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The latest Olympus camera in the Four Thirds Standard, which was designed to make digital SLRs smaller and less beholden to their film ancestors, is the E-400. On the one hand it offers the lightness and smallness of a bridge camera, which have a fixed lens, and yet it packs the features and 10Mp resolution, plus the interchangeable lenses of an SLR. It''s aimed fairly and squarely at the Nikon D80 and Canon 400D marketplace, but offers a lighter, more compact alternative.
Modes and features
One of the bugbears of all digital SLRs is dust and debris getting into the camera and onto the sensor. The E-400 features an ultrasonic vibration system that gives the CCD a shake every time it''s turned on, in the hope of dislodging any specks of dust. Olympus has also retained the pixel-mapping feature from earlier cameras, that enables stuck diodes on the CCD to be reset. The other main feature is its size, which, being small, means that there are fewer places to put buttons.
On the top of the body is one button for remote control/ timing and multi-shot facility and another to make the flash pop up. This would been better employed doing something else. On the other side an exposure compensation button (a very handsome +/-5EV in one third steps) the fire button, control wheel and command dial. This offers the usual P, A, S, M, Auto program settings, plus five scene modes and a scene selection mode. Curiously, the scene selection mode duplicates those standard scene modes and adds another 14. These are selected from the rear, large LCD, and at least explain what they do, making this very useful for beginners.
The camera itself is switched on and off with a switch underneath the command dial, rather than being on the dial, which is the more common approach. It does tend to mean the camera is inadvertently left on, but it switches itself off after a minute to save battery power anyway.
Two other buttons feature on the shooting side and they are the AF/AE lock button. This is set up in the menu system to either lock the focus or the exposure reading after a half press of the fire button, and is always useful. The other button is a user definable one, but this is limited to showing depth of field, taking a test picture (no save) or one touch WB. Unfortunately the two more useful options of changing the ISO (100-1600 range) and the metering (spot, zone, centre, and two spot modes dedicated to low key and high key images) cannot be assigned.
There is a choice of colour spaces – sRGB or AdobeRGB, plus three options on how the firmware deals with the colours – vivid (useful for landscapes), natural and muted. The images tones can also be optimised if you are shooting low key or high images, which is an unusual option, but a very handy one if those are your interests.
The White Balance system is quite comprehensive once you''ve actually found it. As well as the usual picture symbols for the time of day, there is a manual colour temperature option as well, with temperatures selectable from 3000-7500K. This is very handy when using the camera with artificial lights as the WB can be matched to the temperature of the lights.
On the actual shooting spec side, the E-400 can go from 60 seconds up to 1/4000th sec in shutter priority mode. Manual mode also has a Bulb option This is a pretty impressive range in this class and will enable creative long exposure shots.
Focusing is basically on one of three points along a central line. Which one, or an automatic mode, is selectable from the menu. Focusing can be single or continuous or manual, and is fairly quick, rather than instantaneous. However, it''s also pleasingly accurate and doesn''t struggle unduly under lower, interior lighting.
On the playback side, the 2.5” LCD is big and bright and packs an healthy 215k pixels, making it quite detailed. Information on playback ranges from the usual shooting information to highlighting blown highlights and areas of black shadows. There''s the tonal histogram to show under or over exposure, and individual colour histograms, displayed simultaneously which can help show if the AWB has worked properly.
Build and handling
The power comes from an Olympus PS-BLS1 Li-on rechargeable battery, which is also easy to remove, charge and replace.
It''s a slim 7.2v 1150mAh Lithium Ion battery and in the test gave around 260 photos with several taken using long exposures of one or more minutes and around 15 using flash all with the focus assist.
Using the camera is a pleasant experience, although don''t be mistaken into thinking that being small and light, it can be stuffed into a pocket. It''s still a fair size. The lack of solid grip on the right does mean that it needs two hands to use with some stability.
The only real complaints on the handling side are that the options for ISO, metering and focusing are all in the menu system, rather than being accessible on the body.
Being more specified than the entry level cameras, but lower than the semi-pro cameras means that the E-400 doesn''t have a PC-synch socket for studio flash. Also, the pop up flash has a guide number of just 10, so don''t expect to go lighting up buildings in the dark with it. However, it does have very effective red-eye reduction spiking and a host of slow synchronisation options for creative effects. There''s also a hotshoe to attach Olympus Four Thirds system flashguns.
The fast and accurate autofocus tends to lend the user immediate confidence, though there are the beginners modes if you want to use them. As the camera touts a whopping 10Mp, but in the more square 4:3 format, rather than 3:2 that traditional DSLRs use, file size is a concern. These can either be RAW, for quality, or JPEG (customisable) for space. There''s no TIFF option.
Power up to shooting availability is about four seconds, which isn''t particularly quick, more like average. However, handling, despite the lack of solid grip, is good, with what controls there are on the body being solid and easy to use. It would have been useful if some of the other functions could be assigned to the custom function button as having to get through menus to change ISO is a pain.
If you want to shoot lots of pictures at once – such as trying to capture fast moving objects, then JPEG is the file format to use. In burst mode, you can shoot five fast pictures before filling the internal buffer. JPEGs clear out quickly and you can then shoot one a second. With RAW images, once the buffer is full it takes around 25-30 seconds to save it to the card and free the camera up for shooting the next shot.
The range of colour options is impressive, going beyond just offering sRGB and AdobeRGB, to offer tailored processing that would suit landscapes and portraits, or images which have plenty of similar tones. The high and low key options are very creative features to put in as well. The actual colour rendition is very good. What you should appreciate is that real-life colours aren''t that vibrant usually and don''t make for great pictures. Some camera manufacturers, like film manufacturers before them, have cottoned on to this and process the images to give you nicer looking pictures. The E-400 treads a middle path between the colour austerity of a Nikon and the all-night party of a Fuji. On standard settings the colours are rich and pleasing. If you want to turn them down or up, you can.
Sharpness is generally good, though not as sharp as pictures from the Nikon D80, they are easily comparable with those from a Canon. While sharpness can be tweaked in the menus, it''s generally better to do it in photo editing software where there is more control.
Taking pictures of a black kitty on a black coat, in dark conditions is a tough job for any automated flash system, but the E-400''s pop-up flash has pumped a load of light into this, making the fur and features stand out.
The actual ISO range itself is a little limited for a DSLR. As it goes up, noise starts to appear at ISO400, with 1600 being particularly noisy. Even the noise reduction feature can''t remedy this.
Olympus E-400 at ISO1600
Sony Alpha A100 at ISO1600
Canon EOS 5D at ISO1600
At ISO1600, the E400 fairs less well than the opposition. The Sony Alpha A100 is clearly showing noise but it delivers a much cleaner image than the Olympus. The Canon EOS 5D out-classes both cameras, but then it should do at around 3x the price.
With lots of picture modes and a generally simplified body control system, this is a DSLR that beginners can pick up and use. It produces very good results, and with a high 10Mp resolution can equally be used for landscapes and portraits. The autofocus is fast and accurate, but lacks sophisticated tracking and selection options. The ISO range is decent, but gets very noisy at 1600, even with noise reduction.
Large handed people won''t like the lack of grip on the right, but the younger and older photographer will appreciate the very light weight. While the camera lacks the really advanced features, more experienced photographers would appreciate, it does offer a compelling alternative to the Canon 400D and the Nikon D80.
Being of the Four Thirds system, anyone with an investment in lenses from another manufacturer isn''t really going to come across to the Olympus, but for the newcomer, the excellent colours, good sharpness, high resolution and light weight make it a compelling alternative.
Good colour and sharpness
Fast and accurate autofocus
Dual format, xD and CF
Good shutter speed range
Lots of picture modes for beginners
Ultrasonic CCD cleaning
Good Exposure Compensation range
Built in flash works well
The negative points:
ISO range slightly limited
Some features hidden in menus
Not great grip
No PC-synch socket
Buffer fills up quickly
Slow to save RAW
Built in flash limited in power