Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Olympus E-10 is a digital camera for photographers who want the creative
control, fast operation, and effective viewfinder of a digital SLR but without
the weight and complexity of an interchangeable lens system.
The camera's CCD sensor is quite a bit smaller than the standard 24x36mm frame
of a 35mm camera. With the Nikon and Canon system digital SLRs, this means that
you're lugging around a lens that is twice as heavy, bulky, and expensive as it
needs to be. With the Olympus E-10 it means that they simply designed a zoom lens
that projects a large enough image circle to cover the sensor (just barely). The
9-36mm zoom lens gives the equivalent perspective of a 35-140mm zoom on a 35mm
The viewfinder has the adequate eye relief, i.e., an eyeglass wearer can see
the entire image and the shutter speed/aperture display just underneath. The
image is a bit dim but, strangely, gets brighter after turning the camera on. The
Olympus E-10 is a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. The imaging sensor and the
viewfinder are getting light from the same lens. However, unlike the typical SLR,
the Olympus does not have a mirror that flips up and out of the way during
exposure. A permanent beam-splitting prism is in the imaging path. This means
that the viewfinder receives only a fraction of the light from the lens during
image composition and the image sensor receives only a fraction of the light
during exposure. So the f/2.0 maximum aperture of the lens might be equivalent to
f/2.5 on an SLR with a mirror.
This is a 4-megapixel camera, producing an image 2240x1680 in size. The images
are 8 bits deep when producing standard JPEGs (1.3 MB each), 10 bits deep when
storing RAW images (3.4 MB each). Resolution isn't everything, as you can see for
yourself by looking at the quality of the pixels in full-resolution JPEGs coming
out of the Canon S100, G1, and D30 cameras then the E-10 underneath:
To my eyes, the raw pixels from the D30 and the E-10 are sharper and clearer
than the point-and-shoot raw pixels.
Contrasty scenes quickly overwhelm the standard 8 bits of the JPEGs. At right,
for example, is a photograph of a street fountain in Barcelona. Notice how the
details of the buildings are washed out when we've given enough exposure for the
dark metal of the fountain. This would have been a good time to use the RAW mode.
Unfortunately the RAW images have to be manually processed with Olympus-supplied
software, whereas JPEGs can be batch-processed with ImageMagick (the way that
we've done the 10,000 or so images at photo.net; see
for background on this subject). Below is a couple more Barcelona scenes, the
Parc Guell and the Richard Meier modern art museum, that suffer from the 8-bit
limitation of the JPEG. If you'd taken these photos with color negative film, a
machine print might look similar to what you see below but a custom print or a
little work in Adobe PhotoShop would be able to restore the the lost detail. If
you originate 8-bit JPEGs in a digital camera, though, the detail is lost
The E-10 has an adjustable contrast setting but it is virtually impossible
to use in practice because (a) it requires going through menus to set, and (b)
the LCD displays don't make it easy to figure out what the camera is doing at
The E-10's imaging sensor is much smaller than the chips in professional
digital SLRs such the
Canon D30, and Fuji S1. In general, small sensor =
noisy. The E-10 is no exception to this rule. Noise is acceptable with the camera
set to ISO 80 but becomes obtrusive at ISO 160 and ISO 320 (the other two
possible settings). At right is an image of the Olympic radio tower at
Barcelona's stadium. The sensor speed was mistakenly left on 320. Notice the
heavy grain in the sky. If you want to capture the magic of available light, gird
yourself with a professional SLR and an f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens.
Having just finished a review of
D30, my overwhelming impression of the E-10 was its sluggishness. The camera
is slow to wake up. The camera is slow to complete image processing following an
exposure. Want to view an image that you've just exposed? Turn the control dial
to the playback mode. Something catches your eye for a new photo? Bring the
camera up to your face and press the shutter release. Nothing happens. Keep
pressing. Nothing happens. Kick yourself for forgetting to switch the control
dial back to one of the image-creation modes.
Aside from sluggishness, the other glaring user interface anomaly for a
professional photographer is that metering hints and exposure compensation
settings are expressed numerically rather than graphically. For example, if
you're in manual exposure mode and you've set the camera 2/3 stop over the
meter's recommendation, you'll see a "+0.7" in the viewfinder LCD. Suppose you're
in autoexposure mode and are metering off some snow that you want to appear white
in the final image rather than gray. You set exposure compensation of 1 f-stop
overexposure. The camera reads "+1.0". Compared to the large analog needles of
1970s SLRs and the LCD graphs of modern SLRs, this is a decidedly slower and less
intuitive way of representing exposure.
One nice thing about the E-10 is that it has two control wheels. In manual
exposure mode, shutter speed is set with the finger wheel by the shutter release
while aperture is controlled by the thumbwheel on the back of the camera. In
autoexposure mode, the priority setting (aperture or shutter speed) is set with
the finger wheel. Olympus had an opportunity to let you set exposure compensation
with the rear control dial. Instead, the rear dial merely duplicates the function
of the front dial.
Missing features? The camera has no depth-of-field preview button. There is no
"panoramic assist" mode that is standard on point-and-shoot style digital
cameras. You can still stitch together photos after the fact but you'll probably
have to use a tripod to keep the horizon level.
Unexpected features? Unlike a traditional single-lens reflex, the E-10 does
not have a mirror. So the sensor is receiving light from the lens at all times.
This means that you can have a point-and-shoot style real-time image preview on
the rear LCD monitor.
The E-10 has a flip-up built-in flash of modest power. It almost but not quite
rises high enough to avoid casting a shadow with the plastic lens hood at the
widest zoom setting (i.e., remember to remove the hood when using the flash or
set the lens to a normal or telephoto perspective).
The E-10 accepts accessory flashes in a hot shoe, and has a PC sync cord on
the left side of the body for use with studio strobes.
The photo at right illustrates the limitations of on-camera flash in any
case. It is a wall relief in the cloister of Barcelona's cathedral. Notice how
the shape of the sculpture is almost impossible to discern because the light is
coming from directly behind the viewpoint.
The standard camera will take 4 AA batteries. Fresh alkalines give the camera
enough juice for about ... 4 pictures! Don't even try. The custom-sized Olympus
disposable lithium batteries are good for about 250 pictures. A pair will cost
$20 and can only be purchased at camera shops that sell Olympus digital
For heavy users, we recommend purchasing the B-30LPS vertical grip and
rechargeable battery kit ($500). This gives you a lithium polymer battery of
As with every other digital camera we've tested, the Olympus E-10 it does not
understand when it is being held vertically. Thus all the portrait-format JPEGs,
once transferred into a computer, are incorrectly oriented. You have to work
through the images manually in some kind of desktop application, manually
rotating all the pictures that you took while holding the camera vertically. Thus
does human labor substitute for Olympus's omission of a 50-cent mercury
The E-10 is not clever about switching ISO speeds when in "auto" mode. If,
however, the light gets a bit dim and you switch manually to the maximum ISO 320
speed, you'll probably forget to switch back when you're in the sun again. Why?
The Olympus does not display in any of its LCDs the ISO setting. You have to
explicitly press the setup menu button to check the ISO setting. By contrast the
Canon D30 shows the ISO setting at all times and a custom function setting lets
you quickly adjust it without going through any menus.
It would be nice to have a 100% viewfinder. With a film camera there are a lot
of ways to lose the edges of the frame: to a slide mount, masked off in printing,
masked off in scanning. With a digital camera, what you capture is what you
present, unless you want to go into an image editing program and laboriously
crop. So the viewfinder really ought to be 100%.
A digital SLR with interchangeable lenses has a hidden liability: dust. If you
can change the lens, you can open the camera to the dusty world. With a film
camera, this isn't such a big deal because with every frame a fresh clean sensor
(a piece of film) comes out of the factory-sealed film canister. With a digital
camera, a speck of dust that lands on the imaging sensor will mar every photo
that you take for months unless you (1) notice, and (2) flip up the mirror and
blow the dust off. The Olympus E-10 sidesteps this problem with the simple
expedient of gluing the lens permanently to the camera!
The Olympus E-10 has some of the same advantages of the professional digital
SLRs cameras: big and accurate viewfinder so that you can see what you are
photographing, fast autofocus, ability to capture action because there is little
shutter lag, and high image quality. Yet it is less than half the size, weight,
and bulk of a system digital SLR plus lens. This makes the E-10 perfect for
parents who want to capture their kids at sporting events. It is also a very good
travel camera. Bird and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the E-10 plus the
screw-in converter that increases the optical system's magnification to the
equivalent of a 420mm telephoto lens on a 35mm camera.
One nice thing about the E-10 is how the ownership experience can be similar
to that of a film camera. You can leave it on the shelf for 6 months with a big
flash card and the disposable lithium batteries installed. If a photographic
situation arises, just grab the camera and run out the door. You can be sure that
the batteries will work, that you didn't forget any required accessories, and if
the flash card is large enough you won't have to worry about spares.
If you already have a collection of Canon or Nikon lenses and are intent on
using a digital SLR as a tool, you'll probably be happier with the
Canon D30 or
D1. These cameras have the user interface that you expect, are capable of
higher image quality in many situations, and can be used for specialized
assignments with macro lenses, supertelephotos, and extreme wide angle lenses.