Olympus EVOLT E-500 8.0 MP Digital SLR Camera - Silver (Body Only) Reviews
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Olympus EVOLT E-500 8.0 MP Digital SLR Camera - Silver (Body Only)

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Oly E-500 With 2 Lenses, 200 Bells, Whistles

Nov 17, 2006 (Updated Nov 20, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Ease of Use:
  • Durability:
  • Battery Life:
  • Photo Quality:
  • Shutter Lag

Pros:Best value out there, great camera, all you need

Cons:Small viewfinder, crippled software, some high-ISO noise, but no deal-breakers

The Bottom Line: At the price, with the two very good lenses and the phenomenal capabilities of this camera (plus easy pre-set modes for the absolute beginner) this is a no-brainer


Quick note: I initially posted kind of a pre-review, then came back the next day to provide more details on my experiences with the Oly E-500. Then I found out I’d broken the rules by doing so. Having graciously accepted my 40 lashes, I’ve deleted both and cobbled together one long nosebleed review. And here it comes.

First, the caveats about buying a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, if all the cameras you’ve ever had were the point-and-shoot variety, even newer digital cameras.

1. They’re bulky and relatively heavy. You can’t just stuff it into your purse or back pocket or casually walk around with the thing in the palm of your hand all afternoon. You’ll be hanging it around your neck with a strap. And if you have more than one lens, as this great Oly camera does, you’ll also be hauling around a camera bag to carry the spare lens(es), the caps, the manual (until you’ve memorized everything) and who knows what else.

2. They’re expensive, but you already know that.

3. They’re designed for knowledgeable photographers who are sometimes like wine snobs in discussing things like white balance, ISO, f/stops and blah blah. There are a gazillion settings you can change to get the most of your camera, and they’re quite amazing. But whether you’ll ever take the time to learn all these intricacies is debatable. Only you can answer that. The good news is that the Oly E-500 (and most other “prosumer” models) have a bunch of DSLR-for-Dummies settings, from Auto to Portrait to Landscape etc. so you can just let the camera do all the thinking. The experts find this despicable, but if you are getting good photos without brain damage, isn’t that all that matters?

4. There’s the assumption is that you’ll also want to spend oodles of time in your digital darkroom, “post-processing” your photos on your computer in Adobe Photoshop or some similar program. That may not be your idea of a good time. Usually, though, photos from a DSLR (or a good point-and-shoot) are decent enough right off the card. Still, you do want to have some kind of program to be able to tweak photos, crop them and do some simple stuff with them as necessity dictates.

5. DSLRs don’t (yet, and maybe never will) take those nifty video clips.

All this is merely to say that if you’re thinking of buying a DSLR because of all the buzz about the great photos they can take and the lack of shutter-lag, etc., be sure it’s what you want before you shell out the bucks. Or at least find out if you can return the camera after a week or two if it turns out it’s more trouble than you really wanted.

I bought my Oly two-lens kit with a 1GB Compact Flash card included at Office Max a few days ago for $657, including tax. It was the best deal out there, as far as I could find, and still may be. More about this later, so don’t go away.

Before I did the deal, I asked about return policy. Basically, there isn't any -- and that may be true for the majority of places, but I can't say. The deal was, once you open the box, that's it. You can return if defective, but if you find that, gee, this camera is too darn complicated for me, or I just don't like it, tough. You can EXCHANGE for another camera, but the sale is done. And Office Max does not carry the Nikon DSLRs (if that's maybe what you decided to try), or, as far as I could see, the bigger Canons (but they do have Digital Rebel). They also have the Sony A-100 (not a bad camera for amateurs, but nowhere near as good as the Oly kit, I would say). Anyway, be sure the camera you buy is the one you want or that you will be able to get your money back if it disappoints.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks.

I hadn’t really even been considering Olympus until a couple of weeks ago. I’d had some experience with early digital Olys (the 2-megapixel variety) five or six years ago, and the cameras were just fine. But I’d been concentrating on the Nikon and Canon DSLRs, with a quick look at the Sony A-100 (based mainly on the Konica-Minolta Dimage cameras). The Nikon D80 with a ho-hum (said the experts) 18-135mm lens was around $1,300; the similar Canon EOS 30D with just an 18-55mm lens was about the same price, and the Canon Digital Rebel 18-55 was around $800, but it feels cheesy and, for my hand, it’s too small. (It might be just right for some, though.) And Nikon just yesterday introduced the D40, which is a slimmed-down D80 with more buttons for dummies, an 18-55mm lens but just 6.2 megapixels, for around $600. Probably worth looking at if simplicity and one limited-length lens is enough for you.

Anyway, I started reading up on the Oly E-500, and the more I read the more I thought I’d best take a look. I liked the fact that it (well, the 4/3 lens system cameras) was the first camera designed from the ground up for digital photography. I liked the electronic dust-remover. Nobody else had that, but they’ll all be jumping on the bandwagon soon, I expect. (A lot of reviewers note as one of their “Cons” that the camera takes 2.5 seconds to start up because of the dust-shaker versus maybe half a second for other big-name DSLRs. Dumb. How many times are you ever gonna lose that once-in-a-lifetime shot because your camera took an extra 2 seconds to turn on? [Plus, you can turn off the dust-shaker at startup and save one of those seconds if you wish.] But dust on the camera’s sensor is a fairly serious and common problem if you’re changing lenses on your digital camera. And then you’ll have to deal with spots in post-processing or “map” your camera to find the spot(s) and compensate. Give me Oly’s dust-reduction system every time.

Next, the Oly had as many (if not more) features than the comparable cameras. Plus with the two more-than-decent lenses and a 1GB card for $657, there just wasn’t any comparison. This was/is the best deal out there on a DSLR.

When I got my camera home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Oly package includes hoods for both lenses. When I'll ever use them I dunno; maybe when I learn enough.

I was not surprised to discover that I had to charge the battery before I could do anything. The bad news is that it takes 5 hours to do so ... at least with the included charger. There are faster chargers out there, but I’ve read that they’re hard on the batteries. So for sure you'll want to buy a second battery (relatively expensive: around $60, I think). This, too, is a general drawback of DSLR cameras; you can’t just run into a store and buy some cheapo AA batteries if you run out of power.

While I waited for my battery to muscle up, I sat down with a pot of coffee and read the manual (which is pretty clearly written and arranged), or as much of it as I could stand before my eyes glazed over. There's a lot of stuff to digest if you want to become a whiz-bang fotog, but if you don't, as noted, you can just let the camera do the thinking while you compose, focus and shoot. This, I expect, is what most point-and-shooters moving up to a DSLR are going to be wont to do. And who cares? Not I. I think you’ll be more than satisfied with Buttons-for-Dummies photos, and if you want more, well, all you have to do is get on the learning curve and delve into the remarkable capabilities of the E-500.

If your eyes, too, are about to glaze over, let me advise on how to get $660 +/- price on camera kit from Office Max (where I do not work, have never worked and am not a stockholder).

At the OfficeMax.com website, the two-lens Oly E-500 package, with a free 1GB Compact Flash card is offered for $699.98. You have to print out the offer (unless you order online) and take it to the retail store to get that price. And here's why you should buy it at the store and not online: If you apply and are approved for an Office Max credit card (you don't even have to use it to make the purchase), you'll get an extra 10 percent off. So that'll get you down around $650 out the door. How long this deal lasts I dunno, but if you've got the hots for a very capable DSLR and don't have big bucks, this ain't bad. In fact, it’s a fantastic price for a fantastic camera.

OK. Let me proceed on this Oly E-500 by noting one minor annoyance. I have an older version of Photoshop (6.0 or somesuch), and it cannot open Oly RAW files. Nor, if converting those files to the open-standard DNG with Adobe's free converter, can it open those. Bummer. Right now I'm not up to spending $100 or more to upgrade or get Photoshop Elements or whatever. Sigh. So that means using the included (thank God) Olympus Master software. Alas, it's the lite version, and you have to pay Oly another $35 for the industrial-strength program, which is probably adequate, but that's about it.

Digression and quick note for amateurs considering a DSLR camera: If the above paragraph -- simplistic as it no doubt appeared to serious digital photographers -- was Greek to you, and you don't know what a RAW file is (hint: you could consider it a digital negative), and JPEGs and compression are all mysteries as well, and manipulating your pictures on your computer in a graphics program is not what you had in mind, you may be better off buying a high-end point-and-shoot with a great zoom lens and optical stabilization and the like. Not that any of this stuff is rocket science, but there's a fairly steep learning curve, at least from my point of view.

That said, here are some two-day impressions of the E-500.

I like the menu system; it's pretty intuitive, much like the early Oly digital cameras I used, and, if you take some time, you can set all kinds of things to your own taste. It's really quite amazing. How long it's gonna take me to really familiarize myself with the buttons and knobs and menus I can't say, but eventually the stuff I'll need to know quickly will become second nature.

For dopes (like me) there is the familiar Auto mode, in which you simply point, focus and shoot. The camera chooses the aperture, shutter speed, white balance, etc. And there are a bunch of so-called Scene modes, also pre-set, for portrait, landscape, candlelight, night, blah blah. These will tide you over until you know the camera inside and out … or forever if you don’t care to make the effort.

The couple hundred shots I've taken so far (just to begin getting familiar with the camera) have been great. Superb color reproduction to my eyes, though the default Vivid setting sometimes can result in garish colors. But that's easily changed in the settings. You can set at Normal or Flat, and you can adjust saturation and sharpness and what-not so that whatever combo suits your eyes, that’s what you’ll get.

The two lenses included (14-45mm and 40-150mm), while not super-duper pieces of glass, are really good performers. I have been impressed. The longer lens is better and better-built, I think, than the 14-45mm, but they'll both do the job and do it well. And for the price ... Wow! There just isn't a better deal out there. (Again, a quick note for the uninitiated: There's what's called focal-length multiplier for almost all DSLRs that gives you what the equivalent would be with a 35mm SLR from yesteryear. For the E-500 the multiplier is 2x, so the lens give you the equivalent of 28-90mm and 80-300mm. I think Nikons have a 1.65x multiplier, and I can't recall what Canon's is. Anyway, that's if you care.) I'm pretty pleased with the sharpness of the lenses, which was something about which I had some concerns. (Oh, yeah, another note: If you are into macro photography, you'll likely have to spring for another lens; these are not for shooting from 3 inches away. Or, again, have a point-and-shoot that'll do that stuff. Also, you should be aware that really good Oly lenses – Zukio – are mighty pricey, and even the Sigma 4/3 lenses for the Oly cost a pretty penny. Such is life.)

I have had a few problems focusing in low light, but nothing catastrophic or particularly unexpected. In general, press the shutter button halfway, the Autofocus quickly homes in, then press the rest of the way. I wish the lenses or camera had anti-shake technology, but you can't have everything ... not on my budget. You can compensate a bit for the trembles by goosing up the ISO; the cost is more noise in the photo, but post-processing (so they say -- I haven't dealt with that yet) can clean up the worst and still leave you with printable, decent pix.

The viewfinder's kind of small on this camera, but it'll do for now. I actually did spring for a $35 accessory called the ME-1 eyecup, which supposedly magnifies things a bit. Some reviewers said it's a Godsend, some say phooey. We’ll see. (Update, Nov. 20: The new eyecup arrived from Amazon.com -- $36 and change. It's easy to slip the old one off, put this one on. Does it make a difference? Well, sort of, yes. There's some magnification -- 1.2X, Olympus says, and I expect that's about right -- and the view is wider, which helps because shutter speed and some other info shows up vertically on the right side of the view. But is it worth dough? Not really, in my opinion. First, it should already be the standard viewfinder on the camera. Second, it can't cost more than $1 to make, and peddling it for $35-$40 borders on obscene.)

While, as I said, I'm still familiarizing myself with the layout of the camera and which buttons do what, the layout seems good to me. Stuff appears to be where it ought to be, so that the things you're likely to want to change often -- white balance, ISO and such -- are just a thumb movement or so away. Good job on the ergonomics and design.

Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. I finally got some sunshine yesterday and shot some ridiculously back-lit pix just to see. Well, sure enough I managed to get some fringing, but about 90 percent less than I expected.

I have also been really impressed with the accurate color reproduction, particularly indoors with crappy light. I didn’t expect to see such faithful rendering in those conditions, especially shooting on the dummy Auto mode.

This camera (like other good DSLRs) allows you to fire off blasts of sequential shots; just focus, press the shutter button and hold. Bop-bop-bop-bop-bop … This, of course, is great for kiddie shots and all kinds of things. Plus you can do what’s called bracketing, in case you’re not sure what exposure might be best, or white balance or this or let. Set things up and shoot, and the camera rapidly takes three photos at different settings, allowing to pick and choose. Nifty.

Frankly, the more I futz with this camera, the more I like it and the more inclined I am to pat myself on the back for buying it. I just love it. It’s been many decades since I had a single-lens reflex camera (back in the old days of film), and I’d almost forgotten how much fun a really good camera can be – and, yes, what a pain it can be as well. But that’s the price you pay for the remarkable things you can do. Naturally, as soon as I drop this camera, I'll wish I had also sprung for the 2-year extended warranty that was offered ($100, but it's really nice insurance; better than most useless extended warranties, I would say).

Finally, if you buy this camera, be sure to use the USB cable (and, sigh, the Olympus Master software) to hook up the camera to your computer and hit Update Camera. This will connect you via the Internet to the Olympus website, where you can (and should) update the camera's firmware (the program that runs the camera). Mine had version 1.1, I think, and version 1.2 was available. (Neither lens had any firmware upgrades; good.) These updates tweak settings, fix little bugs in the firmware and such. No charge, so do it.

OK. That's it. I apologize for the long-windedness of this. Hope it’s of some use if you’re in the market for a super camera at half the price of its competitors.


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 657
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts

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