A Site for Photographers by Photographers

Home > Equipment > Olympus System Explained

Featured Equipment Deals

Latest Equipment Articles

GoSpike Review Read More

GoSpike Review

A simple gadget to help you with your outdoor photography, suitable for GoPro, compact, and DSLR cameras.

Latest Learning Articles

Interview with Environmental Photographer: Peter Essick Read More

Interview with Environmental Photographer: Peter Essick

A conversation with National Geographic photographer, Peter Essick, author of Our Beautiful, Fragile World.


Olympus Digital SLR Cameras and Lenses

a photo.net guide by Philip Greenspun, February 2008 (updated May 2008)


The Olympus system of digital single-lens reflex (SLR) bodies and lenses was a clean sheet of paper design, introduced in 2003. Olympus and Kodak asked the following questions:

  • Does it make sense to make digital camera sensors in the 24x36mm frame size from the 35mm film days?
  • If one is going to use smaller sensors than the old film format, why lug around huge lenses designed to cast an image large enough to cover the old 24x36mm frame?

Their answers were "No, no, and here is the Four Thirds system of cameras and lenses designed around a 13x17mm sensor." The result is the world's most compact camera system capable of professional results. The Olympus system should be seriously considered by photographers specializing in travel or those whose shoulders are aching. Note that the aspect ratio is 4:3 rather than the 3:2 of 35mm film and most digital cameras. The 4:3 aspect ratio is closer to old standard paper sizes, such as 8x10, 11x14, and 16x20, and older film formats, such as the 4x5 view camera. It is probably a better aspect ratio for portraits and not as good for landscape.

The Four Thirds system included a design for a brand-new lens mount. Functionally this is very similar to the Canon EOS lens mount, introduced in 1987, with an all-electronic interface between camera and lens. The mount diameter, however, was reduced from Canon's 54mm to about 44mm, similar to the Nikon F-mount. A 44mm on a film camera is a bit tight, but the dimension is vast compared to the size of the image circle for a Four Thirds sensor and therefore provides lens designers with a lot of flexibility. When looking at Four Thirds lenses, multiply by 2 to determine the 35mm equivalent in angle of view, e.g., a 14-42mm zoom lens for an E-system body will work the same as a 28-84mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

If you are new to photography, start with the photo.net article "Building a Digital SLR System."

Olympus DSLR Bodies

At any one time, Olympus seems to make one body similar in capability to midrange Canon and Nikon bodies and a bewildering array of light inexpensive bodies with performance similar to the very cheapest bodies from Canon or Nikon. All Olympus bodies are compatible with Olympus Digital lenses and Four Thirds System lenses from Sigma and Panasonic/Leica. The Olympus MF-1 OM Adapter, (compare prices) allows limited use of old Olympus OM-system film format lenses in mostly manual mode.

Olympus was a pioneer in automated dust removal. All of the E-system bodies include a dust removal system that operates as the camera is switched off.

  • Olympus Evolt E-330, (compare prices) (review), 7.5 megapixels, released February 2006. This was the world's first digital SLR with a "live view" feature, similar to point and shoot digicams, allowing photographers to evaluate a potential image in the rear LCD prior to exposure. The camera has an unusual folded mirror system for the optical viewfinder and an unusual shape. Obsolete in terms of technical performance.
  • Olympus Evolt E-410, (compare prices), 10 megapixels, introduced early 2007. A tremendous step up from point and shoot digicams in terms of handling and practical performance without much of a step up in price or size. Three frames per second motor drive. 2.5" LCD display. Flash sync at 1/180th.
  • Olympus Evolt E-420, 14-42mm kit, (compare prices) (review), 10 megapixels, introduced March 2008, a step up from the E-410 as the name implies, plus in-body image stabilization, and a 2.7" LCD display.
  • Olympus Evolt E-510, (compare prices) (review). Same as the E-410 plus in-body image stabilization, a tremendously useful feature since one of the big advantages of a DSLR over a point and shoot digicam is performance in low light.
  • Olympus Evolt E-500, 14-45mm and 40-150mm kit, (compare prices) (review), 8 megapixels, introduced late 2005. It is a mystery as to why this camera is still being sold.
  • Olympus Evolt E-3, (compare prices), 10 megapixels, 800g with batteries, introduced late 2007. This is the professional Olympus body, with a rugged weather-sealed frame and fast autofocus. It has sensor-based image stabilization, a built-in flash, and wireless control of accessory flashes. The rear LCD is 2.5" (smaller than the competition). Flash sync speed is 1/250th. This is a better camera for sports than the 510 due to the 5 frames per second continuous drive speed. The E-3 accepts the HLD-4 battery pack/vertical grip, which includes an additional shutter release and replicates some other nearby controls for portrait-format images.

In looking at the megapixel numbers, you might be tempted to wonder how the Olympus system is competitive. There are point and shoot cameras with similar claimed resolution while the top-end Canon and Nikon bodies offer higher resolution. The 10-megapixel E-3 produces images that are 3648x2736 pixels in size. As explained in the Digital Cameras chapter of Making Photographs, 200 pixels per inch is sufficient for maximum image quality and prints from the E-3 should enlarge to 13.5x18" before suffering any quality loss due to a lack of resolution.

Nomenclature

One of the nice things about Olympus is that they don't attempt to snow consumers with obscure acronyms. Nor does Olympus tack on fancy German brand names to lenses that they design and build. The Olympus America lens page refers to "super high grade", "high grade", and "standard" lenses.

"ED" is extra-low dispersion glass, a more expensive and higher-quality glass that reduces chromatic aberration or color fringing. All but the crummiest Olympus lenses include at least one ED element.

"Super ED" is, presumably, a newer more effective version of "ED", glass that reduces chromatic aberration or color fringing. Olympus does not explain what this means any more than Dean Wormer explained "double secret probation."

"SWD" is Supersonic Wave Drive, a piezoelectric motor that contributes to smooth and silent AF operation, similar to USM (ultrasonic motor) on Canon or AF-S (silent wave motor) on Nikon lenses.

"OM" are old Olympus film system lenses; they don't work on the modern bodies without Olympus MF-1 OM Adapter, (compare prices). Even with the adapter, Olympus recommends for each lens a limited range of apertures, e.g., f/5.6 and f/8 for the old 85/2 lens.

All Olympus lenses incorporate modern multilayer anti-reflective coatings to improve contrast and light transmission. Mercifully Olympus does not have a brand name for their coating.

History

In the 1970s, Canon and Nikon were slugging it out with cameras that were progressively more capable, more rugged, and heavier. By the end of the decade, each company made SLRs that could be used to drive nails, capture the fastest sports cars, and weigh down the dead bodies of your enemies, dumped into the local river. Olympus took an alternative tack, introducing the light and compact Olympus OM-1 in 1972. Olympus delivered the fundamentals: bright viewfinder, through-the-lens metering, in-viewfinder displays, high quality lenses, and state-of-the-art electronics. These were delivered at roughly the same price as Canon and Nikon, but with a smaller size and lighter weight.

With a smaller market share and less capital than Canon or Nikon, Olympus came up with a feeble response to the demand for autofocus, gradually ceding market share to Canon EOS and Nikon AF. The OM-4 was the last camera of the line, introduced in 1983 and finally killed off in 2002.

(More: see the photo.net guide to the Olympus OM system.)

By the year 2000, the Olympus OM system was a collectors' item and had very few day-to-day or professional users. This gave Olympus the freedom to chuck the frame size, lens mount, and legacy users. At the time, the Canon and Nikon digital SLRs on the market were small sensor models, wasting much of the image circle cast by the big legacy designed-for-film lenses. The challenge of engineering a consumer-priced 24x36mm sensor seemed insuperable (see "The rationale for a new standard format" for an explanation). To an engineer, this was a ridiculous situation, as silly as a Nikon film photographer walking around with a bag of Hasselblad lenses designed to cover the 6x6cm medium format frame. The Olympus folks got together with a couple of partner companies and standardized a sensor size that would be reasonable to fabricate and a lens mount that would be correctly sized for the sensor size. The result was the Four Thirds system, with its 13x17mm sensor, which results in a 2X multiplier for effective lens perspective, e.g., a 25mm lens gives a normal perspective on an E-system camera, similar to a 50mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

(More: see www.four-thirds.org, quite possibly the world's worst-designed Web site.)

Normal Lenses

A normal lens is light in weight and approximates the perspective of the human eye. The focal length of a normal lens for the 13x17mm Four Thirds sensor should be between 22 and 25mm (compare to 43-50mm for a 35mm film camera). Normal lenses generally have large maximum apertures, indicated by small f-numbers such as f/1.4 or f/1.8, and therefore gather much more light than zoom lenses. It may be possible to take a photo with a normal lens in light only 1/8th or 1/16th as bright as would be required for the same photo with a consumer-priced zoom lens. Also, the viewfinder will be brighter and therefore easier to use in dim light, due to the fact that the large maximum aperture stays open for viewing and stops down to whatever aperture you have set just before taking the picture.

  • Panasonic Leica 25/1.4, 525g, $800. Made in Japan by Panasonic from a design developed in collaboration with Leica, this is the only prime normal lens in the Four Thirds system. The subjective quality factor results in the Popular Photography review show that this lens does not perform significantly better than the $200 Pentax 50/1.4 or $300 Canon and Nikon 50/1.4 normal lenses. With a smaller image circle to generate, one would expect Four Thirds system lenses to be lighter, cheaper, and better quality than lenses that cover the 24x36mm frame. In fact, this lens is twice the weight and three or four times the price of an equivalent quality lens from the film world. When you've stopped moaning about the hole in your wallet, the lens is sure to be a great performer, though.
  • Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC for Olympus and Panasonic, (compare prices), (effective 60mm on the E-system, slightly long to be considered "normal"), 430g, ideal for low-light photography without a flash, has a hypersonic motor for quiet, high-speed auto focus.

[Image at right was taken at a focal length of 22mm.]

Wide-to-Telephoto Zoom Lenses

A wide-to-tele zoom is what Olympus includes as a standard "kit" lens with their SLR bodies. The range on most of the Olympus wide-to-tele zooms starts at a moderately wide 14mm (28mm equivalent) and goes up to moderately telephoto. An all-purpose lens is good for when you are too busy to change lenses, for traveling when less weight and less baggage is better, or when working in a dusty or wet environment. When buying, watch out for slow maximum aperture, e.g., f/5.6 at the long end, which results in a dim viewfinder and the requirement to use a tripod or flash.

  • Olympus 14-35mm f/2.0 ED, (compare prices) (28-70 equivalent). At 900g (ouch!), the weight is about the same as the full-frame Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, (compare prices) (review), the price is double, and you lose the range between 24mm and 28mm (note that 24mm is dramatically wider than 28mm). What do you gain? One f-stop of light gathering capability, which is huge. Add to that the sensor-based image stabilizer and you have some capabilities that would make a Canon EOS user drool.
  • Olympus 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 ED SWD, (compare prices) (effective 24-120mm), 575g, a great travel lens. One or two f-stops slower than the 14-35, and lower optical quality, but lighter and much wider range.
  • Olympus 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5, (compare prices), (effective 28-110mm), one of the original E-system lenses, introduced with the E-1 back in 2003. Half of the images on this page were taken with this lens.
  • Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED, (compare prices), (effective 28-84mm), 190g, one ED glass and two aspherical elements; the modulation transfer function shows a precipitous decline in resolution from the center to the edges.
  • Olympus 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6, (compare prices), (effective 28-90mm), 285g, an older design than the 14-42.
  • Olympus 17.5-45mm/3.5-5.6, a kit lens for the E-500, mercifully not sold separately.
  • Olympus 18-180mm f/3.5-6.3 ED, (compare prices), (effective 36-360mm), an attempt at an "all in one" zoom with an unfortunate lack of wide angle perspective. A 14-120mm or 14-140mm would be a much more useful lens for most photographers. Note that the full-frame superzooms tend to start at 28mm and the crop sensor superzooms at 17mm.

Wide-angle Zoom Lenses

  • Olympus 7-14 mm f/4.0 ED, (compare prices), (effective 14-28mm), 780g. The only thing similar in the full frame world is the Nikon 14-24/2.8. The Nikon lens covers a 24x36mm frame for about the same price and only slightly more weight.
  • Olympus 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5, (compare prices), (effective 22-44mm), 485g. High quality but not very dramatically wide if you're accustomed to the standard full-frame 16-35 wide zooms.

[Image at right was taken at a focal length of 14mm.]


Telephoto Zoom Lenses

In considering the use of telephoto zoom lenses for portraits, keep in mind that the small sensor results in more depth of field for a given angle of view. Suppose that the blur at 100/2.8 on a full-frame camera is sufficient to render the background non-distracting. The equivalent angle of view focal length for an Olympus body would be 50mm. Depth of field relates to the physical size of the aperture and 50/2.8 is a much smaller aperture than 100/2.8, therefore yielding much more depth of field. The background in this case may well be rendered sharp enough to serve as a distraction. "Depth of Field and the Small-Sensor Digital Cameras" explains further.

  • Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 ED, (compare prices) (review). A bone-crushing 1650g without the tripod adapter (150g more!). As heavy as the standard full-frame 70-200/2.8 lenses whose function it fulfills, with the bonus of an extra f-stop of speed (required to generate a shallow depth of field for portraiture). This is the standard professional telephoto zoom, good for most portraits.
  • Olympus 90-250mm f/2.8 ED, (compare prices) (review), (effective 180-500), 3270g. The equivalent in the full frame world is a 16kg Sigma 200-500/2.8 that requires its own Lith-ion battery pack. This would be the ultimate lens for an African safari.
  • Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 ED SWD, (compare prices), (effective 100-400mm), an older non-SWD version of this lens is the source of about half of the photos on this page, including the one at right (at 180mm).
  • Olympus 70-300mm f/4-5.6 ED, (compare prices), (effective 140-600mm), 620g. On the "standard grade" roster and presumably no match for the 90-250/2.8, but an equivalent 600/5.6 long end is nothing to sneeze at.
  • Olympus 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 ED, (compare prices), (effective 80-300mm). Cheap light kit zoom.

Wide-angle Prime Lenses

This is a simple section to write because Olympus has decided not to produce any rectilinear wide angle prime lenses. Fast primes in the 20-24mm range were favorites of photo journalists, but ever higher quality and faster wide angle zooms have reduced folks' interest in primes.

Telephoto Prime Lenses

For situations where you can't get close to the subject, or want some perspective compression, a telephoto prime lens offers the best image quality and largest maximum aperture.

  • Olympus 50mm f/2.0 Macro ED, (compare prices), (effective 100mm), good for available-light portraiture and also focuses down to 1:1, i.e., you can fill the frame with a subject only 13x17mm in size.
  • Olympus 150mm f/2.0 ED, (compare prices) (review), (effective 300mm), 1610g. Coupled with a teleconverter, the basis for an ultimate quality large wildlife kit. Note the full f-stop speed advantage over the standard 300/2.8 lens from the film systems.
  • Olympus 300mm f/2.8 ED, (compare prices), (effective 600mm), 3290g. The basis of a bird photography kit. Also good for precipitating a divorce due the price and serious back problems due to the weight. Combine with Olympus EC-14 1.4x Teleconverter, (compare prices). Note that this lens is a particularly poor demonstration of the cost and weight savings dividend from the smaller sensor. The standard Canon 300/2.8 lens casts a larger image circle, big enough to cover 24x36mm. The Canon lens costs $3900 and weighs 2550g, more than 1 lb. lighter than the Olympus despite the fact that the Canon lens also includes an image stabilizer. (Keep in mind that to take bird pictures with a full-frame Canon body, you'd be using the 600/4 lens, which is truly monstrous in size, weight, and price.)

[Image at right was taken at a focal length of 200mm.]

Macro Lenses

Macro lenses let you photograph physically small objects, filling more of the frame with the object. The longer the focal length of the macro lens, the more space you can put between you and your subject. This is especially important when photographing insects. A macro lens that goes down to "1:1" can be used to take a frame-filling photo of something that is 13x17mm in size, the same dimensions as the sensor on a Four Thirds digital body. Most macro lenses can be used for ordinary photographic projects as well, i.e., they will focus out to infinity if desired.

Teleconverters

A teleconverter provides additional magnification, but the overall amount of light gathered by the lens remains the same. Thus, you lose one f-stop of light with a 1.4x converter. The viewfinder will be dimmer and the camera will have a tougher time autofocusing. For autofocus with a 1.4x teleconverter, you generally need an f/4 or faster lens.

Flashes

An in-body pop-up flash can be useful outdoors for filling in harsh shadows. When flash is providing the primary light, you'll need at least one hotshoe TTL flash. A hotshoe flash can be used to bounce light off the ceiling or walls. Often it is best to place the flash at a distance from the camera, then point it at the subject. The Olympus FL-CB02 hot shoe cable may be used to preserve communication between the body and flash or use the built-in wireless flash control of some E-system bodies (currently the E-3 is an example). Unless you want images that look as though the photographer was wearing a headlamp, try to come up with something other than direct on-camera flash.

Accessories

All of the Olympus bodies accept CompactFlash cards, type I and II, and xD cards. CF cards have larger capacity for the price and are compatible with high-end Canon and Nikon bodies. We don't see any reason to recommend an xD card.

For a camera body and one lens, keep the camera around your neck and ready to use. To hold a camera system, start by reading the photo.net article on camera bags.

Underwater

Compared to standard Canon and Nikon products, the Olympus E-system has several advantages for underwater photographers:

  • Four Thirds sensor leads to more compact bodies and lenses, reducing the bulk build inherent in wrapping the system in a housing.
  • All Olympus bodies incorporate "live view" on the rear LCD, making it easier to compose photos underwater.
  • Olympus sells underwater housings for some of their bodies.

The best lenses for use underwater are wide-angle. Changing lenses underwater isn't too practical. Putting these two facts together, one concludes that the Olympus 7-14 mm f/4.0 ED, (compare prices) is probably the best starter lens for the serious underwater photographer. If you want to get started with a smaller investment, the Olympus Stylus 1030SW is waterproof down to 33' and includes a 28mm equivalent wide-angle lens.

More: our underwater photography primer.

Starter Olympus DSLR Systems

Cheapest/Lightest:

Light medium-quality travel kit:

Serious photographer:

African safari:

Soccer Mom:

More

Discontinued Cameras and Lenses

Digital Cameras • E-10 • E-20 • E-1
Film Cameras • OM System Overview • mju-II (Stylus Epic)


Text copyright 2008 Philip Greenspun. Photos were taken in 2004 with an Olympus E-1 camera for the photo.net guide to Ecuador and Peru. Lenses were the 14-54 and 50-200.

Article revised May 2008.