The 10-megapixel Olympus E-410 updates the E-400 with a new Live MOS image sensor, and new TruePic III image processor.
When Olympus announced its E-400 towards the end of last year, it arrived with the dubious honour of being the first DSLR not to be available worldwide, with Olympus USA deciding not to take the camera. With North America effectively ‘opting out’ of the E-400, rumours quickly appeared on internet forums that the new Four-Thirds standard camera was nothing more than a ‘stopgap’. The fact that Olympus USA was unwilling to sell it suggested to some that this particular arm of Olympus didn’t see it as a long-term proposition and were therefore unwilling to invest time and money in marketing the new DSLR. Of course, no one from Olympus was going to confirm that the E-400 would be short-lived, and the official line from Olympus USA was that it wanted to continue focusing its efforts on the E-500 and E-330 models instead.
Yet here we are, less than a year later looking at its successor – the E-410 – which does indeed suggest that the original E-400 was never intended to be a long-term DSLR, especially given how few differences there are between old and new. They both look identical on the outside and a quick glance over their respective spec sheets shows that the internal changes are few and far between too.
However, there are some differences, and most of these are quite fundamental, so perhaps it’s these that held back the E-410’s development and convinced Olympus to launch the E-400 in the meantime. Or maybe, just maybe, the E-400 wasn’t a stopgap at all…
So what changes has the E-410 brought to the E-System table, and how significant are they? Well, for a start, the newcomer uses a wholly new sensor – a LiveMOS sensor with 10 million effective pixels compared to the 10MP ‘conventional’ CCD in the E-400.
New Image Processor
This has been joined by a new processing engine, and perhaps this is why the E-410 now has an improved burst depth that allows it to record eight Raw frames or unlimited HQ JPEG frames at a rate of three per second. By comparison, the E-400 achieved just five Raw or 10 HQ JPEGs at the same rate and was criticised for a general lack of speed. The inclusion of USB 2.0 Hi-Speed with the E-410 also addresses complaints targeted at the E-400’s humble USB 1.1 connection.
Further improvements can be found when we look at the rear LCD screen, which although still a 2.5in unit has seen its resolution increase to 230,000 pixels (from 215,000 pixels, which admittedly is not a great leap) and now includes Olympus’s live view system that allows you to use the screen to compose your shots as you might with a digital compact. Finally, the power of the flash has been boosted, and what was a decidedly lacklustre flash on the E-400 (with a guide number of only 10) has been replaced by a more respectable unit with a guide number of 12 – a useful power boost that now puts it on a par with rival DSLRs.
Aside from these things – some of which are great steps forwards and others which are more evolutionary advances – the basic photographic features on the E-410 remain the same as those in the E-400, right down to the Supersonic Wave Filter for combating dust on the sensor.
The 10MP sensor allows images to be printed up to 12x9in in size at 300ppi, while Raw and JPEG files can be recorded individually or together and stored on either xD or CompactFlash media thanks to the E-410’s dual card slots.
There’s 49- zone ESP metering to take care of most situations, with centre-weighted and spot patterns on hand when things get a little trickier. There are also the ‘highlight spot’ and ‘shadow spot’ metering modes unique to Olympus cameras, that allow you to easily retain detail in either of these tonal extremes and an all-inclusive ISO 100-1600 range to keep you shooting in almost all lighting conditions.
For the novice user, an automatic shooting mode keeps things simple, with 20 scene modes allowing you to quickly set the camera to the ‘optimum’ conditions for specific subjects. In addition are the more advanced modes, comprising Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual. In short, the E-410 has a full set of metering and shooting modes, with nothing missing.
The white balance options are equally comprehensive, with automatic and manual options joined by the usual selection of preset values. There’s also a Kelvin scale and WB adjustment/bracketing for those that like to fiddle with these things or really do demand the most accurate results possible. Having these options ’in-camera’ is useful, however, if this sounds like you, it might be an easier option to shoot Raw files and then adjust the white balance afterwards, before converting them to TIFF or JPEG.
Small & Light
Just as the E-410 shares much of its inner workings with the E-400, so it shares the same design principle, and indeed camera body. ‘Small and light’ is the order of the day, with the lack of a right hand finger grip and its streamlined design giving it the look and feel of the Olympus OM System 35mm film SLRs of two decades ago. However, where the OM cameras relied on metal for their construction, the E-410 uses ‘glass reinforced plastics’, with rubber finger and thumb pads for added grip. The end result is a DSLR body that weighs in at a mere 375g without a lens and certainly doesn’t take up much space within a camera bag. It’s a shame that Olympus didn’t take the opportunity to move the right hand strap lug though; as with the E-400, it sits exactly where your middle finger wants to rest, compromising an otherwise comfortable grip on the camera.
While the E-410’s one of the most ‘traditional’ looking DSLRs on the market in terms of scale and shape, this certainly doesn’t extend to the controls. The top-plate looks decidedly busy, with a host of buttons, dials and switches, although much of its cluttered appearance is due to the large printed icons that describe the various buttons’ many functions.
By comparison, the back of the camera is decidedly neat, with four buttons to the left of the LCD used to review and delete images, as well as to call up the menu and on-screen information. The right is occupied by the focus/exposure lock, a button to activate the live view mode (more on that later), and a four-way toggle switch.
Within the four-way switch is the ‘ok’ button, which is obviously used to ok settings in the menu, but when you’re in ‘shooting mode’ it also turns the information displayed on the rear LCD screen ‘live’. Like the E-400 you can then scroll around the various settings (ISO, white balance, image quality etc) and a second press of the ok button takes you straight to the relevant adjustment page of the menu. Some might argue there are too many button pushes involved if you want to change more than one thing at a time, but we still believe this is the most comprehensive and easily mastered ‘short-cut’ system used by any manufacturer. Much of this information – especially when changes have been made – is also relayed through the E-410’s viewfinder, where it’s picked out in green to the right of the focusing screen. The information is bright enough to remain legible in all but the brightest conditions, but as with most Four Thirds cameras, the viewfinder doesn’t provide the greatest view of the scene. The 95% coverage is what we’d expect, and is reasonably bright, but the small sensor found in a Four Thirds camera results in a slightly small viewfinder, which is a shame. We’d prefer a larger, and therefore clearer view.
Being based closely on the E-400, it’s not that surprising that the E-410 performs in a very similar fashion in many areas. In use, however, it’s fairly obvious that Olympus has tinkered under the bonnet to ‘supercharge’ its latest model. One of the biggest differences is its speed when it comes to taking consecutive frames.
We criticised the E-400 earlier this year because it was just a little too slow when it came to taking sequences of images. Even when you simply wanted to take a couple of shots in succession of the same scene, there was a slight delay between frames.
With the E-410 this is largely resolved, and if you are shooting the highest-quality JPEGs you’ll see a vast improvement, especially if you accept the second-highest-quality HQ JPEG files. With these files you can rattle off more frames than you need – Olympus claims 100, but if you need more than 20 in a row we’d be surprised, and the E-410 achieves this with ease. This is most likely due to the E-410’s new processor, and possibly also due to its larger buffer.
Yet while JPEG capture has improved, the E-410 still isn’t the camera we’d choose for sport or action photography, where Raw files are wanted. Despite being faster, the buffer is still limited and if you’re shooting Raw you’ll find that after eight frames the camera needs to take a breather. Still, it’s certainly better than its predecessor for when you need to shoot sequences.
There is still a question mark over the focusing system’s ability to keep up with such frame rates, though. With fast-moving subjects, it doesn’t quite pick the subject up and track it as well as some DSLRs (Pentax’s K100D, for example). Pre-focusing ensures your initial frame will be crisp, but depending on the subject’s speed and direction across the frame, you may find that subsequent images get softer as the three-point AF system struggles.
For more sedate subject matter, though, the E-410’s AF system performs very well, locking on quickly in bright conditions and only hesitating slightly when things are a little darker or the contrast in your subject is low.
Live View Focusing
There is also the benefit of the live view LCD system if you are shooting static subjects such as landscape or macro/still life with a tripod. A single press of the display button activates the rear LCD, in effect turning the E-410 into a ‘compact’ where you can compose your image using the large 2.5in screen. However, because of the way live view works you can only focus manually, but this is no great problem. Pressing the ‘ok’ button in live view mode zooms the preview image to 7x magnification, which is perfect for precision focusing. In fact, the system works incredibly well, and for landscape and still-life photographers is far preferable to using the slightly small viewfinder for framing pictures. If we have one slight criticism it’s that you have to remember to switch to manual focus yourself before entering live view mode, and we’re surprised that Olympus hasn’t programmed the camera to automatically switch between focusing modes when live view is activated.
While the E-400 was a good camera, it wasn’t perfect and one of its problems was image noise – the grainy texture that can affect detail and introduce coloured speckles into pictures. Unfortunately, Olympus is no stranger to ‘noisy’ cameras as its Four Thirds sensors are smaller than most, which makes them naturally prone to high noise levels – the E-300 being a fine example of this.
In that particular instance, when Olympus upgraded the E-300 to the E-330 it put in a ‘LiveMOS’ sensor, which helped keep the noise down. It’s interesting that the company has done exactly the same thing with the E-410 – whereas the E-400 has a conventional CCD (and noisy images) the E-410 uses LiveMOS.
And the results are phenomenal – at least in terms of noise control. Whether it’s purely down to the sensor or – more likely – a combination of advanced processing and LiveMOS, I would happily take images taken at any ISO setting on the E-410 and enlarge them to an A3 print size. Even at ISO 1600 the noise that appears isn’t unpleasant.
Sharpness & Detail
Of course, there has to be a downside to this and in this instance, achieving such smooth prints means the noise reduction takes the edge off your pictures in terms of sharpness and detail. However, we have to stress that it is only a marginal loss of sharpness, and only at the maximum ISO 1600 setting. Below this – especially in the ISO 100-400 range – the less aggressive noise reduction leads to improved sharpness and some cracking A3 enlargements.
Yet while noise is very well controlled, we do have some issues with the E-410’s dynamic range. This is basically the range of tones the camera can record before it delivers pure black or pure white – the wider the dynamic range the more detail you will see in the lightest and darkest areas of a picture. With the E-410, it appears that the dynamic range is slightly narrow, because the highlights in images tend to ‘blow’ quite easily, leaving blank patches of white in the picture. As a result, you have to work a little harder when you make your exposures so you don’t lose your highlights.In high contrast situations we found that underexposing slightly (by up to -1EV) and then lightening the shadows in Photoshop is one answer – it’s easier to recover shadow detail as once highlights go white, any detail is lost forever.
Luckily, Olympus has helped by including a good 49-zone ESP metering system that needs little assistance in getting things right, and if you really want to ensure you have full detail in your highlights you can always use the highlight spot meter option.
Value For Money
Coming in at £500 ‘on the street’ the basic E-410 ‘kit’ is far cheaper than its predecessor was at its launch – even a twin lens kit can be had for under £600 if you shop around. This makes it great value in my book and it holds its own against comparably priced models. Even cheaper deals will easily be had now that its E-420 upgrade is on the streets.
There’s no doubt the E-410 is a significantly ‘better’ camera than the E-400. Fundamental upgrades to the sensor, processor and LCD screen have led to improvements in both the handling and image quality, and the reduction in noise is astounding. It does appear that the move from a conventional CCD to a LiveMOS sensor is the right one. In addition, the E-410 now has live view, which is great if you’re into landscape, still life or macro photography. There’s still a bit of work to do with regards to dynamic range – the E-410’s highlights blow out far too easily for our liking – but if you can work around that, you’ll see that Olympus has delivered a great all-round package at a fantastic price.