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Olympus E-1 4/3 DSLR Digital SLR Test Review
© 2004 KenRockwell.com

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I used this $1,800 camera in February 2004.

It is a clever, ground-up brand new digital SLR from Olympus. Olympus has a history of introducing brilliant new camera systems, like the OM-1 and the world's first really great pocket camera, the XA (also a good XA page here.)

The E-1's claim to fame is that it's designed from the ground-up as a DSLR. All the others out there, like my beloved D1H, are really just bigger film SLRs with some digital stuff jammed in as an afterthought. The advantage to a ground-up digital SLR like the E-1 is smaller size, since everything is designed around the smaller sensor. The ideal CCD size is smaller than a piece of 35mm film, so older style cameras like the new D2H based on the old 35mm film standard are just too big with too much wasted space around the mirror box and prism.

The 4/3 system is brilliant, since it uses the correct 4:3 aspect ratio that makes better use of available pixels and also mirrors the aspect ratio of almost every computer display and professional film camera system. When you do digital slide shows you will fill your projector or laptop screen. Every other DSLR uses the outdated 35mm film 3:2 ratio which is a throwback to the 1913 when an asthmatic hiker who couldn't carry a real camera developed a way to jam 35mm movie film into a still camera and chose an elongated format to allow a little more film area to be used. (See the history of the Leica camera to learn more.) Using any other DSLR with its outdated 3:2 aspect ratio means every time you do a digital show you'll have black bands across the top and bottom of your screen, or even worse, have even bigger sidebars for verticals. The 4/3 format also allows you to use many more of your pixels when printing to standard sized papers without cropping.

Aspect ratio is of course a purely artistic choice. Professional film cameras (6x7 and 4x5) usually have an aspect more square like 4:3, and less rectangular than 35mm. 35mm and other DSLRs are too long and skinny for most subjects, so most of the time one winds up cropping (throwing away) the edges.

My intellect says 4/3 is a fantastic idea, and my crystal ball derived from over 30 years of experience watching trends come and go says 4/3 will be passed over and forgotten. I will not be surprised if this format goes away by 2007. It's a minority format, like APS and Elcassette. I don't expect that Nikon or Canon or Pentax or Minolta will ever get into the 4/3 format. Olympus can do it since they left the 35mm SLR market some years ago. Only time will tell.


5 Megapixels: 2,560 x 1920 pixels. 13 x 17mm image sensor (smaller than other DSLRs). Roughly a 2x crop factor compared to 35mm film.

Flash Sync: slow, amateur grade 1/180. Even worse I read it's only 1/125 with studio strobes.

Slow: only 3FPS, the same as the less expensive and proven (and readily available) Nikon D100 and Canon 10D.

Much better image shape (aspect ratio) than other DSLRs: the squarer 4:3 ratio is much more suited to everything. All the other DSLRs use the outdated 3:2 aspect ratio which is a holdover from 35mm film, which was a half-witted conversion from movie film. 3:2 is longer and narrower than I usually need, so most people usually have to crop off the sides (or top and bottom for verticals) which wastes pixels on the other DSLRs.

It has a handy RAW + JPEG mode. I suspect the RAW format is an even more bizarre format than Canon or Nikon, meaning it may be even more difficult to find support for it. What that means is that in 20 years you may or may not be able to find any software that can read the RAW files, so watch out.

White balance only goes to 7500K. I'm unsure if this will be high enough to get warm enough for shade images. Other cameras set in degrees K go to about 10,000, which about where you want to be for shade. I forget this stuff; go read the Kodak, B+W or Hoya filter handbooks for what the Kelvin reading is for shade. I don't know if there is a dedicated SHADE setting, if not that's another reason to avoid this camera.



Clever innovations are the small size and the magic CCD dust cleaner-upper. Big minuses are the slow flash sync speed and lack of a full line of lenses.

The Canon 20D, 10D and Nikon D100 and D70 do more for a lot less.

Low light AF is also apparently only so-so. It has fewer AF sensors than any other legitimate DSLR.

I am not convinced that Olympus' claims of magic digital lenses mean anything. See here.

The potential for the camera to correct lateral chromatic and geometric lens distortions is brilliant. This is not something that you would ever see except on a test chart, but brilliant nonetheless.


Pass. There are better choices for less money unless you really are in love with the size of this camera and don't mind toting an external flash. If you are in love with the size go or the E-300 instead.

The E-1 has no built in flash. Because of this you will always need to have an external flash attached to the top for use as fill, which pretty much eliminates the value the E-1 had as a small camera, whoops!! With a built in flash the Canon20D, 10D and Nikon D100 and D70 are smaller than the E-1 and flash. Oh well.

Like almost everything that says "PROFESSIONAL," the E-1 is not. The sync speed and overall speed put it in the same class as the Nikon D100 and Canon 10D, and inferior to the Nikon D70, each of which costs less and also has a huge line of lenses, new and used, already available. The E-1 has amateur performance, however a big plus is that it's built to professional standards mechanically.

Even if you ignore the low performance, the lack of lenses kills this for me.

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