitely built

The E-510 is slightly wider than the E-410, but its glass-reinforced body is exquisitely built and feels very solid. A ridged handgrip makes it comfortable to hold and use.

The slightly larger size of the body compared with the E-410 may be due to the E-510's battery - it's the same type found in the E-500, E-330 and E-300 models. Apart from that, there are one or two cheap finishes on the camera, such as the flimsy memory-card doors and the plastic exposure mode dial.

The E-510 ships with the Zuiko 14-42mm lightweight kit lens, which features, much to some people's disgust, a plastic mount. But don't let that put you off... it's sharp and an excellent performer.

The E-510's viewfinder is a bit small but it's an improvement on the gloomy, claustrophobic tunnel found on the E-500. Start-up time is swift, even though the E-510 carries out its sensor-cleaning routine every time it's switched on.

The SuperSonic Wave Filter shakedown dislodges any dust that might have settled on the sensor and it's probably the most effective mechanical sensor-cleaning method offered by any camera manufacturer.

To the rear, a 2.5-inch LCD can relay a live image from the E-510's NMOS sensor. The screen veers towards yellow and it displays images a little brighter than they are in real life.

Incidentally, that Live View function may not sound like a big deal, but it soon grows on you and it's invaluable for focusing in low light or on close shots. You can select 7x or 10x magnification of a central portion of the view. It's a shame the LCD screen doesn't articulate because that would have made the Live View function even more useful.

And speaking of lenses, we turn here to a bit of a shortcoming in the Four Thirds system. The choice of lenses is limited to those produced by Olympus and a few offerings from Sigma. Apart from the two excellent kit lenses (by far the best way of buying an E-510) the Olympus Zuiko lenses are fabulous but very expensive.

You really do have to be sure and 100 per cent committed to the Four Thirds system if you're going to sink your cash into the Olympus way of doing things.

An Olympus strength is colour. Along with Pentax, it has a knack of being able to deliver vibrant but compelling colours and the E-510 excels in this respect. In the past, criticism has been levelled at the Four Thirds system for its high levels of noise at sensitivities of ISO 400 and above.

But now, thanks to a TruePic III processor and some clever engineering, Olympus has made great strides in cutting noise. It's not quite there with the market leaders, but it isn't far off. If you're shooting in JPEG mode you'll notice that there's some aggressive sharpening going on and we'd recommend setting the noise reduction to low and dropping the sharpening settings a little.

With the E-510 comes the inclusion of an image stabiliser. Olympus has opted for a CCD-based version and it works very well, adding between two and three stops of usable exposure. It makes a real difference and our test results gave sharp images down to 1/8th second.

Slightly hesitant

The E-510 can hesitate a little when focusing, and this could be due to the measly trio of auto-focus points. Selecting the central point is the best course of action, as it does seem to speed things up a bit. The focus is a slight weakness and Olympus probably needs to look at upgrading the three points to nine at the next opportunity.

Behind the flimsy card door mentioned earlier are two slots - one for a Compact Flash and another for xD. Olympus is doggedly hanging on to the xD but the performance of xD is frustratingly slow. We recommend you stick to using CF cards for best performance.

You can expect to shoot three RAW frames per second for up to eight consecutive frames before the buffer fills.

The E-510 represents a big shift in the outlook for Olympus. This is a bold and confident design that has enough features to make it well worth a closer look. The twin lens kit coupled with an Olympus FL-36 flash would make the ideal backpacking or travel camera.

True, the lens range is pricey but with the basic kit almost everything you need is included. If you're looking for your first SLR kit and don't want to buy into the pro world of Canon or Nikon, then the E-510 is a surefire winner.

Via PhotoRadar