Editor's note: This review has been updated since originally posting on February 2, 2006. Subsequent changes in the competitive landscape have led us to drop its Performance rating from 7 to 6, thereby reducing the overall rating from 7.4 to 7.1. With a width of 5 inches and a basic weight of 15.3 ounces, the Olympus Evolt E-500 is one of the more compact digital SLR cameras available, but its sturdy plastic body doesn't feel cheap. As with most SLRs, an array of buttons and dials are spread about the body, but the general design is logical and easy to understand after a few uses. The camera's right-hand grip allows for an easy hold, but the contoured thumbrest on the upper-right side of the body's back isn't as generous as those on some similar SLRs.
Most features are accessible via a combination of the menu button, the mode dial, and a four-way controller, though a few other functions have dedicated buttons. Unlike some similar cameras, the Evolt E-500 doesn't have a top-mounted status screen; most of the data you need is found on the large 2.5-inch LCD monitor on the camera's back. Peering into the viewfinder, you'll also see standard information such as your current aperture and shutter speed, as well as battery life, flash status, and a few other settings.
The four-way controller gives you direct access to focus, white balance, metering, and ISO settings, which you may want to change fairly frequently depending on your shooting conditions. The mode dial atop the camera gives you a standard selection of shooting modes: auto, program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual, as well as automated scene modes for portraits, landscapes, sports, night portraits, and close-ups. By combining the mode dial with the main menu, you can choose additional modes for rambunctious children, landscape portraits, candlelit scenes, high-key or low-key lighting situations, fireworks, sunrises, and sunsets. This is an effective design that lets the most frequently used modes get top real estate without obscuring the more specialized settings.
The Olympus Evolt E-500 uses the Four Thirds system lens mount, accepting Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses as well as third-party Four Thirds optics. The basic kit comes with a 14mm-to-45mm lens (28mm to 90mm, 35mm-film-camera equivalent). For about $100 more, you can also get a 40mm-to-150mm lens, equivalent to 80mm to 300mm, suitable for telephoto shooting. While the basic lens is certainly adequate for many shooting situations, the two lenses together are a good team. The Olympus Evolt E-500 has a strong set of features for its class. Its standard array of automatic and manual features is complemented by some distinctive elements. Most notable is Olympus's dust-reduction feature: the camera uses a supersonic wave filter to shake dust off the sensor at every start-up. While you still shouldn't change lenses in the middle of a sandstorm, this feature should help alleviate the digital scourge of bright, blown-out pixels resulting from dust within the camera body, a problem that becomes more common when you change lenses frequently.
The Olympus Evolt E-500 offers a nice range of color-related features, in terms of both adjusting the white balance for available light and choosing the camera's general color mode. You can manually adjust the color temperature to compensate for red or blue casts, so if you're shooting in a situation with uncertain or mixed lighting, you can still find the ideal setting. The camera offers a basic array of general color modes--Vivid, Natural, and the subtler Muted, as well as monochrome and sepia--and lets you choose the standard sRGB color space or the Adobe RGB color space, depending on your postprocessing needs.
A fairly unusual setting is the gradation control, which lets you choose a high-key (favoring highlight detail), low-key (favoring shadow detail), or normal tonal range; the effects will vary depending on various scenes' lighting conditions.
The Evolt E-500 offers an ISO range from 100 to 1,600; raw, TIFF, and JPEG capture modes with resolution up to 8 megapixels; exposure compensation from -5EV to 5EV; shutter speeds ranging from 60 seconds to 1/4,000 second, plus an eight-minute Bulb mode; noise reduction for longer exposures; five metering modes including highlight- and shadow-based spot meters; flash bracketing; a three-point autofocus system; manual-focus bracketing; continuous-shooting modes; a timer; in-camera saturation and sharpness adjustments; and an antishock feature (a.k.a. mirror lockup) that flips the mirror prior to your exposure so that its movement doesn't blur your photos.
The Olympus Evolt E-500's playback mode gives you a wealth of data as you review your images: Color histograms reveal the range of light and dark areas, and the camera highlights areas that are particularly overlit or mired in darkness. Due to the fact that the Olympus Evolt E-500 activates its dust-reduction feature every time you power up the camera, its start-up time is almost twice as slow as those of some of its competitors; it took us an average of 2.6 seconds to fire our first shot from the time we turned it on. It has average speed in other tests. Shot-to-shot time with a small JPEG is 1.2 seconds; in raw mode, it's 2.1 seconds; and in TIFF mode, it's 2.7 seconds. The autofocus performs very well, even in dim light: Shutter delay using autofocus is 0.3 second with a bright target and 0.4 second with a darker, lower-contrast target.
In continuous-drive mode when shooting standard JPEG images, we measured an adequate capture rate of 2.5fps; you can shoot almost indefinitely until your card fills up. In TIFF or raw mode, the number of continuous shots per burst drops to 5, but the speed is impressive: 2.6fps.
One feature that occasionally underperformed was the automatic white balance. The color balance looked good for shots taken in sunlight or while using a flash, but photos taken in more challenging lighting situations--in the cool shade next to a building, or indoors using artificial light--had significant color casts if the flash wasn't used. For those lighting conditions, we recommend that users manually adjust the white-balance settings. If in doubt, shoot raw files so that you can adjust the white balance with raw-image-editing software later.
The Olympus Evolt E-500's 2.5-inch LCD monitor is bright, sharp, and colorful; it's also easy to view from a variety of angles. The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is a bit small. It also has a notably short eye point of 16mm; that's the maximum distance from the eyepiece at which the image looks sharp. We recommend picking up the ME-1 eyepiece magnifier that Olympus makes for the E-500, especially if you wear glasses--it really makes a noticeable difference.
The small built-in flash usually gave even lighting to a completely darkened room, but the standard flash setting was occasionally a bit overblown for close-up portraits. However, with the flash-bracketing functions and the ability to reduce the flash power, you can compensate for this. The Olympus Evolt E-500's images are generally excellent, particularly at the lower ISO ratings. In most shooting conditions, our test photos showed nicely balanced colors, good sharpness, accurate automatic exposures, and no visible purple fringing around contrasty details.
Our test images were clean and free of noticeable noise up to ISO 400. A handful of colorful speckles show up in dark areas at ISO 800, but even at that setting the highlights show little noise. Images shot at ISO 1,600 are fairly noisy, although the noise-reduction feature makes it less noticeable--with the trade-off that shooting time is doubled.