Using an Olympus E-400 with a Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens

... and installing a replacement split image screen

After many years using Nikon SLR film cameras I switched to digital photography in 2003 and eventually graduated from an Olympus 8080WZ to an E-400 twin lens kit this summer. I knew I would be photographing a concert in low light levels in the near future, so I wondered how a wide aperture manual focus fixed lens might perform with the Olympus under those conditions.

This would have to be a low budget exercise. I figured I know more about Nikon lenses than the Zuiko range so I bought a cheap Nikon F-mount to 4/3rds adapter on ebay. Next I picked up a nice clean Nikon 50mm f1.8 E-series lens for around £25. (I should point out that the E-series Nikkor lenses were considered "entry level" optics in the 1980's so this lens does not represent the sharpest of Nikon's glassware. However I hoped even an old fashioned 50mm lens would produce reasonable results, given that the 4/3rds sensor will digitise the central area, and therefore the sharpest part of the image field).

I assembled all the parts and found straight away that the 4/3rds adapter placed the lens slightly too close to the sensor so it would focus well beyond infinity. I measured the error (about 0.45mm) with a digital vernier and inserted some precision plastic shim material behind the lens mount in the adapter to solve the problem.

Next I carried out some test shots and discovered that the E-400 overexposes high contrast images when using this lens at f1.8. This is not such a problem because I also found that the results from the Nikkor at f1.8 are just not good enough to match the E-400 image resolution. While this is a shame, the results at f2.8 are passable and from f4 upwards the images started to compare with the Olympus 40-150mm zoom lens. The Nikkor produces a very slightly cooler colour balance.

It is an interesting observation that a classic Japanese made glass and metal prime lens has trouble matching a modern Chinese plastic body zoom lens. I think this says a lot about the quality of the optics in the new Zuiko digital lenses.

First impressions using the Nikkor E 50mm lens

I took these sample shots using the Nikkor at f4, hand held, ISO 200 in the early evening (there is also a 100% crop from the original JPEG).

There is not much depth of field at this distance (around 2m) but the lens and camera combination can certainly produce a pleasing result.

Comparison between the 40-150 zoom and the Nikkor


All the results from f1.8 to f4 do not compare with the Zuiko zoom. This comparison, (taken at f5.6 and using the Zuiko 40-150mm set at 50mm) shows the Zuiko (left) compared to the Nikkor (right). The results are almost identical.

Photographing a show using the Nikkor under low lighting conditions...

OK, this is where it gets serious. Enough of test pictures in the garden! Now I have to get some good shots at the local Amateur Dramatics dress rehearsal of Godspell in fading light without using flash. I took the 14-42mm and 40-150mm zooms and the Nikkor.

I did have the chance to borrow a Nikkor 85mm f1.8 AFD for the evening. This is a very nice lens, though I it needs at least f2.8 to get good results from the E-400. I figured it would be just a bit too long to hand hold under stage lighting conditions, so I stuck with the 50mm.

I set the camera to ISO 1000, and quickly found the long zoom was going to be too dark for the conditions, so it went back in the bag. I swapped between the short zoom and the 50mm all evening, using the Nikon lens at f2.8 and the Zuiko wide open. All these images below were shot with the Nikkor.

At first there was plenty of light so it was not so difficult to focus the Nikkor, and here is a typical result. In this case the autofocus zoom would have been faster to get the shot, though it doesn't quite have the reach of the 50mm Nikkor. Also, the narrower depth of field is helping slightly.

However, as the daylight faded I found that the zoom needed exposures down to 1/40th second. So while the autofocus was pin sharp, the actors moved during the exposure. These pictures were taken with the Nikkor at around 1/160th second... In general the exposure (using ESP mode) seemed to be correct.

By the end of the evening I found I had taken about half the 330 pictures with the manual lens. The trade off with this approach is that you spend the evening trying to optimise focus manually without missing the shot. As a result a percentage of the pictures are rejects. On the other hand you get a narrower depth of field and the luxury of a higher shutter speed. Oh, and you have to use the foot-zoom method: Remember that? You move closer to get a larger image in the viewfinder....


The Nikkor certainly helped to get some reasonable images under fairly difficult conditions. A byproduct of this experiment was a trip down memory lane with an old manual focus lens on a modern digital camera. The Nikkor will stay as part of the kit. For such a low cost lens it can produce some quite nice results. The combination of E-400 and 50mm makes for a very compact package.


Fitting a third party (Katzeye) split image focus screen

It has become clear that the weak link using a manual lens with the E400 is the small viewfinder and lack of focus aid. Clearly the autofocus isn't going to work with a manual lens, but more annoying, the focus confirm led won't work even in manual focus mode. Perhaps pressure from users may convince Olympus to offer a firmware upgrade?

Meanwhile the only way I could see to make a good combination better was to fit a new split image screen. These are manufactured to order by Katzeye in the US and cost about 135 dollars including shipping to the UK. They take around two weeks to arrive.

So, how do you fit a new screen in an E-400? Well I started by reversing the head on my Manfrotto tripod and mounting the camera upside down, then put the whole thing on a workbench, rather like this

Now the camera is at a convenient height and held firmly I could remove the old screen by unclipping the metal spring retainer and lifting the Olympus screen out using the tab on the right at the back. There is a metal shim under the screen and you need to leave it in position resting on the prism.

Lifting out the old screen holding it by the tab at the back

This is what you get in the Box from Katzeye: A screen in a sealed bag and a very thin shim in a cardboard carrier.

Now you need to drop in the thin Katzeye shim on top of the metal shim before you fit the new screen. (This extra shim is included to fine adjust the relationship between focus on the screen and focus on the sensor. If your images come out focussed closer to the camera than the split image says, then you need to remove the Katzeye shim). Finally you have to replace the spring clip (careful, this is where you could damage the screen). The whole process took me about five minutes, and..

this is what it looks like when finished...

In fact there is an excellent guide to fitting screens in the E500 and E400 here on the Katzeye website, so I won't repeat all their instructions and photographs. It is a fiddly process, you need some fine tweezers and you must not drop either screen at any point, as the surfaces are very delicate.


Focus alignment test

Good, so now it is installed, how accurate is it, and can I leave the Katzeye shim installed? Lets hope so. In order to test the focus accuracy I set the camera up looking down a 30cm ruler. I fitted the 50mm Nikon lens, set it to f1.8and used the split image to focus on a specific rule marking, in this case the 20cm marker. Now I took a picture and checked the focus.

Here is the critical test as a 100% crop from the above image. The results seem good enough for me. (I repeated this at a longer working distance with a larger target and still got good results, so I figure I can leave the shim installed).

My initial tests show the modification has had no effect on the autofocus system, nor do I see any effect on the exposure system so far. So now I have a modern digital camera with some of the look and feel of on old film SLR: Compact design, small manual lens, split image screen, plus the ability to come back to the 21st century by fitting the AF zoom lenses when needed.

Now all we need is some decent weather :-)


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Hydrangea taken with the Nikkor lens. Check out the cobweb!