Aside from its 2.1-second start-up time, which is longer than we like in a dSLR, the Olympus Evolt E-300 is quite responsive. Shot-to-shot time, regardless of which file format you're shooting, is 0.7 second and only 1.2 seconds with flash. Including autofocus time, shutter delay is only 0.4 second in good light and just 0.6 second in low light. It's about 0.1 second with manual focus. Continuous-shooting capabilities are middling. The camera will take 2.5fps, but the buffer stalls and you have to wait for it to clear after only four JPEG shots or three raw-plus-JPEG images.
For the entry-level class, the E-300 autofocus system is speedy and hard to fool. It also tracks moving subjects quite nicely for its class. It all adds up to a camera that does a good job of quickly grabbing sharp pictures of a wide range of subjects in varied lighting.
Though certainly not professional grade, the 14-45mm Zuiko Digital lens that comes in the E-300 kit feels somewhat better made than most kit lenses, and its zoom action is smooth. Manual focus on all Olympus E-system lenses is servo-activated, or focus-by-wire, as opposed to using a direct mechanical-focus linkage. We're not crazy about this kind of system, but the manual focus feel of the E-system lenses is tolerable, and the focus position can be controlled with reasonable precision. There is a special AF mode that allows instant manual-focus override, a very nice feature.
Overall, however, this isn't the best dSLR around for manual focusing. Its viewfinder is adequately bright and plenty sharp, but the finder image is fairly small. That, combined with the greater depth of field that is a by-product of the smaller Four-Thirds format, can make it hard to tell when your subject snaps in or out of focus, especially with the kit lens in dim light.
The E-300's 46mm (1.8-inch) LCD is crisp and easy to use for changing camera settings indoors or out, as well as for reviewing pictures and checking histograms or other image information.
The flash-synchronisation speed on this camera is 1/180 second, which is average for this class (though more than a stop slower than the Nikon D70's excellent 1/500-second figure).
Taken all together, our test shots from the Olympus Evolt E-300 are punchy, colourful, and detailed, especially at ISO 400 and below. Like the midlevel Canon EOS 20D, also an 8-megapixel dSLR, the E-300 captures somewhat more detail than its 6-megapixel competitors. It's worth noting that the difference will be visible only in large prints -- perhaps approaching A3 in size. At that size, you might also notice mild noise-reduction smearing of fine details and other artefacts in out-of-camera JPEGs from the E-300. For big enlargements, we recommend converting from raw, which gives better results.
At ISO 100 through ISO 400, the E-300's images are, overall, clean and smooth, with some noise cropping up in ISO 400 shots. At ISO 800, the noise is still much lower than consumer digicams produce, but it's apparent enough that it will show in medium to large prints, although we don't find it objectionable. At ISO 1600, images are very noisy, and we think most people will avoid this setting. If you need to shoot frequently at ISO 1600 or higher, there are better choices from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax.
At the camera's default settings, our test images have very saturated colours and fairly high contrast, which makes for vibrant, punchy pictures. It's easy to tone both qualities down a little bit if, like us, you prefer a subtler look. We also noted a few mildly ruddy skin tones at the camera's default settings, but reduced saturation -- and perfect white balance -- seems to cure this.
We had an unusual number of bad automatic exposures with the E-300, especially using the camera's ESP metering mode, which often fluctuated dramatically with small changes in the scene. We effectively counteracted these errors by always checking the review histogram, but that shouldn't be so necessary on an entry-level model. If Olympus could improve this, with a firmware upgrade, perhaps, we'd raise our image-quality rating.
The 14-45mm lens included in the E-300 kit produced pleasingly sharp results. It shows only mild barrel distortion at its wide end and almost no pincushioning at telephoto. It does, however, have a tendency to flare badly when shooting toward the sun. The Digital Zuiko 14-54mm lens that we also tested was much less prone to this.
Edited by Aimee Baldridge
Additional editing by Michael Parsons