Revisiting the past: the 2003 Olympus E-1

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Old flagship, meet new flagship. The E-M1 – and E-M5 – finally deliver on what the E-1 should have been.

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…

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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:

  1. Old vs. new: how far have we come in the last 10 years?
  2. Is there anything the old gear did better?
  3. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  1. I bought E-1 in 2003 in Singapore and am still using it! Partly good, but heavy!

  2. Ming, nice to discover this review, beautiful photos. I bought an E-1 a couple years ago and I continue to be amazed.

  3. Good review of what is now an old camera. My first digital SLR was an Olympus E-500. After handling an E-1 I reckoned that losing 3MP wasn’t too much of an issue. That was about eight years ago. I also thought that your comments on the screen were spot on. It’s really only any good for checking composition…. and you can do that through the viewfinder anyway. “Treat it as though it has film in it” is the way forward. Thanks for an excellent review.

  4. I’ve just gotten to reading this fine overview of the Olympus E-1, a camera that I still own and use from time to time. The “camera-ness” of the E-1, as you’ve indicated, is one of its strongest attributes; and it’s an extremely important one. Indeed, it’s totally and obviously missing from most of the DSLRs manufactured today and that have been manufactured in the past. Why Olympus abandoned the ergonomics of the E-1 when they moved to the E-3/E-5 cameras is a complete mystery to me. The feel in the hand is one of the reasons I continue to hold onto and use my E-1.

    But then there’s the IQ. Exceptional color rendering. Gobs of detail (with Olympus’ best lenses). Sufficient dynamic range to hold its own in most of the environments and situations worth photographing. And I have many time printed to 16 X 20 with few clues, if any, that the basis for the prints was a 5MP camera.’

    I also own the E-5 and an E-P5 (love the E-P5!), a Leica Digilux 2, a Fuji X10 and Canon 40D. If I could only keep one of them, it would most likely be the E-P5. But the E-1 would most certainly be my second choice!

    Thanks, Ming, for your reviews and all your hard work.

  5. Cool to read this, and for me timely.
    I used an E1 for several years in wet and dirty cave archaeology – alongside a Pentax Spotmatic as we were transitioning to digital. Both are built like tanks and totally serviceable and reliable for that kind of work. The E1 never let us down and could take a seriously wet sponging at the end of filthy day. I have fond memories of that camera.
    Now I am just learning the latest purchase for the field – an E-M1, bought in the hopes it can withstand the elements at least as well. If the weight and solid feeling of the E-M1 are anything to go by, it should take some rough treatment just fine. I do find that the colour balance needs quite a bit of work especially compared with my 5Dii. That was not the case with the E1 images, many of which I still work with from time to time. For the E-M1 it is something I expect can be easily fixed with a preset in post once I have worked with more images, so not a big issue. Also, the lens (12-40mm f2.8 pro) seems worrying loose when fully extended (I can feel a bit of a clicking motion when moving around with it extended) which may be this particular lens, or the lens design – I have yet to compare with another lens. The evf will take some getting used to, but it is serviceable.
    Overall the E-M1 is far more camera than the E1, as it should be with a decade of advances in technology. But, I agree on the ergonomics front which have not advanced much at all. The E-M1 does not have a satisfying feel and layout (partly because it is small, partly the design) and I say that as someone also shooting a lot with an original Pen (1960) and also an XA, neither of which are designed to feel good, except perhaps when cradled in the hand merely as an object.

    • Color balance: the 5DII I used wasn’t at all accurate, but it could have been ACR’s profile or the way the camera was set up. The E-M1 isn’t accurate either, but it’s probably tuned to be pleasing to most. You can always carry a grey card and assign one of the front buttons to one-touch WB though. E-1 has a different tonal response because it uses a CCD, not a CMOS.

      • What a ‘thumping good read’, thank you!! I always liked the look of the E-1 but couldn’t afford the price tag when new (using an old E-10 at the time). Having used EOS-1D and 1Ds mark II’s the last few years (keen amateur) seeing a good low mileage E-1 for silly money seemed too good to miss and used with the 14-54mm, 50-200mm and 50mm f2 actually gets more use than either of the Canon’s now. It handles, feels and sounds superb and is (to me at least) a pleasure to use. I originally bought it as a ‘holiday camera’ rather than carting either of the chunky Canon’s around and would not be too distressing if lost/stolen/damaged. After this years holiday on the coast of Croatia downloading and viewing my 1400 or so images to the iPad (with retina display) shows what superb IQ they have in all lights and the colours just seem to be what I saw at the time, (I seldom seem to get this with either Canon without post processing, something I don’t have a lot of time available for). Yes there is a little noise in the sky and they probably don’t enlarge to the size I could with the 1Ds but I’ve never been a ‘pixel peeper’ and I’m content to just flick through at iPad screen size and re-live a very enjoyable holiday. There is a temptation to sell some of the Canon gear to fund an EM1 but I remain a floating voter on that one at the moment, it certainly handles nicely with the 12-40 and probably even better with the battery grip (having slightly larger hands!!). Anyway, thank you again for a brilliant post.

        • A pleasure. The E-1s are definitely a bargain now. Too bad about the lack of pixels, but I agree that the colour is superb – I think it’s actually a function of that particular family of Kodak KAF CCDs, shared with the Leica M8/9, S2, Hasselblad CFV and a couple of other cameras.

  6. What an interesting and entertaining post. I think my Pentax K200D ticks all the boxes you wanted to have ticked by the old Olympus; the more I use mine the better I think it is. Reviewing vintage digital equipment would be a fascinating series. Your talent for making any camera sing is an inspiration for the more financially challenged among us.

  7. Great article.
    I shoot lots of photos with the old gem…probably close to 10% of photos last year and i own e5 and d700 plus lots of m4/3 bodies
    I usually take my E-1 when IQ is secondary to enjoying photography and experience of pure enjoyment.

  8. I think there is some logic to the DSLR development 10-15 years ago when they started to appear. At that time sensors were very expensive, even APS, and that was the reasonable compromise. But because they were so expensive, camera companies had to use cheaper components in their bodies to make them reasonably priced. Only the top 1D’s and D2’s did not make any (or many) compromises. Others used poor AF systems, small viewfinders, slow processors and small memory buffers, plastic bodies and buttons. Olympus had the problem that it did not have any AF system. OM was manual focus and Olympus still struggles after ten years of development. Canon and Nikon have much better AF system. Maybe the 4/3 sensor was a bit cheaper so they could build a better body for it. OM1 in the 70’s set a standard for viewfinders that most cameras still today fail to reach. Then there is the corporate politics to separate top, medium and bottom lines. Canon especially and Nikon to some extent makes it very clear that top end bodies have features that are missing from the lower models even if it would not cost them a cent to put them in. Sony, Olympus, Pentax, have not so much distinction in the pro and amateur lines so they can be more free to build the best cameras they can. Although some logic is missing there as well, for example in the placement of on/off button and some other switches. Gradual improvement would often be better than a complete redesign, but I suppose they have to make big design changes in every new model so it looks different enough to the buying public.

    • At the same time, too large a design change is going to alienate your existing user base; continuity is important, too. You don’t really want to spend lot of time re-learning controls and re-teaching your muscle memory. That said, there was a fairly large jump between E-1 and E-3, and now E-M5 and E-M1…

      • That is exactly the point, and problem. The old saying, don’t fix what isn’t broken is still true. By all means improve the focusing speed and low ISO performance when better technology comes along, but you dont have to move all the buttons in a camera to new places just to show that you have completely redesigned the camera. M Leica is a good example where only small changes have been made over generations, and when they tried to make a completely different M5, nobody wanted to buy it and they soon switched back to the old design in M4-2 which is little different from current models. Canon has done quite a good job with the 1D models but they are the top of the heap which they take very seriously.

  9. In the recent Email School post (, a commenter asks about using the E-M1 and 12-40/2.8 in wet conditions, and I relayed my impressions of using that combo, as well as the 50-200SWD and MMF-3 in a snowstorm. I wrote more, but decided this post is probably a better place for this comment than the other.

    The weatherproofing worked great in pretty trying conditions, and some specific comments about the 50-200 …

    BTW, you’re totally right about 4/3 lenses being huge and unwieldy. Haha — I guess I had to go out and actually use one to be convinced!

    The focusing is also significantly worse than any of my m43 lenses, which I was really surprised by, and with the difficulty of changing focusing points while wearing 3 layers of gloves, I’d say the lens was almost unusable in the conditions I was in. Almost half the time, the lens would rack focus from infinity to nearby and back and failed to get focus. I purposely placed the extra-small focus box on something with high contrast (black cable against white snow). When it got focus, it was never very confident as it would do the contrast-detect dance of zig-zag honing-in of focus. I know PDAF was on because the central cross area was shown, and those were the only focus points I could pick.

    The optical qualities as you’ve noted, while quite good for its time, has been surpassed by the current m43 lenses. Foreground bokeh was surprisingly ugly, looking almost like lens aberrations. I also would never use the 50-200SWD again without some kind of support. The IBIS works great on making sharp pictures, but the buffeting winds (up to 60 MPH with accompanying snow and ice) made it very difficult to keep the lens on target. It is definitely weatherproof, though. And its big hood is a great snow collector that I had to clean out before each shot!

    • Sorry for the stupid question, but what did you use the lens on? You’ll get hunting with anything other than the E-M1, and even then, it’s still not quite as good as the E-5 would have been. PDAF will work but it will hunt and be slow. But yes, as good as those lenses were back then – and we couldn’t really tell given sensor resolution limitations – the newer M4/3 dedicated glass is much better. That said, I am curious how the f2.0 zooms and the 150/2 would do – but not curious enough to deal with the enormous weight penalty. I might as well carry Zeiss primes and the D800E if pursuing ultimate image quality.

  10. Thanks for the review, I’ve thought about buying an E1 once or twice before and decided to go for it after reading this! (Found someone who has a batch for sale in Australia – hopefully still working). I’m not a big gear collector, but about 4 years ago I bought an OM4Ti after playing with it in a second hand store, felt lovely in the hand, the build makes it a joy to use. I would never be able to justify buying one but have you had a chance to use any of the 4/3 f2 zooms like the 14-35 or 35-100 on the EM1? (Just curious).

    • No, sorry – not had a chance to use the f2.0s. The sensor isn’t that demanding, though.

      When you say ‘has a batch for sale’ – are they new old stock or used?

      • Fred Saunders says:

        They are used, with the 14-54mm, but low shutter counts, about 7 or 8 from the same seller on eBay Australia for $250. Not sure if they post overseas (I live in Perth). I don’t have a weather sealed camera so apart from the novelty of trying a new camera I thought that it could be handy when it rains (14-54mm seems to be sealed too from what I’ve seen).

        Off topic, I enjoyed your video tutorial in KL, made me realise how important it is to be patient.

        • That’s extremely cheap…perhaps worth checking out.

          Thanks for the compliments! Watch the Tokyo one and you’ll see me being even more patient – when the are that many moving objects that are outside your control, you have no choice…

  11. Let me venture a guess. Industrial picts were shot near jln 225 just off federal highway, right opposite hasselblad distributor.
    I swear im not a stalker.

  12. I love this story. This is a cool revisit.

    Do my eyes deceive me, or is there a startling similarity between the knurled upper control dial on the E-1 and the twin control dials on the E-M1…?

    If there is, I’ll wager it wasn’t accidental, but rather an homage to design lineage, which, I think, speaks to the level of detail and passion that went into creating the E-M1. Of course, the on/off switch borrows blatantly from the same switch found on the original OM-1/OM-2 35mm cameras.

    Also, my understanding is that the Zuiko 4/3 SHG lenses are of exceptional quality; at least as good, if not better, than the pro level glass from Nikon/Canon.

    As to build quality, then vs. now, I’m not sure I agree on that front. My D3s is probably at least as well built as my F3HP or F2AS … the materials are just different. And the E-M1, while admittedly light, feels quite robust to me, overall … certainly a significant notch above the E-M5 or the PENs.

    Of course, no one is building cameras with metal construction the way they used to [Leica excepted], but arguably today’s modern composites and light-weight alloys might even be stronger. I’m sure you’ve seen the YouTube video where the [insert derogatory comment here] individual drops, soaks, freezes, and torches his D3s … and it keeps on firing. I’m not sure any of the F2 or F3 series Nikon film cameras would continue to work after that same volume of abuse … tough as they were back in the day.

    • There’s a definite similarity. Call it family DNA.

      Agreed on the SHG lenses, and E-M1 vs E-M5; the D3 – is not bad, but not as good as the F2 or even F6, I think. It’s probably to do with the material thickness.

      I poured water out of one of my Hasselblads after a torrential downpour. It worked, and still works, just fine. I only stopped shooting it because I couldn’t see through the finder.

      • I would expect a fully mechanical camera like the F2 to potentially work after a dousing. But for a D3s with its myriad electronic innards to keep shooting after dousing, freezing and burning … is pretty remarkable.

        Of course, that YouTube video could have been faked, we really have no way of verifying one way or the other.

        It does beg the question as to how many shutter firings the F2 was rated for. Back then they didn’t suggest such stats. Then again, the F2 shutter & mirror were never intended to take a firing rate above 5fps with the MD-2. We’re way past that now with the pro-D series.

        I agree that the material thickness on the F2 was greater, and it was steel. Whether that makes it intrinsically more durable though is entirely another question.

        • Yes and no – fully mechanical cameras use a very fine and intricate system of clockwork to regulate shutter speeds. This mechanism is not far off a mechanical watch and equally intolerant of moisture, debris, dirt etc.

          I doubt the youtube video is real. Water ingress killed my D2H, and that was with the mount sealed by a sealed lens – they didn’t even bother to put a body cap on that D3…

          That said, I think the lifespan of the earlier shutters is much, much lower. To shoot 300,000 frames of film is 8,000+ rolls; honestly, this is quite unlikely. Even Winogrand probably didn’t exceed that, and he had a few bodies to spread it amongst. From a mechanical standpoint, there’s a lot less wear and tear on a single shot, manual recocking shutter than one running at 11fps.

          • Yes, very much like a watch interior, but possibly a bit more robust than the average timepiece, given the expected stresses of a pro body. I suspect some of the moisture tolerance would come down to fresh water or salt water in a mechanical camera. If the latter, all bets are, of course, off.

            • Except the highest frequency part in your average watch oscillates at 4hz, but in a camera you need a regulator that is accurate enough to measure 1/2000s in some cases…

  13. What a great idea for an equipment review! I’m curious if there are other vintage cameras (digital or otherwise) that you’d like to revisit.

    I noticed that the palette of the color pictures are red and earth toned. Coincidence or purposeful?

    And talking about big, I rented the Olympus 50-200 SWD for a trip to a ski resort. Wow, that thing is huge! I had to leave a camera behind just to fit that lens. Hope it will be worth it!

    • Perhaps the D2H or original D1, though both seem to be difficult to find in operating condition. That said – I’m not sure there’s much point…

    • Quinnbike says:

      And….did the 50-200 blow you away!? It’s my alltime favourite lens, also on my E-1!

  14. I think your review of this “vintage digital” camera shows that Olympus produced a lot of fine cameras. Cannot really say anything about current day models but maybe in 2001 “planned obsolescence” was not on the engineers’ mind yet.

    • I don’t think it was – I think they realized they had to produce an exceptional product to convince people that the smaller sensor made sense; now most competition is done on a pricing or superficial styling basis simply because it’s easier.

  15. Your “vintage digital” tempted me to entertain thoughts of using a vintage weather-sealed camera for a few months for personal experimental shooting e.g. while I wait for used prices of EM-1 bodies to settle a bit more. I don’t know the range from a years ago to have immediate ideas of what might fit the bill…my starting point was something like a K20D (it seems likely there are others beyond my familiarity with the choices). Most every article you post either stirs motivation to either shoot some more or to explore another area 🙂

    Thanks for another interesting and encouraging article!

  16. Such an interesting reflection! Thanks. And like the previous correspondent, I know what you mean because last year I too found a Leica Digilux 2 in good order, and it is simply my favourite camera to hold and work with. No problem about image quality either. I shall stay mirrorless, otherwise I could also be tempted by the E-1 !

  17. Ian Christie says:

    A great piece, thank you. I use a 2003 vintage Leica/Panasonic Digilux 2, with all of 5Mp, and feel that the images have much the same qualities you find in the E-1’s. And I agree about the design quality in that generation of digital cameras: the D2 has ‘proper’ dials and a clean, elegant shape and good handling. I feel much the same about my Epson R-D1. The reason I use these antiques is that I can’t find equivalent design excellence at a price I can afford among current line-ups, and greatly dislike the feature-bloat that now comes with every new release.

  18. It is quite sad, but I don’t believe that (most of) the camera companies will go back to making the higher quality products of yester-year. It seems that the available “pie” for the camera industry is rather fixed, instead of growing. As a result, each manufacturer is trying to steal someone else’s slice, rather than innovating and growing. So it seems they are trying to increase profits by cutting corners and at the same time (hopefully) taking someone else’s market share.

    I see it every day in my own industry. Packages of products that we resell (from the manufacturer) went from 50 lbs, as an example, and now weight 45 to 47 lbs, to reduce freight costs.

    Perhaps the EM1 is the exception to the rule, in terms of build quality? All I want is an EM1 or EM5 with Ricoh GR picture quality…? Is that too much to ask?

    • They won’t. The pie is shrinking, because once you hit saturation point, most people have no need to buy a camera every year. Or even two, or three years – it’s a very small audience of hardcore photographers that does. It’s much cheaper for them to build shoddy retro-hipster crap and sell it on style rather than genuine innovation or quality.

      The E-M1 is already pretty close to the GR in image quality.

  19. I used an E-1 and 14-54 and 50-200 for years and still love the feel of it – would I be thrilled if Olympus produced a truly similar body with the new sensor tech.

    • The size of the body is too large considering the sensor size and other associated ancillaries, but making it too much smaller would affect balance with 4/3 lenses. Maybe a bit smaller would be better, but then – is there really room for another DSLR above the E-M1?

      • The e1 is definitely not too big to carry everywhere with the 14-54…… The grip makes it feel much smaller.

        You should also take another look at the Konica Minolta 7D, which was highly regarded. Not built like a tank and not the same elegant form factor as the e1, but those who had it loved it. Sort of an A900 predecessor.

  20. Peregrine says:

    Am I right in thinking the Sigma sensor has very similar characteristics to latter day CCD sensors? Keep thinking about a cheaper pocket-able , near to 80mm equivalent (approx) camera to go with the Ricoh GR, when DSLR is not wanted, and waiver between the constraints of the Merrill DP3 and a E10 with a 45mm F1.8 lens . A fair price comparison perhaps but chalk and cheese. One can never be sure whether one can put up with bad iso performance for the superior colour and B+W conversions and less than noteworthy hepatics of the Sigma when comparing it to the good all round attributes of the Olympus micro 4/3rds cameras.
    Any thoughts?

    • Ian Christie says:

      I think there’s something in what you say. I use a Sigma DP2s and the sensor/lens combination produces superb results in the right conditions. The Merrills have vastly more resolution but you can try the Foveon sensor out for $200 by getting a DP2s/x. It won’t give you the FOV you want but it is an affordable way to see how you get on with the Sigma sensor. I think it is great and I would already have a Merrill if only SIgma made the body with a built-in OVF and nice plain speed and aperture dials….

    • Not quite – colour is somewhat ‘thin’ and desaturated because of light attenuation through the various sensor layers.

      The Sigma’s ergonomics are terrible, but the cameras are very customisable.

  21. Maciej Grodzicki says:

    Salutations Mr. Ming. Very interesting and unique article.
    I am quite surprised the even before reading the title of your article I felt that the images were “off” from your usual oeuvre. Namely I felt that sharpness and tonality weren’t as superb as your usual work. Still, when compared to what I am able to produce from the venerable D50, the Olympus camera looks very impressive.

  22. I shoot with an E-1 still, as well as an E-M1. Of all the DSLRs I owned, the E-1 is the only one I liked enough to keep. Slow as molasses in today’s world, but fast enough. Superb haptics .. Unlike your comments, I feel a lot of the E-1 in the E-M1. It’s a smaller, lighter camera yes. But no less well made, or well designed, to my hands.

    Btw: the E-1 dose have shot information and a histogram review screen on that teensy LCD. You just have to know how to bring them up, they cannot be configured to display automatically. There are six review display screens… 🙂

    Some nice photos you made with the E-1. Seems that’s always the case with an E-1.. The camera, the lenses, the sensor just about always make nice photos. Mine has won me several awards over the years. Process it’s raw files with Lightroom 5.3 and you can use ISO 800 easily, even ISO 1600 … Such is the advance of raw conversion software in 13 years. Doesn’t hold a candle to the E-M1 or the Sony A7 on sensitivity still, but eh? 13 years is a good long time.

    I figure I’ll keep using mine, occasionally, until it croaks. It will be interesting to see which of us checks out first. I’m not young…


    • The DNA is definitely still there, but I think the ergonomics on the E-M1 are quite a bit better; button placements etc are intuitive. The build quality isn’t quite as good, to my hands – metal and rubber sections feel thinner, though I have no reason to believe the sealing is any poorer.

      Thanks for the tip – I found the histograms, which are very unintuitive…

      Good point about IQ improving a bit over time – better conversion algorithms help!

  23. Very interesting article, and results are not surprising. I’m still using my DIgilux 2 from 2004 (with Fuji x100 at the moment). And every time I go out somewhere it’s very hard to choose between them. I know D2 autofocus is slooow, dynamic range is low, evf is rubbish, but the lens, build quality and images out of the camera do have something special and it doesn’t feel that it’s old digital camera. It’s all in the lens and sensor combination I think.

    For those 2 cameras I ditched my all dslr gear and after 2 years of use I’m still happy with it (using for personal use mostly). And after a while all I miss (just sometimes) is to have a third camera with good quality telephoto lens. Maybe E1/E3 then?

    • I really loved my Digilux 2. In fact I’ve had two of them. There was just something about them. Sure, it was dodgy shooting it at anything but ISO 100, but you could shoot Jpeg with them no problem, the shutter was all but totally silent, you could handhold it at ridiculously slow speeds, it had a very useful zoom range, the colour was nice, I printed it at A4 without any problems…it had a lot of things in its favour. I have to admit that if I found one tomorrow, I’d be incredibly tempted to pick it up. It’s odd given that its “successor”, the Digilux 3, seems to be one of the most maligned cameras in history.

      I understand the general tenor of this article, and I feel a similar way about the Digilux 2: in rational, logical terms there would be no real reason to use it now, but something about it calls to you.

  24. Man, you can make great pictures out of any camera and it comes as no surprise to me that your E-M1 pictures are awesome!

    Off topic, Pentax Ricoh announced an interesting product here:

    ” Model name (tentative):PENTAX Film Duplicator
    • Produces digital duplicates of silver-halide-film images in combination with a digital SLR camera and a dedicated flash unit.
    • Compatible with 35mm- and medium-format films”

    Looks similar to the product you are thinking of launching.

    • It’s an E-1, not an E-M1. There’s a difference of ten years and 3x the resolution between them 🙂

      I am aware of the Pentax Ricoh announcement. Theirs appears to be more flexible, but lacks the rapid workflow with roll film that mine has – thug admittedly this is also the biggest cause of manufacturing issues at the moment…

      • Oops! It was an inadvertent typo. 😀

      • I was about to ask about your film rig. Very pelased to hear it is still in the pipeline.

        Reminded of this by your haptics comment. I picked up my M6 for the first time in a while at the weekend. What a lovely camera, especially compared to the modern digital cameras.

  25. Wonderful Set Ming! Fun to see you use the E-1

  26. I’m struck by the (to some extent) continuity of your pictures ten years on. Or perhaps it’s a question of what you have chosen to show and share.

  27. Some excellent AND memorable photography here, especially the colour images, all of them. Something strongly analogue coming through in a way i cannot describe – perhaps the light in them

    Thank you

    • Thanks. It’s not the light, it’s the nature of the tonal response of a CCD vs CMOS. The nonlinearity makes for noisy shadows if pushed, but very natural color.

  28. drbobbybones says:

    This has been one of my favorite posts in a while. Excellent pictures, great technical writeup, and intriguing philosophical insights. Proves yet again that the man behind the camera is far more important than the sensor or the box in front of him.

  29. This was fun to read. On a related note I recently purchased a cheap Olympus C-5050z to replace the one I lost to moisture a few years ago. The focus speed is killing me, but not the f1.8 wide end of the zoom.
    As mentioned in the post this E-1 is fundamentally the same as a modern DSLR, albeit without the 10 years of refinement to the various systems if not the build quality.This has me wondering how I will be looking back at my current DSLRs in another 10 years time. I am already eagerly awaiting higher resolution EVFs, better AF tracking, improved dynamic range, and better low light performance, but I imagine my current kit will remain very functional for a long time to come.

    • Thanks. I’m pretty sure that C-5050 acquired a somewhat cult status after Alex Majoli popularised it…

      The E-1’s generation always left me feeling like there was something missing in image quality; the rest of the camera-ness, not so much – aside from AF. That still hasn’t changed. AF doesn’t seem any faster or better than before, though this may also be a consequence of the sensor resolution becoming increasingly demanding and showing the shortfalls more clearly.

  30. Hi MIng, I really like the quality of these images. Its interesting that as digital technology advances that the sensors of yesteryear display their unique qualities that have their own charm and appeal much like different film types. I think RIcoh maybe understood this when making the GXR.. Again, the point is reinforced that its not the camera but the person behind it. Be careful Ming, if you keep pushing and proving this past sufficiency message, camera companies might start consulting with the Yakuza on how to best deal with this “Ming problem” 😛

  31. We’ve turned our cameras into mini computers – this would be ok if the haptics were fully nailed but they haven’t. Now we’ve reached a level on sufficiency the manufacturers are focusing on haptics – the problem is they are currently focusing on ‘retro’ theme which hasn’t quite worked out the way most of us would have hoped (with Oly and maybe Fuji coming closest).

    I’m hoping by Photokina they ‘nail’ it better in this regard and somehow manage to give the camera some ‘soul’. I doubt it though and the somewhat quirky nature of the old digital cameras is probably what gave the charm.

    Good article again, shame the 4/3rds lenses are huge – I’ve heard good things about them but at the same time they are redundant with Olympus and Panasonic doing a very good job matching the m4/3 lenses to the sensor.

    • Sadly, I doubt this will be the case. Retro costs money to manufacture to high quality, so the camera makers will do cheap, crap (typical buyers can’t tell anyway) and then sell it to everybody else on the spec sheet.

      The 4/3 lenses are big, but typically a stop faster than their FF/DX counterparts. The optics are showing their age in places though – the newer M4/3 lenses are much better.

      • I agree with your comments on the feel of the E-1. It is excellent. However, from what I have read, and my experience, I don’t think the new m43 lenses are better: the software correction is better and needs to be as most of them are heavily corrected. That’s fine with me and the total result can be just as good or better with much smaller lenses. The older lenses were larger not just to provide more light, but also to direct the light perpendicularly to the sensor – a design goal called telecentricity. As I understand it, that is still a good thing, just not so critical as they thought it would be early on. I have both an E-1 and an E-M1. I disagree with your concern about being limited to a small print size to have very good quality. With a well exposed image, good printing software (e.g. qimage) and a good printer, very good quality 13 x 19 prints are quite possible with the E-1. I currently have two in a juried photography show and have had many more exhibited in the past. It had only 5 megapixels, but they were good ones with 14 bit raw files that are just coming back into fashion.


        • You may well be right – there’s no way to separate out the software correction from the lens performance as I suspect it all happens even before the raw file is written.

          The new lenses are also telecentric.

          As for print sizes – I’ve gone to 3×5 feet with the E-M1, so I’d imagine 1/3rd of that should be easily possible with the E-1 – 2×3 feet perhaps? But it of course depends on your viewing distance. I’m working on a new print process together with Wesley Wong that resolves 36MP – at 10×15″…

  32. plevyadophy says:

    Yep, I agree with you regarding haptics/camera-ness.

    It doesn’t appear to me, with pehaps the exception of Fuji, and I hate to say it, Sony too, that manufacturers pay much attention to ergonomics, opting instead to complete a spec sheet tick list (e.g. whilst the E-M1 is overall a lovely cam, the LCD (in order to tick the appropriate box on the spec sheet) is way too big for the body; it should be smaller to allow a little more breathing room for the buttons).


    • I disagree with Sony – the menus and button placements aren’t particularly well thought out, and the tactile, feedback is poor. One thing Nikon gets right is consistency and button feel…

      • plevyadophy says:

        Well, I disagree about Nikon 🙂

        I think Nikon are consistent, yeah; consistently horrid. I mean like, who on earth was the idiot who decided that a button should be placed on the viewfinder prism hump? And what’s that horrid fiddly nonsense on the left shoulder of the high-end cams? And why is it that you engage with Nikon cams by thumb and forefinger twist, thumb flick, press, press and turn, and having to move your left hand from where it should be permanently stationed (holding the lens)? Then there’s the mess that’s setting white balance. I know Nikon users like all the external buttons and get used to it, but if you come to a Nikon cam fresh, they are horrendous. When I meet you Ming, I will demonstrate what’s horrid about them from a “fresh eyes/hands” perspective.

        As for Sony, yeah, I see your point. But when I praise Sony (and as you already know, I am not one for praising them much, if at all), I am thinking of their Sony Alpha SLR/SLT range. The a99 for example can be operated almost entirely with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. That to me is excellent ergonomics. The A7/A7r, I found easy to operate for the three things that are important, namely shutter, aperture and ISO as they can all be done with thumb and forefinger of right hand (to be honest i didn’t go any further into the operation of the cam as I have an allergy to Sony cams!! 🙂 ) But the NEX cams, well yeah, disasterous ergonomics.

        • And I have the same feeling when I pick up my old E-3 after making the switch to Nikon.

        • Reginald Brown says:

          I feel that way when I pick up my old E-3, I can’t make changes on the fly like I can with my full body Nikon.

        • The prism button is stupid. But fortunately that’s now under your right thumb with the newer cameras; it was a holdover from the time when the prisms were interchangeable and the metering cell – and thus switches to control it – were on the prism itself. WB is easy – no different to the Canons. Hold the WB button, turn the dial. For manual WB, have the thing in PRE setting, hold down WB til it flashes, shoot your grey card/ surface. Done.

          You can operate everything with the right hand on the E-1…

      • cant speak on the a7, but i can extrapolate from the rx1. compared to even the venerable em1, the rx1 has superior haptics. the size, touch, feel, resistance, (and even click sound) of aperture ring, ev comp, power switch, shutter button are on-point. obv some things arent directly translatable i.e. em1 does not have lens and different type of switch, but all of this is to say the rx1 feels like a tank in a good way and the build is just right.

      • Not to get into a war of opinion, but having spent some time with the A7 now I’ve grown to like it—at least the way I use it. It’s a bit clunky and rough around the edges. I bought it purely to use with my older Nikon and Leica R lenses, the 24Mpixel sensor proves an excellent match to these lenses and allows them to shine so that justifies the body for me. The viewfinder is very good. The controls … eh, a little haphazard in placements … and the menus are a scattered mess. BUT, the A7 has *just enough* configurability that I could get everything working the way I need with conveniently placed controls.

        Now that I’ve practiced using it a bit set up this way, using it is almost as seamless and fluid as using the E-M1 and E-1. I can focus just as quickly as I can focus my Nikon F and Leicaflex SL with the same lenses … and more accurately due to the focus magnification and peaking options when needed. ISO and shutter speed settings fall to my right thumb instantly. Etc Etc.

        It’s not an E-1 or an E-M1, but for my purposes it has become a superb tool.


  33. plevyadophy says:

    Hi Ming,

    Or should I say “Good Morning” coz it’s 04:20 over here (yep, I am still up 🙂 )

    I haven’t read your piece yet, gonna go kitchen get myself a bite to eat and then return.

    But I thought I would, if I may give my feelings on the piccies in this post. Hope you don’t mind?

    Here goes, in the order they appear:

    Car = nah!!

    Cabling = lovely

    Fence + roof tops = so so

    Glass fronted building = nice

    Wife? = I never look at others’ wives. I didn’t see a thing!!! 🙂

    Tree + fence + roof tops = nah!!

    Rice dish = lovely

    Red/pink sleeve, seat, wall = brilliant!!

    Generally, as per usual, very pleasing.



  1. […] Also, check out MT’s own take on the Olympus E-1 in his 2014 article here. […]

  2. […] series was shot with a mixture of equipment over the last few months – everything from an old Olympus E-1, to the Ricoh GR, D800E and Zeiss […]

  3. […] to see an article about a 13 year old camera show up in a "more current things" photo blog … Revisiting the past: the 2003 Olympus E-1 – Ming Thein | Photographer […]

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