Olympus E-1 SLR Review

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Olympus E-1 Digital SLR

Steve's Conclusion

(The E-1 body, 50-200mm lens and 14-54mm lens that we used for this review were firmware updated to revision 1.1, the most current firmware available as of February 2004.)

Olympus and Kodak announced the new Four Thirds System (4/3 System) at Photokina back in September of 2002. The Four Thirds System consists of not just a new camera but an entire family of smaller and lighter "made to be digital" lenses too. And this new camera system and lenses is not compatible with any existing lenses. One has to question why Olympus chose to enter the highly competitive pro dSLR market given that Canon and Nikon had for all intents and purposes, just eliminated Kodak. The majority of pro dSLR purchasers are photographers that are transitioning from film to digital, they already have significant investments in their (Canon or Nikon) lenses. Olympus is perfectly capable of making high quality optics, but it's been a long time since their OM series of cameras and lenses were popular. And Olympus never achieved the same level of notoriety with the working pro photographers as Canon and Nikon. All that being said, we applaud their effort and wish them well as competition drives the prices down and that always benefits the consumers.

Constructed of a magnesium alloy, the E-1 body has a professional look and feel and yet is comfortably lightweight. Olympus claims it's a splash-proof design, resistant to moisture and dust. While we didn't expose it to the harsh conditions that a photojournalist might, the E-1's doors and covers are well-sealed, and its push button and rotary controls have a professional solid feel. We tested the E-1 with its optional Power Battery Holder (HLD-2), providing a comfortable grip in both landscape and portrait orientation, and housing the powerful 3400 mah Lithium Ion battery (BLL-1) which lasted through nearly 800 shots before giving a low battery warning. The controls are logically-organized and easy to use with the exception of the Custom Reset Setting, which required depressing both the Record Mode and Flash buttons simultaneously while either the main or sub dial; while it was cumbersome to use, this design will prevent you from inadvertently resetting the camera and losing your active settings.

The eye level viewfinder is bright and informative. It can be easily used by those wearing glasses thanks to a comfortable rubber eyecup and diopter adjustment. The viewfinder accuracy is stated as 100% and my own use has proven this to be true. Outside the image area you'll find information vital to the exposure, including Flash status, AF point in use, Metering mode, Exposure mode, Auto bracket, White balance, Exposure level indicator, Exposure compensation indicator, Exposure compensation value, Shutter speed, Aperture, in-focus confirmation, and the number of storable sequential pictures. Within the image area you'll find guides indicating the position of the spot metering area and the 3 AF areas, but there is no active indication of which AF area was selected by the auto focus system. Because it displays complete exposure information, you'll be able to make adjustments while keeping your eye at the viewfinder, ready to release the shutter at the right moment. Despite the effectiveness of the E-1's 3-point auto focus system, there will still be times that you'll want to use manual focus; the viewfinder's focusing screen provides a matte surface that you'll find very usable for this purpose.

The top-mounted monochrome LCD Control Panel also provides a wealth of information. It indicates the exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, flash mode white balance setting, drive mode, image quality, and number of remaining shots on the CF memory card and more. The LCD can be illuminated for about 8 seconds by depressing the E-1's Light switch, allowing it to be used even in the darkness. During our testing, I used the LCD Control Panel for the initial setup of shooting parameters, and the viewfinder for fine-tuning the exposure settings while taking shots; they complement each other well.

The rear-mounted 1.8-inch color LCD monitor is used for camera setup, displaying image capture parameters, and reviewing captured images. The LCD has a brightness control, and we found it usable in conditions ranging from darkness to bright sunlight. A detachable clear plastic cover is included for its protection. Playback mode is fairly useful for field-checking your images, offering both a histogram and the ability to zoom in to 4x magnification and pan across the entire shot, as well as an index of 4, 9, or 16 frames. In field use I found myself wanting greater magnification for image review; the 4X provided by the E-1 simply wasn't enough to check for critical focus. Because this is a true SLR type camera, the color LCD can NOT be used as a live viewfinder.

The E-1's shooting performance is not equal to other "pro" level cameras but rather measures about the same as the "prosumer" dSLRs from Nikon and Canon. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 1.8 seconds, while "wake-up" to image capture measured 1.6 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre- focused, and 4/10 second including auto focus time for a high-contrast subject. Shot-to-shot delay averaged 8/10 second in single AF, and measured a fairly consistent 6/10 second using continuous AF. Continuous Shooting mode captured 12 shots in only 4 seconds, but required ~22 seconds to write all the images to CF card before being ready to capture the next burst. You can take another picture after approx. two seconds as the camera is processing the contents of the buffer, and the camera can continue to capture additional frames at approx. two second intervals in this manner. This puts the E-1 in the same class as the Canon 10D and Nikon D100 in its burst capture rate, but far behind them in flushing a full buffer. And clearly not the equal of the Canon 1D or Nikon D2H. (The above times were observed using a very fast SanDisk Ultra 1GB CF memory card, 14-54mm Olympus lens, flash off, daylight lighting, 2560x1920 JPEG/SHQ).

Shooting in RAW+JPG mode slows things down considerably. The Continuous burst mode is still the same rate, approx. three frames per second, with the same depth of twelve frames. You'll need to wait about 4 seconds before capturing the next frame and it takes about 50 seconds to process the entire buffer. This was also measured with the extremely fast SanDisk Ultra 1GB CF card, slower cards will take longer; it's highly advisable to use the newer technology (24x or faster) memory cards. Remember that you only have to buy these cards once -- so don't be cheap, get a fast one with lots of capacity.

The E-1's auto focus system although robust and flexible falls short of that found on the competing pro dSLRs. They are faster and have more active AF areas in the frame. The E-1 provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF and Continuous AF and can be set to allow the camera to auto-select the focus point from the 3 available, or the photographer can manually select the AF point. Continuous AF is very responsive, able to track a fast moving Shetland Sheepdog and keep it in focus. I did, however, experience some "hunting" in Continuous AF mode using the Olympus 50-200mm lens. Low-light performance is good even without the use of focus assist lamps, the E-1 will employ its internal focus assist lamp or that of the FL-50 flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. Manual focus is a fly-by-wire affair, with the focus ring actuating the lens focus motor. While using manual focus, the E-1's auto focus system is not entirely disabled; it monitors your focusing adjustments and provides visual feedback by lighting the viewfinder's AF confirmation mark when it is in agreement with your focus setting.

The E-1 offers a full set of exposure controls. The ISO sensitivity is variable from 100 to 800 plus Automatic. When ISO Boost is enabled, sensitivities of ISO 1600 and 3200 are available for those times when you're willing to give up some image quality to get that special shot. The E-1 produces excellent images up to ISO 400 but beyond that it is noticeably more noisy than the Canon cameras. It provides a wide range of exposure options, including Manual, Program AE with shift, Shutter speed priority up to 1/4,000 sec, Aperture priority, AE Bracketing, WB bracketing, exposure compensation of +/-5EV in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps. The E-1 offers three metering modes: Center-weighted averaging, Spot and Digital ESP (Electro Selective Pattern), and produces well-exposed results when these modes are used for their intended purposes. White balance options are also numerous with presets for Auto, twelve color temperatures (tunable +/-7 steps via WB compensation menu), plus four manual "One Touch" white balance presets measured from a white object and later recalled. The Automatic setting uses a white balance sensor located near the shutter release; it worked quite effectively in most shooting conditions. Four combinations of menu and shooting parameters can be saved in Custom Reset Settings, allowing you to quickly recall frequently-used settings.

Completing the Olympus Digital SLR System is a set of lenses that Olympus claims are designed specifically for digital capture. Although these lenses are identified by their focal length when used with 35mm film, the E-1's image sensor size results in a 50% crop factor, doubling their effective focal length. Most photographers will rely on the 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 Zuiko zoom lens as their "normal" lens. With a 35mm-equivalent focal length of 28-108mm, it covers the wide-angle to short telephoto range with excellent sharpness and no noticeable distortion at either wide angle or telephoto. The 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 offers a versatile 35mm-equivalent range of 100-400mm, a fast, sharp and powerful choice for sports photographers; it exhibits a trace of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at telephoto. Weighing over 7 pounds, the 300mm f2.8 is not for those averse to physical exercise, but its 600mm equivalent focal length, sharp images, and wide aperture will be coveted by sports and wildlife photographers. If 600mm is not powerful enough, the 1.4 TeleConverter can be added, costing you an f-stop in speed, but increasing focal length by 40%, turning the 300mm f2.8 into a 35mm-equivalent 840mm f4! The 1.4 TeleConverter can also be used with the 50-200mm lens, converting it into a 35mm-equivalent 140-560mm f4-4.9 zoom, and the 14-54mm lens, converting it into a 35mm-equivalent 39-151mm f4-4.9 zoom. For macro photography, Olympus offer the 50mm (100mm in 35mm equivalence) f2.0 Digital Macro lens with a magnification of half life-size and a useful working distance to the subject.

While the crop factor imposed by most dSLR's delights telephoto users, it has been the bane of photographers who primarily use wide-angle lenses. A moderately-wide 24mm focal length on a 35mm SLR becomes a 48mm normal lens on a dSLR with an imager the size of the E-1's. The Olympus 11-22mm f2.8-3.5 wide-angle zoom has a 35mm-equivalent range of 22-44mm, providing an advantage over other dSLR systems. Although I'm impressed with each of the Olympus Digital lenses I've tested, if asked to pick my favorite it would be the 11-22. Not only does it overcome the limited field of view associated with most dSLR's, it does so with only the slightest trace of barrel distortion at full wide-angle, and produces sharp images without vignetting. The FL-50 electronic flash is well-integrated into the Olympus Digital System; the E-1 controls both its internal zoom and its focus assist lamp. Flash images were well-exposed with accurate color balance.

If the existing complement of lenses isn't enough, Olympus has released a "Roadmap" of planned releases of additional Digital lenses. In 2004, they plan to release a fast prime telephoto in the 150mm range, an ultra-wide zoom ranging from under 10mm to the mid-teens, a 3x zoom in the mid-teens to 40mm range, and a 3x telephoto zoom ranging from about 40mm to 105mm. All focal lengths are expressed in 35mm-equivalence; the effective focal length when used with the E-1 will be doubled. Olympus plans for 2005 are less specific, but include fast prime lenses of wide angle and mid-telephoto, fast macro lenses in wide angle and telephoto focal lengths, and three more zoom lenses.

Most digital cameras, even the professional ones, have a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a can of compressed air handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. The Olympus E-1 has an ingenious feature called a "Supersonic Wave Filter" that vibrates dust particles off the image sensor every time you turn the camera on. While I didn't purposefully deposit any dust onto the sensor during the test, I can say that the sensor remained remarkably free of dust despite many lens changes.

Like its competitors, the E-1 is a software-intensive device. Software is written by human beings, and the quest for perfection is endless; the E-1 and its accessories will likely see a series of "firmware" upgrades. Olympus has simplified the firmware upgrade process with its Viewer and Studio software. The Help menu has an "Update Firmware" option which will determine the revision level installed in the E-1, contact an Olympus server via the internet, download any updates, and guide you through updating the firmware of the USB 2.0 or FireWire-attached E-1. I used this process to update the test E-1 and its 14-54mm and 50-200mm lenses; it took all of 15 minutes and worked like a charm.

There's a lot to like about the E-1 and its accessories. It produces excellent image quality and is fairly responsive. The currently available accessory lenses cover a lot of needs, but it's not yet a complete system as evidenced by the Olympus lens roadmap. While the "Four Thirds System" is claimed to be an open standard, no other camera or lens manufacturers have yet (as of January 2004) announced any compatible products and Olympus remains the only supplier. At this time, an E-1 buyer must take a leap of faith that the 4/3 system will be embraced by others, and that a wide variety of lenses and cameras will compete with Olympus in the marketplace. The E-1 is not the fastest or most resolute dSLR available, but it does most things very well and is a credible first attempt by Olympus to establish itself in the dSLR market. We wish them well and we're sure that there will be more refined products in the future as the Four Thirds System matures.

Olympus Posts E-1 Firmware Update

Olympus Japan has posted the Olympus E-1 firmware v1.2 update that updates the following features.

  1. It is now possible to shoot photos by fully pressing the shutter button repeatedly, while keeping the shutter button halfway depressed. This improvement allows you to continually shoot photos in C_AF mode, continuing C_AF with the shutter button halfway depressed.

  2. It is now possible to display the focus points for 3-point AF on Finder's LCD.
This update also contains the firmware v1.1 updates: (1) Allows higher sharpness setting values (+4, +5). (2) Improves the exposure precision during macro shooting with flash in the P (Program) mode. (3) Reduces the time it takes for the camera to recover from the sleep mode. (4) "Erasing selected frames" has been updated to enable you to cancel several frames selected for erasure at the same time. This is effective when ERASE SETTING is set to NO.

The Olympus E-1 camera body, lenses and flash firmware are updated through the Olympus Viewer software when the camera is connected to a PC and the Internet. Be sure to update the Viewer software first - click on the HELP menu and select the Software Update option, then use the Firmware Update option to upgrade the camera.

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

Imaging-Resource's E-1 review

DP Review's E-1 review

LetsGoDigital's E-1 review

DC Resource's E-1 review

DCView's E-1 review

Luminous Landscape's E-1 review

Megapixel.net's E-1 review

TechTV's E-1 review

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