The New Olympus E-400

An E-500 on a diet?

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

Just a few notes on the upcoming E-400 SLR from Olympus, comparing it against its predecessor, the E-500. The camera has been released in Europe in November of 2006; it was never officially sold in the United States.

See also a hands-on preview of a pre-production camera, including samples, by Lukasz Kacperczak.


Just before the '2006 Photokina, Olympus announced their new offering, called E-400.

As with the other brands, the main distinguishing feature is more megapixels; more exactly, 10 MP is fashionable these days, and if you offer less, the measurebators in online discussion forums will accuse your mama of wearing Army boots.

Here are my brief comments on this camera, based on manufacturer's specifications: keep in mind that, living in the States, I've never used the E-400.

See also the E-330/E-400 system chart.

(Picture by Olympus)

Changed from the E-500

While the "official" technical specifications are not as detailed as I would like them to be, combined with my experience with the preceding models they may be enough to derive some expectations and opinions (not to say speculations) on the E-400. As I'm already getting emails asking what do I think about this camera (without even seeing it in flesh), let me share this information with you.

Before going into detailed discussion, here is a table, listing the differences between the E-400 and the E-500. All specifications not listed in this table should be assumed to be the same.

Feature E-500 E-400 Remarks
Body weight 435 g 375 g 60 g does not seem like much, but it does make a difference, especially with lighter lenses.
Body size (W×H×D) 1309566 mm 1309153 mm Smaller, but just by 3.5 mm in the vertical dimension only. The difference in depth is due to the absence of the protruding grip and battery compartment in the new model.
Sensor 8 MP CCD 10 MP CCD It is unclear who makes the CCD. Obviously, Olympus decided to stick to CCD sensors, not CMOS ones (used in the E-330 only) in their SLRs. For a number of reasons, this is what I prefer. But look: no Kodak this time!
Image size 3264×2448
7.62 MP
7.99×106 pixels
3648×2736
9.52 MP
9.98×106 pixels
The "MP" shown are binary megapixels, with "mega" standing for 220 or 1,048,576, as customary in computer applications. When used with units of measurement, "mega" means 106, or 1,000,000, and the bottom line shows the pixel count that way.
Internal flash GN = 13 m
(at ISO 100)
GN = 10 m
(at ISO 100)
The flash light output is proportional to the square of the guide number (GN); therefore the E-400 has a flash providing about 1.7 times less output, more than a casual look at the numbers would suggest.
Battery Li-Ion: BLM-1 (10.8 Wh) Li-Ion: BLS-1
(8.3 Wh)
The "Wh" (Watt-hour, or Joule) rating shows the total energy stored in the battery. It is more meaningful than the common Ah (amp-hour) value, as it also includes the voltage, by which the Ah rating has to be multiplied to arrive to the energy stored.
Wired remote None RM-UC1
(Optional)
The remote uses the Video/USB socket on the back (!) of the E-400.
Image file formats ORF, JPG, TIFF ORF, JPG I'd not miss the TIFF option, having used it once in the last five years; the 1:2.7 JPEGs are practically as good, saving a lot on card space.

Is this it? Just 25% more megapixels, 23% less battery juice and smaller size? Well, this seems to be the case: the E-400 looks like the E-500 taken on a diet — in spite of being a totally new model, with very few, if any, subassemblies shared with its predecessor.

There are also some changes in the user interface, but before I get to those, let me comment on some of the differences listed above.

  • More pixels: the 25% increase can be translated in a 12% one in terms of pixels per image width or height. Yes, you may see less pixelization when inspecting a 30×40 cm (12×16") print with your nose touching the paper, but usually images should be viewed, except for smallest sizes, from a distance equal to the format diagonal. This is why I stopped worrying about the pixel count when it reached 5 MP or more; at higher values other factors (lens, depth of field, camera shake) are more significant in defining the image sharpness.

    Therefore I don't consider this to be a real advantage of the E-400 over the E-300, E-330, or E-500. Olympus had to do that mostly for marketing reasons.

  • Size and weight: almost entirely a matter of taste. Some people find the E-500 too small for their liking; for me the E-1 is too large. Certainly, the smaller, lighter model will appeal to a large segment of its intended market, especially equipped with the new "kit" zoom lenses, which underwent a similar transformation from their predecessors.
  • No hand grip: again, de gustibus non disputandum. In the film SLR era, hand grips did not start appearing until they were needed to house larger batteries, for which simply was no room in the traditional SLR body (remember: those had to have film compartments on both body ends!). Having grown used to the SLRs of the golden Eighties era, I never missed them. Oh, well, Olympus thinks the E-400 will be better off without one, take it or leave it but also see the next item.
  • Smaller battery: indeed, and lighter, too, but at the expense of losing 23% of energy storage. But wait, this is just 23%, not a lot. We do not know how power-hungry the E-400 is, so we cannot tell how many frames will a single charge last. While the circuitry has to push through the pipes 25% more information per image, this is becoming more efficient every year.

    Still, I would prefer the E-400 using the trusty BLM-1 powering all other E-System cameras, even at the expense of increased weight and a necessity for a hand grip (some might find the latter an advantage). This would make it more convenient to use the E-400 as a second body along with another Olympus SLR — using the same batteries between both, traveling with just one charger.

    Both batteries use the same chemistry and have the same voltage; at least a single charger accepting both types would help here.

  • Weaker flash: The difference is about 0.75 EV (1 EV corresponds to opening the aperture by one F-stop wider, or doubling the exposure time). This is just a tad less output than the E-300 has. Some compromises had to me made to accommodate the smaller battery, still providing a respectable number of shots with flash; nothing comes free.

    While even semi-serious photographers use the built-in flash only in emergencies (or as a fill-in), most of the buyers at which Olympus addresses the E-400 will never buy the external FL-36 (or any other model), so they would be better with the GN of 13 in the E-500. They are, however, also unlikely to know what the guide number is, and what you do not know, you do not regret.

  • Wired remote: this is something I'm badly missing on the E-500. Olympus specifies that it works only with the E-400, but I hope (just hope!) this may not be the case, and it may also work with the E-500, possibly after a firmware upgrade. At this moment no such claims can be made.

    After all the Olympus Studio application uses the same port to trip any Olympus SLR (and not only) remotely, so the E-500 does respond when the proper control sequence is sent to it via the USB interface. Not supporting this camera in the RM-UC1 would not be a smart move.

Controls

Now let us have a look at the changes in ergonomics and external controls. Some of these were necessitated by the smaller body, others might have been intended as evolutionary improvements.

As I will be referring a lot to the E-500, here is a similar picture, showing control locations for that model.

First of all, the lens in the E-400 is located more towards the center of the body. On the E-500 it was shifted more to the left. I preferred that solution, as with my eye at the viewfinder eyepiece (which has to be aligned above the lens center) my nose does not stick into the LCD monitor. Small joys of life.

The new E-410 has the same body layout, and trying it out confirmed my criticism voiced above.

As in the E-500, the camera back contains most of the external controls except for the mode dial (with the on/off switch lever) and the exposure compensation button, located close (but not dangerously so) to the shutter release.

(Pictures by Olympus)

There is now room on the left end of the top deck, so two buttons have been moved there: flash mode/activation and drive mode. These are not used so often anyway, so I consider the change not important. Note that now the aligned buttons at the left all are related to the LCD panel: image review and deletion, menu and Control Panel activation.

The autofocus/autoexposure lock button remains where it was in the E-500: to the right of the eyepiece. This is a good location; easy to reach but not to be pressed by accident.

Two buttons at the top-right corner are now gone. In the E-500 they were used (by default, at least) for reference WB measurement and for AF point selection. I can live without them, or almost so. The reference WB button is nice if you use this function (I do), but it was prone to unintended activation. Oh, well.

The circular arrow button cluster looks similar as on the E-500, with one significant difference: the arrow buttons no longer serve a dual purpose: screen navigation when the menu system is used or Control Panel active, and direct access to some adjustments otherwise. This, being a non-modal design, may be more intuitive and easier, at least until you get familiar with the camera.

The functions which no longer have their own dedicated buttons (these include, in addition to reference WB and AF spot selection mentioned above. four more: white balance, focus mode, ISO, and metering pattern) are now accessible after pressing the FN button to the right of the LCD monitor.

It may sound unexpected, but I'm not missing direct access to these six functions. The excellent Control Panel which can be displayed at the LCD monitor gives not only a quick overview of all settings (at least those likely to be changed from one picture to another), but also any setting can be quickly selected with the arrow keys and then adjusted with the control dial. This is, on the E-500 at least, a better and more complete control interface than in any digital camera I've tried, and I've tried quite a few. Omitting this feature would seriously cripple the E-400, so I'm glad it has been retained. Actually, Olympus could also send the drive mode to the angels, and I would not be complaining. The two basic functions which absolutely have to be accessed externally are exposure compensation and AE/AF lock (well, maybe also flash mode).

Contrary to appearances, the E-400 still retains a quick access to spot-metering mode: it can be combined with the exposure lock. This makes sense: Using spot metering without exposure locking is not really useful: how often do you have an 18% reflectancy point smack in the middle of your frame? Spot metering, by definition, requires choosing a point to meter on, locking the exposure, and re-composing — and this is how it works in the E-400, if you preset the camera this way.

Generally, I consider the streamlined controls in the E-400 a good job: the control access is as fast (or almost so) as in the E-500, but less intimidating for a casual user (or a person who tries the camera in a store). They may look worse on paper, but in actual use the new system may be actually a bit better than that in the E-500.

A tiny but welcome change: the meaningless "HyperCrystal LCD" blurb beneath the monitor has been replaced with the Olympus logo. I've been ridiculing Olympus (and not only) for such practices for a long time, and finally they decided to yield. A small thing? Maybe, but much better now.

The good stuff, retained

OK, so we are done with the changes from the E-500, and I hope the list is complete. Now let me briefly list the most important features which are identical on both cameras.

  • The Four Thirds standard. I believe in that standard and I consider most of its criticism misguided. I hope it is here to stay, but this remains to be seen.

    I'm not buying an SLR to have to imagine how my image will compose cropped to any typical print size (besides 4×6"); the 4:3 aspect ratio is much better. As compared to the APS-C format, I don't believe the 15% difference in linear size (measured vertically, i.e., cropped as mentioned above) affects noise to any significant measure. The only thing I may be missing (but that compared to the 24×36 mm frame, not APS-C again) is the shallow depth of field which can be used for creative purposes, but let's face it: much more often we suffer pictures not sharp enough rather than those with the background not blurred enough. Yes, we can discuss differences between the full 35-mm frame and Four Thirds or APS-C, but not between the two latter.

  • Ultrasonic dust remover. It really works. Lo and behold, Canon ("what dust problem?") just introduced this in the new Digital Rebel XTi, a.k.a. 400D (which I consider to be the first Rebel really worth a closer look), and so did Sony in their new Alpha 100 (another attractive offering).
  • Luminance and RGB histograms, useful if you know what you're doing; not coming into your way if you don't. Another E-500 feature only now being introduced by the competition.
  • JPEG compression: wide choice of compression factors, if you do not shoot raw (and most people don't).
  • Two card slots: The camera can use a CompactFlash card and an xD-Picture one at the same time. Not really important, but I like this feature.
  • Image conversion adjustment: sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation (high-key, normal, low-key), in addition to user-adjustable and persistent "color modes". Actually, I pre-set my three color "films" this way and only then switch between them on the run. Another Olympus feature being only now introduced by the competing makers.
  • 2.5" color LCD monitor: very good and sharp (210 thousand sub-pixels), although I would like to see an anti-reflective surface.

The bad stuff, still here

This much about the good inheritance of the new model. Now the gripes I had about the E-500 which remain not addressed in the E-400, listed in the order of decreasing importance (at least from where I stand):

  • Small viewfinder display: Reportedly as small as in the E-500, visibly worse than in the E-300. The eye relief also seems to be not too generous, about which I keep complaining on behalf of all glass-wearers.
  • Hot shoe placement: it is still impossible to use the built-in flash as a fill with a bounced external unit mounted in the hot shoe.
  • USB 2.0 interface with USB 1.1 speed. The "High speed" interface would be nicer than the current "Full speed" (which is not the full speed the 2.0 standard is capable of). I developed a habit of making myself a coffee when uploading a day's worth of shooting to a computer.
  • No flash socket. A minor gripe, but still.

The new kit lenses

Together with the E-400 Olympus is introducing two matching zooms, covering 95%, maybe more, of the needs of users likely to buy this camera. Obviously, they can be used with any E-System body (or with the Panasonic L1 or the upcoming Leica Digilux 3), and any Four-Thirds lens can be used with the E-400.

The two "kit" lenses sold for the previous E-System models were covering together the focal length range from 14 to 150 mm (equivalent to 28-300 mm in the film SLR terms), but, most probably, Olympus felt that they were too large for the smaller, lighter E-400 body. In a somewhat surprising development, the new duo covers the same range, differing mostly in size and weight.

Here they are, the new zooms compared to the older ones — which, I hope, will remain in production, as they should be slightly better optically (nothing comes free):

Lens Focal length Max. aperture Min. focus Size (D×L) Weight Filter
"New" standard zoom 14-42 mm F/3.5-5.6 25 cm 6661 mm 190 g 58 mm
"Old" standard zoom 14-45 mm F/3.5-5.6 38 cm 7187 mm 285 g 58 mm
"New" tele zoom 40-150 mm F/4.0-5.6 90 cm 6672 mm 220 g 58 mm
"Old" tele zoom 40-150 mm F/3.5-4.5 150 cm 77107 mm 425 g 58 mm

As you can see, the differences in length are considerable, and those in weight — even more so. Also note better close-focusing capability for both new lenses. On the flip side, the new tele zoom has smaller maximum apertures (greater F-numbers), with the disadvantage ranging from 1/3 EV at the short end to 2/3 EV at the long one. Again, nothing comes free.

The reduced weight of the new lenses comes at a price of less robust construction, including a plastic mount. The users who change lenses occasionally only will not see the difference, but others (including myself) may. Still, what I like about Olympus is that they would rather cut down the specs than optical performance; their track record clearly indicates that, and I hope this also will be the case with the new lenses. When and if I use them, I'll be able to say more.

Update of October, 2007: And, indeed, I am — having used both lenses on the new E-410 and E-510 for a couple of months. My general experience supported with two semi-formal tests indicates that both new "kit" zooms provide better resolution than their older counterparts; visibly better. This is quite amazing, achieved in spite of the weight and size reduction; probably helped by use of low-dispersion glass and (in the case of 14-42 mm) aspherical elements. Most impressive.

While some people question the reasons behind duplicating two existing (and good) economy lenses, note that a two-lens E-400 outfit including both "kit" lenses will weigh about 360 g less than a similar E-500 outfit with the two older zooms. This is quite a difference.

Last but not least, it is nice that Olympus did not go the easy way, bundling the camera with the "super-economy) 17.5-45 mm zoom. While, in spite of lightweight construction, and plastic mount, this lens is quite respectable optically (see John Foster's comparison), the 28 mm EFL of the new standard zoom is a significant advantage over the 35 mm EFL of that lens.

Pre-production samples

The Polish photo site Fotopolis has published, with distributor's permission, the first samples from a pre-production E-400. The (authorized) English translation can be found here.

My first close look indicates that colors and tonality are accurate, lens sharp enough for the pixel count, too much in-camera sharpening (this can be remedied by tuning it down in the camera settings). Per-pixel noise (especially in the shadows) quite visible at ISO 200 and higher (used in most of the samples), but not disturbingly so; remember that the this will undergo less magnification than in case of cameras with smaller pixel count. On the plus side, unlike in some competing models, I don't see any excessive dynamic noise reduction, leading to the somewhat artificial "Saran wrap look".

In general, something I would expect from the E-500, maybe the saturation is a bit lower, more natural.

Remember that the samples are from a pre-production stage; the firmware is still being tweaked. The final results may be, if anything, only better.

Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to show any samples, as I haven't used the camera. Some samples accompany the E-400 preview published here, more can be found at the DP Review site.

Availability

Surprisingly, the E-400 has not been released on the American and Japanese markets, at least not now (and the new lenses were introduced here only with the E-410 and E-510 in 2007). According to Olympus, the E-500 is selling well in the States, and there is no need for a new model here.

This is a strange explanation, as I cannot imagine how a co-existence of two, even similar, models in Japan or in the States could hurt Olympus sales. Is Europe so different? Actually, if there is a difference, it may be in the opposite direction, with the U.S. suffering more of the "if it is more than a year old, it's crap" syndrome.

October, 2007: I just suspect that the real reason was a bottleneck in the production process. In any case, the camera has been replaced with the E-410, available worldwide, using the same form factor (although with an entirely different imaging pipeline).

Conclusions (?)

The proof is in the pictures, and the first samples from a pre-production E-400 look quite good in spite of the firmware still being tweaked. Based on these, I would expect the camera to deliver images as good as these from the E-500. Maybe the colors are a bit different, closer to the Canon flavor and slightly colder, but I would think this can be easily adjusted with WB compensation; also, the samples were shot near noontime (when I usually keep my camera stored in its bag).

Another disclaimer: these are casual observations; I would need to shoot some samples myself, under conditions I'm used to, to voice any stronger opinion.

The chromatic aberration seems to be exceptionally well-controlled, noise at higher ISO settings is moderate if not impressively so (some competing models may have less of it at the expense of more in-camera filtering), and, first of all, the inexpensive kit lenses are much better than their price range would indicate.

Generally, the camera can be described as a smaller, lighter E-500 with just more megapixels and a few simplifications, mostly in the external controls, which I do not find objectionable. I hope it will sell well, as it deserves that.

If you are a current E-500 user, do not be tempted to "upgrade" (assuming you are living where the E-400 will be available); better buy a good lens. If you have another E-System body and would like to have one more, carefully consider the pros and cons of the E-400 versus the E-500, and make sure to handle both before making a commitment. Depending on your taste and preferences, one or another may be a better choice. A similar advice can be given to those who would like to get an Olympus model as their first SLR. In either case, you will not be disappointed.

Web references

  • A hands-on preview on the Polish site Fotopolis.pl includes a number of samples. The article is in Polish, which happens to be my native language, so here is the English translation, with the samples presented in my customary way (posted with permission).
  • Let's Go Digital has a comprehensive E-400 preview with lots of detailed pictures of the camera.
  • Kai Thon of the Norwegian digit.no Web site was able to secure a pre-production E-400; here is his First Impression article.
  • Another hands-on experience with the E-400, including samples, on another Polish photosite, Fotal.pl.

    Looks like Olympus Poland was quite liberal allowing for publication of pre-production samples. Why not? If you don't make them available, we will expect the worst...

  • At his moment, the popular all-in-one digital photography sites are limited to the Olympus press release and a few pictures of the camera. You may want to check Steve's Digicams or DPReview for that.

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2006/09/15; last updated 2009/02/11 Copyright © 2006-2009 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak