Olympus E-1

Introduction

The Olympus E-1 was launched in 2003. It introduced the world to the Four Thirds system (and Olympus E-System of DSLRs), and was aimed at the professional market. As I recall, at the time they touted it as the first camera designed specifically for digital imaging; nothing about it was carried over from Olympus’ OM line of film cameras, in contrast to competing cameras at the time, which tended to be based upon film camera designs. They ran some stunning ads on the back of National Geographic magazines, including a picture of a polar bear that captivated my 12 year old self.

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My Olympus E-1, fitted with an Olympus Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8 on an OM-4/3 mount adapter.

My particular E-1 is a relatively recent arrival – I bought it second hand at the end of last year. The three reasons I bought it were: one, to see what the genesis of the Four Thirds sensor format was like to use; two, to give me a native mount option for Four Thirds lenses; and three, to give me a more sizeable and rugged digital body for my vintage telephoto lenses.

As with all of my equipment profiles, I have split this into three sections covering design, handling and image quality, with a brief summary at the end.

Design

In some ways, it’s a peculiar thing to behold: the right hand side is dominated by a chunky grip, the left hand side doesn’t protrude much to the side of the lens, and the back of the camera tapers in towards the grip. However, it’s all very solid, with stout weather seals set in a magnesium alloy body with decent texturing on the rubberised grip surfaces. The robust appearance is enhanced by the use of a solid door for connectivity ports (video, USB 2.0 and FireWire) and the fitment of a detachable clear plastic protector over the diminutive 1.8″ rear screen. Besides a lifting rubber grip (that I re-glued) and some paint chips, there are no build quality issues with my second hand example.

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Clover growing on the bank of the Water of Leith in Dunedin. Olympus E-1 with Olympus OM Zuiko 50 mm f/1.8 MC (adapted to Four Thirds mount). 1/250 s, f/1.8, ISO 100.

Since it’s rather large compared to Olympus’ current Micro Four Thirds bodies (body only, it stands almost as tall and a little wider than the OM-D E-M5 with attached grip), there was enough space for a lot of physical controls, covering key things like drive mode, focus mode, metering mode, depth of field preview, ISO and white balance. In addition, it has a PC sync port for flash, and a screw-in connector for the dedicated cable release. They even managed to fit a decent sized LCD screen to the top panel, with a manually switchable backlight. Virtually every camera setting is summarised on the screen, and the screen itself has been canted back, making it easier to read when the camera is being brought up to the eye, or near eye level on a tripod.

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This grey duck waddled onto a rock to take a break from swimming up the Water of Leith. Olympus E-1 with Olympus OM-mount 180 mm f/2.8 (adapted to Four Thirds mount). 1/500 s, f/2.8, ISO 400.

One peculiar feature, which I haven’t seen on anything besides the top of the line Olympus bodies, is a dedicated white balance sensor on the front of the camera. It’s a small, translucent white window situated above the autofocus assist light and custom white balance button. It’s nice of them to have included it, but a shame that they couldn’t include an inbuilt flash at the same time.

Besides the omission of an inbuilt flash, the basics are covered pretty well, in a fairly stout looking package that should survive the rigors of heavy use.

Handling

This camera handles quite nicely, especially with a larger or more dense feeling lens like the OM Zuiko 180 mm f/2.8 attached to the front. It’s not fatiguing to hold, and with all but the heaviest of lenses, doesn’t feel unbalanced. That being said, it’s difficult to hold it steady with lighter lenses like the Zuiko Digital 14-42 and 40-150 mm, but to be fair, those lenses were released well after the E-1 came to market and were designed to match more svelte bodies in the Olympus E-System. In all, it’s reassuringly solid in the hand.

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These rocks were artfully arranged in the riverbed near the Upper Leith Walkway in Dunedin. Olympus E-1 with Olympus ZD 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 ED. 1/125 s, f/5.3, ISO 400.

Using it to take photos is every bit as nice as holding it. The physical controls are well laid out, recognisable by feel, and far enough apart to allow accurate use when wearing gloves. The viewfinder is bright, though a little smaller than its APS-C or 35 mm sensor sized peers, which can make manual focus a challenge at times, especially with wide angle lenses. A number of cameras offer a manual focus confirmation light (I remember using this quite often on my Pentax bodies), but there isn’t one present in the E-1. In a similar vein, the selected focus point does not show up in the field of view, but rather in the information display at the bottom of the viewfinder. That being said, the standard eye cup is very comfortable, and frame coverage is excellent.

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A red flower on the Water of Leith side of Woodhaugh Gardens. Olympus E-1 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED. 1/160 s, f/5.6, ISO 800.

Screens have advanced significantly in the past decade and a bit. This becomes quite obvious when you try to review images on the rear display. Size is small (1.8″), resolution is low (134,000 pixels), and there isn’t a highlight and shadow warning option in the playback menu as far as I can see. In fairness, though, these niggles reduce the temptation to continually check the screen, which encourages a process of getting things right first time.

Besides a few reservations about the size of the viewfinder for manual focusing, and the quality of the screen and options for reviewing images, it’s been one of the nicest handling cameras that I’ve owned.

Image Quality

On the whole, I’ve been very happy with the images coming out of the camera, especially considering its (in modern terms) low resolution of 5 MP. Colours have always been nice, probably aided by the secondary white balance sensor, and with a good quality lens on the front, the photos seem to tolerate a reasonable degree of enlargement – I currently have one cropped and set as a background on an 8.2 MP monitor, and there are no artifacts from enlargement. It will be interesting to see how well this translates to printing.

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The remnants of a cockle and a crustacean on the beach at Wellers Rock on the Otago Peninsula. Olympus E-1 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED. 1/500 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

Dynamic range is good, and I’m yet to come across anything that can’t be salvaged in Capture One, although I’ve noticed a warm cast in some highlights when I pull them back.

Noise performance is good up to ISO 400, with noise becoming more visible at ISO 800. In practical terms, ISO 1600 would be my absolute limit; ISO 3200 is very messy, and very difficult to pull a pleasing result from. Generally, I cap myself at ISO 400. However, the lack of an image stabiliser can make this tricky in fading light, as camera shake starts to rears its ugly head, especially with longer focal lengths.

For its age, the image quality the E-1 delivers is good, and in some cases (especially for colour reproduction) I find I prefer it a little over my Micro Four Thirds gear.

Conclusion

I’ve found the Olympus E-1 to be a well designed and built camera, which handles well and is capable of producing nice images, especially considering its age. They are available for relatively low prices (even in tidy condition), and I believe that they represent excellent value for money. The only major downside is that I find myself wanting to buy another one…