Conclusions and ratings
Check the dedicated Olympus E-1 interactive forum
For detailed Olympus E-1 specifications, click here
The Olympus E-1 is marketed as a professional camera. Its specification and price place it at the entry level for the pro market. Olympus probably aims to sell just as many E-1's to advanced amateurs as well as to professionals and the conclusions below will reflect this assumption.
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We know that you, the reader, will value certain aspects of a product more than some other individuals. This is why we instead of numbers or percentages, which can be interpreted very differently by different reviewers and readers, our rating system presents values on or above a median. It's a bit like ABC exam scores, where A or A+ is the best, C is the minimum pass and F is, well, failure.
Design and construction
The Olympus E-1 is a landmark camera. It's the first 'proper' digital SLR to be designed from the ground up without any compromise imposed on it from a donor film SLR system. Its design incorporates a number of features that are a first for digital SLRs and in the main it works well. Construction is excellent, with a high quality of finish and obvious use of very sturdy materials that befit a pro-spec camera.
The E-1 has innovations by the truck load. It's the first interchangeable lens DSLR with fly by wire focussing and you can choose which direction you prefer the focus motion to operate. The E-1's lenses communicate digitally with the camera body - a feature that is yet to be fully exploited, but there is serious potential there. E-system lenses are designed specifically for the digital domain, itself not a new innovation, but combined with the lens mount size and sensor size, it's the first completely digital package for this kind of camera. And then there are neat features like the ultrasonic sensor cleaner - I'd actually forgotten about that until now and as I write this I realise I have not yet experienced any evidence of dust specks on my images. Despite removing and re-fitting the lens on many occasions.
There is no doubting that the E-1 is a high specification camera. It has a 12 frame, 3 frames per second continuous shooting capability, even with simultaneous JPEG and RAW recording. Auto white balance bracketing is included too. FAT 32 support for memory cards larger than 2GB is provided, as are USB 2.0 Hi-Speed and Firewire data ports. On the negative side, the 5MP sensor resolution is basic for a camera of this class.
Handling and ease of use
The Olympus E-1 fits the right hand like a glove and like no other digital SLR I have yet tried. The camera may look like its E-10 and E-20 predecessors but practically every handling and user interface feature has been improved - some radically. The E-1 powers up quickly, has very good shot to shot speed and a partially full image buffer doesn't lock you out. E-1 system menus and navigation are quick and relatively easy. That said, I think Canon still has the edge when it comes to sheer excellence in camera menu systems and while the E-1's system is certainly very good, there is still some room for improvement. The E-1's viewfinder is bright and clear and lends itself well to critical focus and framing demands. Responsiveness is good, too. There is no detectable shutter lag in general shooting and the camera's shutter and mirror return action delivers a very reassuring, but vibration damped sound. The optional portrait mode grip makes already excellent handling better still and the added power of the grip battery speeds up the AF performance according to Olympus. The E-1's standard lithium ion battery performs very well and you can expect several days typical light use without running out of juice, or at least a day of fairly intensive shooting.
Olympus' decision not to implement illuminated AF points in the viewfinder is divisive - some aren't at all bothered, while others miss this feature sorely. It would probably have been better to include illuminated points with an option to switch the feature off. The inclusion of only three AF points, instead of the more common 5, 7 or more found in some of the E-1's rivals is also curious. Olympus simply says it leaves the viewfinder less cluttered. In terms of AF performance, the E-1 and 14-54mm lens works very well in normal conditions. Itís quiet and reasonably fast, though there was a tendency to reach focus in two stages - a fast snap to near focus lock and then a second find adjustment to actual lock. The continuous AF option is not comparable to the super high speed systems in much more expensive cameras aimed at professional sports photographers. I don't have much to complain about in low light shooting. There can be instances of hunting in low light but no cameras are immune to this. Strictly in terms of benchmarking, the E-1 failed our horizontal AF target test. I find that a lot of AF cameras do fail this test, but it was disappointing that the E-1 did - after all the Pentax *ist D passed with flying colours. In practice, however, this issue didn't show up in general.
There were no surprises concerning the E-1's exposure system. It is devoid of any gimmicky 'scene' modes, which some will welcome. The dial simply offers fully programmed mode, aperture priority auto, shutter priority auto and manual mode. Spot and 'ESP' evaluative matrix meter options are provided and I found no glaring deficiencies.
All the tests show that the E-1 and its 14-54 zoom make a strong combination and despite a deficit in terms of sheer pixels compared to some of its rivals image quality is definitely comparable to best in the class. The 14-54 zoom exhibits low distortion and excellent sharpness, though the E-1's default in-camera sharpening setting is so conservative that post-processing may be required to show this. There is also very little evidence of high contrast chromatic aberration or purple fringeing. Colour, contrast and dynamic range are all very good. The E-1 produces the best 5MP images I've seen and in some situations can out-gun results from rival 6MP DSLRs. If there is a weakness in the E-1's image quality, it is high ISO noise. Up to and including ISO 400, image noise is not a concern. But at ISO 800 and up, noise starts to make its presence felt. Use of the E-1's in-camera noise filter setting can help, but the processing of each image does slow the camera down a little. Alternatively, more powerful post-processing noise filtering of RAW images is offered by the optional Olympus Studio software.
Olympus supplies its Viewer digital light box utility as standard and this is able to display E-1 RAW file images on your PC. You also get a time-limited sample copy of the enhanced version of Viewer, called Studio. This adds RAW image processing and conversion functions. In my view, Studio should replace Viewer as the standard, no extra cost, software bundle for the E-1.
Value for money
In the UK official Olympus recommended price for the E-1 plus 14-54mm lens 'kit' is £1549 excluding VAT. The body only is priced £1199 +VAT. If you look at the E-1's sum of its parts, the price Olympus has set for the E-1 is reasonable. The problem is that, unlike its rivals, buyers must make a serious leap of faith to commit to an E-1 as it has no track record and the E-system is still in its early stage of development. There is, as yet, not third party system support for the E-1, which must be a concern for the future. Olympus has heavily discounted the excellent 14-54 zoom when bought with the E-1 as a kit, but that lens is not a budget model in the first place. Add to that recent price pressure caused by older rival models being heavily discounted and the E-1 starts to look expensive.
The full system pricing, as of August 2003 can be perused 292.html target="_blank">here.
The bottom line
Viewed as a photographic tool, the Olympus E-1 is a camera that is great to use and produces very pleasing images. Its legacy-free design is both fascinating and refreshing. Lenses are, once again, designed for the exact purpose they are meant for. The Olympus E-1 is certainly a historic camera: it marks Olympus' return to the SLR system market and ushers in a new era of SLR system designed exclusively for the digital age.
Is the Olympus E-1 perfect? Of course not. Issues that Olympus can certainly improve on include certain aspects of AF performance and image noise above ISO 400. Olympus needs to grow the E-system to make more potential buyers confident, but that's no secret. More importantly, I feel, is the involvement of third party players. It's all very well that Fujifilm and Kodak are listed as E-system partners, but if the system is to survive and flourish it needs independent lens manufacturers as well as camera marques to ship compatible product. Words alone are not enough.
I would have no hesitation in recommending an Olympus E-1 with the 14-54mm zoom on merit alone, unless a lot of high ISO shooting was on the agenda. The E-1 is a very remarkable camera and the E-system deserves a fair crack at success.
Check the dedicated Olympus E-1 interactive forum
This camera was tested according to the DIWA Awards product evaluation standard