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
Portrait of a Stranger 2
Green & Purple
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
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
Nick Wade (and his cute camera)
Kelvin Ng and his awesome Olympus E-M10
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!