Conclusion - Pros
- Good image quality at low ISO settings
- JPEG engine conveys just about everything that is captured
- In-body image stabilization means the benefit is seen with all lenses
- Control panel display allows quick access to the important shooting parameters
- Generally snappy performance (though it would be nice to disable SSWF at every startup)
- Comprehensive control over noise/detail balance (Noise filter)
- Choice of AF mode in Live View
- Live view can mimic exposure or auto-brighten
- Excellent magnification in Live View (useful for manual focus/macros)
- Supersonic Wave Filter ensures no dust on sensor
- User interface and operation is highly customizable
- Kelvin white balance option, all white balance presets fine tunable
- Fully customizable RAW+JPEG (many competitors have fixed JPEG settings)
- Mirror lock-up with custom delay
- Good Compact Flash write performance with fast CF cards
- In-camera JPEG image editing (though no preview to help optimize settings)
- Wireless flash control
- Quality kit lens
Conclusion - Cons
- Dynamic range limited compared to the rest of class - can lead to more easily clipped highlights
- Small viewfinder
- Comparatively soft image output in JPEG and RAW
- Disappointing high ISO performance
- Auto white balance and presets not brilliant (though there is a fine tune option)
- LCD could be a little brighter for outdoor shooting with live view and is prone to smearing
- LCD turns monochrome and noisy in low light
- Image parameters only offer limited latitude around the default settings
- Menu structure a little longwinded (especially the setup menus)
- Unreliable flash exposure
- Occasionally inconsistent operation
- Auto focus provides only three focus points, although AF performance good
- Flash must be raised for AF assist
The E520 is a very competent DSLR with a high specification that we believe will prove to be highly competitive on price once it has been on the market a little longer and its price has dropped away from the MSRP.
The level of customizability is astonishing for the price, both in terms of the function of external buttons and the ability to fine-tune the output of the camera to perfectly suit your subject, shooting style and personal preferences. This degree of customization does make the menus pretty unwieldy, which emphasizes the occasional inconsistency in their operation but that's a small price to pay for the extent of control. A few evenings with the not-terrifically-helpful manual and you'll learn to ignore the quirks and complexities. Thankfully the well-thought-out Super Control Panel limits the number of occasions that you'll have to delve into menus.
The body is well built and offers a lot in the way of external controls but it let down by the disappointing viewfinder. Even with Live view, it's likely that the viewfinder will remain the primary way of interacting with the camera. Unfortunately the viewfinder is the smallest on any current DSLR and its information panel is poorly located, which can detract from what is otherwise an enjoyable camera to use.
The good news is that the Olympus does a better job of optimizing its JPEGs than just about any other DSLR we can think of - just about all the detail and dynamic range the sensor is capable of is visible in the JPEG. Unfortunately, it's an inescapable conclusion that the sensor simply isn't capturing the detail and range of tones that its peers are capable of. If you plan to shoot JPEG at low ISO (or don't need large prints), the Olympus is as good as its rivals - but it will struggle to match them if your needs are more demanding.
And therein lies the E-520's problem. It's a perfectly good camera with a great feature-set that does many things very well. Unfortunately, there are cameras for the same money that offer better viewfinders, increased dynamic range, better high-ISO performance, more flexible RAW files and, ultimately, sharper images. The once-unusual features such as image stabilization and live view features have become commonplace since the E510's launch and, unless the E520 price drops substantially, it will find it much harder to stand out from the crowd than its predecessor.
We can certainly still recommend it as a good camera but one that just doesn't distinguish itself enough to receive an unqualified Highly Recommended award (and, given it doesn't offer the E420's convenient size advantage, the case for it to be awarded a Recommended has been made quite strongly). Essentially the problem is that the E-520 offers few major changes over its predecessor (and the optimized output is slightly softer), but is trying to compete in a sector of the market that has progressed dramatically since the E-510's introduction. This is not to say it's far off the pace - the differences between the strongest and weakest cameras in this class are small - but it does lag the competition and that's why we express reservations.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.0|
Highly Recommended (Just)