E-330: The urban predator

This is not just a digicam with a changeable lens, or just an SLR with LCD preview.

When E-330 was first announced, I must admit I felt a bit skeptical; its schematics looked very much like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Sideways moving mirrors, semi-transparent mirrors that go all around the camera, two sensors, two modes of operation with partial functionality – what can I say, it really looked like a piece of unfinished business from the Olympus engineering department. However, since the proof of pudding is in the eating, I reserved my judgment till I got the fully functional production camera on review.

© Danijel TurinaThe actual camera is much nicer than the specs might lead you to believe. It looks almost like E-300, except it’s pretty. E-300 looked like a brick with a lens and I hated it, to be frank. This baby is stylish, modern looking, comfortable to hold, and I just plain liked it from the start. It looks like a cross-breed between E-300, C-8080 and some toy from space movies, with its big bright color LCD and “bleep” sounds it makes when you press buttons (I turned those off, as I don’t believe in cameras that go “bleep”). Its mechanical weak spot is the movable LCD – if someone whacks it sideways when it’s extended, something will probably bend and/or break, so it’s not advised to push your luck. Also, the camera is not waterproof (unlike E-1), which is a good thing to remember when you get funny ideas about water sports.
Ergonomically, it’s somewhere between E-1 and E-500. Like E-500, most of the functions are reached by pressing multiple buttons and navigating the menu. It’s a step backwards from the E-1’s elegant button-wheel combinations and top LCD display, but unlike E-500 there aren’t any irritating button placements (such as, let’s say, a custom white balance button right under your right thumb). Other than having to look for controls a few times, I found its operation pretty intuitive and easy. It feels right in your hand, it’s more solid than E-500, and doesn’t look like it’s going to break in two when you hang a big lens on it. The card compartment door is as bad as it is on E-500, though. It doesn’t really inspire confidence and you better be gentle. Unlike E-1’s solid “clunk”, there’s a flimsy “squeek”, and you better not use it to crack nuts and hammer nails.

© Danijel TurinaThe shutter sound is louder than E-1. How much louder? Well, not as loud as Canon 20d, but you will certainly hear it in a quiet room. It’s not that it’s very loud, but E-1 sets a very high standard in this regard, so every camera on this side of a compact digicam seems loud in comparison. Writing to the CF card is quick and transparent, identical to E-500, and a big improvement over E-1. I shot quickly and with only a few brief hiccoughs spread over 3GB of RAW data. Impressive performance. Autofocus seems to be significantly improved over E-1; it worked quite well, even in a combination of low light and movement, although the fact that I used a wide lens helps in this regard. I’d have to try it with a super-telephoto. Auto white balance works really well; better than E-500, and on par with E-1. Also, impressive performance, especially considering the absence of an external WB sensor. Although I shot RAW, I never felt the burning need to correct WB; exposure, too, was spot on most of the time. Between hundreds of shots, I only had to correct underexposure on 3 pictures.

© Danijel TurinaLike E-500 and unlike E-1, it has scene modes on the main control wheel. Some people might actually use those, but I don’t believe in scene modes. You will need M mode when you use a legacy flash unit on sync, S mode when you want to shoot whitewater, and A mode for the rest of your shooting. If you need a camera to tell you what to do when you shoot portraits, landscapes or night shots, you need a book about photography, not a camera with scene modes. If you want those, buy a point-and-shoot. See, I feel better already, now that I put this off my chest.

The LCD display is the same as on E-500, which means it is big, bright and generally excellent. It looks very much like a 645 slide on a lightbox, and that is high praise. The viewfinder, unfortunately, also seems to be the same as on E-500, which means it’s dim and small. If you want to know what it looks like, take a roll of toilet paper and put it on your eye. Now imagine a rectangular instead of a circular hole, and you more-less got it. It sucks. However, unlike the E-500 you have an option of using the excellent LCD for judging composition and focus, and I must say it is an improvement in most cases. If I have to choose between a brighter and bigger variety of an LCD, and a dimmer and smaller variety of a viewfinder, it really isn’t much of a contest.

© Danijel TurinaSo much for the appearance; let’s see what kind of pictures it takes. Olympus went the way of Canon with the all-new NMOS sensor, which is of the same kind as the CMOS sensors found in most recent cameras. Some people secretly hoped it would solve the infamous 4/3 noise. Others secretly feared it would ruin the famous Olympus colors and image appearance. I ran some quick side-by-side tests with my E1, and there’s both good and bad news. The good news is that images aren’t that different; colors are very similar, as well as the general impression of the image. It is immediately recognizable as an Olympus variety of a dSLR. The dynamic range is comparable, too, except that the appearance of shadows looks more like E-500 than E-1, which means the latitude is some half stop thinner. The bad news is that noise isn’t much better than E-500. ISO 100 looks a bit more polished, sort of like Sony R-1, and high ISO noise isn’t as granular and clearly defined as on E-1; apparently they tried to disperse it in order to create the appearance of lower noise, at the expense of crispness and 3D-look. Pixel sharpness is not very good, which remains the unfortunate Olympus trademark. If this depresses you, there is a bright side. I used ISO 1600 for a great number of shots and got perfectly usable pictures. Yes, the noise is rather high and its electronic dispersion reduces pixel sharpness, but the overall result seems to be perfectly usable, which is all that really matters. There is also some horizontal banding at ISO 1600 in the shadows, but it will never be visible in print, and you will need an LCD monitor for it to really show its ugly head.

Does this sound like an average so-so product, another piece of misplaced marketing hype and, basically, a disappointment? Oh boy, how the impression can deceive. In fact, my experience in the actual field shows this to be the most revolutionary camera since Oskar Barnack came to Leica with an idea. It is in fact so revolutionary, it allows you some aspects of creative freedom that would otherwise be impossible. In fact, I think not even Olympus marketing guys fully understand what they have in their hands, since all their hype is actually an awful understatement. It’s not “the solution”, it’s The Big Bang of creative photography.
How come?
Well, let me put it this way. With an SLR camera, in fact with any changeable lens camera known to this date, you have a fixed optical path and therefore a certain limitation of ways in which you can hold the camera and actually see what you’re shooting. Even with waist level finders in the medium format there’s always a certain position which allows you to judge framing and sharpness, and if you get too creative there’s always a punishment. With fixed lens digital cameras, such as compact digicams, you have the ability to see the composition on the external screen, and thus shoot with predictable results with your eye removed from the camera’s optical path. This allowed for some highly creative uses, but with serious limitations. First, those digicams have small sensors, which severely reduces image quality. Second, you only have one lens, which can really limit your options. Third, the lenses on those cameras are pretty conventional, and small sensor size makes it virtually impossible to make an ultrawide lens. And this, the ability to put on a truly wide lens and shoot from a perspective where the eye is removed from the optical path, is why this camera is so revolutionary.

© Danijel TurinaOlympus marketing got it wrong. The reason why this thing is so good is not because you can shoot from above your head and see the result on the screen, or because you can put it on the ground and shoot spring flowers without breaking your neck or sticking your head in mud. It is so good because you can put on a 7-14 ultrawide or a 8 mm fisheye, walk through the crowd, blend in, be invisible, actually see what you’re shooting and get shots that would otherwise be insanely difficult – all that while remaining virtually invisible and inconspicuous. Henri Cartier-Bresson would give his right arm for this thing, believe me; it’s that good. With it, you can follow the decisive moment, be a part of it, blend in and join with it, move and become a part of the flow, and your photography just follows. I walked among people, continuously composed and took pictures without even stopping; I talked to some guys and took their pictures so unobtrusively and naturally that they didn’t even change their behavior, as people do when they know you’re taking their picture. Oh, they knew – I approached them and asked if I can take their pictures. But they didn’t even notice the actual process, and thus remained perfectly natural. I came as close as you can only get with an ultrawide lens, and got a unique perspective – all in such an effortless, easy manner it came to me as a total shock. I was shooting from below or from waist level, with a 14 mm equivalent lens, getting the composition just right, and taking the shots while talking to the guys about the camera – I didn’t have to bend over backwards and look as if I’m taking pictures. So what, you’ll say, you can do it with a digicam. Well try getting a 14 mm perspective with a digicam, says I. Take your digicam and try spinning the world around you while you walk through a corridor. You can’t really do it with your average 24 mm wide; it just won’t cut it. This does. It is the killer app for the 7-14 ultrawide, and I mean it literally; don’t leave home without it. It is the ultimate urban shooter’s weapon. They should sell them as a standard accessory to the 7-14, instead of the rear lens cap. If you don’t get one, you’re a loser and the girls won’t date you. Damn it’s good. Wow.

© Danijel TurinaI had a hunch it could work well with an ultrawide, but I never knew how well till I actually did it, in the real world. Forget about high ISO noise, forget about pixel sharpness and similar trivia. They don’t tell you anything about this camera, because it makes PICTURES, not pixels. And boy does it make pictures. It is THE tool for urban photography. Yes, there are some minor annoyances – for instance, the LCD preview is slow, it lags a fraction of a second and this can cause you to miss the perfect composition when things get quick. This takes some getting used to, but after a while you get the hang of it and usually manage to predict things. To sum it up, I never before handled a camera that revolutionized my way of taking pictures in such a radical way. Most of the SLRs are really the same – minor differences and lots of hype about ISO noise, resolution and frame rates; nothing that really affects the way you approach photography. A Canon AE-1 does the same thing as a 1DsMkII; you set aperture and exposure, look through the viewfinder to judge composition and sharpness, and press the button. E-330 is in most respects identical to E-500, and yet it is so qualitatively different, it warrants opening an entirely new chapter in photographic history. It just goes to show you that seemingly small technical improvements can sometimes offer radical functional improvements. Does it sound like I’m running in circles around the computer, yelling like a madman and making weird gestures? The appearance doesn’t really deceive that much.

I began this review with a thought that Sony R-1 might be a better idea; it is, after all, cheaper and simpler, and offers most of the same advantages. However, the ability to use ultrawide and other ultraweird glass is not a small difference; a bird isn’t just a lizard with feathers. It can actually fly. It is a new category, moving in an entirely new sphere of existence. This is not just a digicam with a changeable lens, or just an SLR with LCD preview. It comes from behind, unsuspected, it follows and moves. It stalks unsuspecting prey. It is a new species – an urban predator. Watch out. To be continued!

Danijel Turina

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Objavljeno: 17.02.2006.