Olympus E-1 Hands-on Second Opinion

Phil: Don't miss the gallery that goes with this article, click here. Images on this page are from the E-1 used, all are in Adobe RGB color space, all are around 3.5 MB each. Note that this second opinion was written before the final review on an almost-production camera.

A Day (or three) at the Races
By Les Freed

Is the E-1 a pro-level camera? Right from the start, Olympus has maintained that the E-1 is indeed a professional camera capable of producing high-quality images under the most demanding of conditions. To prove their point, Olympus invited 7 pro photographers and photo industry journalists to attend the United States Grand Prix Formula I races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past weekend. Olympus provided each of us with an E-1 body and 14-54mm lens. We also had access to several flash units, several 50-200mm zoom lenses and two 300mm telephoto lenses.

The cameras were described to us a being final hardware, and near-final firmware. I used two different cameras during the event, both with firmware version 4040. There were no restrictions on our use of the camera, so we were (for the first time) free to publish any images and test results from the event.

I can't think of a more demanding event to test a camera. During the three day event, our cameras were subjected to rain, dozens of lens changes, the occasional hard knock, and very heavy use. The weather ranged from clear and sunny to heavy rain - sometimes within minutes of each other. An Olympus technical representative was present to help with questions and offer suggestions, but we were otherwise free to shoot at our leisure.

One of the key points of the Four Thirds system is that the smaller sensor allows for smaller lenses, which in turn makes for smaller cameras. On the outside, the E-1 doesn't look substantially smaller than similar SLR cameras. But after spending three days carrying the E-1 around (with the 50-200mm lens attached for the majority of the time), I wasn't worn out from carrying my gear around.

The Camera

Although I had previously used an E1 for a week, the F1 race was the first extended, all-day shoot I've done with the camera. Unlike the paid pros working the race, my career wasn't on the line. But I was there to put the E-1 to the test, so I treated the race weekend as I would any other assignment - which meant that I had to get some decent pictures.

My first concern was shooting fast-moving race cars with a relatively unfamiliar camera system. It's one thing to shoot static subjects with a new camera, but race cars running at 200 MPH are much more difficult to shoot. To further complicate matters, my best vantage point was at the beginning of the turn coming into the straight-away, just above the entrance to pit row. Unfortunately for me, there is a large safety fence around the turn to protect infield fans from loose tires and track debris.

The Fence

While I had an unobstructed view of the cars as they passed in front of me, I had to track the cars through the fence and press the shutter release as soon as they cleared the fence. Normally, I would simply switch to manual focus, pre-focus on the spot at the end of the fence, and not even bother with autofocus. But I saw this as an excellent opportunity to test (and possibly torture) the E-1's autofocus system.

Because the fence was closer than the track, the E-1 dutifully locked focus on the fence as I followed the cars around the curve, just as you would expect. But as soon as the cars cleared the fence, the camera refocused on the car in an instant. I repeated this test dozens of times with both the 50-200mm and 300mm lenses. The camera achieved perfect focus nearly every time.

My second concern was battery life. My camera had the standard battery pack, not the much larger pack that comes with the accessory grip. While spare batteries were available if I needed them, the stock of spares was located about 1/2 mile away from the best shooting position. If my battery died, I'd have to walk a mile round-trip, possibly missing some of the best photo opportunities of the day. Fortunately, I never needed the spares. During the first two days of the race weekend, I shot nearly 1200 images. At the end of both days, the battery pack was still going strong, despite my shooting in continuous focus mode with very heavy use of the playback LCD.

Thanks to the iffy Indy weather, I inadvertently had a chance to test the E-1's weatherproofing. On two separate occasions, I got caught in the rain with the E-1, once with the 50-200mm lens, and once with the 300mm. Although the equipment didn't get completely soaked, it did get a good splashing with no ill effects.

The Lenses

I had the opportunity to use three lenses - the 14-54, 50-200, and 300mm - during the race. Despite the huge difference in size, I did not notice any difference in focusing speed among the three lenses.

After a day with the 14-54mm lens, you realize why the venerable 28-105mm lens is so popular with 35mm shooters. The 14-54 offers E-1 shooters that same versatile range of focal lengths. Many E-1 buyers will be able to mount this lens on their camera and leave it there permanently. It is wide enough for group photos and building exteriors, and long enough for informal head-shot portraits. While not a true macro lens, it focuses as close as 22cm (8.7") at all focal lengths - close enough for quick detail shots.

The 50-200mm lens was my main lens during the races. The included lens hood makes this lens look bigger than it really is, but at 1070g (2.4 lbs), it is lighter than I expected it to be. The zoom mechanism on my sample lens was smooth but slightly stiff. The images from this lens were very sharp at all focal lengths with excellent contrast and color.

Shutterbug's Joe Farace admiring his work with the 300 f/2.8. Interesting flash technique, Joe!

The 300mm f/2.8 telephoto lens is currently the longest lens in Olympus' line-up. This lens has a field of view of 4.2°, similar to a 600mm lens on a 35mm camera. With a weight of 3.3 Kg (7.2 lbs.), few people would call this a lightweight lens. Fortunately, I brought along a monopod to help carry (and steady) the big lens.

All of the E-1 lenses use an electronic "focus by wire" system, similar to the system used in the E-10 and E-20 cameras. When you turn the manual focus ring on these cameras, you aren't really focusing the camera; you are simply turning an electronic dial that sends a signal back to the camera body. The body senses the signal and sends another signal to the focus motor in the lens. This sounds complicated, but it happens instantaneously. The only difference most people notice is that the manual focus ring has a very light touch.

I used the 300mm in manual focus mode about half of the time. I'm accustomed to manual focus Mamiya and Nikon cameras, both of which focus in the opposite direction from the Olympus. As a result, I kept turning the focus ring the wrong way out of habit. At lunch on the first day, the Olympus rep pointed out an E-1 menu option to reverse the focusing direction, and I was back in business.

The 300mm produced some of the best images I've seen from the E-1. Sharpness was excellent, even at the corners of the frame. When the light was good enough, I jettisoned the monopod and shot handheld to get a better feel for the combined weight of the E-1 and the big lens. The tripod foot (shown turned upside down in the picture above) makes a convenient handhold to help steady the lens.

The Verdict

From the very start, Olympus has asserted that the E-1 system was designed specifically for working pro photographers. Many industry observers - and dpreview.com forum regulars - have expressed their doubts about the E-1's "pro" status.

So what is a professional-level camera? By the strictest definition, any camera that produces saleable images is a pro camera, be it a Canon EOS-1Ds or a Diana toy camera. Your own personal definition will depend on your shooting style.

There are other cameras that are clearly better suited for shooting motorsports, including the Canon 1D, Nikon D1H, and the upcoming D2H. These cameras all have much faster frame rates than the E-1, allowing pro photographers more chances to capture that one killer shot. But the E-1 managed to hold its own, delivering a very high percentage of in-focus, properly exposed "keeper" images.

There's no question that the Olympus E system doesn't offer nearly as many lens and flash options as the Canon and Nikon product lines. But on the plus side of the ledger, the E-1 system covers an effective 28 to 400mm (35mm equivalent) with just two light, compact lenses. If you enjoy carrying a bagful of lenses around with you, this isn't your camera. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a capable digital SLR system that lightens your load, the E-1 deserves a hard look.

Les Freed