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.
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