Olympus Camedia E 20N
A 5 Megapixel SLR With Super Fast Shutter Speeds, and More

The Olympus Camedia E-20N is the latest in their series of high-end digital cameras that straddle the line between consumer and professional markets. Although the E-20N does not offer interchangeable lenses, it stretches the envelope on the consumer side by offering features and abilities that outstrip most consumer-oriented competitors, albeit with a street price of about $2000. It all begins with a 5-megapixel chip, one that can deliver a near 15MB file that yields amazingly sharp 8x10 and highly credible 12x16" prints. It also allows considerably more image controls with its very fast shutter speed capability and aperture settings that can be controlled in 1/3 EV increments from f/2 to f/11 (wide angle, f/2.8 at tele). Other highlights include a strong built-in flash (good for up to 20 ft in the default ISO 80 setting), SLR like viewing and control, a dual AF system, and enough metering and exposure compensation controls to satisfy the most demanding photographer. The all-aluminum body is a decidedly photographic matte black and there's a reticulating monitor on the back that allows you to work from all sorts of interesting angles.

Set on macro, in program exposure mode and the flash on, the E-20N allowed for close focusing and yielded excellent color and sharpness. Editorial Assistant Katie Pace's Pez collection proved that getting close with a digital camera is just point-and-shoot.
Photos © 2001, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

IP And SP Image Modes
The E-20N is capable of very fast shutter speeds, up to 1/8000 sec. But you can't just set this speed in shutter priority exposure mode and go. The camera has two shutter systems, mechanical and electronic. The default is the mechanical, which delivers the most pixels as well, and in that mode (IS, or Interlaced Scan mode) you get up to 1/640 sec. If you want to work with a faster shutter speed to get a narrower depth of field outdoors or freeze action shots, then you can switch to PS (Progressive Scan mode). This allows you to get as fast as 1/4000 sec in program and aperture priority modes and 1/8000 sec in manual and shutter priority modes. Shutter speeds are stepped in 1/3 EV increments, thus 1/640, 1/800, 1/1000 sec, and so on. There is a price to pay for this increased shutter speed, as the number of pixels used to record is halved. Thus, when using PS mode the E-20N becomes a 2.5 megapixel camera.

The importance of this for image effects control cannot be overstated. It allows you to work with a wide range of apertures for getting just the depth of field you might want in your shots. Most digicams (non SLRs) limit you to two apertures at most, with some topping out at f/5.6. And of course you get a very wide range of shutter speeds for various depictions of motion and working in low light. Combine a 60 sec shutter speed with an f/2 lens and you can be deep in the woods with plenty of light to spare. Another aspect of the camera that plays into the above is the Olympus Noise Reduction System. You can only use it with shutter speeds at or slower than 1/2 sec, but it all but eliminates the noise you'd usually get in such circumstances.

The E-20N offers three metering pattern options. Here, spot metering was used to grab exposure off these leaves in a swamp. Failure to use the spot mode would have resulted in more detail in the dark background but an overexposed plant.

Camera Controls And Layout
The camera itself is a bit on the weighty side, but the grip and feel is substantial and balanced. All the dials and knobs might seem intimidating at first, but there's no strange territory, except for a few. Atop the body is an SM/CF marked button. This allows you to switch between CompactFlash or MicroDrive and SmartMedia cards. The memory card slot in the camera holds both, and you can alternate between the two or just use one at a time. This is good news for those upgrading from a previous CompactFlash card camera, especially if you've already invested in a few high-capacity CompactFlash cards. It's also a good backup. When you're shooting TIFF format and getting close to 15MB files for each frame the supplied 32MB SmartMedia card is paltry, to say the least, unless you like making two frames before you have to download. Even my trusty 256MB SanDisk CompactFlash card only gets me about 16 shots per load when working in TIFF.

This memory problem is not unique to the E-20N. As we get more and more of these 5 megapixel (and higher as we go along) chips some solution to the memory problem will have to be found. Clearly, chip capacity is outstripping memory capabilities. The reason we shell out money for these larger chip capacity cameras is that we want to take advantage of the resolution they afford. Right now, if you want to take full advantage of this capability you must consider buying either a high-capacity card or an in-the-field download device. That means adding a few hundred more dollars to your camera purchase price right out of the gate. That said, let's get back to our camera tour.

The sharpness and color richness of the E-20N came to the fore in shots such as this. The light here was low, but the CCD pulled out every detail in the scene. This and every other shot shown here is unretouched. The bright highlights in the background can easily be corrected.

Confirming Settings
There's an OK button on the back. You use this to confirm settings you make that differ from the default settings of the camera. So you have to open up the menu, make your changes (for example, switching to a higher ISO) and then hit the OK button to keep it. There are four menus to peruse--the shooting mode, playback mode, connection mode, and print reserve mode, the last being the one for making a print order right in the camera and keeping it with the images as they go through the connection to printer route. I would have liked a memory mode save for a couple of different setups, ones that you could dial in as you shoot. But there are plenty of options for a number of corrective and creative controls.

Drive And Self-Timer
On the left side of the penta-prism head there are two indented push buttons. The Drive button allows you to set up sequential shooting--the ability to keep shooting as long as you keep pressure on the release button. In IS mode you can take three or four frames in a burst (depending on the record mode) and in PS mode you can get up to seven. So, in shutter priority mode you can get seven straight shots each at 1/8000 sec. That's pretty impressive. The button also acts as a self-timer activator, and the delay is 12 sec.

The top button of the two allows you to set the metering mode, or how the exposure system reads light. The metering pattern set is conditional on the subject and lighting in the scene. ESP is an evaluative mode and reads all the brightness values in the scene to arrive at an exposure. This is the full auto setting and is very good at what it does. The other two choices are center-weighted averaging and spot metering. Use center-weighted and exposure lock (the AEL button on the upper right back of the camera) for reading then placing brightly lit subjects off-center to have the exposure biased for that subject. Use spot for very selective readings, indicated by the circle surrounding the AF mark in the finder.

For a sort of "real time" view of the effect of exposure changes you can switch to manual exposure mode and use the monitor. As you toggle through shutter speed changes you see the monitor get darker or brighter. The most effective use of this is when you want to play with exposure compensation. As you toggle through in manual the exposure compensation off the recommended exposure is shown on the finder as plus and minus values.

The monitor, however, does not always correlate directly with results, as the brightness of the monitor itself may or may not be exactly what records. I found this particularly true with flash exposures. Many looked washed out and overexposed, but when I downloaded them later they came up as perfect exposures. This can be befuddling, and I often took more pictures than I needed to, thinking that I blew the initial shot. It's just something you have to get used to and, again, this is not rare with digicams. Underexposed images on the preview were closer to what came up when downloading. In both cases, slight adjustment seemed to fix the images.

Recording Mode Selection
You can select the recording mode in two ways. The choices are RAW, TIFF, and JPEG, with the last in the list having three options: SHQ (2560x1920 at 1.27 compression ratio); HQ (2560x1920 at 1:8); and SQ (1280x960 at 1:8). There's no VGA mode, so those shooting for the web might have to resize later. You select from these by going to the menu on the monitor and toggling through the recording mode choices and hitting the OK button, or more easily, hitting the record mode button on the top of the camera and turning the main or sub-command dial until the choice appears in the LCD panel. The former is fine when you know what mode you want to use for the whole session while the latter is best when you want to change modes on the fly.

There are two sockets on the upper middle left of the camera body that can take connectors. One is a PC terminal for an external flash while the other takes the remote cable jack for the optional Remote Cable RM-CB1. A push button remote (cable-less) comes with the camera.

Most other controls on the camera are self-evident, such as WB for White Balance settings, AF/MF for switching between manual and autofocus, and the familiar macro mode and exposure compensation buttons. Inside, via the menu and monitor, there are quite a few features and functions of note that aren't available on the body controls, although some duplicate controls that are available on the body itself. We'll cover some of the ones unique to the menu.

Flash Compensation
Flash compensation is available only from the menu. For the most part the flash yields very good exposures, except when you're up close or working in macro mode. Like with many film and digital cameras, close-up and macro work bedevils the TTL flash exposure system. Toggle down to the flash compensation setup in the recording menu and go -1 or sometimes -2 EV for best results in macro. The optional, dedicated external flash--FL-40--adds to the flash power coverage. You can mount the flash atop the camera on the hot shoe, use a bracket for keeping the flash to the side, or even take the flash off-camera for more directed lighting angle control. As mentioned, the preview monitor often shows flash exposures as overexposed, while the downloaded results were just fine.

Image Adjust Modes
You can also choose Sharpness, Contrast, and Noise Reduction only from the monitor menu. Use High contrast for text and line drawing copying, or for in-camera special effects (although they might be better done in your image manipulation software later). Use Low contrast for flattening out brightness values. High sharpness enhances and sharpens edges, while low might be fun to use for portraits. Noise reduction can only be implemented at 1/2 sec or slower shutter speeds. This mode takes two images, according to the Olympus instruction book, and then processes out the glitzes and zaps you might otherwise see in a low-light scene. Be aware, however, that processing time for this setup can take more than a minute, so don't expect to be doing spontaneous shooting with it. If you need more light sensitivity you can also use the menu to up the ISO to 320 (two stops more sensitive than the default ISO 80).

Time Lapse
Another fascinating image game you can play is time-lapse photography. This activates a sequence of shots at a set time interval that you can set in hours and minutes. You might think that this would drain batteries, especially for the longer sets, but the camera does enter the sleep mode in the midst of it all and then reawakens to do its thing. The overall range can be from one minute to a full day. You can use this setup to make a set of images of the rising sun, an opening flower, or for any sort of documentary sequence. It's suggested that you pull down the eyepiece shutter lever to prevent light from entering the viewfinder from behind the camera (which you should also do with self-timer mode if you move away from the camera). This stray light will affect exposure accuracy if left unchecked.

You can source a histogram readout on playback by using the Info button on the lower back left of the camera. This tells you the tonal distribution of the image and in many ways is usually a better indication of picture success than what you might see on the monitor. After I figured out that flash shots appeared overexposed and were okay I used the histogram to confirm a good exposure. The graph tells you if you are losing information in the bright or dark areas of the image. A classic bell curve is often best, with ascending bars to the middle from the left and right sides. Another feature worthy of note is Olympus' exclusive Pixel Mapping process. This, says Olympus, should be done about once a year. Pixel Mapping checks for "dead" pixels and performs an operation that patches them. This prevents information dropout or at the least eliminates pixel "holes" in the CCD recording.

Olympus has provided a number of accessories for the camera. These include telephoto and wide angle lens adapters, an even closer macro (close-up) lens, and the aforementioned dedicated flash and remote cord. What Olympus does not include in the package is a rechargeable battery solution, and the batteries they give you, the two CR-V3 lithium packs, cannot be recharged. Happily, the E-20N can take AA batteries, so that's where your rechargeable solution comes from. But you can't use lithium or zinc carbon AAs--Olympus says they will overheat and damage the camera--and must stick to NiCd or Ni-MH AA types. An AC adapter and a lithium polymer battery and power battery holder are sold separately.

I can live with the use of Ni-MH AAs for rechargeables but the AC adapter is probably important for downloading, as any power interruption during downloading will screw up the operation. So, buy the optional AC adapter or invest in an Olympus floppy adapter for SmartMedia cards and/or card readers for your downloads. The lack of an included AC adapter is, in my view, regrettable. One could argue that the price of this level of camera is kept in check by not including one, but then again one could argue that the price assumes inclusion.

In The Field
The Olympus performed admirably in the field, and the results speak for themselves. It functions like a good SLR should, albeit without the ability to interchange lenses. One could also wish for a depth of field preview to get visual control of the wide range of aperture settings available. But after some time spent with the E-20N you can really take control of your images and a myriad of image effects. The camera offers a very wide range of creative options. Images opened up to 14MB, good enough for excellent 8x10 and very good 11x14 images. There was no argument with sharpness, although when you get to shutter speeds lower than 1/60 sec you might consider raising the ISO or steadying the camera when you shoot.

The Contrast image controls are most appreciated, especially when working here in the hot Florida sun. After a first few attempts at photographing during the middle of the day, we switched to low contrast recording mode and were much happier with the results. The monitor always showed the image a bit brighter than we would like on preview, but the histogram tells the true story.

The Olympus E-20N is quite a camera. In features it comes close to offering many of the options of a full-fledged digital SLR, while in price it comes in between the top point-and-shoot and the lower end SLRs. In that sense it is a bit of a fence straddler, and may just appeal to the budgets of those seeking the big chip and extensive creative controls without going over the $2000 mark. Whether you want to spend another grand for lens interchangeability and other SLR features is up to you, but you can't go too wrong with this amazingly versatile camera.

For more information, contact Olympus America Inc. at (631) 844-5321; fax: (631) 844-5262; www.olympus.com.

  • CCD: Maximum pixels: 5 megapixels
  • Lens: Olympus ED, aspherical glass, 9-36mm (equivalent to 35-140mm in 35mm format)
  • Aperture Range: f/2-f/11 (wide angle); f/2.4-f/11 (tele); adjustable in 1/3 EV steps
  • Shutter Speeds: Auto, 1/640 sec-2 sec; Manual, 1/640 sec-60 sec. In Progressive scan mode: 1/4000 sec-2 sec, Program and Aperture Priority mode; 1/8000 sec-2 sec, Shutter Priority mode; 1/8000 sec-60 sec in Manual exposure mode.
  • ISO: Default, ISO 80; selectable, 160, 320.
  • Recording Modes: RAW, TIFF, five JPEG compression modes (Progressive and Interlaced Scan combined).
  • Image Adjustment Modes: Noise reduction, Sharpness, Contrast
  • Burst Rates: 2.5 or 4.5
  • Focusing: Dual autofocus or manual
  • Closest Focusing Distance: In macro mode, 8"; manual or autofocus, 23.5"
  • Exposure Modes: Program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, and bulb
  • White Balance: Auto, preset manual, one touch manual (calibration)
  • Flash: Built-in, with six flash modes
  • Media: Dual slot: SmartMedia and CompactFlash or MicroDrive
  • Connections: USB. Mac OS 8.6 and Windows 98 require USB Mass Storage Support.
  • Size And Weight: 5x4.1x7"; 37 oz without batteries
  • Price: "Street," $1999