Although already officially announced at the Photokina 2002 as a co-operation between Kodak and Olympus, it would take until late 2003 before the Four-Thirds System finally materialised as the 5-megapixel Olympus E-1 digital camera.
The idea behind the concept was to develop a completely new system that would fully exploit the possibilities that digital technology offers. At the heart of the idea was an agreement between major manufacturers to set a new standard, which established common design rules for a new camera system. The most important of these are a common lens mount, as well as a common communication protocol between lenses and body ensuring that lenses from different makers will have full functionality and are completely interchangeable. Another standard that is laid down is the image circle diameter defining the diagonal dimension of the image as 22,3mm. Olympus have used an 18x13,5mm CCD developed by Kodak giving an aspect ratio of 4:3, but there is nothing to stop future cameras to use a different aspect ratio, providing that diagonal sizes remain the same. The diagonal dimension of the Four-Thirds System is almost exactly half that of 35mm, providing lens coverage of twice the focal length of a 35mm lens.
One problem the system was keen to solve was the fact that normal 35mm lenses - especially wide angles - used on digital SLRs cause colour fringing and light loss at the edges of the image. This is because the light at the extremes of the image hits the sensor at steep angles. The Four-Thirds lens mount tackles this problem from the start. With the lens flange diameter being twice the sensor's diagonal, this wide opening allows telecentric lenses to be designed in which the light emerges from the rear element nearly parallel to the lens axis, ensuring that light strikes the sensor at almost right angles. An added bonus is that in the new system lenses can be more compact and lighter than with conventional systems.
At the moment there are five Zuiko lenses available for the Olympus E-1, ranging from an f2,8-3,5/11-22mm to f2,8/300mm (equivalent to 600mm in 35mm!), plus a macro lens and 1,4x tele converter. For next year seven more lenses are planned. The idea is that if the Four-Thirds System catches on, independent manufacturers like Tamron or Sigma will be marketing lenses for the new system as well. To make the Olympus E-1 part of a complete system, a number of other Olympus extras are available such as a power battery holder, an AC adapter, remote control, a different focusing screen with grid lines, two new flashlights (FL-50 and FL-20), a ring flash and a macro twin flash unit. Have a look at our overview of all Olympus and compatible lenses for the Olympus E-1.
Using the camera
Looking at the body and holding it, you can't fail to notice that this is a solid piece of workmanship. Olympus market the camera as a professional model and although this might seem a bit optimistic given that the system "only" comprises five lenses for now, fact remains that the build quality of the magnesium alloy body is comparable to professional cameras such as Nikon's D1X. The body is weather-sealed at all controls and openings. Don't take it swimming with you however as being splashproof is not the same as waterproof. The feel of the body is first class. Thanks to its compact dimensions and rubberised grip it balances nicely in the hand. Although it might seem as if the large number of buttons are scattered seemingly randomly around the body, they assess all the settings you might need to change during normal shooting while the set-and-forget stuff is hidden somewhere down the menus. In fact the whole camera is designed extremely well with nice responsive controls and excellent build quality.
Another feature not usually found on cameras of this kind, is the focus-by-wire system. Focusing is not controlled directly by the focus ring but the ring drives a motor, which drives the focusing mechanism to the chosen setting. Quite unusual but it works a bit like power steering on a car. It takes some getting used to but focusing, even on a massive lens like the 300mm, is incredibly light. An added advantage is that it allows the focus direction to be reversed in the menu, so there is no need to adapt to lenses that work the wrong way from what you were used to on your Nikon or Canon.
Start-up time is well under two seconds depending on what kind of CF-card you are using. Pressing the shutter halfway achieves instant focus and taking the image is achieved without any lagtime at all. Focusing in low light is a bit slower as the AF-assist light comes into play. You can shoot at three frames per second even in TIFF or RAW and independent of image quality settings. Note that burst mode cannot be used with noise reduction enabled. Erasing an image is done by pressing the red Delete button below the LCD screen. Just like Nikon's new D70, the Olympus E1 can shoot a RAW and JPEG image at the same time. Quite impressive.
There are three horizontally arranged focusing points, which can be selected individually or set to work together for wide area AF. A simple system by today's standards but it is quite fast and works well enough. Three metering patterns can be selected for accurate exposure metering. They comprise centre-weighted and spot metering plus, what Olympus call ESP. The latter is in fact a sort of matrix metering taking in the whole image area. It does a good job in most image situations, although it is more difficult to know when not to trust the outcome as you have no idea where its bias lies. With centre weighted metering for instance, more advanced users will instantly recognise situations where they will have to override the camera's settings to ensure well-exposed pictures.
Exposure modes are Program, Aperture and Shutter priority and Manual. There are no scene modes, as this is meant to be a professional camera. Bracketing exposures in three or five frames is available at 1/3, 1/2 or 1-stop increments over five stops, over or under the metered exposure. With shutter speeds ranging from 1/4000 to 60 seconds, plus B there is enough room to be creative, although in P or A-mode the longest exposure is limited to 2 seconds. White balance can be left on automatic as the external white balance sensor does a very good job on its own. There are 12 pre-set WB settings that are represented in degrees Kelvin, rather than by type of light. Of course professional photographers will know what they entail, but for amateurs this will take some getting used to. Four user-defined custom settings can be saved in-camera and all settings can be fine-tuned to your own taste. ISO settings between 100 and 800 can be selected,
with higher settings of 1600 and 3200 available through the menu as an ISO boost function.
Contrary to many consumer models there is no built-in flash on the Olympus E-1, although several dedicated flashlights are available to fit the hot shoe. The all-new FL-50 for example has been designed specifically for the Olympus E-1. Different flash modes can be selected, ranging from slow sync to fill-in flash. Olympus have made life easy for studio enthusiasts as a PC sync flash port is provided for direct connection to studio flash. Third party flashes can be used in manual mode. Flash sync time is 1/180 second. Maximum voltage for third party flashlights should not exceed 250 volts and only positive current is allowed to avoid damage to the camera's circuitry.
The huge optical viewfinder covers close to 100% of the image area. It has a diopter correction knob and shows all exposure information in green below the image area. There is a small viewfinder shutter switch that closes the eyepiece for those situations where you don't want light entering the viewfinder from the back e.g. in long exposures. Both the eyepiece and the focusing screen can be replaced for a different one should you desire so.
The LCD status panel on top of the camera shows all camera info and can be backlit in dark conditions. As with all digital SLRs the 1.8-inch colour LCD screen on the back cannot be used for framing images due to the construction of this type of camera. With 134.000 pixels it gives a bright and clear image to assess image quality in playback. Images can be enlarged up to four times and you can scroll around the image area with the 4-way controller.
A recurring problem with digital SLRs is dust collecting on the image sensor. Olympus have tackled this problem effectively by using a supersonic wave filter that automatically applies a high frequency vibration every time the camera is switched on, effectively shaking dust particles free to be trapped by an adhesive tape at the bottom of the camera. Our test was too short to say how well this works, but we think it is a terrific idea and time will tell whether it is effective or not. An interesting feature which the E-1 shares with the Olympus C5060 consumer model, is a pixel mapping facility, which will detect defective pixels and assign them values to match their surroundings. The "hot" or "stuck" pixel is then neutralised and will not be visible anymore.
In the box
Apart from the 5.1 effective megapixel Olympus E-1 camerabody, Olympus include a BLM-1 Li-ion battery pack - powerful enough for 500 to 1000 images between charges - and a quick charger, which will fully charge the battery in two hours. You get a shoulder strap and video, firewire and USB cables for speedy transfer of images and a CD-Rom. The kit which is available in Europe will include the Zuiko Digital 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 lens. Arguably a perfect combination as it gives you a nice range from true wide-angle to medium tele-settings, equivalent to 28-108mm in 35mm. Professional SLRs do not normally include memory cards and the same is true for the Olympus E-1. Compact Flash cards type I or II should be used, and they are widely and cheaply available in capacities as high as 4GB. Stick to your favourite brand and you can't go wrong really. An extra adapter is available to use Xd-cards in the Olympus E-1 should you desire so.
Software included are Olympus Viewer; a trial version of Olympus Studio and the full reference manual for the camera. A basic printed manual of about 45 pages per language is included in English, French, German and Spanish, but this is really only meant to get you started with the camera. To become familiar with all features of the Olympus E-1, you are advised to read the manual on CD.
Olympus Viewer is used for converting RAW image files, cataloguing your images or to view EXIF data and prepare images for print or e-mail. A rather unusual but very welcome feature is that the programme lets you upgrade your camera's firmware if you have an Internet connection. Just plug in the camera, choose the appropriate menu setting and follow the instructions. The professional full Olympus Studio software is available as an aftermarket extra, but a 14-day demo is included on the CD. Advantages are faster RAW conversion, advanced image editing, batch processing, time lapse mode and camera control through your PC. A nice addition if you really need all these features, otherwise stick to Olympus Viewer and you will be alright.
We had the camera for about two weeks and took about 500 images with it. In general we were quite satisfied with the results although ESP metering was sometimes fooled into overexposing, by compensating too much when there were bright highlights in a scene. Also, we would advise you to play around with the settings for contrast, saturation and sharpness as we found the standard setting quite soft and colours appeared very muted. Fine if you like it that way, but we set saturation and contrast to +1 for most of the images you see here, as that way we found colours to be more true to what we actually saw, without being overly saturated. The high level of control over saturation, sharpness and contrast ensures you will definitely find an image setting to your liking.
All images showed good resolution for a 5-megapixel camera with good dynamic range and low image noise at ISO settings up to 800. At higher settings some noise was present but when using ISO 1600 and 3200 in low light situations, images were still perfectly usable. All pictures were sharp and the telecentric design, combined with the ED lens element of the Zuiko 14-54mm lens really did a good job of avoiding chromatic aberrations. We simply couldn't detect any. The lens is remarkably free from distortion. There is only very slight barrel distortion at 14mm, which disappears completely once you get to 25mm and beyond. At wide open apertures the lens delivers good quality although closing the aperture by one or two stops eliminates what little softness there is in the corners and improves contrast and sharpness even more. Olympus have shown with this lens that the new design really pays off and offers serious advantages over the competition. A good all-round performance.
Olympus should be applauded for introducing a completely new system at a time when every manufacturer is watching the competition before releasing their next new model. There are a lot of advantages to this new technology and we are sure it will have a promising future. As soon as other manufacturers get into the system and start marketing further lenses and additional accessories, the system might even become the new standard in digital photography.
The Olympus E-1, which is the central part of the new system, is a very good camera indeed. Although it does not offer the resolution of other professional cameras, or the AF speed required for professional sports photography, it is designed and built extremely well and certainly has that professional feel to it. In use it feels solid and reliable and is responsive enough for most shooting situations. There are several features that really set it apart from the competition. A splash proof body and firewire connectivity plus the anti-dust wave filter, or pixel mapping facility are all quite advanced characteristics. And those seemingly insignificant details like the shutter blind or the possibility to upgrade the camera's firmware are features the competition does not normally include. Add to this the excellent image quality of the Olympus E-1 and you have a working tool that will handle all image situations and which will certainly satisfy the needs of many serious photographers.