Things are really looking up for the Four Thirds digital SLR format. It’s taken a while, but now the idea behind the standardisation of sensor size and lens mount is starting to be realised with a growing choice of ‘mix and match’ camera bodies and lenses from a number of major manufacturers.

While the Olympus E-510 has quite a bit in common with its smaller sibling, the E-410, it’s a more focused package as far as the enthusiast shooter is concerned.

Olympus remains the biggest player in the format, but it’s well supported by Panasonic, Leica and Sigma, giving potential buyers an interesting selection of D-SLR bodies and a lens system that numbers close to 30 models. Built around a smaller sensor again than that used in the “APS” format models, a major attraction of the Four Thirds system is the potential to design more compact camera bodies as exemplified by the diminutive Olympus E-410. This camera is to digital SLRs what the OM-1 was to 35mm SLRs, and despite its exceptional smallness, it’s packed with features and a very high level of specifications. While the E-410 is primarily targeted at first-time SLR user, it’s sufficiently well-equipped to satisfy the more experienced photographer, but Olympus recognises that many may want more… including a physically bigger camera body. While the E-510 is noticeably bigger than its sibling (particularly in terms of width), it still easily qualifies as a compact D-SLR and is one of the smallest in its class. In fact, only the Nikon D40X is smaller overall, but the E-510 is significantly better featured.

Get A Grip

Similar in styling and shape to the E-410, a key addition to the E-510’s GRP bodyshell is a good-sized handgrip which also allows for things to become a little less crowded in terms of its top deck control layout. It also allows for the accommodation of a bigger lithium-ion battery pack with 1500 mAh on tap so the E-510 has a longer ‘range’ (up to 650 shots per charge).

While there is absolutely nothing amiss with the E-410’s handling, there’s no doubt this camera is just too small for some people and the absence of a proper grip isn’t to everybody’s liking. In comparison, the E-510 is a better fit for many hands and the top panel controls are more easily accessed and operated. However, the basic control layout is shared with the E-410, including a main mode dial, a main input wheel (positioned to be thumb-operated), a four-way control cluster for menu navigation and direct access to key camera functions, a 6.35 cm LCD monitor screen and a small collection of buttons in strategic locations. Helpfully, the four-way keys are now marked with their secondary roles which are to serve as short cuts to the white balance, autofocus and metering modes plus the ISO settings. Importantly, the E-510 retains the traditional Olympus ‘look’ which is what makes the E-410 so endearing and is derived from the classic OM-series models (which still look great today). Incidentally, lift the fl ash on the E-510 (and E-410) and you’ll see a pentaprism housing shaped just like that on the OM-1/2 models.

The two digital cameras also have quite a lot in common under the skin, including the sensor, processor, autofocusing module, viewfinder and basic exposure control facilities. However, don’t get the idea that the E-510 is just an E-410 that’s had a few too many meat pies… it has a number of extended capabilities and some important additional features. Topping the latter list is built-in anti-shake capabilities achieved via sensor shifting at ultrasonic frequencies… and one reason why the E-510 needs a bigger body. Olympus joins Pentax and Sony in offering body-based image stabilisation which, of course, has the advantage of working with all lenses rather than just those equipped with an optical stabiliser. The E-510 offers two stabiliser modes – one which operates in both the vertical and horizontal planes to provide full correction for camera shake, and one which switches off the horizontal correction to allow for panning. Olympus claims up to four stops of extra ‘speed’ when shooting hand-held with the additional effectiveness over rival systems (most of which give three stops of correction) achieved via the speed of the shifting plus the accuracy of predictive algorithms and not, as you might read elsewhere, because of the smaller size of the Four Thirds format sensor.

Olympus’s ‘Image Stabiliser’ (IS) system is derived from its ‘Supersonic Wave Filter’ (SSWF) sensor cleaning in that it employs the same type of propulsion to shift the imager. Olympus calls it a ‘Supersonic Wave Drive’, and the E-510 is the first Four Thirds D-SLR to be fitted with built in anti-shake. Furthermore, the effects of the stabilisation can be previewed via the camera’s live view facility which is also a first. Previously, stabilisation could only be visually monitored through the viewfinder with a lens-based optical system. There are, of course, a couple of Leica-designed (and Panasonic-made) Four Thirds mount zoom lenses with built-in optical stabilisers, but one is extremely expensive and the second – launched with the Lumix L10 – isn’t yet available as a separate component.