Olympus E-300 SLR Review
The Olympus Evolt E-300 is the second commercially-available camera that implements the "Four Thirds System" originally announced by Kodak and Olympus, later joined by Sigma. While the first effort, the Olympus E-1, was designed for professionals and priced accordingly, Olympus created the E-300 for the amateur dSLR market.
The first thing you'll notice about the E-300 is its unusual (for an SLR) shape. It is missing the bulge at the top of the body normally reserved for the pentaprism; instead, it has a flat top that you'd normally find on a consumer digicam. Because there's no center mounted pentaprism, the viewfinder could be located close enough to the left side of the camera body so that the photographer's nose comfortably rests outside the body and not pressed up against the LCD. The E-300 is also a relative lightweight in the dSLR world, weighing in at just over two pounds, 14-45mm lens, battery and CF card included; this is only several ounces more than the Pentax *ist DS, the lightest dSLR we've tested to date. Despite its compact size, I found the E-300 to be comfortable to hold and easy to operate, with its switches and controls well placed to avoid accidental activation. And battery life was good, capturing more than 300 images without giving any indication of depletion.
Camera operation was a breeze. There's no top-mounted data LCD; the display of exposure settings is made on the color LCD, allowing you to make changes with the camera at eye level. The display is rather complete, including such settings as sharpness, saturation and contrast that can be viewed on other cameras only by entering the menu system. And rather than forcing you to wade through a menu system to make changes, the E-300 provides buttons that directly access common shooting parameters, including white balance, image size/quality, exposure compensation, AF mode, ISO and metering mode; changes are made by rotating the control dial. The E-300's playback mode was responsive and informative; it has the ability to enlarge an image up to 10x, allowing critical examination in the field. Overall, the E-300's controls and LCD display were a pleasure to use.
Like its big brother the E-1, the E-300 imposes a 2x focal length factor on its attached lenses. That's great if you shoot a lot of telephoto, but it's a difficult pill to swallow for those who shoot wide angle. Olympus offers an 11-22mm (22-44mm in 35mm-equivalence) wide zoom, but its price is nearly equal to the E-300. With the 14-45mm kit lens, Olympus is providing an inexpensive standard zoom; its 28-90mm effective focal length fits the bill for an every day walkabout lens, with sufficient field of view for landscape and interior shots, and a short telephoto focal length for portraits. The lens exhibits a moderate amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but is without any pin cushioning at telephoto. It's reasonable sharp throughout its focal length range, but is noticeably soft when stopped down to f/22. On balance, it's a good match for the E-300.
Speaking of lenses, there were precious few available for the Four Thirds System when we tested the Olympus E-1 in 2003, and they were fairly pricey. Concurrent with the E-300, Olympus announced not only the 14-45mm kit lens, but an inexpensive 40-150mm (80-300mm in 35mm-equivalence) f/3.5-4.5 as well. In addition, Sigma now offer 3 lenses for the Four Thirds System: 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6, 18-125mm f/3.5-5.6, and 55-200mm f/4-5.6. Unfortunately, we only had the Olympus 14-45 for our test, so I can't comment on the quality of the rest. But it is encouraging that there is now a range of inexpensive amateur lenses available for the Four Thirds System, and that Sigma and Olympus are now competing in this marketplace.
The E-300's shooting performance falls a bit short of its competition. From power-on till the first image was captured measured just under 2 seconds, as did waking it up from its power-saving sleep mode. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 3/10 second including auto focus time for a high-contrast subject. Rapid shooting in single shot mode without flash captured 5 images at 8/10 second intervals, with subsequent shots at 1.5 second intervals. With flash, shots could be captured at intervals ranging between 1 and 4 seconds, depending on subject distance. Continuous Shooting mode captured only 4 SHQ JPEG shots in 1.2 seconds, and you must remove your finger from the shutter button before the next sequence can be captured; buffer clearing took 5 seconds. Continuous shooting in RAW mode also captured 4 images in 1.2 seconds, but took 10 seconds to clear the buffer. I was disappointed that the E-300's buffer limited continuous shooting to a depth of only 4 images. The above times were observed using a very fast SanDisk Extreme 1GB CF memory card, 14-45mm Olympus lens, flash off, daylight lighting, 3264x2448 image size.
The E-300's auto focus system, although accurate, falls short of that found on the competing amateur dSLRs. The E-300 has only 3 focus points organized horizontally across the frame while the competition has more, and it sometimes had a tendency to focus hunt. The E-300 provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF and Continuous AF and can be set to allow the camera to auto-select the focus point from the 3 available, or the photographer can manually select the AF point. Low-light performance is good even without the use of focus assist lamps, and the E-300 will fire a burst from its internal flash, if raised, or turn on the focus assist lamp of an attached FL-36 flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. Manual focus is a fly-by-wire affair, with the focus ring actuating the lens focus motor. While using manual focus, the E-300's auto focus system is not entirely disabled; it monitors your focusing adjustments and provides visual feedback by lighting the viewfinder's AF confirmation mark when it is in agreement with your focus setting.
As an amateur dSLR, the E-300 competes with prosumer digicams as well as other dSLR's while meeting the needs of the less-experienced photographer. Borrowing from its prosumer siblings, the E-300 incorporates scene modes that optimize camera settings for 14 distinct shooting conditions/subjects. But while most cameras shield the photographer from the exposure settings chosen by a scene mode, the E-300 displays all of the exposure settings on the LCD. This information can be educational for the intermediate photographer, providing a basis for experimentation using the E-300's more advanced shooting modes. The E-300's scene modes are also somewhat flexible, allowing the photographer to override some of the standard settings.
The E-300 is the first amateur dSLR with an 8-megapixel imager, and greater resolution is always welcome as it provides more image content for cropping or producing large prints. The E-300's results were well-exposed, and color reproduction was realistic. The E-300's image quality was very good at ISO 100 and 200. At higher ISO's, noise becomes evident; while 400 is very usable, noise becomes noticeable in highlight areas at ISO 800, and there's so much noise present at ISO 1600 that you'll only use it when it's the only way to get the shot.
Most dSLR's, even the professional ones, have a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics at small apertures. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a bulb blower handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. The Olympus E-300 has an ingenious feature it inherited from the E-1 called a "Supersonic Wave Filter"; it vibrates dust particles off the image sensor every time you turn the camera on. While I didn't purposefully deposit any dust onto the sensor during the test, I can say that the sensor remained remarkably free of dust.
The Olympus E-300 offers yet another choice for those shopping in the prosumer
digicam/ amateur dSLR price range. For under $1200 you can get the E-300 with
14-45mm kit lens and an Olympus 40-150mm zoom, a package that covers an
effective focal length range of 28-300mm. Its image quality, flexibility and
viewfinder compete favorably with the high-end consumer digicams, and its
scene modes offer the ease of use needed by less-experienced photographers.
But while the E-300 competes well with the prosumer cameras, its performance
lags its amateur dSLR competition, most notably in autofocus performance/flexbility
and continuous shooting. What makes the E-300 stand out is its resolution; there's
no other amateur dSLR offering 8-megapixels at the time of this review (February
2005). Please have a look at our sample images to
see what the E-300 is capable of.
Olympus E-300 Evolt v1.2 Firmware Update
Olympus today posted the v1.2 firmware update for the E-300 Evolt SLR that incorporates the following:
The following functions have been added to enhance camera versatility.
The battery check indicator for use with the HLD-3 Power battery holder has been improved.
Click here for the Olympus E-300 firmware update page
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