Until recently, Olympus have been sitting on the bench, watching Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Fuji all release digital SLR systems and have great success with them. Although Olympus did have some fixed lens SLR-type cameras in their range such as the E-20p, these could not compete with the advantages most conventional digital SLRs offered with their interchangeable lens designs.
Now, in 2003 Olympus are no longer sitting on the bench, they are having a go at the more established players with this, the Olympus E-1. Unlike the other digital SLRs currently available, the E-1 is based on the new four-thirds system, one of the most pioneering developments to hit the digital photography industry in some time.
Olympus E-1 specification
- 5 megapixel CCD
- Magnesium Alloy body
- Zuiko Digital, Four thirds system lens mount
- 1.8" TFT
- Compact Flash Type I/II compatible
- Supersonic Wave filter dust protection
- Pentaprism optical viewfinder
- Auto & manual focus point selection
- ISO 100/200/400/800/1600/3200
- Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 60sec
- 3fps sequential shooting (Max 12 frames)
- Selectable sRGB/AdobeRGB colour spaces
- File formats: JPEG, TIFF (RGB 8 bit), RAW (12 bit)
- RAW & JPG recording
- Firewire and USB 2.0 interfaces
- Li-ion battery, optional battery holder attachable
- Splash proof body
- Dimensions: 141x104x821mm
- Weight: 660g without battery and CF card
- Box contents: E-1 Body, USB Cable, IEEE1394 Cable (long), Video Cable, Li-ion Battery Pack (BLM-1), Li-ion Battery Charger (BCM-1), Shoulder Strap, Olympus Viewer 1.0, CD-ROM, Instruction Manuals, Warranty Card.
Olympus E-1 handling
Marketed heavily as a camera for professionals this immediately raises high expectations of the E-1's build quality. Professional photographers usually lead very different lifestyles to amateur photographers, often forced to stay out in cold and wet climates, their gear needs to be up to the job. The rubber seals around the various doors and connections seem to have been well put together and we have no reason to doubt the E-1 won't live up to Olympus's splash-proof claims.
After using the camera for some time, we'd say the handling is good rather than great. Positive aspects include the overall tough build, easy to use compartment doors, logical control layout, sloping top-LCD, simple design and comfortable rubber grips. Negative aspects, which are largely personal are the chunky feel and some of the aesthetic touches.
The E-1 certainly looks the part, the lack of a flash unit, large grip, solid build and bold logo give a strong professional feel.
At the back of the camera, the layout is simply laid out and the sloping LCD at the top of the camera is easier to see than on many other digital SLRs where it has been placed flat. Minor niggles here are the round firm viewfinder surround, not as comfortable as those on some competitors. Surrounding the viewfinder is a diopter control and a switch for the viewfinder blind. The dimensions and layout of the E-1 mean that you may find yourself using two hands to change settings where on smaller SLRs you would have managed with one hand.
Without the lens on you can see just how small the E-1's sensor area is. In theory, any dust that enters the CCD area while the lens is off shouldn't be a problem for the E-1. It uses a new system based around a supersonic wave filter which should automatically remove any dust that has stuck to the CCD. Olympus have an impressive demonstration of this technology action on their website here.
It's worth noting that the four thirds system is so new, anyone who usually buys secondhand lenses (a good way of saving money) for their cameras will be disappointed in the poor availability of such items for the E-1. So while you could go buy a new Nikon, Canon, Sigma etc. body and a selection of second hand lenses, no such option will be available to E-1 users, at least for several months after launch.
Olympus E-1 menu system
There is only one menu on the E-1 that covers all features, though it is split into four different sections for record settings, playback settings and two for setup settings. It is navigable with the four-way controller on the back of the camera.
The first page of the menu displays the main record settings, allowing you to format your card, set saturation, contrast, sharpness and colour space controls. On the second page you can turn white balance bracketing on/off, simultaneous RAW & JPG recording on/off, Noise filter on/off, Noise reduction on/off, Shading compensation on/off, AF illumination on/off and change anti-shock settings. There is also a pixel mapping facility and flash compensation. Other options are shown in the animated image to the right.
The playback options are limited to showing different numbers of photos per page viewing, e.g. four thumbnailed images instead of one, allowing photos to be rotated and printing settings.
One press of the playback button brings up the image, using the zoom dial you can apply up to 4x zoom on the photo. Holding down the info button and turning the dial shows various information about the photo including a histogram, highlights, and shooting information.
Olympus E-1 modes and features
The E-1 has both continuos and single shot drive modes. In continuos mode you can shoot at 3fps for up to twelve frames. After those twelve frames it takes approximately five seconds until you can take another shot when shooting in RAW mode, or around two seconds when shooting in SHQ JPG mode. The number of images you can take before the buffer becomes full is conveniently shown on the top LCD. Operation speed of the E-1 is good in general, though shot to shot and the power-on times are around average for a digital SLR (still very good).
Manual focussing on the E-1 is controlled electronically using a fly by wire system. This type of system is found on many prosumer cameras and is not often used on professional type cameras, however Olympus have obviously tried hard to make it work well and we were happy using it. It's noticeably more refined than on cheaper cameras and provides a high level of control. An advantage of it is that it enabled Olympus to offer the user the option of reversing the focussing direction should they so wish.
Autofocusing is fast and assured, in good light the focusing motor very quietly churns away achieving the correct focus very quickly in most cases. In lower light there is an assistance beam that ensures that focussing speeds do not massively decrease, so focussing is still very quick. The continuous focus mode is also impressive, possibly matching the top 5, if not top 3 of digital SLRs in terms of speed.
Olympus E-1 battery life
Supplied in the box with the camera is a 7.2V 1500mAh Lithium-ion battery. There are power accessories available, including the battery holder HLD-2, this features a shutter button, main dial, sub dial, AE lock button, and AF frame selector.
Battery life with the supplied Lithium-ion unit is very good and any purchasers of the HLD-2 battery holder should have no power shortages.
Olympus include a 30-day trial of their Studio software and you have to pay to obtain the full product. It provides a useful browsing utility which provides thumbnails of RAW files and also a powerful editing facility with comprehensive image quality settings.
The file browser
The image editor
Also provided is a full version of the Viewer software which provides RAW editing facilities and a similar file browser, though it lacks many of the image quality settings found in Studio. Using an AMD Duron 800 machine we found the speed of RAW editing slightly disappointing. It took 15 seconds for the RAW editing window to open and adjustments were slow, for example moving the sharpness setting up took 17 seconds to register. This makes editing a large number of RAW files with unique settings a time consuming business.
The Viewer RAW editor.
Olympus E-1 image quality
Bold claims have been made by Olympus about the capabilities of the E-1, so many people may be expecting something groundbreaking in terms of results. Instead the E-1 offers good all-round performance which may disappoint those people with high expectations. More rational people will no doubt be pleased by the good resolution, low-image noise, good dynamic range, RAW flexibility, comprehensive quality settings, excellent colour accuracy and the high quality of the Zuiko lenses. There are drawbacks though, the noise levels at the higher end of the range aren't very competitive compared to other professional Digital SLRs, though they are generally more expensive.
The following images show the difference in noise levels throughout the ISO range on a 1:1 ratio crop.
The high level of control over saturation, contrast and sharpness from within the camera menu make it easier to set the image quality to your liking. In addition the camera menu provides noise reduction and noise filter options, though these both add to the processing time for each image and reduce the ability to take sequential shots.
Conspicuously absent in most of our E-1 shots were chromatic aberrations, coloured fringing and any noticeable increase in softness in the corners of the image. This is a testament to the objectives Olympus had with the design of their new lens system and shows that it does indeed offer some compelling advantages over the competition.
Olympus E-1 samples
Olympus should be commended for going out on a limb with the four thirds system and trying to be innovative. There are a lot of advantages to this new technology and it has a promising future. Olympus naturally seem proud of their achievements in developing four thirds and during the announcements of the E-1 did some serious hyping up. Whatever their commercial reasons for this hyping, no doubt some people will feel a mild disappointment in the image quality, as the E-1 isn't as groundbreaking as they made out. Sure it has advantages over the traditional SLR systems available, but it also has its fair share of disadvantages.
Although not the lowest price digital SLR available, comparing the E-1 to cheaper cameras like the new Canon 300D will be a relatively pointless for many professionals who will need the waterproofing and high build quality that the E-1 can offer, together with other high-end features. However, for many serious amateurs, the E-1 does seem a rather high priced body and with not a massive difference between it and cheaper Digital SLRs in terms of image quality, may find itself mainly in the hands of professionals.
In summary the main positive points of the Olympus E-1 are:
Excellent build quality and finish
Fast and quiet focussing
Automatic sensor dust remover
USB 2.0 & Firewire connectivity
Negative points are:
Noise levels at high ISO settings
Limited range of lenses compared to competitors systems
RAW software provided could be improved upon
Noise reduction options slow processing time considerably
No secondhand accessories or lenses (minor point)
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