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.
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, (buy from Amazon) 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
Olympus Evolt E-330, (buy from Amazon) (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, (buy from Amazon), 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-510, (buy from Amazon) (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-3, (buy from Amazon), 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.
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"
"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
"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, (buy from Amazon). 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.
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
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
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.
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.
[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, (buy from Amazon) (28-70 equivalent). At 900g (ouch!), the weight is
about the same as the full-frame Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, (buy from Amazon) (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 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5, (buy from Amazon), (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, (buy from Amazon), (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
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, (buy from Amazon), (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, (buy from Amazon), (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.
[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, (buy from Amazon) (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, (buy from Amazon) (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 70-300mm f/4-5.6 ED, (buy from Amazon), (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.
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
Olympus 150mm f/2.0 ED, (buy from Amazon) (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, (buy from Amazon), (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, (buy from Amazon). 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 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.
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
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
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
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
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, (buy from Amazon) 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.