Olympus unveils true digital SLR camera

Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. is pushing to become a player in the professional photography market, preparing to offer a 5-megapixel digital single-lens reflex camera with the first pure digital SLR and a ready-made line of lenses.

First seen under glass at last winter's Photo Marketing Association show in Las Vegas, working models of the new Olympus E-1 were passed around at the official debut last week in the US.

Olympus plans to ship the E-1 in October with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of US$2199 for the body, plus lenses starting at around US$600--putting the unit in a professional-level price category. But Olympus is also clearly nudging Canon Inc. and Nikon Corp., which have dominated the market for professional-level SLR cameras for years.

Digital Distinctions

If Olympus is able to convince notoriously brand-loyal professionals to switch, its persuasiveness is likely to center on the E-1's advanced technology. The camera differs from current professional digital SLRs in two key aspects: its companion line of Zuiko Digital lenses, and its support for a new standard not yet implemented by its competitors.

Five of the new Zuiko Digital lenses will launch with the E-1 body later this year. As the first pure digital SLR, the E-1's lenses are designed from the start for a digital format; they are not film camera lenses that are simply migrated to a digital SLR. It's an important difference, according to Olympus. The pixels in a digital camera's CCD do not acquire light exactly the same way that film does, and so the Zuiko Digital lenses are better suited to the peculiarities of CCDs.

The E-1 is also the first digital camera to use the new Four Thirds System, an open standard also supported by Kodak and Fuji. The Four Thirds System defines a specification for the camera's CCD (currently produced by Kodak) and lens mount, and should allow third-party companies to build lenses for the E-1 or future cameras that use the standard.

The Four Thirds moniker is a bit confusing: the CCD is not 4/3 the size of a standard 35mm frame as long-time photographers might assume. "Four-thirds" refers to the CCD type; the CCD is actually a little over a quarter the size of a 35mm film frame. For photographers used to thinking in 35mm terms, the Four Thirds format has at least one advantage: The focal-length conversion between a Four Thirds lens and 35mm is a factor of two. So a 14mm Zuiko Digital lens, for example, is equivalent to a 28mm lens for a 35mm film SLR.

Quick Look

Based on a quick hands-on look at the E-1, the camera has the technical merits to compete on the professional level.

Without its extended battery-power pack--which is a nice option when you need to travel as light as possible--the E-1 is significantly smaller and lighter than Canon's digital SLRs. Its overall design is very clean, with nicely placed controls and intuitive menus.

The camera includes interchangeable viewing screens and has both FireWire and USB 2.0 ports. In what may be another first, the Zuiko Digital lenses have on built-in processors. They communicate the lens setting to the camera, which, Olympus says, will let the camera compensate for barrel and pincushion distortion when it processes images.

If digital SLRs with interchangeable lenses have an Achilles' heel, it's the potential for dust on the CCD. But seals on the E-1 body make it "splash-proof" and help keep out fine dust particles, according to Olympus. Also, a built-in ultrasonic wave generator is designed to knock dust off the CCD.

The camera feels solid, well-constructed, and durable. Minor knocks include an optical viewfinder that seems a bit small, and a fixed LCD display--in contrast, for example, to the Olympus E-20, which has an LCD that rotates out, making it easier to take overhead shots.

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