Olympus E-1 Digital SLR

Unlike other major manufacturers, Olympus wasnāt saddled with an existing line of 35mm film camera lenses that require large and heavy camera bodies to support their size and weight. They had the freedom to design a 100% compact digital system from scratch, matching the camera body, lenses, and CCD sensor to each other.

Their new Four Thirds System gets its name from the way TV Vidicon tube sizes were designated in the 1950ās, but thatās the only connection to a bygone eraö everything else is leading-edge technology. Coincidentally, the aspect ratio of the image is also 4:3, so you can get perfectly proportioned prints on most standard paper sizes without trimming pixels off the top or bottom of your photo.

With an image diagonal of 22.3mm (just short of an inch), the 5MP sensor is 50% smaller than 35mm. Itās the second time in Olympusā history theyāve halved the 35mm frame size. In 1959 they came out with the Olympus Pen, a half-frame 35mm film camera, and sold over two million of them. Today, the E-1ās half-frame design offers some of the same advantages: smaller, lighter, wider-aperture lenses. And more. These are digitally-specific ćsmartä lenses that communicate with the CCD to achieve maximum performance.

The E-1 and its predecessor, the E-20 (whose CCD is 50% smaller), share almost identical body styles; thatās a good thing because the E-20 is known for its great balance and superb ergonomics. But thatās where the comparison ends. Internally, this is an entirely new camera and an industry breakthrough in many ways. Best of all, though, itās a camera thatās simple to use and wicked-fast.

The E-1ās Full Frame Transfer CCD has an active pixel area 1.5 times greater than Interline CCDs used on competitive cameras. Each pixelās surface is totally dedicated to image capture; part of it does not have to be reserved for ćhousekeepingä chores such as data transfer. Bottom line? Olympus says this feature allows the E-1 to deliver better dynamic range, exhibit lower noise levels, and capture more accurate colorö all of which results in higher image quality.

Unlike the E-20, which uses a beam splitter, you canāt preview the image on the LCD monitor because the E-1 has a conventional instant return mirror system (as do all pro single lens reflex cameras). You must frame your image through the cameraās eyepiece. Of course, you should do this anyway; it lets you preview your image without outside distractions. With the LCD monitor relegated to reviewing-only, the battery just lasts and lasts and lasts. So even though thereās an accessory battery pack that attaches to the E-1ās body (US $549 MSRP), you probably wonāt need it. Just start out with the standard Li-Ion battery (and a spare) and that should do just fine.

In addition to plunking down the street price of about US $1,800 for the camera body, youāll also have to acquire a lens. I used the Zuiko Digital 14ö54mm f-2.8/3.5 lens (US $500 street) with a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28ö 108mm (just double the numbers), an excellent general purpose lens. At 28mm it has great depth of field and takes in about 20% more than the 35mm wide ends found on most digicam zooms. At 108mm, itās a perfect focal length for portraits. Changing lenses on the E-1 requires just a simple twist. Each time you power up the camera, a supersonic wave filter vibrates ultrasonically for 200 milliseconds to remove (and trap) miniscule dust particles that may have settled on the sensor.

The E-1 uses Compact Flash memory or Microdrive, neither of which are included. I tried several ćfastä 512MB CF cards; Sandiskās Ultra II (US $ 170) gave the quickest processing time between shots. You can shoot in JPEG, TIFF, RAW or RAW+JPEG (both are recorded at the same time). Olympus supplies its Viewer software to process RAW images (which some pros now shoot regularly) and also includes a trial version of Studio that allows direct camera-to-computer shooting, bypassing the memory card. There are both USB and Firewire ports for image transfer (and remote-controlled studio operations), and a video-out port that can be set to either NTSC or PAL.

My quibbles about the E-1 are minimal. It would have been nice to have the optional IR remote control included with the camera. And a flash integrated into the camera body would also have been useful. The E-1 doesnāt come with a built-in flash ömost professional cameras donāt include oneö probably because most pros wouldnāt be caught dead using one. However for ćgrabä shots under low light conditions or occasional flash-fill, itās a useful feature and avoids having to attach an external unit. If you use flash, thereās a hot shoe for dedicated units such as Olympusā FL 20, 40, and 50 whose functions can then be controlled from the camera. Thereās also a standard ćPCä synch connection for studio strobes or third party flash.

Turn the camera on, and in less than a second, youāre ready to shoot. A large, locking, mode dial has four simple choices: program, aperture priority, shutter priority (60 seconds to 1/4,000th of a second), and manual. Shots can be fired at will, forget the half-press if you want toö the E-1 is faster than a conventional film camera. White balance is calculated through an external sensor (instead of through the lens) which reduces shutter lag and shot-to-shot time. You can shoot sequences at three frames-per-second up to 12 total. When you reach the limit, it takes about 20 seconds before you can shoot another dozen. But after just two seconds, you can continue shooting single pictures at normal intervalsö a huge improvement over the E-20.

Great attention has been paid to details on the E-1, the kinds that pros appreciate. Even if you donāt intend to slither through the Okeefenokee Swamp or claw you way up Mt. Everest, itās comforting to know that the cameraās magnesium alloy body is splashproof and would probably come out in better shape than you. Thereās also a locking memory card compartment to protect images while being processed, and an eyepiece shutter lever to block light from the viewfinder so pictures canāt be ruined during time exposures or when using the optional remote control. Best of all, menus are simple and straightforward, not labyrinthine like those on Olympusā consumer cameras that require a guide dog to lead you through them.

All pro cameras have different strengths and weaknesses, many of which are only discernable under testing conditions that usually bear no relationship to real-world results. In fact, Iāve yet to see any testing for shock and vibrationö that would be far more relevant considering the abuse pro cameras have to take. Be that as it may, the true measure of a professional camera should be how easy it is to use and the kinds of images it produces. Compared to other pro cameras in the E-1ās price range (and above), I can say without hesitation that this camera can stand toe-to-toe with any of them.

Model-Olympus E-1
List price-US$2,199
Sensor res-35 megapixels
Image dimensions-2560x1920 down to 640x480
Lens-Zuiko (not supplied)
Lens focal length-ESP, center-weighted, spot
Exposure metering-ESP, center-weighted, spot
Exposure modes-Program, AP/SP, manual
-8 minutes to 1/4000 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/- 5 EV in 1/3, 1/2 or full steps
Storage-CF Card (not included)
Focus-Auto with low light assist
LCD screen-1.5 inch TFT
Flash modes-All standard plus 1st/2nd curtain
Battery-Li-Ion, 7.2v, 1,500 mAh
Weight-1.6 lbs w/o lens and battery
Dimensions-5.6 x 4.1 x 3.2 inches

I shot with the E-1 for over a month and was impressed with its ease of handling and outstanding image quality. Instead of using the customary sRGB color space, I set the camera to shoot in Adobe RGB (1998) which gives a larger gamut of colors that many photo-quality inkjet printers can now reproduce. I shot the kinds of pictures that push a camera to its limits: scenes with flat shady foregrounds and bright contrasty backgrounds, metallic colors with specular highlights, dark details against darker backgrounds, mixed warm and cool light, and more.

Then I ran print after print, many of them 13 x 19 inches, through an Epson 2200 and they easily exceeded the quality usually associated with custom, high-end, silver halide film prints. Sharp, breathtakingly beautiful images with great dynamic range rolled out time after time. Fine detail was the order of the day; the pictures had the clarity of high mountain air. The E-1 had delivered the images that my mindās eye had seen at the time of shootingö no compromises.

By starting from scratch on their new, all-digital, Four Thirds System, Olympus has not been forced to jury-rig old technology to new. The E-1 is a professional, digital camera thatās highly sophisticated yet simple to use. After all, pros donāt want to bother with a lot of fol-de-rol; the shotās the thing. If thatās also your philosophy, the E-1 will give you better picture quality and more personal satisfaction than youāve ever thought possible.

Zuiko Lenses
Olympus has designed an entirely new series of Zuiko ćsmartä lenses for the E-1ās Four Thirds System. Lighter and more compact than standard 35mm lenses, they have built-in computer chips that transmit their specific characteristics to the camera. For example, if a particular lens type is prone to falling off (darkening) at the corners of the image, the camera knows it and can correct accordingly.

Similarly, the type and degree of pincushion or barrel lens distortion (which all lenses have), is encoded with the image and can be automatically corrected using software thatās supplied with the camera. According to Olympus, their ćdigitalä lenses have twice the resolving power of equivalent 35mm counterparts and are sharper at any given f-stop.

Olympusā ćdigital specific lensesä are also designed to bend light rays so that they hit sensors head-on, and not at an angle as conventional lenses do. Sensors love thisö itās like getting smooched on the lips instead of pecked on the cheek. It results in more accurate color, better dynamic range (details in both shadows and highlights) and reduced light fall-off at the edges of the frame.

An entirely new line of digital lenses will be available from Olympus over the next few years and word has it that third party lens makers are also gearing up. Zuiko lenses that are now available (listed in 35mm focal length equivalents and with the manufacturerās suggested price in U.S. dollars) are a 28ö108mm f-2.8/3.5 ($599), a 100ö400mm f-2.8/3.5 ($1,199), a 100mm f-2.0, 1:2 macro ($599), a 600mm, f-2.8 super telephoto ($7,999, whew!), and a 1.4X Teleconverter ($549) which goes between the cameraās body and the lens with a one-stop light loss (f-2.8, for example, becomes f-4, and so on).

I suggest you start with the 28ö108; itās an excellent all-around lens. It takes a 67mm filter size so if you move up from the E-20 youāll need a Tiffen 67-62mm step-down ring to use your old filters and close-up lenses, all of which will work fine. Then you might want to consider the Teleconverter which will extend its reach to 151mm or the 100ö400mm, great for wildlife. If you want to go wider, thereās a new 22ö44mm f-2.8/3.5 ($699) wide angle zoom that is also available.

Olympus E-1 features in a nutshell
š Adjustments for saturation, contrast, sharpness.
š White balance bracketing.
š Noise Filter: eliminates random noise that occurs during normal shooting.
š Noise Reduction: reduces noise generated by long exposures.
š Shading Compensation: lightens dark areas at image edges caused by certain lenses.
š Anti-Shock: eliminates mirror vibration during long exposures.
š Depth-of-field preview.
š Anti-blooming: eliminates halos and fringing where light and dark areas meet.
š Program Shift: allows lens and shutter speed changes in Program mode while maintaining the proper exposure relationship.
š ISO Boost: allows ISO settings of 1600 and 3200.
š AF Illuminator: emits light beam to improve focusing under low light.
š Slide show function.
š Record view: can display pictures just taken.

ö Arthur H. Bleich.



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