E-330 - part 2

It is more than the sum of its parts, it is uniquely powerful, in a word, it’s a jackpot.

Let’s continue the yesterday’s report - unlike Sony R-1, the display cannot be rotated in such a way as to be visible when looking into the lens. This would be excellent for self portraits. Also, visibility is rather poor under strong sunlight (a common trait of all LCD displays), which limits its usability as a composition tool under certain conditions. However, if light is so strong that you can't see the display, it's probably not very good for photography either. It also cannot be rotated sideways, which would sometimes be useful.

© Danijel TurinaLike E-1, it has an eyepiece shutter, which will be of use to night and IR photographers. There's also diopter adjustment. The eyepiece rubber is less than comfortable; I just can't seem to come to terms with it as it's much better on my E-1.
There is no dedicated DoF preview button. This is not a good thing, although a shutter mode button can be programmed to perform this operation. If this is done, it can display DoF preview either on LCD or in the viewfinder. The DoF preview works differently in modes A and B. In mode A, it is a somewhat complex thing, as camera seems to temporarily switch to mode B, stop down, and feed information from the main sensor, thus giving you a „what you see is what you get“ preview, together with the ability to use manual focus for fine adjustments. I must admit I liked it for macro work.

Speaking of macro work, we come to mode B. When you turn it on, the camera moves the main mirror from the optical path, opens the shutter and starts a live feed from the main sensor. In the beginning it shows extremely weird white balance, which is corrected after a few seconds. Then something even more weird happens, as colors seem to stabilize in a way very similar to pressing a LCD monitor slightly with your finger. I don't know why this happens, or why the image leaves a residual ghost when you move the camera; probably some engineering compromise. I do know, however, that this mode gives absolutely the best LCD preview I ever saw on any camera, period. It is completely free of noise, flicker and slight pixel intensity variations typical for all digicams, which make manual focus almost impossible. Here, the picture is absolutely steady and sharp, which makes it possible to set critical focus within a fraction of a millimeter. I didn't believe I would ever say that, but I actually think it’s as good or better than the optical viewfinder for setting focus in delicate macro work. This makes me wonder – can they put this type of readout in an EVF? If so, they could make it much bigger than the presently used tunnel vision devices. Still, it cannot read white balance perfectly until the time of actual exposure, which I find strange. It is not a real problem, as I would always shoot RAW if I needed accuracy typically needed in macro work, but I would appreciate it if they could fix this, as it appears to be an unnecessary flaw.

© Danijel TurinaIn B mode you only have manual focus. This makes some sense, since this mode is only useful for shooting macro, and also since an SLR can’t use its phase detection assembly when the main mirror is up (or, in this case, moved aside). However, it would be nice if they could implement a secondary contrast detection autofocus unit for mode B, which can hopefully be implemented in software. It’s just so much nicer to press a button and get a generally accurate focus, after which you can correct it manually if you like. The way it is now, it often requires turning the focus ring from infinity all the way to the other extreme, and I’d rather have the camera do it for me, especially if time is a factor, such as when I’m trying to shoot an insect before it flies away. This is nitpicking, of course, as this mode gives you really accurate manual operation, and I was very pleased with the results I obtained with 50mm f/2 macro. It might not be quick, but it is really accurate and comfortable, and this can’t be emphasized enough. DoF preview works seamlessly in this mode, with much less twitching than in mode A. When you activate it the lens stops down and you see the result on the LCD; then, while holding the DoF preview button, you can additionally correct focus to adjust for the desired depth of field, and then press the shutter, of course without releasing the DoF preview, because that would induce vibration and spoil the delicate composition. When you press the shutter, you get exactly the same picture as you saw on preview, corrected only for white balance, which for some reason it cannot seem to preview properly.

© Danijel TurinaAnother thing that works in mysterious ways is metering. I don’t really know how it manages to meter light in preview mode B or how it can be adjusted, but if I put it in A or S mode it works and the picture ends up correctly exposed. There is no indication of the metered values, though, and you just have to take its word for it. In M mode, it doesn’t preview the values you set, and you can see the effects only after taking the shot. This just sucks; Sony R-1 gives you a WYSIWYG preview in M mode, and you can know exactly what you’ll get, which is what makes LCD preview so useful in the first place. Olympus didn’t get this right; you can’t even get the live histogram, another extremely useful tool. My advice to them would be to release a firmware update fixing this issue as soon as theoretically possible. By the way, this doesn’t work in mode A either. One of the main reasons why I like LCD preview is judging exposure from what I see on screen. It is implemented just right on Sony R-1 – you can just turn the wheel and set aperture and exposure, seeing the result on screen together with live histogram or blinking stripes that indicate overexposure. Furthermore, it shows you a very accurate approximation of motion blur when using longer exposure; this is just perfect for shooting flowing water, as it is usually hard to tell whether to use 1/8 or 1/15, for example. This needs to be fixed yesterday. Of course, it needs to be said that no other SLR can show you those things either, so when E-330 doesn’t deliver on live histogram and exposure preview it simply defaults to the conventional SLR norm. Not good enough, says I. You guys at Olympus should keep working on the firmware till you make it happen and issue an update ASAP, because right now those things emit a foul stench of unfinished business, especially since none of the flaws seem to be dictated by design requirements; it’s all a matter of unfinished software, and needs to be remedied.

© Danijel TurinaSo, in the end, what do we have here? I tried it in the city and it proved to be the best urban photography camera currently in existence; nothing comes close. Its combination of quick autofocus, accurate metering and the ability to use ultrawide glass separates it from any camera currently in existence. Also, in conditions of urban photography the software flaws aren’t relevant – you just trust the metering and things almost always turn out fine; the important thing is you can judge framing and focus. In macro work, mode B proved to be excellent for fine adjustments of focus and DoF, and as such it is also one of the kind. However, for nature photography, where you would put the camera on a tripod and check live histogram and/or live preview, it is no better than any other SLR. It’s certainly no worse, but this is no longer a valid excuse. So, basically, the improvements are partial but still enormous. When they work, they turn it into a unique tool, a class of its own. When they don’t work, it is “only” an SLR. It is more than the sum of its parts, though. Its hybrid design gives it a unique versatility in practical situations; for instance, when the sun is too strong, you can use the optical finder, which works great in conditions of strong light. When the light is poor, you revert to the LCD, which is bright and automatically enhances signal to help you compose the shots. This way, the strengths of each approach nullify the weaknesses of the other, making it uniquely powerful, exceeding all expectations. Where all digicams of the world would fail, it will show the strengths of an SLR and keep ticking. Where all dSLRs of the world show weaknesses, it shows strengths of a digicam and outshines them all. The only thing that spoils the magnificent impression is the lack of live histogram and WYSIWYG live preview, which will prove to be the fly in the ointment for nature photographers; they will certainly be within their right to ask why they can have exotic features such as a postview RGB histogram, but can’t have accurate live preview with blinking indications for overexposure. The only explanation I can think of is that the camera was rushed to the market to get in time for PMA, and that loose ends will be tied in later firmware editions.

Do those loose ends make it a lesser camera? Not a chance. For most practical purposes you might not even notice them, as you can work around them just fine and still get the strong points of both dSLR and digicam in one package. Some things are seen for the first time, such as perfect stillness and precision of the mode B preview, which is to my knowledge the world’s first LCD preview usable for judging critical sharpness within a fraction of a millimeter. Also, data on paper don’t tell you anything about this camera, because you really need to use it as a photographic tool in order to appreciate it to the full extent. It always gives you several ways to approach any given problem, and I will really hate to give it back just to return to a pro-level SLR. In a word, it’s a jackpot.

Danijel Turina

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Objavljeno: 17.02.2006.