Secrets of Digital Photography

Super dSLR! 4-15-04



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Olympic Achievement

How could I have been more excited? A dSLR in a fixed-chip-size 4:3 format?

The numbers that describe the format aren't particularly helpful, unless you think of the fixed size of the chip as being two times the dimensions of a 2/3-inch chip, but even that's not quite it.

Chip nomenclature is old. So old that it really only works for vidicon tubes from the 1950s and 60s. Today's 2/3-inch chips are really about 6.7 x 8.9mm, so the link to the inch thing is way off, as far as comparing the two ideas. The 4:3 chip is about 13.5 x 18 mm of active image sensors, potentially making the camera smaller, with smaller, lighter interchangeable lenses.

Olympus has a history of shrinking cameras. Long, long ago in a galaxy far away, they produced a half-frame 35mm called the Pen F. So small that it didn't have a pentaprism roof on it. It looked like a rangefinder camera with a protruding lens. But no viewfinder port pierced the face of its body. Several lenses fleshed out the system and it was cute indeed. Also, largely ignored by the public who saw those half-frame shots and turned up a blind nose to the idea. Still, it WAS cute.

I hoped the "smaller, lighter, sweeter dSLR" thing was in store for the 4:3 format, but only part of that came true in the E-1.

Its lens mount sits a few millimeters closer to the image plane than other dSLRs, but Nikon lens mounts are several millimeters smaller in diameter and Canon mounts are only a few millimeters larger in outside diameter.

The E-1 is about the same size as a Digital Rebel or D70 Nikon. It is, however, one of the finest built dSLRs you could touch. And the price is about the same as the 10D from Canon or the D100 from Nikon. $2300 gets you a body and lens at list price. Deals can be had.

One big mental advantage: 4:3 camera lenses use an exact 2:1 crop or magnification factor for estimating the viewing angles of optics. E.g; 50mm in E-1 speak = 100mm in 35mm camera speak. Olympus makes a lovely 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 zoom that behaves like a 100-400mm f/2.8-3.5 zoom on a 35mm camera, if you could find such a beast.

Obviously Olympus has put a major engineering team into the E-1 and its image quality competes favorably with the 6-megapixel cameras in this class. With a maximum frame of 2560 x 1920 pixels, it occupies the center 95% of useful space from those 3:2 aspect cameras' sensors, pixelwise.

Check it out. The reality is that 6M sensors have their extra pixels in relatively less-used "ears" on either side of the 3:4 aspect center area (the 6M frame here is 3072 x 2048 from a Digital Rebel. Nikon's 3008 x 2008 6M image is a micro-skosh smaller):

Ask yourself, "When was the last time I saw a picture in a magazine or book that was 3:2 aspect?" and when you can't remember one, join the club. Most 35mm and 3:2 aspect shots trim something away on their way to journalism, museum display, billboards, fashion magazines, calendars, brochures or even prints. Aspect ratio of an 8x10: 0.8:1. Aspect ratio of a 5x7: 0.71:1. Aspect ratio of a 3:2: 0.67:1. Nobody wins it all, except 4x6 prints.

I can't rave about the build quality of this camera, that and its ergonomic design touches add up to one fine system. Albeit a tad on the SUV side, not the sports car I'd hoped to see. Zooming is a pleasure with collars on the lenses that stay where you leave them and all the lenses are internal focus so they work well with tulip lens shades and polarizing filters.

The buttons are where you need them to be and it even has things like two scroll wheels to expedite button+scroll option selections.

Autofocus has three sensitive zones, clearly marked. But they're so close to each other that the idea is moot, even though you can select any one or all at which time the one seeing the closest subject dominates.

White balance presents a professional color temperature selection from 3000° K to 7800°K. As you select these, bold graphics present the choice on the monitor with icons for things like sun, flash, clouds, etc.

Images made by the E-1 look soft, at first, on your computer screen, but there's a well-considered reason for that. Olympus has avoided sharpening artifacts, never allowing the camera to potentially ruin images with in-camera over-sharpening that you would never be able to see as you reviewed images in the field. You can perk sharpening up to +2 for results comparable to other dSLRs (and I do). Beyond that, put the shots in your editing program where greater control can be better applied.

High in-camera sharpening is not something that fosters better looking pictures, except for snapshooters who don't edit and tweak their results and usually print small images. It's easy to print images up to the largest full-frame size that tabloid printers allow, in the 13 x 19 inch range (330 x 443mm). The E-1 is definitely geared toward professional users.

Images are also slightly dark, compared to other digicams set for the same ISO. Probably so the Oly pix can hang onto more highlight detail (reviewers have noticed this quite a bit).

Here's an example compared (rollover) with a Canon Digital Rebel shot made at the same time. It's difficult to get the two to cover the same "pixel area" so a tad of size change shows here.

Exposure is perhaps 1/2 stop lower and the distant circus tents show how much more highlight detail shows at the original, unaltered brightnesses. You can adjust either image in Photoshop to look like the other, but I favor the brighter look of the Canon.

You could set the E-1 to EV+0.5 if you wish (there's even a menu item to select between 0.5 EV and 0.3 EV exposure increments), just as you can perk up the sharpening. The Oly image here used +2 sharpening and the Canon used default 0 sharpening. At this setting I think I'm seeing just a tad better per-pixel detail with the Oly.

ISO 100, Program Exposure Mode, and both with a squinch of f/9.

The on-camera-body WB on the E-1 is wonderful. You point your lens at anything white and press the button. The camera looks only for the brightest subject matter and analyzes the color neutrality of that. A reference image shows up on the monitor and pressing the OK button locks the Manual WB to that reference. You can store up to four custom settings this way. Auto WB uses a separate sensor on the camera to hunt for clues as to the ambiant lighting's color temperature. While other cameras look at the picture for clues as to the right seeing for AutoWB, the Oly is looking for mixes of infrared and visible light to sort things out.

The camera gets an A, and the 14-54mm Zuiko lens gets a B+ to A. Points were subtracted for slight chromatic aberration that reversed itself over the zoom range.

Extra credit goes to this camera for having such great ergonomics, build and operation qualities, deep and feature rich menus and options (rear shutter sync, for instance, if you wish). More for the great tripod socket, monitor protector and viewfinder shutter.

Tiny demerits for slightly too complex latches on the CF card and Battery compartment doors, and one big point off for no flash on board. Yep, you have to take one with you, separately. Sigh. Gotta say it though, the optional smart flash FL-50 from Olympus is one killer unit. Full intelligent TTL, full zoom, full angle AND head rotation for bounce in ANY direction of your choice, long distance focus light, focal lengths geared to 4:3 cameras, ISO 25-3200, and AA battery power--and still about the size of most other external units.

In a perfect world this camera would have more focus sensors, more extensive in-viewfinder display, a built-in fill flash and easy CF card access.

At the price, though: Wow!

Read the news from the digital camera testers:

Imaging Resource: Here.

DP Review: Here.

Steve's Digicams: Here.

DP Now: Here.


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