The Olympus E-400 is a Four Thirds system dSLR camera kit that includes two zoom lenses covering the range from wide angle to long telephoto. Four Thirds cameras tend to be smaller than digital SLRs based on film cameras, and the E-400 takes up little room in a bag or even a large pocket (visit the Four Thirds Web site for more on the Four Thirds standard).
Packing 10 megapixels of recording power, a choice of memory card formats and decent battery life, this is the kind of camera that will appeal to newcomers to single lens reflex digital photography. Auto focusing and a good range of auto options will help you learn the finer points of SLR photography. The E-400 is only available in the kit form with two lenses. It's available online for around £850.
The E-400 is designed to appeal to photographers upgrading from compacts as well as newcomers to digital photography. The emphasis is on size and weight, with the camera body and one of the supplied lenses being smaller than some bridge cameras. Although the two lenses offer totally different focal lengths, their physical dimensions are similar. A button press and part turn is all that is required to remove one lens and the reverse operation to replace it with the other. Caps are supplied to keep dust and dirt off the unused lens.
The rear of the camera is dominated by the 64mm LCD screen, which sports 215,000 pixels. This lights up as the camera is switched on and performs its dust-removal cycle. Although cleaning takes only just over two seconds, it's a delay that may annoy some users. The controls arranged around the screen are well thought-out and fairly intuitive to use, as are the controls on the top of the camera. The layout on the top, however, is a little crowded on the right of the viewfinder prism and rather empty on the left. The main mode-selection dial has the on/off switch as a secondary collar beneath it. It feels well made and positive and the same can be said of the control dial to the right of it. The two of them are close enough to the shutter button to be touched by big fingers when using the shutter release.
The right-hand side of the camera has a slide and lift door to access the memory card chamber and this design gives clear access to the twin card slots, which accept xD and CompactFlash memory cards. Even large hands can get at them, which is handy if you remove the card for data transfer through a card reader. There's also the option to plug the supplied USB lead into a port hidden by a little door at the bottom right of the rear of the camera.
The base of the E-400 has the last door, that of the battery compartment. This has a safety catch that needs moving before the slide and hinge mechanism will work, but it proved practical in use.
All of the controls, although small, are well placed and positive in their actions. None proved to be so small as to be difficult to operate and the screen is large and easy to read. As for the viewfinder, it's bright and gives good coverage, has a comfortable rubber cup to stop scratching spectacles and has reasonable dioptre adjustment. The thing we missed most though, was a real grip to get our fingers around.
The mode dial gives a choice of Auto, Manual, Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Program and five scene modes, along with a scene-selection mode. Curiously, this duplicates the scene modes on the dial, along with another 14 modes that can be selected from the LCD screen through the menus. For beginners, the good thing about these is the explanations that go with them, so that you know what you're setting without having to carry the manual around with you.
The shutter speed range is a good one for a camera in this class and with a longest exposure time of 60 seconds, the possibility of creative long exposure shots is well extended from the norm. White balance is hidden in the menus and has the normal symbols, as well as a manual selection option that goes from 3000 degrees K through to 7500 degrees K, handy for working in artificial light, which can often upset auto operations. There's a choice of colour spaces, sRGB or AdobeRGB, plus three options on how the firmware deals with the colours: vivid (useful for landscapes), natural and muted. The image tones can also be optimised if you're shooting low-key or high-key images (images dominated by shadows or highlights respectively). This is an unusual option, but a very handy and useful one if you're interested in these styles of photography.
The autofocus system is basic but accurate, with three focus points in a line across the centre of the screen. Through the menus you have a choice of single focus, continuous focus or manual. It's quiet and fairly quick, as opposed to instant, and as the light gets dimmer it can take a moment to make its mind up. Once the light requires flash, the pop-up unit supplies a series of pulses to assist the AF.
The two lenses supplied cover a vast range, from the equivalent of 28mm wide angle through to the 300mm telephoto mark. This should cover all but the most specialised tasks with relative ease, although a slightly wider bottom end would be nice. In line with the camera, the lenses are light in weight and the use of engineering plastics has been stretched to include the mounts as well. These do tend to wear slightly faster than their metal counterparts. Surprisingly, the longer of the two lenses has a slightly better aperture at the long end, and this will help keep shutter speeds up for the long telephoto shots. The manual focus option is a fly-by-wire system that needs power to operate it.
There is a software CD supplied with the camera to tweak and sort your images, but it's a little restricted compared to some third-party offerings.
The speed at which the E-400 writes the data it collects to the memory card is adequate rather than fast. In JPEG mode, the camera can shoot only 5 images at 3 frame per second before the buffer fills and the camera slows down to around 1fps. Shooting in raw, the camera stops and it takes around 25 seconds to clear the buffer before you can recommence shooting. As is normal with modern cameras, there is no TIFF recording option, as this file type can be produced from the raw files.
The battery, a slim 7.2V Li-ion unit, exceeded 250 frames shot under a variety of conditions including some shots using the pop-up flash for fill and at full power. This is quite impressive, considering the amount of use the rear screen gets in checking the set parameters and the dust-reduction cycle each time the camera is switched on. Due to this, the start-up time is slow for a dSLR, but fortunately the camera does not go through the same process when re-awakening from the sleep mode into which it enters after a minute of inactivity.
The image quality delivered by the 10-megapixel sensor is impressive in comparison to equivalent compact sensors with a similar pixel count. Noise at the higher sensitivity settings is controlled well and even the ISO 1600 setting produces usable images, although by that speed noise is evident. The noise-reduction algorithm, accessed through the menu, doesn't help and if anything it makes matters slightly worse, especially in the blue channel. At more normal ISO settings, the colour reproduction is surprisingly accurate with the default settings, making the available adjustments much more meaningful.
Sharpness straight out of the camera is reasonable and can be tweaked in-camera for shooting in JPEG mode when printing directly, although excellent results can be obtained with more control in post-processing software. The supplied lenses are good quality for kit lenses and not too much evidence of the more major problems showed themselves. Chromatic aberration, or purple fringing as it is commonly known, is not visible at normal magnifications and there is only slight evidence of distortion at the wide end of the short lens. Fortunately this is easily curable in post-production software if it shows up on images of buildings and the like.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide