Magazine Article


The Digital Imaging Scene

The "P" Word

By the broadest definition, a "professional" camera is one that can serve the needs of professional photographers, of which there are many stripes. There are so many, in fact, that some can be served by today's advanced, flexible "consumer" camera models.

But then there's the camera manufacturers' definition of a "professional" camera, and it's more of a credo than a set of specs: a "professional" camera, like a "professional" photographer, is predictable, repeatable, and reliable. That's what they have in mind when they sit down to draw the schematics.

As long as they're starting from scratch, why not make sure the machinery under those good-looking, dry-keeping, dust-shaking covers withstand the first whap! It all gets in a world of hard objects. An SLR mirror and shutter system is quite amazing—airy enough to get from Point A to Point B and back again to Point A in, say, one four-thousandth of a second, and do it again with equal precision one second or less later. It's got to be that graceful, yet not fly to pieces the first time the boat rolls and the camera flies off the galley table and slams to the deck.

It's not so easy to predict mechanical survival in a bumpy world, but you can hazard a guess. Canon and Nikon both have cited 150,000 as the number of exposures they're quite sure their pro camera shutters can endure (they're both mum on the prosumer DSLRs, but they broadly imply it's considerably less). We don't know if Olympus has published a corresponding specification, but when asked, company reps say the E-1's shutter is built to the same standard.

And it's not only the momentous, remarkable devices like shutter assemblies that "professional" cameras make strong. "A prosumer may press the shutter-release button fifty-thousand times in a lifetime," said Olympus' John Knaur, "where a pro may press it a million times. The contacts have to be able to stand up to it."

We've had the E-1 out in rainstorms and snowstorms, and in the deep freeze of the recent winter, and the things we bump into are usually steel or concrete. While we treated the machine with as much care and consideration as we would, say, our own right hand, we didn't bend over backwards to coddle it. It's five months and a few score thousand shots later, and we've had zero problems due to technical malfunction.

Reinventing the Barrel

Since they were starting from scratch, Olympus decided to bring out a new line of interchangeable lenses, too. In the late-1990s, Olympus was the first to go primetime with the need to build lenses differently for digital use. The light needs to be sent straight back to the sensor, they preached, striking that plane at somewhere quite close to a perpendicular angle (whereas the light striking film comes from most any angle). Nobody nowadays seems to be arguing. All the opticians in the 35mm game—Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma—have introduced lines of lenses for digital use.

All of these "digital lenses," besides improved lightrays, can be physically smaller than 35mm lenses, too. They're designed to cover a smaller area, therefore require a shorter, skinnier barrel. Focal lengths being shorter, the odds improve for producing fast apertures.

At 800 with the E-1, a trace of luminance noise (grain) is visible at 100%, but chrominance noise is nowhere to be seen.

A 50-200mm zoom lens with an f/2.8-3.5 maximum aperture is a good step in the right direction. The equivalent lens for a 35mm format would be 100-400mm, of which there are plenty, but not all at f/2.8-3.5. For a 4x telezoom lens, this Zuiko is compact, considering it contains its own motors and data-processing chips. Yes, it's a "smart lens" that can talk to the camera, and to the whole internet itself, which we'll come back to in a moment.

The companion zoom lens, the Zuiko 14-54mm (28-108mm "35mm equivalent") is a little less remarkable for its f/2.8-3.5 aperture—shorter focal lengths, faster apertures again—but it's still compact despite all the addenda it contains that are not, strictly speaking, optical. The 11-22mm (22-44mm "equivalent") wide zoom was recently introduced, also with a maximum aperture of f/2.8-3.5. A 50mm f/2.0 1:2 macro and a 600mm telephoto complete the line. We didn't test the non-zoom lenses.

Because that 600mm lens costs thousands, there's an impression that the digital Zuikos are pricey. They're not cheap, but neither are the rest of them out of line with comparable performers—$999 for the 50-200mm, $499 for the 14-54mm, $799 for the 11-22mm, with Olympus rebates of $50 to $100 through July 31. Olympus must be serious about this rebooting thing.

Almost Square

Starting from scratch, Olympus also came up with a new size for its imaging chip, originally termed the four-thirds-inch standard. The majority of digital cameras use the same 4:3 frame format, but generally with smaller chips. All the other DSLRs, in the meantime, use the 3:2 format of 35mm film. With its larger chip in four-thirds format, therefore, the E-1 stands somewhere between fixed-lens digicams and the other DSLRs.

"Format wars" have been fought in photography since time immemorial, regarding both size and shape of the image-forming substance. There's no reason to expect this to change in digital, and there's no reason to expect one size to fit all, anyway. Photographs are output by all sorts of devices, so it makes sense they be input by all sorts, too.

TV and computer monitors share the almost-square 4:3 format, standard film prints do not. The 6x4-inch print, matter of fact, fits a 3:2 format, a bit more panoramic, without cropping or borders. We're only beginning to see the emergence of a new printing standard, 4xD, where the print size is closer to 5.5x4-inches. This provides borderless prints for all 4:3 format cameras, though what sort of albums or frames are planned remains to be seen.