The Olympus E-1 offers a large variety of settings which of course one can expect from a digital camera of this (price) level. The choices as for which setting might be used are based on the experience in practice. We still discover regularly that a setting of a camera can be made roughly and therefore we wish for a more refined method. Take the exposure compensation for example, a function that is available on most digital cameras but in general can be set from 1/3 EV in 2 steps minus or plus. The E-1 offers a playground of 5 steps with a choice to select from between 1, 1/2 or 1/3 EV precisely, always handy in a situation where a precise exposure has priority. A variable exposure compensation is a nice feature but it should not be the only nice thing! An important weapon in the arsenal of a digital camera is the possibility of setting a correct white balance. The designers of the E-1 have taken the trouble to enable a correct white balance in every thinkable situation. There is a large number of settings for the white balance function; however some lower Kelvin values can still be applied. At first glance there only seem to be three settings possible, but there are more, hidden away in another layer. Beside the automatic white balance setting the E-1 also has the "One-touch" white balance. Take a white piece of paper and measure the white balance again under the light circumstances that the image has to be taken, quick and efficient! Beside that the camera has a pre-set white balance; the possibility to manually set the white balance at the exact right colour temperature. It varies from 3000, 3300, 3600, 3900, 4000, 4300, 4500, 4800, 5300, 6000, 6600 until 7500 Kelvin (K). These settings have an extra manually settable compensation.
3300K – Tungsten light 3600K – Incandescent maintaining the atmospheric light 4000K – White Fluorescent 4500K – Neutral Fluorescent 5300K – Daylight, bright day 6000K – Daylight, cloudy in combination with flash 6600K – Daylight in combination with fluorescent light 7500K – Sunny weather in combination with shadow
The Olympus has an automatic focus as well as a manual one. A bit disappointing is the fact that the E-1 only has only 3 focus points. You'd expect a multiplicity of focus points on a camera on a professional level. Nevertheless the camera focuses accurately sharp, the speed is pleasant and direct. Now and again it can happen that a windows shutter vertical lines turns out to be a difficult subject for focussing. And I have to say that in my opinion the AF fails just a few times too many. The three focus points can be selected mutually which is useful when doing studio shots so the camera can stay at the same spot. And exactly in a situation like this a selection from various different focus points would be required! Beside the one image focus or the manual focus it is also possible to set the camera to continuous AF. This way the camera anticipates on the movement of the object and the AF point maintains concentrating on the correct distance between the object and the camera. A useful function to support the E-1 in difficult focussing situations in twilight is the AF assistant illuminator.
The camera has an aperture and shutter priority, like we expect from a digital reflex and beside that the M (manual) and P (Program). This selection can be made by the main switch on top of the camera. The small button in the middle has to be pushed down to be able to make a choice, very clumsy and speed reducing; they could have changed this as far as I am concerned. Why not just turning heavily with a clear click in the command dial?
The various light metering settings of the camera offer an option for every situation. Digital ESP metering ESP, Centre weighted metering and Spot metering are available. The test images made by the E-1 show a series of well-exposured images. The divers situations, like a sunny location on Mallorca until the indoor images in an old factory can be made without a problem, the Olympus E-1 does it all.
The ISO settings vary from ISO 100, 200, 400, 800 up until 1600 and 3200 ISO. The lower ISO values are perfect, noise free until 400 ISO, at 800 ISO small forms of noise appear, however not very disturbing. At the higher ISO values noise is clearly present. I have to mention the fact that when using the higher ISO value usually the priority lies on the possibility of taking an image under very difficult light circumstances and not on making a noise free image. Of course it would be perfect to have a noise free 1600 ISO, but we all know that higher ISO values are far from perfect. Image editing afterwards works wonders!
The default settings of the Olympus E-1 offer a 'soft' result but with some image editing using the proper software a nice sharpness comes forward. It is possible to give the camera the command to increase or decrease sharpness, contrast or colour saturation when taking the picture. A perfect setting does not exist, there are many users and as many preferences. Personally I prefer taking RAW format images, to store the highest possible quality in RAW format. Well, ok, it costs time to edit these images after the event but the result is astonishing.
The E-1 has two different noise reduction systems at slow shutter times: first the noise oppressor that reduces image noise at long shutter times, (2 seconds or longer) through the 'black frame' method and the second method starts to operate when using high ISO values. A double reduction of the notorious noise. This system works properly, colour noise is all right and the general noise values are fine. Of course we'd like to see this feature disappear completely, but reality learns that noise still exists, in spite of all the techniques and innovations.
A function that is usually rarely found but available on the Olympus E-1 is the possibility to convert RAW data into JPEG. It takes place inside the camera and corrections concerning white balance, contrast, sharpness etc can be made.
Professional digital cameras don't feature a built-in flash, nor does the Olympus E-1. I would have preferred a built-in one. It is said, almost disdainfully, that a professional camera should not have a built-in flash. However, some situations just ask for a small fill in flash, even under sunny weather circumstances, because those are the situations where the large external flash has been left at home for the convenience of not carrying it around. The marketing of the E-1 is hammering on the professional side of the camera, and doesn't leave compactness and weight unmentioned. Personally I would really appreciate a built-in flash, but we should not forget that the E-1 is the first camera of the Four Thirds system. No doubt we will see an entry level model of the Four Thirds system soon, that won't need a discussion about a built-in flash anymore! At this moment there is already a big choice of flashes for the E-1: FL-50, FL-40 and the compact FL-20 flash, and beside that the attention also goes to: a ring flash, twin flash and various flash accessories. Beside the hot-shoe on top of the camera it also has an external flash connection for example for studio flashes etc.
At the time of writing this review, December 2003, there are some 5 lenses available for the Four Thirds system; 11-22mm, 14-54mm, 50-200mm, 300mm en the 50mm macro, with a ring in between and a 1.4x telephoto converter. The expectations for 2004 are the appearance of an amount of new lenses; let's say for example a standard objective (25mm). Those who want to make a comparison to the traditional 35mm lenses can multiply the above mentioned mm's 2x to get to the equivalent of a 35mm lens. One of the advantages achieved with the Four Thirds System is the compact size that is especially obvious on a 300mm lens.
It may be clear that the Olympus E-1 can face every situation! There are numerous settings with lots of layers; a broad white balance and exposure finish the job nicely. Still the feeling stays that the E-1 is more like a semipro camera than a professional one. It is definitely not the finishing touch, things like histogram, resolution and for example the speed of image storage when taking series of images tend towards semi-professional.