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Olympus E1 SLR

The first "Four Thirds" system (almost) sees the light of day!

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 06/24/2003, Updated: 03/16/2004

Executive Overview

As the first fruit of the "Four Thirds" initiative announced in late 2002 between Olympus, Kodak, and Fujifilm, Olympus' E-1 digital SLR has drawn a great deal of attention. The big news here is that this is the first removable-lens digital SLR that was designed from the ground up as a digital device, with no ties to previous film-based designs. As a result, the optics and camera body are optimized for both the smaller physical dimension of the imaging plane (22.3 mm on the diagonal, vs 43.3 mm for a 35mm film frame), as well as for the three-dimensional surface structure of CCDs.

The E-1's interchangeable lens design accommodates a range of "Zuiko Digital"(tm) lenses, created specifically for use with the E-1. (Note though, that these lenses conform to the Four Thirds spec, so will presumably be fully compatible with other cameras if/as/whenever other manufacturers produce models meeting Four Thirds guidelines.) Following the Four Thirds specifications, the lens mount diameter is only twice the diagonal measurement of the camera's sensor, making the Zuiko Digital lenses much smaller and lighter than their 35mm equivalents. At the same time, while much smaller than a 35mm frame (smaller too, than the roughly APS-sized sensors of other common digital SLRs), the CCD in the E-1 has nearly four times the area of the chip used in Olympus' earlier E20 fixed-lens SLR design. The larger sensor size ought to translate into lower noise levels than those of the E20, and its "frame transfer" CCD manufactured by Kodak. (The frame-transfer technology boasts higher saturation voltages and theoretically lower noise levels than the more common interline-transfer design.) All this should add up to lower than average noise levels for the E-1, but for whatever reason, this doesn't seem to have borne out in practice: In my tests, the E-1 showed higher image noise than essentially all of the other d-SLRs that it competes with. The differences were slight but noticeable at low ISO levels, but increased sharply at ISOs above 800.

Addressing a universal bugaboo for digital SLR users, Olympus has incorporated a unique dust-removal system into the E-1 that uses ultrasonic energy to remove dust particles from the sensor surface. It's hard too quantify how well this works, but I did indeed find very little incidence of dust on the E-1's sensor while I was working with it. Overall, it's very encouraging to see a camera manufacturer developing technology to deal with this nettlesome problem. In addition to the dust-removal system for the sensor itself, the E-1 is housed in a rugged magnesium-alloy body with no fewer than 61 seals and gaskets to keep out dust and water. (It isn't advertised as waterproof, but rather "splash proof," meaning it can stand up to splashes of water, but not full immersion.) The net of all this is that its body has a very solid, sturdy feel in the hand.

The Zuiko Digital lens system offers a variety of focal lengths, including 50mm and 300mm fixed focal length optics, and two zoom lenses (14-54mm and 50-200mm). A 1.4x teleconverter is also available, and since the initial announcement of the E-1, Olympus has expanded the line with a 150mm f/2.8 model and a 11-22mm zoom. (Note that the 22.3mm diagonal dimension of the sensor translates into a 1.94x focal-length multiplier relative to 35mm cameras. The original lenses mentioned above thus translate into 97mm, 582mm, 27-105mm, and 97-388mm focal lengths on a 35mm camera, while the two later units equate to a 291mm telephoto and a 21-42mm zoom.) While apertures and focusing ranges will vary depending on the particular lens in use, the E-1 does offer several focusing options. The camera's autofocus system bases focus on one of three points spread across the center of the frame. You can manually select one of these points, or allow the camera to choose based on the proximity of the subject. You can also opt for Single, Continuous, or Manual focus modes, by turning a switch on the front of the camera. An AF illuminator lamp on the front of the camera is useful in dark shooting conditions, but can be disabled when desired. For composing shots, the E-1's optical viewfinder is unusually accurate (a true 100% viewfinder, a surprisingly rare feature on SLRs), and features a diopter adjustment dial for eyeglass wearers. The viewfinder display reports a wide variety of exposure settings, and features outlines designating the AF and metering areas. A status display panel on top of the camera reports most of the camera settings, and a 1.8-inch color LCD monitor on the back panel is available for image review and menu display.

The Zuiko Digital lenses incorporate several key innovations, including improved coating and polishing technology, and the use of double-sided aspheric elements. Some of the biggest news though, is how the Zuiko lenses interact with the camera and its CPU. In a remarkably intelligent combination of optical and digital technology, the Zuiko lenses communicate with the camera's processor, informing it of not only their current focal length setting, but the geometric distortion inherent to the lens at that focal length, and even the amount of edge darkening (sometimes called "vignetting") it has. The camera can then use this information to digitally correct the images in the camera. Thus, images shot with Zuiko lenses and the E-1 show virtually zero geometric distortion at any focal length, and can optionally be corrected to remove any edge darkening caused by light falloff in the lens elements. This is an absolutely unique capability, and one that catapults the image quality obtained with Zuiko lenses into the first rank of professional-grade lenses. (Note though, that this in-camera image processing can't compensate for flare, coma, or chromatic aberration, so Olympus still needs to exert themselves to minimize those forms of distortion in the optical designs themselves. Chromatic aberration in particular appears to be a thorny problem for lens designers, that the Zuiko optics aren't immune to.)

Exposure control on the E-1 is straightforward and sensible, with a Mode dial controlling the main exposure mode. Choices there are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes. Within Program mode, turning the Command wheel accesses Program Shift mode, which lets you choose from a range of equivalent exposure settings, to select larger or smaller lens apertures and faster or slower shutter speeds. Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to two seconds, in all modes except for Manual, where the range extends to 60 seconds. Manual mode also features a Bulb exposure setting, to permit exposures as long as eight minutes. For longer exposures, the camera offers a Noise Reduction mode to reduce the amount of image noise. A "Noise Filter" setting is also available, more useful with short exposures taken at a higher sensitivity setting. By default, the E-1 employs an ESP multi-pattern metering system, but Center-Weighted and Spot options are also available. You can adjust the overall exposure from -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in either one-third, one-half, or one-step increments, and an Auto Exposure Bracketing mode is available for capturing a series of images at different exposures. Sensitivity options include an Auto setting, as well as 100, 300, 400, and 800 ISO equivalents, with an ISO Boost option for 1,600 and 3,200 settings.

White Balance options on the E-1 include an Auto adjustment, four Custom settings, and a range of specific Kelvin temperature settings from 3,000 to 7,500K. A White Balance adjustment tool lets you add more red or blue to the color balance, and there's a White Balance Bracketing mode as well. Color space options include sRGB and Adobe RGB settings, and the E-1 features an unusually sophisticated Saturation adjustment. You can adjust the color saturation for all three RGB channels together, or set the saturation for Red, Green, or Blue separately. There's also a fifth saturation preset setting, optimized for skin tones and portraits. The E-1 also features very fine-grained contrast and sharpness adjustments.

The camera's Self-Timer mode offers two and 12-second delays before firing the shutter, and the camera is compatible with both wireless and wired remote control accessories (supported by a Remote Control drive setting). An external flash hot shoe on top of the camera hosts the Olympus FL-50 external flash unit, and there's a PC sync socket on the side of the camera for a secondary unit of for connection to studio strobes. A button on top of the camera controls the main flash operating mode, cycling between Auto, Manual, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync, Slow Sync Second Curtain, and Fill. Through the settings menu, you can adjust flash intensity as well. Finally, the E-1 offers a Sequential Shooting mode for capturing a continuous series of images at approximately three frames per second, with a maximum burst length of 21 frames.

The E-1 stores images on CompactFlash type I or II memory cards, and is compatible with the IBM MicroDrive. It also supports the FAT32 file system, and is thus able to handle memory cards larger than 2GB. (No card is included with the camera.) Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, RAW data, or JPEG files, with two JPEG compression levels available. Image resolutions are 2,560 x 1,920; 1,600 x 1,200; 1,280 x 960; 1,024 x 768; and 640 x 480 pixels. For power, the E-1 uses a single lithium-ion battery pack, and ships with both battery and charger. An AC adapter is available as a separate accessory. A Video Out jack and video cable let you connect the camera to a television set for image review. The E-1 connects to a computer via a USB or IEEE-1394 interface, and both cables are included. A set of software CDs also accompanies the camera, and feature Adobe Photoshop Elements, Olympus' new e-Studio program, and Web Photo School Lessons.

The Olympus E-1 marks a significant new direction for digicam development: While most digital SLRs feature Canon or Nikon lens mounts and accommodate lenses initially introduced for use with film cameras, the E-1 constitutes a complete departure, with a lens mount based on the "Four Thirds" specification. The Four Thirds lens system means smaller and lighter-weight lenses, something many photographers will appreciate. Balancing this increased convenience though, will be the market inertia resulting from the enormous number of Canon/Nikon-mount lenses already owned by practicing photographers. It remains to be seen how the market will ultimately respond to an all-new camera/lens system like the E-1, but I can at least confirm that the prototype lenses I looked at displayed very high optical quality.

Olympus is positioning the E-1 as a professional model, stacking it up against Nikon's D1x and Canon's EOS-1D, rather than those manufacturer's consumer-level digital SLRs, the D100 and EOS-10D respectively. I don't know that I'd personally put the E-1 in the same league as the battleship-rugged D1x and 1D, but holding and working with the camera, it's clearly much more solidly constructed than the consumer-grade cameras. Based on features, function, and build quality, I don't think the E-1 will have any trouble competing with the D100 and 10D at the high end of the "prosumer" market. I do think though, that Olympus has their work cut out for them in trying to break into the true professional market. This is not so much because of any shortcomings in the E-1 itself: In actuality, its advanced integration of optics and electronics offer capabilities and a lack of image distortion found nowhere else. The problem to my mind involves the extent to which professional photographers are already heavily invested in lenses for their current film camera systems. Most pros are already using Canon or Nikon cameras and will be loathe to give up their sizeable investment in Canon or Nikon glass just to gain the size and feature advantages that the E-1 presents. Time will tell, as they say, but I do wish Olympus well in their quest: The integration of optics and electronics in the E-1 and their Zuiko "Digital Specific" line of lenses for it is a true innovation, and deserves the support of the market.


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