Check the dedicated Olympus E-1 interactive forum
After the rather promising analysis of the advantages inherent in the Four Thirds system and the Olympus E-1/E-System, we now turn our attention to facets that are of concern to me and others.
It ought to be emphasises that the issues raised below are legitimate questions and statements but they are not necessarily my opinion. I'm playing 'devil's advocate' here. My responses to each point are, however, my own opinion based on my industry knowledge, experience and discussions with Olympus engineers.
As new issues and, indeed, responses, come to light, this page will be expanded.
New and untried
Both the Olympus E-1 and the Four Thirds system are new and un-tried. Initial buyers will be the guinea-pigs that will have to endure the bugs and other teething problems inevitable in a brand new system.
Ian's response: I have to admit that I have a personal distrust of first-generation products, like new car models, for example. But with the E-1, I think the hardware is well-sorted, though I'd expect a steady series of firmware updates from Olympus to start with.
Lack of third party backing
Olympus is on its own. How can you trust in the future of a new system if nobody else is participating in it? OK, so Fujifilm has issued a press release expressing interest in the Four Thirds standard, but it has remained silent since. Kodak made the E-1's sensor chip, but it has invested in the full frame DCS-14n Pro DSLR – it won't be dumping that in favour of Four Thirds. And where are the independent lens makers?
Ian's response: This is certainly a very serious point. Without another major brand adopting the Four Thirds standard, the whole point of that standard in being an open one will have failed. And without that commitment from other manufacturers, it's difficult to see an independent lens maker taking the plunge too. At the time of writing there was no news at all of any firm commitment from a third party, even Fujifilm, which has expressed a corporate interest in Four Thirds, to produce compatible products.
Olympus simply refer press questions on this subject to the PR representatives of the third party companies concerned. So, yes, if you prefer the cup is always half full philosophy, the standard is good enough to attract independents in the future, but if you are naturally cautious, there is certainly no guarantee. On a more optimistic note, even if the standard failed, that doesn't mean your E-1 would conk-out in sympathy, so the risk in buying into the E-1 isn't total.
Is Olympus committed?
History says that when the going gets tough, it abandons it customers. Witness the OM SLR system. Once AF was an obvious requirement, instead of adapting its system like Nikon, Pentax and Canon did, it quietly all but abandoned the SLR market and its loyal customers.
Ian's response: The abandoning of the OM user-base is something Olympus must live with for a long time. I, personally, was a victim too and had to write-off my OM system in the early 90s in favour of a Canon EOS system. Olympus will say that the OM system was in its prime for a good couple of decades, but its decision not to embrace the AF era was frustrating to say the least. But all the signs are that the E-System is designed to avoid such situations in the future. Future-proofing is what the E-System is all about. Canon FD system users had a similar headache when the Canon EOS system was introduced. And it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that today's existing legacy 35mm SLR systems may have to adapt more radically to the digital era.
The Four Thirds standard is based on a sensor that's too small
The physical size of the Four Thirds sensor is too small. It should have been based on the same size 'APS' sensor as its rivals. Such a small sensor will be limited in terms of future resolution and noise characteristics. It also further limits the creative freedom to shoot with limited depth of field.
Ian's answer: I don’t buy this. Kodak says the Full Frame Transfer sensor CCD technology it has developed will scale to 11 megapixels in the Four Thirds format. Compared to APS sensor DSLRs, the pixel pitch is in the same ball park and vertical resolution is very close to existing APS sensor DSLRs at 6 megapixels. Olympus is promising fast lenses and these should allow shallow depth of field shooting. Noise is a hot topic, but even with a first-generation, pre-production, sample, noise up to ISO 400 is very well controlled.
Concerns about noise
Independent reviewers are already finding that E-1 sample images have too much noise at moderate to high ISOs compared to rival DSLRs.
Ian's answer: As already mentioned above, noise is a very hot topic. Sure, if you need to shoot noise-free at 1600 ISO, the E-1 won't be for you. But in the real world, ISO 400 is the true test and at that speed the E-1 passes the test. Considering the other aspects the E-1 has to offer, I do think the noise issue is a bit of an over-blown distraction. Nevertheless, the reality is also that that noise characteristics will continue to be a hot talking point and Olympus certainly needs to address the issue.
5 megapixels isn't enough
The Olympus E-1 should have been equipped with at least 6 megapixels to match its rivals and maybe more to establish some superiority.
Ian's answer: Like the noise issue, I think sheer numbers of pixels is a distraction from more important image quality considerations, like dynamic range and the resolving power of the lenses and the imager. What’s the point of a super-high resolution imager if the lenses can't exploit it? For general purpose use, I feel 5 megapixels on the E-1 is adequate, not generous, but adequate. Time will eventually tell, as real photographers get their hands on productions cameras, whether or not that hunch is on the mark.
The E-1 isn't quite a pro camera and it's not quite a consumer camera
The Olympus E-1 seems like a nice enough item of hardware, with its moisture seals, cast alloy construction, no built-in flash compromise and built in dust cleaner solution for the sensor – all important issues for professional users, but at 3 frames per second continuous shooting for only 12 frames, only 5 megapixels, it's neither a press photographer's camera nor a studio photographer's camera – it falls between two stools.
Ian's answer: I think this is a fair criticism. Olympus is adamant the E-1 is a pro camera. I can't see Olympus persuading a dedicated Canon or Nikon press or sports photographer switching to an E-1 based system. It's certainly not in the same league as a Canon EOS-1Ds in the studio, either. But I think we do forget that many pro photographers don't fall into these glamorous categories and for them an E-1 could be a great camera for their needs. Indeed, I know pros who have switched to Canon EOS-10Ds successfully and the 10D is certainly not as 'pro-spec' as the E-1.
Where is the consumer model?
If Olympus wants the E-System to flourish, it needs to play the numbers game. That's what kept the Olympus OM system alive in the 1980s, when the OM-10 was introduced. The E-1 is too expensive for the mass market. Olympus should have introduced an OM-10 consumer-spec equivalent at the same time as the E-1.
Ian's answer: I certainly agree with this point of view, up to a point. Olympus had to make a start somewhere. They have clearly chosen to establish the E-System as a high-quality base from which to grow. Higher specification and more expensive members of the E-System are in the pipeline, say Olympus, but just as importantly, so are consumer-specification and so cheaper models too. The all-important seasonal Christmas market has been missed for a consume E-model this year, but I'd say it would be pretty important to deliver such an offering before the end of next year.
It's too little, too late
Olympus is about three years too late. Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm have got the market sewn up.
Ian's answer: I don't agree with this point. Digital cameras have a shorter typical working life than film cameras so the market is renewing itself all the time. Also, digital SLR sales have been tiny compared to traditional film SLR sales to date. However, digital SLR sales are ramping up. Canon says it is now producing 70,000 EOS-300Ds a month, for example. But there is a big challenge for DSLRS: they need to prove their worth over high-end fixed-lens digital cameras like the Nikon CoolPix 5700, Fujifilm S7000, Minolta Dimage A1 and of course the amazing 8 megapixel Sony DSC-F828. Personally, I think DSLRs have a secure future, but it won't be easy for any of the players out there, least of all, Olympus.
Check this page in future for new issues raised. Go to the Olympus E-1 interactive forum (see link below) now to add your own point of view - you might see it answered here too!
Check the dedicated Olympus E-1 interactive forum