Olympus E-20N

Introduction

In late 2001, Olympus released the E-20n as a successor to their flagship model, the E-10. The “n” at the end of the model name refers to its use of the NTSC system; the E-20p was sold in markets using the PAL system. Since this is the only difference between the two models that I’m aware of, I will henceforth be referring to it as the “E-20”. The E-20 was the flagship Olympus digital camera at the time, before the introduction of the E-1 in 2003.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My Olympus E-20n with the lens hood fitted.

Like its predecessor, the E-10, the E-20 is technically a DSLR, but not in the conventional sense: the lens is non-interchangeable; and a fixed prism, which splits the incoming light between the sensor and the viewfinder, is used in lieu of a moving mirror. In that regard (except for the prism being used in place of a mirror), I consider it a spiritual successor to the so-called “zoom lens reflex” cameras Olympus made through the 90’s and early 00’s.

My rationale for buying the E-20 was straightforward: I liked its lens specifications a lot, and I wanted to see how much it differed to its chronological successor, the E-1. This post offers my subjective thoughts on the camera, based on having used it over the past few months. As usual, I have divided my thoughts based on its design and handling, and image quality. Before my final remarks, I have included a small section comparing it to its immediate successor, the E-1.

Design and Handling

Olympus based the E-20 around a sturdy metal body, with rubberised surfaces on the front and rear of the handgrip, as well as the control rings of the lens. The net result is that the E-20 is quite a heavy camera, weighing 1170 g with batteries. For comparison, the E-1 with 12-60 mm lens weighs about 1275 g – a negligible increase considering differences such as the E-1’s larger sensor and weather sealing. One issue I have had with the build of the E-20 is the rubber on the handgrip, which is sticky and flaking apart on my particular camera. From what I have read online, this is a common problem. Besides the stickiness, the grip itself is very comfortable, and allows the camera to be held very securely.

The frontal aspect of the camera is dominated by a non-interchangeable and non-stabilised zoom lens, with an equivalent focal length range of 35-140 mm, and fast aperture range of f/2-2.4. Besides this, there is a button for custom white balance, a red LED in the grip for the timer, and a large red window for part of the autofocus system. Sockets for a wired remote and PC sync cord are also included.

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Overlooking Smails Beach, Dunedin, in the late afternoon. Olympus E-20n with Olympus WCON-08B. 1/320 s, f/5.6, ISO 80.

A smooth mechanical zoom coupling is present on the lens, allowing for quick and precise adjustment of the focal length. Manual focusing is performed “by wire” – the ring on the lens directs an electric motor. This can be a little imprecise at times, especially if the focusing ring is moved quickly. A matching lens hood can be fitted, although it doesn’t leave enough room to operate the lens cap release buttons when it’s in position. Although the lens is fixed in place, the focal length range can be increased through the use of screw-in converter lenses. These are quite large, and in the case of the wide angle and telephoto converters, will only operate at the shortest or the longest focal length, respectively. Besides being more cumbersome to mount than bayonet-mount interchangeable lenses, the converter lenses can only be used in the converter lens mode, which ensures that correct focus can be obtained.

The camera has a relatively flat left hand side (when viewed from the shooting position). This is used to house the focus mode selector, macro mode, metering mode, drive mode, and exposure compensation buttons. In use, I find these slightly awkward to reach. It’s also disappointing to note that there is no continuous autofocus mode available. That being said, the autofocus is quite accurate, and considering it goes through two stages (infrared, followed by contrast-detection), it’s reasonably fast for its age. Sockets for a wired remote and PC sync cord are also included, as is a mechanically-linked button to release the pop-up flash.

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A stack off the coast at Smails Beach, Dunedin. Olympus E-20n with Olympus TCON-14B. 1/500 s, f/4.5, ISO 80.

A much cleaner layout is seen on the top panel, with a detailed LCD screen showing current settings, and a large mode dial, plus two sub-dials for adjusting settings. A backlight can be switched on for the top panel LCD with a button located right next to it. Unfortunately, this button does not seem to be able to switch it off again. Also next to the LCD are buttons to choose between the Smart Media or Compact Flash card slots, flash mode, and image quality setting. On the far right side of the top panel is the button for accessing the white balance menu. A hotshoe and pop-up flash are on the top of the prism; the hot shoe shares its contact layout with all subsequent Olympus cameras. Unlike newer Olympus cameras, TTL flash metering in the E-20 is not dependent upon a pre-flash, meaning that it is compatible with a number of older TTL flashguns.

At the rear of the camera is a tilting LCD screen, plus buttons to toggle between live view and the viewfinder, a four-way controller, menu, information, write protect and OK buttons. The screen is quite small, and RAW files can’t be displayed full screen during playback, but it is better than nothing. This screen, in live view mode, also seems to be the only way to get a manual focus scale displayed anywhere on the camera. An auto exposure lock button is located on the outermost part of the hand grip, where it is readily accessible by the thumb of the right hand.

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Moored in the Steamer Basin, Dunedin, was this ship (possibly a trawler; I’m not sure). Olympus E-20n. 1/500 s, f/5.6, ISO 80.

On the base plate of the camera is a metal tripod mount, and a flip-up latch. Operating the latch removes the lower portion of the hand grip, to reveal the battery holder. This battery holder is capable of holding four AA-sized batteries. Battery life has improved as I’ve grown accustomed to the way the camera operates, although it is still bettered by most of the newer cameras I’ve encountered; 50-150 RAW shots off four 2000 mAh rechargeable batteries is typical in my hands.

Something which is relatively distinctive about the E-20 is its use of a beam-splitting prism to achieve reflex viewing through the optical finder, whilst also allowing for live view. The viewfinder is quite bright thanks to the large maximum lens aperture, and doesn’t seem too different in size to the viewfinder of the E-1. However, the focusing screen design makes accurate manual focus a little difficult. On the flip side, the single autofocus point is clearly marked, as is the spot metering area, and the information readout at the bottom is detailed enough for most situations.

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Looking through a lavender bush to the cat’s afternoon sleeping spot. Olympus E-20n. 1/125 s, f/2.4, ISO 320.

With the electronic shutter sound switched off, the shutter is delightfully quiet, especially as there is no mirror movement to generate additional noise. Unless you use the progressive scan mode, the top shutter speed is limited to 1/640 s, which makes the camera tricky in bright light, especially if you want to limit the depth of field by using a larger lens aperture. If progressive scan mode is used, the top shutter speed is increased to 1/4000 or 1/18000 s, depending on shooting mode. However, this will limit the maximum resolution to 2.5 MP, as it reverts to an electronic shutter, which as I understand it, doesn’t read out from all the pixels on the sensor.

One area where the E-20 really shows its age is operation speed. The camera is reasonably slow to start up, and very slow to write to memory cards, regardless of how fast the memory cards are. That being said, the shutter lag is quite short, but that is offset by a buffer depth of three RAW files, meaning that the camera locks up pretty quickly during bursts. The number of remaining shots only updates as files are written to the card, too, which sometimes makes it difficult to work out when you will likely need to switch cards. One thing I’ve found to be especially irritating is that fact that certain settings (such as the time and date) can only be changed by entering a specific setup mode. This could lead to missed shots in the field, as the time taken to shift back to a shooting mode, rather than just pressing the shutter button, could be long enough for a fleeting moment to pass. In other words, it’s best to make sure that as many things as possible are set up before leaving home.

Peeling grip aside, the E-20 is quite a solidly built camera, which is evident in the sheer mass of the thing. Design wise, it’s a bit of a mix: some of the controls and interfaces, such as the lens, are quite well thought out, but others, such as the separate setup mode, aren’t so well thought out.

Image Quality

The lens fitted to the camera is quite sharp. Using the matching 0.8x and 1.4x converter lenses doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on sharpness, either. The sharpness can be compromised by camera shake, although this does not appear to be an issue when handheld at shutter speeds faster than 1/80 s; this will likely vary between users, depending on technique. Due to the sensor size, diffraction starts acting to limit sharpness relatively early in the aperture range; whenever possible, I try to keep the aperture at f/5.6 or larger.

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Oak tree foliage illuminated by the last ray of sunshine peering over the hill. Woodhaugh Gardens, Dunedin. Olympus E-20n. 1/100 s, f/4, ISO 80.

Considering the age and the physical size of its five megapixel sensor, noise control isn’t too shabby. Images are quite clean at the base ISO of 80, and it is possible to get reasonably clean results at the top ISO settings of 160 and 320. However, the noise levels can become quite invasive in low light, or when quite a degree of underexposure has been made. That being said, for its age, the dynamic range is quite good, and a reasonable degree of detail can be recovered in the highlights and shadows, though with a little added noise in the case of the latter.  The colours are also a little flat to my eyes in the RAW files, but this is easily corrected in software. The case may be different for JPEGs, but as I haven’t taken any with this camera, I’m not in a position to comment on that.

On the whole, images from the E-20 are by no means as clean or saturated as those on cameras with newer or larger sensors, but for what it is, it’s quite good. Sharpness, however, is still quite competitive.

Compared to the Olympus E-1

In using the E-20 alongside the E-1, I’ve noticed a few key differences in terms of the user experience. These are, in no particular order:

  • From power-up, the E-1 is noticeably faster to be ready for use, has less shutter lag, and writes to card much faster; there is no separate set-up mode to enter, either
  • E-1 image quality is generally better
  • The E-1 viewfinder is larger and the focusing screen is much better for confirmation of manual focus
  • The E-1 is weather sealed; with the right lens fitted, I can keep shooting if the weather turns sour.
  • The E-1 has the flexibility interchangeable lenses, with the reassurance of a dust reduction system
  • The E-20 takes readily available AA batteries, although the battery life doesn’t seem to be quite as good as that of the E-1
  • The E-20 has dual card slots, although both are more limited in terms of the size of memory media than the single slot of the E-1

This is a little unfair; after all, it’s been 15 years since the E-20 came to market. But, considering that all of these advantages apply to the E-1, which was launched only two years after the E-20, it shows how quickly things were moving in the world of digital photography in the early 2000’s.

Final Remarks

As an instrument for taking photos, the E-20 is perfectly good – it has an excellent lens, and is quite comfortable to hold. That withstanding, the E-1, for about the same or not much more money (from what I’ve seen, anyway) is objectively better in almost every regard: faster to start up, faster to write to card, capable of superior image quality, more ruggedly built and with weather sealing, and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, to name but a few of its advantages. Weight-wise, with a comparable lens, the E-1 is only around 100 g heavier than the E-20, so it isn’t at much of a disadvantage. The fact that the E-1 is mostly outclassed by its successors really puts into perspective how far things have come since the E-20’s halcyon days – the E-20 simply can’t hold a candle to anything that’s come since.

Given how much technology has moved on, I had been thinking over the past few months that it would be interesting to see a modern day E-20 – a better image sensor, better lens coatings, probably a high resolution electronic viewfinder, and a much faster user experience. However, I remembered that there are cameras like the Sony RX-10, and even Olympus’ own Stylus-1; both of these follow the high quality non-interchangeable zoom lens and sub-SLR-sized sensor concept. Besides those, there are the mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras from the likes of Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony. The mirrorless cameras offer much more flexibility, and potential image quality than the E-20, and often in a far smaller package.

For its time, the E-20 was (and in some regards, still is) a decent performer. But, things have moved on significantly during the intervening 15 years. As nice as the lens is, it’s difficult to recommend the camera overall as a second hand buy, given that for the same or only a little more money you could obtain a decent second hand DSLR (or even an early mirrorless camera), and progressively build up a high quality kit around it.

Put it this way: given the choice between another E-20 or another E-1, I would get another E-1. In fact, I already have.

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