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The Olympus E-1

A Second Opinion, Field Test, and Survey Results

Review By: Sean Reid

Photos by: Sean Reid & Bruce Snell

Olympus E-1, Zuiko 14-54, ISO 400,  1/500@ F/8, Existing Light   Photo by Sean Reid

The Olympus E-1 has been out since 2003 and many in-depth reviews have been written that examine both its features and file quality.  Those aspects being well known, then, my focus for this second opinion review is primarily on answering two questions:

  1.  
    1. How well has the E-1 performed as a professional tool?
    2. Considering that there are so many good DSLRs available right now, most with more than 5 MP resolution, why would one choose the E-1 over the other options?

Let me take the second question first.  Three things stand out for me about this camera.

First, the E-1 is the quietest DSLR Iâ��ve ever used, on par with a rangefinder such as the Leica M7.  The sound is of a lower pitch and longer duration than the Leica but it is equally discreet.  Does this quality matter?  It depends on what kind of work one does.  It can matter during an exchange of vows at a wedding ceremony, a quiet cello passage at a concert, a trial testimony in a courtroom, a monologue in a play, a series of portraits made at a quiet table during a conversationâ�¦the possible scenarios go on and on.   The only digital cameras available that are quieter than this one are the small-sensor cameras such as the Leica Digilux 2.  Those cameras are nearly silent but come with their own bundles of advantages and disadvantages.  If one needs a sensor larger than 2/3â�� and interchangeable lenses, the E-1 is the quietest digital camera on the market.

Ever trip the shutter of a Canon 1Ds in a quiet room? 

Second, the camera and its lenses are weather-sealed.  I used this E-1 in the middle of a heavy Vermont blizzard with no ill effects on the camera.  Any professional photographer who sometimes ends up working in rain, snow, dust or other challenging weather can appreciate the value of having seals on his or her digital camera.  Digital innards donâ��t tolerate water like some mechanical film cameras do.   Camera rain hoods are awkward and provided imperfect protection.  I certainly canâ��t afford to stop working when it starts to rain but I also wouldnâ��t want to risk ruining an expensive digital body.  With a sealed camera, I neednâ��t make that choice.  The Canon 1 series digital cameras, such as my 1Ds, are all environmentally sealed, and Canon offers several sealed lenses to use with them.   Recent Nikon pro DSLR bodies such as the D2Hs also have weather seals, and Nikon offers some sealed lenses as well.  But both the Canon and Nikon sealed bodies are large and heavy whereas the E-1 is comparatively compact and light.   I canâ��t stress enough how important I think this issue is for a professional digital camera that one plans to use outdoors.   Whether one is a photojournalist making pictures of a damaged house in the midst of a tropical storm in Florida or a documentary wedding photographer making pictures of a bride as she emerges from her car in the midst of a Seattle rain shower, this feature really matters.

Third, the E-1 with a 14-54mm lens is more compact and significantly lighter than many other pro body + zoom lens combinations.   The Olympus 14-54mm, an excellent lens, covers the same field of view as a 28-108mm zoom would on a 35mm film camera.  Iâ��ve shot many events with a Canon 1Ds and a 28-70 (later 24-70) zoom lens.  Add a Stroboframe flash bracket and strobe to that combo and youâ��ve got one seriously heavy rig.  Any photographer who has worked for six or eight hours straight with a combination like that can readily appreciate the benefits of lighter gear.  Iâ��ve tried two samples of the 14-54mm so far and both samples, in my mind, measured up to the various Canon L zoom lenses Iâ��ve owned, such as the 24-70 or 16-35.  A camera such as the Canon 20D or Nikon D70 is certainly light and compact like the E-,1 but neither manufacturer makes a pro-level lens that covers a 28-108mm FOV.   Having that kind of range with just one, reasonably fast, lens is certainly convenient.  The lens itself is also fairly light and compact considering its range and maximum aperture of F/2.8 – 3.5.

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Automatic Sensor Cleaning

Olympus is also unique in being the first DSLR maker to include a device that actively deals with dust on the sensor filter.  Basically, the sensor shakes each time the camera is turned on and the dust is supposed to fall onto a piece of sticky material below. Based on my discussions with several long-term E-1 owners, the system actually works.  Many owners, in fact, have never needed to clean their sensors manually at all.  Given that sensor cleaning is a normal fact of life for most of us DSLR and DR (digital rangefinder) owners, Olympusâ�� system is a much appreciated feature.  I certainly saw no dust spots on my files after several weeks of using the E-1.

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Ergonomics

The ergonomics of the E-1 are excellent overall.  Olympus, like Canon and others, seems to have designers who begin the design process by watching a hand squeeze a large block of clay and then studying what shape it creates.  I find that many of the current DSLRs just come to hand beautifully, the designers clearly have paid attention to how a hand grips, how fingers move, what the arc of a thumb normally is, etc.  The E-1 felt great from the first time I picked it up and itâ��s various buttons and wheels are in natural locations for my hands.  Importantly, for a pro camera, controls such as the mode wheel have interlocks so that they canâ��t be changed accidentally.  It always takes a little while to learn the controls of a new camera, but I found most aspects of using the E-1 to be quite natural and intuitive.

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Weather-Sealed, Quiet, Lightweight, High Resolution, High-ISO performance – Pick Any Three

Consider a sampling of some of the DSLRs that a professional photographer can choose from right now:

Canon 1D MkII: weather sealed, high resolution, strong high-ISO performance but certainly not quiet or lightweight

Canon 20D: Lightweight, high resolution, strong high-ISO performance but certainly not quiet or weather-sealed

Nikon D70: fairly quiet, lightweight, fairly strong high-ISO performance but only medium resolution and not weather sealed

Olympus E-1: weather sealed, very quiet, lightweight but modest resolution and poor performance above ISO 800 (more about these last two below)

There are many other factors one can look at of course but the E-1 is the only DSLR I can think of that combines its three particular strengths in one body.   If those three strengths are all important to you, read on.

E-1, Zuiko 14-54@14mm, ISO 400,  1/60@ F/2.8, Existing Light   Photo by Bruce Snell

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What Kinds of Pros Are Using the E-1?

Letâ��s now come back to that first question.  How well does the E-1 perform for professional work?  To answer this, I thought I might expand a bit beyond my own perspective and survey some other professionals whoâ��ve chosen to use the E-1.   Thirty-three photographers, in all, responded to my informal survey questions about the E-1.  In order to provide some variety in the review illustrations, Iâ��ve included two pictures (including the one above) by the highly regarded documentary wedding photographer Bruce Snell, one of the professional photographers who responded to my E-1 survey.

The most popular use of the E-1 (among this group) is for weddings, portraiture and magazine editorial work.  It is also being used for a wide range of other professional work as well including: Advertising, Architecture and Interiors, Corporate Reports, Events, Fashion, Fine Art, Food, General Commercial, Landscape, Newspaper, PR, Sports, Stock, Travel and Yachting.

The professionals I surveyed chose the E-1 to replace cameras such as the following:  Canon pro DSLRs, Contax, Fuji S2, Leica M, Nikon pro DSLRs, Olympus E10 & E20 and various medium format cameras.  Most of the photographers who answered the survey use the E-1 as their primary camera and many of them also have backup E-1 bodies.   Several work with both the E-1 and film cameras (both small or medium format).  I spoke with one well-known photographer who tried switching from the E-1 to Canon and Nikon DSLR systems and ended up switching back to Olympus. 

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What Professionals Like About the E-1

Ergonomics, Size & Weight:  Almost all of the photographers had high praise for the cameraâ��s handling and ergonomics.  They also strongly appreciated its smaller size and lighter weight.   Some photographers switched to the E-1 from other professional DSLR systems specifically because of the cameraâ��s size and weight.

Lenses: Current lenses were almost universally described as excellent but many want to see the lens system expand (see below).  Many photographers appreciated being able to cover a very wide focal length range with just two reasonably sized zooms.

Quiet Shutter Release: Several mentioned liking the camera�s quiet shutter.

Self-cleaning sensor: Almost everyone mentioned how much they liked this system.  In fact some felt that it was an extremely important feature for the type of work they did.  Many reported never once having to clean their E-1 sensors manually.

Environmental Seals: Many mentioned the importance of this feature, especially those doing photojournalism.

Build Quality and Reliability: Most photographers stressed both the build quality and the reliability of the camera as being excellent.  This was mentioned again and again.

Overall File Quality:  The camera was widely praised for its color rendition and the â��film-likeâ�� quality of its files.  Many mentioned that the cameraâ��s files need very little tweaking and that this saves them hours of post-processing.  Overall metering and auto white balance was often praised as well.  Some did note that the files were not quite as detailed as theyâ��d prefer. Many of the respondents primarily were shooting for A4 or smaller output but several mentioned using the files as large as 13â�� x 19â�� and occasionally 20 x 24.    Most photographers responding use the camera at ISO 800 or below, many of those primarily work at ISO 100 or 200.

Flash Performance: The FL50 flash was praised by many as working very well with the E-1 and several liked that it can synch with the E-1 at as high as 1/4000 sec. shutter speed in FP mode.   There were criticisms that the E-1 does not support wireless multi-flash TTL and that the flash recycle time for the FL50 is too slow.

Auto focus: General auto focus performance was usually described as very accurate.

Price: Several mentioned that the E-1 is very reasonably priced compared to other pro bodies.

Finder: Many mentioned liking the 100% view in the E-1 finder.

Battery Life: Some mentioned that the camera has very good battery life and that they liked the small size and weight of the batteries.

E-1, Zuiko 14-54@14mm, ISO 400, 1/60@ F/3.2,  TTL Bounce Flash Photo by Bruce Snell

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What Improvements Do Pros Want to See?

High ISO Noise: With a few exceptions, most respondents were unhappy with the cameraâ��s noise at high ISO.  Some found the limit for good quality to be ISO 400, others felt ISO 800 was very useable.  One newspaper photographer mentioned not minding the E-1 noise at any ISO.   This was a very frequently cited weakness.

Resolution:  Some photographers felt that the E-1â��s 5MP resolution was sufficient for their needs but the vast majority expressed a wish for higher resolution, i.e. 8 – 10 MP.  There were comments about stock agencies not wanted to accept files from the E-1 because of its 5MP resolution.  5MP was also mentioned as a limitation for subjects that are very detailed or for pictures used as magazine covers or spreads. Many photographers also felt that the 5MP res. limited their cropping options more than theyâ��d prefer. 

Low Light Focus: Many complained that the camera didnâ��t focus very well in low light but some said that a firmware upgrade did improve this performance.   While general auto focus performance was mostly praised some want to see faster AF and some criticized that AF performance was not up to the standard set by Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

Speed/RAW Buffer: Some felt the buffer needed to be larger and that the camera was too slow writing files to the CF card.

Lens Range:  Almost everyone had praise for the existing lenses but many wanted to see an expanded range of 4/3 lenses, especially fast primes (mentioned in many responses).  There were also requests for Tilt-Shift and IS lenses.

Histogram: slow to display, no auto-review mode.

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My Impressions

I used the E-1 primarily for a documentary project Iâ��ve been working on in central Massachusetts.  The quietness of the camera shutter was a real asset for this task and, fitted with an OM 24/2.8 via an adaptor, the camera/lens combination was fairly compact and unobtrusive.  (More about fitting OM lenses below.) Overall quality was very good but the files were just a little soft even after capture sharpening.   The resolution isnâ��t quite high enough to clearly resolve, for example, the texture of hair in a portrait.  Color handling is excellent.  Iâ��m satisfied with the cameraâ��s overall file quality through ISO 800 but beyond that the quality drops off dramatically and, after doing some testing, I chose not to use ISO 1600 or 3200 for any of the work.  Noise reduction can of course help the high ISO files but even the best noise reduction compromises some detail, and since the E-1 files are already a little bit soft, compromising detail further wasnâ��t something I wanted to do. Flash performance from the Olympus FL50 was excellent overall and, as with the other professional DSLR systems, the E-1/FL50 combination can be set to flash synch at speeds up to 1/4000 second.

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Frame Aspect Ratio

The proportions of the E-1 sensor are just a bit longer than the classic proportions of a 4" x 5" view camera.  The actual ratio is 4 x 5.3 but itâ��s close enough to be very familiar to those of us whoâ��ve spent a lot of time working with large format cameras.  This difference in proportion (compared to APS-C size sensor cameras) can be very important to photographers.  Very often, photographers find that certain proportions feel natural to them just as certain focal lengths do.  Some photographers feel very much at home with the 2 x 3 proportions of a 35mm camera (or a similar digital camera) and for some others that frame is often just a bit too long.  When a photographer works with a format whose proportions feel natural to him or her, he or she tends to make better and stronger compositions; the frame is likely to be used better and more of the pictureâ��s surface is likely to be active and intentional.   So the proportions of the E-1 sensor are neither good nor bad but they may be a good match for certain photographers.  Some E-1 photographers mentioned that they like how closely the E-1â��s proportions match standard print sizes.  Standard print sizes (4â�� x 5â��, 5â�� x 7â��, 8â�� x 10â��, 11â�� x 14â��) all seem to have been derived from the plate (and later film) sizes of standard view cameras.  It seems only natural then that the E-1 files, which almost follow view camera proportions, fit these standard paper sizes easily with little cropping,

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4/3 And The Future

Common wisdom currently holds that the more pixels are packed into a given area, the more a given sensorâ��s noise levels will rise.  Most of the current crop of 8-MP small-sensor cameras certainly show this tendency in spades.  But Canon recently defied that logic by packing 8 megapixels (in the Canon 20D) into the same area that had been used for 6 megapixels (in the Canon 10D).  And the noise levels went down.  The lesson I take from that is that we simply do not know what level of quality can be achieved at a given sensor size.  Our experience of past technology does not necessarily inform us about the limits of future technology.  I mention this because Iâ��ve read many people writing that 4/3 is a dead end, will only be able to handle â��Xâ�� amount of resolution, will never be good at high ISO, etc, etc.   The fact is that we donâ��t know what can or cannot be achieved with a 4/3 sensor any more than we know what the limits of an APS-C size sensor are.  We can look at the E-1 and E-300 and say that the signal to noise ratio at high ISO is poor.  But that only tells us something about the sensors currently in production cameras; it does not define what is possible for the format.  If a manufacturer, be that Kodak, Panasonic or whomever, can build a higher resolution, lower noise sensor (with associated electronics) for this format I see no reason why 4/3 should be a dead end.  Iâ��ve seen no evidence that it canâ��t be done, only evidence that it hasnâ��t been done yet in a production camera.

Olympus E-1, Zuiko 14-54, 1/250@ F/8, Existing Light Photo by Sean Reid

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ISO Accuracy

I do this ISO testing primarily because I donâ��t see it done in other reviews and I donâ��t think one can look meaningfully at ISO performance without first knowing how a given camera performs relative to its rated ISO and/or relative to other cameras.  ISO stands for the International Standards Organization and one would think that all manufacturers of digital cameras would be adhering to very strict and uniform standards when rating the ISO light sensitivity of their sensors. ISO 400, for example, should refer to exactly the same sensitivity regardless of manufacturer. Photographing a blank wall with â��correctâ�� exposure, a digital camera should create a file with a middle grey tone showing about 50% K (black) in Photoshop. Some cameras have inflated ISO values, for example, the Sony DSC 828 set to ISO 800 actually has a true ISO of about 540 (according to my tests), the Sony DSC-V1 tested similarly. In other words, some sensors do not deliver their true rated ISO. A comparison of any two cameras at a given ISO can only be valid if both of them are actually delivering their rated sensitivity. To test this, I photographed a neutral section of wall (lit uniformly) with both a Canon 1Ds and the Olympus E-1 focused at infinity.  I then desaturated the files, converted them to grayscale and used the â��dust and scratchesâ�� filter to average the slight variance in the tones across the frame into one uniform grey.

ISO

Aperture

Shutter Speed

1Ds

% Black

E-1

% Black

E-1 +.5EV
% Black


100


F/4


1/4


44%


57%


46%


200


F/4


1/8


44%


58%


46%


400


F/4


1/15


44%


57%


45%


800


F/4


1/30


43%


57%


46%

1250

F/4

1/60

52%

N/A

N/A

1600

F/4

1/60

N/A

57%

45%

3200

F/4

1/125

N/A

  59%

   48%


As one can see from the table above, the Canon 1Ds is approximately 1/2 stop more sensitive than the E-1 at ISO 100 through 800.   In other words, by applying a +.5 EV enhancement to the E-1 files in RAW conversion (CaptureOne DSLR Pro 3.6
) they come up to about the same tone as the 1Ds file with no EV enhancement.    In doing these ISO tests over the past year Iâ��ve found that the Canon 1Ds, Canon 10D and Leica Digilux 2 all create files of about the same percentage black at ISOs 100 – 400 (in film photography, weâ��d say they were creating negatives of the same density given equal development, etc.)  If we treat that performance as a baseline, the Epson R-D1 is about 1/3 stop under it and the Olympus E-1 is about 1/2 stop under it.    The practical implication is that the E-1 will need about a 1/2 stop more aperture or shutter speed than the 1Ds in a given lighting condition from ISO 100 – 800.   Beyond that level, note that the 1Ds at ISO 1250 is producing a lighter file than the E-1 set to ISO 1600 (both getting F/4 @ 1/60 sec. exposure).   This is consistent with the 1/2 stop actual ISO performance difference between the cameras. 

Olympus E-1, OM24/2.8, ISO 400,1/320,
Existing Light    Photo by Sean Reid

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Using Other Types of Lenses

Olympus has stressed that their 4/3 lenses are specifically designed and optimized for this 4/3 system.  And, indeed, the lenses do seem to perform beautifully on the E-1 and wide-angle distortion, in particular, is very well controlled.   That said, Olympus does not make any prime lenses that approximate the 40 – 50 mm field of view that I often like to work with (call me old fashioned).  While the 14-54 is more compact than many other zoom lenses, it is still much bulkier than the prime lenses that I normally use on other cameras.  Olympus, recognizing that many of their customers have a good number of OM lenses from the days when that camera series was being made, has made an adaptor available that will allow the mounting of OM lenses on 4/3 system bodies.  

As with other such adapters made by third parties (such as the Contax to EOS mount adaptor sold by CameraQuest) the connection between the lens and body is a simple physical one.  Naturally, the E-1 body cannot control the lensâ�� aperture nor can it stop the lens down automatically when the shutter is tripped.  The lens becomes truly and completely manual, just as it is on a traditional rangefinder camera.   I do a lot of architectural work with the Zeiss Distagon 18/4 (and other Zeiss lenses) on my 1Ds and am used to using these lenses in a fully manual mode on a DSLR.  One not only focuses manually but also, after focusing and composing, must stop the lens down manually to the taking aperture before the shutter is released.  This process, naturally, lends itself better to some kinds of work than it does to others.  In fact, the rhythm of shooting becomes somewhat like that used with a view camera.   Manual and aperture priority metering work with this method.

The lens I really wanted to try on the E-1 was the famous Zuiko 21/2 but I didnâ��t have one handy and so settled on using it with the quite respectable Zuiko 24/2.8.  The instruction sheet included with the OM adapter listed recommended apertures for these lenses when used on 4/3 bodies.  Basically, they recommend working in a range from one stop under maximum aperture to F/8 or F/11.  I used the 28/2.8 wide open, however, and it seemed just fine.  I certainly congratulate Olympus on their rather bold decision to make an adaptor like this available to their many customers with OM lenses.  CameraQuest also loaned me an adaptor to use so that I could mount my Zeiss 18/4 on the E-1. Comparing the Zeiss 18/4 wide open to the 14-54 (set to 18mm at F/4), the latter lens actually performed better on the E-1.  One of the most difficult things for a lens to do is to perform well in the corners at or near its maximum aperture.  The Zeiss, which of course was designed for 35mm film, gets soft in the corners at F/4 when used with the E-1.  The 14-54, on the other hand, held its sharpness right out to the corners.  The Zeiss has a higher level of macro contrast, overall, than the 14-54 and this is not necessarily an asset for digital capture.  As I discussed in my first test of lenses for the Epson R-D1, I believe that digital sensors work better with lenses that have slightly lower levels of macro contrast.  I wonâ��t repeat the reasons for this here but would strongly urge anyone interested in the subject to read my R-D1 lens test article to understand why I make this assertion.  It seems that Olympus did indeed design the 14-54 with a level of contrast that enhances the E-1â��s dynamic capture range and it held better detail in the highlights and the shadows than the Zeiss did.

Comparing the OM 24/2.8 at F/4 to the 14-54 (set to 24mm at F/4), the latter lens was once again the better performer.  The strong difference was in the corners where the 24 got soft and the 14-54 stayed sharp.  The latter lens was also sharper overall than the 24/2.8.  Color rendition between the two was similar, with zoom showing slightly more saturation.  The OM 24 has lower macro contrast than either the 14-54 or the Zeiss 18/4.  This makes for a less satisfying file straight from the camera but it expands the E-1â��s effective dynamic range by preserving greater detail in the highlights and shadows.  Many photographers will likely prefer the look of the 14-54 files because they require little post processing.  I, however, prefer the less contrasty 24/2.8 files that hold more detail at the extremes of a subjectâ��s contrast range.  Iâ��d rather get that detail in capture and then expand the fileâ��s micro-contrast in Photoshop.  All sample files were captured RAW and converted in Photoshop CS at default settings with white balance sampled from the same grey section in each file.

Conclusions?  While I love the Zeiss 18/4 on my Canon 1Ds I see little reason why one would use it instead of the 14-54 on the E-1.   On the E-1, the 14-54 is sharper in the corners and its lower contrast is an advantage for expanding the captureâ��s dynamic range.   The 14-54 also outperforms the OM 24/2.8 overall.  There are a couple reasons to consider the OM 24 for the E-1, however.  Its even lower macro contrast is an asset in lighting conditions where highlights would be prone to overexposure when shadows are properly exposed.  Itâ��s also much lighter and more compact than the zoom lens.  Lastly, it and other OM lenses can often be found quite inexpensively secondhand.  Iâ��d be curious to see how the fast and compact Zuiko 21/2 does on the E-1.

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Conclusions

Overall, I think that the general design, ergonomics and lenses of the E-1 system are excellent.  Itâ��s a very useable tool.  Its primary limitations seems to lie in the sensor itself (and related electronics). While the camera is capable of making excellent files at lower ISO levels, it certainly could benefit tremendously from an 8-10 MP sensor that performed well through ISO 1600 (and preferably through ISO 3200).  The cameraâ��s successor will certainly be of great interest.  That said, I was struck by the generally high satisfaction level expressed by the professionals who are currently using the E-1 for their daily work.  It seems to be one of those cameras that performs even better in actual use than its specifications might suggest.  Perhaps it deserves more credit, all things considered, than it has sometimes gotten. 

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Sean Reid, an American, has been a commercial and fine art photographer for over twenty years. He studied under Stephen Shore and Ben Lifson and met occasionally with Helen Levitt. In the late 1980s he worked as an exhibition printer for Wendy Ewald and other fine art photographers. In 1989, he was awarded an artist-in-residence grant from the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Ireland. His commercial work is primarily of architecture, weddings and special events. His personal work is primarily of people in public places. Having worked mostly with large format and rangefinder cameras for many years he now works primarily with Canon DSLRs and Epson R-D1s. Many of his newest reviews and other articles can be found at http://www.reidreviews.com

Bruce L. Snell specializes in photojournalistic and documentary based wedding photography.  He has photographed weddings in the USA and abroad since the mid 1980s and makes his home in Topeka, Kansas in the USA.

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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Image sensor, Film speed, Digital camera, Rangefinder camera, Leica Camera, Full-frame digital SLR

Entities: Seattle, Dublin, Topeka, my Canon 1Ds, ergonomics, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Kodak, Panasonic, USA, Ireland, ISO, auto white balance, Advertising, ISO., International Standards Organization, sec., Irish Arts Council, Sean Reid, Bruce Snell, Zeiss, Stephen Shore, Iu00e2ufffdufffdve, Olympusu00e2ufffdufffd, Sean Reid, Helen Levitt, Wendy Ewald, Epson, Zuiko, Ben Lifson, R-D1s, DSLRs, D70, Digilux 2, Vermont, Florida, Massachusetts., Kansas, DSLRs, Olympus FL50, D2Hs

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