The uniquely styled 8-megapixel Evolt E-300 from Olympus enters the expanding field of entry-level, sub-£800 digital SLR (dSLR) cameras. As with the more pro-oriented Olympus E-1, the E-300 conforms to the Four-Thirds standard for interchangeable-lens dSLRs, which in theory guarantees interoperability between cameras and lenses from any manufacturer that adopts it in the future.
With the E-300 kit, Olympus starts you out with a 14-45mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens (28-90mm in 35mm-equivalent terms), and the camera offers a satisfactory feature set, crisp performance, and good build quality for the price.
A giddier publication might start its discussion of the Olympus E-300's Evolting looks with some kind of noxious pun, but we avoid that sort of cheap stunt. Suffice it to say, this blocky, bricklike Olympus, with its Neanderthal forehead, is one of the ugliest SLRs ever made. But like a bulldog's mug, it kind of grows on you.
One of the promised benefits of the Four-Thirds system is smaller, lighter gear. But while the E-300 is technically a bit shorter and shallower than nearly all other dSLRs, it's also wider and heavier than some of its competitors and doesn't feel smaller than they are. Its body is made of black plastic with an aluminum chassis and top cover, however, and does feel more robustly built than most other entry-level dSLRs. The camera is also very comfortable to grip and use.
The Evolt E-300 owes its unconventional, flat-topped shape to a side-swinging mirror and an unusual viewfinder design. In another departure from common SLR design, there is no top-deck LCD for shooting information. That data is instead displayed on the playback LCD on the camera's back. This took us a while to get used to, but we have no complaints about it.
There is only one command dial, so you have to push a button to toggle between aperture and shutter-speed settings in manual exposure mode, which is a moderate disappointment. Nearly all other important shooting functions have their own dedicated external buttons, and you can program the OK button to control or activate any one of several functions, including depth-of-field preview, custom white balance, and drive mode.
When you must delve into the LCD menus, you'll find them well organised and quick to operate with the four-way pad on the camera's back. On the whole, we found the E-300's control setup to be well thought out and amenable to quick shooting.
The Olympus Evolt E-300 is the second dSLR (after the Olympus E-1) to implement the Four-Thirds format, which comprises a set of standards -- including sensor size (17.3 by 13mm) and lens mount specifications -- for interchangeable-lens digital SLRs. In theory, all Four-Thirds cameras and lenses, regardless of manufacturer, should be compatible with each other. The focal-length conversion factor for the Four-Thirds format is two, meaning a 25mm Four-Thirds lens captures the same angle of view that a 50mm lens does in the 35mm-film format.
As of this writing, only Olympus is marketing Four-Thirds format cameras, and the company offers eight lenses, called Zuiko Digitals, for the system. Olympus has plans for more lenses, and Sigma also currently makes three lenses for the format. This is a fairly narrow selection of optics compared to what's available for competing dSLRs from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax, which can use those companies' 35mm-film lens systems. On the other hand, Olympus touts its lenses as designed specifically for use with digital sensors, as opposed to film, and claims improved image quality as a result. The E-300 kit includes a 14-45mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 Zuiko Digital lens (28-90mm in 35mm-camera equivalent).
Much to Olympus's credit, the E-300, as with the E-1, tackles the frustrating problem of dust collecting on dSLR sensors. The camera is outfitted with a mechanism called a Supersonic Wave Filter, which covers the sensor and vibrates at a high frequency for a moment when you power the camera on. This shakes dust off the filter surface, causing the particles to fall on to an adhesive strip at the bottom of the mirror box. We're delighted to report that it seems to work very well.
Like most other cameras in its class, the E-300 provides every exposure option you could want. These include all four main exposure modes, 14 scene modes, autoexposure bracketing, and three light meters -- ESP, centre-weighted, and spot. Ambient light exposures can be compensated ±5 stops in 1/3-stop increments, and flash exposures can be compensated ±2 stops in the same increments. You can also view a histogram of your most recent image with a single button press.
White-balance options include Auto, eight presets, four user-adjustable direct colour-temperature settings, and a traditional custom setting that you measure from a white object in the scene. In addition, the Auto setting and all eight presets can be tweaked in seven levels in both directions (that is, warmer and cooler). The sensitivity of the sensor can be set from ISO 100 to ISO 400 in normal mode, and ISO 800 and ISO 1,600 become available in ISO Boost mode.
The Evolt E-300 saves images to a CompactFlash card, and you can capture JPEG, TIFF, raw (Olympus ORF file format), or raw-plus-JPEG files. For JPEGs, you can choose two different compression levels at full resolution (3,264x2,448) or a lower resolution (1,280x960) with only one compression choice. You can capture a raw file simultaneously with any of the three JPEG compression/resolution combinations. Images can be processed into either the Adobe RGB or sRGB colour space, and you can select from three levels of gradation (Normal, Hi-Key, Low-Key) and five levels of colour saturation, contrast, and in-camera sharpening.
Included with the E-300 is a photo-browsing and raw-conversion application called Olympus Master. With its reasonable white-balance and tonality controls, we'd call it a midlevel raw converter. But, alas, is it slow to convert an ORF -- and so is Olympus Studio, an optional converter that provides more controls.
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