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The Digital Imaging Scene



Olympus has slashed the price of the E-1 while offering rebates on a range of lenses.
(product shots courtesy of Olympus)

Olympus recently released some interesting figures, and guess what? They corroborate what we've been saying for a year—that the DSLR market is red hot. Reaching this conclusion required no psychic powers. During the time we've been discussing it, everyone who's anyone in the 35mm camera industry has been talking DSLRs. Now, of course, most of 'em are selling, along with additional DSLR models that no one was mentioning last June. We're told to expect maybe two, maybe three, maybe four more DSLRs coming up at photokina. Can you spot the trend in this picture?

The figures reported by Olympus gave the trend a numerical face. Between 2003 and 2004, they tell us, DSLR sales worldwide leapt from 769,500 units to 1,600,000, a growth rate of 172%. That's not too shabby, but the equation goes on. It's balanced by a 31% decline in the average selling price of DSLR cameras. Sure you'll sell more of 'em, if more folks can afford 'em.

The sun isn’t up but the sky’s light enough to crank the ISO to 800—still too fast for most cameras but the E-1 takes it in stride.

Declining prices set the trend toward the mass market, or as much of it as the DSLR should expect. Let's say that's probably as much as the 35mm SLR during the reign of film. Olympus, like Fujifilm, Pentax, and Sigma, has cultivated the budget-conscious DSLR shopper to the exclusion of all others (Canon and Nikon compete in the same market while maintaining pricier "professional" models, whereas all Kodak DSLRs have been pro-oriented). But Olympus had a special display in mind for itself in the "prosumer" boutique. This was quite clear at the introduction bash in Bryant Park for the E-1 camera last summer. Not only were the usual hacks from the press there for the eats, so were a slew of professional photographers straight from their studios downtown.

It's unlike a new camera launch to include actual photographers. But Olympus' message was, the E-1 is unlike other cameras. Sure, it was a 5-megapixel interchangeable-lens mirror-viewfinder high-performance device at a moderate price. Besides which, however, it coupled claims of "professional" construction to its price pitch.

For the $2,199 price widely cited when first discussed, the E-1 gave high optical performance and, that's not all, seals and gaskets too. Not only was it and its interchangeable lenses splash-resistant, it even had a self-cleaning device which literally shakes dust off its CCD. This was a serious go-out-there camera.

But who goes out there seriously? A lot of folks shoot tabletops. And the street price of the E-1's less-splashproof rivals was edging toward $1,500. The five-hundred bucks between them was enough to trade-off for a budget-shopping market.

So it might be considered an interesting development, that Olympus recently announced a new price for the E-1. It's now $1,499 list, body only. That by itself wouldn't cold-start a new DSLR market, but it could reboot the existing one.

Be Careful Out There

The Queen Mary 2 slides through fog on her maiden voyage into New York, shot with the E-1 at ISO 3200.
(photos by Don Sutherland)

There's something to be said for ruggedized, splashproof, dust-shedding, high-precision digital cameras. If you want to know what they are, step outside. From birds with their droppings to the dusts of the ages, it can be tough out there for a camera. It's good to keep your guard up.

Our own proclivities tending to be outdoorsy, our reviews of the DSLRs have involved uses removed from tabletops, maritime in nature, where everything's wet and most things are bumpy. Despite testing in rigorous settings, none failed to perform as advertised. That is to say, none broke.

None looked all that broken, either. The occasional scratch here or gouge there, the nick or the dent or the ding a camera gets out on the range, depends in large part on how it's finished. Olympus finished the E-1 in a way that upholds the perception of ruggedness. Its body is about one-quarter covered in rubber, and otherwise finished so it looks good awhile after it comes out of the box. After months of steady use where we use cameras, we find less scratches on ours, than paint it scraped off the walls of the places we took it.

Any camera, treated with care, coddled, if you must, can face tough settings, keep on ticking, and come home looking factory-fresh. But the photographer has a psychological advantage if, while working in such settings, he or she believes the camera can take a few knocks. Gotta jump out of the boat and go wading awhile? Sure, no problem, and we'll take close-ups while we're at it. The E-1 exudes, and possibly inspires, a courage that is found seldom elsewhere.

Where else is it found? Among those "professional" models from Canon and Nikon and Kodak, noted parenthetically above.

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