Late 2003 saw an explosion in the professional end of the digital camera market with all the major players releasing digital SLR's. Olympus approached the project with a slightly different angle, instead of adapting an existing SLR frame to the digital task, they decided to pioneer the ‘Four Thirds' system. Four thirds relates to the relationship of the diameter of the lens mount to the size of the CCD sensor, designed to create the most flawless transmission of light from lens to focal plane. These guidelines twined with a ‘Full Frame Transfer' style CCD mean that the new E-1's image quality is some of the best you will see on the market in the 5 million pixels band.
The camera is sold as a professional model and to keep up with the competition the body is made of tough die-cast magnesium much like the Canon 1D &1DS. The housing is said to be shower proof and there are rubber seals on doors and mounts but I wouldn't trust these to hold out for long periods or very high humidity. Following suit with the Olympus C5060 an increasing number of the standard and commonly required features have been moved off the on-screen menus to be located on buttons on the body's outside. These let the user toggle options such as drive speed, metering and image resolution quickly, without having to turn on the LCD screen. Some might say that eleven of these function buttons has gone over the top a little and simply increased the number of mechanics to malfunction.
Operating modes are kept to four, program, aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual. Customisation can be obtained once in these modes but the emphasis is on simple, accurate, imagery and not fancy presets. Shutter sped can be set between 4 minutes and 1/4000th of a second depending on the mode so there is plenty of scope to create. The white balance graduates values of the degrees Kelvin scale with twelve standard colour-temperatures and 4 custom setting to fine tune. A nice feature is the reminder when moving between the temperatures what they relate to, for example 5300K is equivalent to normal daylight and the (star symbol) appears. ISO settings range from 100 to 800 although there is a booster function in the menus that means you get as high as 3200, although noise levels prohibit is practical use in any but the most extreme circumstances.
Power comes from a bulky rechargeable lithium-ion cell that seems to have no documented end to its life span and the batteries remaining power levels are displayed in an indicator in the top display. For my liking I think this should be more prominent as the power indicator has a tendency to blend in with the other objects. Naturally for those out in the field the battery door can be removed and an additional power drive be bolted to the base of the body offering extra power and grip.
Data storage is Compact flash, which for Olympus is a strange choice as they invented and now generally favour xD. The literature that accompanies the camera helpfully points out that you can get an xD to compact flash converter but no storage medium at all comes in the box, which seems a little mean for the price tag.
The E-1 has a built in 128 Mb buffer, that means you can take up to 12 shots of any resolution in succession before the buffer maxes out and you have to wait for the images to store off to the compact flash. I will admit the shutter drive speed is impressive, but the shutter release had too much depth of depression so I was never able to tell if I was going to take 1 frame of 3.
The lack of built in flash is a pain, as the simplest dedicated flash unit, FL-50, from the E-1 range costs £300. The same could be said with the lens. The Four Thirds system may give great images but the cost to the user is a complete new set of lens for the camera, of which the fastest at the moment is only an f2.0 50mm. Olympus have promised to expand the range, made by Zuiko, in 2004 and even introduce converters to allow older Olympus lens to be added.
Nice features include interchangeable focusing screens allowing you to bring truly professional customisations to your picture taking. The sonic cleaning system is a nice touch. Every time the camera is turned on a sonic wave is played over the CCD causing all dust and other airborne particles to fall away and be captured by a special adhesive tape at the bottom of the CCD frame. The image info feature has also been developed to show where on the image you are getting flare from too much light getting into he sensor, allowing you to re-meter the shot and try shooting it again.
Overall, a very well constructed and well though out camera although it's professional status is more to do with it's cost than its features. Any professional not wanting to start their outfit from scratch would probably be swayed by either the Canon or Nikon options on the market already.
£1549 inc lens