Olympus EVOLT E-300By: Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells
8.0 megapixels, ZUIKO DIGITAL lens mount, digital SLR design, and loads of features!
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Page 3:User ReportReview First Posted: 11/08/2004, Updated: 03/12/2005
Beneath the Olympus E-300 EVOLT's futuristic, sci-fi design lies some very retro technology--technology mined from the history of the Olympus Optical Corporation itself. This was technology so radical that it took the camera enthusiast market by storm just over 40 years ago. Olympus history buffs and collectors will know that I'm speaking of the unique and small Pen F "half frame" film camera system, famous camera designer Yoshihisa Maitani's first camera system at Olympus. Of course I should first point out the differences between the EVOLT and Pen F: the EVOLT is not a vertical half frame camera, as was the Pen F, nor does it exclusively use mirrors to achieve its single lens reflex viewfinder. The EVOLT is also capable of much faster shutter speeds than the Pen F's maximum 1/500 second. But they are both smallish SLR designs that use a side-swing mirror, and don't use a pentaprism, as does just about every other SLR in history. Like the Pen F, the EVOLT uses a Porro mirror design to achieve SLR viewing without a bulge on the top of the camera (earlier information coming from Olympus indicated that the EVOLT had a porroprism, but that was incorrect). Porroprism designs are more often used in binocular designs to widen the space between the objective lenses and give a greater "stereo" vision effect over long distances. In this case, the porro-mirror arrangement, according to Olympus, is used to make the unit smaller.
One strange aspect of the EVOLT, however, is that it doesn't look much smaller. It is shorter, but it seems unusually thick and wide. The comparison photos above show two views of the EVOLT alongside three other current prosumer digital SLRs, the Nikon D70, Canon Digital Rebel, and Pentax *istD. These photos bear out Olympus's assertion that the EVOLT is indeed smaller than most competing designs--the Pentax *ist D the one notable exception overall. As you can see in the photos though, the EVOLT looks somewhat larger than it actually is, because it fills out more of the space marked out by its extremities. Other SLRs have projections that stick out further here or there, but they tend to look a little smaller than their dimensions would suggest, because they don't fill as much of the space within their overall outline. As for aesthetics, The EVOLT's is a look you can grow to love, but at first blush it's not the sexiest camera around. It looks more military and utilitarian. Throw in a little Japanese Anime futuristic fantasy design aesthetic, and suddenly the EVOLT name starts to fit.
Olympus says that the extra bulk is there for two reasons: to make room for the hardware that drives the Super Sonic Wave Filter, as well as to incorporate a frame that can take their 300mm f/2.8mm lens. What's that? Super Sonic whatzits? No, that's not more science fiction talk: the EVOLT has a real-world Super Sonic Wave Filter (SSWF) that literally shakes the dust off the sensor at 350,000 cycles/second each time the unit is powered on. (This first appeared on the Olympus E-1.) Actually, from looking at diagrams, it appears it shakes the dust off a plate that's in front of the low-pass filter and the CCD, both of which remain sealed behind the SSWF. I've been wanting one of these in my cameras since I switched to digital SLRs, so I'm glad to see someone has answered the call. When the menus on the cameras of other manufacturers say "sensor clean" they mean they'll flip up the mirror and open the shutter so you can take off the lens and clean the sensor for yourself; the EVOLT actually cleans the sensor for you. That, my friends, is something worth talking about.
While that's pretty impressive, I have to say that despite all of Olympus's talk about how much smaller the E-300 EVOLT is compared to its obvious target, it really doesn't seem that much smaller, nor lighter than the Canon 300D/Digital Rebel. Sure, it's shorter across the top, but put them side-by-side and the distinction is not clear. Further, wasn't the Four Thirds system supposed to make smaller lenses and bodies possible? The E-300's "kit" lens is longer and heavier than the Rebel's lens, despite the smaller sensor. Overall, our impression is that, compared to its competitors, the sensor is quite small for such a big camera. The usual consequence of a smaller sensor would be higher image noise, and the absolute noise levels from the Olympus E-300 are indeed somewhat higher than those of competing digital SLRs, but we were generally pleased by the appearance of its images. - The noise that is present at higher ISOs generally has a fairly fine grain structure, making it less objectionable than it might be otherwise, and visually comparable to noise from other d-SLRs in its price range.
The Olympus E-300 EVOLT's build quality is excellent. Body panels are strong polycarbonate, and the sturdy frame makes for a solid, flex-free camera that feels like a rock; more like a Canon EOS-20D than a Digital Rebel. There is one aluminum panel across the front, which covers the front part of the flash area, though it's not clear why this is here except as a possible structural reinforcement for a hot shoe-mounted flash or the aforementioned 300mm lens.
While I wish they had sculpted a deeper, slightly larger grip, the finger ridge and rubbery texture on the grip are good, and comfortable for long holding of the camera. There is significant "twist away" when you hold the E-300 in the right hand only though, probably because of the lens' position off to the left, rather than closer to the center. Olympus says they think most photographers will use both hands to hold this camera, and that this gives both sides of the camera decent heft for steadier shots. Whatever the reason, the camera feels pretty heavy on the left side and could have benefited from a deeper grip.
The lens releases with a button that could be a bit bigger and closer to the mount, but once properly activated, the lens comes off the metal ring mount with just the right sense of friction, especially for owners of old Olympus OM-series cameras, which had a notably nice "feel" in this respect. With the lens off, you see the unique vertically-swinging mirror assembly, reflecting light into the focusing screen on the camera's left side (as held from the operator's angle). If nothing else, it's interesting and unusual.
With a flick of the smooth, quiet power switch--curiously mounted in the same relative location as that of Canon's Digital Rebel, to the right of the mode dial--the E-300 springs to life. Its first task is to clean that sensor with supersonic vibrations. An LED on the top deck flashes blue for a second as the cleaner does its work. Then the CF card access light flashes red on the back, and the camera is ready.
Despite my criticisms about the size of this camera relative to its sensor size, Olympus really did a lot right with the EVOLT. Controls are well-placed, and they have a solid, confidence-inspiring feel. The Mode and Command dials on top of the camera are built with just the right sense of firmness, yielding mostly to purposeful action, rather than an accidental brush with clothing or the baffles of a camera bag. Buttons are also firm, and the purposes of most are singular. A familiar five button array runs down the left of the LCD screen, much as it does on the Nikon D70, Canon Digital Rebel, and Pentax *ist D. A four-way nav cluster is on the right, for easier menu navigation; though I wish it included the nearby OK button in the center as we've seen most manufacturers do, making it a five-way navigator. AE Lock and AF point select buttons are also where digital SLR users are accustomed to seeing them on other cameras. This should be seen as none other than doing what the market wants, and following the best strategy to get existing digital SLR owners to either switch to the E-300, or add it to their arsenal.
One glaring omission, at least when compared to the rest of the digital SLR landscape, is the Status LCD. We were pretty concerned about this, because we've all grown accustomed to having basic information available at a glance via a low-power monochrome LCD mounted either on the top deck or on the back of the camera. Thankfully, there is a partial workaround that doesn't cut into general operation of the camera, though it will affect the battery life if not used judiciously. Because the main color LCD is not used except after capture, Olympus has created a complete status display that you can access by pressing the Info button on the lower left of the LCD screen. Up pops one of the nicest status displays we've seen to date. If you don't learn to use this display, however, you'll spend a lot of time squinting into the optical viewfinder to see basic settings like shutter speed and aperture.
Their likely reason for omitting the display is the flash arrangement on the top of the camera, which includes a hot shoe and a pop-up flash that are side-by-side instead of integrated around the pentaprism as we see on most digital SLRs. The pop-up flash is mounted roughly center of the camera and can be made to work in concert with an external flash--in this case the FL-20, FL-36, and FL-50 flashes. While you use one of the latter two flashes to bounce light off a wall or ceiling, the pop-up flash can still be up and available to apply fill flash. The pop-up moves not only up, but forward to keep from hitting the shoe-mounted flash. Olympus also says that this gives the flash greater ability to peek over most lenses for coverage of close-in subjects. Once again, though, the hot shoe's position on the left puts more weight very far from the camera's center and makes the EVOLT harder to hold.
The new lens that comes with the EVOLT kit seems to be a good quality design with a tight and quiet zoom mechanism. The focus motor sound is noticeable, though not alarmingly loud, and the 14 to 45 zoom range is roughly equivalent to that the Digital Rebel, at about 3x. It's a little lighter than the previously available 14-54mm lens available for the E-1 (and still compatible with the EVOLT).
A tight-fitting CF card door must be pried open somewhat painfully due to the sharp edge on the door. Pressing the CF card release button releases the card easily (our prototype unit was more stubborn). The card is secure in its place, the door closing with a firm snap. We're a little disappointed that the battery contains no secondary latch to hold it in place. It falls free with the release of the door latch, which we think is dangerous, especially considering that a single impact will destroy most camera batteries.
Finally, the photo quality we've seen from the EVOLT has generally been good. The camera captures 8 megapixel images that look good even at the HQ or medium compression setting, though noise does increase rapidly when the ISO 800 to 1600 option is invoked. Color is a little "different," in that blues are shifted slightly, apparently in an attempt to make sky colors look richer (actually a fairly common ploy, although the Olympus E-300 takes it a bit further than most), and bright yellows and greens are a little undersaturated. The overall "look" of the camera's pictures is quite appealing though, with very smooth tonal gradation and generally nice-looking color. We did experience some uncertainty with the EVOLT's exposure system though, in that it seemed to be very strongly affected by prominent highlights near the center of the frame. This may somewhat reflect the "professional" heritage of the E-1, in that most pros prefer to preserve detail in highlights, even if it means underexposing the rest of the image. A conservative approach to exposure for highlights might be nice for pros, but we suspect that most of the amateurs for whom the EVOLT is intended would find its tendency to underexpose annoying. It's by no means a fatal problem, as the optional histogram display lets you see what's happening quickly and compensate, and its easy enough to use the Exposure Lock button to set exposure with the strong highlight somewhere off-center, but we imagine most amateur shooters would prefer an exposure system that didn't require that level of fiddling. (It does bear noting though, that the problem only seems to happen when the strong highlight is near the center of the frame.)
All considered, the Olympus EVOLT is a promising camera, one that looks like it will compete favorably with the targeted Nikon D70 and Canon Digital Rebel. It features some excellent innovations not seen on the others--like the Super Sonic Wave Filter--and bests the original Digital Rebel in a few areas, including flash exposure compensation and resolution. As for the benefits of the porro-mirror design, this is unclear. Though they've removed the bulge at the top of the SLR, it seems that compared to the design of the Olympus E-1, the bulge has merely moved off to the left on this wider camera. Last we checked, no one was complaining about the bulge on top of their SLR cameras, so I'm not sure what need is answered with the EVOLT's unique design. Arguably, the ability to use both internal and external flash units simultaneously could be a reason, but I'm not sure the resultant awkward balance of the EVOLT is worth it.
Most important of all is that Olympus is truly back in the game with a relatively affordable digital SLR to complement their growing digital camera system. Olympus has always been an strong driver of innovation in the photo market, and they've been out of the consumer SLR space--digital or otherwise--for far too long. The E-300 EVOLT will give Olympus fans an solid camera to start building a system on.