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I currently own an Olympus E-510. I like this camera because

  • It has a large rubber grip and is decently heavy
  • Most of the controls have physical buttons/switches associated with them, as opposed to menus
  • 4/3 system allows me to use several lenses I already own

However the image quality is somewhat lacking compared to more modern sensors. What options do I have that fit these requirements in the $200-$500 range? Or have cameras like this gone by the wayside? I'm not looking for a recommendation, I just want to know what my options are.

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    I think there is a good question in here around "what are the options for 4/3s users looking for a new camera?" and I've tried to answer in that vein. – Philip Kendall Dec 1 '14 at 9:00
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This article on 4/3 Rumors about the future of 4/3rds is two years old now, but everything said is still true. Although no one has officially turned off the lights and locked the door, the original Four Thirds system is defunct, with both big players (and for that matter, smaller ones like Kodak licensee JK Imaging) supporting the mirrorless camera system Micro Four Thirds instead.

Olympus, at least, has expressed interest in making sure Four Thirds lenses work well (with an adaptor). So, looking at your list:

Large rubber grip, decently heavy

This is pretty subjective. Because mirrorless makes the form-factor more flexible, there are basically three types of body design available. First, the compact-camera inspired "PEN" series and similar. Based on your comments, that's probably not what you're looking for. There are also options which look and handle more like a rangefinder. But probably the series that fits your preferences best is the Olympus OM-D range — currently sporting a higher end model, the E-M1, and a lower-range model, the E-M10.

These use an electronic viewfinder (a tiny LCD), but are styled to look and handle like an SLR. (Before you dismiss that out of hand — this technology has much improved, and the E-510 had relatively small and dark optical finder. This might be an improvement.)

Whether the grip and handling is similar enough to be to your liking is something only you can judge (although personally, I'd caution against first impressions; sometimes these things feel wrong in the store but become perfectly comfortable after a few weeks of real use — and sometimes, just the opposite).

You don't mention it, but if a optical viewfinder is an important part of your preferences, you might be happier switching systems — Canon, Nikon, and Pentax continue to crank out entry-level DSLRs and you can probably find something that matches what you like. (And Sony makes a fixed-mirror "SLT" with SLR-like ergonomics.)

Generally, as you go up the product range, and therefore up in price, weight will follow. Your E-510 weighs 535g with battery; the OM-D E-M10 I mentioned is noticeably lighter at 395g; the higher-end E-M1 is closer at 497g.

Controls have physical buttons/switches

So, here... your E-510 is middle-to-poor in this regard, really. Certainly this is something which continues to be important, but in general you'll get more at the higher end and less at the low end. Check the reviews, but, basically, unless the camera is touting a touch-screen UI, most middle-entry cameras will have controls similar to yours, and as you go up, will be even better in this regard. Both of the OM-D cameras I mentioned beat the E-510's pants off, really, with twin-dial controls.

4/3 system allows me to use several lenses I already own

Okay, so, here's kind of the killer. These lenses will work on m4/3rds, but you'll need an adaptor, which runs around $160. If you have a big investment in great glass (and there are some great Four Thirds lenses!), you'll probably want to go this way. However, if it's a lower or middle-of-the-line selection, you might want to consider selling it for what you can get and switching full on, either to m4/3rds if you find the mirrorless lineup to your liking or to another system where DSLRs are still a going concern.

That $200-$500 price range...

This is at the very low end of realistic. The E-510 was $800 when it was announced. Check out DPreview's entry-level mirrorless roundup for 2014 — you'll certainly find some options in your price range, but you're going to compromise heavily on all three of your points (especially if you consider adding that $160 adaptor). You can get what you want — but not necessarily so cheaply.

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I think the options are pretty straightforward.

Stick With 4/3

While the system is pretty much dead and no longer growing, you could, with your budget, still find a used higher-tiered and newer body than the E-510. The E-450, E-520, E-600, E-620, E-30, E-3, and E-5 are all bodies that came out after your E-510 and could offer sensor improvements as well as handling improvements. But the obvious drawbacks are that used gear may have an unknown history, a more limited lifespan, you're still stuck in a dead-ended system and everything will be pre-2010 and is unlikely to have the same advances in features/sensors/processors that we've seen in the last four years. And just judging by my Panasonic G3 and GX7, those advances are considerable for four-thirds. Most folks would probably say this is just moving the dead-end of the system a few years out and not worth it.

Move to Micro 4/3

While you may only get dSLR-like handling with the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic G# bodies, you could at least use the lenses you've got with an adapter. However, autofocus performance may be less than ideal, both in terms of speed and in not having tracking capability. And 4/3 lenses are a little bigger than m4/3. And, of course, mirrorless places an emphasis on going small and light, and you're still using a 2x crop sensor. However, this may be the most practical path.

You could also try moving to a different mirrorless system with larger sensors (Fuji X, Sony NEX), but you'd be trading off lenses against sensor size. And, of course, there's the increased cost in outfitting yourself with lenses in a different system. And from your comments about grip and weight, it sounds like you would prefer the dSLR form factor over the mirrorless rangefinder-inspired types that are more likely to be in the low-end of the price range.

Move to a dSLR System

You want better image quality, big heavy bodies, and good handling? dSLRs may be a better way to go, particularly if fast-action photography and a need for supertele are eating away at you. dSLRs offer you full frame as well as APS-C sensors, and arguably a larger range of lenses both OEM and 3rd-party--particularly if you go Nikon or Canon. If you really want to step it up, then sell off everything and head over to the dSLR camp, but you'll have to drastically increase your budget--closer to $1500 really, if you're going to gear chase on the dSLR side of the fence. Otherwise, you're looking at much older used gear. Systems that are still "live" tend to fetch more on resale than those that are dead.

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The 4/3s system itself is as dead as a dodo - Olympus were the last manufacturer supporting the system, and the last 4/3s camera they released was the E-5 in 2010.

Does that mean your lenses are completely useless? Not necessarily - the micro 4/3s system is alive and kicking with support from both Olympus and Panasonic (and one camera from JK Imaging, who bought the Kodak brand), and adapters are readibly available to let you use 4/3s lenses on micro 4/3s cameras. Olympus in particular have tried to position their higher-end models (the OM-D E-M1, E-M5 and E-M10) as the "replacement" for the E-M5 (but then they would, wouldn't they?)

The high-end micro 4/3s cameras will certainly meet your criteria for most controls having physical buttons, but I'm not sure you'll like the size/weight - they're definitely lighter than an SLR. You'll probably have to go to a shop and try one.

  • Some Micro 4/3 cameras can be used with a battery grip, which would make them a bit bigger and heavier. – vclaw Dec 1 '14 at 13:45
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Just to add to previous discussions, you can use your 4/3 lenses with m4/3 cameras with an adapter. The Olympus EM-1 which has phase as well as contrast detection auto-focus would be particularly good for that. I would recommend that as the way forward if you want to continue using your lenses. Many of the Olympus 4/3 lenses were outstanding.

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