Camera review: Olympus EVOLT E-510 DSLR

Back in August 1st, Olympus PR invited me to attend the Legg Mason Tennis Classic here in DC and shoot with their new DSLR, the EVOLT E-510. I enjoyed myself thoroughly at that event, and my thanks go out to Michael Bourne from Mullen, the agency that handles the PR for Olympus.

When I arrived there, I was given a review kit for the E-510, containing the camera, the FL-36 speedlite, and the two-lens kit (14-42mm and 40-150mm). For my review, I did what I usually do: I used the review unit as my primary camera for a month, taking note of the experience. What you’ll get now are my impressions of the camera, after taking thousands of photographs with it in various light and weather conditions, indoors and outdoors. You can choose to watch it below or here, and to download it as well. My full written review is enclosed below as well.

The E-510 is a prosumer camera made to be portable, affordable and easy to use. The E-510, a 10-megapixel DSLR, is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the E-500, which I reviewed this past January. Even though it’s smaller, the grip was designed so well that I could hold the camera comfortably, without missing the heft of the E-500 or that of my personal camera, the Canon 5D. (I like my cameras a little chunky, they’re easier to stabilize that way.) The E-510 was even lighter than I thought with a lens mounted on it. The two-lens kit includes two premium lenses designed for travel and portability. They’re incredibly light given their focal range. I expected the 14-42mm lens to be light, but I was blown away by how small and light the 40-150mm lens was. Olympus really did an amazing job with the lenses and the camera when it came to portability. The whole kit (camera, lenses, speedlite and charger) was so light I could carry it anywhere very easily. I could run with it and barely felt its weight — as a matter of fact, I did just that on a couple of hikes through the forest.

The thing to remember when looking at focal lengths with any Olympus DSLR is that they’ve got a 2x crop factor. It’s because they use the 4:3 standard, which specifies a sensor size of approximately half the dimensions of a full frame sensor (17.3 mm vs. 36 mm and 13 mm vs. 24 mm). This means the surface area of the sensor is 1/4th that of a full frame sensor. It also means you need to multiply the focal length listed on each lens by two in order to get the effective focal length. If the math is a bit confusing, just keep remember the crop factor and you’ll do fine.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the two kit lenses. The wide angle zoom, 14-42mm, yielded an effective focal range of 28-84mm. The tele zoom, with a 40-150mm range, yielded an effective focal range of 80-300mm. Now do you understand why I was amazed by how light and small the lenses were? Try finding an 80-300mm zoom lens from another DSLR manufacturer, and I guarantee you that it won’t be this small and light. Olympus can accomplish this because of their sensor’s form factor. It’s a small sensor, 1/4th the surface area of a full frame sensor. That means they need less glass in the lenses, because there’s less sensor to cover with the glass. Because there’s less glass, the lenses are easier to make. You get the same optical quality, but the lenses are cheaper, lighter and smaller.

As long as I’m talking about the sensor, I should mention that it’s a Live MOS, which gives it the ability to do Live View (it lets you compose photos on the LCD instead of the viewfinder). There is a slight delay between the time that you press the shutter button and the photo is taken when using Live View. The advantage is that you can zoom into the photo up to 10x, on screen, and make sure your focus is tack sharp. This is particularly useful for macro photography.

If you’re graduating to the E-510 from a point and shoot, you may say “Big deal, I’ve composed photos on the LCD screen all along. What’s the difference?” Well, the difference is huge. Until Olympus introduced Live View, no other prosumer DSLRs on the market offered it. The mechanisms were much too complicated. Because CCD sensors were in use on most DSLRs until recently, separate CMOS sensors would have needed to be installed in the camera, and light diverted to them with additional mirrors. As a matter of fact, Olympus’ first Live View DSLR, the E-330, functions through that mechanism. Things there are complicated, and the potential for breakdown is increased. But with the introduction of the E-410 and E-510, Olympus switched to CMOS sensors altogether. This allowed them to use the same sensor for both photographs and Live View, dramatically simplifying the mechanism involved. Other camera manufacturers soon followed suit, and now we have both Canon and Nikon DSLRs with the same capabilities. Nikon also switched from CCD to CMOS sensors in their recent DSLRs, the D300 and D3.

To get back to Point and Shoot cameras, they use CCD sensors. That means they have little rinky-dink CMOS sensors hidden away next to the CCD sensor, and they use those to let you compose on screen and record movies. But those tiny sensors have pathetic imaging capabilities, and understandably so. By and large, Point and Shoot cameras are small and inexpensive. Manufacturers can’t afford to cram expensive components in there. Not so in the E-510 and other DSLRs that have Live View or its equivalent. They use the same large, expensive sensor for everything. While they won’t let you record movies, they will allow you to see very accurately what your camera sees, directly through the lens, and will automatically compensate for aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance settings so you can see how a photo will look before you press the shutter button.

The camera also features Olympus’ SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) technology, which shakes dust off the sensor. Olympus was the first company to introduce this feature, and other DSLR manufacturers only recently introduced similar technology on their cameras. The SSWF light is located next to the shutter button on top of the camera, and it flashes blue when it’s active. I can tell you that it does work. I did not have to sit there with the Heal tool, removing dust spots from the photos taken with my E-510, whereas I have to do that on a regular basis when I take photos with other DSLRs.

Another important feature built right into the camera is the sensor-shift image stabilization. It stabilizes the image by shifting the sensor on both the X and Y axis (horizontally and vertically). You can hear it working on longer exposures. It works pretty well. But don’t forget to switch it off when you mount the camera on a tripod, otherwise you’ll get blurry photos. This is a pretty common bug with image stabilization technologies, and it doesn’t matter when they’re built into the camera or the lenses. When the camera is kept very stable, they go nuts trying to stabilize what doesn’t need to be stabilized. The end result is a blurry photo. So switch off the IS.

The advantage of in-camera stabilization versus in-lens stabilization is that it’s cheaper over the long term. You can use any sort of compatible lens (older or newer) with that camera, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the image stabilization with every single lens. That’s not the case with in-lens stabilization, which, as its name implies, is located in the lens. That means each of those lenses will cost more, and their cost adds up as you buy more of them. To be fair, it seems that in-lens stabilization works over a greater range of f-stops in real-life use than in-camera stabilization. But you can’t argue with the price difference, and the results are pretty good, too.

The photo you see here was taken at a shutter speed of 1/13th of a second, as I was bent over a brook, looking at a crayfish. If you take photographs yourself, then you know that you can’t keep your body very stable when you’re bent over, unless you’ve stabilized yourself somehow, which was not the case here. Yet that photo came out clear and sharp, even at 100%. The water even managed to look a little oily, which only happens with longer exposures.

Other useful features of the camera are the many scene modes, and the ability to write to CF, Microdive and xD cards. To find two-card slots on other DSLR brands, you have to look to the professional models (over $4,000). Yet Olympus includes that option on the very affordable, prosumer-oriented E-510. That’s a really nice touch.

The E-510 uses the new TruePic III image processor, which gives better colors and more accurate skin tones. I found that to be true as I used the camera. Where I found this image processor similar to the TruePic II (used in the E-500) was in the auto white-balance, which tended to err on the side of colder color temperatures. Thankfully, I shot in RAW, so I was able to adjust the WB in post-processing, but those shooting in JPG mode may want to be aware of this and adjust the White Balance accordingly before using the camera. Personally, I prefer cameras that err on the side of warmer color temperatures (but not too warm, because that can get pretty ugly). My Canon 5D does a great job with the auto white balance. But I expect that from it. It cost three times as much as the E-510.

The autofocus still uses only three focus points, and yes, that makes a difference. I found it to be slower than autofocus on cameras that use more focus points. It tended to hunt sometimes, even in broad daylight. But overall, it worked pretty well, and the focusing delay wasn’t significant.

Battery life is advertised at 650 shots per charge. In practice, I found that I got about 800 shots per charge. Maybe that’s just me. I always seem to get more shots per charge than the specs.

I use Adobe Lightroom to post-process all my photos, regardless of what camera I use. I noticed that RAW files created by Olympus cameras (both the E-500 and E-510 are subject to this), take longer to load fully in Lightroom than RAW files created by Canon cameras. I’m not sure why this is, and whether it occurs with other workflow-oriented applications, like Aperture, but I thought it worth mentioning. Just in case you’re wondering, I did upgrade to the latest version of Lightroom as of this date, which is version 1.2.

Sensitivity to low light was a point of contention in my review of the E-500, where I noted the CCD sensor was prone to lots of chroma noise at higher ISO. Presumably, the Live MOS sensor of the E-510 has better low light performance and generates less noise. In terms of ISO speeds, it goes from 100-1600, like the E-500. I did find less chroma noise when I used it. Luminance noise was about the same, perhaps a little more, but that has to do with CMOS sensors in general.

Basically, I can’t give you a definitive opinion on the camera’s low light performance. The two kit lenses that shipped with my review unit were too slow to properly judge how this camera does in low light situations. The 14-42mm lens was f/3.5-5.6 and the 40-150mm lens was f/4.5-5.6. To judge a camera’s performance in low light, you’d need faster lenses, ones that can open up to at least f/2.0. Ideally, the lenses should open up to f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2. I asked Olympus to send me such a faster lens, but they weren’t able to do that within the review period. As I told them, I’d be glad to test the camera with a fast lens if they can arrange it at some point in the future, and report on my findings.

It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t also show you some more photos taken with the camera. They’re enclosed in the photo gallery above. You can also view all of my published photos from the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, which were all taken with the E-510.

The E-510 is a great all-around DSLR. It’s light, affordable, packed with features and options, and it will help you get great photos. I would definitely recommend it to someone who’s looking to purchase a DSLR and lens kit for well under $1,000.

More information:

Lens review: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Zoom Lens

The EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens is the professional standard zoom from Canon, and so far the golden standard for sharpness, contrast and bokeh in a zoom lens. Photographers drool over it and swear by it. Its focal range on a full frame sensor makes it very appealing for event photography. It goes from a wide 24mm to an almost portrait-length 70mm to allow for close-ups. It’s also plenty fast for a zoom — f/2.8 — just about the fastest a zoom lens can get these days. (I’d like to see an f/2.0 standard zoom, but I don’t know when that’ll happen, and the cost will probably be fairly high.)

I’m going to talk exclusively about the 24-70mm lens in this review, but if you’re interested, I also wrote a comparison of this lens and the 24-105mm f/4L zoom. You may want to read that as well, in order to get a better idea of how this lens performs.

As you know if you’re a regular reader, I write about how products feel and the results they give me. My reviews aren’t spec-heavy. I give you my honest opinion about a product, and tell you what results I got with it.

With that in mind, the 24-70mm zoom is a good lens. It’s plenty sharp, has plenty of contrast, and the bokeh is great. I liked it. But it’s heavy — really heavy. When you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t feel that heavy, but when it goes on your camera, your wrist really takes a beating, and it feels as if the camera’s body is going to give. This lens is incredibly front-heavy. That means there’s no chance of holding the camera with one hand for long when you use it. On my 5D, it’s really hard to use the lens without a vertical grip, which gives me more finger room. Without the grip, you have to support the lens itself when you take the shots, and then you have to be careful that you don’t grip the focus ring and impede the auto focus from rotating when you press the shutter button. I use a keyboard and mouse all day long, so I realize I may not be the strongest guy around, but I lift weights once or twice a week. Still, I tell you, this lens really took its toll on my wrist joint and finger muscles. It was a real workout. I didn’t expect this kind of weight from a standard zoom. I did expect it from the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM zoom. If you’re so results-oriented that you’re willing to overlook the weight, great, get it, you’ll love the results.

I mentioned the useful focal range above. Let me illustrate it with a few examples below. At the wide end, you can capture beautiful landscapes… or nice wide angle shots of buildings. At medium range (30-60mm), you can get photos like these. The lens also has a very useful close-focusing range (0.38m), which allows you to get close-ups like you see below.

Let’s talk about low light. This lens has no image stabilization (like the 24-105mm zoom) and that means the maximum aperture of f/2.8 starts to show signs of strain in low light. It means we have to bump up the ISO and make sure the shutter speed stays at or above the focal length, stabilize the camera, and/or use a flash. Like I said in the opening paragraph, this isn’t a fault of the lens — f/2.8 is the fastest aperture for a zoom lens on the market, so that’s just how things are.

I enclosed a few photos taken in low light above. The first was taken inside a piano store, and although there was plenty of fluorescent lighting, I found that it wasn’t quite enough to shoot freely, like I would have done with a faster prime lens. I can’t argue with the sharpness and bokeh though. It’s beautiful.

There’s a second interior photo, where I had to use a speedlite. I used the 580EX II, also from Canon, and bounced it off the white ceiling. The lens does fine with a good speedlite, so that’s no problem.

The last two low light photos were taken in downtown Bethesda at night. For the first, I stabilized the camera with both hands on a balustrade in order to take it. The second photo of a VW Bug was taken handheld from a lower angle.

A lot of photographers use this lens for portraits, so I thought I’d show you a portrait I took with it as well. It’s on my wife’s website, Fun Piano Lessons. The tele end of the focal range is just right for portraits, and the sharpness, contrast and bokeh are great, especially with a wider aperture like the f/4 used in that photo.

All in all, this is a lens that does not disappoint. I expected professional results when I used it, and got them, without a doubt. The only two things that I minded were the weight — in particular its front-heavy distribution — and the lack of image stabilization. But if you were to get this lens and the EF 70-200 mm zoom, you’ll have covered most of the useful focal range you’ll need with just two very versatile lenses. Some food for thought there.

More information:

Lens preview: EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM Prime

Canon chose to announce the availability of a new wide-angle lens along with the EOS-1Ds Mark III. It’s the new EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM prime, which upgrades the existing EF 14mm f/2.8L USM.

The lens will feature the same correction for rectilinear distortion, but with improved dust and water resistance, a round aperture for nice bokeh, and a better-designed cap, that’s held to the lens by a stopper. Having briefly used the existing 14mm prime, I can tell you the lens cap kept falling off, and it was a real hassle to get the lens out of a gear bag if the cap end was facing toward you. It would come off immediately, and then you’d inevitably touch the lens surface with your fingers, which required a cleaning.

The price for this lens will be approximately $400 more than the street price of the existing 14mm prime, at around $2,199.

More information:

Lens review: Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

I’m going to talk about the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens in this review. It’s a wonderfully versatile L series zoom with surprising image quality and great image stabilization built right in. I’m also going to show you lots of photos I took with this lens, to illustrate the various points I’m about to make.

If you’re interested, I also wrote a comparison of this lens and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom. It might help you decide which lens to get if you’re interested in purchasing either of them.

EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

So, that’s the lens, right there on my table. It’s not as tall as my 100mm macro, but it’s also heavier, which is to be expected. There’s a lot more glass in zoom lenses. When you turn the zoom ring, the barrel extends outward. There’s some zoom creep, but that’s pretty much a “feature” on all zoom lenses I’ve tried, including other, more expensive zoom lenses.

I found its range to be just what the doctor ordered. At the wide end, the 24mm is great for landscapes or other interesting compositions, like you’ll see below, and at the tele end, 105mm is great for portraits and for bringing in distant details. Believe me, there’s a ton of difference between 70mm and 105mm when you’re trying to focus on some distant object. That extra reach is great! (By the way, I just dropped a hint in this paragraph. Did you catch it? It has to do with the 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom… There’s a review of it coming soon.)

The photo below was taken at 24mm after sunset, on a tripod.

Dusk

This one was taken from the same spot, but at 105mm. See how versatile the focal range really is?

Dusk II

I mentioned something about interesting compositions at wide angles above. Here’s one:

Goaty

I had doubts about this lens. After all, the 24-70mm L series zoom costs the same, yet it has no image stabilization and the focal range is shorter. How could a lens that packs in a longer focal range plus IS be as good as the other and at the same price? Let’s not also forget that Canon offers this lens as a kit lens for the 5D. Granted, it is an L series, but still… right? Well, prepare to be surprised.

I went to downtown Bethesda at night, and shot handheld, with the IS turned on. Keep in mind that the widest this lens will go is f/4.

Crenels

The photo above was taken at a shutter speed of 1/15th sec, handheld. At 1:1, those crenels are still sharp. But wait, that’s not all… The photo below was taken at a shutter speed of 1/8th sec — I propped my elbows on a balustrade to take it:

Arches

The details here are even sharper than in the previous photo. In my book, this means the lens is great in low light for a zoom. Nothing can beat my 24mm or 50mm primes at f/1.4, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the IS built into this lens does a great job of compensating for the smaller maximum aperture.

What about the contrast, sharpness and bokeh, you ask? Well, let’s look at a few photos:

Tiled

The photo above was taken at close range, almost macro range. I believe I switched to manual focus when I took the shot. I was so close the AF stopped working. I did very little post-processing to the shot, and certainly didn’t alter the colors. The lens plus the camera did most of the work, including enhancing the colors present on that old barn. Having been there in person, I know the colors were more faded.

Here’s another photo taken at close range:

Waking up to this

Look at the photo of the cat below. When I downloaded the photos from my 5D and looked at it, I was struck by how 3D it felt. The sharpness is all there, even at 1:1, the contrast is beautiful, the colors are great. That’s when it hit me: this lens is really good!

Mr. Whiskers

Let’s talk bokeh. Every lens has its approximate sweet spot when it comes to it. Stray from that proper distance to focal range ratio, and the bokeh looks all screwed up. Some lenses are better than others, and produce great bokeh across a larger focal range. I think this is one of those lenses. The bokeh isn’t entirely creamy, like you’d get with a fast prime opened up all the way — remember, it can only open to f/4 — but the bokeh’s there, and it does its job, which is to bring out the subject and fade out everything else pleasantly. Have a look at the photos shown below, and you be the judge:

Thingamajig

Lily

Blackberries

I really appreciated its versatility. I love my primes, but let me tell you, there’s nothing more annoying than missing a shot because I have to switch lenses. Primes are great for controlled conditions — nothing beats them there — but when you’re out and about, you don’t want to be futzing around in your camera bag, looking for your lenses, while your photo op passes by.

Have a look at these next few photos. It felt great not to have to switch lenses and still be able to take all of them.

Silo

She thinks my tractor’s sexy

Lazying about

This is one lens that does not disappoint. It’ll likely stay on your camera body for 70-80% of the time. It’s an L series, so you know it’ll perform over a long period of time. It’s lighter than other L series zooms with similar focal ranges, and the image stabilization works just as I’d expect it. If you’re in the market for one, buy it.

You can find it at:

Peachy

Lens review: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Zoom

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L Zoom Lens

I rented Canon’s premier mid-range zoom lens, the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, and had the chance to play with it for a day. I put it through its paces: daylight, dusk, low light and early morning light. The result: I love it and plan to buy it. This lens works better for my needs than the EF 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6L IS USM, which I rented and reviewed recently.

Created beauty

Oh, I rented the EF 1.4x II Extender along with this lens as well, and it worked great. It’ll decrease the aperture from f/2.8 to f/4, but I didn’t find that to be too much of a problem, even in lower light, while shooting handheld. I simply boosted my ISO and switched to Shutter Priority, to make sure my shutter speed stayed above 1/60th of a second.

Deposit

On a full-frame sensor like my 5D, I got exactly 70-200mm, and 98-280mm with the aid of the 1.4x extender. On a cropped sensor like that in the 30D or the Rebel, you’ll normally get 112-320mm, or 157-448mm with the extender. Those are pretty nice ranges indeed.

Slanted

Even though I shot mostly handheld, and for most of the time, in fairly low light (thick forest, ground-level), the image stabilization built into the lens worked great, even with the extender attached. I was able to get clear shots while keeping the shutter speed even below the focal range of the lens. We probably all know about that simple rule of thumb of keeping the shutter speed equal to the focal length, right? Well, I was able to get crisp shots at 1/80 while the focal length was over 100 mm and more. For example, the shutter speed of the photo enclosed below is 1/100 while the focal length was 150mm (with the extender attached). Still, the photo is plenty sharp at 1:1, and that’s pretty good to me.

Taking a break

I have only praise for this lens. It works great! I love the short travel of the focal length selector. It’s amazingly short given the large focal range. I love how crisp and sharp my photos come out. The bokeh is great. The lens handles just like it should, and autofocus times are pretty small. But, it is heavier than the 100-400mm zoom. A LOT heavier. You won’t realize just how heavy it is until you go out there and use it for a couple of hours. Your biceps will get a workout!

Harried hare

I plan to buy it at some point in the future. At $1,500-1,600, it’s not cheap, but it sure is great!

White lily

Nature, unruly

Just ducky

Mr. Turtle comes up for air

White flower bokeh

Burgundy lily

More information:

Lens review: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Zoom

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS Zoom Lens

I had a chance to play with Canon’s affordable 100-400mm L series zoom last week. I rented it for a day from Penn Camera at Tyson’s Corner, mounted it on my 5D, and ran out to chase wildlife as soon as I got home from work. As the sun began to set, I took it up to the roof, set it on my tripod, and took photos of the horizon. In the morning, I snuck out onto the terrace at sunrise and got photos of that as well. All in all, I put the lens through its paces, shooting in daylight, dusk and dawn conditions, handheld and on a tripod. Even though I only used the lens for a day, albeit a pretty full one, I’m fairly comfortable with what I’m about to say.

Leap year for Mr. Chipmunk

Tree cover at sunset

The robin examines me

I liked it. The 100-400mm range is a versatile range, and the fact that you can get this L series lens at around $1,400 makes it a bargain. The lens isn’t as heavy as the 70-200mm L series zoom (which I played with today), and it’s fairly comfortable to hold for moderate amounts of time. It has a push-pull mechanism for extending the focal range, and that has its benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is that it does make it a bit easier to get through the large focal range a little faster. It’s also necessary in order to make the lens affordable. Push-pull lenses are cheaper to make than regular zooms, and require less glass as well, making them lighter.

Bethesda, as seen from the top of Grosvenor

Tuckerman Lane at sunset

➡ Updated 7/4/07: Erik Persson asked me two relevant questions this morning via private email. One is about how the autofocus handled, and the other was about whether autofocus is possible at all with an extender, or whether manual focus needs to be used. Autofocus was a bit slow, but that’s to be expected. This is a big zoom that can focus over a large distance. There is a focus limiter switch that decreases the focusing distance. You tell it to focus either from 1.8m to infinity or 6.5m to infinity. If you know you’re only going to shoot things farther away than 6.5m from you, then set the switch to that, and the autofocus will be a little faster. I’m not sure how to answer Eric’s second question. He suggests autofocus on EOS models up to the 5D is possible only up to f/5.6, and Mark 1D models can autofocus up to f/8.0. Not sure about that. I can only point you to this lens chart at Canon, which talks about the compatibility of the extenders with various lenses, and tells you what the expected aperture will be, and whether or not autofocus will be possible at all. I checked the specs for the 5D and 1Ds, and can’t find the upper f-stop limits for either models. Perhaps a call to Canon will clear this up, but it is the 4th of July today, and I doubt they’re open. Maybe one of you who has more information is willing to comment on this.

Beautiful swallow

Ugly one awaits

➡ Updated 7/6/07: Erik got back to me once more with a link to a review by The Digital Picture, where the AF to aperture specs are discussed. Furthermore, he provided a link to specs from Canon for the EOS 1v SLR (film camera) where the bit of information about being able to use AF with lenses that only open to f/8 is provided. So it looks like you’ll have to use manual focus if you stick extenders on the 100-400mm zoom. Thanks Erik! You know, you could just as well use the comments instead of sending me emails, but whatever works for you. 🙂

Moon rises over Grosvenor

Grosvenor rooflines

If you’ve been looking at the 400mm f/2.8L tele, which retails around $6,500, and you’re wondering why this lens is so inexpensive, you should know there is a reason for the price difference — but I doubt you needed me to tell you that. I stated the reasons in the paragraphs above, and they are: less glass, push-pull mechanism for the EF 100-400mm zoom lens. I haven’t tried out the 400mm tele myself yet, but I have a feeling it’s a great deal sharper and has more contrast than this lens.

Early morning contrails

Clarity

I think you can already guess what my two complaints are: the details are a bit soft when the photos are viewed at 100%, and the push-pull mechanism creates a sort of vacuum between the camera and the innermost lens. Every time I extended or contracted the lens, air rushed in or out through the crevices. I’m sure things are isolated pretty well and dust doesn’t get sucked in, but it feels odd, and it makes it difficult to stop at say, 300mm. It’s certainly a lot easier to either pull the lens all the way out to 400mm or push it all the way back in to 100mm. You know how they say that zoom lenses are soft at either ends of the focal range? Well, it would have been nice to have some sort of limiter switch that could let me stay between 110-390mm, or something like that. With the push-pull mechanism, it was hard to get the focal length just below or above its limit in order to avoid softness.

Wood duck advances

EF 100-400mm lens, wide

Having said all this, let me reassure you that this lens is a bargain at its price. If you’ve had your eye on it, get it. Realize you won’t get the results you might get with a more expensive tele, but you won’t pay through the nose for it either. This lens will definitely shine on cropped sensors like those found in the 30D and Rebel, where the effective focal range will be 160-640mm. How else can you get in the 600mm focal range without spending a ton of money? What’s more, with extenders like the 1.4x or the 2x, you can get up to 800mm on a full sensor or up to 1260mm on a cropped sensor. That’s pretty amazing!

Heron at Grosvenor Lake

Afternoon traipse

There are a few other things to keep in mind though. The maximum aperture at 400 mm is f/5.6, and that means you’ll need pretty good light in order to shoot handheld with it. If you stick an extender on it, the effective aperture will get even smaller, so you’ll either need serious daylight or a tripod. But, as I’ve already said, you get amazing range with this lens, and it’s inexpensive for an L series zoom. If you’re willing to live with the few issues I’ve outlined, then get it.

Many lives

Waterside

Buy the lens

Sun sets over Grosvenor

Goodbye little bird, goodbye

As I was about to walk into work at the start of May, I saw a little bird on the ground, trying to walk but unable to do so. The poor thing was convulsing, and its head kept rotating wildly. Two other birds were nearby, a blue thrush, and an orange-chested robin. At first I thought they’d ganged up on the poor little bird, but no, they were concerned and eyed me with fear, worried that I’d hurt it.

They didn’t have to worry about me. I picked it up and held it in my hands, hoping it would recover. I sat down on a bench and waited for about 10 minutes, and the little bird was thankful. It nested in my hand. Its eyes would close, then open again, and its breathing was heavy while its little beak was wide open. It was obvious that it had problems breathing. What had probably happened is that it flew into one of the windows, but really slammed into it. It seems to happen most every day at work, but the other birds are fine — slightly dazed, but otherwise okay. It wasn’t so with this poor little bird. It had suffered major internal injury. There were little stains of blood on my hand.

The human in me wanted to nestle it in my hands until it recovered, but the photographer in me quickly grabbed the camera and took a few photos. I couldn’t change lenses, and I had to use my wide-angle 24mm, which was already mounted on my 5D. Now I’m so glad I took the photos, because they’re the only things I have left to remind me of it.

Goodbye, little bird, goodbye

Since the little bird wasn’t getting any better, I figured I’d take it upstairs to my office and keep it safe there for at least part of the day. I was worried that it would make a quick meal for cats or hawks. Upstairs, I tried to give it some water, but it didn’t want to drink. Its condition was getting worse by the minute. I held it in my hand as it breathed its last breath. Needless to say, I don’t count that day as one of my happiest. Later, I took it outside and buried it at the root of this tree:

Under the sun

Goodbye, little bird. Goodbye. Rest in peace.

Walking out on hope

The story behind this photo is a bit interesting. Ligia and I were visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York when I took this photo. I didn’t have a tripod with me, so this was taken handheld with my 24mm lens. This is why I love fast lenses and cameras that have very little noise.

Three weeks later, close friends of ours were visiting, and I had a gift for them. I asked them to go through the photos I took in Manhattan and pick out one they liked best. I’d then postprocess and print it on the spot. They picked this one and I did my part. A day or so later, I uploaded it to Flickr, and it made it to Explore within 12 hours.

Why the title? Because more people seemed to walk out than walk in.

Walking out on hope

The promise of something better

The wonderful thing about using a fast lens is that you can get photos like this in low light. Sure, the depth of field may be thin because the aperture is maxed out, but it’s very liberating to be able to walk around and take handheld photos without having to do long exposures on a tripod.

The promise of something better

A weekend in Manhattan

Light up the nights

Ligia and I spent this past weekend in Manhattan, and got home around 1 am last night, completely exhausted. Was it fun? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Are we still tired? Yes.

The trip out on Friday morning wasn’t bad at all. The traffic was decent all the way through, including the Lincoln Tunnel. Even the Manhattan traffic was bearable, except for Times Square. We stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, which is about a half block up from 44th St and 5th Ave, and we loved it. It’s a small, cozy, quiet hotel with a rich history. It has also undergone recent and extensive remodeling, and it looks great, inside and out. I got a chance to compare it with the Waldorf-Astoria, where my parents stayed, and I’ll take the Algonquin any day. The Waldorf is huge — too big for me — and it’s crowded. Sure, it’s very nice, and it’s on ritzy Park Avenue as well, but still, I prefer smaller, quieter hotels like the Algonquin, where I can get to know the faces of the people who work there.

If you’re in town, do try to eat at the Algonquin. We had breakfast in the Round Table Room. The food was delicious, and the service wonderful. We didn’t get a chance to attend one of the shows at the Oak Room Cabaret, but that’s on our list for the next visit to NYC.

We spent our weekend traipsing about Manhattan, visiting various spots like the Flatiron Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Statue of Liberty, Museum of Natural History and tons more. We crammed as much as we could into those short few days, and as a result, I have over 1,500 photos while we’ve both got very tired and aching feet (and legs, and hips, and shoulders, etc.). I can’t wait to go through and start winnowing and post-processing my gigabytes of photographic memories.

A few months ago, I read an article that said New Yorkers are the friendliest people in the States. The article had relied on informal methodology to gauge the friendliness of people in various big cities: strangers were stopped in the streets and asked for directions. I got a chance to test those findings during our trip, and I agree, for the most part. New Yorkers are friendly and helpful. NYC cops are also called “New York’s Finest”, and I agree with that as well. All of the cops we talked to were nice to us. They even smiled frequently, prompting Ligia to wonder what makes them so happy in a city so frenetic, where the pace of life and traffic can be so stressful. We don’t know, but they sure were friendly. Even random people on the street, although a little more stressed, helped us out when we needed directions. Not everyone was nice, though. MTA employees were definitely not friendly. I even had a woman employee at the 72nd St subway station yell at me when I complained that my just-purchased tickets would not open the gates for me. While I’m on that subject, the subway ticket machines need better maintenance. They locked up frequently when purchasing by credit card or ATM card. Many did not accept paper notes, only coins. We were left scrounging for loose cash with a line forming behind us…

Manhattan is a very interesting place. This was my first chance to stay there for more than one night, and as I walked around the town, I got the chance to think and compare. Needless to say, space there is at a premium. Everything is packed tightly, and the only way you can get more space is to build up or down. It’s mind-boggling to think how many tunnels of all sorts traverse the underground. Trains, subways and cars travel underground on multiple levels, while pipes and wires of all sorts and ages, all of them needing maintenance, fill out every nook and cranny of available underground space. It must be a logistical nightmare to keep up the infrastructure of a city so massive, on every scale.

There so little vegetation in the city! Most of the time, we were surrounded by concrete, glass or old, grungy brick and mortar. Parks of all shapes and sizes are a welcome sight. Even the planted bushes on penthouse terraces are a sight for sore eyes, though removed from those on the ground by tens of stories and layers of social and financial hierarchy. It didn’t matter though — I had my trusty 100mm lens, and the thing about tele lenses is that they have no social graces. They will cut through distance of any sort and bring the object down to the photographer. I took many photos of beautiful penthouse terraces — little oases of vegetation in grungy, musty concrete fields.

Here, I complain about urban sprawl and the lack of decent pedestrian accommodations. In Manhattan, I got to see the other side of the coin. There can be no urban sprawl. There are too many pedestrians, and you can’t drive your car. If I lived there, I wonder if I could even keep a car. At the prices they charge for parking, I’m not so sure. To get places, you have to either walk, or go underground and take the subway. When you walk into a building, you have to take the elevator. There are no one-story buildings, unless you count churches. Although it was exciting to walk around and look at the architecture, I felt fenced in. There were no wide open spaces, not even in Central Park. The only place I felt freer was on the boat to and from the Statue of Liberty. There, on the open air deck, with the wind blowing through my hair, looking out at the vast expanse of water, I could breathe easier once more. But to get there, I had to take the metro and walk for some time, not to mention stand in line with a ton of people.

And that’s another thing. People are something. We’re social beings, we need company, but we each have our own level of comfort when it comes to the number of other people we can bear. I, for example, can only take so much of being around a ton of people. After that, I need to be alone, or I start getting headaches and feeling nauseous. Times Square, for all its lively and colorful action, is chock-full of people, all the time. When you step into the place, you’re surrounded by buildings on each side. Strident, flashing colors assail you from all points of view. People rub against you. You step out into the street but cars almost run over you, honking endlessly. Camera flashes go off almost every second. Every breath of air feels charged with a suffocating mix of electricity, yet every cubic inch of air is stale. You draw in more, but to no avail. You’re still fenced in, unable to breathe, and the unstoppable urge to get out of that place grabs you by the head and turns you toward the nearest side street. And so you go, heady and reeling from the indescribable something you’ve just experienced, grateful for every breath of cold, fresh air you can pull down from the tall Manhattan sky.

We left on Sunday evening around 5 pm, and got home around 1 am. It was supposed to be a four-hour trip. But we spent more than 1 hour and a half trying to get out through the Lincoln Tunnel. There was an incredible traffic jam, possibly caused by the 5-borough bike race that had taken place that same day and closed various streets and bridges around the island. All we knew is that we were stuck in traffic in some rundown neighborhood, and it wasn’t fun. To make things worse, the NJ Turnpike was also under construction, and the Delaware Bridge was also under construction. We were finally able to reach constant highway speeds when we entered Maryland, and boy, were we grateful for that!

Last but not least, tolls will possibly cost you more than gas on a trip like this (depending on your car). As soon as we reached Delaware and NJ, we got hit with tolls up the wazoo. I think we paid more than $25 in tolls on our way in, and a little less on our way out. It seemed like there were toll booths every few miles. I couldn’t help comparing the Delaware and New Jersey roads to the Maryland roads. In the states where we paid the most money (NJ, DE), the roads were terrible — potholes, construction, lane closures, pavement not level — yet in MD, where we paid only a couple of dollars to cross through the Chesapeake Bay tunnel, the roads were smooth and very drivable. I’m glad I live in MD.

I’d like to visit NYC again. There were a ton of places I didn’t get the chance to see. And I’d also like to stop in Hoboken. It’s got some nice, tall hills with great vistas of the big city. And let me not forget about this energy plant whose name I forgot, alongside the highway in NJ. Lit up at night, with white smoke coming out of its tall, metallic towers set against the darkening sky, it looked like a strange alien spaceship. I’d love to photograph it.

There are so many beautiful places in the States, and throughout the world. If only I could see and photograph them all! 🙂

Camera review: Canon EOS 30D DSLR

For the past month, I’ve been using the Canon EOS 30D as my primary camera, and I love it. I’ve taken over 5,000 photos with it. I actually got a bit sad when I had to send it back to the good folks at Canon PR. In the span of 30 days, I’ve come to regard this camera as an old friend, and that’s high praise coming from me. Why? Because it works. It works as advertised, and doesn’t let me down, no matter what the shooting conditions are. I know that when I take it out of the bag, it’s ready to go, and I know what kinds of photos I’m going to get with it — great ones — provided I do my part as a photographer.

Canon EOS 30D (front)

Before you go on, just in case you’re not familiar with my reviews, I need to explain something. I focus on real world use when I look at a camera. That’s what matters to me. Lab tests are nice if you shoot in a lab. Yes, for the most part, they can give you a good idea of a camera’s capabilities. But I’m interested in the performance of a camera in the unpredictable conditions of everyday use. How well does it do when I use it as a primary camera, for a whole month, in widely varying conditions (cold, warm, dry, humid, wet, sunny, evenings, nights, mornings, noons, afternoons, etc.)? With that in mind, here’s what I look for in a great DSLR:

  • A decent amount of resolution (8 megapixels or above)
  • Low or non-existent noise at higher ISO (I tend to shoot a lot in low light and do not like to use a flash)
  • High-quality sensor (ability to produce great photos across varying conditions when coupled with good lenses)
  • Great body with a great grip
  • Ease of use (well-placed buttons and controls, easy to navigate menus)
  • Big, clear viewfinder
  • Good battery life
  • Good screen size (at least 2.5″)
  • Fast auto-focus in various lighting conditions, along with ability to choose various focus points
  • Good automatic exposure (expose photos correctly when in automatic or semi-automatic modes)
  • Fast drive (at least 3 fps)
  • Video out, PC terminal, remote

Did the 30D deliver on all these conditions? Absolutely. It even exceeded some of them. Read on for the details.

I won’t list all of the specs. Nobody bothers to read them anyway. If you need to look something up, they’re readily available on the Canon USA website. I will, however, list the important specifications below, and I’ll refer to them throughout my review:

  • 22.5 x 15.0 mm APS-C CMOS sensor, 1.6x crop factor, 3:2 aspect ratio
  • 8.2 megapixels (3504 x 2336 pixels)
  • Compatible with all EF lenses, including (of course) EF-S lenses
  • ISO range: 100-1600 in 1/3-stop increments, expandable to 3200
  • Shutter speeds from bulb, 30 – 1/8000 seconds, tested to 100,000 exposures, 65ms lag
  • Drive speeds: self-timer, one shot, 3 fps, 5 fps
  • Viewfinder: fixed pentaprism, 95% coverage vert./horiz., 0.9x magnification, 20mm, -3.0 to +1.0 dioptric adjustment
  • LCD: 2.5″ diag., 170-degree viewing angle, 230,000 pixels, 100% coverage
  • Formats: RAW, JPEG, RAW + JPEG
  • DOF preview, mirror lock mode, data verification
  • Battery life: 900-1,100 shots
  • Dimensions: 144 x 105.5 x 73.5mm
  • Weight: 700g (body only)
  • Operating temperatures: 32-104°F/0-40°C

In addition to reviewing the specs listed above, I encourage you to take the 3D camera tour, also available on the Canon website. It’ll give you a better idea of how it looks in real life. And as always, before you purchase any camera, it makes good sense to go to a camera store and try it out in person, just to see how it fits in your hand and whether you’ll like the controls.

I always like to ask myself what makes a camera special or different. Where does it fit in? What’s the point? The answer here is that the Canon EOS 30D is a mid-level DSLR that fits in between the Canon Rebel line and the Canon 1D line. No, I haven’t forgotten the 5D — it fulfills a different purpose, and is meant as a less expensive version of the 1Ds Mark II. The 30D has the same sensor size (APS-C) and can use the same lenses (EF/EF-S) as the Canon Rebel cameras, while providing capabilities more akin to a 1D Mark II N camera: faster drive, better battery life, a very nice magnesium alloy body and grip, better low light sensitivity, and similar controls (Quick Control dial, for example). That means that if you own a Canon Rebel and you want to move up, the 30D is your best bet. You’ll be able to keep using your old EF-S lenses while gaining pro-level capabilities similar to the 1D Mark II N.

Alright, let’s get back to my criteria, and take it step by step.

Resolution

The 30D puts out 8.2 megapixels of beautiful resolution. That’s fine by me. It’s at my megapixel threshold, but I don’t mind it. Keep in mind that higher resolution doesn’t always mean better photos. If you don’t believe me, have a look at my review of the Fuji Finepix S9100. Since I always shoot at maximum resolution and in RAW format, all of my photos came in at 3504 x 2336 pixels. I find that resolution sufficient for creative post-processing. I can crop or rotate photos and still retain enough resolution to make prints of 8×10 or larger dimensions. That’s a good thing. While I talk of cropping, I want to mention a pet peeve of mine. [rant] For goodness’ sake, people, crop proportionally! I see so many photos that have been cropped with no regard for a photo’s aspect ratio whatsoever, and they don’t look good at all. If you shoot at 3:2 aspect ratio, let your crop also be 3:2. If you shoot in 4:3, let your crop be 4:3 as well. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but I can’t address them here. I might write a separate blog post about it.) [/rant]

Canon EOS 30D (body only)

Image Sensor

As you can see from the specs, this is an APS-C sensor, with a 1.6x crop factor. It’s also called a magnification factor, but I don’t like to call it that because there is no magnification involved. A smaller sensor uses less surface from a lens’ field of view (FOV), thus yielding a photo that looks like it was photographed from a smaller distance, but really wasn’t. So while a photo taken with a 5D and a 100mm lens looks like it was shot with a 100mm lens, because the 5D has a full frame sensor, the 30D will yield a photo that looks like it was shot with a 160mm lens. It’s like taking a photo with the 5D and cropping out 4 megapixels of resolution. You get the remaining 8 megapixels, and this makes it appear as if the photo is magnified, but it’s not. Some people tout this as an advantage. They say they can get a higher focal length out of their lenses. But they’re mistaken. It’s the same photo they’d have gotten with a full frame sensor, but cropped. I hope this helps some people understand this. It took me a while to get it. There’s nothing wrong with a smaller sensor that uses a crop factor (for one, they’re much more affordable), as long as you understand what you’re really getting. An unstated advantage of smaller sensors is that you can get away with using cheaper lenses. Whereas a full frame sensor would bring out any imperfections in those lenses because it would use their entire surface area, a smaller sensor would only use their center area, which is usually the sharpest portion of the lens.

In order to avoid the confusion around focal lengths and crop factors, Canon has a line of EF-S lenses which are built specifically for the APS-C sensor size used in the Canon Rebel and 30D models. That means the 18-55mm kit lens that shipped with my 30D review unit really yielded photos that matched that focal range. With EF-S lenses, there’s no crop factor involved, since they are built specifically for the smaller sensor. To really see the difference, pick up an EF-S and an EF lens, turn them upside down, and look at the diameter of the rear lenses on both. The EF-S lens will have a much smaller diameter. Short of looking at the label, that’s how you can tell which sensor they’re built for.

A lot of people are making a big deal out of automatic sensor cleaning features on DSLRs, including me. This involves a mechanism that shakes or vibrates the sensor at ultrasonic speeds, hopefully causing dust present on it to fall down onto an adhesive strip laid down in a groove below it. I say hopefully because some dust will sometimes continue to stick to the sensor, necessitating a manual cleaning. And what people also don’t realize is that they’ve got to service their DSLRs every 6 months to 1 year in order to remove the dirty adhesive strip and lay down a fresh one. Otherwise, dust that can’t stick to it anymore will be drawn back to the sensor instead.

The Canon EOS 30D has no such sensor cleaning, and I can’t say that I missed it during my use of the camera. I did notice right away after receiving my review unit that there was some dust on the sensor. It was likely there from previous uses of the camera by other reviewers. There were about 4 big, persistent dust specks. I tried a manual blower (you can get one for about $10), and that removed two of the particles. To remove all of them, I used sensor cleaning swabs and a good solution (total price, about $40), and they worked as advertised. If you use them too, make sure to follow the directions carefully, otherwise you run the risk of scratching the plastic layer above the sensor. And you know what? After using the swabs, I had no more dust problems with the sensor for the rest of my review period (about 3 weeks). I changed lenses regularly in windy weather, outside, and indoors in rooms charged with static from the dry weather, and dust was not a problem in my photos. So while auto sensor cleaning is a nice feature, it’s not needed, and also doesn’t completely eliminate the headaches caused by dust on the sensor.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention about the sensor and the DIGIC II processing engine. I always shoot in RAW mode, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the 30D’s RAW file sizes were smaller than on other cameras producing 8-9 megapixels. Canon really makes good use of their pixels. For example, the Olympus EVOLT E-500, another 8-megapixel DSLR I tested, produced 13-14MB RAW files at 8 megapixels, while the Canon EOS 30D yielded 7-9MB RAW files at the same 8-megapixel resolution. While this may not seem like a big difference to you, it’s huge when you think in terms of CF card sizes. Using the same 4GB CF card on both DSLRs, I was able to get 293 images from the E-500 and 436 images from the 30D. That’s a big difference no matter how you look at it, because it means I can shoot more images on the same card.

Image quality

As for the quality of the sensor, I’ll let my photos do the talking. I can safely say that I’m impressed. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I took over 5,000 photos, and there were only a couple of situations where I was slightly disappointed. Overall, this sensor is superb. It’s no wonder Canon chose to leave it in the 30D when they retired the 20D. Its low light sensitivity is unmatched when I compare it with everything I’ve tried so far. From what I understand, I’m not alone. Other reviewers concur. The only cameras that can top the 30D are all much more expensive (5D, 1D). People who buy the 30D for its excellent low light sensitivity alone will not be disappointed, and at its selling price, it’s a bargain.

The images look great throughout the ISO range. What I really like is how little chroma noise can be seen at higher ISO settings. Indeed, there’s so little in most situations that I need to view the photo at 100% magnification in order to see it. On average, there is more luminescence noise than chroma noise, although I don’t mind it as much. Both kinds of noise can be easily eliminated using Adobe Lightroom’s built-in noise reduction tools. Let me make it clear though that this sensor has very little noise when I compare it with other cameras. And at high ISO (1000 to 1600), while the smaller details and shades would be lost with other cameras, they’re preserved with the 30D.

I started to post-process and publish the photos taken with the 30D a few days ago, and I’ll continue to do so. There are currently 20 published photos, but they’ll grow to several hundred by the time I’m done. Watch for them over here at Flickr or in this set at Zooomr. Before the purists jump on me, let me say that I post-process my photos with artistic goals in mind. In other words, I adjust WB, colors, tone, etc. to get each photo to look the way I want it. In that sense, they’re not “right out of the camera”. If you’re looking for those sorts of photos, no great loss, plenty of other review sites have them. What you will see here are photos that are meant to showcase the capabilities of the camera, all post-processed individually and to my liking.

As long as I mentioned White Balance, let me say that the auto WB feature in the 30D works very well. In low light, it yields warmer colors, which I like, and in daylight hours, it usually yields colors that are very similar to what I see. In that sense, it’s accurate and satisfies my needs.

The Auto Exposure on the 30D also works pretty well in automatic mode, though I saw that it overexposed photos just a tad in Aperture Priority mode (Av), which is where I stay most of the time. This sometimes yielded harsher lights than I desired. To prevent that, I turned down the exposure compensation value (EV) by -0.5 or -1.0. In Shutter Priority mode (Tv), it exposed things the way I wanted it. And of course it didn’t matter in fully Manual mode, since we are each personally responsible for the exposure we get there. 🙂

To give you an idea of the photos you can get at 1600 ISO in low lighting, here’s one I took of our iMac’s iSight camera:

iSee

What I also liked is that I was able to get great photos even with the kit lens, including closeups. Here’s one of a bamboo leaf:

The dream

Or how about this other macro shot?

Better stay inside

Camera body

One of the things I really like about the 30D is its beautiful body. Even if all the specs were the same between it and the Canon Rebel line, and the only difference was the body design, I’d pay the extra money and get a 30D instead of a Rebel. I just don’t like the body of the Rebel line. Both the XT and XTi feel too small and I can’t grip them. The XT body is at least a little larger, but the XTi body is so small I feel like I’m holding some cheap digicam in my hand.

Canon EOS 30D (three quarters)

What you’re basically getting with the 30D is a body design that’s very similar to the 5D in dimensions and weight. It feels like a serious camera when you hold it. The buttons are where they need to be, and the Quick Dial control is awesome. I hope Canon keeps it as part of their design for a long time to come. Using the Quick Dial, I was able to change ISO settings, among other things, without taking my eye off the viewfinder. It’s a huge advantage over the predominant four-button design. It’s also very easy to scroll through photos using the dial instead of pressing arrow keys repeatedly.

The weight of the camera is great. It’s just heavy enough to feel like a solid, pro-level camera, without being too heavy on the wrist. A 50mm lens barely adds weight, so it’s great to carry it around like that. The kit lens is also very light, so it isn’t felt at all.

The interface was also wonderfully simple. After a quick perusal of the user manual to clear up some settings, I was ready to go. The menus were much simpler than on other cameras I used. Given the technical complexity of the 30D, I found this very refreshing. The Quick Dial control made it a breeze to navigate through the options and select the features I wanted. The only thing I would suggest is the ability to mark and delete batches of photos in review mode. I could only delete single photos or all photos on a card, but I often wanted to delete only groups of photos.

I really liked the viewfinder. It’s big and clear. I was able to make dioptric adjustments to fit my vision perfectly, and that was great. It was also easy to see the shutter, aperture and ISO indicators at the bottom of the viewfinder window. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that the viewfinder has 95% coverage, so there are little slivers of space at the edges of your photos that you won’t see in the viewfinder. Frame your shots accordingly or crop afterwards as needed.

The LCD screen size is just right. We’re getting used to larger and larger LCD screens these days, and I don’t mind it one bit. The 2.5″ screen of the 30D is great for reviewing shots on the fly, either as you shoot, or afterwards, in “chimping” mode.

Speed

The EOS 30D emphasizes speed in its mechanisms. This is demonstrated by the fast 5fps drive, the small shutter lag, and the fast, 9-point autofocus. I tell you, there’s a big difference between a 3fps drive and a 5 fps drive. In those critical moments when you absolutely need to capture something, it’s really nice to be able to press the shutter and get a quick burst of photos. The shutter lag of the 30D is really good. At 65 ms, it’s a lot faster than the new Rebel XTi (100 ms). I could not find data right away on the shutter lag of the 1D Mark II N, but I have a feeling 30D’s shutter lag is close to it.

Autofocus is, of course, directly dependent on the lens used. As such, autofocus times will vary widely. On fast lenses, the time is obviously going to be really fast, and on slow lenses (zoom, macro) autofocus times are going to be slow. Light is also an important factor to consider. In low light, pretty much any camera will “hunt” or delay autofocus while it tries to find appropriate focal points. I used two lenses while I tested the 30D: the kit lens, which is an 18-55mm EF-S lens, and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM. The autofocus times on the kit lens were almost instantaneous, even in low light, while autofocus times on the macro lens were slow, as expected. It was surprising to me to get such fast autofocus times out of the kit lens, especially when considering its maximum aperture is f/3.5. I can only attribute it to the 30D.

Battery life

The 30D’s battery life is great. After the first charge, I was able to get 1,400 exposures before I emptied the battery. I couldn’t wait long enough to drain the second charge. I’d exceeded 1,400 exposures and was getting ready to take a trip where I wanted to use the camera extensively, so I plugged it in. Afterwards, I lost count of the number of photos taken per charge. What I also liked about the 30D is that it gave me ample forewarning of low battery. I was able to take over 300 photos on a low battery, and could have probably gotten more if I hadn’t recharged it.

The long battery life surprised me because the specs state 900-1,100 shots per battery charge, depending on the temperature. I used the camera in decidedly cold weather, in temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and yet I was still able to get over 1,400 shots per charge. Although I barely used the flash, I did enable the preview feature that displayed each photo taken for approximately 2 seconds, so it’s not as if I was a battery miser.

Let’s review

I really liked using the Canon EOS 30D. It’s a solid camera with a great sensor that produces quality images, with unmatched low light sensitivity in its class. Its magnesium alloy body feels great and grips very well. Its controls are well-placed and easy to use. Its speed is also unmatched in its class, and its battery life exceeded my expectations. Overall, the camera was a pleasure to use, and inspired a sense of being well made and reliable. Would I purchase one if I were in the market? Absolutely. Given its features and price, you can’t go wrong with this camera.

Here are a few more sample photos.

Speed of light

Shaken

Candy striper

Was there ever any doubt?

How to buy it

Camera review: Olympus EVOLT E-500 DSLR

For the past month, I’ve been testing out the E-500 DSLR from Olympus. It’s an entry-level DSLR with impressive specs for its class. These past 30 days or so, it has been my primary camera. It’s been everywhere with me, every day. I’ve used it in all sorts of conditions (indoors, outdoors, daylight, nights, cold, warm, wet and dry), and I’ve taken over 3,000 photos with it. So what I’m about to write carries a bit of weight — at least the sort conferred by such use. After you read my review, you’ll get to see sample photographs that I took with the camera. They’re at the end, so you may jump there right now if you’d like.

E-500

The E-500 feels good in the hand. It’s light (about 435 grams for the body, plus another 75-100 grams or so for the lens). It has a great grip. It just feels right when I hold it in my hand. One of my complaints with the Canon Rebel XT, another DSLR in the same class as the E-500, is that it’s too small. It feels like it was made for a woman’s hand. I can’t quite grip it right. Not so with the E-500.

EVOLT E-500 DSLR (top view)

My test model came with a 14-45mm, 1:3.5-5.6 kit lens. Given the sensor size and optics, this is equivalent to a 28-90mm lens on the 35mm system. While the aperture specs of the lens aren’t impressive, its optics and construction are. I’ve held other kit lenses in my hand, and they felt pretty flimsy. This one doesn’t. It has weight to it, and it’s solid. The mount is made of metal, and it feels like a quality product over all. Yes, in order to make the lens affordable, Olympus needed to pare down the specs, but they didn’t skimp on materials and optics, and I’m very glad for that.

Camera body and lens

Zuiko digital lens

The controls of the camera are easy to use and well-organized. It’s interesting to see how each camera manufacturer designs the interface they think is best for their cameras. Olympus chose to group most of the controls within easy reach of the right hand fingers. There is a main mode dial which can be rotated with the thumb and index finger, and a control dial right next to it that can be rotated with the thumb. Once I got used to the controls, and it took very little time, everything I needed to use frequently could be adjusted easily, and I liked that. My only gripe here is with the White Balance button, which I think is a bit close to the thumb rest and can be accidentally pressed as the camera is held. But as I used the E-500 more, my thumb learned to rest away from this button and things were fine. Incidentally, it would have been nice if the thumb rest were rubberized.

Mode and control dials

WB, AF, ISO and Metering controls

The user manual is great. I like the way the E-500 manual is laid out. It’s organized by sections and indexed well, so I can refer to specific topics right away. Things are also clearly explained, and I know all too well that’s not always the case with other user manuals.

The E-500 has some surprising features for an entry-level DSLR. I was impressed most of all with the supersonic wave filter (SSWF) sensor cleaning. Olympus was the first company to introduce this feature on its DSLRs a couple of years ago, and other companies such as Sony, Pentax and Canon have only more recently followed suit. The SSWF uses ultrasonic vibrations to shake dust off the sensor every time the camera is turned on. This reduces (and may even eliminate) the need to to clean the sensor, though your mileage may vary. It all depends on how much you’ll switch lenses, and how careful you are when you do it. In case you’re worried, the camera has a sensor-cleaning mode that lets you gain access to the sensor for manual cleanings.

Camera and lens mount

I was pleased to see the camera had four bracketing modes: AE (exposure), WB (white balance), MF (manual focus) and flash. These modes let you vary (or bracket, hence their names) those characteristics when used. For example, AE bracketing will let you take three shots with varying exposures (dark, medium, light). You then choose the best one and delete or keep the others, as you wish. The other modes work the same, and they vary the other characteristics. This is useful for those situations when you’re not quite sure what will give you the best shot possible. Realize though that flash bracketing can get to be pretty annoying for your subjects if they’re people. No one likes being flashed repeatedly. So find the flash intensity that works, do it quickly, then stick with it.

The 2.5-inch LCD screen was a great addition to the E-500. It’s clear, big and displays photos very well, and for its time (2005), fairly unique. Olympus also spent time organizing the menu functions well, and after a short learning period, things are easy to find. The viewfinder is a different story, at least as far as I’m concerned. I found the display of the aperture and shutter information to be hard to read, because it was off to the side instead of at the bottom of the shot. Apparently, I’m not the only one to notice that shortcoming. I also noticed the eyecup (the little rubber piece around the viewfinder) was a little shallow for my eyes, and ambient light distracted me from my shots, particularly in daylight. Thankfully, I see that Olympus offers a bigger eyecup for folks like me.

LCD and other controls

The battery life was surprisingly good. I don’t know if my experience was a fluke, but I managed to get over 1,600 shots on a single charge, and over 400 of those shots were with flash. That’s impressive! I should clarify that on the first charge, I got only 350 shots. But then first charges on all rechargeable batteries don’t last that long. So after I drained the battery that first time and recharged it, the second charge lasted for over 1,600 photographs. And when the camera refused to take more shots because of the depleted battery, I turned it off, then back on, and squeezed more shots. I did this four times, and got an additional 30 shots with a battery that was supposed to be dead. Again, I don’t know if my experience was the norm, but if so, this would be a fantastic selling point. Yet I don’t see battery life mentioned anywhere in the Olympus literature or on their website.

I tried out the Olympus Master software included with the camera, and was less than impressed with its features. I stuck with Adobe Bridge and Photoshop for post-processing my photos thereafter. Incidentally, I wouldn’t advise you to download the photos from the camera to your computer by connecting the two with a USB cable. (This is true for just about any recent DSLR, by the way.) It’ll take forever, particularly if you shoot in RAW format. Because camera manufacturers haven’t updated their USB connectivity hardware, the most you’ll get is the equivalent of USB 1.1 speed. Get a card reader and use that instead. The speeds will be USB 2.0, and you’ll be happy.

I was disappointed to find that the camera’s ISO range only went from 100-400 natively. Yes, the sensitivity can be boosted up to 1600 in whole steps or 1/3 steps, but still, given that other cameras in its class (such as the Nikon D50 and Canon Rebel XT) offer native ISO up to 1600, the E-500 should do so as well. I should note that two noise reduction features are included on the camera. They are useful when using higher ISO settings. One is a noise filter that can be coupled with the ISO boost and works automatically, and another is a noise reduction feature that can be turned on and off as needed, regardless of the ISO setting. Although the noise filter did a good job at 400 and 800 ISO, it couldn’t help much at 1600. The noise reduction feature also wasn’t very helpful unless one used it with long exposures.

Time and time again, as I used the E-500, I found myself wishing for better low-light capability. I tend to take lots of shots in low light conditions, and I prefer not to use the flash, because it’s either disruptive or annoying. When I took photos of people, I found my friends covering their eyes or squinting. And of course, it’s not practical or desired to use the flash when doing street photography at night. Flash would ruin a neon sign, and would shed a harsh light on details best lit by ambient light. Maybe I’m just spoiled in wanting to do handheld night or low-light photography, but those are my expectations.

The autofocus works well and is fast given that it’s only a 3-point AF. That’s important because manual focus is too tedious to use by itself, unless you’re dealing with subjects that won’t move for some time. I also found that the focus ring on the kit Zuiko lens was best used for fine focus adjustments, not for everyday focusing tasks. There were, however, some occasions when the AF didn’t quite work, including daylight conditions. I was never quite sure why, but those times were few and far between. Autofocus was slower in low light, and at times, undesirably slow, by a factor of 3-7x when compared to daylight AF speeds. On the E-500, there is an option to use the flash as an autofocus illuminator (as on other DSLRs), but I didn’t find it useful. It didn’t cut down on the autofocus time at all, and only introduced a strobe-like light that preceded the shots and annoyed my friends even more. So I’d recommend that you plan for long AF times in low ambient light, and realize that you’re going to miss some photo ops because of it.

On the other hand, the built-in flash is surprisingly strong, and that’s good news for those occasions when it does need to be used. I was shocked to see it that it filled a room of 20’x20′ and provided ample light for most shots. Like other reviewers, I was surprised to see that I could not get red eyes in my subjects even if I wanted to, and even when not using the red-eye preflash.

The E-500 has a nice calendar feature built into the photo review mode that lets you view the shots you took on a particular day. I liked that a lot. I also found myself wishing for a bulk delete feature for a particular day. Here’s the scenario: say you take lots of shots, then download them to your computer, and you take more shots the next day, without realizing that you haven’t deleted the other shots first. With a bulk delete feature, you can select all of the shots from the previous day and delete them en masse, without needing to go through and selecting each by hand. But this is just wishful thinking and not a vital feature on an entry-level DSLR.

For those who need it, the E-500 has a mirror lock function that’s called Anti-Shock in the camera menu. It allows you to eliminate the minor vibration caused by the mirror movement as you press the shutter, and it’s useful for macro or night photography.

A surprising feature on this camera was the presence of two custom reset modes. Ever used a car where you could set your seat and steering positions, plus other settings, then store them? This is the same concept. You can choose to adjust certain camera functions, then store them into one of the custom resets. When you want to use those settings, you simply select that reset mode from the menu, and all other settings but yours are wiped out. This can prove useful for day/night photography, when you’d want features like the noise reduction turned off or on, respectively. Or for multiple users of the same camera.

Even though the camera is not dust and splash proof, I can tell you from direct experience that it is a sturdy camera that will work in some pretty harsh conditions. The stated operating temperature of the E-500 is supposed to be 32-100 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve used it in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and it worked great. The user manual says the transitions between temperatures and humidities shouldn’t be sudden. Well, they were sudden, and the lenses didn’t fog up. They worked fine, and what’s more, the camera worked fine. I used it once while it was snowing. Snow accumulated on the camera and lens body, and when I got inside, it melted, leaving drops of water everywhere. I wiped them off, and the camera continued to work just great. I didn’t have a chance to use the camera in dusty or excessively warm conditions, but I certainly put it through its paces here in Washington, DC, and it hardly missed a beat.

I want to talk about the four-thirds standard for a bit (also see the Wikipedia entry for this). The E-500 is built on this standard, so a little background information will help you understand the differences between it and other DSLRs a little better.

As you may know if you own a DSLR, once you’ve bought it and invested in the various accoutrements that go along with that camera body, you’re stuck with the brand, so to speak. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on extra lenses, and if you want to switch to another brand, you’ll need to spend money not only on a new camera body, but on another set of lenses as well. That’s not fun, and most people can’t afford to switch brands, especially if they’ve invested heavily in lenses and other camera accessories like speedlights, batteries, etc. Hence, camera manufacturers are pretty happy (financially speaking) that lens lines aren’t inter-compatible (unless you use special mounts that may or may not work or give you the same image quality), because they have long-term, guaranteed customers.

Olympus came up with the four-thirds standard so they could make lenses that are interchangeable, and can be used by any other camera back built on the four-thirds standard, and they wanted to design them specifically for use in digital photography. But according to Wikipedia, the four-thirds standard isn’t entirely an open standard:

Four Thirds is not an Open Standard, however, as it does not meet the “allowing anyone to use” criteria commonly accepted as the definition of an open standard. It also does not meet the criteria that the standard itself and any associated intellectual property be available on a Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory basis.

So while the standard is good, Olympus needs to be more open about its use in the industry. There also seems to be a drawback. According to Wikipedia, even though the smaller sensor size allows for smaller and lighter lenses, it’s also to blame for the high noise I experienced when taking shots at higher ISO settings. Apparently the sensor just isn’t big enough to function well in low light. Whether that’s accurate, or whether this issue can be solved through creative engineering, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not happy with the performance of the E-500 in low light, particularly when shooting without flash, at shutter speeds above 1/25 seconds. But again, my needs are probably more stringent than those of the entry-level DSLR user.

4:3 CCD sensor

This next point is entirely subjective, but I find the 4:3 aspect of the photographs I took with the E-500 more pleasing to the eye than the more prevalent 3:2 aspect found in most photographs. (The 3:2 aspect carries over from film photography.) Have a look at your computer monitor or TV. Chances are (unless you have a wide screen monitor or TV) that you’ve been looking at images made for the 4:3 standard for quite some time, and you didn’t even know it. This aspect ratio has been in use in that medium for decades.

The 3:2 aspect helps the photographer frame a landscape shot a little better, because it’s wider, but when I look at a vertical shot taken with that aspect, it seems as if one side is lopped off. As I said, this is entirely subjective, so I invite you to make up your own minds about it. I ask you to leave brand loyalty aside, and to judge which aspect looks better in each mode. I prefer 4:3 in portrait mode, and I’m on the fence between 4:3 and 3:2 in landscape mode.

So, given all of this camera’s features, capabilities and limitations, does it allow its user to take good photographs? I think so. I was pleased with the color reproduction and image quality. And I’m willing to let you judge this for yourselves as well. As I mentioned, I took over 3,000 photos with the camera, and I posted several of them below, at the end of my review.

EVOLT E-500 DSLR (side view)

Enough talking, let’s wrap things up. Overall, the E-500 is a solid DSLR. It’s sturdy, has a good grip, it’s got good battery life, and the image quality is great. I like the 4:3 aspect of the photos, and I like the fact that the lenses and body are interchangeable with other brands, although currently only Olympus, Panasonic and Leica make DSLRs and lenses based on the standard. That’s about five camera backs altogether, at widely varying prices, so there’s not a whole lot of choice, although that could change in the future. The sensor’s performance in low light is not up to my expectations, and that could or could not be related to the four-thirds standard. Time will tell. I think that it’s a bargain for its class. The current market price hovers around $650 for the body and two lenses, the one I tested and another, the 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom. I hear that’s a great lens. Bottom line: if I weren’t so bent on being able to use it in low light situations, I’d get one myself.

Here are the sample photographs, as mentioned above.

Valentine for my sweetie

Musing on a fragile life

Those dark shadows that haunt us

Life, reflected

I have this idea

1640 at sunrise

Chat by the country fence

Solitude is peaceful

Waterpainting

The three

Brothers in arms

Green power

Blue mountain

Urge to splurge