Saturday, May 17, 2014

Olympus E-1 - Taking a Step Back In Time

If you are an Olympus fan, you must have heard about the Olympus E-1, the first DSLR from Olympus when they moved fully to 100% digital SLR system. E-1 was the first Four Thirds camera, with the promise of smaller and lighter camera system delivering on par performance with competing APS-C camera models in the market. The E-1 is legendary, those who have it are not letting the E-1 go, for many interesting reasons. When I ventured into the world of photography, my first Olympus DSLR was the E-410, and never had the chance to try the E-1. Now that I can finally get my hands on one (it is not difficult to guess where the E-1 came from) I can satisfy the curiosity I have always had for this camera. 

I have brought along the Olympus E-1, together with the Zuiko Digital 50mm F2 Macro (oh yes I still have this lens) and attacked Pudu Market. How did a 10 years old DSLR do after I have been exposed to much newer cameras such as E-5 and the now much superior E-M1?




First of all, lets talk about the limitations of this dinosaur E-1, in contrast to all the advancement and modern camera capabilities. Laying all the restrictions about this E-1 will then allow us to weigh them against what initially drew me to it, and the reasons I think the camera is still worth using. 

That E-1 only has 5 Megapixels. Yes, 5 only! Today, Olympus cameras have 16MP, and even some smartphone cameras have as much as 40MP. In all seriousness, 5MP on the E-1 was not even close to their competitors offering much higher pixel count, 8MP or 10MP. Surely this has swayed many decisions away from buying this E-1, if pixel count is actually crucial for commercial and professional photography work. Honestly, for today's shooting scenarios, I do not think anyone would be happy with the underwhelming 5MP. 

There are only 3 focusing points in the E-1. Left, center and right. Only the center focusing point is a cross type AF sensor, which means the left and right focusing points are not as sensitive or as efficient as the center focusing point. The main problem with only one efficient focusing point, right at the center is the difficulty of nailing pin point accurate focus when shooting with shallow depth of field in mind. The focus and recompose method may work, with high chance of error, especially if you are being too near to the subject. And the focusing was not exactly fast to begin with. 

Oh and the optical viewfinder, was nothing to shout about either. While it provides 100% coverage, it was quite small, and not really good enough to judge focus accuracy. 

Everything else about the camera is old, inferior high ISO performance, lower frames per second burst mode, and lack of all the modern camera features. 

Oh do you know how tiny the LCD screen is, that the image preview is actually useless if you want to determine color and focus accuracy? Right, no chimping. 

Knowing all the above, somehow I still find the camera fun and enjoyable to shoot with. 

Portrait of a Stranger 1

She Knows

Bottled Water

Portrait of a Stranger 2

Beans

Green & Purple

Hot

On the Table


Ok we have all the bad stuff about the camera out of the way, now lets talk about the stuff that the E-1 does right, and won so many hearts over. Believe me there are still die-hard E-1 fans out there today. 

THAT KODAK CCD SENSOR COLOR!

I have used Kodak cameras before (compact cameras) and now seeing the output from the E-1 that uses a Kodak CCD image sensor, I admit that Kodak is king when it comes to color. We cannot really measure color, and as technical and scientific we want to get with color accuracy and better reproduction in modern cameras, color is still a very subjective factor in camera output and photography in general. The photograph may have 100% accurate colors but that does not mean the photograph's color representation is considered "pleasing". Now Kodak colors may not give you that technically accurate colors, but in some unexplainable ways, the colors work, and they are beautiful! The tones, the shades of colors, and the overall balance was very pleasing. Maybe it is the way CCD sensors produce colors which CMOS sensors cannot do. I want to believe that Kodak has perfected their Kodak Color Science, and even we are now generations in the future we still cannot quite get that beauty. 

THE SKIN TONE!

This has a lot to do with Kodak colors as well, perhaps a huge part of the color rendition was biased towards rendering true to life, lovely skin colors. The skin colors, from Asian skin, to Caucasian, and even a few people (in the photos shown here) with darker skin tones, they all come out beautiful, without any tweaking or adjustments. 

THAT QUIET SHUTTER SOUND

I have heard again and again from so many people, and also read countless times on the net on how quiet and dampened the shutter sound of the E-1 is. Now, I finally understood the whole hype, and I was not surprised at how the shutter sounded. It was not just quiet, it was "soft" and very "rounded". Dampened may be the right word to describe the sound and feel, and I can see why some people may have bought the E-1 just for the surprisingly quiet shutter mechanism. Now this begs the question, why were the newer Olympus DSLRs not having the similarly quiet shutter sound?

WELL THOUGHT OUT ERGONOMICS AND HANDLING

The E-1 just sticks to my hands perfectly, as if it was designed specifically for my hands. Having this side by side with the E-5, I can see why some people prefer the E-1 over the E-5. I personally think E-5 is more suitable for me but that is just because I have used the E-5 for countless hours. To be fair I do think the camera and lens combination (E-1 + 50mm F2) was very well balanced, and comfortable to hold for 4 hours shooting session outdoors. The rubberized texture gave much needed friction so the camera does not slip off the fingers easily, and even the thumb rest area was well thought out, having a small hump design to hook the thumb in place nicely. The hand grip was beefy and my fingers wrapped around it with ease. 





Portrait of a Stranger 3

Waiting

Mother and Child 1

Mother and Child 2


Alright, enough gushing about how beautiful the color is, and how quiet the shutter sound is. E-1 does come with a few things that I thought should have been better. 

The focusing was somewhat, not as good as I needed it to be. Using the E-1 reminded me of the time when I used the E-410 and E-520, and perhaps I was not too far a stretch so say that assuming they all possibly use the same focusing system (3 points AF). While the focusing was actually fast and I confidently shot images with minimal shutter lag and lens hunting, I had no way to check the images for focusing accuracy. The tiny LCD screen was completely useless, and my style of shooting wide open (on Olympus 50mm F2) came with risks of having images back or front focused. And that was true. about 30-40% of my shots were not fully in focus. Of course the problem was fixed when E-3 came along (and subsequently E-30 and E-5). 

The images were all shot in RAW and processed in Olympus Viewer 3. The original output, as processed to Sharpness setting at "0" was rather soft. The little resolution of only 5MP did not help in resolving fine details (which I have been used to seeing from the 12MP E-5 and the 16MP E-M5/E-M1). I found myself bumping up the sharpness to +3 or +4 to have the "appearance" of sharp images, and we all know that no matter how much sharpening we apply we cannot create non-existing fine details. While on one hand the colors were superb straight out of the camera, E-1 on the other hand lacks the much needed resolution and sharpness. 

Portrait of a Stranger 4
ISO400, and grainy already

Uncooked Dumplings

Siew Pao

Digital Market
ISO400

Anti-Social
ISO400

Primary Colors

Nick Wade (and his cute camera)

Kelvin Ng and his awesome Olympus E-M10
ISO1600

The E-1 just feels right. It feels right in hand, solidly balanced and confident. It feels right as you shoot and the feedback (very soft shutter sound) was positive and reassuring. The camera just works, and I am sure the magnesium alloy body was built like a tank. The weather-sealing ensured the use of the camera in harsh conditions. I have always mentioned the important trait about Olympus cameras, the few which I have used so far, is reliability. The camera just works!

On the whole, it was fun getting away from the Micro Four Thirds system, and I had plenty of fun using the old E-1. Oh and I have always loved the 50mm F2 lens. Will I be shooting often with the E-1? I doubt so, as we have better and more advanced modern offerings now. But I will not hesitate to grab the E-1 from time to time, just to remind myself that photography is not all about the highest pixel count, best low light high ISO performance, or fastest burst frame rates. Photography is a lot more than that, we can all agree to that. 

Any one of you still using the E-1? Show me your hand!

49 comments :

  1. Hi Robin,
    I use the great Olympus (Oly Lady) E-1 continuously for fun shooting. I use it with a large number of lenses.
    Here on my blog

    http://christianmari.at/?s=E-1

    Can you see some pictures.
    I love this camera and think you're right on all points.
    Greetings from Vienna
    Christian

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reaffirming Christian! And thanks for sharing those wonderful photos. Keep the E-1 alive!

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  2. Thank you for showing so very nicely how hardware that could be considered 'ancient' in todays fast-paced digital world, can still produce astonishingly beautiful shots (honestly, i would never have guessed from those shots that they could possibly be taken by something like the E-1). And thank you for reminding us (or me, i guess), that you simply don't need the newest and best toys and that photography is about much, much more than that!

    P.S.: Maybe in contrast to all this, I did end up replacing my pana 20mm/1.7 with the oly 25mm/1.8 =|

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. I do not think I deserve them!
      About the Olympus 25mm vs Panasonic 20mm, if you are using an Olympus body, it is good enough reason to switch, due to that slow AF of the 20mm!

      Delete
  3. great photos come from great hands... ;)

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  4. Hah! Proves once again that it's the photographer, not the tools. Excellent shots!

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    1. But that was an awesome camera!

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    2. That is of course also true - a really good camera helps as well. And clearly this was top for its day/. But it's the artist that creates the art... and you sure know what you're doing, to state it mildly :-)

      Delete
  5. A few minutes ago, I found my sales receipt for the E-1 with 14-54mm kit lens at US$1999.99 and 50-200mm for US$999.99 back on 2004 March 5.

    At the time I bought it, the E-1's 5.1 MP output vs 6.3 MP output from the various Canon and Nikon bodies didn't really make much of a difference. The color was so much better that it was rated higher in reviews of the time. It was better in comparison and I put down a lot of money on it. I used it like a film camera with ASA (now ISO) 400 film and it was fine. ISO 800 was really sparkly/noisy but then, Kodak was making sensors for studio cameras mostly.

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    1. Hi Sakamoto,
      Indeed E-1 was ranked against professional models from competition, and it can surely stand on its own. At low ISO the files from E-1 was excellent. Since I was shooting outdoors it was no problem!

      Delete
  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. HI Bill,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I fully understand that chasing more resolution is not the best way to approach photography, but I do think that it is a necessity moving forward. The manufacturers should not rush it (by sacrificing image quality and not having an optimized per pixel resolution) but they should push the envelope and go further. After all, technology should only be improving.
      Nonetheless, for practical photography, megapixel war is rarely the deciding factor. and thanks for sharing those wonderful images.

      Delete
  7. My E-1 was made in October 2003. I bought it in 2007. Since then, I've continued to use it in and amongst my more modern cameras, including the E-M1. It remains a terrific piece of equipment and makes excellent photographs. Only with the E-M1 do I feel it's superiority as an overall balanced tool is challenged. I kept it in preference to the E-5 ... It's my last DSLR.

    Some photos: https://www.flickr.com/search/?q=E-1&ss=2&ct=0&mt=all&w=23913128%40N02&adv=1

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    1. Hi Godfrey,
      I have the E-5, and I have used the E-M1 substantially and I agree with your comments. Thanks for sharing!

      Delete
  8. Hi Robin
    Thank you for the beautiful pictures.
    I myself use the E-1 in addition to my E-M1 still with much joy.
    The colors are still undefeated beautiful.
    Do please keep it up - I read your blog regularly with enthusiasm!

    Some of my pics:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/101498257 @ N08 /

    regards

    Christoph van Leyen

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    Replies
    1. hi Christoph,
      Thanks for the kind words and encouragement. Unfortunately I was not able to see the flickr link. It was unable to load.

      Delete
  9. Hi Robin, I think every equipment in your hand will became a magic... I using this set up for almost 2 years now and most of it for flower and portrait. You right, the color that E-1 given to us is most likely unable duplicate by others. Try it for the blue sky and you will under why we call "Olympus Blue " which we cannot get it by the modern sensors.

    Regards / Francis from Toronto

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    1. Hey Francis, I dont think I have that magical power you have described, though i wish I do. In Malaysia these few days it is difficult to get blue skies as it rains almost everyday. But when it is blue I will surely give it a try.

      Delete
  10. Hi Robin,
    Thank you for sharing these awesome images which I honestly believe are the product of 80% Robin Wong's technique and artistic and 20% of the tools. Your images always push me to do better and shoot more.
    May you have a great week.
    Regards, John

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    Replies
    1. Hi John,
      I don't think I have any special techniqiues (you have shot with me on the streets so you know how I got my shots) and surely you are also right, it is not so much about the tools. Lets all go shoot more together!

      Delete
  11. Yes, Robin! Finally you got the best FT camera in your hand. yes, it lacks sharpness, but especially for portraits thats a benefit, believe me. women like the output of E1 much more than the razorsharp images out of newer cams. grain? what grain? :-) (Okay, AF could be better, indeed...) I love my E1´s and will only sell them the day hell freezes over
    bw
    Sven

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    Replies
    1. Hi Sven
      Thanks for the kind words! Glad to see someone so pasisonate about E-1, keep shooting more.

      Delete
  12. Your article reminds me of my old Olympus C-2000Z. My first digital camera. Not in the same league as the E-1, of course, but I used to periodically drag it out of storage and amaze myself with the images that great lens would allow me to make. The tiny screen on the back, 2 megapixel sensor and oddball storage card didn't matter! I unfortunately let corroded batteries destroy it. I still miss that thing!

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    1. Thanks Brian for compliments. Oh dear so sorry to hear about the corroded batteries. 2 megapixels, wow!!

      Delete
  13. Hi Robin, great article and nice photos.

    Only if you could, is there any possibility that you could show side by side the difference between cmos and ccd senosrs at the same scene.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Heraldur,
      Don't think I can find time to do that but if I can I will.

      Delete
  14. What this article does for me?
    Reminding me that a good camera is worth paying for. That its image quality will remain comparable even to newer model. There is no place for a 'what if' thought.

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  15. Hi Robin,
    Another lover of E-1.
    One of the best cameras of my life.
    regards

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  16. I noticed that some of the pictures have that film-like grain in them. The pictures are so much more natural looking with that. I would pick this E-1 over any canikon anytime, even if the grainy pics measure poorly against the super clean, high ISO images of the D600/1D whatever. Sadly, the natural looking grain seems to be missing from the images of the newer Pens and OM-Ds.

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  17. Remarkable as always Robin and now you have me reassessing my own requirements.
    Last weekend I handled the EM-1 - talk about 'glove fitting the hand' - very well bit quality camera.
    Decisions, decisions ...

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  18. one of my favorite cameras, i hated to part with it, but went m4/3

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  19. hi robin,

    i am still love the e1 does render the color, the shadow control for me much better then e3 and e5, do you know how much you spend to buy used e1 in malaysia, it's hard to find in indonesia. My e1 totally died, if you have any suggestion to make my e1 comeback from the hell , it would be nice man ,,,

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  21. When I went through my photographs on the computer recently, files from the E-1 jumped out compared to others from supposedly more capable cameras. One of the staff at a camera shop in London was saying the same thing to me last week. I'm mostly micro four thirds now, but am awaiting my third E-1 next week - I know I'm going to enjoy using it, and having started my dSLR adventures with an E-1, it'll almost certainly be the last dSLR I buy. And now with more modern software, I should be able to get a little bit more out of all those megapixels!

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  22. La mia Oly E-1 rimarrà sempre con me. I love E-1 :)

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  23. I always liked the look of the E-1 but couldn’t afford the price tag when new (using an old E-10 at the time). Having used EOS-1D and 1Ds mark II’s the last few years (keen amateur) seeing a good low mileage E-1 for silly money seemed too good to miss and used with the 14-54mm, 50-200mm and 50mm f2 actually gets more use than either of the Canon’s now. It handles, feels and sounds superb and is (to me at least) a pleasure to use. I originally bought it as a ‘holiday camera’ rather than carting either of the chunky Canon’s around and would not be too distressing if lost/stolen/damaged. After this years holiday on the coast of Croatia downloading and viewing my 1400 or so images to the iPad (with retina display) shows what superb IQ they have in all lights and the colours just seem to be what I saw at the time, (I seldom seem to get this with either Canon without post processing, something I don’t have a lot of time available for). Yes there is a little noise in the sky and they probably don’t enlarge to the size I could with the 1Ds but I’ve never been a ‘pixel peeper’ and I’m content to just flick through at iPad screen size and re-live a very enjoyable holiday. There is a temptation to sell some of the Canon gear to fund an EM1 but I remain a floating voter on that one at the moment, it certainly handles nicely with the 12-40 and probably even better with the battery grip (having slightly larger hands!!). Anyway, thank you again for a brilliant post.

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  24. Hey Robin, just saw your excellent review of the Oly E1. I use the E1 exclusively as my professional system, to me the E1 is a digital camera that shoots film images with all the nuances that implies (eg: colour, skin tones, some grain when necessary). The E1 images are true images, not the artificial construct of Photoshop images from the computers with lenses that are the "new" digital cameras. It is the combination of the E1 sensor + the specific Olympus E1 glass , not megapixels, that gives us those exquisite E1 images. Check out some of the technical info on the E1, then you'll see what a brilliant, unique camera the E1 is, why photographers at all levels continue to use it.

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  25. Otra cosa,ni a dia de hoy el "magnesio" es comparable al del resto,podria usar una e 1 e 3 e 5 como martillo....

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  26. Poseo una unidad de esta camara que se me metio entre ceja y ceja adquirir reparar,y usar,no estoy en varios puntos de acuerdo,en primer lugar situada frente a su competencia,canonistas y nikonistas empezaban a creer que sus cuerpos de camara atraian el polvo a sus sensores,(sistema de limpieza madein olympus) mirando la competencia y su pixelada no hay para tanto con la comparacion,en el 2005 teniamos la e 300 mientras camaras como la nikon d 70 estaban por denajo en esa batalla tan "importante" de los pixeles.
    Tengo el gusto de usar y tener varias camaras de varias marcas reparadas por mi,canon eos 202,e 30,e 620 e300 ect,ninguna me impresiono tanto con tan poco.

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    1. Un homenaje fantástico a la Olympus E1.
      Saludos

      Delete
  27. E1 expressed my idea of camera. Got one, placed an 18-180 on, and never shoot with anything else afterwards...

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  28. Question first: how to you see the photo at this time? Oh on moniotr, is my stupid reply. Yes on Monitor. Re-question: do you see difference from 4-8-16-32-64…milion megapixel? No is, again, ordinary reply.
    And on nesw papers the "only" 5 mp: you say? Ah good question. I’ think good, very good information (shoot landscape or reportage or still life or portrait) and not "only" 5 mp!
    Please note I wrote (yes also writter on nesw paper) how to make a still life in light natural, light available. And, roll of drum kit, with only 2 milion pixel from my Epson 850z, for A4 page!
    However E1 has big and great 4/3 sensor...more other Epson of example.
    Return at E1, no is too idiot to say “archeology”. No bad and wrong, please note I’m photographer since early years 70 of century past.
    No sir The E1 is more close of soul. Yes is a category of spirit. No other words. Is it a piece of minuscle miracle and very very usable in all condition. Rumor, noise high Iso? Ahaha as like “grain” as Tri-X or for my taste Hp5 Ilford. Other word, again is same ideology of “bar sport” or milk store.

    Sincerely
    Manunzio.it

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  29. I still have my E1 and I will never part with it. To my old eyes the pictures look perfectly sharp. I don't even mind a bit of noise having come from the film world, to me it just looks like grain and can even add to the image. E1 forever!

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  30. I still have my E1 and I will never part with it. To my old eyes the pictures look perfectly sharp. I don't even mind a bit of noise having come from the film world, to me it just looks like grain and can even add to the image. E1 forever!

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