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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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved


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

    Greetings from Amsterdam

  2. 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

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.


  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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