July 16, 2008

Stuff I Like: Olympus E-410

I’ve been using my Canon 5D for a little over a year now. (I bought it for myself as a father’s day present last year.) Since I’ve owned it, I’ve been continually impressed with how great a photographic tool it is. Without a doubt, any deficiencies in the pictures I take come from me and not from my camera or my lenses. In particular, I love how the camera performs at high ISO and I love the final quality of the pictures.

There’s just one drawback: The size and weight. My typical “walkaround” configuration for the 5D is the Canon 24-105 F/4L lens. It’s a versatile combination, but it’s heavy and bulky. Given that most of the time I get to take pictures I also have to be ready to chase after a child at a moment’s notice, size matters. A zoo trip with Alex means bringing the 70-200 F/4L as well; while that’s a compact and light lens for what it does, just try running with it slung over your shoulder!

So for the past 9 months or so, I’ve been searching for my ideal second camera. This is one that’s all about being light and compact, but I also don’t want to sacrifice image quality or responsiveness (critical when there are kids involved!). I tried a couple of point-and-shoot cameras, but they’re just too slow and the image quality is poor once you stray from the most well-lit circumstances.

Then, for my birthday, I splurged on a used Leica M6. This was almost my ideal second camera. Compact. Responsiveness suffers from no auto-focus or auto-exposure, but it’s balanced by no shutter lag. And the image quality was just superb. There was so much to love about this camera — but in the end, film doesn’t really match my lifestyle right now. I need something digital. I sold the M6.

Oops, he left the lens cap on.

I think I may have found the perfect second camera this past week: The Olympus E-410. It’s supposedly the world’s smallest digital SLR. It’s about the same size as the M6, but lighter (and substantially cheaper, in both price and, admittedly, construction quality). The two-lens kit gives you the flexibility to go from 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) in far less weight and size than the 5D with one lens. No contest, the E-410 and its two kit lenses are what I’ll grab the next time I follow Alex and Patrick to the zoo.

In spite of its diminutive size, it’s still an SLR. It’s vastly more responsive, and with better image quality, than any point-and-shoot I’ve used. And the image quality is great. When I zoom in to 100%, there’s a lot more noise than what I see from my 5D images. But when I look at the whole image instead of individual pixels, everything just “pops.”

As a testimonial, this past Sunday I went out to take pictures at sunrise, sans kids. I brought both the 5D and the E-410. I took pictures of sunrise on Puget Sound as seen from Alki beach for an hour or so using both cameras, and a couple of lenses on each camera. Then, as usual, I picked my favorite pictures from the set to post to Flickr. Without realizing it, all but one of the photos I posted I captured with the E-410. I think it says a lot that the photos from this entry-level camera hold their own with the 5D.

Here’s the full set:


Here’s the single 5D photo I posted from the set:


Here’s a representative photo from the E-410.

The Morning Ferry

Finally, here’s a snapshot of the 5D and the E-410 side-by-side. It gives you an idea of the difference in size.


All in all, because of its size and its image quality, the Olympus is the most “fun” camera I own. In contrast, the 5D is my “serious” camera. I’ve been so impressed with the E-410 that I can’t help but ogle the other camera bodies and lenses that make up the Olympus Four-Thirds camera system. I’d definately recommend it to anyone getting started with SLRs, or anyone looking for a lightweight kit to supplement their existing cameras.

Written by Brian Dewey.

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