E-1 on test
BY WAY OF EXPLANATION
I constructed this report late in 2004 primarily for my good friend Andrzej Wrotniak for inclusion on his infomative site www.wrotniak.net. Andrzej had no direct experience of the E-1 at that time, only a very detailed review based on his tireless research. My user angle endeavoured to add another opinion. We believe this was useful. It is now available for visitors to www.biofos.com
FIRST IMPRESSION (Date written: November 2004).
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.
LET'S GET GOING
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 on your PC, 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? Bear in mind I've had several years on digital compact cameras so this is not entirely new territory. 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. I feel decidedly uneasy.
OK, I need to tweak the settings. I wind up the colours and sharpness 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.
After a poor start and some fun and games with the firmware upgrade, 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 seem to be 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!
(As the following weeks and months unfold I am more and more dissatisfied with my E-1 kit. Most times I receive good results, but there are days when I simply cannot get a sharp or well exposed image from this outfit. I detest having to constantly tweak the settings to get a half decent result. Settings that produced good results yesterday simply fail to deliver today. It's infuriating. Come June 2005 I decide these problems are NOT of my making and the E-1 kit will be sent back to Olympus for testing and re-calibration. When the kit was returned to me 2 weeks later I had to double check the serial numbers to see if they had just sent me a new outfit - so remarkable was the transformation. You can read about this experience here).
I deliberated whether or not to include the above in this article for some time. I decided it was only fair to readers that my experiences, good AND bad should be told.
Back to my 'review':
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. Perhaps it's down to familiartity.
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.
ADDITION: I've upgraded this to a major niggle. So many times I've ruined perfectly good shots because there is no read-out of ISO either on the LCD or more pertinently in the viewfinder and I've shot at 400 or 800 when only ISO 100 was needed. Yes I know if you press the ISO button the reading appears in both the LCD and VF - but this important setting should appear by default.
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 somehow overkill when the info could be displayed on the review screen - it’s not. In my humble opinion, a separate LCD of command settings is not an option, but a necessity. Even the humble C-series insists on dual info screens.
VIEWFINDER and SCREEN
As said you cannot compare the E-1 viewfinder experience with that of OM cameras. The E-1 VF is small - make no mistake - but it is so incredibly clear. Crisp is the word that readily springs to mind. I find that manual focusing is no real problem either with the ZD lens in manual mode or using OM Zuiko's. However I can see this might create problems for someone who has eyesight that is none too great. It becomes more of an issue when using Wide-Angle OM Zuiko's. Certainly the AF nature of the ZD lenses comes to the rescue here. The dioptre adjustment is fine, providing excellent clarity. But if you share your E-1 body then you will know how easy it is to forget someone has altered the dioptre as when you frame your shot you might consider you've had a dramatic change in prescription!
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." Old fashioned groundglass screens where grinding produced a randomly-patterned surface never exhibited this problem; but they were too dark.
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?
In a world ruled by speed it seems the first thing prospective users want to know is how fast the latest offerings are. I understand this. Having used some early digital compacts that took so long to go through their POST routine, your photo opportunity was well passed. The other speed issue that seems to bother many users is that of card writing. As CCD's capture more and more MP's, file sizes increase and saving the data to flash memory can bottleneck the entire machine spoiling the instantaneous digital experience.
So, 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. It will be interesting to compare this list with future DSLR's Olympus offer.
* Power up (from on to ready): consistent 2 seconds;
* AF in normal conditions (half-press): almost instant, less then 0.5 second;
* Release including AF in normal conditions: almost instant, plus the shutter performing its function;
* Write times in the SHQ mode, from record light on to off: 2.5 seconds;
* The same in RAW: 3 seconds;
* The same in RAW+JPG: 3 seconds;
* The same in TIFF: 5 seconds;
* Buffer flush in SHQ (12 images): 26.5 seconds;
* The same in RAW: 36 seconds;
* The same in RAW+JPG: 36 seconds;
* The same in TIFF: 54.5 seconds;
* Power down (lens reset ON): 3 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. This might be improved in the future via a firmware revision by Olympus.
The E-1 has a propensity to under-expose in many situations. This was one of the issues I complained bitterly about and that ruined my first months of working with the E-1. While I understand the rationale behind the design decision (highlight/shadow 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 that it could be used in a repeatable way. My advice for E-1 users is:
* Recognize situations that create under-exposure;
* Consult the monitor, switch between ESP and CW, and bracket in each;
* Know when to use spot metering and when not to.
This difficulty I experienced might have been exacerbated by previous use of the competent Olympus C5050 which is incredibly accurate in 99% of exposures. These non-SLR digital compact cameras use the image sensor itself for light metering and are capable of doing a better job in terms of protecting highlights and shadows than their DSLR siblings that must rely on a meter and metering pattern only to ascertain exposure.
ADDITION: After much trial and even more error I have plumped for CW metering as my 'standard' as it is generally more reliable. ESP is a little too quirky for my liking with some results excellent and others not. Nor have I found the 'ideal' conditions in which to automatically choose ESP.
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. As time has passed and experience grown I find I'm more than happy with a sharpness setting of 0 or -1.
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.
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.
There are reports of users, one from Poland and one from the Netherlands receiving free adapters from Olympus after they bought their E-1's as late as January 2005. There have been some recent announcements by Olympus that strocks are depleted and no more will be given away. It seems that, at least on some markets, Olympus may continue to offer this bonus. I'm not sure about the United States (where the adapters are given away to new owners of the E-300 upon request).
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.
One of my first tasks was to try OMZ's on my new E-1. The results are all over the place and as I'm not sure what's causing the problem I've decided to postpone testing my OMZ's for this site for now. In July 2005 (after my camera was repaired) I undertook an exhaustive trial of many of my collection of OM Zuiko's on the E-1 body. I have most OMZ's except the for the 'Big Whites' and super-telephotos 600mm and 1000mm. You can see the results here.
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. It is an ideal 'substitute' for the on-board flash that many criticise Olympus for not including in the E-1 specifications. My own view on this 'omission' is that of understanding why the decision was made and actually agreeing with it. Such an on-board flash would have compromised the dust and drip proofing and would have led to criticism that it was too small to be of any use anyway. Oh to be a camera design engineer!
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 - yet. (I say this as I'm beginning to read accounts of some problems with the FL-50, but I have no direct criticism). 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.
Use of some, but not all, legacy OM flashes on the E-1 is possible (with certain limitations), and I hope to revisit this at a later date. However for those who need some advice my colleague Mark Dapoz measured the shoe voltage of all the main OM series flashguns. All except the 310 model can be safely used. T20, T32, T45 & F280 can be used in Auto and manual modes but do not work in TTL mode.
I'm sure there's a lot more I could explore and comment upon. The E-1 has been reviewed by all the major sites and almost everyone who's 'into' photography has an opinion. You can find plenty of material - good and bad - out there on which to base your purchasing decision. I've endeavoured to be as honest as possible with this review and have pointed out the down sides of my experience as well as the positives.
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.
The images delivered by the E-1 are exceptional. The fidelity of colour and tone reproduction is first class. The sharpness of my standard ZD14-54mm Zoom lens is good enough, but not outstanding (other lenses might differ). As an amateur user I can see why this is a Professional camera.
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 my E-1 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). I say 'almost' for my experience of the E-1 has not been perfect. As an Olympus fan I was anticipating the E-1 to be on a par with the OM4Ti as a photographic tool. It isn't; not yet anyway. It is very good but just fails to meet those standards. Mind you Maitani did set a very high bar for his successors.
As Olympus re-design their flagship camera - and I'm glad to see there's no sign of it to date, only silly speculative rumours - I believe they will once again seek opinion from those who use these tools to make a living. The professional photographer's input is essential. On the other hand the OM system was very much kept afloat by the dedicated amateur. If Olympus strikes the balance it will suceed.
|Written Nov 2004, Posted December 2005.||Copyright © 2004 John Foster|