A blast from the past: Robin Wong on the Olympus E-1

Between the chase for stratospheric megapixel numbers, lust over new gear releases and pushing the limits of imaging envelopes, I sometimes take a step or two back and relive the experience of shooting with cameras from yesteryear. In this case, the first ever Olympus Four Thirds DSLR, the E-1 which was introduced in 2003. While accessorizing my outfit with a vintage-looking camera matches the overall retro-fashion look that seems hip these days, my purpose of shooting with the dinosaur E-1 was more simplistic. I wanted to slow down, and just enjoy shooting without having the camera get in the way. After all, have I not repeatedly talked about going back to the basics and getting the fundamentals right? Even MT has a great, must-read article about shot discipline, which emphasizes critical timing and technique relevant to all gear choices.

Why the E-1? This was where it all started for Olympus, and to explore the roots of the current Micro Four Thirds system I am heavily invested in. Having only 5 Megapixels, three focusing points (the horror!), poor dynamic range and usable ISO up to 400 only, there are many practical limitations with using the E-1. Being well aware of all these restrictions allowed me to work within what could be achieved with the camera. For my usual shutter therapy session out on the streets of sunny Kuala Lumpur, I rarely needed anything beyond ISO 200, and the bright and a tad harsh sunlight helped improve the focusing efficiency of the camera. I still keep the respectable Zuiko 50mm F2 Macro lens around, and brought this and the 25mm F2.8 pancake lens for my session.

Using the E-1 for about 3 hours shooting in a local wet market, I realized how much I missed the feeling of a much beefier grip on the camera body. While I have always championed the smaller and lighter camera alternative, nothing beats a sturdy, comfortable and ergonomically optimized grip. The camera felt so good in the hand, and reminded me of my time with the E-5, which served me well for many years.

The stark difference in shooting experience was from the optical viewfinder. Having switched completely over to the OM-D system, I’ve been using an electronic viewfinder for at least 5 years now, so it was strange to revert back to an optical viewfinder. I had expected and was prepared for dealing with not having the advantage of “what you see is what you get” exposure simulation, but it was genuinely pleasant to frame shots looking at the actual subject, instead of through a simulated LCD screen. This was especially true when shooting close up portraits!

Focusing turned out to be my biggest challenge. I have become so used to the near instantaneous AF speed of modern Micro Four Thirds system that it was almost bizarre to experience lens hunting or a slight hesitation while acquiring focus after you half-press the shutter button. To compound matters, it was almost impossible to review my images for critical focus accuracy, because the screen is a tiny 1.8 inch LCD with 134k pixels! I had to put my faith in the camera, and trust in my own shooting technique to get the shot.

Oh the shutter sound (or lack thereof)! So quiet and damped, unlike most DSLRs that “clank” loudly.

When the focus was spot on and the timing and subject content all came together perfectly, the E-1 delivered fantastic images. Despite having only 5 Megapixels, the image quality still holds it own, even viewing them on the Quad HD 32 inch LCD screen I am currently working on. Knowing that I had only 5 Megapixels to work with, I framed my images as close as I could to the final output I had in mind, leaving little or no room for cropping. The images from the 50mm F2 macro lens came out crisp and with good contrast. The Kodak CCD image sensor renders colors differently from the modern CMOS sensors in cameras these days, and worked very well for skin tones. I have to admit, Kodak knew what they were doing when dealing with color science.

Did I wish I had something more capable when I was shooting the images shown in this article? Barring a few extremely, fast paced action shots, not really. The E-1 was able to capture images just as I wanted. Despite being the first DSLR from Olympus, I believe they got many things right with the few flaws addressed in their later iterations (E-3, and E-5). It was a fun camera to shoot with, and I still enjoy using it.

Can we really improve our photography by endlessly upgrading to better cameras and lenses?

Has imaging technology improved that much over the years that cameras from only a few years ago have become truly obsolete?

My answer is both yes, and no. Yes, imaging innovation has indeed come a long way and pushed imaging boundaries. On the other hand, I don’t believe any camera can be completely obsolete. If it can shoot a good portrait photograph 10 years ago, it can surely do the same today, and for several years to come. The Megapixels may not be sufficient for larger resolution displays, and the images may be lacking in terms of overall sharpness, dynamic range and color tonality but we all know that photography is a lot more than just technical perfection. I have to remind myself, to make use of what I currently have, before considering an upgrade which may not add value to my photography.

Do you or have you owned or used an Olympus E-1 before? Do you still keep one or shoot with one now? Do share your experience and thoughts!

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

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Comments

  1. It’s slow, it’s old but the shutter sound, the mirror flip on air mattres. I use it with thet 14-50 Leica zoom

  2. Thanks for a valuable E-1 retrospect. They’ll never get too old!

    If we go back in time, remembering all the E-1 praise and photos so many of us were eager to show, it was a jewel. I still have and periodically use mine, measuring O-MD progress but I must add one note to that scale, the E-1 can challenge anything new when it simply comes down to an excellent photo… taken with some E-1 skill and consideration. I’m so glad I still have it along with the 50mm and 14-54mm. I use the 50mm as an art copy lens on O-MD anyway. The E-1 is plain fun, knowing the chances for a portfolio addition when I get home. It just keeps going.

    However, an inquisitive thought regarding to 50mm f2 macro, Why didn’t Olympus upgrade it to an MFT mount? Did they expect the 60mm f2.8 macro to replace it? If so, I think we’re missing a great lens in the MFT mount line up. In primes, there’s a large difference between 45 and 60mm, not to leave out the f2 and “macro.” Just curious… with some wishful thinking.

    • Robin Wong says:

      The 50mm F2 itself, as great as it was, had some flaws. The focusing speed was terribly slow and shooting at wide open F2 does produce noticeable chromatic aberration, though I must admit the sharpness is amazing.

      • Ricardo says:

        I think most of the original 4/3rds lenses handle some sort of edge to edge sharpness and distortion better than m43rds in such a way that they have a certain “crisp/real” look to them. Add to that telecentricity and the image was already partially polarized.

        That 50mm F2 had some chromatic aberrations wide open but usually these showed up when having high contrast lit situations. A portrait in many weddings scenarios wouldn’t show it. And of course once you close down a bit they just vanish leaving the hyper sharp.

  3. Totally unscientific observations: Took many pics for years with 6 MP camera. Then bought a FF 20 MP camera and couldn’t really tell the difference on a 8″ x 12″ print. Hard to define and perhaps not real, but the bigger pixels of those 5 or 6 MP cameras result in better, richer looking photos. More DR may be good in many situations, but creates duller, more washed out images in many, too. More contrast is almost always better than more DR. (I remember an old review of an upgraded Olympus camera where the reviewer praised the new camera’s greater DR, but lamented the lack of the usual Olympus “punch.” Yep, less DR = more punch). Since most folks center point focus, all those focus points just slow down the process if you decide to use more.

    In other words, yes, those old cameras are still usable and can still take great (perhaps even better in some situations) pics than today’s high MP, high tech offerings.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think the “punch” had a lot to do with the way Olympus handles the JPEG files. With every updated JPEG engine in newer generation of cameras, Olympus tweaked the colors, optimization of sharpness/noise and contrast. Cameras at the lower end of the spectrum (say the PEN lite and mini series) will have punchier consumer friendly look (higher contrast, boosted saturation), but higher end OM-D cameras have more neutral and flatter presentation.

  4. Lovely colours with this camera. Reminds me a lot of my old Minolta Dynax 7D. Time to hunt around in the loft!

  5. I remember before deciding for the E-1 I have tried some Canon APS-C cameras with various lenses. For me the best then was E-1 with 14-54 + 50-200. Still have them, use them together with an E3, and and EM1-1 with 12-40 + 70 1.8. For daylight use E1 is still there, on par with the rest.

  6. Ricardo says:

    The Olympus E-1 is one of the very test cameras Olympus has ever done. It had a UI simple and to the point. Had great color. And some truly great lenses. I can only hope Olympus looks back and releases some PenF that is more focused, to the point with less hard to configure features.

  7. I have an old Olympus E-20. Small sensor, 5 megapixels, can’t change the lens. Slow to write images to the card. But the lens is fantastic. Images have a nice quality due to the grain and are very sharp. No match for a modern camera, but I like the images and have a 16 x 20 canvas print on my wall. Somehow the images seem more “film-like” and under the right conditions look great on the web or at smaller sizes.

  8. I have five E-10s and one E-20 that I use when teaching photography to the Bot Scouts. Maybe it is time to upgrade them to the E-1! I have done the whole Olympus gamut from E-10 to E-M1 Mark II! My children and friends have loved the upgrades because they received the “hand-me-downs’! I enjoy reading your articles.

  9. Rick Neufeld says:

    Nice take on the photographic process. I always view photography as an abstract, capturing a 3d world in 2d, limited dynamic range and the like. So using an older, supposedly less capable camera is just fine with me. I recently bought an E-1 (Aug.2017) and have been having a blast with it. I use it with the 50mm f2 macro, 12-60 SWD, and just recently picked up the 25mm F2.8. The E-1 is like using a film camera (the rear screen is really only good for adjusting the few settings available) As you mention you have to rely on your instincts and try to get the framing right at first go. The whole process slows me down a bit, which is a good thing.
    \

  10. Nice to see old camera’s get some love Robin! I’ve gone back to shooting my Oly E-10 which if I’m not mistaken is an older camera with an even smaller sensor. I do know it’s only 4MP and I don’t like shooting over ISO 80! It’s certainly not as sharp as new lenses and high MP CMOS but I’ve started using it again just because it’s the only CCD camera I have. Unlike a lot people I know, I like CCD’s look. I don’t miss the MP’s at all on the E-10 but I do miss the higher ISO.

    I’ve been thinking about picking up an E-Volt camera but not sure I want another lens system around. Too easy to get GAS! The E-10 is nice because the lens doesn’t come off!

  11. Bernd (Ben) Herrmann says:

    First of all, Robin, I always enjoy your postings and experiences. Additionally, however, you just strike me as a very nice person – period!

    I still maintain 2 copies of the venerable E-1 – all in mint condition, and I will not part with them. I must say however, that if you really want to boost the performance levels of the E-1, add any of the wonderful Panasonic-Leica Vario zoom lenses with IS. I constantly shift back and forth on my E-1 between the unbelievably sharp (for the genre) Leica Vario 14-150 F3.5-5.6 OIS and the Leica Vario 14-50 F3.8.5.6 IS. Adding IS capabilities to the E-1 opens up the camera to new horizons, allowing you to shoot in lower lighting scenarios and doing so at a much lower ISO level. But it is the clarity of the Leica optics which really makes the E-1 shine. I have images taken with the E-1/Leica combinations that have often caused folks to assume that they came from much higher MP cameras – now go figure.

    As far as DR is concerned, yes – for a 15 year old camera, it still has a surprising amount of DR if you shoot in RAW. The current day RAW converters really have enabled us to go back in time and get the most out of older RAW files. Heck, just the other day – despite having a few dozen other digital cameras in my collection – I reached for the E-1/Leica combo and went out for some shutter therapy and the results were sublime. Those Kodak sensors were really something else, that’s for sure. The rich color tonality and that seemingly “special sauce” that make these E-1 images unique, will remain in the memory of many previous (and current) E-1 users.

    Bottom line however is that even today, the E-1 is just a joy to use and “having fun” while photographing is often an elusive experience with the many hi-tech cameras out there today.

    My suggest is for anyone who still remembers the E-1 (or who have never owned one), go on eBay and find a good used one. You won’t be sorry and the ergonomics alone of the E-1 will have you wondering why other camera makers didn’t adopt this style.

  12. I had it for a while and used it for macro photography with the Sigma 150mm, which I feet was not the best application for the camera. I liked it for its nice colours and very ergonomic grip and buttons. On the other hand I found the viewfinder difficult to work with. AF was not very reliable and MF difficult to achieve with the relatively small viewfinder. The 5 Mp were also kind of restricting sometimes. Perhaps with an 8 or 10 Mp Kodak CCD sensor and with the pro Zuiko lenses this would still be a legitimate camera for someone satisfied working at base ISO (as I am)

  13. What a joy to read this blog, I keep coming beek Robin.
    What a camera it was and is!!

    Greetings from Amsterdam

  14. Hi Robin! I love the E-1 since i have bought a used Body in 2010. I wish Olympus put the modern OMD functionality in the legendary E-1 Camera body. That a all a Pro like me want. SHG Glass und the fun ist ON! Nowaday i use it from timt to time for private photo projects. keep it up Robin ! Great job that you do there!
    Greetings from Vienna
    Christian

    • Robin Wong says:

      Olympus gave up on the Four Thirds DSLR system, I guess partly to the underwhelming sales figures. I do wish they keep at least one line of their Four Thirds DSLR alive, after all I am sure there is a market obviously for DSLR users.

  15. Nice article and pics.

    “The Kodak CCD image sensor renders colors differently from the modern CMOS sensors in cameras these days, and worked very well for skin tones”

    True, same holds for cameras like Fuji S5. But the official answer of the internet forum gurus is that neither CMOS or CCD can see color (it is the Bayer filter that separates colors); so there cannot be any color response difference 🙂

    • Robin Wong says:

      Then how about the way CCD or CMOS captures light is different. Hence the difference in the filtered colors?

  16. Great article and pics! I haven’t bought a new camera since picking up a used Sigma Merrill with wide-angle fixed lens. Boxy little thing with comical battery life but it does pack a nice little punch at low ISOs.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Sigma Merrill, something I have not had the chance to try. Will probably have some opportunities to shoot with Sigma soon.

  17. Thank you for going back and reviewing an older camera. In comparison I would like to know your thoughts on the current cameras with large megapixels vrs lower megapixels.
    I’m feeling that the shadow areas are getting a bit too dark due to the pixel sites being so small.
    Thanks

    • Robin Wong says:

      I do not mind working with less Megapixels (anything 8-10MP is enough for me) but I also understand that digital displays are getting more and more dense in resolution, hence the megapixels do need to keep up. Personally the 16MP on most Olympus models are sufficient for what I do. Unfortunately I cannot speak for photographers who shoot commercially that requires incredibly high resolution images.

  18. David H says:

    Nice article, and great photos as always Robin.I finally gave in, and and gave up my OM2 film bodies for the E-3 in 2007 when it was introduced. Over the years I added a few SWD’s ,many 4/3rds flashes and accessories, and all the SHG’s except the 300F2.8, I purchased a hardly used E-5, just as they were being discontinued, and later a EM-1, where I have called it quits on bodies. Since 2010, I actually still use the E-3 solely with the 14-35 SWD in my business, to do art reproduction and copy work, for wide format printing I do. My very complete kit allows me tremendous flexibility. I have No problems with DR, or a lack of extreme M Pixels 😉

    • Robin Wong says:

      I love the E-5! Mine could not work now, and I was thinking of getting it fixed. Not sure if Olympus can do it anymore. I do miss using larger cameras, and yes, the E-3 and E-5 were simply superb and can still deliver today, if you do not need to shoot insanely high ISO numbers or too many megapixels.

      • I miss my e-5, as it was a tank. I sold it and regret it. Also, I sold my 12-60 and miss the tactile focusing and build quality (and photo quality). I love my 12-40, but it is not the same experience as shooting with the older 12-60… I AM keeping my 50 2.0, however. But, with the 50 and the 45 1.8, is there room for a 45 1.2?? Who knows, haha! PS. I bought a refurb e-1 for $30 on ebay! (Mine was stolen 10 years ago, forcing me into the m43 realm… Haven’t booted up the newly perchased one, but this gives me inspiration! Thanks for reminding us it is about more than GAS…

  19. Enjoyed your article very much Robin. I also like to bring out one of my old cameras now and again just to relive the experience and you are quite right about being pleasently surprised with the results. My latest outing was with my old Zeiss Ikon 6×6 film camera.

  20. I recently went for a walk with my old Panasonic L1, for similar reasons. With my Olympus and Sony cameras, I take too many photos. As for the E-1, I think it and pretty much all the CCD cameras produced quite special colours when used within their limitations.

  21. I loved my E-1, but my E-500 was my first love and the smaller size was a lot more manageable. I still take it out sometimes because it has the gorgeous color rendition. For outdoor, well-lit, stationary photography, it still manages fine! 🙂 Lovely pictures Robin, thank you for sharing.

  22. Ah, lovely photographs, what was this latest full frame camera you took them with, say again?

    I prouldy own E1 and keep it permanently mated to 35/3.5 – excellent, well-balanced combo. Enjoy shooting it every now and then when the light is right. Love the way it feels in hand and that shutter sound, although I find controls scattered in a rather inconvenient way. The LCD as you said is impossible to inspect critical focus, but I find it useful for viewing histogram and blown highlights to judge exposure. Kodak really mixed the colors right for this one and when all important things (focus, light, exposure, etc.) are nailed, the results are very pleasing indeed. I think 5mp might be lackluster for wide angle shots but is a non-issue for portraits, and that’s where E1 really shines for me.

    • Robin Wong says:

      You are being too kind, Vytautas !

      I fully agree with you that the E-1 performs very well shooting portraits. The beautiful skin tone and also the “not too sharp” look create a nice portrait rendering.

  23. Petr Karlach says:

    Great article, great pictures, thanks! I still have two pieces of E-1 with few “legacy” lenses, (including ZD 150/2), and occasionally enjoy shooting with them. I truly love the camera. I used E-3/5, too, but never liked them as much as the E-1. The second “love for the first touch” was OM-D E-M5 then …

    • Robin Wong says:

      Owhhh the 150mm F2 lens! The baby tuna, which I never had a chance to try, unfortunately. Would love to have my hands on one and do a throwback review.

      • Petr Karlach says:

        Come to Prague, we can go out shooting together. 🙂 The lens work very good with my first generation of the E-M1.
        I had the 35-100/2, too, but I sold it to buy the 40-150/2.8, and now I regret it. The same for the 7-14/4 7-14/2.8 switch … I do not miss that much the 14-35/2 and 12-60/2.8-4 lenses … Besides the “baby tuna” I still keep the lenses 14-54/2.8-3.5, old version of 50-200/2.8-3.5, 50/2 and FE 8/3.5.

  24. And now a used body can be purchased for around 30 or 40 USD. At those prices I’d be tempted to buy a body just for one or two afternoons of fun with old tech and challenge of seeing how I could do creatively within the constraints ~ especially if I could borrow a lens from a friend.

  25. Really nice images. Despite agreeing with everything you said, I still expected the images to be a little disappointing. Glad to be wrong.

  26. Every image shown is…when seen on an iPad…precisely as good as those you’re making with today’s cameras. (of course, we don’t see the fails.) Whether today’s processing software plays a significant role in the color and overall image quality only you can say. But it looks to me as if progress has brought us primarily convenience. Thinking in terms of web-based, on-screen presentation these photos appear equal to anything produced under the same circumstances by an EM1 Mk. II. I guess it reinforces once again that it’s the photographer, not the camera.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Convenience is the driving factor of most innovations today! Look at what one mighty smartphone can do, not just for taking photos. Everything progressed so far in technology was possible because of our craving for doing less, and getting things done easier and faster. Similarly to imaging products!

      I don’t think the software today can extract any more than what can be squeezed out from the E-1’s RAW files. However, post-processing with today’s software is surely quicker and easier. I cannot imagine editing RAW images in a dinosaur computer!

  27. Bruce McL says:

    I agree with you and MT: handling, utility, and durability often get overlooked in the rush for the latest new features.

    About three years ago I spent some time using a 2004 Nikon Coolpix 8400: 2/3″ sensor, 8MP, 24-85mm ED zoom lens, ISO 400 max, and built like a tank. It was fun, I learned a lot, and it changed my priorities on buying my next camera and buying new cameras in general.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Handling, specific features needed for your photography needs, and reliability! These are things that I do not ignore when I do reviews. The fact that the E-1 still can shoot so well today, is a testament on camera know-how of a traditional Japanese company.

  28. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    What can I say, except “hear, hear!” Robin, I find all the rot about pixels rather tiresome, when I take account of the fact that 99% of the photos being taken these days never make it out of digital imaging – and that as far as I know, the digital screen with the greatest pixel count only has 33Mp, and anyway, it’s a TV with a 77 inch screen!

    I have several cameras – I guess I always have, since I was in my teens, anyway – a couple of Nikons (one FF, one HF) that I use for different things (mostly my more serious shots) and a Canon PowerShot G1XMkII – which I certainly didn’t buy for its pixel count (12.8MP on a 1.5″ sensor), but for the shots I generally take with it, it does a fine job.

    I read an interesting article the other day, about the chap who pioneered these sensors – he’s now developed a sensor which eliminates this pixel stuff altogether, because it can capture individual photons! He seems to think it’ll never make it to the cameras we use – I rather suspect it might, because the idea is so attractive!

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Jean! Sometimes we get too deep into analyzing the camera’s technical capabilities that we forget what truly matters, enjoy shooting. This is like a reminder to myself as well, that cameras are mostly good enough.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Olympus OM-D E-M5 will always have a special place in my heart. It seems appropriate to follow the previous revisitation of the very first E-1 by revisiting the E-M5. The E-M5 was a game-changer for the mirrorless interchangeable camera […]

  2. […] Olympus OM-D E-M5 will always have a special place in my heart. It seems appropriate to follow the previous revisitation of the very first E-1 by revisiting the E-M5. The E-M5 was a game-changer for the mirrorless interchangeable camera […]

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