People have yearned since the dawn of time to take pictures where the sun doesn't shine. Inside their living rooms, in museums, cathedrals, natural caves, subway stations, in gloomy weather and after nightfall everywhere. That's a tricky ambition on technical grounds. Taking pictures in low light usually requires slow shutters, which makes it easy for anything that was moving (including the camera) to leave a blur. The most common antidote has been flash, which interrupts the proceedings when it goes off, and usually makes the picture ugly.
Existing light without flash is what people see, and it's what they want to show in their pictures. A streetscape that looks mundane by day can turn quite spectacular at night, as every Vegas-goer knows, with its pinpoints of light and swaths of glitter and sometimes mysterious shadings. People would take more pictures in the dark if they could, and Olympus, among notables, has been helping them along.
Their first DSLR, the immortal E-1, was able to make usable pictures at 1600 ISO and higher. They weren't great at those speeds, but they were usable. Combined with the f/2.8 lenses so prevalent in that first-generation FourThirds system, the E-1 was a formidable tool after dark.
It also had a ruggedized, sealed construction that made it more of a go-anywhere camera than its direct competitors, and its capacities under low levels of light sealed the deal.
Not every Olympus DSLR since then has shared this combination of virtues. We've found most of the Evolt line (until now) ready to max out at around 400-speed. They could be pushed higher, but nobody, least of all Olympus, said you should do it if you don't really have to.
Some of these cameras had serious advantages of other kinds that made up for a 400-speed limit—if 400-speed can really be considered a restrictive limit. It equals the tops that most consumer-market films dared go, back in the olden days of yore.
Increasing the light-sensitivity of the recording system—or its "ISO," in the slang—is a valuable recourse where the sun doesn't shine, but there are other ways to improve low-light photo ops besides. One of them would be fast lenses, a choice the industry seems reluctant to pursue, so far.
There are a few, but only a few, interchangeable lenses for digital cameras with apertures as fast as f/1.4. It would be right handy if there were more lenses that fast, and faster, including zooms. In the 35mm days, there were some good f/1.2 50mm lenses, appreciably more transmissive than their f/1.4 cousins, able to record pictures in somewhere around half the light. Not often, but once in awhile, we fiddled with lenses faster than f/1.0. Now that was seeing in the dark.
Depth-of-field is very limited at f/0.9, though the problem's less severe with most digital cameras —their "normal" lenses having shorter focal lengths (e.g., 25mm in the FourThirds system), so they start off with a deeper field.
What remains more of a problem than depth-of-field is depth-of-pocket. Very fast lenses tend to be very expensive. We've been seeing some new notions in lens design and construction techniques these past few years, and maybe with luck it will become possible to sell an f/0.9 lens profitably for $3.98. Until then, manufacturers have to think of an easier sell.
Why try to get Joe 'n' Jane Foto to buy a bunch of expensive lenses, when there are other, hotter, easier-to-grasp ways to sell shooting in the dark?
The sweetheart of these at the moment is image stabilization, which has found its way into most lines of cameras above the raw-entry rank. It can be a very useful feature, and constitutes a real step forward in the evolution of cameras. Pentax and Sony had it built into several DSLR bodies, and with the new Evolt E-510, Olympus does, too.
Image-stabilization systems address camera movement, but have no influence on the effects of subject movement. Fast lenses and higher ISO equivalencies address both. So although image-stabilization systems are very good, even better are fast lenses and higher ISO. If not much is going on faster than f/2.8 among digital lenses, we're left with the ISO as a final resource for low-light work.
And this is where we're starting to see real action. More than one camera is showing great promise in the high-sensitivity climes that the E-1 pioneered. They include the Pentax 6-megapixel DSLRs, and by different routes, a couple of new Olympus models.