cameras of christmas past: the olympus e-1

December 24, 2013

I have owned a number of Olympus digital cameras over the past seven years. This doesn’t include the Olympus film camera I purchased in 1984, the OM-4. The majority of my Olympus cameras have either been purchased new but heavily discounted, or else as used. One was even gifted. The used and gifted cameras were all Olympus E-1s.

The E-1 was a controversial camera from the moment it was released in 2003. It was the flagship camera that was meant to be the foundation for Olympus’ then-new FourThirds camera system. Olympus had pulled together a consortium with Panasonic (cameras and lenses) and Kodak (the sensor) to produce a truly digital interchangeable lense system in which the entire system was designed for optimum performance. Today’s Big Two, Canon and Nikon, have simply evolved their older film mounts to use digital sensors instead of film. The immediate apparent advantage is access to the large historical catalog of lenses, both main and third-party that have been manufactured for both cameras over the last 30+ years (Canon) stretching back even farther for Nikon, to it’s introduction of the F in 1959. And that looks good on paper.

Unfortunately, the dirty little secret is that if you want the best from today’s bespoke digital cameras, then you need to purchase contemporary digitally designed lenses, and usually for quite the sum. The only camera manufacturer that’s managed to truly bridge the gap from film to digital has been Leica with their latest sensor in the M 240, and they still haven’t quite got it right for wide angle lenses. Olympus knew that the lenses would have to be designed for digital going in, and thus gave the world the Digital Zuiko zoom series of lenses that came in three grades, Standard, High Grade, and Super High Grade. In the HG and SHG grades there are no poor performers, and the whole series achieved both legendary and a cult following in very short order. Yet in spite of the quality and performance of the Digital Zuiko series, the regular FourThirds line slowly shriveled until both Panasonic and Olympus re-engineered the mount, keeping the same sensor, and gave the photographic world μFourThirds. And the rest, as they say, became history. But still…

The controversies over the introduction of the E-1 were many. The primary controversy was the size of its four-thirds ratio sensor at 17mm x 13mm, a small sensor that was smaller than the APS-C sensors that had come to dominate DSLRs up to that point, and the small pixel count of the sensor, 5MP. Never mind that it took another ten years and Apple to give us a computer screen large enough to fully display all 5 million pixels at a resolution of 2560 x 1920. It was instantly deemed too low resolution. And it generated instant anger in the Olympus legacy users because Olympus abandoned the OM film series mount (regardless of the fact you could buy a thin but effective adapter for the new mount to use all those old OM lenses). Many ignored the fact that it was a true professionally built camera, with a sealed magnesium body that could go through just about anything with the right sealed lenses attached. Or they chose to ignore what you could accomplish with that ‘poor’ Kodak sensor if you but tried.

Instead, pros (and by associated the enthusiast segment) were rushing to embrace the Nikon D2Hs with its APS-C 4.1 MP sensor and $5,000 price tag, or the Canon EOS-1D with its APS-H 4 MP sensor running for the same price. I should, out of fairness, point out that Canon had introduced by 2003 the EOS 1Ds with a sensor that was the same size as a 35mm film frame with an 11 MP resolution and the eye-watering price of US $8,000, body only. Compare these prices with the far more pedestrian US $1,800 price of the E-1 when it was introduced in 2003. I would have purchased one back then, but my oldest daughter was headed to college the next year and all “discretionary” funds were earmarked for the college fund. Not to mention that her sister was just two years behind and headed for college as well. I didn’t purchase my first E-1 until late 2010 from KEH Camera (used), and it cost just $250. My next E-1 came from eBay, and my third E-1 was given to me by Kirk Tuck. I lost the KT E-1 with my E-3 when it was stolen out of the back of my car in 2012.

As noted elsewhere my first “real” Olympus DSLR was the E-300, purchased on sale from Newegg in 3006. My first professional DSLR was the E-3, purchased again on sale from Adorama Camera Christmas 2008. If anything the E-3 was superior to the E-1 in just about every metric you care to name, and with the 12-60mm and 50-200mm HG lenses, it was a potent photographic tool. But the E-1’s sensor had, and still has, a romantic quality that has never been fully matched by any Four Thirds sensor since then in any FourThirds or μFourThirds body.

I was reminded of my remaining E-1 (one stolen, one given to my youngest daughter) sitting in its bag by someone looking through my Flickr account at my E-1 produced images. And so I decided to write this post and share a few of my more favorite photos taken with that camera. I seemed to have hit something of a pinnacle with the camera in November 2011 on a business trip to Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan. It was late fall, cold, and snow showers. The rest of the images I’ll post here are from that period and then backwards from there.

Royal Purple and Red
Fall Trees
Backyard Orchids 1
Backyard Orchids 3
Your Future Has Been Adjusted
If you want to see all the E-1 images on my Flickr account:

5 responses to cameras of christmas past: the olympus e-1


    These photos are proof that bigger, better, faster….the great American obsession… is not always so.



    The colors are really rich and spectacular. The look less digital in some ways.

    I don’t usually asked these type of questions but wondering if the Kodak CCD sensor makes a difference. Did you post process? Where they shot in RAW or JPEG?



      The Kodak sensor does make a difference. All photos were shot in RAW (ORF) and post processed in Lightroom 3.x at the time. I once remarked that the release of Lightroom 3 breathed new life into the E-1’s raw files. As have further releases of LR 4 and LR 5.