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Olympus EVOLT E-300

By: Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells

8.0 megapixels, ZUIKO DIGITAL lens mount, digital SLR design, and loads of features!

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Page 13:Test Results & Conclusion

Review First Posted: 11/08/2004, Updated: 03/12/2005

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the EVOLT E-300's "pictures" page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Olympus E-300 EVOLT with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the E-300's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

To see a collection of more pictorial images, check out the Olympus E-300 Photo Gallery page.

  • Color: Generally pleasing color, some oversaturation in blues, undersaturation in yellows. The Olympus E-300's overall color was pretty good throughout my testing, though I often noticed slight warm casts with its Auto white balance setting. It handled the difficult incandescent lighting of my Indoor Portrait test well, and its Kelvin settings extend to very low values, giving it a better ability to handle tough artificial lighting better than most d-SLRs. Its color was generally pleasing, although it tends to somewhat oversaturate strong blues and reds (while also shifting cyans towards blue somewhat, and blues toward purple slightly), and somewhat undersaturates strong yellows. Looking at test results across a range of subjects, it appears that the camera has a wider than average color gamut, which means it preserves subtle detail in highly saturated colors better than most. This also means that highly saturated colors will tend to look slightly less saturated with the E-300 than other cameras, a consequence of mapping them to fit into the standard sRGB color space. The net effect in its images is pleasing though, with a nicely "natural" look to its photos.

  • Exposure: Generally good accuracy, but overly sensitive to strong highlights near the center of the frame. Excellent tonality when properly exposed though. While the Olympus E-300 generally produced accurately exposed photos we did tear our hair a bit when using its ESP metering mode on subjects with strong highlights near the center of the frame, which invariably resulted in significant underexposure. (At first, we thought the problem happened any time there was more than a certain percentage of strong highlight in the image, but we later discovered that it in fact was only triggered by highlights near the center of the image.) Apart from this, the camera produced slightly high contrast under the deliberately harsh lighting of the "Sunlit" Portrait, as well as on the outdoor house shot. Still, dynamic range was pretty good and shadow detail was strong in most cases, although a moderate level of image noise softened the finer details. The good news is that I really liked the E-300's tonality when it was dealing with less contrasty lighting: Portraits shot under good lighting in particular have a very smooth, almost luscious look to them.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: High resolution, 1,600 lines of "strong detail." The E-300 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It didn't start showing artifacts in the test patterns until about 1,200 lines per picture height, in both directions. I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,600 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until about 2,000 lines (but even there, some detail was still visible). Using its "MTF 50" numbers, which correlate best with visual sharpness, the Imatest analysis program showed an average uncorrected resolution of 1740 LW/PH, and a resolution of 1385 LW/PH when normalized to a standard 1-pixel sharpening. The first number is quite high, but appears to be the result of some oversharpening in the camera. The corrected number is decent, but a little on the low side for a camera with an 8-megapixel CCD.


  • Image Noise: Image noise slightly higher than average relative to the competition, but a fine "grain pattern" helps a fair bit. The Olympus E-300's absolute noise levels are higher than those of most competing models across the board. (Although as I write this, I don't have any 8 megapixel cameras in its price range to compare it with, the Canon Rebel XT having only just been announced.) At low ISOs (up to ISO 800), the absolute noise levels are only slightly higher than those of the competition, the noise only being significantly higher at ISO 1600. What my raw noise numbers (and others like them, published by other reviewers) don't show is the frequency characteristics of the image noise, which has a great deal to do with how objectionable it is to the human eye, not to mention what the camera does to subject detail in its pursuit of low image noise. In the case of the eVolt E-300, its image noise is fairly fine grained, which helps make it less obtrusive than it would be otherwise. At high ISOs, it also manages to avoid trading away subject detail in favor of lower noise, with the result that its images look quite crisp, even at ISO 1600. Overall, a surprisingly good noise performance, particularly given that the sensor used in the E-300 is physically smaller than those in most d-SLRs.

  • Closeups: About average macro performance with the "kit" lens, but high resolution. The flash throttled down a bit too much, likely fooled by a reflection from the brooch. The 14-45mm "kit" lens that's bundled with the E-300 turned in about an average performance in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 4.39 x 3.30 inches (112 x 84 millimeters). Color was pink from the Auto white balance setting, but resolution was very high, showing a lot of fine detail in the dollar bill, coins, and brooch. Details were softer on the coins and brooch due to the close shooting range, however. Details softened toward the corners of the frame, but were fairly sharp on the dollar bill. (Most digital cameras produce images with soft corners when shooting in their Macro modes.) The E-300's flash throttled down a little too well for the macro area, as the exposure was slightly dark, despite a bright reflection on the brooch.

  • Night Shots: Good low-light performance. Pinkish color casts, but generally pretty low noise. Fairly good low-light autofocus capability. The E-300 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) limit of my test at all of the ISO settings (though you might argue that images were just slightly dim at the lower ISOs). Color balance was pinkish with the Auto white balance setting, and warmed slightly depending on the exposure. Noise was generally low, and even fairly low at the higher ISO settings. Though image noise was high at ISOs 800 and 1,600, the grain pattern there was fine and tight. The camera's Noise Reduction setting did a good job of suppressing bright pixel noise, though the pattern of the noise looked about the same with and without Noise Reduction enabled. Low-light autofocus performance was modest, with the camera able to focus on a high-contrast target down to just over 1/4 foot-candle (about 3 lux) with the AF-assist light turned off, and in complete darkness (on nearby objects) with the AF light on. Since city street-lighting at night generally corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, the E-300 should do pretty well for after-dark photography in typical outdoor settings.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: A pretty accurate viewfinder, just a little tight. The E-300's digital SLR viewfinder was fairly accurate, though a little tight, showing about 93 percent of the final image area at wide angle, and about 95 percent at telephoto. Given that I like digital SLRs to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the E-300's viewfinder has just a little room for improvement here. (In fairness, most SLR viewfinders are actually about 95% accurate. Only very high-end models seem to provide true 100% viewfinder accuracy.)

  • Optical Distortion: Slightly high barrel distortion at wide angle with the "kit" lens. Low chromatic aberration and good sharpness in the corners. Geometric distortion on the E-300 will depend on the lens in use. However, shooting with the 14-45mm "kit" lens that most owners will get with the camera, I measured approximately 0.9 percent barrel distortion at wide angle, a little on the high side. The telephoto end fared quite a bit better, as I measured only 0.1 percent barrel distortion at that focal length. Chromatic aberration was quite low, as I found only slight coloration around objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.

  • Shutter lag and cycle times: Average to a bit slower than average performance. The Olympus E-300 EVOLT is average to a bit slower than average, relative to other d-SLRs in its class. Full-autofocus shutter lag isn't too bad at about 0.36 second with the kit lens, and prefocus lag is good at 0.10 second, but the shutter response in manual focus mode is surprisingly slow, with a delay of 0.36 second (almost exactly the same as for full-AF mode). Cycle times are modest by SLR standards, at just under a second, for JPEG, RAW, or TIFF images. (Slow for JPEG and RAW images, fast for TIFFs.) Buffer capacity is modest but adequate for a prosumer d-SLR, at four RAW or TIFF images, or six large/fine JPEGs.

  • Battery Life: Good battery life. Because the E-300 uses a custom power connector, I wasn't able to conduct my usual direct power-consumption measurements, but Olympus estimates that a fully-charged battery is good for roughly 400 shots. In our own use of the camera, we never managed to run a battery down in a full day of shooting, so we're inclined to believe the 400 shot figure. (I'd actually say it's conservative, if anything.)

  • Print Quality: Excellent print quality, good-looking 13x19" prints. ISO 1600 noise is an issue with large prints, but all but invisible at sizes 5x7 and below. Testing hundreds of cameras, we've somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that you can only tell so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. When discussing usable print sizes and the effects of image noise though, there's just no substitute for printing a lot of images and looking at them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the iP5000 model here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)

    In the case of the Olympus E-300, we found that its 8 megapixel resolution produced beautiful 13x19" prints on the i9900, with no hint of pixelation to be seen anywhere. Colors were bright but believable, and generally very lifelike. Viewed at a distance, the E-300's default sharpening looked quite good on 13x19 prints, but when we scrutinized them up close, we found small "halos" resulting from the sharpening algorithm: For critical work, we'd suggest using the low sharpening setting in-camera, then applying unsharp masking with a small pixel radius (try 0.4-0.5 pixels) in Adobe Photoshop(tm) or other imaging software after the fact. Image noise at ISO 1600 is one area where the E-300 suffered somewhat in our laboratory tests when compared with the best of its competitors. Here again, printing the images on the i9900 provided critical information about what this noise really looked like. We often find that image noise fairly abruptly stops being an issue at a particular output size, as you move from larger to smaller print dimensions. In the case of the E-300, the "magic" print size at ISO 1600 was about 5x7 inches. At 13x19, the E-300's ISO 1600 images were pretty ugly. At 8x10, they were somewhat noisy, but most people would probably think of them as acceptable when examined at a normal viewing distance. (12 inches or so.) At 5x7", the noise really ceased to be an issue, no matter how much we squinted. Contrary to the reports of some other reviewers, we'd say that the E-300's ISO 1600 setting is in fact quite usable for a lot of applications, even for prints as large as 8x10 that are going to be hung on a wall or stood on a table. (If you commonly look at your enlargements at a viewing distance of 5-6 inches though, figure on 5x7 as being the maximum usable size for ISO 1600 shots.)

 

Conclusion

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The Olympus EVOLT E-300 digital SLR is entering an increasingly crowded d-SLR market, with aggressive price and feature competition among a number of manufacturers. With an 8-megapixel sensor, rugged build quality, and several unique features though, it will offer a good choice for many users. Its combination of very extensive Scene modes with full-featured exposure and creative control suit it to situations where both novice and experienced shooters need to share the same camera. It also could be a good choice for an enthusiastic novice, who wants a camera that's easy to use from the start, but that offers no limitations as their skills mature. Also important to an entry-level SLR is the availability of high-quality, affordable lenses. Olympus has begun to address this with the development of the affordable 14-45mm "kit" lens the camera will be sold with, and Sigma has a growing (and now pretty extensive) line of Four Thirds-compatible lenses available, covering a wide range of focal lengths. The E-300's image quality is generally quite good, with pleasing color and image noise matching that of the competition at all but the highest ISO setting. Our biggest complaint about the camera was that its ESP exposure mode over-reacted to strong highlights near the center of the frame, knocking down the exposure to hold highlight detail, but in the process underexposing the rest of the scene. This caused us some consternation, as we found it hard to predict how the camera would respond to subjects with bright highlights near the center of the viewfinder. On the other hand though, it wasn't too difficult to deal with, simply by using the Exposure Lock button to set the exposure with the highlight area to one side or the other of center. On a positive note though, the Olympus E-300 does provide a lot of photographic control, a lot of resolution, and good-looking photos for a very affordable price. If you're shopping for a digital SLR, and don't already own a bagful of Canon or Nikon lenses, the Olympus E-300 EVOLT deserves a close look.


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