Olympus E-1 - First Olympus DSLR, 5MP, Launched 17 Years Ago

With all the fuss and buzz on new camera releases that features ultra high resolution, shooting 8K videos and ridiculous MP count on stills, I thought it would be exciting (yes I have an interesting definition of excitement) to revisit and old, dinosaur fossil camera - the Olympus E-1. In the world where smartphones can shoot more than 100MP, and soon having 10 or more camera modules and lenses at the back of the phone, the E-1 was quite underwhelming when we just look purely at specifications alone. I mean, come on... a 17 years old camera, with undernourished 5MP on an outdated CCD image sensor. I decided to bring the Olympus E-1 out for a full blown shutter therapy session, and I am sharing my experience, together with plenty of fresh images from Malaysian streets in this blog entry! Also, a new accompanying video, as usual. 

Olympus E-1 was launched in 2003, being the first ever digital interchangeable lens camera from Olympus. It features a new image sensor format, the Four Thirds system, and was the forefather of the current Micro Four Thirds system - E-1 was where it all began. Olympus promised smaller, lighter system with new lenses designed from ground up being fully optimised for digital photography. 

E-1 features superbly rugged build with magnesium alloy body housing, picking it up in hand you will feel how solid and densely built the camera is, it was like a tank. You can break someone's skull with the camera and you won't find a dent on it. The camera is also weather-sealed, with multiple locks and seals on the camera openings for memory card slot and battery compartment. Using the camera feels very reassuring, it inspires confidence, something that a lot of smaller and lighter modern DSLR or mirrorless cameras lack of these days. 

The E-1 has a Kodak 5MP CCD image sensor, somewhat a legendary image sensor that has good reputation in rendering very organic, pleasing looking colors. Kodak color science was indeed something truly special, coming from their vast experience of making and manufacturing films, and also their expertise in printing business. I did find the colors very pleasing coming out from the E-1, it was slightly on the warmer side, so a bit of tweaking in white balance was needed, not a big issue at all. The skin tones come out very natural and beautiful, and the overall colors were vibrant, punchy yet maintaining a true to life feel. The blues look absolutely stunning, and the greens and reds were rich and gorgeous. Perhaps that was the special characteristics of a CCD image sensor, something that may not be able to be easily replicated in the more modern CMOS sensors. 

I had two lenses accompanying the E-1, the ZD 50mm F2 Macro and ZD 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 which was originally a kit lens from my Olympus E-520, yes I still keep it around. Both lenses were more than sufficient for my street photography adventures, the 14-42mm taking care of most of my wide angle needs, and the 50mm F2 macro does wonders in getting close up tight portraits, giving that compressed background with shallow depth of field rendering. Both lenses are still very sharp, and this was surprising, even with just 5MP, the images came out looking crisp and detailed. Perhaps, lens is a lot more important than what people give credit for - too many emphasis was given on how good the image sensor should be - we forgot that the lens is contributing more in rendering a realistic, pleasing looking image. 

What the E-1 excels, and the true Olympus DNA I can still see in today's modern cameras such as OM-D E-M1 series (E-M1X, E-M1 Mark II, III), is the camera ergonomics and handling, That beefy grip on E-1 fits my hands perfectly. There was sufficient area for my fingers to wrap around, and holding the camera feels so comfortable, it was as if the camera was molded for my hands. This is a camera making art which was somehow lost to non traditional camera makers - new brands trying to make modern cameras but the handling of the camera often feels like an after-thought. The E-1 is the best example of how to make a camera that handles extremely well. I am glad the same fit and comfort carries on in E-M1 series cameras today.

Shooting with the E-1 was quite an experience. Not having all the modern features stripped the camera down to very basics. No EVF - What you see is what you get, no 5-Axis IS, no blazing fast AF, no hundreds of AF points to choose from, no flipping LCD screen, no live view - it felt like I was somewhat a little crippled in the beginning. However, I started photography with E-520, so I was well versed with Olympus earlier DSLR cameras - the E-1 was not that far behind my E-520. Shooting through an optical viewfinder was not the best experience, I am too used to the convenience and versatility of bigger, brighter EVF. The optical viewfinder seems dark and less intuitive to use. The 3 AF points was almost laughable now in 2020, I only used the center AF point, but it does get it's job done. The focusing was not fast, but good enough for most of my shots taken under bright Malaysian sun, so getting the shot, nailing the right moment was not an issue. Perhaps the biggest concern during the whole shooting experience was the tiny, low resolution LCD screen - it was impossible to tell if my images were in perfectly sharp focus or not. With such low resolution, I cannot check for critical focus accuracy, and I just have to trust the camera to get the shot for me. Thankfully, most of the time, the camera did not fail me. 

People would have been so quick to comment that the 5MP old image sensor is useless today. I choose to disagree. I was actually very impressed with what the 5MP CCD Kodak sensor can do. Megapixels is not the entire story. 

Let's talk resolution. If you are viewing the images or videos in full HD screen or Quad HD screen, then you should be ok, 5MP still has a lot of pixels to go around, and images look perfectly fine. However, if you have 4K screen or higher then the 5MP may not be enough to fill your screen adequately, and you need at least 8MP full sized image to have a sharp display on 4K full screen. 

When I look at the images that I shot with the E-1, if I do not pixel peep, they don't look low resolution at all. The clarity, tonality, color depth, overall sharpness came out very good. Even scrutinising the images at 100% magnification, at pixel level, the images still look pleasingly sharp with plenty of fine details, excellent contrast and beautifully natural rendering. I don't see how the 5MP images were not sufficient for small prints (up to A3, or even larger if you know what you are doing, printing is another different art and expertise), and definitely more than good enough for web display. Posting on social media, such as Instagram, Flickr or Facebook, the 5MP images from E-1 trumps any new 100MP images from modern smartphones, any day. I am not kidding. 

I also did not see much issue with dynamic range. At low ISO (100-200) there is plenty of headroom to play with, when I was stretching the shadows and highlights, recovering plenty of details with minimal penalty to the image. The only main concern was high ISO shooting, even at ISO400, the images show visible noise, which gets worse if the image was wrongly exposed. I can say the same with smartphones today, or even worse, I have not seen clean ISO400 images from smartphones, in fact I'd argue that the dinosaur E-1 does better ISO800 than any ISO400 on smartphones in 2020. 

I was very happy with the images shot with the E-1. I won't hesitate to use this camera for my own shutter therapy sessions. And if resolution or high ISO are not the main concerns, I don't see how E-1 won't get a professional photography job done! 

I am not saying we should not progress or camera manufacturer's should not push further in terms of innovation and technology. Far from it. I think we, the photographers should appreciate what we have and start to focus more on photography. Ming Thein has been discussing on sufficiency many times over the years, and I have also mentioned similar points here before. Our cameras today are good enough, we should definitely focus more on our craft, and improve our own skills. Having more megapixels, wider dynamic range, and cleaner high ISO won't take your photography to the next level. Your photography journey starts when you stop obsessing about gear, and start appreciating what you have. I think the E-1 is truly a capable camera, I don't see how anyone won't be able to make great images with it. 

I have had so much fun being able to go out and shoot. Shutter therapy fixed a lot of problems in my life. I will continue to go out at least once (more of course, but minimally, once) a week and go full on crazy street shooting mode. I sure hope you have enjoyed my Kuala Lumpur images, I know there is nothing shout-worthy about them, they won't win photo-contests or any awards, but those are not what I aim to do here. If I shoot to win for competitions or stress myself out to get exhibited, I would have lost the fun of just shooting for fun. Photography should be enjoyable, personal and rewarding by itself without the need to be validated by any third party. 

An old portrait of me holding the E-1 with pancake 25mm F2.8, shot by Matti Sulanto. I don't have the pancake lens anymore, gave it to a friend to encourage her to shoot more with her Olympus DSLR, since she complained she did not have the right lens to do so. I hope she found good use with the lens. 

Do you own an Olympus E-1, or have you used it before? Please share your thoughts!

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  1. A newspaper saw my photos with the Olympus UZI around 20 years ago and begin buying event photos from me. Around a year ago, they asked for the originals for some of them (on 3½ floppies) for a book. I also got a check for use of them in the book. That is a 2 mpx camera. I still shoot it today as it takes AA cells and a special battery. It is not about the megapixels. I grew up with center and recompose. Which worked fine until their were so many megapixels, lens curvature required a change. Enjoyed reading about the E1 again. I bought an EM1 just so I could use the 50/2 along with the F2 zooms and the 50-200/2.8-3.5. I am not sure what Olympus was thinking, but those lenses still are great on 20mp sensors of today. Makes me wonder how many megapixels todays lenses can support. It seems Olympus was always building for the future.

  2. I know this is a nit to pick, but the E-1 was the first Olympus interchangeable lens DSLR.

    The E-10 and E-20 were earlier fixed-lens Olympus DSLRs.

    1. I thought E-1 was the first interchangeable lens digital camera from Olympus? Not just DSLR.

  3. Thanks Robin
    for this post!
    The need for emphasis on photography rather than tech is great!
    And your photos do help to prove that the tech development has had far less importance than is usually assumed (except for some special needs).

    As to printing large, e.g. Keith Cooper has written much on printing very large from as little as 2 Mpx,

    CCD vs. CMOS ?
    I've always wondered if the good colours from CCDs come more from the sensor or from the Bayer filtering. Has perhaps the race for higher low light performance resulted in less dense Bayer colour filters, which would make it more difficult to produce accurate colours? Or did already CCDs suffer from this?

  4. I just love it. I bought one of the very first obtainable in Sweden in November 2003, with the 14-54 and the FL-50 flash, complemented a year later with the original 50-200. Still functioning flawlessly after well over 17 years. Although my main shooter is E-M10 since I bought that one early 2015 (very soon to be complemented with E-M10 Mk II on clearance sale at the Olympus Shop), I always marvel over the feel and image quality with E-1 when I pick it up. As you say -- there is something very special about E-1. Build and ergonomics are second to none, but what really makes it is this Kodak sensor. E-1 is indeed no speed monster in any respect -- it is more like classic film cameras. 1600 ISO/ASA is the highest setting in my trusted OM-1n and OM-4, and image stabilization -- what's that? Yet some of the best shots I have taken are with these antiquated cameras. A good camera is a good camera, it's as simple as that. E-1 is one of those. I love it.

  5. In my comment above I forgot to thank you for all your posts and reviews about the Olympus M43 system! I have followed you for years and it has always been interesting and a great resource as well. To be precise, I bought my E-1 on Nov 3rd 2003 so it's not 'well over 17 years' but rather well over 16 years. Anyways: The only issue I have had with my E-1 was in the beginning when the rubber around the IR sensor started to loosen up. This was quickly solved under warranty by Olympus in Portugal. Let me here add that the Olympus support is still exemplary: When I last week had some questions regarding an upcoming purchase of the E-M10 kit clearance sale via the Olympus Shop I called Olympus support (in the Czech Republic), was connected within less than two minutes and had my questions answered by a very knowledgeable person. This is how customer support should work.

    1. Not E-M10 clearance sale (already have that one) -- E-M10 Mk II, of course!

  6. The E-1 had one of the best built ergonomics, menus (Olympus menus now are overcomplicated) and color from that sensor. Indeed a great camera.

  7. They could remake that pancake redesigned for micro four thirds. Weathersealed and tiny. Close focusing. Tiny. Would be amazing on our latest cameras. I had the E3. And before the E1 the C5050. All beautiful cameras.

  8. As someone just venturing into photography what a great read this was - and what great pictures from a 16 year old camera! That was inspiring. Thank you!

  9. Oh those gorgeous Kodak colours! How I wish the Kodak Board had made better choices in their CEOs.

  10. Really enjoyed this one Robin. I am into clock repair and use my Olympus E330 7.5mp Kodak sensor (1st Olympus camera with Live view) paired with the 50mm F2 macro almost every day for close-up shots. The E330 came out about 2-3 years after the E1. I have more modern cameras like the Fuji XT-30 but the E330 holds its own very nicely.

  11. From Switzerland Hi Robin.
    Thanks for your wonderful an lovely comments for the Olympus E-1. Now ist March 2021 ans my 2003 Brandnew bought E-1 is always in use and in very good brandnew condition. I like the excellent build quality, the good feelig in my hand ans alsi the "sexy" smooth sound of his shutter. By the way, some of the BLM-1 Batteries form 2003 are also in use !! At no time i will give this materpiece away. The same love goes to my E-3. Made in China but also in excellent condition.
    5 or 10 megapixel ? Thats nostalgic hystory and not important. Wonderful ! I say this as an 76 years old professional photgrapher with experience with 150 mp PhaseOne for my daily work. 5 mp E-1 pictures are very impresssiv.
    Thanks Robin for your sympatic videos.