Olympus E400 DSLR digital camera

On its announcement in July 2006, the E400 entered the world of digital photography as the Worlds smallest and lightest DSLR; Nikon has introduced the also svelte D40 since then but it is light four million pixels compared to the E400.

Other key kit includes a highly energy efficient image processor that also helps to reduce problems with noise and provides 3 fps continuous shooting and five frame buffer in RAW shooting. JPEG compression includes (among the more usual settings) a great “SHQ” (Super High Quality) mode that uses less aggressive compression leaving JPEG images without any of the artifacts that become an issue at higher compression ratios.

An anti-dust system uses a Super Sonic Wave Filter that activates whenever the camera is switched on; the filter shakes itself down each time the camera is activated and is placed in front of the Kodak made 10-million pixel FourThirds sensor. While the jury is still out a definitive answer to which anti-dust system actually works well across the various manufacturers that now employ it within their cameras, it is generally agreed the Olympus set up works very well.

There’s the usual array of manual controls you’d expect of a DSLR plus no less than 32 scene modes with a superb range to play with including an underwater mode, Macro mode and includes a high key and a low key combo for images that require a lift for the former or more broody look to shadows in the latter. You get a range of filters to apply for black and white images as well and special colour modes with large dollops of user tinkering possible to the way colour is rendered.

From application of Adobe colour space to shots (and sRGB) to adjusting the overall colour using Vivid or Muted colour modes, additionally you also get separate saturation control for each of the chosen settings; there’s more than enough creative choice for the most demanding user.

Comprehensive white balance control includes the usual array of presets (daylight, tungsten, etc.) as well as colour compensation within each setting for both red and green colours, which can be applied to every WB mode including the full auto setting. There’s even a simple preview available for any tinkering so you know exactly what your fiddling is doing to the result without wasting memory.

Talking of which, despite its tiny proportions, the camera accepts both CompactFlash Type II and xD PictureCard external storage simultaneously and without an adapter. In fact, on the handling side of things, despite the small body the camera handles nicely (though the right strap swivel digs your palm slightly) with a full compliment of controls that enable you to control the camera without constantly resorting to menus, though you get the same level of control in menus (should you require it) as well.

One of the best aspects of control is the large 2.5-inch colour screen doubles as the data display. It hosts all the data you’d have got in a separate mono LCD but can be adjusted to include extra data at the press of the Info button. This reduces the type size used to include all the key control data you might need, from white balance, image size and focus mode to exposures left on the storage and the sensitivity.

What makes it even nice however is you can access the control of each item displayed by pressing the centre OK button inside the four-way jog controller. Scrolling around using the control wheel quickly gets to the setting you want to change and another press of the OK opens the menu for that particular item. Intuitive, fast and very natty it is and thankfully, the screen is eminently usable in bright conditions too, so no worries there either.

A built-in flash is tucked into a tiny pentamirror housing (more on which in a moment), backed up by a hot shoe for a flashgun; other control is offered by the nice to use mode dial and aforementioned top-plate control wheel. One handling foible is the dual pressures of the shutter button are light, allowing me to mistakenly shoot images before I’d composed properly when focusing or metering from a different area in a scene for example.

Another foible is the electronic linkage to the lens for focus control. If the camera is turned off the focusing system is disengaged and resets to infinity. But it also means the lack of a mechanical linkage makes manual focus feel, well, divorced from the control of your fingers. It’s not unresponsive and it is not a critical issue, it just feels, well, different.

So, the E400 is crammed full or great features and good control options, too many to go into here suffice to say, it lacks for nothing. But what of the all important image quality?

First up, the FourThirds sensor used on the E400 is quite small and the worry about that is the associated problems with image noise: small tightly packed pixels are hampered by noise issues. Well, here it is well controlled to a degree. In this camera noise reduction processing is available and the cameras sensitivity range runs from ISO 100 to 1600; images up to ISO 400 looking extremely good, up to ISO 800 okay and, beyond that point noise is very evident.

Metering is very good and white balance control excellent in most conditions, with fine tuning possible of both via exposure compensation and white balance adjustments across the board, even in auto, it leaves little to be desired.

Resolved detail is also as good as the 10-megapixel competition such as the EOS 400D and Sony Alpha 100 and, while noise is more evident at higher ISO than both those cameras, the noise reduction used does not smear away detail. A compromise yes, but I’d refer detail of noise reduction smearing more often than not.

Colour is excellent (and with all that control offered, easily adjusted) with the latest firmware version for the E400 switching the default colour mode from vivid to natural. The 14 to 42mm F3.5 to F5.6 kit lens provides a focal range equivalent to 28mm to 84mm in 35mm film terms, so there is (a 2x field of view multiplier) is pretty basic. But it’s pretty sharp and certainly outperforms the 14 to 45mm lens on this camera’s forbear, the E500.

Incidentally, there are now 19 lenses in the Olympus E-stable plus 11 more from Sigma. There’s also one lens available from the Panasonic/Leica pairing, with optical stabilisation, so a growing band of system lenses is now available and means there’s plenty of scope for those that choose to buy into the Four Thirds “way”.

I have one more quibble that cannot be overlooked however, and that is with the viewfinder. Because of the small sensor and the small aperture you peer through, the surrounding eyecup obscures the view even if you move your eye slightly from directly behind it, making use with spectacles more difficult than I’d have liked. The view is also quite dark, which also does not help.

Verdict

In a camera replete with so much clever stuff, you’d be forgiven for expecting a much bigger device. Until you hold the camera however, it is not immediately apparent just how svelte the E400 really is. But one worry I have is the price; it is not svelte by any standard. The E400 twin lens kit it is to be sold in includes the lens tested here plus a very compact 40 to 150mm (80 to 300mm in 35mm terms) lens for around £850.

This is far too expensive for an “entry level” model and particularly so when there are cheaper 10-megapixel models on the shop shelves already, which would be a shame because it will prevent many people from buying this camera when they should, because I can heartily recommend this camera to all those who might consider it.