- Review Price: £799.00
When Olympus announced the Four Thirds sensor and lens mount standard for digital SLR cameras in 2003, one of its stated aims was to produce cameras and lenses that were smaller and lighter than the 35mm standard used by all the other manufacturers. Despite several industry partners joining in the development, other brands have been slow to adopt the new standard, although Panasonic’s new L1 SLR does use it. Undeterred, Olympus has remained committed to the standard, launching a series of popular and critically-acclaimed digital SLRs, including the E-300, E-330, and the E-550. I’ve reviewed the E-330 and the E500 here already, and I was very impressed by both of them, especially the entry-level E-500.
Olympus’s latest Four Thirds SLR is the E-400, which despite its numerical designation is superior to the E-500 in terms of both specification and price. It’s also above the E-330; in fact until the anticipated launch of the replacement for the E-1 it represents the top of Olympus’s DSLR range.
Launched in September this year the E-400 is a 10 megapixel DSLR that is competing directly with the Nikon D80, Sony Alpha A100, Pentax K10 and the Canon EOS 400D, so it’s certainly got its work cut out for it. It has a list price of £849.99 in a kit with two zoom lenses of 14-42mm and 40-150mm (equivalent to 28-84mm and 80-300mm respectively) and although it is available for around £800 online, it is apparently not currently available body-only, which makes it significantly more expensive to buy than any of those models except the Nikon.
The first thing that strikes you about the E-400 is its diminutive size and light weight. It is, at the time of writing, the smallest and lightest digital SLR on the market, measuring 129.5 mm x 91 mm x 53 mm and weighing only 375g body-only. Compare this with 126 x 94 x 65mm and 510g for the Canon 400D or 132 x 103 x 77mm and 585g for the Nikon D80. It is the first E-series SLR that I feel really uses the size advantage of the Four Thirds system.
It looks even smaller because it lacks the large handgrip found on most other SLR cameras. Its slim body shape is more reminiscent of an early 1980’s-vintage film SLR such as the Nikon FG or Canon A-1. It does have a handgrip of sorts; the body shape is slightly sculpted on the right hand side both front and back with a textured rubber panel on the front and on the thumbgrip, but anyone who is used to the shape of most modern SLRs will find that the E-400 feels very skinny and possibly a little awkward. Personally I quite liked the feel of it, although I did find that the position of the right-hand strap lug was too low and pressed into the side of my middle finger.
Although the E-400 has a plastic body the build quality is superb, and minor design points show an attention to detail. Things like a focal plane mark on the top panel, and the position of the tripod bush directly under the centre line of the sensor are points that professional photographers will appreciate.
Like the other cameras in the E series, the E-400 features Olympus’ proprietary Supersonic Wave dust removal system, which has proven to be very effective.
Despite its small size the E-400 handles very well. The camera is so light that holding it at any angle is no effort at all, and even without a bulky handgrip its shape fits the hand very well. The low weight might make it more vulnerable to camera shake, certainly a factor on a camera that has no image stabilisation, but the shutter release action is very soft so movement while shooting is reduced. The viewfinder, while a little small, is clear and bright with a good range of displayed information.
The control interface is simply excellent. The E-400 uses the same monitor-based interface as the E-500, utilising its sharp 2.5in 215kp screen to display the camera’s current settings, such things as ISO, white balance, colour mode, metering, AF selection etc.
This information display doubles as a shooting menu. In order to change a setting, you first press the centre button on the D-pad to activate the selection mode, then use the direction arrows to select the setting you want to change. It’s very quick and easy to use, and means that things like drive mode, focus area, contrast, sharpness and even colour space can be adjusted in seconds. The only slight problem is that if the screen is on, you have the a bright glow at the edge of your field of vision whenever you have the camera up to your eye, which I found quite distracting especially when shooting in vertical format. Fortunately there is a button to turn the screen off when shooting, if you remember to press it.
There are other shooting modes, including a simple full Auto mode, program, manual and aperture or shutter priority exposure, five shooting programs and 19 scene modes.
The top panel controls look a little cluttered, especially the comparatively large mode dial, but in actual operation this is really not a problem and the controls fall neatly under the fingers. The power switch is a bit fiddly, but this also means it’s unlikely to get switched on by accident. There are separate buttons for flash mode and remote/self-timer/drive mode on the left of the top panel, but since these functions are duplicated on the information display menu they seem a bit redundant.
In terms of overall performance, the E-400 is impressive. It starts up in under a second, and wakes from standby in about the same time. In HQ JPEG mode it can shoot at a continuous three frames a second until the memory card is full, which with a 1GB card means over 200 frames. In SHQ JPEG + RAW mode it can fire off five frames at three frames a second, and it only takes around 10 seconds to empty the image buffer before you can shoot another 5-frame burst.
This is slightly faster than the E-500, and compares favourably with the Sony A100. I’ll be testing the Nikon D80 next week and hopefully the Canon 400D the week after, so I’ll find out then how they compare.
The camera is powered by a relatively small 1150mAh Li-ion battery; I’ve seen compacts with batteries the same size as that. I wasn’t able to make an accurate assessment of total battery life, but I took over 150 shots with it over several days, including many flash shots and the battery meter was still reading full. One of Olympus’ main claims for this camera is its energy efficient circuitry, which seems to be borne out by this result.
Image file sizes are always revealing. The E-400 produces 21MB RAW files, and SHQ JPEG that are around 7MB each, which shows a very low degree of compression. Compare this with the 15MB RAW files and 5.3MB JPEGs of the Nikon D200, or the 10MB/3MB of the Sony A100. The downside is that if you shoot in SHQ+RAW, as most enthusiasts and professionals will prefer to do, you only get 34 shots on a 1GB card.
Speaking of cards, the E-400 can use both CompactFlash types I and II, and also has a slot for xD-Picture cards with the ability to quickly switch from one to the other, so it is possible to load it up with several gigabytes of memory.
The AF system is extremely quick, certainly one of the fastest SLR AF systems I’ve seen. It has three focusing points which are fairly close together in the centre of the frame. It seemed to favour the centre point most of the time. The AF was fast in reduced light conditions as well. Like several other SLRs it uses a fast burst from the flash as an AF illuminator when shooting in very low light, although it usually took several tries to get a lock which proved to be uncomfortable for anyone at whom it was pointed.
The metering system is also excellent, with Olympus’ acclaimed ESP multi-zone system, centre weighted and spot metering, as well as both highlight spot and shadow spot metering.
One thing I will mention, since I’ve criticised other manufacturers for it. The E-400 comes with only a basic printed manual, with the advanced manual included in PDF format on a CD. I really hate this. A camera this good and this complex deserves a proper printed manual.
Regardless of its versatility, speed and handling, a digital SLR stands or falls on its image quality, and here the E-400 scores big time. As I mentioned, the image files are huge compared to other 10MP cameras, which is always a good sign. The JPEG files are around 5.3MB on disk, and around 28MB opened in Photoshop.
The Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses supplied with the kit are of exceptionally high quality, and produce images that are pin-sharp right to the edges at all focal lengths with no trace of chromatic aberration, although there was some spherical distortion at the widest end of the zoom range of the 14-42mm zoom.
The sensor produces images that are very slightly soft, but which respond beautifully to a touch of Unsharp Mask, something that will really appeal to professionals. The level of detail that can be pulled out of the E-400’s RAW files is simply astonishing, in my opinion the equal of the Nikon D200, and slightly superior to the Sony A100. Again, it will be interesting to see how it matches up to the D80 and 400D.
Another Olympus claim is that thanks to a new amplifier circuit the E-400 has exceptionally low image noise at higher ISO settings, and I can confirm that this is the case. As you’ll see from the accompanying sample shots, image quality was very good right up to 800 ISO, and far from shabby even at 1,600 ISO, which does present high sensitivity and the corresponding increase in usable shutter speed as an alternative to image stabilisation.
The Olympus E-400 is a very accomplished camera, a serious photographic tool that will appeal to both professionals and advanced amateurs. It offers a combination of easily controlled versatility, exceptional performance and superb image quality that should secure it a place in the top rank of mid-range digital SLRs. The kit price may seem expensive, but it includes two excellent lenses that perfectly complement this outstanding camera.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size image has been reduced for bandwidth purposes, and a crop taken from the original full resolution image has been placed below it in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality.”
1/100th, f6.3, ISO 100
At the lowest ISO setting the image is completely noise-free and also devoid of compression artefacts. You can clearly see the grain in the wood of this old door.
1/60th, f7.1, ISO 200
At the 200 ISO setting the image is completely noise-free and also devoid of compression artefacts. You can clearly see the grain in the wood of this old door.
1/200th, f9.0 ISO 400
At the 400 ISO setting the image is completely noise-free and also…hang on, this sounds familiar.
1/320th, f10, ISO 800
At the lowest ISO setting the image is completely noise-free and…no, wait, I think I can see a tiny hint of colour speckling in the mid-tones. Maybe.
1/500th, f11.0 ISO 1600
At the highest ISO setting there is a faint fuzz of image noise across the whole image, but the image is quite printable. I’ve seen far worse than this from other cameras at 400 ISO.
”A range of test shots are shown over the next few pages. Here, the full size image has been reduced for bandwidth purposes, and a crop taken from the original full resolution image has been placed below it in order for you to gain an appreciation of the overall quality. The following pages consist of resized images so that you can evaluate the overall exposure. For those with a dial-up connection, please be patient while the pages download.”
Taken with the 14-42mm lens at its widest angle, the image is still sharp right out to the edges, and fantastically detailed.
This is a 100% crop from the above image, shot in RAW mode and converted in Adobe Camera RAW and then slightly sharpened using Unsharp Mask, a common professional workflow. The level of detail is outstanding; this compressed JPEG really doesn’t do it justice.
In sRGB natural colour mode, colour reproduction is pretty much flawless.
The high-contrast monochrome mode is ideal for arty Gothy shots like this. O I’m so alone nobody knows my pain etc.
Olympus cameras have always been known for exceptional metering. The E-400 has coped with both a bright sky and dark shadows producing excellent dynamic range.
At its widest setting the 14-42mm lens does produce some spherical distortion, as can be seen from the curved horizon in this image.
The extremely fast AF system and negligible shutter lag allow quick action shots like this one.
Score in detail
Image Quality 10
|Camera type||Digital SLR|
|Megapixels (Megapixel)||10 Megapixel|
|Optical Zoom (Times)||By lensx|