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Olympus E-1 Digital SLR 
by Joe Farace
On the runway at NYCís Fashion Week

The Olympus E-1 marks a departure in the way that digital SLR's have, up to this time, evolved. It's the first camera system that's been designed from the ground up-optics, accessories, the whole magilla-to capture images electronically and not on film. 

Other apparently similar systems from Nikon and Canon accept many of those company's extensive line of lenses, but purists will note that with some wide-angle lenses, the corners of the imaging chip are not given the same coverage as the rest of the frame because these lenses were originally intended for imaging onto film. To top it off, Olympus wraps this concept around the Four-Thirds system.

The Four Thirds System is an open digital standard for digital SLRs that have also been adopted by Kodak and Fuji, although neither has produced a camera using that design. (Who knows what PMA 2004 might deliver?) using a CCD chip with a diagonal measurement of 22.3mm that Olympus claims produces the "best size-to-performance benefits of any format". A statement which some might dispute.

Joe shooting at Indianapolis Motor Speedway using the Olympus E1 and mighty 300mm f2.8 lens. It delivers an effective focal length of 600mm while retaining the size and form factor of a conventional 300mm lens. Photo © John Rettie.

Nevertheless, Standardizing on the format allowed Olympus to develop a digitally specific camera system with digital specific, lenses, flashes, and SLR bodies that are smaller and more efficient than systems designed around existing 35mm systems. 

The lens multiplication factor for this system is 2X which means that the spectacular Digital Zuiko 300mm É2.8 lens I used at Indianapolis to photograph the United States Grand Prix is effectively a 600mm lens and the company's compact 1.4X extender turns it into the equivalent of 840mm making it ideal for sports, action, or and nature photography. Another feature of the Four Thirds System is a 4:3 image aspect ratio that seems designed for photographers who want to get an 8x10 from the E-1's files without cropping.

Sub 10 second F1 pit stops take practice. On the Friday before the race, the Scuderia Ferrari crew practices their moves. Image was shot from overhead shooting though a large glass window in the Ferrari F1 Club suite. 

Olympus E1 at ISO 400, 14-54mm f 2.8-35 Zuiko Digital zoom at f/4.5 with 1/640th of a second.

How Many Pixels Can Dance On the Head of a Pin? 
These days, the first question anyone asks about any new digital SLR is "how may megapixels is it."

During the 2003 US Grand Prix it rained, it poured, it stopped, and rained again. The drivers got wet, I got wet, they changed to rain tires but the E-1 never missed a beat with both of us soaked. 

E1 at ISO 400, 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital Zoom & 1.4X Digital TeleConverter, set at f4.0, 1/320th of a second. 

It ain't all that sharp but neither was I during the rain; I coulda' used a monopod which is highly recommended for this lens.

In the case of the Olympus E-1, the answer is five, the same as the company's E-20n, which to my way of thinking is a good thing, because that camera has been taken to the heart by many users because of its combination of value, image quality and rugged construction. But is the E-1 just an E-20n with interchangeable lenses?

Well, yes and no. There is more than a passing resemblance between the two camera bodies and both feature durable, weatherproof construction that I tested in the pouring rain at Indianapolis. The image quality reminds me much of the E20n as well, but the controls provided by the menus on the 1.8-inch preview screen on the E-1's back are much more extensive (maybe too extensive) and offers many more choices than Olympus' fixed lens E20n.

The Olympus E-1 adopts the form factor of a traditional 35mm film camera. While some of us would have preferred that form followed the look and feel of their elegant OM-2, I treated the E-1 like any 35mm film camera handholding it for almost all of my photography instead of tripod mounting it as I might with a view or medium format camera. 

As a Jaguar owner, Jaguar Racing is a sentimental favorite. This image was made in the JR racing garage during a break in practice on the day before the race. 

E1 at ISO 200, 14-54mm f 2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital Zoom set at f/3.5 at 1/50th of a second.

Olympus offers a Power Battery Holder that only provides a larger, high-capacity rechargeable battery and adds a built-in vertical grip with an additional shutter release making shooting vertical images steadier and easier to accomplish. Olympus claims a shutter lag time of 65milliseconds, which is the same as the E-20n and not quite up to professional film SLRs. Olympus specifications say to expect 300-400 shots for the standard Lithium-Ion battery, but I've gotten more than 700 image files from a single charge. It all depends on your "chimping" habits - how often you're reviewing your images on the LCD.

Under anything resembling normal lighting conditions the camera performed flawlessly, but when making available light nude images with strong backlighting, the camera was sluggish to focus and would often just sit there not letting me make images at all. This could be caused by the fact that there are only three AF points built into the camera.

Fortunately, those aforementioned menus let you set up the camera to work the way you want under any given situation. In this situation, I wanted to make sure when I pushed the shutter it captured an image, whether it was in focus or properly exposed or not. Consequently, not every photograph I made was in focus or well exposed but there was at least one serendipitous out-of-focus image that was delightfully soft focus.

Raw Hide 

Rubens Barrichello is Ferrari's number 2 driver; The winner of last year's USP he's both fast and a sparkling personality. 

I made this image indoors at the Ferrari Formula 1 club using an Olympus E1 at ISO 200, 50-200mm f 2.8-3.5 Zuiko Digital Zoom set at f/3.5 with 1/80th of a second and an Olympus FL-50 show-mount flash for fill.

To maximize image quality I tend to shoot fine art images in Olympus' .ORF (Olympus Raw Format) format. The E-1's 10MB RAW files are large, but the company claims a write time to a fast CompactFlash card (the E-1 is compatible with Lexar's 4GB model) of three seconds. It takes five seconds to write an uncompressed TIFF or least compression JPEG file that Olympus calls SHQ (Super High Quality.) Olympus provides Mac OS and Windows software that lets you view and convert these files to your preferred format but Adobe Systems' Photoshop CS easily reads. ORF, and provides a more versatile and extensive interface for producing the best possible images from your files. Downloading these large files was expedited by the camera's FireWire connectivity but USB1.1 and 2.0 connectivity are also built-in.

Real World Photography
Most of the image files I downloaded were clean, helped by the built in Supersonic Wave Filter that protects the imager from dust created by the interaction of the shutter with the elements. Under the demanding conditions at the US Grand Prix, none of the 10GB of images I captured with a preproduction model needed dust spotting, but some of the photographs made with a production camera I used under less demanding conditions had a few tiny dust specks.

At ISO 400 and working under low light conditions even the TIFF files I shot exhibited extremely fine but noticeable noise that is modulated by the E-1's built-in Noise Filter to produce what Olympus claims are "clear, clean files." The resulting noise may be caused by the E-1's small size image sensor, but with the noise reduction feature turned "off', noise at higher ISO's tended to be more noticeable. Unlike film grain, which can sometimes add an artistic effect, the random nature of digital noise tends to look just plain bad.

How close to the action will a 300mm f2.8 and 1.4X teleconverter get you to Michael Schumacher at work? This close when he pulled into the pits during practice on Saturday. It was made while standing on the BAR pit roof shooting down pit lane as Michael pulled in. 

Olympus E1 at ISO 200, 300mm f 2.8 Zuiko Digital lens and 1.4X TeleConverter set at f/5.6 with 1/1000th of a second.

Conclusion
The ruggedly constructed Olympus E-1 digital SLR feels and handles like a conventional film SLR. Image quality is what you would expect from a five megapixel imaging chip: great at low ISO, somewhat noisy at higher ones. Images are crisp and well resolved aided and abetted by a series of sharp digital Zuiko lenses. The E-1 is a clean slate camera that's intended for the photographer who doesn't already have an arsenal of lenses that can be used with another brand's digital SLR, and one who appreciates the E-1's purity of design and attention to detail.

Joe keeps drawing the toughest assignments...

Photo © Min Tak

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