Olympus E-10A 4 megapixel sensor and unique SLR optics make for a major coup for Olympus! (Final review, based on full-production model.)
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Page 2:Executive OverviewReview First Posted: 1/26/2001
We couldn't wait to get our hands on the Olympus E-10 and take it for a test drive. A very large step by Olympus towards the professional digicam realm, the E-10 offers excellent exposure control (as with their earlier high-end models) in an SLR design, with the look and feel of a traditional 35mm camera. It also boasts the highest sensor resolution (4 million pixels) of any digital camera selling for less than $10,000 as of this writing. (October, 2000) Where the E-10 differs from other pro SLR digital cameras is in its use of a fixed lens: Most other pro digicams are built around lens systems originally designed for 35mm photography. The benefit of 35mm-based lens systems is that there are a lot of photographers with substantial lens kits that can immediately be adapted to digital usage. As it turns out though, there are also a number of disadvantages of the removable lens approach, including a less than ideal match between the lens' focusing and the tiny dimensions of the CCD arrays, and the tendency to get dust on the CCD itself, as a result of the camera body's integrity being breached during lens changes.
Olympus addresses the issue of focal length flexibility by offering a range of front-element adapter lenses for the E-10, that combine with the camera's built-in 4x zoom to give focal lengths equivalent to 28 to 420 mm in the film-based world. (And at impressively "fast" maximum apertures.) We had our hands on a full set of Oly lenses for only part of a day, but the few shots we took with them revealed them to be of very high optical quality, much better than we'd expected from front-element designs.
The E-10's SLR design works quite differently than traditional mirror-based SLRs, in that it uses a "beam splitter" to carry the image from the lens to the optical viewfinder and the CCD at the same time. The main benefit of this is that it allows a live preview image on the LCD in an SLR camera design. (The traditional SLR design, with a mirror to direct light to the viewfinder blocks the CCD when the optical viewfinder is in use, precluding a live preview image.) Oddly, there's still a brief "blackout" when the shutter trips though, which surprised us given the beam-splitter approach used. The camera features both an optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor for composing images, the optical viewfinder actually being a very fine-grained ground glass design that permits direct focus evaluation, the same as in a 35mm SLR. The 1.8 inch LCD monitor has the ability to pop up and off of the back panel, so that it can be tilted upwards 90 degrees or downward by about 20 degrees (beneficial when shooting from odd angles). Both viewfinders feature a fairly extensive information display, reporting the exposure values, modes, etc, as well as a histogram function that's available in all capture modes.
The E-10's built-in 4x, 9 to 36mm lens (35 to 140mm equivalent on a 35mm camera) features non-rotating 62mm filter threads for attaching conversion lens kits. Focus can be manually or automatically controlled, with a range from 1.97 feet (0.6m) to infinity in normal mode, and from 8.0 to 30.0 inches (0.2 to 0.8m) in macro mode. Zoom is manually controlled just as a film camera's lens would be, via a textured-rubber ring around the outside of the lens. A second adjustment ring at the end of the lens controls manual focus. We found these manual adjustment rings quite comfortable and familiar, very similar to a 35mm lens design.
Exposure control is quite extensive on the E-10, with Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes available. Apertures can be manually or automatically controlled from f/2.0 to f/11.0, depending on the zoom setting. In Manual mode, shutter speed ranges from eight to 1/640 seconds, with a Bulb setting for even longer exposures (up to 30 seconds maximum). The shutter speed range changes slightly in Shutter Priority mode, varying from two to 1/640 seconds. We regret that the maximum shutter speed was only 1/640 of a second, as this limits your exposure flexibility somewhat, especially in very bright or fast paced shooting situations. The inclusion of the Bulb exposure mode is a nice benefit though. (Even at the maximum programmed exposure time of 8 seconds, the E-10 is an incredible low-light performer.) In all four exposure modes, you maintain control over the remaining exposure features, with the exception of Manual mode, where the exposure compensation, metering mode, and AE Lock functions are not available because all exposure settings are being controlled manually.
The exposure compensation adjustment offers a wider range than most current digicams, with adjustments from -3 to +3 EV in 1/3 EV increments. The camera's metering system can be set to ESP (a matrix/multi-segment metering system), Spot, or Center, depending on the type of subject and the desired exposure effect. ISO is also manually adjustable, with options of Auto, 80, 160, or 320 sensitivity equivalents. An AE Lock button on the back panel allows you to lock the exposure reading for a specific part of the subject independently of the shutter release, providing even more flexibility with the exposure.
We were very pleased with the E-10's white balance capability, which offers three modes: Auto, Quick Reference (manual), or Preset. We've always wished that Olympus would offer a manual white balance option (seen once on the earlier C-2500L, but not again since), and the Quick Reference setting answers that need, allowing you to manually set the white balance by placing a white card in front of the lens. The Preset white balance mode lets you choose from a listing of Kelvin temperature settings, from 3,000 to 7,500 degrees, with each setting corresponding to a particular light source (the manual has a table of temperatures and values). Other image adjustments include sharpness and contrast, each allowing you to increase or decrease the effect. The E-10 features a built-in, pop-up flash that works in Auto, Slow Synchro, Red-Eye Reduction, Redeye Reduction with Slow Synchro, and Fill-in operating modes. You can adjust the intensity level of the flash from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3 EV increments. There are two ways to connect an external flash to the E-10, either with the hot shoe on top of the camera or the PC sync terminal on the side panel. Both the internal and external flash can operate at the same time, and the intensity setting applies to the external flash as well.
A Sequence shooting mode captures up to four full-resolution frames (even uncompressed TIFFs) at approximately three frames per second, and an auto bracketing feature takes three images at three different exposure values to help you get the right exposure. A Time-lapse Photography mode takes an infinite number of images (or as many as the memory card will allow), at set intervals from 30 seconds to 24 hours for as long as the batteries hold out. The E-10 also works with an infrared or a wired remote control (the wired remote allows you to halfway press the shutter button to set focus and exposure, a function that the infrared remote doesn't support).
For image storage, the E-10 can accommodate both SmartMedia and CompactFlash Type I or II memory cards, with dual slots on the side of the camera (a 32 megabyte SmartMedia card is included with the camera). Five resolution sizes are available from 2240 x 1680 pixels on down, and images can be saved in JPEG, uncompressed TIFF, or RAW data formats. An Olympus RAW File Import Plug-in for Adobe PhotoShop accompanies the camera, allowing you to process and color correct RAW files on a computer. A USB cable also comes with the camera, for speedy connection to a computer, and the Camedia Master 2.5 software package provides image downloading, organization, and minor correction capabilities (compatible with Macintosh and Windows operating systems). US and Japanese models come with an NTSC cable for viewing and composing images with a television set, and we assume that European models are equipped for PAL timing.
The E-10 can utilize several different power sources, with a sliding tray from the battery compartment holding either four AA alkaline, NiCd, or NiMH batteries, or two CR-V3 lithium ion battery packs. As an accessory, a vertical hand grip and battery pack accommodates the more powerful lithium polymer battery. An AC adapter is also available as an accessory, and highly recommended for tasks such as image downloading and playback.
We suspect some prospective professional users may turn away from the E-10 because it lacks interchangeable lenses, or the high shutter speeds and long "motor-drive" run lengths of high-end professional digital SLRs. Given its other sterling qualities though, as well as its low price (less than half the cost of the average pro digital SLR body alone), we think Olympus will sell every E-10 they can make. It has enough exposure control and features for professional applications, while providing enough automatic operation for less sophisticated users. The innovative SLR design, coupled with the four megapixel CCD puts the E-10 on the leading edge of the current digicam market.