The 10-megapixel Olympus E-400 digital SLR harks back to the past with a diminutive design closely modeled on the Olympus OM-1.
When Olympus announced its first digital SLR, it became the first manufacturer to build a digital system from the ground up rather than retrospectively fitting sensors to film camera bodies. The result was the Olympus E-System, and with the 5MP Olympus E-1 setting the ball rolling.
Three years on and the market has changed dramatically, but the E-System has continued to lead the way in a number of technological areas. From the outset, the system had in-camera dust-reduction and digitally optimised telecentric lens designs, with the E-300 upping the entry-level resolution stakes to 8MP in 2004. Its successor, the E-330, brought full-colour ‘live-view’ LCDs to the SLR table – another Olympus first.
However, Olympus appears to have had a reflective moment with the E-400, looking back to its roots for inspiration. Using the original OM-1 35mm film camera as a blueprint, the E-400 is the smallest and lightest DSLR on the market today, just as the OM-1 was in 1975. Joining it is a brace of new lenses – essentially existing zooms that have been reengineered to make them smaller, and lighter, too.
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Four Thirds System
Although based loosely on the OM-1, the E-400 is still a Four Thirds system camera, using a Four Thirds lens mount and a Four Thirds format sensor. Measuring 17.3 x 13mm, the E-400’s CCD plays host to 10.8 million pixels, with 10.2 million of these used to form images up to 3648 x 2736 pixels in size. This will give you a print size a shade over 12x9in (30x23cm) at 300ppi. Both RAW and JPEG capture is possible (with simultaneous RAW and JPEG), with images stored on CF or XD picture cards, depending on which of the dual card slots you use.
Conveniently, the diagonal of the Four Thirds format sensor measures 22mm (half that of the 35mm format), which makes it really easy to work out ‘effective’ focal lengths of lenses – when you fit a lens to the E-400 there’s a 2x focal length magnification. As a result, a 50mm focal length doubles up to give an angle of view similar to a 100mm optic, while a 100mm lens behaves like a 200mm optic, and so on.
To ensure your chosen lens delivers a sharp result, the E-400 uses the same three-point TTL phase-detection AF system as the E-500 and E-330, but Olympus claims to have ‘tweaked’ the algorithms to make it faster in both single-shot and continuous focus.
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In terms of photographic controls, the E-400 certainly doesn’t disappoint, with metering options ranging from 49-zone ESP metering, through centreweighted and spot patterns to the very useful highlight and shadow spot patterns, to help avoid ‘burnt out’ or ‘blocked up’ areas at the tonal extremities.
The choice of exposure modes is equally comprehensive, ranging from fully automatic to manual, with a host of preset and semiautomated options in between. By the time you’ve thrown in the ISO 100-1600 sensitivity range (selectable in 1/3 stop increments), an all-encompassing white balance system and a plethora of colour-control options, it’s fair to say the E-400 has something for every situation and experience level.
It almost goes without saying that the E-400 also features a Supersonic Wave filter in front of the sensor for dust removal – as seen in all E-System cameras – and when the light dips, there’s the obligatory pop-up flash. With a guide number of 10 (GN10m@ISO100) the flash is a bit weaker than most, but the hotshoe will accept any E-System flashgun if you need more power. The only question remaining is why – with so much technology on tap and a sensor capable of delivering such large files – has Olympus equipped the E-400 with a slow USB 1.1 connection?
With its combination of a Four Thirds sensor and high pixel count, we might as well get this out of the way first – the E-400 is noisy. This isn’t surprising and, given the sensor size and resolution, it’s pretty much inevitable. However, it’s what Olympus has done to the noise – or, more precisely, not done to it – that’s most important.
Instead of cranking up the noise-reduction processing and running the risk of losing image detail, Olympus seems to have said: ‘Let’s keep some noise in the image, but keep detail and sharpness too.’ And you know what? It works.
The E-400 treads an excellent line between image clarity and noise and, while there is the suggestion of texture in A3-sized prints taken at ISO 200 (and obvious disruption at higher ISO settings), images are sharp and packed full of detail – even at ISO 1600. As an aside, if noise is a concern, bear in mind that software such as Neat Image and Noise Ninja will come to the rescue and – let’s face it – it’s a lot easier to remove noise than it is to add detail.
Exposure & White Balance
The exposures and white balance are also well controlled, to the point that the ESP metering proves reliable in all but the trickiest of conditions. It is especially impressive when it comes to dealing with scenes containing a mixture of bright highlights and deep shadows.
We’re also pleased to report that, despite redesigning the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, the quality of the Zuiko optic has been retained, with a noticeable lack of colour fringing. Once again, it appears as though the telecentric design of the E-System’s optics works well, though having a good sensor behind it undoubtedly helps.
Overall, with the exception of high noise levels across the ISO range, the E-400 delivers first-class images.
Value For Money
Twin Lens Kit is Better Value
Based on its £700 list price at the time of writing, the E-400 single lens kit (with 28-84mm equivalent zoom) is more expensive than most other 10MP DSLRs, but £800 for a twin lens kit covering the equivalent of 28-300mm focal lengths isn’t to be sniffed at. Taking dealer-discounts into consideration, you’re getting a lot of technology for your money and arguably wouldn’t need to buy another lens.
In terms of image quality we have few reservations about the E-400 and, though images are noisy, the non-aggressive processing delivers well-defined, detail-packed pictures rather than a ‘mushy mess’. However, a buffer that’s too small for continuous shooting, together with slow write times, limit it to more sedate photography.