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Olympus E1 SLR

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

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




MSRP $2199 US

 



  • First "Four Thirds" SLR on the market.
  • Much lighter/more compact than 35mm-based SLR bodies.
  • 5.08-megapixel CCD delivers image resolutions as high as 2,560 x 1,920 pixels.
  • Frame-transfer sensor by Kodak promises better dynamic range, lower noise than conventional interline-transfer designs.
  • Numerous innovations in camera and lens systems create an "all digital" SLR design.

 

Manufacturer Overview

At the Photokina show in Germany in September of 2002, Olympus and Kodak announced plans to jointly develop a new digital SLR system, based on a standard sensor size and lens mount specification, that presumably will be open to other manufacturers to develop around as well. (Fujifilm simultaneously announced that they'd support the new standard, although no products based on it have been forthcoming or even rumored from them as of this writing.) Dubbed the "Four Thirds" initiative (after the dimension of the sensor to be used), the Olympus E-1 SLR is the first of what will presumably be a full line, with models from multiple manufacturers.

Four Thirds systems like the E-1 promise lighter, more compact digital SLRs, with considerably smaller and lighter lenses. The open question is whether photo enthusiasts and professionals will find these advantages compelling enough to abandon the long-entrenched lens-mount standards they're already familiar with. A pro with a bag full of Canon or Nikon glass will probably be a tough sell, but there are a lot of well-heeled amateurs for whom it might be acceptable to sell a film body and a couple of existing lenses to take the plunge into digital with a very capable camera in a compact form factor. Even pros may find the small size attractive enough to purchase a body/lens combo for specific uses.

Time will tell, as they say. Meanwhile, here's a close look at the Olympus E-1, based on a full production-level camera.

 

High Points

 

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.

 

Design

From the exterior, the E-1 looks a lot like a standard 35mm SLR. Its magnesium-alloy body is solid and sturdy, and the camera's splash-proof design features no less that 64 rubber gaskets and seals. While you can't actually submerge the E-1 underwater, the camera can withstand snow and rain for a short period of time (or for that matter, probably a splash of boat spray as well). The chunky but compact body measures 5.6 x 4.1 x 3.2 inches (141 x 104 x 81 millimeters), and weighs 23 ounces (659 grams), without the memory card, battery, or lens attached.

The front of the E-1 features the FourThirds-style lens mount, which accommodates the Zuiko Digital Specific Lenses. On the right side of the lens (when looking from the front) is the lens release button, which unlocks the lens from its mount, allowing it to be turned and removed. On the opposite side of the lens, near the bottom of the lens mount, is the Depth of Field Preview button. A Custom White Balance button is above it, next to the top left corner of the lens mount, handy for quickly setting white balance manually. Also on the front panel is a large sensor window and the AF illuminator. The E-1 has a rather substantial handgrip, which angles down at the top for a view of the Shutter button. In the center of the handgrip is another sensor window.

The right side of the E-1 (as viewed from the rear) holds the CompactFlash slot and a small eyelet for attaching the neck strap. A hinged, plastic door protects the memory compartment, and is released by a switch on the rear panel. (Note that in this shot and the one below, the E-1 is sitting atop its optional power grip, which adds space for two batteries and a convenient hand grip for vertical-format shooting.)

On the opposite side of the camera are two connector compartments, along with the PC-style flash sync socket, remote control socket, and the Focus switch. The larger connector compartment is covered by a hinged, plastic door, which opens to reveal the IEEE-1394, USB, and Video Out connector terminals. The smaller connector compartment has a flexible, rubbery flap that remains tethered to the camera when opened, and holds the DC In terminal. Both the PC sync and remote control sockets have tiny plastic caps that screw on and off, of the sort that I find maddeningly easy to lose. The Focus switch in the lower left corner controls the focus mode for the lens, offering Continuous AF, Single AF, and Manual Focus modes. Also visible on this side of the camera are the Bracket, Metering, and Drive buttons, as well as the second eyelet for the neck strap.

A fair number of controls sprinkle the E-1's top panel, sharing the space with an external flash hot shoe and a small status display panel. The hot shoe has a protective plastic cover that slides in and out of place. Control buttons include the Flash, Image Quality, Light, ISO, WB (white balance), and +/- buttons, as well as the Shutter button, Command dial, Power switch, and Mode dial.

I liked the status display panel, and the good use Olympus put it to. Whenever you press one of the control buttons to change a setting (exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, etc), the current value of the chosen parameter appears in the top-panel readout. This makes for very fast/easy settings changes, without having to resort to the LCD menu system, something I always appreciate when shooting with a camera.

The remaining camera controls are on the rear panel, along with the viewfinder eyepiece and LCD monitor. (The shot above shows the camera mounted on its accessory handgrip.) A clear plastic cover protects the LCD monitor from accidental scratches, and can be easily removed. The viewfinder eyepiece is surrounded by a soft rubber cup, and has a diopter adjustment dial on the right to adjust the view for eyeglass wearers. Also above the eyepiece is a small switch that controls a shutter for blocking light from the viewfinder during long exposures. Rear panel controls include the AE Lock, Focus Area, Playback, Menu, OK, Info, Protect, and Erase buttons. There's also a Four-Way Arrow pad for navigating menu screens, a memory card slot release switch, and a Playback Zoom control dial.

The E-1's bottom panel is nice and flat, and features the battery compartment and metal tripod mount. The battery compartment door can be completely removed (as shown here), so the vertical handgrip can be attached to the camera. (A portion of the handgrip inserts into the battery compartment, and a small screw attaches to the tripod mount.)

As mentioned above, the E-1 is compatible with a vertical hand grip accessory, which fits onto the bottom panel via the camera's tripod mount and an insert that protrudes into the camera's battery compartment. The grip contains a larger battery compartment, as well as a secondary set of controls for the shutter, AE Lock, focus area, and Command dial, useful when the camera is held in the "portrait" (vertical) orientation.

Viewfinder

The E-1 is a true SLR (Single Lens Reflex) design, meaning that the optical viewfinder shows the full image area, viewed through the main lens of the camera. A soft, rubbery cup surrounds the eyepiece for cushioning, and a diopter adjustment dial corrects the view for eyeglass wearers. (A larger eyecup is available as an accessory.) The eyepiece also has an internal shutter, so that you can block out any light leaks from the viewfinder during longer exposures. Inside the viewfinder are a set of black outlines indicating the focus areas and metering areas. An informative in-viewfinder display also tersely reports camera settings such as exposure mode, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, metering mode, exposure compensation, etc.

The E-1's optical viewfinder deserves mention for several reasons, as Olympus evidently devoted a fair bit of effort to its design. First and foremost, it's a true 100% viewfinder, showing all of the final frame area. I've never understood why this isn't more common among SLRs, but it's a simple fact that relatively few SLRs (either film or digital) have truly precise viewfinders -- most seem to top out at around 95% coverage. Second, Olympus designed the E-1's viewfinder optics to have an unusually high eyepoint, making it a pleasure to use for eyeglass wearers. Third, Olympus designed a new microprism pattern for the E-1's focusing screen, using a "deformed octagonal" structure to reduce moire in fine detail. Finally, the E-1 supports interchangeable focusing screens, allowing the user to select a screen most appropriate for their usage. Olympus will offer a choice of two screens at introduction. Shipped with the camera will be their new "Neo-Lumi-Micron Matte II" screen, using their new microprism pattern. An optional screen with a crosshair grid will be available as an accessory, as part number FS-2.

While not used for image composition, the E-1 does offer a 1.8-inch, low temperature, polysilicon, TFT color LCD monitor for image playback. Pressing the Playback button on the camera's rear panel activates the display, and immediately shows the last image taken. The Info button beneath the LCD monitor controls the image information display, which provides detailed exposure information, including the exposure mode, metering mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO, color space, white balance, focal length, focus area, file type, contrast, and sharpness. There are also two playback options relating to exposure, a mode with blinking highlights to show specific areas of overexposure, as well as a histogram overlay display. A Playback Zoom option enlarges the captured image as much as 4x, and an Index display mode shows either four, nine, or 16 thumbnail images on the screen at one time. (Apologies - The screenshots shown here are still from the prototype E-1 that I used to produce the original version of this review: I neglected to shoot fresh screenshots from the production model. I'll try to rectify this at some point in the hopefully not too-distant future.)

 

 

Optics

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The primary motivation and justification for the entire Four Thirds initiative was to free digital removable-lens SLR designs from the constraints imposed by the dimensions of the 35mm film frame. Economic and technical issues are such that full-frame sensors make little economic sense at the current state of silicon technology, and some argue that the realities of silicon semiconductor fabrication means that they'll never make sense on any mass basis. By accepting a smaller sensor as a design constant though, the camera body, lens mount, and the lenses themselves can all be made considerably smaller. The Four Thirds initiative standardizes on a sensor with a diagonal measurement of 22.3 mm, twice that of the sensor used in Olympus' earlier E10 and E20 models as well as other high-end "prosumer" cameras, resulting in four times the overall sensor area. While the sensor in 4/3 cameras is larger than those of most prosumer digicam models though, it's still quite a bit smaller than the full 35mm frame (measuring 43 mm on the diagonal), yielding considerable economies in the cameras themselves, and permitting a much smaller "image circle" in the lens design, meaning smaller and lighter lenses too.


  

At the introduction of the E-1 camera, the Zuiko Digital lens system offered a variety of focal lengths, including 50mm and 300mm lengths, and two zoom lenses (14-54mm and 50-200mm). A 1.4x teleconverter is also available, and Olympus has plans to expand the range in the near future. Note that the 22.3mm diagonal dimension of the sensor translates into a 1.94x focal-length multiplier relative to 35mm cameras. The lenses mentioned above thus translate into 97mm, 582mm, 27-105mm, and 97-388mm equivalent focal lengths on a 35mm camera. In early 2004, Olympus introduced a 150mm f/2.0 lens and an 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5zoom.

Olympus has for some time insisted that the three-dimensional structure of CCD sensors demand a radically different lens design for optimum performance. Their E10 and E20 fixed-lens SLRs embodied such a design, in which additional optical elements collimated the light , insuring that light from the subject would strike the CCD surface perpendicularly across its entire surface. By contrast, with conventional lenses, light from the subject strikes the film or sensor plane at an increasingly oblique angle, as you move towards the edges of the image circle. (See the illustration above right, courtesy of Olympus.) Depending on the sensor design, this varying angle of incidence can cause problems in one of two ways. If the sensor employs microlenses to concentrate light on each pixel's active area, changes in the angle of incidence can lead to unwanted optical effects due to diffraction by the microlenses themselves.On the other hand, if no microlenses are used, collection efficiency is lower, and the decidedly three-dimensional structure of the CCD's surface can result in some of the light being shadowed from the active silicon surface by surrounding surface structures on the chip. Either case results in imperfect coupling of the light to the sensor elements.

In Olympus' "Digital Specific" lenses, an extra group of optical elements collimates the light (makes all the rays parallel), so it impinges on the CCD at right angles to its surface all across the frame.

Actually, Olympus has done a number of things in the design of their lenses for the Four Thirds system to improve image quality. To call attention to the extent of these design improvements, they've branded them as "Zuiko Digital (tm)" lenses. (I'm told that Zuiko means "Light of the Gods," presumably in Japanese.) In addition to the special "digital specific" design described above, Zuiko Digital lenses also incorporate improvements in lens molding and polishing accuracy, multi-coating, centering of the lens elements within the mounting system, increased use of ED glass and aspheric elements, and dual-sided aspheric elements, the latter of which Olympus claims as an industry exclusive. The actual impact of these enhancements remains to be seen (whenever I can test production models of both camera and lens), but the promise is that Zuiko Digital lenses will have better resolution, color rendering, and flare characteristics than even the best conventional designs. (The 14-54mm lens that shipped with my prototype sample of the E-1 indeed seemed to show very little distortion or chromatic aberration, particularly for a prototype-model lens.)

As I noted in the overview section of this review, Zuiko Digital lenses also support a greater degree of communication between lens and camera than has heretofore been the case, with some interesting consequences. Olympus claims that part of this increased communication will benefit autofocus speed and exposure determination, although they haven't yet said how this will work. It does appear though, that Zuiko Digital lenses pass information about their optical characteristics to the camera body, including information on geometric distortion. I first thought that the use of this information would be limited to storing it in the file's EXIF headers, facilitating automated correction of barrel and pincushion distortion post-exposure, on a host computer. It appears that the real story is quite a bit more dramatic though: The camera itself can perform these corrections, and apparently does so automatically. (This probably explains why I saw essentially zero barrel or pincushion distortion from the 14-54mm zoom that shipped with my evaluation unit.)

The in-camera correction capability goes beyond simple geometric distortion though. Many wide-angle lenses suffer from light falloff in the corners of the frame. This is a fairly natural consequence of lens design, and one that's very difficult to avoid in some lenses. (In the film world, certain ultra-wide lenses come with special graduated-density filters to compensate for this, and produce an even exposure across the frame.) Here again, Olympus has taken advantage of the E-1's inherent image-processing capability, through an option called "Shading Compensation." When enabled, this option tells the camera to use information communicated by the lens to correct the captured images for any light falloff resulting from the optics. This option can be enabled or disabled via a menu option. When enabled, it does add considerably to the processing time for each image. (When shooting a normal SHQ quality JPEG image, the camera finished writing to the memory card after about 2.5 seconds. With Shading Compensation enabled, the camera takes about 19.7 seconds to finish its processing.) Shading Compensation does not affect buffer capacity however: The number of shots you can take in rapid succession is the same whether Shading Compensation is on or off. (The only difference is how long it takes the camera to process the images and write them to memory.)

The Four Thirds lens mount itself is a bayonet design, similar in function to those employed on most removable-lens SLRs on the market today. A release button on the side of the lens unlocks it from the body, after which a partial twist removes it.

Focus can be automatically or manually controlled on the E-1, and a small switch on the front of the camera selects between Single, Continuous, and Manual focus modes. Single AF mode sets focus only when the Shutter button is halfway pressed, while Continuous AF mode continuously adjusts the focus (good for moving subjects). Manual focus mode lets you adjust the focus by turning the focus ring on the outside of the lens. (A menu setting on the camera lets you determine which rotational direction adjusts focus in or out, making it easier for users familiar with other manufacturers equipment to adapt to using the E-1.) The E-1's autofocus system judges focus based on a TTL phase difference detection system, and has a three-point AF area. The three points are spread across the center of the frame, with one point dead center, and the other two flanking it on either side. An adjustment button on the camera's back panel lets you select one of the three focus areas, or tell the camera to employ all three, choosing the one corresponding to the portion of the subject closest to the camera. The AE Lock button can be programmed to lock both focus and exposure when pressed, or to lock only focus. With only three focusing zones, the E-1's AF system is less sophisticated than those on some competing SLR models, but seemed to work very well in all my testing. (I don't have any good test to measure AF tracking speed with moving subjects, so that's a parameter we'll probably have to wait to hear from working pros about.) Also, while basic AF speed with vary greatly with the lens used and the subject being photographed, I generally found full-autofocus shutter lag times of between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds, quite fast indeed. (And prefocused shutter lag was a blazing 76.5 milliseconds.)

The E-1's specs state that it employs a phase-detect autofocus approach, versus the more common contrast-detect method. We'll have to see how this plays out on the production models: Phase-detect AF should theoretically result in faster AF response, because the phase-error signal can indicate not only that the lens is out of focus, but in which direction, and by approximately how much. Used properly, this "predictive" focus-error signal can be used to home in on the correct focus position more quickly than the magnitude-only signal from contrast-detect systems. In practice though, this isn't always the case. Phase-detect AF systems can easily be slower than contrast-detect ones, and may have either higher or lower light sensitivity. - Stay tuned in this important area for my tests of a production-level E-1.

A nice feature on the E-1 is the ability to combine autofocus with manual "fine tuning." A menu option labeled "S.AF + MF" stands for "single autofocus plus manual focus. In this mode, the camera will autofocus when you half-press the shutter button, but then transfer control to the manual focus ring, allowing you to make fine adjustments manually. This strikes me as potentially very handy, for situations where you'd like the camera to get you into the right focus range quickly, but then let you focus manually, to make small adjustments, or perhaps to track a moving subject. The way this works in practice is that, in single-AF mode, the E-1 adjusts the focus whenever you half-press the shutter button. If you hold down the shutter button after half-pressing it, the manual focus ring becomes active as soon as the camera has set the focus, allowing you to tweak the focus back and forth slightly. The manual focus ring is a "fly by wire" design though in that it doesn't connect to the lens elements mechanically, but rather just tells the camera in which direction and by how much to adjust the focus for you. I generally dislike fly-by-wire focus controls, as they don't provide the quick, sure operation that you get from a purely mechanical system. With the Zuiko lenses though, I found the focus control very responsive, at least for small "tweak" adjustments. - It's still slower than a manual control for large focus changes, but has a very good "feel" when making small movements.

The E-1 also lets you tell it whether to adhere to focus- or release-priority. In focus-priority mode, the shutter won't fire unless the subject is properly focused. Conversely, release-priority means that the shutter will fire whenever you tell it to, whether the subject is focused or not. In a nice touch, the E-1 lets you determine select focus or release priority independently for single-shot and continuous shooting modes. (I can imagine myself wanting to insist on focus priority for single shots, but preferring release priority for continuous shooting, to let the camera just take its best shot at tracking a moving subject, perhaps settling for slightly misfocused images, rather than missing the shot entirely.

Though aperture settings will differ depending on the lens in use, the E-1 does feature a Depth of Field Preview button that stops down the lens to the set aperture when pressed. Common on most high-end SLRs, this lets you focus with the lens wide open for a bright viewfinder image, and then preview depth of field by momentarily stopping down to the shooting aperture. The E-1 also features a bright AF assist lamp on the front of the camera, which lights in dark shooting conditions when the camera might otherwise not have enough light available to focus accurately.

Third-Party 4/3-System Lenses
One of the drawbacks to the E-1 system has been the high cost of the Olympux Zuiko Digital-Specific lenses. While of very high quality and not dramatically higher-priced than pro-grade lenses from manufacturers like Nikon and Canon, their cost could put the whole E-1 system out of reach for even well-heeled amateur photographers. (Or pros with limited budgets, for that matter.) For quite a while after the E-1's announcement and retail availability, there was no option in the marketplace for E-1 lenses other than Olympus' own offerings. Just as I was "going to press" with the production-level update of this review though, I received word that Sigma would be announcing 4/3-compatible lenses at CeBit. (This article will go up on our website slightly after the non-disclosure embargo on the Sigma lenses, so I could include mention of them here.) Sigma's announcement covers three lenses, an 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a 55-200mm f/4-5.6 zoom, and an 18-125mm(!) f/3.5-5.6 zoom. Pricing hasn't been set as of this writing, but Sigma is well-known for producing optically sharp lenses at very attractive prices. With an independent lens manufacturer now making lenses, the 4/3 system has taken a big step forward toward being a true multi-vendor standard. (All that's missing now is for another manufacturer to produce a 4/3 camera body.)

"Supersonic Wave Filter (tm)" Automatic Sensor Cleaning
Here's a feature that made me sit up and take notice: Built-in ultrasonic sensor cleaning! Here again, it remains to be seen just how well this will work, but the concept sounds promising. Dust has proven to be a bane for digital SLR users from the beginning. In film cameras, the imaging surface (the film) is constantly refreshed as each new frame is advanced. Any dust that might accumulate on one frame will thus not affect subsequent ones. In digital SLRs though, the sensor surface is fixed, so any dust falling on it tends to stay there, the surface becoming increasingly dirty over time. Various accessories are available to clean CCD surfaces, but their use presents an ongoing risk of accident. (That is, while the cleaning gadgets themselves may be perfectly safe, every time you open your SLR and start sticking things inside the camera body, there's a finite risk that you'll do something stupid and damage the sensor chip.)

Olympus has apparently developed new technology by which the E-1 can clean its sensor itself. Details are sketchy at this point, but it appears that every time the unit is turned on (or commanded to do so via a separate menu setting), an ultrasonic system activates, dislodging any dust particles that may have settled on the sensor's surface. (Dislodged dust is collected and trapped in an internal receptacle, so it won't float around the mirror compartment to cause more problems down the line.) It's not clear whether the ultrasonic system works by vibrating the sensor itself, or if it instead directs an airflow over the sensor, but Olympus claims that it's quite effective, and that a full cleaning cycle takes only 200 milliseconds. (0.2 seconds) I don't have any way to objectively measure the effectiveness of this system, but can say that I saw virtually no evidence of dust on the sensor throughout my testing and use of the E-1.

To set appropriate expectations for Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter system, it's important to note that it almost certainly won't be effective against grease smudges caused by fingerprints. - So continue to be careful about putting your fingers inside the mirror compartment, when the sensor is exposed.

Image Sensor
The sensor chip used in the E-1 calls for special comment as well, although the test results I obtained from a production-level camera lead me to wonder slightly whether the special attention is in fact deserved. Its claims to fame should be lower noise and increased dynamic range, but there are a lot of system-level factors that can affect noise levels and dynamic range, regardless of sensor characteristics.

The Four Thirds initiative is a joint effort by three companies: Olympus, Kodak, and Fuji. We haven't heard anything about Fuji's possible plans yet, but Kodak will clearly be a major partner of Olympus in the E-1, as it's one of their sensors that will be used in the camera. Kodak was a dominant player in the early digital SLR market, thanks largely to their advanced sensor technology. Now, with the advent of Four Thirds and their participation in the E-1 with Olympus, they appear poised to regain significant market share for their chips. While Kodak has recently struggled in the SLR marketplace, their CCD sensor technology has historically been second to none: Kodak's specs for quantum efficiency, electron capacity, and thermal noise levels are thoroughly state of the art. They also have a very well-developed design base and semiconductor manufacturing process for creating "frame-transfer" CCDs, which have considerable inherent advantages over the more common interline-transfer designs used in most digital cameras currently on the market.

While considerably more difficult to manufacture than interline sensors, the frame-transfer design potentially provides better light sensitivity and a significantly improved signal to noise ratio. This is because almost 100% of the silicon's surface area is available for light collection, since the structures used to transfer charge out of the photodiodes and off-chip are buried beneath the photodiodes themselves. By contrast, in an interline-transfer CCD design, the charge-transfer registers are located alongside the photodiodes, consuming considerable silicon real estate. (This also means that frame-tranfer CCDs don't need the "microlenses" commonly used with interline-transfer chips to improve light collection efficiency. Dispensing with these optical structures on the CCD's surface can further improve efficiency (since the microlenses themselves aren't perfectly transmissive), and reduce other undesirable effects such as diffraction.

The electronic structure of frame-transfer CCDs also results in a much higher "saturation voltage" than that of equivalent interline-transfer designs. Combined with the low thermal noise that characterizes Kodak's chips, the overall result is that the CCD used in the E-1 should have nearly twice the dynamic range of competing interline-transfer units. (Dynamic range is the range of light to dark values that can accurately be recorded.)

As I noted above, image noise and dynamic range are also strong functions of the design of the rest of the camera's electronics, but the Kodak frame-transfer sensor used in the E-1 should at least give it a head start in this regard. - Stay tuned for the final word on all this though, once I can test a production-level E-1. Note that as of this writing in early September, 2003, Olympus has told me that none of the evaluation units thus far released to reviewers have any noise-suppression processing implemented in them. Any image-noise data published as of this time thus will not be representative of the results from final production models, so I've elected to refrain from any evaluation or comment at this point on image noise. (It is indeed higher than average for a high-end D-SLR, but that would certainly be expected if there's no noise-suppression processing being applied.)

Lest this sound like a completely uncritical paean to frame-transfer sensors though, I should hasten to point out that they do have one significant limitation relative to interline-transfer designs - Their charge collection can't be electronically "gated" to produce the ultra-fast exposure times of some consumer-level cameras. In the case of the E-1, this shouldn't be much of a limitation though, since the camera's shutter can produce minimum exposure times of 1/4000 second on its own.

The above-mentioned theoretical considerations aside though, my testing of a production-level E-1 revealed that its image noise was actually somewhat higher than most competing d-SLR models (and greatly higher at high ISO settings), rather than lower as one would expect, given its use of frame-transfer CCD technology. Also, while it seemed to show good dynamic range, I don't know that I'd say it was significantly better than much of its competition. All I can conclude is that either the particular sensor chip it uses has noise characteristics that fall somewhat short of the promise of frame-transfer technology, or that the analog and A/D electronics inside the E-1 have higher noise levels than they might. Whatever the case, the E-1 hasn't thus far lived up to the promise of the sensor technology it uses.

 

 

Exposure

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Exposure control on the E-1 is very straightforward, with only four exposure modes to choose from. The Mode dial on top of the camera selects between Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. In Program mode, the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed settings, while the user maintains control over all other variables. Turning the Command dial in Program mode enters Program Shift mode, which lets you select from a range of equivalent exposure settings. You can thus bias your exposure toward shutter speed or aperture. Aperture and Shutter Priority modes let you adjust one exposure variable, while the camera controls the other, and Manual mode gives you total control over the exposure. Shutter speeds on the E-1 range from 1/4,000 to 60 seconds in Manual mode, with a Bulb setting for exposure times as long as eight minutes. In the remaining exposure modes, shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to two seconds.

For long exposures, the E-1 offers both Noise Reduction and "Noise Filter" settings. Noise Reduction decreases the amount of image noise in long exposures by using a dark frame subtraction method to minimize fixed pattern noise. When enabled through the settings menu, Noise Reduction automatically engages on exposures longer than two seconds, or when an image has significant dark areas in it. The Noise Filter option addresses random pattern noise, which typically occurs in images captured at high ISO settings or in large areas of solid color, such as blue skies, regardless of exposure duration.

The E-1's Noise Filter option appears to use a pretty sophisticated algorithm that attempts to take image content into consideration when setting local noise-suppression thresholds. - The trick is to suppress random pattern sensor noise, without also suppressing more or less random fine detail in the subject. Olympus hasn't offered a detailed explanation of their Noise Filter algorithms, but the sketchy information given thus far sounds like they work in much the same way as some advanced Photoshop "actions" available on the market. The general idea is to first pass an edge-enhancement filter over the image to generate a mask through which the noise suppression filter is subsequently applied. Regions with high edge detail are deemed to contain useful image information, so the noise suppression filter is throttled back in those areas. (Conveniently, sensor noise will also be much less visible in areas where there's a lot of subject detail present.) By contrast, in flat areas of the image with little subject detail, the noise suppression algorithms are given free reign. Like the Shading Compensation feature, the Noise Filter option involves some pretty intense image processing, so it slows the writing of images to the memory card. - A SHQ-quality JPEG that takes 2.5 seconds to write normally requires roughly 14 seconds when Noise Filter processing is enabled. (Note too, that this special "Noise Filter" processing is additional image processing over and above the normal noise suppression algorithms that are applied to all images by essentially every digicam on the market.)

The E-1 has three metering modes available: ESP, Center-Weighted, and Spot. Exposure compensation is adjustable over an unusually wide range of -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments, though you can also opt for one-half or full-step increments through the setup menu. If you're not sure about the exposure, an Auto Exposure Bracketing function can automatically capture a series of either three or five images at different exposure settings. (You can set the auto bracketing exposure increment to one, one-half, or one-third step sizes.) The AE Lock button on the back panel locks exposure and focus when pressed, the lock remaining in effect until the button is pressed a second time, the Shutter button is halfway pressed, or the shutter fired. Through the settings menu, you can set the button to lock only the exposure, only the focus, or both together. Light sensitivity is adjustable from 100 to 800 ISO equivalents, with an Auto setting available. If the ISO Boost option is enabled, however, the range expands to include settings for 1,600 and 3,200 ISO equivalents.

The E-1's white balance system appears to be quite a bit more sophisticated than those on most digicams out there, including many professional SLRs. For starters, it uses a hybrid system for determining the color balance of ambient lighting, with an independent white balance sensor on the camera's front, that works in conjunction with white balance information gleaned from the CCD. (The vast majority of digicams base white balance solely on image data collected from the CCD.) In my shooting, the E-1's white balance system generally seemed quite sure-footed. although the auto white balance option did leave more color cast in the incandescent-lit Indoor Portrait shot than I'd have liked. It's like that the external white balance sensor will have the greatest impact with unusual subjects dominated by a single color. Subjects like this can trick normal white balance systems into thinking that there's a color balance problem with the lighting when in fact it's the subject itself that has an overall color bias. This is the case with my "Musicians" test poster, which has an abundance of blue in it that often tricks digicam white balance systems into over-compensating, producing overly-warm images. The E-1 did indeed seem to be largely immune to this effect.

White balance options on the E-1 are quite extensive, with a full range of Kelvin temperature settings available, in addition to the custom settings. Twelve temperature settings are available in all, from 3,000 to 7,500 degrees K. (I'm pleased to see a wide range of Kelvin-calibrated white balance settings, but would *really* like to see it extend to lower values. - Common household incandescent lighting extends down to color temperatures of 2,400K and below, but Kelvin-based white balance options rarely extend that low.) Each of the Kelvin white balance settings can be adjusted across a range of +/- 140 degrees K, via the White Balance Compensation menu option that lets you shift the color a couple of MiReDs at a time. (MiReD stands for Micro Reciprocal Degree, each MiReD unit corresponding to roughly 10K of color shift, depending on the base color temperature you're correcting. The white balance adjustment in the E-1 shifts the color balance roughly 20K for each step, and has seven steps of adjustment above and below the primary setting.)

In addition to its wide range of Kelvin settings, the E-1 also sports an Auto option, and no fewer than four separate manual white balance settings. Each manual white balance setting can save a white balance value independently from the others, allowing you to store and quickly access four entirely different custom white balance values.

A White Balance Bracketing mode captures three frames in a series, with color adjustments in arbitrary units of +/- 1, 2, or 3. A Color Space option offers your choice of sRGB and Adobe RGB color spaces, and the camera also offers a very flexible Saturation adjustment. Under the Saturation adjustment, you can increase or decrease the overall saturation for all three RGB channels, or selectively boost saturation for specific colors. The overall control offers a total of five settings, corresponding to the default value plus two steps with higher or lower saturation. The color-specific saturation boosts don't offer any adjustment for the amount of the boost (it'd sure be nice if they did). Saturation can be boosted for reds, greens, blues, or for a softer red, corresponding to flesh tones.

The E-1 is also unusual (although not entirely unique) in the ability it gives the user to "edit" the RAW image data in-camera. Through a menu option, you can create new JPEG files from the RAW originals, changing color space, contrast, saturation, sharpness, white balance, and final image size.

A Self-Timer setting offers either a 12-second or two-second delay between the time the Shutter button is pressed and the time that the camera actually takes the picture. The E-1 also has a Remote Control mode, for working with either the wired or wireless (IR) remote control accessories. A two-second Remote mode enables a two-second delay between the press of the remote shutter and the time the camera takes the picture.

Sequential Shooting

Through the camera's Drive setting (which also accesses the Self-Timer and Remote Control modes), the E-1 offers a Sequential Shooting mode. Olympus states that the camera can capture approximately three frames per second, at the lowest resolution and quality settings, with a maximum of 12 frames in a sequence. While not as "deep" as the buffers on some professional SLRs, 12 frames is a pretty good-sized buffer, and three frames/second seems to be a pretty typical shooting speed among the majority of pro SLRs that I've tested. In my testing of the E-1, the camera did indeed capture a full 3.0 frames/second, and did so regardless of image size/quality/format setting. (That is, it captured 12 frames at a full 3.0 frames/second whether using TIFF, RAW or JPEG file formats.)

 

Flash

The E-1 features an external flash hot shoe as well as a PC sync socket for connecting external flash units. Though the camera does not offer a built-in flash, it does feature a Flash mode button, presumably for controlling the external flash unit's operating mode. Mode choices are Auto, Manual Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync, Slow Sync Second Curtain, and Fill for exclusive flash. Through the settings menu, you can also adjust the flash output, from -2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments.

 

 

Shutter Lag & Cycle Times

The results here are now based on a full production camera, and as expected, results were essentially identical to those I obtained earlier with an "all but final" prototype version. Here is the timing data I collected for the E-1:

NOTE: My qualitative characterizations of camera performance below (that is, "reasonably fast," "about average," etc.) are meant to be relative to other cameras of similar price and general capabilities. Thus, the same shutter lag that's "very fast" for a low-end consumer camera might be characterized as "quite slow" if I encountered it on a professional model. The comments are also intended as only a quick reference: If performance specs are critical for you, rely on the absolute numbers to compare cameras, rather than my purely qualitative comments.

Olympus E-1 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot 1.72 Very fast.
Shutdown 3.46 Time to write a large/fine image to the card. Pretty fast. (Time will vary with card speed, this is for a pretty fast CF card. It could also take much longer to finish writing to the memory card if a large number of shots had been captured first.)
Play to Record, first shot 0.98 Time from playback mode to first shot captured. Pretty fast, although some SLRs are slightly faster.
Record to play (max res) 3.78/0.93 First time is to display large/fine file immediately after shot is captured, second time is that required after camera has finished processing the shot, is resting in capture mode. Both are about average for an SLR. Time until camera is finished writing will depend on number of shots in the buffer and the speed of the CF card. With fast cards, a full buffer empties in 50-60 seconds, but slow cards can take as long as 3 minutes to clear a full buffer.
Shutter lag, full autofocus 0.208/0.266 AF speed is likely to vary greatly depending on lens used. I found similar results with the 50mm macro lens and the 14-55mm zoom, though. The shortest time shown is for the 50mm and the zoom at its wide-angle setting. The longer time is for the zoom at telephoto.
Shutter lag, continuous autofocus 0.178 Tested with the 14-55mm zoom. Slight improvement from single-AF mode. The real strength of this mode should be with moving subjects, but I have no quantitative way of testing that.
Shutter lag, manual focus 0.173 Time with same lens as above, but set to manual focus mode. Average to a bit slower than average for an SLR.
Shutter lag, prefocus 0.0765 Delay with shutter button half-pressed and held before the exposure. (This number won't vary between lenses.) Blazingly fast, definitely in the top rank of D-SLRs.
Cycle Time, large/fine JPEG 0.57/2.06 Cycle time is 0.57 seconds for first 12 shots, then 2.06 seconds after that. Very good performance, nice large buffer.
Cycle Time, small/basic JPEG 0.58/1.11 Cycle time is 0.58 seconds for first 12 shots, then 1.11 seconds after that.
Cycle Time, RAW mode 0.56/2.57 Cycle time is 0.56 seconds for first 12 shots, then 2.57 seconds after that. (Pretty good for 5 megapixel RAW files. - This time was measured with a 24x Lexar card, slower cards will produce slower times after the buffer fills.)
Cycle Time, TIFF mode 0.57/4.90 Cycle time is 0.57 seconds for first 12 shots, then 4.9 seconds after that. (Pretty good for 5 megapixel TIFFs. - This time was measured with a 24x Lexar card, slower cards will produce slower times after the buffer fills.)
Continuous Mode, JPEG files 0.33
(3.0 fps)
Excellent continuous-mode operation. Full 12-frame buffer, regardless of shooting mode (JPEG, RAW, TIFF). After buffer is filled, times stretch to 2.55 seconds for L/F JPEGs, ~1.10 seconds for smallest JPEGs between shots.
Continuous Mode, RAW files 0.33
(3.0 fps)
As above, twelve shot buffer. After buffer is full, time stretches to 3.6 seconds between shots.
Continuous Mode, TIFF files 0.33
(3.0 fps)
As above, twelve shot buffer. After buffer is full, time stretches to 6.27 seconds between shots.


Overall, the E-1 is a pretty speedy camera. Shutter lag times are very good, and prefocus lag time is outstanding. Shot to shot cycle times are also very good, and the capacious 12-shot buffer delivers its full capacity, regardless of image size or file format. (That is, the full 12-shot capacity is available even for TIFF or RAW file formats.) Continuous Mode speed is also quite good, at a true 3.0 frames/second. (Some camera companies fudge slightly on these figures, but the E-1 delivers a true 3 frames/second in all resolution and file format settings.)



Camera Operation and User Interface

Camera operation is pretty straightforward on the E-1, as the camera offers only four exposure modes and a large number of external controls, making for an uncomplicated user interface. The Mode dial quickly sets the main exposure mode, and the combination of external control buttons lets you quickly adjust most key camera settings without having to resort to the LCD menu system. Plus, the status display panel on top of the camera reports pretty much all of the main exposure settings (and then some), for quick reference while shooting. The LCD menu system itself consists of four menu tabs, one each for Record, Playback, Setup1, and Setup 2 menus. Each menu is multi-paged, but clearly laid out and easy to scroll through.

Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Angled down toward the front of the camera on the slope of the hand grip, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed, and triggers the shutter when fully pressed.


Sub Command Dial: Directly behind the Shutter button on top of the camera, this ridged dial adjusts a variety of camera settings. Turning the dial while holding down a control button adjusts settings. In Program exposure mode, turning this dial on its own cycles through a range of equivalent exposure settings, so you can bias the exposure toward larger or smaller lens apertures, or faster or slower shutter speeds.


White Balance Button: To the right and slightly in front of the Sub Command dial, pressing and holding this button while rotating either the Main or Sub Command dial cycles through a variety of white balance options, including a range of Kelvin temperature settings and four separate custom white balance settings.


Image Quality Button
: On the left side of the Command dial, just above the status display panel, this button cycles through the available image size and quality settings when pressed while turning the Command dial. Choices are TIFF, RAW, SHQ, HQ, and SQ.

Flash Mode Button: Directly to the left of the Image Quality button, this button controls the external flash mode setting. Options are Auto, Forced, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync with Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync, and 2nd Curtain Sync.

Reset Function: Holding down the Image Quality and Flash buttons simultaneously accesses the E-1's Reset function. When you press down both buttons, a somewhat cryptic combination of segments appear in the top-panel LCD data readout. (Apparently meant to look like "r-C", for "reset Cancel".) Rotating either the Main or Sub command dial while the buttons are held down selects between canceling the reset, resetting the camera to factory default settings, or selecting one of four different sets of reset settings that you'd previously "registered," via a setup menu option. The Factory Default option affects the greatest number of camera parameters, but the custom reset options nonetheless record an unusually broad range of camera settings for immediate recall. The table below shows the camera functions that can be controlled by both the Factory Default and Custom Reset options:

Function Factory Default Custom Reset
Flash Exposure Comp. 0.0 x
Saturation (default) x
Contrast (default) x
Sharpness (default) x
Color Space sRGB x
WB Bracket Off x
Raw + JPEG Off x
Noise Filter Off x
Noise Reduction Off x
Shading Comp. Off x
AF Illuminator Off x
Anti-Shock Off x
Position Sensor Off -
EV Step 1/3 EV x
ISO Boost Off x
White Balance Comp. +/- 0 x
SQ Image Size 1280x960
1/8 compression
-
AEL/AFL (Factory default changes with focus mode) mode1/mode6 -
Dial Functions (Factory default changes with exposure mode.) Ps/F.No./Shutter -
Focus Ring counterclockwise -
S-AF & MF

Off

-
Release Priority S Off -
Release Priority C On -
Reset Lens On -
PC Mode Storage -
Erase Setting No -
File Name Auto -
Rec View Off -
Sound On -
Display Brightness 0 -
Sleep 1 min -
Language (Default depends on where purchased) English -
Video Out (Default depends on where purchased) NTSC -

ISO

Auto x
Exposure Comp. 0.0 x
White Balance Auto x
Record Mode HQ x
Flash Mode Auto/Fill-in x
Auto Bracketing Off x
Metering Mode ESP x
Drive Mode Single-frame x
AF Frame Selection 3 points x
Shutter Speed (depending on mode) 1/50 x
Aperture (depending on mode) f/2.8 x
Playback Mode Single-frame (w/no info) -
Information Display Highlight -

 


Mode Dial and Lock Button
: Behind the Command dial on top of the camera, this dial sets the camera's exposure mode to Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Program. A small button in the center of the dial unlocks the dial, so that it can be turned.


Power Switch
: Resting beneath the Mode dial is the Power switch, which turns the camera on or off.


Focus Area Selector: On the far right corner of the camera's back panel, and directly below the Power switch, this button selects the camera's AF area. Pressing the button while turning the Command dial lets you select one of three areas around the center of the frame to base focus on, or lets you select all three areas, in which case the camera will determine focus based on the part of the subject lying under one of the three areas that's closest to the camera.


AE Lock Button: Directly to the left of the Focus Area Selector button, this button locks exposure when pressed. Exposure remains locked until the button is either pressed a second time or the shutter is fired. The button may be configured to lock exposure, focus, or both, via myriad menu options. (See my discussion of this control in the Exposure section of this review.)


Exposure Compensation (+/-) Button
: On the left side of the Mode dial, this button adjusts the exposure compensation from -5 to +5 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments when pressed while turning the Command dial. (Adjustments may also be made in one-half and full-step increments, if so configured via a setup menu option.)


ISO Button
: Below the status display panel, this button controls the camera's sensitivity setting when pressed while turning the Command dial. Options are Auto, or 100, 200, 400, or 800 ISO equivalents.


Light Button
: To the left of the ISO button, this button activates an illuminator on the status display panel, making it easier to read data displayed there in dim shooting conditions.


Metering Button
: Located on the left side of the top panel, angling down from the external flash hot shoe, this button adjusts the camera's metering mode when pressed while turning the Command dial. Metering modes include Digital ESP, Center-Weighted, and Spot.


Remote Control / Drive Mode Button
: Below the Metering button, this button accesses the camera's available drive settings. Turning the Command dial while pressing this button cycles through Single, Continuous Shooting, 12-Second Self-Timer, Two-Second Self-Timer, Two-Second Remote Control, and Remote Control modes.


BKT Button
: Next to the neck strap eyelet on the left side of the top panel, this button turns the Auto Exposure Bracketing function on or off. Turning the Command dial while pressing the button selects the number of images that will be captured in the series, and the amount of exposure variance between shots.


Diopter Adjustment Dial
: This tiny dial is located above the top right corner of the viewfinder eyepiece, and adjusts the viewfinder display to accommodate eyeglass wearers. (The diopter adjustment range is specified as -3 to +1.)


Viewfinder Shutter Switch
: On the opposite side of the viewfinder eyepiece, this switch opens and closes a shutter inside the viewfinder display, which blocks light during longer exposures.


Playback Zoom Dial
/ Main Command Dial: Located at the top of the camera's rear panel, this sideways dial controls the digital enlargement of captured images. Turning the dial toward the magnifying glass symbol enlarges images, while turning in the other direction zooms back out. At the normal image display, turning the dial toward the index position calls up a nine-image index display of all images on the memory card.

Through the Setup menu, you can program this dial to control a handful of camera functions, including exposure compensation, aperture, etc. In Manual mode, this dial controls either the shutter speed or the aperture, depending on the setting.


Playback Button
: Immediately below the Playback Zoom dial, this button puts the camera into Playback mode, displaying captured images on the LCD screen.


Menu Button
: Adjacent to the top right corner of the LCD monitor, this button displays the settings menu in any camera mode. It also dismisses the menu display.


Four-Way Arrow Pad
: Close to the center of the camera's rear panel, this four-button pad features an arrow key in each direction. The arrow keys navigate through the LCD menu system, as well as scroll through captured images on the memory card.


Memory Card Compartment Latch
: To the right of the Four-Way Arrow pad, this latch unlocks the memory compartment door.


OK Button
: Diagonally to the lower right of the Four-Way Arrow pad, this button confirms menu selections.


Erase Button
: Below the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button displays the camera's Delete menu, which lets you erase single images from the memory card.


Protect Button
: To the left of the Erase button, this button marks images for write protection, preventing them from being accidentally erased (except via card formatting). You can also remove write protection.


Info Button
: To the left of the Protect button, this button calls up a limited information overlay for the currently viewed image. In this mode, the camera also flashes any overexposed areas of the frame.


Focus Mode Switch
: Located near the lower right corner of the lens barrel (when looking at the camera from the front), this switch sets the camera's focus mode to Continuous Servo, Single Servo, or Manual modes.

Lens Release Button: Above the Focus Mode switch on the camera's front panel, this button unlocks the lens from its mount, allowing it to be rotated and removed.


Depth of Field Preview Button
: On the opposite side of the lens, this button stops down the lens to the selected aperture setting, so that you have an idea of the estimated depth of field.

Camera Modes

Record Mode: The E-1 is automatically in Record mode whenever it's powered on. A Mode dial on top of the camera selects between Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes.

Playback Mode: The Playback button on the camera's rear panel puts the camera into Playback mode. Here, you can review captured images on the card, erase them, protect them, etc. You can cancel Playback mode either by pressing the Playback button a second time, or half- or fully-pressing the shutter button. (The E-1 is a shooting-priority camera.)

Camera Modes and Menus: Pressing the Menu button in any camera mode automatically displays the following menus:

 

 

Image Storage and Interface

The E-1 stores images on CompactFlash Type I or II memory cards, and is also compatible with the IBM MicroDrive. A range of image resolutions are available, including 2,560 x 1,920; 1,600 x 1,200; 1,280 x 960; 1,024 x 768, and 640 x 480 pixels. File formats include uncompressed TIFF, RAW data, and two JPEG compression levels. Through the camera's settings menu, you can specify whether a RAW image is recorded on its own, or with a JPEG copy in addition to it.

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
128 MB Memory Card
TIFF
RAW
Fine
Normal
2,560 x 1,920 Images
(Avg size)
7
16.0 MB
12
10.7 MB
32
4.0 MB
100
1.28 MB
Approx.
Compression
0.9:1
(?)
1.4:1 4:1 12:1
1,600 x 1,200
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
- - 87
1.5 MB
244
524 KB
Approx.
Compression
- - 4:1 12:1
1,280 x 960
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
- -
134
950 KB
372
344 KB
Approx.
Compression
- -
4:1
11:1
1,024 x 768
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
- -
205
622 KB
528
242 KB
Approx.
Compression
- -
4:1
11:1
640x480
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
- -
488
262 KB
1128
113 KB
Approx.
Compression
- -
4:1
10:1

 

The one thing that was odd about the E-1's file sizes is that its TIFF formatted files were actually larger than 3x the number of pixels. All I can guess is that the E-1's TIFF format must include some fairly extensive additional information in the file headers. (Pure speculation, but perhaps a moderately large JPEG preview image?)

The E-1 supports both IEEE 1394 ("FireWire") and USB 2.0 interfaces, and the camera comes with both cables. When I plugged the E-1 into my Sony VAIO Windows XP machine (Pentium IV, 2.4 GHz, 512 MB RAM), I was amazed (!) by its download speed. I clocked it at 3.04 megabytes/second, connected via the USB 2.0 interface. - Yes, that's right, over 3 megabytes per second. This makes it by far the fastest-downloading camera I've tested to date. (For reference, most USB-connected cameras max out at around 600 KB/second, with an occasional USB 2.0-compatible model hitting 1 MB/sec or slightly higher.) Obviously, to achieve these speeds, you'll need to be using a high-speed CF card. (I used a Lexar 24x WA-enabled card for these tests.)

As mentioned earlier, the E-1 also allows direct camera control from a host computer, using Olympus' new Studio software, although I haven't as yet tested this capability

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 

Video Out

The E-1 comes with a video cable for connection to a television set for image review. A settings menu option sets the video signal to support PAL or NTSC timing.

 

Power

For power, the E-1 utilizes a single lithium-ion battery pack, which ships with the camera, along with the necessary charger. An AC adapter is available as a separate accessory, and is highly recommended for time-consuming tasks such as image downloading or review, or when running the camera from a computer for extended periods. A Sleep option in the settings menu helps the camera save power, by shutting itself down after either one, three, five, or 30 minutes of inactivity.

The E-1 uses an unusual power connector, and Olympus didn't provide me with an adapter for it. - Hence, I wasn't able to conduct my usual detailed power measurements. I can say though, that the battery pack used in the E-1 lasts a long time: My son Chris and I had the opportunity to shoot with it at the US Open, and we racked up over 700 shots that day on a single battery charge (with a fair bit of capacity left over). Granted, we were being careful to use the LCD screen as little as possible, but this struck me as really excellent battery life. (Mind you, I'd still strongly encourage purchasing an extra battery pack along with the E-1, but it clearly ranks among the best D-SLRs in terms of battery life.)

 

Included Software

Although my first prototype sample did not come with any software, Olympus states that the E-1 will be bundled with Adobe Photoshop Elements, Olympus' own e-Studio (a new suite of applications), and Web Photo School Lessons on CD.

Not Included: "Brainware"
Every manufacturer includes some level of needed software with their cameras, but what's missing is the knowledge and experience to know what to do with it. For lack of a better term, I've called this "Brainware." There's a lot involved between snapping the shutter, and watching a beautiful, professional-quality print spool off your printer, and there's sadly very little guidance as to how to get from point A to point B.

Fortunately, Uwe Steinmueller of OutbackPhoto.com has come up with an excellent series of e-books that detail every step of the process, show actual examples of files moving through the workflow, and the final results. If you want to get the absolute best prints possible from your digital files, you owe it to yourself to purchase one of the Outback Photo Digital Workflow books.



In the Box

Included in the box with the Olympus E-1 SLR are the following items:

Recommended Accessories

 

Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the E-1's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how E-1's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

 

Conclusion
Free Photo Lessons

Check out the Free Photo School program for lessons and tips on improving your photographs!
Learn how to take stunning photos with simple pro lighting tips, in our free Photo School area!

In many ways, the Olympus E-1 proves the validity of the whole 4/3 system concept. It's a very ruggedly-constructed camera, yet is much smaller and lighter than typical professional-grade digital SLRs like the Nikon D1x or Canon EOS-1D. The benefits of building to a smaller sensor size are dramatically evident in the physical bulk (or lack thereof) of the Zuiko lenses made for the E-1. Comparing them to lenses with similar characteristics (focal length and aperture) made for full-frame 35mm cameras, the 4/3 lenses are significantly smaller. The Zuiko lenses Olympus has designed for the E-1 also seem to be of high optical quality, as one would expect from their pricing. (Although I did see more chromatic aberration in the 14-54mm zoom than I had expected.) The E-1 is a solid performer too, with good shutter response and a fairly quick autofocus system. Color and tonal range area also very good, with very true colors apart from a slight tendency to undersaturate greens, and a broad dynamic range. I also liked the flexibility it provides for adjusting contrast and color saturation to suit your personal tastes. To my mind, its most prominent weakness is image noise, an area where I expected it to be particularly strong, since it uses a CCD design known for good signal/noise ratio. At ISOs below 800, its images are slightly noisier than those of competing models, but at levels above 800, the noise really takes off. For most "normal" shooting, this shouldn't be an issue, but I call attention to it because the marketing buzz for the camera (and my own initial, publicly-voiced expectations) have pointed to low image noise as a strength.

Overall, I've spent quite a bit of time shooting with the E-1, and have found myself liking the camera quite a lot. It feels good in the hand, takes good-looking pictures, and is fast and accurate to use. With its true professional-grade build quality, it's priced well above the current crop of entry-level digital-SLRs, even though it's less expensive than competing "professional" models from other manufacturers. It's clear that Olympus intends the E-1 to be a camera for the professional shooter, and in many respects it is. I do think that they've got a bit of a tough sell ahead of them though, as I found the camera to be a bit of "neither fish nor fowl." On the one hand, it doesn't have the autofocus quickness or continuous shooting speed that pro sports shooters and many photojournalists demand, while on the other hand, it doesn't compete well against sharper 6-megapixel and higher resolution cameras for the studio market. Price-wise, it's a bargain compared to the d-SLRs with pro-grade bodies, but most prospects for cameras in that category already have full kits of Nikon or Canon lenses. At the other end of the spectrum, it's pricey compared to entry-level d-SLRs like the Canon Digital Rebel and Nikon D70. While there's no comparison between the build quality of the E-1 and either of those models, it's a valid question whether an amateur shooter can justify the price differential to step up to the E-1, not only for the camera body itself, but for the pricey lenses as well. (Although Sigma's recent announcement of lenses supporting the 4/3 format will likely address this latter point.) Bottom line, the E-1 is a well-built camera with a lot of compelling benefits, but in a package that demands a commitment to the 4/3 system approach, and somewhat deeper pockets than any of the current crop of prosumer d-SLR models.

 

Related Links

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Olympus E-1 review


 

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