I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “classic” digital camera – resale values certainly seem to suggest otherwise for all but a few exceptions generally sold by a well-known German manufacturer. But the Olympus E-1 which began the Four Thirds system must surely come close. I remember the first time I handled an Olympus E-1 in 2007. Many fans of the camera probably still do. OK, it’s not quite a “where were you when…” moment, but not so far off for me in terms of photographic kit.
After dipping a toe in the waters of digicams with an Olympus Camedia 3MP camera (which I recall was surprisingly capable at smaller print sizes), I had rekindled a photography interest after a lull since my student days, but the results simply weren’t up to what I was used to from film. The E-1, dating back to 2003, had become quite a venerable old beast by the time I could afford one – with the last few “SE” kits including the less than stellar 14-45 3.5/5.6 lens selling for less than £300; a small proportion of the original cost of a camera that had been aimed much more at the professional end of the market, rather than the entry level 6MP plastic dSLRs it was now matched against.
I was hooked within moments, and although I’ve tried to wean myself off the E-1 on more than one occasion since, I’m afraid I’ve failed miserably – one look through the old photographs on my computer has been enough to send me back to EBay to atone from my sin of ever being so daft as to sell one in the first place! It’s as close as I’m ever going to get to understand what it must be like to give up smoking.
Eight years on and after owning more “capable” gear, the E-1 is the only dSLR I’ve still got. My most recent example is in mint condition with only around 3,000 shutter releases from new – an absolute bargain for around £100. It pairs very nicely with the 14-54ii f2.8/3.5 lens I already had, as well as a mark i Olympus 40-150 f3.5/4.5 purchased in great condition for the princely sum of £50.
By now, if you’re still with me, you’ll get the picture that this isn’t going to be a terribly balanced viewpoint of the camera – and I realise it’s sort of the digital photographic equivalent of driving something like a Morgan – but I’m hoping that this camera is going to last at least another eight years, and then some….
Perhaps it would be a good idea to get some of the negatives out of the way first…. The E-1 is certainly no speed-demon, and you have to wait a while for it to wake up after you switch it on. It’s a noise-box too, and best kept below ISO, erm, around 400 – perhaps 800 at a pinch if you’re feeling lucky. Oh, and don’t expect to spend much time chimping on the rear screen – it’s tiny (1.8″) and useless for anything other than confirming the framing of the image you’ve just made. You can only zoom in 4X so it’s hopeless for checking focus, and the brightness and colours are only a vague approximation of what your image will look like when you upload to your computer. Better to just ignore it and trust the camera…. Talking of focus, this camera is best for people who like to use the central focus point, focus and recompose. You do have a choice of three whole AF points, but barely worth the bother. And although it struggles to do so in low light, this camera is really best for autofocus only – the viewfinder is not great for manual focus lenses, and you’d notice the difference compared to APSC or modern mirrorless cameras.
You’ll find a lot of reviews of the E-1 tend to get the negatives out of the way first. Because despite all of them, it’s a wonderfully fun camera to use, and the results can so often far outperform your expectations from a sensor which is out-resolved by the average mobile ‘phone nowadays. So, what’s good?
The build and handling
This is like making photographs with a Rolex! The size, weight (some heft but not too heavy) and shape are perfect. The build quality is outstanding – better than any other camera I have used, although if you imagine something like a scaled-down Pentax 645Z you’d get the idea – and the thing feels bomb-proof. The top LCD is nicely angled towards the photographer, the chunky rubberised grip is perfect. Nice latches keep the waterproof doors for the memory card and battery compartments firmly closed.
There are dedicated buttons for just about everything too – they’re spread around a bit, but easy enough to get the hang of. It’s easy to see your settings from the top LCD and (thankfully given the awfulness of the rear screen) I honestly can’t remember the last time I used the menu system to do anything other than format the memory card.
In short, I know that a lot of Olympus users really wish that they’d updated this body rather than move towards the rather larger E3/5 – ironic that when Olympus were touting the benefits of using a slightly smaller sensor, Pentax were managing to cram their Shake Reduction and APSC sensor into the smaller K-7/5 body – I often thought that camera was a closer spiritual successor to the E-1 than anything Olympus made, at least until the EM-1 more recently.
Until the most recent mirrorless cameras with their electronic shutters, the E-1 simply had the quietest and best damped shutter of any system camera I’ve used – it works with such audible precision and contributes to the feeling that you are using a proper camera, rather than a clever miniature computer that is capable of taking great photographs.
At the lowest ISOs, the colours, tones and dynamic range from this old Kodak CCD sensor are superb. Ever had a camera that regularly blew the red channel? You’d have to try pretty hard to do that with the E-1. And compared to any of my more recent cameras, the ISO100 images from this camera simply look more natural, less “digital”. There’s a slight grain even at ISO100, but actually that gives the images a slightly more filmic quality, and to be honest sometimes a bit of texture can give an impression of sharpness and resolution that is rather lacking with a 5MP sensor. The camera is also wonderful for skin tones and portraits; alongside the quiet shutter and fabulous top-grade lenses that Olympus made, it is hardly a wonder that the E-1 was a favourite of many a wedding photographer.
After taking the E-1 out for a couple of spins this weekend, the other thing I’ve realised is that these files need hardly any work when they come out of the camera. Modern software has actually given the E-1 a new lease of life with better noise processing and improved sharpening algorithms but what was interesting last night when I played on the computer was that time after time, if I checked what it would do with “Auto Colour”, OnOne made no changes at all – it simply couldn’t improve on what had already come out of the camera. Lightroom made it worse. Quite simply, I spend less time to get better results from the E-1 than any of my other cameras.
By the way, all of these images – and the ones posted in the part i post yesterday – were made with the lowly 40-150 lens: a very respectable performer but not one that is going to really show the maximum capabilities of the camera.
So, in conclusion, this venerable camera is completely outclassed by anything you can buy today. Yet somehow I still return to it on a regular basis – there is a quality to the images I get from it that is unmatched by my other cameras, and it is simply far more enjoyable to use. With no “modes” or “art effects” its appeal is probably restricted to those of us who grew up with manual and semi-automatic film cameras. And It’s certainly not an obvious choice for rapid action sports or wildlife photography (especially the latter when you only have 5MP to play with and really want to preserve them at all costs). But it is wonderful in many other situations, and with the right processing it’s perfectly possible to get decent sized (up to A3) prints out of it; I have one in my kitchen which is placed next to a similar-sized print from a 14MP camera; they compare very favourably. If you see a good one, I’d urge you to give it a go – you might just remember exactly when you first picked it up…
By the way, don’t just take my word for it! Check out the links below:
Revisiting the past: the 2003 Olympus E-1