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Not The Olympus E-410 Review, by Greg Dow
But why are you reading this? There are many possible reasons, but the one I might accept some moral responsibility for is if you are trying to decide if the E-410 camera is for you. The hard part about this is I don’t know what you would be using it for. Anyone can take a photograph, and an awful lot of people do.
Be warned that I am not really reviewing this camera in depth; it is just an excuse to ramble on about a camera and the consumerism that has swallowed photography and everything else.
Cameras are used for as many reasons as there are people using cameras. A photograph can be a simple reminder of an event where the date and a note on the back are more important than the blurry image. It can also be an image that achieves the most sophisticated concepts that humans drum up in the visual arts. It can be a political act; it can be an act of meditation where the preparation and taking of the picture is the object, and the result is irrelevant. The spectrum between all these extremes is full of photographers and photographs combining various portions of each of them. All of them are perfectly valid and valuable if the photographer achieves what he or she wanted. As far as equipment, wonderful photographs can come from a Quaker Oats box with a hole poked in tinfoil across one end and they can also come from $6,000 bodies with $40,000 digital backs. Failures come from both as well.
Given those premises and Edward Steichen’s notion that “no photographer is as good as the simplest camera”, of course wonderful photographs will come from the E-410. No matter what you plan to use a camera for, the question is whether your money is worth spending on one model instead of another. The E-410 has many competitors in its price range but Olympus must think the E-410 will be the choice of a large enough segment of the market to be profitable or they wouldn’t bother marketing it. We might deconstruct this from a critical theory perspective - what are they really trying to accomplish? Well once you have an investment of two lenses that will only work on Four Thirds cameras you will be more likely to stick with Four Thirds, so maybe immediate profit is not the real goal but only to get you on the team.
Three things jumped out at me when I opened the box. Two were the pair of lenses that are included in the basic package. One is a wide to normal 14-42mm zoom and the other has a longer range of 40-150. You do have the option of buying the body only, a kit with only the 14-42, or the kit with both. In 35mm terminology, these two lenses cover 28-84mm and 80-300mm respectively. I found myself switching lenses more often than I’m used to doing. Personally, I’d rather have something equivalent to 35-200 for a walk-around lens, but that’s a personal matter of what you tend to do with your camera. Maybe the 14-54mm lens that Olympus offers would have suited me more. The third thing that jumped out was a sudden feeling that I was Alice and found the dormouse’s camera after eating the grow-tall cake or I was the Friendly Giant after Rusty the harp-playing rooster lent me his camera. The E-410 is small for an SLR! I had the typical elitist reaction – “this thing is too light and tiny to take seriously.” But it got me wondering if that was a valid concern or just the fear of the unknown anything new causes in a settled routine. Anyway, I played with it and it worked fine and within a few hours, although I quickly forgot about the light weight, I was always conscious that there was nothing to get a good grip on. The weight would probably seem like a good thing after three hours of aiming a long lens at an Osprey nest waiting for one of the chicks to show its face.
So how did the pictures look? The results are important for all but the Zen school who value the journey more than the goal. Frankly, I was put off when I reviewed my first round. Something seemed terribly wrong. “Better check the settings.”
The first attempt out in the field (in the marsh to be exact). Everything was set to the defaults. The exposure handled tones in the sky and the ground very well even though this was a very high contrast situation pointing almost directly into the sun.
It looks like the distant detail was interpreted as noise and schmunged out.
The distant-trees-in-a-landscape test produced horizons far softer than what I see with an 8 megapixel camera. OK, it turns out the default settings assume you bought the camera for Aunt Faye, the aunt with cataracts. They might make more pictures look good if all you are doing is making 4X6 prints and maybe that is the market Olympus has in mind. If you buy this camera and do more than make 4X6 prints with it, go into the menu and turn off the in-camera noise reduction. My next excursion confirmed my suspicion.
Noise reduction turned off, not too much difference evident at this scale, but…
At 1:1 many more branches survive and the play of light on the leaves is still evident.
The distant-trees-in-a-landscape was much more encouraging. I didn’t try playing further with the settings; I suspect experimenting with other parameters like sharpness would get you to more like the detail you would expect from 10 megapixels. Any photo software nowadays will have filters for all the in-camera features and give you more control. Once I turned of the noise reduction, things improved a lot. The only other thing I noticed in the short time I had the camera in comparison to my own digital cameras was the tonal range. It felt a bit like using transparency film compared to negative film. Colours were well saturated but the contrast was also higher and the exposure more critical. You can always increase the saturation and contrast in photo software but you can never get back detail in highlights or shadows that simply fell out of the range. I’d rather have originals with as much information as possible. Of course, I did not have time to know the E-410 well enough to find its optimal settings.
A webbified jpg doesn’t do it justice, but there is lots of detail. The shadows and highlights seem extreme though.
Yes, 10MB does make a difference!
I’m not too interested in the minutiae of all the technical specifications for the E-410. There are lots of web sites where you can clog your arteries with information on that kind of thing and the really important specifications of a modern camera should be standard anyway (hmmmm, more on that later). The controls were obvious enough that I had it taking pictures without opening the instructions. That’s probably a comment on my impatience but also a compliment to the designers that making it so small did not require re-arranging stuff too much from what we are used to.
Fundamental camera design has not changed – you need a way of controlling the way an image falls on a something that can record it. This has not changed much since Vermeer used a Camera Obscura to record the waterfront at Delft. But Vermeer only managed to finish twenty or thirty paintings during his entire life. So the speed of recording has certainly accelerated and other conveniences have clearly appeared. Taking 1000 digital pictures a day is obviously more economical than using film but that is just another order of magnitude increase in quantity. Since film cameras began giving way to digital designs there have only been a handful of other significant technological advances.
Speaking of quantity - the E-410 has the ability to shoot high quality jpgs continuously, limited only by the size of memory card you have plugged in. That’s cool. Most digital cameras do not allow this; the buffer fills up to its limit and you have to wait while some of the images transfer to the memory card. It is a fact that just as the buffer fills a Martian always rides by on a trained dinosaur. The continuous shooting ability of the E-410 should become a new base line feature for any digital camera even if you have to accept lower frames per second after an initial burst. I expect to see a lot more pictures of dinosaur-riding Martians in the future.
One of the features on the latest generation of digital SLRs is built-in sensor cleaning. This is hardly a technological advance – it’s a solution to a problem that earlier digital SLRs introduced and is one of the things that every new camera should have now that it is available. The E-410 does have sensor cleaning - great!
The E-410 is one of a new wave of SLRs with live preview on the LCD. If a camera has an LCD, it might as well take advantage of it but I can’t say this was a big deal for me. I suppose it would be a feature you would look for if you were moving from a point and shoot where you used the LCD for taking shots.
The megapixel count of digital cameras always gets attention and debate. Again from a critical theory perspective the debate is silly, competing manufacturers are going to add things for marketing purposes whether the feature adds real value or not – bigger numbers look better to the marketing department and the engineering department loves to try new things. The technological imperative assures us that megapixels shall increase whether we need them or not. 10 is about the standard today for this camera’s niche. I did notice more cropability compared to my aging 8 megapixel cameras.
A small section of a 10MB photo from the E-410. The lens was unscientifically zoomed to the same equivalent view as a 35mm camera with a 290-300mm lens.
The same equivalent view with an 8MB camera. Neither camera had IS in this case but the 8MB turtle is much sharper. Many things could account for this – the parameters in the E-410 were not optimized, the longer lens and body grip on the 8MB might have made it easier to hold steady, or just random chance. Notice also that more detail is retained in the highlight areas of the shell.
However, the real technological innovation that must be a major advance in potential quality is image stabilization. This is really an amazing feature; the only feature I can think of that makes me as happy is the digital ICE in my film scanner. Now that image stabilization it is available, it should also become a baseline requirement for any new camera system. Olympus offers a camera-based image stabilization solution as opposed to lens-based solutions. Oops! Things were going pretty well until now. I would have said the E-410 is on a par with other cameras in its range and choosing or passing on it just comes down to personal taste. But it does not have hardware image stabilization. There is something called digital image stabilization in one of the preset modes. I don’t know how well that works but I would not want to be restricted to a single preset mode after tasting hardware image stabilization that even has options for static and panning and is available in all modes. No technology for stabilizing hand shaking leaves the E-410 out in the trembling cold – if you have a thing for Olympus, the E-510 does have it and not at a huge price difference.
Like most new systems, the macro capability of the standard lens would satisfy casual use at least. The large depth of field is actually a treat.
a 1:1 crop of the same picture. Now this would be sharp if only there was image stabilization to compensate for the tequila breakfast.
Oh yeah, the software that comes with the camera... I don’t really expect too much from the bundled software so I won’t comment on the usability. But do all manufacturers charge extra for the camera’s complete software package now??? Next we’ll be charged for firmware updates!
Well, Ol’ Bill Keene used to tell me about buying animals. “On Sunday, you’ll want a good lookin’ horse pullin’ yer wagon to pick up your girl for church. A horse trader will be glad to sell a pretty Arabian that’s a bit over the hill real cheap. Well, a few days later you might need to take care of a rustler. You’ll need a way to get up to Hangman’s Gulch real quick and not worry about the rough trail. The horse trader will still be there and happy to sell you his fastest Appaloosa. Well the next day you’ll need to pull a stump and somebody will have a good strong ox for sale. If you ain’t careful, perty soon you’ll have an animal for every occasion. Take my advice son; think about investing in one good strong American quarter-horse. It will take care of all your needs.” Just maybe the E-410 is an Appaloosa and the E-510 is a more stable all purpose quarter-horse worth waiting for. The E-510 has hardware image stabilization and it looks like it has a bit more heft to it. There is also a hand grip on the right side that will make you feel more secure dangling from a rope waiting for the condor egg to hatch.
I have to say I’ll stick with my 6x9 for landscapes but you can’t beat digital for actions shots. After paying to process 30 rolls of film for one good shot of a bull throwing a cowboy 20 feet, my wallet hurts as much as that cowboy did the next day. After playing with the E-410, I would definitely consider the E-510 if I decide to stop off on the way between 8 megapixels and 22 megapixels.
A closing shot at 1600 ISO. The web version looks good, you can see some banding in the sky. The original has more noise, but that’s really understandable and previous generations of cameras were a lot worse at 800. The constant noise about noise is another symptom of the techno-nonsense that digital photography has engendered. Of course there is noise, you’re amplifying a signal meant for good signal to noise at 100 ISO 4 times. Get a tripod and shoot at 100!
The author: Greg Dow has been hooked on visual art since he was old enough to eat crayons. His interest in photography grew during many years of working as a professional artist. He now concentrates on photographic imagery to preserve the few synapses left from the turpentine days. You can see some of his work on his web site at www.optimumaperture.com.
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