Olympus E-1 User Report
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This User Report has been written by my English friend, a long-time photographer and classic Olympus expert/collector, John Foster. It supplements the information and opinions from my review, adding to it a different angle. To repay John for annotating my review with his comments, I've added my annotations to some of his statements, in each case marking them clearly as such.
|(Pictures by Olympus)|
Taking the E-1 out of its box you see it’s a meaty lump of camera. With everything fitted, lens, hood, filter, battery and CF card, it weighs 1.3 kg or nearly 3 lb. Its physical size takes some getting used to and (for me) after diminutive OM it comes as quite a shock. If I'd kept up with technology by buying Canon/Nikon AF SLR offerings this transition would be less traumatic.
For all its size and weight the camera feels right. I've handled the Canon 1Ds with grip, and that puts the E-1 size into proper perspective.
What strikes you as you turn it around is the quality it exudes. Every button, knob and switch feels like it will last forever. There’s nothing that says "be careful, I'll break." The lengths the designers have gone to in delivering the E-1 are remarkable. Shape, sculpture, texture, coverings, button placement, layout; it all seems so straightforward, so well thought out, so simple. Good design is inevitably taken for granted; we only complain when something is designed badly.
First thing is to charge the BLM-1 battery. The charger is fast and simple to operate. An optional, faster charger is available at a fairly high cost; I think a spare battery will satisfy my needs instead.
There’s a large "idiot chart" that walks you through the first steps, and a mini-manual that will not keep your attention for long enough to see the battery charged. An E-System chart is also provided, and an introduction to the bundled software: Olympus Viewer and Olympus Studio. Install the Viewer but not Studio; this is a 30-day, time-limited demo only so don't waste precious days. You could also print out the PDF-based manual now.
By the time you've had a browse through the software, the battery is ready. The E-1 comes with no storage media so you'll need a Compact Flash card or a Microdrive. MD’s are slow, power-hungry, and delicate; fast, solid-state CF is now very affordable.
I used this enforced waiting time to consider my options. Knowing I can alter most parameters is convenient, but should I rush straight in? I decided to leave the camera on full factory defaults to start with. At least this way I'll have a baseline to judge any alterations against.
The battery is ready and the CF card installed. Time to familiarize myself with the basic controls.
The shutter button is soft-touch and the half-press easily found, unlike some I've tried. The shutter sound is unusual and rather nice — a sort of gas-damped "vav-oosh". The viewfinder image is smaller than I’d expected, but bright and clear. I instantly recognize the 3:4 aspect from my half-frame days, except that on the E-1 it is in landscape. A tweak on the dioptre knob is necessary, and here I'm surprised to see the adjuster is not lockable. However, in its position it is unlikely to be moved accidentally.
Viewfinder information is directly beneath the screen; half-press the shutter to light it up. Just right: reminiscent of the OM, but in green; comfortable. You don't have to peer into the corners to see either the edge of screen or display. It looks as though the prism could accommodate much more. A large exit pupil and high position make it very eye-friendly. The rubber eyepiece is pleasing, the eyepiece shutter mechanism precise. Nice!
First images: first problems
This smug euphoria can't last. My first fifty images of house and garden are duly transferred to the computer and eagerly viewed in PhotoShop. Whilst they appeared fine on the E-1 monitor I am disappointed to see soft, blurry images, dark and dingy. "Oh dear" (or similar), I say. Compared to my C-5050 these are not good.
Andrzej: Strange. John was playing with the camera on a gloomy, overcast day, and we know how the weather is in England. I shot just twenty or so frames with an E-1 within the first session, and was not disappointed, as long as I was taking normal precautions (not letting the sky fool the metering, for example).
OK, I need to tweak the settings. More garden shots and some improvement, but, hey, this is a flagship camera, where are the results? My immediate concern is the apparent lack of sharpness. Some of this is down to me (good old camera shake), but the rest? Surely not. Alarmed, I phone the help line, to be suitably reassured that a firmware upgrade will improve matters.
Andrzej: I found the sharpness (with the original firmware) to my liking at the default, zero setting — but in all previous Olympus cameras I had to keep it below default. I am a little bit paranoid about oversharpening artifacts (among others: white "bounces" at high-contrast lines), as once this happens, you cannot do much. Adjusting the sharpness in postprocessing takes ten or twenty seconds, and I'm in full control, being able to add as much as I need before any artifacts arise.
After a poor start, within 2 days I have the various parameters tweaked to my liking and having had the new sharpening setting turned right up, I knocked it back two or three notches. My confidence returns. Soon I am happily resetting parameters back to factory default and tweak again (an excellent way of learning). My teething problems were due to (a) no serious SLR work for 2 years and (b) my being accustomed to over-sharpened images from the C-4040 and latterly C-5050, tweaked over many months. My E-1 is soon competing and rapidly leaves the C-series standing — as you'd expect. The euphoria returns, but I'm not so smug!
You've probably read much about the E-1 controls. All I can add is these are as near a set of perfect controls as you could desire. Drawing from many years of interface implementation, Olympus has struck a good balance here between "photographic" functions you need to adjust often being on camera and "feature" functions used only occasionally being in the menu.
It is impossible to accidentally alter any control. To alter a setting requires a use of a button with another button or command wheel. In one review I read this was a "pro" requirement; to me this is an essential requirement. Whatever your settings were, when you shut down they are duplicated at next switch on. Simple, effective and intuitive. I think so, but I've read reviews that dissent quite violently from this opinion.
LCD command screen
Built into the top plate, slightly angled backwards and anti glare coated is the command panel. This shows at a glance your chosen settings. There seem to be two rules here: if it flashes, it wants correcting, is out of range, or is in use; if it doesn't flash, it is set. Whatever you alter on camera has an appropriate icon here, and as you "dial" through the options with a wheel, the icons change. No excuse for having the E-1 set inappropriately.
For example: press the metering button and dial through the 3 choices; there is a separate icon for ESP, centre-weighted, and spot.
Surprisingly, the one parameter not displayed is ISO setting; you have to press the ISO button to confirm. This is a minor niggle, but one all the same.
The LCD panel can be illuminated, and in a nice touch, with the FL-50 flash attached the LCD light button also lights the display on the flash.
For those who might think the command panel LCD is a less preferable option than a monitor display of the same — it’s not. A monitor display of command settings is not an option, but a necessity.
We take for granted the amount of unseen research and development that goes into digital hardware. For the E-1 Olympus designed an entirely new micro-prism pattern screen in an effort to reduce the Moire phenomenon. (Moiré is that peculiar "watered silk" effect caused by two overlapping, periodic patterns.) Olympus used new "deformed octagonal structure" technology in the E-1 screen to reduce this effect. How do we react? We say "this screen is a bit small."
Andrzej: I believe the best way to avoid Moiré patterns is to randomize the structure of the screen. After all, the old, good groundglass (where grinding was producing a randomly-patterned surface) never had this problem, but it was too dark. The modern, brighter screens use a pattern of microlenses for better light efficiency; randomizing it should put Monsieur Moiré to rest. Is this what Olympus did?
Two screens are available; the standard FS1 and the grid screen, FS2. I have the latter on order, not because I'm dissatisfied with the FS1; I simply prefer grid screen markings for composition and architectural shots. (The FS1 has a long name for such a little piece: "Neo-Lumi-Micron-Matte-11.")
How fast is E-1?
These are my primitive timings. I believe few of us can accurately sense a 1/10th second difference, so forgive me if I report things in big lumps of time like half seconds.
The CF card used above was of the less-known Muse brand: 1GB, 40x speed rating. Using a Lexar card rated at 80x with write acceleration resulted in buffer flush times of 26.3 s (SHQ), 37 s (RAW), and 57.3 s (TIFF), i.e., similar values (thanks to Olympus Europe for this information).
More on E-1 write speed
According to Olympus, the E-1 writes at 5.4-6 MB/s maximum. This translates into to 36-40x CF speed rating. Thus a difference between an 8x CF and a 36x one will be visible, while further card speed increase should bring no improvement.
I can confirm this: a 2 GB, 60x SanDisk Ultra II card was actually 5% slower than the 1 GB, 40x Muse one, or the 512 MB PQI F1, rated at 40x. (The 5% drop probably reflects the size of the card Affecting controller operations.) For comparison, writing a RAW file to an 8x SanDisk standard CF card took five times longer to the cards mentioned above.
Conclusion: For E-1 40x CF cards are fine; using faster ones, even with write acceleration technology, shows no benefit.
The E-1 has a propensity to under-expose in many situations. While I understand the rationale behind the decision (highlight preservation), I'm not over-enthusiastic about it as a characteristic. The Olympus technical advice of "apply compensation" might be valid, but not enlightening — no pun intended.
Since discovering this trait, I've tried to evaluate what the camera is actually doing. Having studied the metering rationale and trying several "standard" workarounds for each metering mode in differing conditions, I concluded that none worked wholly satisfactorily. My advice for E-1 users is:
Andrzej: My limited experience with the E-1 (and more extensive one with the E-300 which uses, I believe, a similar metering system) shows that these cameras require the usual amount of photographer's intervention into the process i.e., applying some exposure compensation and/or AE lock. No amount of automation will replace here a photographer behind the camera, and with some experience this intervention becomes a second nature.
This said, I have to admit that non-SLR digital cameras, which use the image sensor itself for light metering, are (at least in principle) capable of doing a better job in terms of protecting extreme areas of the image from burning out or getting lost in shade.
The E-1 firmware as shipped offers the user 7 levels of sharpness. You already know my experience with initial sharpness — and I'm obviously not alone, as the firmware update addresses this by enhancing the selectable levels to 9, so the new scale is from -3 to +5.
I am not sure if the original 7 levels were retained and two extra ones bolted on, or the whole in-camera sharpening algorithm was altered in the new firmware. I suspect the latter, as I tended to use settings near maximum before the upgrade (being still unhappy), and after the upgrade I settled down between +1 and +3.
Much depends on the subject and effect you seek. I'm not making any suggestions other than the obvious — if you want to reduce post-processing time, apply harder sharpening.
Andrzej: Once again, check for yourself what amount of in-camera sharpening do you want to apply (unless you save images in the raw format). While strong sharpening may look better under a casual inspection, I would still recommend to be on the safe side, applying less of it.
OM Zuiko Lenses on the E-1
Still shrouded in a veil of secrecy is the fact that Olympus gave away the MA-1 adapter to E-1 buyers, allowing them to use OM Zuiko (OMZ) lenses on the new camera. This offer ended in Europe on 30th November, 2004. Olympus dealers will however sell you the MA-1 for €200. There are also several makers offering adapters for E-1 (one being by Kindai, priced at $150.00), and not limited to OM Zuiko mount either.
If you have already got the MA-1, fine, you need little further information. If you haven't, it is too late anyway — you'll have to buy one to use OMZ lenses.
Andrzej, April 2006: The MA-1 has been since replaced with a similar MF-1, sold by Olympus at $100 (in the U.S.).
The OM Zuiko option is of major importance to some and of no consequence to others, depending on your lens baggage. For me it was major. Having almost a full stable of OMZ lenses put together over many years, it seemed a digital body that could exploit them was a logical and financially sound move.
I bought the MA-1 adapter long before I bought an E-1. (This is known in the U.K. as "just in case, my dear" syndrome.) I went through several major testing sessions of OMZ lenses on the E-1, and this will be a subject of another article.
Andrzej: I just bought on eBay a few 1.8/50 OM Zuikos for myself and friends; they should make great portrait lenses (equivalent to 3.5/100 on a 35-mm film camera from the viewpoint of image angle and depth of field).
Olympus flash guns that integrate with E-1 are: FL-20, FL-36 (new), and FL-50. Of these, I have the FL20 and FL50.
The smaller FL20 is restricted but simplicity itself to use, easy to slip into your pocket, and has adequate oomph for daylight fill-in and most everyday applications. It has a fixed head, therefore a "caught in headlamps" syndrome can apply.
At the other end, the flagship FL-50 is an incredible piece of electronics. Integration with the E-1 body is total. It has everything you could want and more. I can't fault it. Though I've no experience of performance against other models, I've heard it said the FL50 is amongst the top three guns offered by any of the big camera and/or flash manufacturers.
Andrzej: The FL-40 works with with the E-1 (TTL mode, the only missing thing is high-speed synchronization). This is different than with the E-300!
Use of some, but not all, legacy OM flashes on the E-1 is possible (with limitation), and is a subject deep enough for its own article.
OK, the E-1 does not rank amongst the high-end Canon & Nikon offerings if you judge it by specifications, review opinions, or commercial hype.
OK, I'm an Olympus fan, but I've criticized Olympus in the past and in this article, so I'm not entirely tame.
OK, the E-1 has its share of shortcomings, just like all the others; every camera is a compromise.
These OK’s said, I can express my opinion, for what it’s worth.
The E-1 deserves more applause than it’s had. Ergonomically, its feel and handling are soon second nature and this machine rapidly becomes a natural part of the photographer. This is an immeasurable quality and the E-1 has it in large amounts. It is a high-class, beautifully crafted precision tool that is not in any major sense constrained by its specifications.
Photography is about the ability to see and capture a moment in time. At some point in this process the photographer ends and the camera begins. Wherever that point occurs, the E-1 can be trusted to deliver its part of the synergy.
I doubt I've pushed the camera to its limits; I'm not a professional. But I have keen eyes and an acute sense of criticism that tells me if it is me or the machine that errs. Score so far? Well, put it this way, I'm almost whitewashed! (UK expression: Whitewash — defeat without allowing any opposing score).
Andrzej: I've put some images on a separate E-1 samples page. Unfortunately, none of these were taken in my standard, if not controlled, environment (the Crofton pond), so they are not directly comparable to samples from the E-300 or other cameras I was able to run through the procedure. Before you draw any conlusions, have a look at the excellent set of E-1 image samples by Steve Jenkins of Steve's Digicams.
Generally: the 14-54 mm zoom is really sharp; it could easily take advantage of a higher pixel count. The autoexposure is OK, as long as you do not treat the E-1 like a point-and-shoot camera. I have experienced occasional problems with the white balance (possibly addressed in firmware updates), but, as with any camera, I would rather recommend settiong WB manually for outdoor shooting.
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