2003 was an exciting year for digital cameras. I remember it as being the turning point just before the DSLR became accessible to the masses; professional image quality was now theoretically within reach of everybody – well, assuming you had the knowledge to use it. If not, you could theoretically keep shooting until you did; and that’s just what I did. It’s also where my personal photographic journey began in earnest. APS-C dominated as the best compromise of sensor size and cost; the D1X and 1DS were king. On the high-speed, responsive, general purpose front were the Nikon D2H, Canon 1D and Olympus E-1 – though the latter raised a lot of eyebrows with its smaller sensor. In mid 2004, I remember putting heavy consideration into both the E-1 and D2H as a replacement for my broken D70; I remember liking the way the E-1 felt and shot, and especially the smoothness of the mirror, but I didn’t like the limited variety and cost of lenses, not to mention the relatively slow 3fps and limited AF system compared to the blazing-fast 8fps D2H and CAM2000 – on top of which, you had a huge variety of lenses – a lot of which were cheap and excellent. I went Nikon again, but have always had a seed of curiosity towards the E-1. It’s been ten years now. Olympus Malaysia managed to find one in a cupboard somewhere, and kindly lent it to me…
There will no doubt be an ensuing flurry of comments that accuse me of first having gone crazy, then secondly being a rabid Olympus fanboy that’s completely in their pocket. Fortunately, this is not a review of a hot, new product, which means perhaps more sense will prevail. Rather, think of it as a collection of rationalising thoughts along the following three themes:
- Old vs. new: how far have we come in the last 10 years?
- Is there anything the old gear did better?
- How much of a difference do the intangibles play in the creative process?
Still interested? Keep reading…
Firstly, the E-1 works. That’s no small feat given that most digital devices these days seem to succumb to mysterious maladies after just a couple of years of moderate use; in fact, a lot of things don’t work properly straight out of the box – A7R shutter vibration, or Df ergonomics, anybody? More interestingly, the D2H I bought instead of the E-1 is also long dead; it succumbed to moisture in late 2006. My impressions of the E-1 from the numerous hours fondling it at various camera shops still hold: it’s incredibly well built; the metal is of a very thick gauge, seam tolerances are tight, and everything just feels, well, solid. Everything is gasketed,has interlocks, or requires overcoming a positive detent to release. Few modern cameras are built to that level anymore; only the D4 and 1DX come to mind. Sorry Olympus, but it’s quite a notch up from the E-M1. That of course means weight, though; a bit of weight isn’t a bad thing because it means sufficient mass to dampen shutter vibrations – not that the E-1 needs it; it still has one of the smoothest and quietest mirror/shutter mechanisms I’ve ever used*. Granted, it manages only 3fps.
*It doesn’t take the cake for least vibration; that goes to the slightly louder F6 – however, the F6 has a mirror balancer counterweight which means it has very little recoil. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the F6 will run at 8fps and has to wind film, too.
Speed is not the E-1’s forte; it takes a second or so to start up – long enough to be noticeable but not so long as to be annoying – and focusing doesn’t seem very confident. It’s of moderate speed, but questionable accuracy – and there are only three points. It isn’t as slow as I remember it being, but I think it’d probably lose to any entry-level DSLR in pure responsiveness – let alone the E-M1. The LCD is tiny – just 1.8″ – and pretty much useless. It has terrible dynamic range and cannot be used to judge exposure, colour or critical focus. There is no histogram or overexposure warning on instant review (though you can get it through a slightly unintuitive hold-info-and-turn-command-dial procedure during playback). Zoom is woefully inadequate, the menus are primitive, and the clock has a mind of its own – one day it’s 2001, the next it’s Christmas 2067. Good thing it has external buttons for just about everything you’d need to set, then. In fact, the best way to shoot this camera is with the LCD off, and treat it like it’s got film in it.
Despite the haphazard placement of the external controls, they’re actually quite logical: all of the things you need to set fall easily to hand, with the most important things under your fingers in the natural grip position – if you have larger hands. (This must be the ONLY Olympus camera that was designed that way – and with sensible strap lug positions, too!) I have a bit trouble reaching the rear command dial without shifting my grip, some of the buttons on the top plate are a stretch, and the bottom right corner digs into my palm. On the whole though, it feels right in the hand; the kind of camera that makes you want to pick it up and take some pictures.
There’s an interesting clue to their priorities here: Olympus initially promised ‘smaller, lighter’ with the Four Thirds system, but honestly failed to deliver until the E-400 series, and I think only really fulfilled the promise with the OM-Ds; but the E-1 has two white balance buttons. There are no presets; you can only set Kelvin temperature and auto, but one of those white balance buttons is a ‘one touch WB’ – aim it at something you intend to be neutral in the final image, and presto – perfect colour. (The E-M1 now has this as default preset for one of the front function buttons, too.) If that doesn’t give you a hint, how about this one: the 5MP Kodak sensor in this camera is a CCD. It is based on – or perhaps rather the others are based on it – the same architecture as the Leica M8, M9 and Hasselblad CFV-39. These cameras have one thing in common: a very natural tonal response, and with the right (i.e. sufficient) UVIR filtration, very natural colour – with the CFV-39 implementation being the best of the lot, which is not surprising as it’s also the most recent. And that neatly brings me to the other reason for my curiosity over the E-1. The D2H might have been fast, but colour was at best ‘punchy’ and at worst, quite simply all over the place.
B&W conversions have excellent tonality and require very little work, providing you didn’t overexpose anything – if you did, your image is probably toast as this older generation of sensors doesn’t transition to overexposure in a smooth, natural way. The same is true for all cameras based on this architecture – the M8/9 were notorious for harsh blooming and artefacts around very bright objects in frame. Personally, I feel the first cameras that did handle overexposure naturally were the D3/D700.
So how did the E-1 do? I think the images in this article speak for themselves. So long as you don’t exceed ISO 400 (higher ISOs are at least 1.5-2 stops behind the E-M1 at the pixel level, let alone modern full frame cameras), dynamic range is decent, and colour is very pleasing; it handles subtle tonal transitions very well indeed. Better still if you nail exposure, which I feel is much like shooting slide film – there is no useful feedback from the camera whatsoever (remember that LCD?). Like the CFV-39, and unlike modern CMOS cameras, if you get everything right, almost no work is required to produce your final output. By comparison, even D800E/Otus files require a decent amount of work to produce natural tonality and accurate colour. Resolution is a bit of a bummer, though: not only do we have just 5MP to work with, the antialiasing filter is fairly strong, which means that fine detail is a bit soft. Very high quality prints might be a challenge at anything over 5×7″, especially with the new print process I’m experimenting with. To make things worse, my sample appears to focus somewhat inconsistently; mostly overly front-biased. I’m starting to think that older cameras didn’t have better AF modules than newer ones: we just didn’t have the resolution to tell that things were slightly out of focus.
It is perhaps a little oxymoronic to talk about ‘vintage modern digital’, but that’s pretty much what these cameras are; they’re in that phase after they are still competitive/ useful, and before they become retro cult objects – assuming they survive that long, and we can still get batteries and parts for them. I’ve been fortunate enough to use some pretty incredible gear on a regular basis; very surprisingly, the E-1 isn’t really disappointing; in fact, on the camera-ness front – haptics, tactility, build-feel etc. – it gets a lot of things very right. I very much enjoyed the experience of shooting with it, and the colour it produced – even if the files were a bit lacking on the resolution and acuity front, and the digital portion of the camera was a total disaster.
Here’s an interesting thought: it’s possible to find second hand bodies for around the $150 mark. Add a good lens – the 14-54/2.8-3.5 is a good match, and similarly weather sealed – for another $250 or so. Total spend: ~$400. You’d spend a bit more for a plastic fantastic entry level Nikon, Canon or mirrorless camera now. Technical image quality would be higher, but the lens wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, surprisingly, the viewfinder on the E-1 is better, and you’d gain 1-2 stops plus some reach on kit lenses with the 14-54. But here’s the thing: I guarantee you you’ll have a more enjoyable photographic experience with the E-1; you’d have to pay a lot more to get similar build-feel. I wouldn’t recommend any serious photographer go out and buy one now – Four Thirds seems like a stagnant, if not completely dead system – but maybe it actually makes sense for a beginner to consider, especially if they’re not printing. Having to work on shot discipline to make the most of your pixels and get your exposure right is not a bad thing at all, and these are skills that will continue to serve well when moving up the image quality ladder.
I’m going to conclude with one final point: though there’s no question that we’ve moved leaps and bounds ahead on technical image quality potential (the current same-sensor-size flagship E-M1 is easily two stops cleaner, has two to three stops more dynamic range, three times the resolution – perhaps more, since it has no AA filter) and features (in-body IS, wifi, touch panels, EVFs that are bigger than full frame optical finders, high frame rates, much faster AF, video etc) – if anything, I think we’ve gone backwards in the camera-ness department. I realise this is highly subjective – but I don’t quite get the same experience or feel with the E-M1; there’s a similar difference between the F6 and D800E. It’s as though some of that cost cutting has now become tangible: metal is thinner gauge, buttons are less tactile, mirror/shutter mechanisms aren’t as refined. Again, perhaps it’s just me, but I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for a better tactile experience, especially at the professional end of the spectrum – it’s not as though a D800E or D4 is exactly cheap to begin with. Forget faux-retro like the Df; perhaps to seriously move forwards, camera manufacturers should take a serious look into their own (recent) history. MT
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