Back in early 2006, I started looking for a lightweight digital SLR system to bring along on vacations and day trips—something that offered a range of rugged lenses with image quality sufficient for 16”x20” prints. I wanted to start with with a body and a good-quality walking-around lens and add macro, telephoto, and ultra-wide-angle lenses over time. Some initial reading narrowed the field to Canon, Nikon, and Olympus.

Olympus's 14–54 f/2.8–3.5, which costs just over $400, quickly caught my attention as just about the perfect walking-around lens. It has a field-of-view similar to a 28–108 lens on a 35 mm film camera owing to the 2x crop factor of Olympus’s 4/3 system. This lens has a minimum focusing distance of 22 cm, which, at the the telephoto setting, gives a magnification of 0.26x (0.52x in 35 mm terms). That's nearly macro territory. It’s also relatively small and weather sealed. Sample photos looked virtually distortion-free, sharp, and high contrast. Canon and Nikon simply didn’t have anything comparable.

For the most part, Canon and Nikon appeared to make two ranges of lenses: cheap (~$175) consumer ones and expensive (~$1k and up) pro ones. The cheap consumer ones feel like toys and have tiny maximum apertures (typically f/4 to f/5.6) that give a dim viewfinder image and make it difficult to throw the background out of focus. The pro ones cost a fortune, and the large constant aperture (usually f/2.8) combined with full-frame converge leads to a big, heavy lens. Plus, the full-frame coverage is wasted on small-sensor cameras like the Canon Rebel XT and Ninon D70.

Having used Nikon’s compact FM2n for years, I was surprised by the size and weight of the D70 and D200 bodies. Canon’s Rebel XT and Olympus’s E500 seemed a much better size, and the E500 handled better and offered a more logical layout of controls and menus. Olympus also uses a relatively square 3:4 frame format instead of the long, skinny 2:3 one that Canon, Nikon, and everyone else carried over from 35 mm film days. Shooting a 4x5 film camera and a digital P&S with a 3:4 frame ratio for a few years made looking through 2:3 format viewfinders quite bizarre. The E500 also offered a four-channel histogram for checking exposure, something the Rebel XT and D70 didn’t (newer Canon and Nikon DSLRs all have four-channel histograms).

Olympus seemed to be thinking ahead of Canon and Nikon in many regards. The more I examined the cameras and lenses, the more it seemed like they had started with a relatively clean slate when designing their DSLR system while Canon and Nikon simply stuck digital sensors into their film bodies.

Olympus’s 50 f/2.0 and 50–200 f/2.8–3.5 looked like fine macro and telephoto lenses for later purchase. The latter is significantly smaller and lighter than equivalent full-frame lens (e.g., Canon’s 70–200 f/2.8L) and is were the 2x crop factor really pays off. While an amazing lens, the 7–14 f/4.0 ultrawide was priced too high to consider in the near term.

At the time, the main downside of Olympus was sensor noise. Canon’s and Nikon’s DSLRs offer a usable ISO 1600 setting, while the E500 starts looking suspect at ISO 800. The smaller sensor also sets a physical limit on the noise and resolution of future 4/3 system cameras. However, this seemed like a fair trade-off for system that offered such wonderful lenses, and my 4x5 could always tag along for making poster-sized prints.

I initially purchased the E500 and 14–54 f/2.8–3.5. A 50 f/2.0 along with the EX-25 extension tube came a few months later, followed by an FL-50 flash and 50–200 f/2.8-3.5 lens. Sigma's 150 f/2.8 macro and the Olympus 7–14 f/4.0 joined the collection over the course of the next year.

This combination worked well, and I hung a number of beautiful 16”x20” prints on the wall courtesy of the Chromira printer at a local lab. The camera and most of the lenses fit in a Domke Reporter Satchel and have come along on numerous vacations without getting in the way. ISO 800 is usable in a pinch for web galleries and small prints, while ISO 1600 isn’t particularly usable for anything. However, this didn’t pose a significant problem owing to the relatively fast lenses and carrying around a tripod. It was only an issue with handheld, natural-light macro photography.

The 14–54 f/2.8–3.5 stayed attached to the camera most of the time. It's an excellent piece of glass by any standard: weather sealed, virtually distortion-free, and good contrast with a solid feel and very little vignetting. The one downside is slight softness in the corners, but that’s true of more expensive lenses as well. The 50 f/2.0 seems optically flawless even wide open and offers wonderfully smooth bokeh. The 50–200 f/2.8–3.5 also performs very well other than suffering from noticeable vignetting towards the long end unless stopped down. When combined with the extension tube, it makes a wonderful tele-macro for photographing large insects such as dragonflies. The 38 cm working distance of Sigma’s 150 f/2.8 macro makes it a wonderful bug lens. It's not weather sealed like the Olympus lenses but is optically outstanding. The 7–14 f/4.0 is a difficult lens to use effectively but can produce striking images.

I helped shoot my first wedding with this camera and many of my photos made it into the album. The formal portraits and ceremony all took place outside on a sunny afternoon, so the camera’s ISO limitations weren’t a problem, and the camera did okay at the reception despite often taking its time to focus.

Olympus’s E510 appeared to addressed the noise problem: ISO 1600 images from this camera look like ISO 400 ones from the E500. The E510 also offers a live preview and an in-body shake reduction system that moves the sensor to counteract motion. These features should combine to greatly ease macro photography,

The forthcoming E1 replacement looked even more appealing with a more effective shake-reduction system, 100% viewfinder, articulating LCD for live preview, and a wireless flash system. It was four years in the making, and Olympus claimed that it will ship in late 2007.

Update: It's called the E-3, and it appeared worth the wait!