Olympus will probably go down in history as the company who dared to be different by introducing a completely new camera standard at a time when the digital camera market was already starting to show signs of becoming overcrowded. The FourThirds system, which was introduced as early as 2002 as a co-development between Olympus, Fuji and Kodak, materialised in late 2003 as the 5-megapixel Olympus E-1. For more background information about the FourThirds system, reread our test of the E-1. This model, which Olympus classified as a professional camera at the time, has now been followed up by an affordable 'consumer-level' digital SLR, the Olympus Evolt E-300 (or simply E300 as it is called outside the U.S.). The new model features an 8.0 (effective) megapixel Kodak CCD with supersonic wave filter delivering a maximum image size of 3200 x 2400 pixels. It has many advanced features together with full automatic and manual control over exposure, white balance and flash, to name a few.
Based on the FourThirds standard the E-300 SLR model is compatible with Olympus full range of Digital SLR-System accessories. And with shutter speeds from 1/4000 to 60 seconds and ISO settings from 100 to 1600 plus the option to shoot RAW and JPEG images simultaneously and TIFF, it could well have a promising future.
Using the camera
The shape of the Olympus E-300 is unconventional to say the least. This is the result of the fact that Olympus have chosen to replace the pentaprism by a TTL Optical Porro Finder, resulting in a flat-topped camera which looks wider than it is. The body is built around a sturdy, die-cast aluminium chassis and made of strong polycarbonate with an aluminium top cover. Finish is first-class. The steel reinforced lens mount and tripod bush are further proof that this is a rugged, durable camera. In fact the whole feel of the camera is very solid. Due to a newly developed "floating" mechanism, focusing is exceptionally smooth and quiet across the entire range. The zoom ring turns tightly and smoothly and a substantial, rubberised handgrip on the front and chunky thumb grip on the rear make for secure and perfect handling with all controls readily to hand. The on/off switch is located to the right of the program dial which partly overlaps the selection wheel.
The shutter button, which only needs light pressure to take an image, is located to the front of these. The E-300 may not have the weatherproofing of the E-1 but otherwise its built seems to be just as durable, with no play in any of the controls and a confidence-inspiring feel to them.
There is no status LCD as we have seen on other DSLRs. To compensate for this the HyperCrystal LCD on the back doubles as the status panel, giving clear and concise information on all camera settings. Pressing the relevant button makes the function light up in green on the LCD and the selection wheel is then used to run through all the options for that particular camera mode. No need to press OK, just continue taking pictures when your selection becomes visible. It will take you 2 minutes to get used to this feature but then you will agree with us that this is the most convenient system we have seen so far.
To the left of the LCD panel are 5 buttons to select flash mode, white balance, image quality, image info or delete images. To the right are four buttons laid out in circular fashion to select exposure compensation (over 5 stops!), AF mode, ISO setting or metering mode. The playback and menu buttons are above the 4-way switch with the OK button below. The function of the latter can be customised to preview images or set AF/MF, but you can also configure it to function as a shortcut to saturation, sharpness or contrast settings; monotone; depth of field preview; WB bracketing or drive among others.
The viewfinder, with a coverage of 94% of the image area, is located on the left of the camera. It uses 4 mirrors to bend the light sideways and up from the lens to the viewfinder eyepiece. Although the view is slightly darker than on the E-1 it has a dioptre adjustment wheel on the left and full exposure information is visible inside. On top of the camera we find the hot shoe for an external flash and the small blue LED which flashes when the camera is switched on to indicate that the SSWF is doing its job.
A problem many DSLR owners have had to live with for some time now, is dust on the sensor and Olympus seem to have effectively tackled this problem with the exclusive Supersonic Wave Filter. This cleans the CCD by removing dust from the sensor by literally shaking it free with high speed ultrasonic vibrations (220.000 cycles/second), every time the camera is switched on. Dislodged dust is collected and trapped at the bottom of the camera, so it won't float around the mirror compartment to cause more problems down the line. We didn't see any evidence of dust artefacts in our images so it really seems to work. Note however that grease smudges caused by fingerprints will not be removed by the SSWF, so keep fingers outside the mirror compartment when the sensor is exposed.
In use the E-300 is all action and no play. It's comfortable to hold and easy to use. It starts up within 2 seconds; focuses swiftly with no noticeable shutter lag; writes images quickly and does the job of taking pictures quite nicely. It employs three AF areas with the active focusing point flashing red; 14 scene modes apart from Program, Aperture/Shutter Priority and Manual; 11 white balance settings including manual adjustment, Kelvin temperature range and a bracketing option; spot, centre-weighted and Digital ESP metering; JPEG, uncompressed TIFF and RAW file formats and Adobe RGB and sRGB colour space options. Although there is no dedicated AF-assist light, the E-300 will use the built-in flash for that purpose, just remember to flip it up as it doesn't do so automatically. The built-in flash has a guide number of 11 at ISO 100 and can be used as a fill-in to trigger an external flash on or off camera. Flash sync speed is 1/180 sec.
Since those functions you would use most frequently all have their own dedicated buttons on the back of the camera, it is not that often that you need to consult the menu. However when you want to set image parameters such as contrast, saturation and sharpness; advanced white balance settings - such as a Kelvin temperature range, fine tuning each setting or WB bracketing; flash exposure compensation or ISO boost (800 and 1600), you will have to resort to the menu. The system used is clear and self explanatory. Pressing the OK button confirms your selection and the camera is ready for action again.
In the box
The Olympus E-300 comes complete with the new Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. Apart from this you will find USB and video cables, shoulder strap and body and lens caps. As with all other DSLRs no memory card is included, so our advise would be to go out and buy the largest CompactFlash card you can afford. Keep in mind that a single JPEG image from an 8-megapixel camera at maximum resolution will be something like 5Mb to 8Mb, depending on the level of compression used. Fortunately card capacities are rising as prices are coming down.
The E-300 uses the BLM1 li-ion battery which is the same as the one used in the E-1 and several other Olympus cameras. During our tests we managed to take about 400 images with one single charge. We didn't skimp on using the LCD and it was freezing outside, so results might well be a bit more favourable in warmer circumstances. The BCM2 AC-charger takes about 5 hours to get an empty battery ready for action again. We did not have a camera manual to our disposal at the time of our test, but from our experience we know that Olympus always include a printed manual to explain the basic functions of the camera, whereas advanced options are explained on the accompanying CD.
Software included is the brand new Olympus Master Editing Software. It combines an easy-to-use interface with the option to transfer photos to your computer and organise them by date or keyword. You can adjust colour balance, rotate, crop, reduce red eye, or do an "instant fix" with just one click of the button. RAW files can be edited by adjusting all parameters, including exposure, white balance and sharpening, contrast and saturation. Panoramas can be stitched and photos can be shared with others by resizing them for email or other web purposes.
Just as with Olympus' old Camedia software, you can buy a Master Plus version which adds the ability to make video CDs or edit movies and has more printing options. Whether you are willing to pay for these extras is up to you, but we feel it is a bit of a shame that Olympus does not include all these features when you have just spend a substantial amount of money on their camera. Many more accessories are available specifically for the E-300. We will only mention the HLD-3 extra battery grip, which gives you double the battery life (using two BLM-1s) plus an extra shutter release button and tripod mount. You could opt for the HV-1 high voltage power pack if you need even more power. Apart from these there are (ring) flashes, remote controls and camera cases - in all more than enough to fill a small camera shop.
And of course lenses. Being a DSLR, the E-300 is totally expandable with several lenses. At the introduction of the FourThirds system five Zuiko lenses were available, ranging from a f2.8-3.5/11-22mm to f2.8/300mm plus a macro lens and 1.4x tele converter. Since then, Olympus have expanded their system considerably, and their lens line now includes several zoom lenses and a f2.0/150mm telephoto. However one of the drawbacks of the original E-1 system was that the Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses were very much aimed at the professional market with prices to match. While they were very high quality and not dramatically higher priced than the pro-lenses from Canon or Nikon, their cost made the E-1 too expensive for many enthusiast photographers. Olympus have now corrected this issue with the announcement of their own f3.5-5.6/14-45mm Zuiko Digital zoom that is quite a bit more affordable. Beside this
Sigma has announced a growing line of FourThirds lenses with three zoom lenses already available, including an 18-125 f3.5-5.6 lens. With an independent lens manufacturer like Sigma now making FourThirds lenses the system has taken a big step forward toward being a truly versatile standard. Have a look at our overview of all Olympus and compatible lenses for the Olympus E-300.
Rumour has it that Olympus make an adapter allowing the use of older Olympus OM-series lenses on E-system cameras. They are not actually advertising it, but it is understood that price should be somewhere in the region of $200. Some even state Olympus will send you one free of charge if you show them proof of purchase and your warranty card.
Let's find out if performance of the included kit lens can really match the professional standard of the FourThirds system. The Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens (28-90mm eq), has a shortest focusing distance of 0.38m/1.3ft which does not make it suitable for true macro work but - to be honest - this is not what most photographers will use it for anyway. Far more important is the general image quality in day to day picture situations. We have to conclude that in this field the lens performs quite well. Sharpness at wide angle is good although at telephoto it appears to be a little softer. Stopping down the lens obviously improves on this. There is some barrel distortion at wide angle but it appears to be less than with 28mm equivalent lenses on other prosumer DSLRs. Pincushion distortion at tele is not an issue, as there isn't any. Vignetting is kept well under control at wide angle although we found some slight shading in extreme corners at tele setting -
see one of the sample images above. Chromatic aberration is completely absent.
We found that - straight from the box - the E-300 produced some excellent results with nice punchy colours and excellent detail. Image resolution is superb - this is an 8-megapixel camera, remember - and dynamic range is very good. The nice thing is that there are ample possibilities to fine-tune the camera to your personal preferences as far as colour tone, gradation or contrast are concerned.
Please make sure to read our update of the section below too: Our Olympus E-300 ESP exposure findings revisited
On several occasions though we found our test camera had problems in determining the correct exposure. Sometimes images appeared overexposed without any significant reason while at other times the camera seriously underexposed. Under average lighting conditions there was no problem at all but whenever there were highlights in a scene, exposures were influenced in a seemingly erratic manner and it took several shots to determine the correct exposure - see images of the square above.
When testing further it appeared as if ESP or centre-weighted metering were not functioning correctly and only spot metering was applied - independent of the metering mode selected. This assumption was further fed by the fact that a slight shift in camera position resulted in completely different exposure values (see images of pub sign above), which is correct when using spot metering as only the small circle in the centre of the viewfinder is used to determine correct exposure, thereby excluding all other image areas.
We are not sure if this problem was typical of our test camera only, since a second E-300 showed exactly the same problem. Other independent reviewers on the internet have reported about exposure problems in certain situations as well. We really hope that Olympus will look into this and that this is not a characteristic of the E-300. More details on our Olympus E-300 metering findings.
The E-300 has ISO settings ranging from 100 to 1600. At lower settings images are remarkably noise free. However when you go higher up the scale some noise becomes present and especially at ISO 1600 noise is clearly visible. Obviously the Kodak CCD does not like to be pushed to such high sensitivities, although you should keep in mind that ISO 1600 is only meant for those situations where flash is banned or not appropriate, such as in a church, museum or theatre. For best image results stick to settings between 100 and 400.
Although it looks radically different from other digital SLRs, the Olympus E-300 is an excellent photographic tool with comfortable handling, nice controls and superb built quality. It provides you with comprehensive image info at all times through the convenient LCD monitor on the back, which remains clearly visible even in direct sunlight. It possesses a unique supersonic wave filter to solve the problem of dust settling on the image sensor, one of the common problems of DSLRs with exposed CCDs.
There are many advanced camera functions like fine-tuning white balance settings; full manual control over exposure, image parameters or flash output. Image quality is excellent with good resolution and colour for pleasing, contrasty photos with "punch". The fact that there are ample possibilities to configure the camera to your own preferences make the E-300 a really attractive option. If Olympus can solve the exposure problem, this is going to be a perfect camera to start building a system on, especially since Sigma are now producing quality lenses that are perhaps more affordable to the budding enthusiast than Olympus' own offerings. Although we feel the included 14-54mm Zuiko Digital lens would certainly be a good one to start with.