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Olympus EVOLT E-300

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

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




MSRP $1,000 US

 

*
8.0-megapixel resolution for 3,264 x 2,448 images.
*
Interchangeable lens mount fits full range of ZUIKO DIGITAL lenses.
*
Unique digital SLR design.
*
Full range of manual and automatic exposure control.
* Top-mount hot-shoe for more powerful external flash.
*
 Extensive image adjustment tools for creative results.

 

Manufacturer Overview

Similar Cameras
If you're looking at the
Olympus EVOLT E-300, here are some similar models to consider:

Nikon D70
Canon Digital Rebel

Confused? Check our list of the
Best Digital Cameras!

The Olympus E-300, also known as the Olympus EVOLT is the latest entry in a line of digital SLRs based on the "Four Thirds" standard developed jointly by Olympus and Kodak, first announced in fall of 2002. The first Four Thirds camera was the Olympus E-1 SLR, aimed at the professional market, but the new Olympus E-300 brings the Four Thirds system down to a price range accessible to amateur and "enthusiast" shooters. The new model uses the same lenses and sensor format as the original E-1, but offers an impressive 8-megapixel resolution, and will ship with a new ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-45mm lens.

Where the E-1 was a pretty conventional looking digital SLR, the new Olympus E-300 EVOLT has a more boxy design, resulting from its use of a Porro-type viewfinder system that does away with the large pentaprism/mirror bulge on the camera's top. Many functions and features are the same as on the E-1, including the unique "Supersonic Wave" filter that literally shakes dust off of the sensor chip, addressing a common problem with digital SLRs.

We were impressed with the rugged construction of the new Olympus E-300, and its solid feature list. It offers good image quality, with high resolution and smooth tonality, and as of this writing is the lowest-priced 8 megapixel digital SLR on the market. (The just-announced Canon Digital Rebel XT will carry the same retail price, but Olympus has given notice of its pricing intentions, in the form of a $100 rebate that went into effect just as we were updating this review to full production status, dropping the E-300's price well below that of the new Rebel.) Read on for a full description of the Olympus E-300's features, operating modes, and a detailed analysis of its performance.

High Points

 

Comparison with Nikon D70, Canon EOS Digital Rebel, and EOS 20D

Olympus E-300 vs Nikon D70 and Canon Digital Rebel, EOS-10D
Item
E-300 D70
Digital Rebel
EOS 20D
Imaging
System
Imaging Element/Effective Pixels CCD
8.15 Megapixels
8.0 effective
CCD,
6.24 Megapixels
6.1 effective
CMOS
6.5 Megapixels
6.3 effective
CMOS
8.8 Megapixels
8.25 effective
Effective Sensor Size 13.0 x 17.3mm 15.6 x 23.7mm 15.1 x 22.7mm 15.0 x 22.5mm
Picture angle reduction, vs 35mm frame Approx 2.0x Approx 1.5x Approx. 1.6x
Image Processor Not stated Not stated
DIGIC
DIGIC II
Viewfinder Type Eye-level Porro Mirror system Eye-level pentamirror Eye-level pentamirror Eye-level pentaprism
Coverage 94% 95% horizontally and vertically
Magnification (-1 diopter with 50mm lens at infinity) 1.0x 0.75x 0.8x 0.9x
Eyepoint 20mm 18mm 21mm 20mm
Dioptric Adjustment Range -3.0 to +1.0 diopter -1.6 to +0.5 diopter -3.0 to +1.0 diopter
Focusing Screen Fixed
(Matte with AF/Metering marks)
B-type BriteView clear matte screen Mark V, with on-demand grid lines Fixed, all-matte screen Fixed, "Precision Matte" screen
Viewfinder
Info Display
AF information (AF frame, focus confirmation), aperture value, shutter speed, exposure compensation amount, flash indicator, AE lock, white balance, metering mode, battery check, exposure mode, number of "storable sequential pictures" (not seen on prototype) AF information (AF points, focus confirmation, AF area mode, AE/AF lock indicator), exposure information (shutter speed, aperture value, manual exposure, AE/AF lock indicator, exposure level, flash exposure, exposure compensation indicator), flash-ready indicator, shots remaining, battery level AF information (AF points, focus confirmation light), exposure information (shutter speed, aperture value, manual exposure, AE lock, exposure level), flash information (flash ready, red-eye reduction lamp on, high-speed sync, FE lock), shots remaining, CF card information AF (AF points, focus confirmation light), exposure (shutter speed, aperture value, manual exposure, AE lock, exposure compensation amount, AEB level, AEB progress, partial metering area), flash (flash ready, red-eye reduction lamp on, high-speed sync, FE lock, flash exposure compensation amount, red-eye reduction lamp indicator), warnings (exposure warning, improper FE lock warning, CF card full warning, CF card error warning, no CF card warning, busy), maximum burst for continuous shooting, shots remaining
Depth of Field Preview Enabled with depth-of-field preview button
Recording
System
Recording Media/Quantity/Slot Type CF card/1 slot/Type I or II
Compatible File Formats FAT 16/32
Recording Formats RAW (ORF),
JPEG, TIFF
RAW (NEF), JPEG RAW (CRW), JPEG
Maximum Resolution 3,264 x 2,448 3,008 x 2,000 3,072 x 2,048 3,504 x 2,336
Reduced Resolutions (JPEG only) 3,200 x 2,400,
2,560 x 1,920,
1,600 x 1,200
1,280 x 960
1,024 x 768
640 x 480
2,240 x 1,488,
1,504 x 1,000
2,048 x 1,360,
1,356 x 1,024
2,544 x 1,696,
1,752 x 1,168
RAW + JPEG Recording Yes/Selectable JPEG resolution/compression Yes/Basic JPEG only
Yes/Middle Fine JPEG only, embedded in RAW
Yes/Selectable JPEG resolution/compression
Color Space &
White Balance
User-Selectable Color Space Yes
sRGB + Adobe RGB
Yes
sRGB (two variants) + Adobe RGB
Yes
sRGB + Adobe RGB
Yes
sRGB (two variants) + Adobe RGB
Processing Parameters
(Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation, Color Tone)/# of Increments
5 options each for sharpness, saturation, and contrast. Normal/Low/High-key Gradation adjustment, 6 options each for sharpness and contrast, 3 options for saturation. 7-step hue adjustment. Digital vari-programs preset various processing parameters as well, and color space III boosts saturation somewhat.
Yes/5
(Same as 10D, but new is default sets: one mimics 10D settings and one boosts contrast, saturation, and sharpening for snappier prints. This is the factory default setting)
Yes/6, including B&W / Monochrome, with five filter effects (none, yellow, orange, red and green) and five color tone options (none, sepia, blue, purple and green)
Preset WB settings 14 (Auto, Custom, plus 12 Kelvin Temperature settings correlated with common light sources, such as incandescent, various types of fluorescent, etc.) 6 (Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash) 9 ( Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, Manual Color Temperature Setting and Custom)
Manual Color Temperature Setting Range 2,000 ~ 10,000
(16 settings, varying increments)
(No Kelvin option, but very broad Preset WB range) None 2,800 ~ 10,000K
in 100K increments
WB Adjustment Range ±7 steps in 1-step increments, unknown step size ±3 steps in 1-step increments
10 mireds per step
±3 steps in 1-step increments
5 mireds per step
±2 steps in 1-step increments (personal white balance, custom parameter submenu);
±9 steps Color Temp compensation (2-axis adjustment)
Autofocus
System
Type TTL phase detection TTL phase detection by Nikon Multi-CAM900 autofocus module TTL-CT-SIR with a CMOS sensor
(TTL secondary image registration, phase detection)
# of Focusing Points (Focusing Point Type) / Superimposed Display 3 points / Yes 5 points / Yes 7 points (1 cross-type, 2 horizontal-type, 4 vertical-type) / Yes 9 points (1 cross-type, 8 single-axis)
AF Working Range EV 0 ~ 19 EV -1 ~ 19 EV 0.5 ~ 18 EV -0.5 ~ 18
AF-assist Beam With built-in flash unit, and on dedicated Olympus external flash units. Note: Only available when flash is enabled. Bright incandescent lamp, (Range approx. 3.0 m, 9.8 ft, depending on lens.) Not dependent on flash setting. Yes, stroboscopic flash (Range: Approx. 4.0m / 13.1ft. at center, approx. 3.5m/11.5ft. off-center) Note: Only available when flash is enabled.
One-shot AF Locked by first position of Shutter Button / OK Button (Customizable) Available in all modes Enabled in Portrait, Landscape, Close-up (Macro), Night Portrait, and A-DEP modes. Enabled in Portrait, Landscape, Close-up (Macro), Night Portrait, and A-DEP modes.
Se
lectable in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes.
AI Servo (Tracking) AF Available in Continuous AF Mode Available in all modes Enabled in Sports mode only. Enabled in Sports mode.
Selectable in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes.
AI Focus AF Predictive AF for moving subjects, but doesn't appear to track across AF areas. Slightly different, but closest-subject focus priority available in all modes Enabled in Full Auto, Flash Off, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes. Enabled in Full Auto and Flash Off modes.
Selectable in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes.
Exposure
Control
Shooting Modes 9 - Program, aperture-priority AE, shutter-priority AE, Manual, Portrait, Landcape, Close up, Sports, Night Landscape, plus:

14 Scene modes (Landscape, Landscape+Portrait, Night Scene, Night+Portrait, Fireworks, Sunset, Portrait, High Key, Macro, Documents, Museum, Sport, Beach & Snow, and Candle)
11 - Program, shutter-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, Manual, Auto, Portrait, Landcape, Close up, Sports, Night Landscape, Night Portrait. 12 - Program AE (Full Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, Flash Off, Program), shutter-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, depth-of-field AE, manual exposure, ETTL autoflash
Metering Zones (not stated) 1,005 35
Metering Modes Digital ESP (evaluative), center-weighted, spot 1) 3D color matrix metering with 1,005-pixel RGB sensor

(2) Center-weighted: Weight of 75% given to 6, 8, 10, or 13 mm dia. circle in center of frame

(3) Spot: Meters 2.3 mm dia. circle (about 1% of frame) centered on active focus area

Evaluative (linked to any AF point), center weighted average (set automatically in manual mode), 9% partial Evaluative (linked to any AF point), center weighted, 9% partial
Metering System Working Range Digital ESP/Center Weighted Average; EV 1 to 20
Spot; EV 3 to 17 (50mm F2, ISO 100)
1) EV 0 to 20 (3D color matrix or center-weighted metering)
2) EV 2 to 20 (spot metering) (ISO 100 equivalent, f/1.4 lens, 20°C/68°F)
EV 1 ~ 20
(ISO 100 equivalent, 50mm f/1.4 lens, 20°C/68°F)
ISO Range / Extended 100 ~ 400 Expandable to 800/1600 200 ~ 1600 100 ~ 1600 100 ~ 1600 / 3200
Exposure Compensation +/- 5EV in 1, 1/2 or 1/3EV increments +/- 5EV in 1/2 or 1/3EV increments (can be combined with AEB) +/- 2EV in 1/3EV increments (can be combined with AEB) +/- 2EV in 1/2 or 1/3EV increments (can be combined with AEB)
Automatic Exposure Bracketing 3 Frames in +/- 1, 1/2, or 1/3 EV step (selectable 2 or 3 shots, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 or 1 EV steps +/- 2EV in 1/3EV increments +/- 2EV in 1/2 or 1/3EV increments
Shutter Speeds,
Frame Rate, Shutter Lag
Shutter Type Mechanical Focal Plane, electronically controlled Combined mechanical and CCD electronic shutter Mechanical, all speeds electronically controlled
Shutter Speed Range 30 to 1/4000 s, 1/3, 1/2, 1EV step selectable, bulb 30 to 1/8000 s in steps of 1/3 or 1/2 EV, bulb 1/4000 ~ 30 sec. (1/3EV increments) and bulb 1/8000 ~ 30 sec. (1/2 or 1/3EV increments) and bulb
Maximum Frames Per Second/Buffer depth 2.58 fps / 4 frames (JPEG large/fine) 2.92 fps / unlimited (JPEG large/normal, with fast card) 2.5 fps / 4 frames 4.8 fps / 31 frames JPEG or 6 frames RAW/RAW+JPEG
Shutter lag, full AF 0.36-0.37 0.34-0.49 0.25-0.28 0.15-0.16
Shutter lag, prefocus 0.100 0.124 0.142 0.077
Startup time 2.1 sec ~ Zero 3.09 sec 0.25 sec
Flash Built-in Flash / Guide Number at ISO 100. Yes (13 meters / 43 feet) Yes (11 meters / 36 feet) Yes (13 meters / 43 feet)
Max flash x-sync speed. 1/180 1/500 (!) 1/200 1/250
Flash Exposure Compensation +/- 2 EV in each 1, 1/2, or 1/3 EV steps -3 to +1 EV, 1/3 or 1/2 EV steps No +/- 2EV in 1/2 or 1/3EV increments
Slow-sync flash 1st or 2nd curtain 1st or 2nd curtain 1st curtain only 1st or 2nd curtain
TTL flash TTL Auto FP/TTL Auto for Olympus Dedicated Flash (internal and/or external) i-TTL autoflash with internal or external SB-600 or SB-800 speedlights E-TTL autoflash with internal or external EX-series speedlites E-TTL II autoflash with internal or external EX-series speedlites
PC Sync Terminal Hot shoe only Hot shoe only Hot shoe only Yes, plus hot shoe as well
Playback
System
LCD Size / Pixel Count 1.8 in LCD / 134,000 pixels 1.8 in LCD / 130,000 pixels 1.8 in. LCD / 118,000 pixels
Enlarged Playback / Scroll 2, 3, 4, 10x 1.1 ~ 4.7x in 10 steps / Yes 1.5~10x in 15 steps / Yes
LCD Monitor Brightness Adjustment Range 7 steps 5 steps
Automatic Rotation for Vertical Shots No Yes Yes
Other Features USB Connection Yes, PTP-compliant (v2.0 standard, v1.1 max speed) Yes, PTP-compliant (v2.0 standard, v1.1 max speed) Yes, PTP-compliant, USB v 1.1 Yes, PTP-compliant, USB v 2.0
Direct Printing (PictBridge-compliant printers) (unknown) Yes Yes Yes
In-camera editing of images from RAW files. Yes (sharpness, contrast, saturation) No No No
Menu Languages 2 (English, Japanese) - More coming in production models? 10 (Japanese, German, English, Spanish, French, Korean, Italian, Simplified Chinese, Dutch, Swedish) 12 (English, German, French, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Simplified Chinese, and Japanese.)
Camera Default Reset Yes
Custom Functions (Quantity / Settings) No Yes (9 or 25) No Yes (18)
Remote Control Optional IR Optional, Compatible with Remote Switch RS-60E3, Remote Controller RC-5 / RC-1 Optional, N3-type remote control
LCD Panel Illumination n/a Yes (dedicated button)
Ultrasonic CCD dust-removal function Yes No
Text Comments No Yes, stored in EXIF headers No
Body Structure Body Cover/Chassis Metal Alloy Largely Plastic Largely Plastic Magnesium Alloy/Stainless Steel
Power System Battery Compatibility BLM-1 EN-EL3,
CR2 pack
(3 cells)
Main: BP-511 / BP-512
Backup: CR2016
Main: BP-511 / BP-512
Backup: CR2025
Rated Shooting Capacity at 20C/68F CIPA: 400 100%AE: 2000
50% Flash: 400
100% AE: 600
50% Flash: 400
100% AE: 650
50% Flash: 500
Dimensions & Weight Dimensions (WxHxD,mm) 146 x 85 x 64 140 x 111 x 78 142 x 99 x 72.9 149.7 x 107.5 x 75
Weight 580g/20.5 oz
(body only)
595g/21 oz (body only) 560g/19.7 oz. (body only) 653g/23.0 oz (with battery & card) 685g/24.2 oz. (body only)
Lens Compatibility Lens Mount / Compatibility 4/3 System Mount
  1. DX Nikkor: All functions supported;
  2. Type G- or D-AF Nikkor: All functions supported;
  3. Micro Nikkor 85mm F2.8D: All functions supported except some exposure modes;
  4. Other AF Nikkor (excluding lenses for F3AF): All functions supported except 3D Color Matrix Metering, i-TTL balanced Fill-Flash for digital SLR;
  5. AI-P Nikkor: All functions supported except 3D Color Matrix Metering, i-TTL balanced Fill-Flash for digital SLR and autofocus;
  6. Non-CPU: Can be used in exposure mode M, but exposure meter does not function; electronic range finder can be used if maximum aperture is f/5.6 or faster.
  7. IX Nikkor Lenses cannot be used.
EF / All EOS lenses, plus Digital Rebel specific EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens EF / All EOS lenses, EF-S digital-specific lenses


User Report

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.

 

Design

The largest of Olympus' consumer-oriented digicams, the EVOLT E-300 is a true digital SLR, designed to please the serious photographer, but without completely alienating the novice. Featuring an interchangeable lens mount, a host of exposure controls (including full manual exposure control), and a wide range of 14 preset exposure modes, the E-300 is a capable option for those amateurs looking for a meatier camera, but who aren't willing to shell out the big bucks on a pro level digital SLR. A plastic and aluminum body surrounds the E-300's aluminum die-cast chassis, which weights in at a hefty 1.39 pounds (634 grams) for just the camera body, with CF card and battery. (This is slightly heavier than Canon's Digital Rebel, but lighter than the EOS-20D, or Nikon's D70.) With the 14-45mm lens, the EVOLT's total mass comes to 2.05 pounds (933 grams). Measuring 5.8 x 3.4 x 2.5 inches (147 x 85 x 64 millimeters), the E-300 is far from tiny, but its larger size accommodates a reasonable handgrip that's comfortable to hold if a little shallow.

The EVOLT's control layout is more like those of its competitors than anything in Olympus's recent past, with a vertical array of buttons left of the LCD, a mode dial and power switch on top, and a command dial and AE/AF and Focus point selector buttons next to the thumb rest. The large Mode dial on top of the camera accesses the main exposure modes, plus a few of the more commonly used Scene modes, and a wide selection of external controls is useful for changing camera settings without the LCD menu. However, the E-300 does lack the small status display panel used on most d-SLRs to report camera settings. The optical viewfinder does feature a helpful information readout though, and the optional status display, activated by pressing the INFO button, on the camera's rear-panel color LCD is among the best we've seen. A truly unique Supersonic Wave Filter prevents dust from accumulating on the CCD while changing lenses, something we'd love to see other camera manufacturers adopt. The E-300 features a 8.0-megapixel (effective) CCD, which delivers a maximum image size of 3,264 x 2,448 pixels. This is enough resolution to print quality images as large as 16 x 20 inches, or to 11 x 17 with cropping.

The front of the Olympus E-300 features the lens mount, self-timer LED / IR remote sensor window, and the lens release button. The medium-sized handgrip is covered with a textured, leathery material that helps improve hold, though it could have been sculpted with a bit more depth. The grip also has a fairly sharp ridge on the front of it, which does improve your fingers' purchase on it.

Visible on the right side of the camera is the Compact Flash compartment, as well as one of the eyelets for attaching the neck strap. Notably absent is any support for the company's own standard memory format: xD Picture Cards. (Really not too surprising in a high-end camera of this sort, as xD cards are really more of a consumer-oriented media format.) The media compartment opens from the rear panel, with a hinged, hard-plastic door that snaps shut securely.

On the opposite side of the camera is the second neck strap eyelet, as well as two connector compartments. The lower compartment houses the DC In terminal, while the larger compartment above it houses the USB and Video Out ports. Both compartments are protected by flexible, rubbery flaps tethered to the camera. Also visible on this side is the diopter adjustment on the left side of the optical viewfinder eyepiece.

The Olympus E-300's top panel has just a few controls on it, including the Shutter button, Power switch, and the Mode and Control dials. Also on the top panel are the sliding, pop-up flash unit and external flash hot shoe. A small SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) LED lights blue whenever the camera is powered on, indicating that the filter is operating.

The majority of the Olympus E-300's controls are on the rear panel, and are clearly and logically laid out. A series of buttons lines the left side of the 1.8-inch LCD monitor, and includes the Flash, White Balance, Quality (resolution and compression), Erase, and Info buttons. The four-way arrow pad serves multiple functions depending on the camera's operating mode, and is adjacent to the right of the display. Starting with the "up" arrow and moving clockwise, the Arrow Pad buttons double as Exposure Compensation, AF, ISO, and Metering buttons. A small OK button is down to the right of the Arrow Pad, and also controls the write protection function in Playback mode. Adjacent to the top right corner of the LCD display are the Menu and Playback buttons, with the AE Lock and AF Area Selector buttons in the top right-hand corner. A mechanical Flash Release button is next to the pop-up flash compartment for releasing the flash into its operating position. The optical viewfinder eyepiece is surrounded by a rubbery cup that won't scratch eyeglasses when closed, and features a dioptric adjustment dial on its left side to correct the view. (The soft eyecup is necessary, as I often found myself having to press my eyeglasses against it to see the full viewfinder frame.) Also on the rear panel is a small LED next to the CompactFlash compartment door that lights whenever the camera is accessing the card (meaning you shouldn't remove it).

The bottom of the camera holds the battery compartment cover and a metal screw-mount tripod socket. The tripod socket is just far enough from the battery compartment to make battery changes easy when mounted on a tripod, something I always notice given the extensive amount of studio shooting I do. The battery compartment door features a sliding lock to keep it (and the battery) in place, though no internal secondary latch prevents the battery from falling free when the door is open. Dropped batteries don't work well, and many die altogether, so beware.

 

Viewfinder

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The Olympus E-300 is a true digital SLR design, meaning that the optical viewfinder presents the view directly from the lens. The rear panel, "Advanced Super View" 1.8-inch, TFT color LCD screen is just for menu and image review. The optical viewfinder accommodates eyeglass wearers with a diopter correction adjustment and a reasonably high eyepoint, leaving a modest amount of room between your eye and the finder for eyeglass lenses to fit in, although as I mentioned earlier, I generally found myself pressing my own eyeglasses up against the rubber eyecup.

Fixed in the center of the viewfinder display are central autofocus and exposure targets, but an information display lines the right side of the frame area. This (slightly cryptic) display reports basic camera settings, including aperture, shutter speed, focus confirmation, flash mode, white balance, AE lock, exposure compensation, metering mode, battery level, and the current exposure mode.

As mentioned earlier, the Olympus E-300 doesn't have the usual top-panel data readout for displaying camera settings separately from the LCD viewfinder. What it does have is one of the nicest LCD-based camera-status displays I've yet seen. This screen appears in capture mode when you press the Info button at the lower left corner of the camera's rear panel. It shows current exposure settings (whenever the shutter button is half-pressed), main exposure mode, exposure bias and metering mode, focus mode, drive mode, image size/quality setting, ISO, White Balance and color mode settings. Saturation, contrast, and sharpness settings, and the number of shots remaining on the memory card at the current file settings. Very nice.


When using the LCD monitor to review captured images, you can zoom in up to 10x on displayed images by turning the Command dial, and then scroll around the enlarged image using the arrow buttons. This is very handy for small details, or precise framing, and the 10x magnification is enough that you can actually check focus in the LCD display. Another handy feature with the EVOLT's playback enlargement option is that you can check which portion of the image you've enlarged by pressing the Info button during enlarged playback. The full image is then displayed, with a green box highlighting the enlarged area. There's also an Index display option which shows 4, 9, or 16 images at a time, by rotating the Command dial toward the Index position (left).


Pressing the Info button during normal image playback scrolls through a range of information and image display modes. The default display is of the image only, without any information. One press of the Info button shows the image with a limited information screen (battery level, quality setting, DPOF, filename, and image sequence number), while a second press increases the information overlay to include the date and time of capture, and resolution). A third press of the Info button eliminates the information overlay, except for quality setting, and instead overlays a histogram for checking the tonal values. Pressing the button one more time only displays the image with the quality setting, with the blown-out highlights flashing white to black to reveal areas of overexposure. The final press shows a thumbnail of the image with more detailed shooting information, including the AF point used to determine focus, indicated with a red box over the selected area.

Like some other Olympus digicams, the E-300 also offers the ability to resize your images post-exposure, to create smaller versions more suitable for emailing. An image editing menu option lets you change the color mode to black and white or sepia, also post-capture.


 

Optics

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The Olympus E-300 is equipped with an interchangeable lens mount that accommodates the full range of Olympus ZUIKO DIGITAL lenses. A lens release button on the lower right side of the front panel releases the lens from the mount, and a set of alignment marks on the mount itself helps you line up the lens appropriately. Because the camera is compatible with a range of lenses, focal lengths and aperture ranges will vary with the lens in use.


  

At the introduction of Olympus's original Four Thirds camera, the E-1, the Zuiko Digital lens system offered a variety of focal lengths, including 50mm and 300mm lengths, and two zoom lenses (14 - 54mm and 50 - 200mm). A 1.4x teleconverter was also available. Since then, Olympus has expanded their lens line considerably, to now include a 11 - 22mm f/2.8 - 3.5 wide zoom, a 40 - 150mm f/3.5 - 4.5 zoom, and a 150mm f/2.0 (!) telephoto. All of these early lenses were very much aimed at the professional market, with features, optics, build quality, and prices to match. With the introduction of the E-300 EVOLT, Olympus has also brought out a 14 - 45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that's quite a bit more affordable.

Note that the 22.3mm diagonal dimension of the sensor translates into a 1.94x focal-length multiplier relative to 35mm cameras. For the sake of easy math though, Olympus and most reviewers (ourselves included) simply refer to it as a 2x ratio. This means that the focal lengths mentioned above should all be multiplied by two to arrive at the equivalent focal lengths in the 35mm film world. That makes the bundled 14 - 45mm lens equivalent to 28 - 90mm lens (using the literal 1.94x multiplier, it's 27.16 - 87.30mm).

Olympus has for some time insisted that the three-dimensional structure of CCD sensors demand a radically different lens design for optimum performance. Their E10 and E20 fixed-lens SLRs embodied such a design, in which additional optical elements collimated the light, insuring that light from the subject would strike the CCD surface perpendicularly across its entire surface. By contrast, with conventional lenses, light from the subject strikes the film or sensor plane at an increasingly oblique angle, as you move toward the edges of the image circle. (See the illustration above right, courtesy of Olympus.) Depending on the sensor design, this varying angle of incidence can cause problems in one of two ways. If the sensor employs microlenses to concentrate light on each pixel's active area, changes in the angle of incidence can lead to unwanted optical effects due to diffraction by the microlenses themselves. On the other hand, if no microlenses are used, collection efficiency is lower, and the decidedly three-dimensional structure of the CCD's surface can result in some of the light being shadowed from the active silicon surface by surrounding surface structures on the chip. Either case results in imperfect coupling of the light to the sensor elements.

In Olympus' "Digital Specific" lenses, an extra group of optical elements collimates the light (makes all the rays parallel), so it impinges on the CCD at right angles to its surface all across the frame.

Actually, Olympus has done a number of things in the design of their lenses for the Four Thirds system to improve image quality. To call attention to the extent of these design improvements, they've branded them as "Zuiko Digital (tm)" lenses. (I'm told that Zuiko means "Light of the Gods," presumably in Japanese.) In addition to the special "digital specific" design described above, Zuiko Digital lenses also incorporate improvements in lens molding and polishing accuracy, multi-coating, centering of the lens elements within the mounting system, increased use of ED glass and aspheric elements, and dual-sided aspheric elements, the latter of which Olympus claims as an industry exclusive. The actual impact of these enhancements remains to be seen (if/as/whenever I manage to find time to test both Zuiko and third-party optics on an EVOLT or other Four Thirds camera), but the promise is that Zuiko Digital lenses will have better resolution, color rendering, and flare characteristics than even the best conventional designs. The 14-45mm "kit" lens that's bundled with the EVOLT shows moderate barrel distortion at the wide angle end of its range, but has surprisingly little chromatic aberration and excellent corner sharpness for an inexpensive optic.

Another area in which the Olympus E-300 EVOLTs capabilities exceed the general run of d-SLRs out there has to do with the in-camera lens-correction processing that it's inherited from the E-1. One of the biggest innovations embodied in the Zuiko Digital lenses is that they also support a greater degree of communication between lens and camera than has heretofore been the case, with some interesting consequences. Olympus claims that part of this increased communication will benefit autofocus speed and exposure determination, although they haven't said how this might work. It does appear though, that Zuiko Digital lenses pass information about their optical characteristics to the camera body, including information on geometric distortion. In the pro-oriented E-1 SLR, this information can be used to correct light falloff in the corners of the frame, via a menu option called "Shading Compensation." (For those of you unfamiliar with the term "shading," this phenomena is almost universally, if erroneously, referred to as "vignetting.") Based on a conversation with Olympus, the E-300 apparently always performs this correction in-camera, rather than providing it via a menu option. Perhaps more interesting though, is that the data about geometric distortion that's captured by the camera body is written into its RAW files, so the Olympus Master software can correct for such lens defects after the fact, back on a host computer. The result can be very low distortion with relatively inexpensive lenses. (To the best of our knowledge though, only the Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses offer this capability: Third-party Four Thirds format lenses do not.)

The Olympus E-300 employs a three-point TTL Phase Difference Detection autofocus system, and the three AF points are outlined in black in the viewfinder display. Pressing the AF Area Selection button on the rear panel lets you manually select which of the AF points you'd like to base focus on, or set the AF area to automatic selection (all three AF points active). The AF button on the rear panel lets you select Manual, Single AF, or Continuous AF modes. There's also an option for Single AF + Manual Focus. When manual focus is enabled, you simply turn the focus ring around the outside of the lens to set focus. The focus indicator in the optical viewfinder (a solid green circle) lights to indicate that you've achieved accurate focus. Note that this is not a true mechanical or analog focus, however. Turning the ring simply activates the camera's focus mechanism, actuating the focus motor built into the lens. Single AF mode means that the camera only sets the autofocus when the Shutter button is halfway pressed, while Continuous AF mode continuously adjusts the focus without you having to halfway hold down the shutter release (good for moving subjects). Continuous AF uses what Olympus calls Predictive AF technology, in that the camera anticipates where the subject will move to next and adjusts focus just before it reaches that point. As far as we could tell from the operation of the prototype sample we received for this review though, the Predictive AF doesn't involve following an active subject from one AF region to another, but rather simply predicts whether a subject under a single AF point is approaching or receding The mode combining Single AF and Manual focus tells the camera to set focus with a half press of the Shutter button, but leaves the manual focus ring active so that you can fine tune the setting before pressing the shutter button the rest of the way to trip the shutter..

The Olympus E-300 also lets you tell it whether to adhere to focus- or release-priority. In focus-priority mode, the shutter won't fire unless the subject is properly focused. Conversely, release-priority means that the shutter will fire whenever you tell it to, whether the subject is focused or not. In a nice touch, the E-300 lets you determine select focus or release priority independently for single-shot and continuous shooting modes. (I can imagine myself wanting to insist on focus priority for single shots, but preferring release priority for continuous shooting, to let the camera just take its best shot at tracking a moving subject, perhaps settling for slightly misfocused images, rather than missing the shot entirely.)

Though aperture settings will differ depending on the lens in use, the EVOLT does feature a Depth of Field Preview button that stops down the lens to the set aperture when pressed. Common on most high-end SLRs, this lets you focus with the lens wide open for a bright viewfinder image, and then preview depth of field by momentarily stopping down to the shooting aperture.

An AF illuminator option can be turned on through the camera's Record menu, to help the camera's AF system determine focus in dark shooting conditions. The camera actually uses light from the flash as the AF illuminator, so the flash must be upright and enabled for this option to be available. Though our prototype unit couldn't, the final version of the Olympus EVOLT will fire the flash for AF assist even while the flash itself is off; that is, it must still be deployed, but you can still take a long exposure sans flash.

Third-Party Four Thirds-System Lenses
One of the drawbacks to the original E-1 system was the high cost of the Olympus Zuiko Digital-Specific lenses. While of very high quality and not dramatically higher-priced than pro-grade lenses from manufacturers like Nikon and Canon, their cost could put the whole E-1 system out of reach for even well-heeled amateur photographers. (Or pros with limited budgets, for that matter.) For quite a while after the E-1's announcement and retail availability, there was no option in the marketplace for E-1 lenses other than Olympus' own offerings. Olympus is now moving to correct this issue, with the announcement of their own 14-45mm optic that I mentioned above. In Spring of 2004 though, Sigma announced Four Thirds-compatible lenses at CeBit. Sigma's announcement covered three lenses, an 18-50mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a 55-200mm f/4-5.6 zoom, and an 18-125mm(!) f/3.5-5.6 zoom. As of this writing (early Spring, 2005), Sigma has announced additional "DC" lenses, including a 10-20mm ultrawide zoom lens, an 18-50mm f/2.8, an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom, and a 30mm f/1.4 fixed focal length model. (This last is particularly interesting. The 30mm focal length corresponds to 50mm focal length considered "normal" for 35mm film cameras when it's used on most d-SLRs, or a 60mm equivalent on the Olympus E-300. What's significant is that this is the first significantly new optical formulation for a "normal" lens to hit the market in many years, taking advantage of modern lens design and technology. Sigma is well-known for producing optically sharp lenses at very attractive prices, and these Four Thirds models appear to be no exception. With an independent lens manufacturer now making lenses, the Four Thirds system has taken a big step forward toward being a true multi-vendor standard. (All that's missing now is for another manufacturer to produce a Four Thirds camera body.)

"Supersonic Wave Filter (tm)" Automatic Sensor Cleaning
Here's a feature that made me sit up and take notice: Built-in ultrasonic sensor cleaning! This was first introduced on the E-1 SLR, and has been carried forward to the E-300, despite the latter's greatly reduced cost. This is a feature that's hard to evaluate in any sort of a rigorous, quantitative way, but that appears to work quite well, based on subjective observation.

Dust has proven to be a bane for digital SLR users from the beginning. In film cameras, the imaging surface (the film) is constantly refreshed as each new frame is advanced. Any dust that might accumulate on one frame will thus not affect subsequent ones. In digital SLRs though, the sensor surface is fixed, so any dust falling on it tends to stay there, the surface becoming increasingly dirty over time. Various accessories are available to clean CCD surfaces, but their use presents an ongoing risk of accident. (That is, while the cleaning gadgets themselves may be perfectly safe, every time you open your SLR and start sticking things inside the camera body, there's a finite risk that you'll do something stupid and damage the sensor chip.)

In the E-1 and now the EVOLT, every time the camera is turned on (or commanded to do so via a separate menu setting), an ultrasonic system activates, vibrating the protective cover glass over the sensor at a frequency of 350,000 cycles/second, thereby dislodging any dust particles that may have settled on the sensor's surface. (Dislodged dust is collected and trapped in an internal receptacle, so it won't float around the mirror compartment to cause more problems down the line.) A full cleaning cycle takes only 200 milliseconds. (0.2 seconds) As noted, I don't have any way to objectively measure the effectiveness of this system, but can say that I've seen virtually no evidence of dust on the sensor throughout my testing and use of both the original E-1 and now the new EVOLT.

To set appropriate expectations for Olympus' Supersonic Wave Filter system, it's important to note that it almost certainly won't be effective against grease smudges caused by fingerprints. - So continue to be careful about putting your fingers inside the mirror compartment when the sensor is exposed.

Image Sensor
The sensor chip used in the EVOLT calls for special comment as well, although the test results I obtained from a production-level E-1 model (which uses the same basic sensor technology) lead me to wonder slightly whether the special attention is in fact deserved. Its claims to fame should be lower noise and increased dynamic range, but there are a lot of system-level factors that can affect noise levels and dynamic range, regardless of sensor characteristics.

The Four Thirds initiative is a joint effort by three companies: Olympus, Kodak, and Fuji. We haven't heard anything about Fuji's possible plans yet, but Kodak was clearly a major partner of Olympus in the E-1 and now in the EVOLT, as it's their sensors that are used in both cameras. Kodak was a dominant player in the early digital SLR market, thanks largely to their advanced sensor technology. Now, with the advent of Four Thirds and their participation in the E-1 and EVOLT with Olympus, they appear poised to regain significant market share for their chips. While Kodak has recently struggled in the SLR marketplace, their CCD sensor technology has historically been second to none: Kodak's specs for quantum efficiency, electron capacity, and thermal noise levels are thoroughly state of the art. They also have a very well-developed design base and semiconductor manufacturing process for creating "full-frame" CCDs, which have considerable inherent advantages over the more common interline-transfer designs used in most digital cameras currently on the market.

While considerably more difficult to manufacture than interline sensors, the full-frame design potentially provides better light sensitivity and a significantly improved signal to noise ratio. This is because almost 100% of the silicon's surface area is available for light collection, since the charge transfer off-chip occurs in the sensing elements themselves. By contrast, in an interline-transfer CCD design, the charge-transfer registers are located alongside the photodiodes, consuming considerable silicon real estate. This also means that frame-tranfer CCDs have less need for the "microlenses" commonly used with interline-transfer chips to improve light collection efficiency, although it turns out that the sensor on the Olympus E-300 still uses them to concentrate light on the area of each pixel with the best light sensitivity.

The electronic structure of full-frame CCDs also results in a much higher "saturation voltage" than that of equivalent interline-transfer designs. Combined with the low thermal noise that characterizes Kodak's chips, the overall result is that the CCDs used in the E-1 and EVOLT should have nearly twice the dynamic range of competing interline-transfer units, with the same pixel dimensions. (Dynamic range is the range of light to dark values that can accurately be recorded.) Note though, the emphasis placed on the issue of pixel dimensions in the previous statement. The combination of smaller overall sensor dimensions (which result in the 2.0x focal length multiplier, vs the 1.5-1.6x that's more common in competing d-SLR models) and 8 megapixel resolution means that the pixels in the EVOLT's CCD chip are rather small, with a 5.4 micron pitch.

In our testing of the Olympus E-300 EVOLT, we found that its image noise levels were higher than those of competing d-SLRs having the larger APS-sized sensors, but not dramatically so. (Image noise at ISO 1600 was markedly higher, but that also appears to be at least partly due to the rather conservative anti-noise processing that Olympus uses, the engineers apparently having chosen to preserve more subject detail at high ISO, at the cost of somewhat higher noise. - A choice that I personally prefer.) It's not clear whether it's a consequence of the frame-transfer design or not, but the image noise in high-ISO images from the EVOLT has a rather fine "grain structure," which makes it less objectionable than it might be otherwise.

The net of all this is that Kodak's frame transfer technology seems to just about make up for the smaller pixel dimensions that result from the smaller sensor dimensions of the Four Thirds standard, and higher pixel count used in the E-300. I'd like to see somewhat lower overall noise at ISO 1600, but would probably find the noise levels I did encounter there acceptable for situations where the resulting images would be printed at smaller sizes. (Say, 5x7 or below.)


Exposure

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The Olympus E-300 EVOLT offers a full range of exposure control modes, including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes, as well as 14 "scene" modes that preset exposure and color parameters for shooting in specific situations. The Scene modes make the camera easy to use for novices, while the other options provide the flexibility demanded by more advanced users. All capture modes are set by rotating the Mode dial on top of the camera.

In Program mode, the camera is in charge of the aperture and shutter speed, while you control the remaining exposure options such as ISO, metering, and white balance. Program mode also provides access to the exposure compensation adjustment, which lets you adjust the camera's automatically determined exposure setting by plus or minus five exposure equivalent (EV) units, in steps of 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0 EV. (You can specify the level of adjustment through the Setup menu.) Aperture Priority lets you set the aperture (the available range depends on the lens attached), leaving the camera to automatically determine the appropriate shutter speed. In Shutter Priority, you can select shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, with the camera selecting the corresponding aperture setting. The Manual exposure option lets you control both aperture and shutter speed yourself, and the shutter speed range also includes a Bulb setting for variable length exposures as long as 30 seconds. In common with other Olympus cameras, a handy feature of the Manual mode is that, as you scroll through the various exposure settings, the camera indicates whether it thinks your chosen setting will produce a correct exposure. It does this by flashing the exposure differential (the difference between your settings and what the camera metering system thinks is correct) in green on the viewfinder display, up to a limit of +/- 5EV. Another useful feature is that in any of the main exposure modes (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual), you can press the OK button for a depth of field preview display in the optical viewfinder. This feature has to be manually enabled in the Setup Menu.

The 14 scene modes include Landscape, Landscape Portrait, Night Scene, Night Portrait, Fireworks, Sunset, Portrait, High Key, Macro, Documents, Museum, Sport, Beach & Snow, and Candle modes, which optimize the camera for specific shooting situations. The five most commonly used scene settings also have places on the Mode dial, and include Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, and Night Scene. (A sixth Scene setting provides access to all 14 modes.) In Portrait mode, the Olympus EVOLT uses a larger lens aperture, reducing depth of field to throw distracting background elements out of focus. Landscape mode keeps foreground and background in focus, adjusting the camera's color handling to emphasize blue and green hues in the image (producing more intense foliage and sky colors). The Macro setting is for shooting as close as 11.8 to 20.0 inches (30 to 50 centimeters) to a small subject. Sports mode biases the exposure system toward faster shutter speeds, to help freeze fast-moving subjects. Night Scene employs slower shutter speeds, allowing more ambient light into the image. Limited menu options are available in the scene modes, as their purpose is to simplify camera setup for novices. (A multitude of menu choices would only add complication to what are intended to be easy-to-use camera settings.)

The Olympus E-300 lets you adjust its light sensitivity, with options of 100, 200, or 400 ISO equivalents, or to an Auto mode in which the camera selects an ISO appropriate to the subject's brightness. You can also enable "boosted" ISOs through the Record menu, allowing 800 and 1,600 equivalents. The higher ISO settings are helpful when you want faster shutter speeds under normal lighting, to help freeze fast action. Of course, as with all digicams, the higher ISO settings produce photos with more image noise, in much the same way that higher-ISO films show more film grain. To combat this problem, the E-300 offers a Noise Reduction option through the Record menu, which reduces the amount of image noise from long exposures, particularly at the higher ISO settings. (As mentioned above, this First Look review contains no comment on the EVOLT's noise performance, pending tests of a production-level camera.)

Three metering systems are available on the E-300: Center-Weighted, Spot, and Digital ESP. All three are accessed through the Metering button on the camera's back panel. Under the default Digital ESP setting, the camera takes an exposure reading from the center of the image as well as the surrounding area and chooses the best exposure based on brightness and contrast across the entire scene. Spot metering simply reads the exposure from the very center of the image, so you can pinpoint the specific area of the photograph you want properly exposed. (Spot metering is very handy when you have a subject that's backlit, or that has a very different brightness, either lighter or darker, than the background.) Center-Weighted metering also reads from the center of the frame, but from a larger area.

An AE Lock button locks the current exposure settings whenever pressed, so you can independently lock exposure and focus. (AE Lock is useful when you want to base your exposure on an off-center subject. Point the camera at the subject, lock the exposure, then recompose your shot however you like. Your subject will be correctly exposed, regardless of what might be in the center of the frame when you finally snap the shutter.) Through the Setup menu, you can designate whether the camera automatically chooses the metering mode for AE Lock, or you can set it to Digital ESP, Spot, or Center-Weighted.

While the Olympus E-300 EVOLT's metering was generally quite accurate, we for a while were tearing our (figurative) hair with its ESP metering mode. The problems we encountered were with fairly severe underexposure in our standard "Far Field" shot of the house with the bright white paint on its bay window, and in some portrait shots Shawn did of his daughter, who was wearing a white shirt at the time. Our initial suspicion was that the camera was simply over-reacting to strong highlights, whenever they occupied more than a small percentage of the frame. We later discovered that other shots with strong highlights elsewhere in the frame didn't trigger the underexposure problem. The bottom line is that it seems that Olympus' "ESP" evaluative metering mode pays a lot of attention to the center of the frame, at least when there's a really strong highlight there. We found that this over-reaction to central highlights made it hard to guess how the camera would respond to any shot of that sort. When shooting his daughter in "green" mode with the camera, Shawn found that the exposure varied pretty radically as he simply zoomed in on her, as the white shirt became more prominent in the frame. Overall, this probably shouldn't be considered a fatal flaw in the camera (using the exposure lock button to set the exposure with the highlight slightly to one side of center is pretty easy to do), but it's definitely something to be aware of any time you're shooting a scene with a bright highlight somewhere near the center of the frame.

In situations where exposure compensation is necessary, simply press the Exposure Compensation button and turn the Command dial (in all exposure modes except Manual) and the EV value will display on the LCD monitor. You can increase or decrease the exposure in either 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0-step increments (selected via a menu option), up to a maximum of +/- 5 EV. Or, you can use the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function to automatically bracket an exposure in three-step increments of either 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0 EV units each. The auto bracketing will center its efforts around whatever exposure you've chosen as the starting point, including any exposure compensation adjustments you've made. AEB is handy for those times when you want to make sure you get just the right exposure for a critical subject.

White balance options include Auto, Tungsten, Incandescent, White Fluorescent, Neutral White Fluorescent, Daylight Fluorescent, Outdoors, Cloudy, Shade, and Custom, to accommodate a variety of lighting situations. Pressing the White Balance button and turning the Command dial adjusts the setting, and the Kelvin temperature is displayed in the LCD monitor. The E-300 offers a Custom setting, and you can save as many as four custom settings for several specific light sources. You can also adjust the white balance, adding either more red or more blue. This ability to "tweak" the white balance is very helpful when dealing with difficult light sources. The E-300 also features a white balance bracketing setting, accessed through the Drive menu. If activated, the camera will take three successive images, the first biased toward red, the second at the neutral setting, and the third biased toward blue. You can set the images to vary by two, four, or six arbitrary adjustment steps.

The Olympus E-300 also offers a Self-Timer for self-portraits or those occasions when you don't want to risk camera shake on a long exposure by pressing the Shutter button to trip the shutter. You can choose between a two- or 12-second countdown. The two-second countdown is useful for times when you're taking a long exposure with the camera on a tripod, and you want to minimize any camera shake from pressing the Shutter button. The Drive setting also accesses the Remote Control modes, for use with the optional IR remote.

There are also options on the Record menu to set the in-camera image sharpening, contrast, and saturation, in arbitrary units from Lo to Hi. In addition, the Olympus E-300 has a Gradation setting to control the brightness of the entire image. You can choose between the Normal, Low, and High Key settings. A color space option under the Record menu lets you choose between sRGB (for Windows machines) and Adobe RGB (for Adobe Photoshop) color options. Finally, the Monochrome menu option offers Black and White and Sepia shooting modes.

Sequential Shooting Mode
The E-300 offers a Sequential mode that mimics the motor drive on a film camera, recording as many as 12 images at about three frames per second when you hold down the Shutter button. As is usually the case, the number of frames you can capture quickly is limited by the camera's buffer memory capacity and the frame rate is determined by the file size.

Hands On
In our shooting with it, we felt that the Olympus E-300's exposure system was a little too concerned about preserving highlight detail. When confronted with any significant area of strong highlight in the scene, it dialed down the exposure to preserve detail in the highlight areas. This is a fairly common characteristic of the exposure systems of professional SLRs, as it means that the camera will do its best to avoid losing any detail anywhere in the frame. Pros are accustomed to tweaking every photo manually, post-exposure, so dark images with well-preserved highlight detail are bread and butter to them. For amateurs though, many of the E-300's images of subjects with strong highlights will look very dark when shot with the camera's default exposure settings, and the degree to which the camera reacts to even relatively small areas of highlight made it hard for us to predict just how the camera was going to respond in any given situation. We're quite accustomed to looking at a high-key scene (e.g., beach, snow, an expanse of concrete in the sun, etc) and knowing that we'll need to dial in +0.7-1.0 EV of exposure compensation to brighten up the scene. With the EVOLT though, we found ourselves having to use significant exposure compensation at times when we really weren't expecting to. The EVOLT's strong reaction to highlights is not technically in error: As noted, pros would almost certainly prefer this sort of exposure response. For amateur (and even advance amateur) shooters though, we suspect that this exposure behavior will be an annoyance. While there was never a situation in which we couldn't compensate for the exposure system's behavior, we found that we had a hard time predicting how the camera would respond in advance of the shot itself.

 

Flash

The E-300 offers a built-in, sliding, pop-up flash, with six operating modes: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Slow Sync (First Curtain), Slow-Sync (Second Curtain), Slow-Sync with Red-Eye Reduction, Fill-in Flash, Fill-in with Red-Eye Reduction, and Flash Off modes. Auto mode lets the camera decide when to fire the flash, while the Fill-in mode fires the flash with every shot. (Fill-in is useful for throwing light on backlit subjects, keeping their faces from being obscured in deep shadow.) The Red-Eye Reduction modes fire a brief burst of low-power flash pulses before firing the flash at full power, making the pupils of your subject's eyes contract, reducing the occurrence of the Red-Eye Effect. The Slow Sync modes allow more ambient light into the background, producing more natural lighting behind a flash-illuminated subject. The First Curtain mode fires the flash at the beginning of the exposure, while Second Curtain mode fires the flash at the end of the exposure. A button on the rear panel pops the flash up from its compartment, while the Flash button on the back panel controls the flash operating mode (different modes are available depending on the exposure mode). You can also adjust the overall flash intensity from +/-2 EV through the Record menu, in 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0 step increments. The flash option menu also offers a range of Manual flash exposures, setting the flash output to Full, 1/4, 1/16, or 1/64 of its maximum power. This mode is handy for working with studio strobe systems with slave triggers. In manual flash mode, the flash emits only a single burst, so it will trigger conventional slave circuits properly.

The E-300 also features an external flash hot-shoe, for attaching more powerful external flash units. The Olympus FL-50, FL-36, and FL-20 flash units, as well as several other manufacturer flash units. Because the built-in flash is offset from the hot shoe, both can be made to fire at once. A scenario can be imagined with the big external flash bouncing off the ceiling while the small built-in flash fills in the shadows.

As noted earlier, the EVOLT's flash head doubles as a very power autofocus-assist illuminator. The one drawback (shared with several other cameras that take this approach) is that AF-assist lighting is only available if you're going to be taking flash exposures. If you want to snap an available-light photo, you're on your own.

 


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times

When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time or delay before the shutter actually fires. This corresponds to the time required for the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is rarely reported on (and even more rarely reported accurately), and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, I routinely measure both shutter delay and shot to shot cycle times for all cameras I test, using a test system I designed and built for the purpose. (Crystal-controlled, with a resolution of 0.001 second.) Here are the numbers I collected for the Olympus E-300:

Olympus E-300 Timings
Operation
Time
(secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
2.1
A little slower than average for a d-SLR, most likely a consequence of the camera running a SuperSonic Wave Filter cleaning cycle to shake dust off the sensor whenever it's powered up. A slow startup time, but probably worth it, in exchange for a clean sensor.
Shutdown
0.3 - 21
First time is simple shutdown, second time is worst-case buffer-clearing time. Worst-case time is on the long side, but does correspond to clearing four 8-megapixel TIFF files from its buffer, a lot of data by any measure. (Buffer clearing times before shutdown for sequences of six large/fine JPEGs are on the order of 10 seconds, a reasonable number.)
Play to Record, first shot
0.2
Almost immediate, very fast.
Record to play
3.0 / 0.2
First time is that required to display a large/fine file immediately after capture, second time is that needed to display a large/fine file that has already been processed and stored on the memory card. First time is on the slow side for a d-SLR, second time is very fast.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.36 / 0.37
First time is at full wide-angle, second is full telephoto, with the 14-45mm kit lens. Autofocus-related lag time will obviously vary greatly as a function of the lens in use, but these are good numbers for an entry-level SLR.

Shutter lag, continuous autofocus

0.41
As usual, continuous AF doesn't help much with static subjects. It very likely helps with moving ones, but we have no way of testing that.
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.37
What?? This is a very odd result, the lag time in manual focus mode is almost exactly the same as with full autofocus. Hard to figure, and this time is longer than that for most competing d-SLRs.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.10
Time to capture, after half-pressing shutter button. Pretty fast, if not blazingly so.
Cycle Time, max/min resolution

0.90 /
0.90

First number is for large/fine files, second number is time for "TV" mode (640x480) images. Times are averages. In large/fine mode, shoots 6 frames this fast, then slows to about 2 seconds per shot, and clears the buffer in 10 seconds with a Lexar 80x CF card. In TV mode, shoots at this rate indefinitely, and clears the buffer in less than a second. Even for single-shot mode, this isn't terribly fast for a d-SLR. (Note to users, the cycle time slows to 0.95 second if you have the post-capture review function enabled.)
Cycle Time, RAW 0.90/1.08 Times are averages. Buffer holds four shots, takes 21 seconds to clear with a Lexar 80x CF card. First time is with Review function disabled, second is with it turned on.
Cycle Time, TIFF 0.91 Times are averages. Shoots 4 frames this fast, then slows to about 5.1 seconds per shot. Buffer clears in 21 seconds with a Lexar 80x CF card.

Cycle Time, continuous, max/min resolution

0.39
(2.58 fps)
Shoots this fast regardless of resolution. Times are averages. In large/fine mode, shoots 4 frames this fast and stops, and clears the buffer in 7 seconds. In TV mode, shoots at this rate indefinitely, and clears the buffer in about 2 seconds. All times measured with a Lexar 80x CF card.

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.

 

Operation and User Interface

The E-300's user interface is similar to those of the Olympus C-series digicams, with a multi-page menu system that's easy to navigate. The standard Olympus Shortcut menu screen has been omitted, made unnecessary by the many single-purpose buttons for major functions on the camera body. Menu layouts are straightforward. A Mode dial on top of the camera changes capture modes quickly. Once you get into the Record menu, options are organized by function, accessed by a series of tabs along the left side of the screen. This layout lets you quickly skip to the options you need without sifting through pages of menu items. In any of the manual exposure modes, aperture and/or shutter speed is adjusted externally, as is exposure compensation. Once you get the hang of things, the control layout is quite intuitive and efficient.

 

Control Enumeration


Shutter Button
: Located on an angled panel atop the right handgrip, the Shutter button sets focus and exposure settings when pressed halfway and triggers the shutter when fully pressed.


Mode Dial
: Behind the Shutter button on the top panel, this dial controls the camera's main operating mode. Choices are Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Program, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Night Scene, and Scene modes.

Power Switch: Jutting out from under the Mode dial on the right side, this switch turns the camera on and off.


Command Dial
: Behind the Mode dial is the Command dial, which adjusts a wide variety of settings when turned while pressing control buttons.

In Playback mode, this dial controls digital enlargement of captured images up to 10x when turned toward the right. The dial also accesses the four, nine, and 16 image thumbnail index display modes when turned to the left.


Flash Release Button
: Located on the rear panel beneath the pop-up flash compartment, this button releases the pop-up flash, an entirely mechanical operation. (That is, the camera can't automatically invoke the flash in response to the camera's exposure calculations or settings; it must be popped up by the user.)


AE Lock Button
: Located in the upper right corner of the back panel, this button locks the exposure setting in any record mode.


AF Area Selection Button
: To the right of the AE Lock button, this button lets you manually select the active AF point, or leave AF area selection under automatic control.


Playback Button
: Located next to the upper right corner of the LCD monitor, this button switches the camera to Playback mode. The E-300 is a "shooting priority" camera, so you can return to capture mode either by pressing the Playback button again, or simply by pressing the shutter button.


Menu Button
: Directly below the Playback button, this button calls up the settings menus in any camera mode.


Four-Way Arrow Pad (Exposure Compensation, AF, ISO, and Metering Buttons)
: Made up of four buttons arranged in a circle, the Arrow Pad controls many of the camera's operations. The top arrow key controls the Exposure Compensation setting, while the right arrow selects the AF mode. The bottom arrow adjusts the ISO setting in conjunction with the Command dial, and the left arrow sets the camera's metering mode. In Manual exposure mode, pressing the up (Exposure Compensation) button, toggles the function of the Command dial between controlling aperture or shutter speed settings.

In Playback mode, the left and right Arrows move forward or backward through the pictures stored on the card. Up and down arrows jump through the images 10 frames at a time. All four are used to scroll around portions of the zoomed image in Zoom Playback mode.

In the LCD menu system, the Arrow buttons navigate through menu screens and select settings.


OK / Protect Button
: Tucked in the lower right corner of the rear panel, this button confirms menu selections.

In Playback mode, this button write-protects (or removes write-protection) on captured images.

Through the camera's Setup menu, you can program this button to call up a shortcut menu to frequently used settings, to activate depth of field preview, or to toggle between the auto and manual focus modes.


Flash Button
: The first in a series of control buttons lining the left side of the LCD monitor, this button activates Flash mode adjustment, which selects among a large and unusual array of options: Auto; Red-eye reduction; Slow sync first curtain; Slow sync second curtain; Slow sync plus red eye reduction; Fill flash; Fill flash red eye; and Fill flash slow sync second curtain, and of course Off. Pressing the button and turning the Command dial changes the setting.


White Balance Button
: In the manual exposure modes, this button accesses the White Balance adjustment. Turning the Command dial selects the white balance mode to either Auto, Tungsten (3,000K), Incandescent (3,600K), White Fluorescent (4,000K), Neutral White Fluorescent (4,500K), Daylight Fluorescent (6,600K), Daylight (5,300K), Cloudy (6,000K), Shade (7,500K), one of four preset Custom settings, or One-Push (manual adjustment) modes.


Quality Button
: Directly below the White Balance button, this button lets you adjust the camera's resolution and quality settings, cycling through SHQ, TIFF, RAW, RAW + SQ, RAW + HQ, RAW + SHQ, SQ, and HQ. (The actual image resolution and quality for each setting is designated through the Setup menu.)


Erase Button
: Next in line below the Quality button, this button lets you erase the currently displayed image, with a Yes/No confirmation screen. If pressed while the camera is in a shooting mode, the most recently-captured image appears on the LCD display with an option to erase it.


Info Button
: The final button in the series lining the LCD monitor, this button controls the amount of information displayed on the LCD monitor in Playback mode, cycling through six display modes, including a histogram display.


Diopter Adjustment Dial
: Tucked on the left side of the viewfinder eyepiece, this dial adjusts the optical viewfinder's optics to accommodate eyeglass wearers.

Camera Modes and Menus


Manual Exposure Mode (M)
: Noted on the camera's Mode dial with an "M," Manual mode provides complete user control over the exposure, with an extended shutter speed range that includes a Bulb setting for variable length exposures up to 8 minutes (!)


Shutter Priority Mode (S)
: Indicated by an "S" on the Mode dial, this mode lets the user control the shutter speed from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, while the camera selects the best aperture setting.


Aperture Priority Mode (A)
: An "A" notes this mode on the Mode dial. Here, the user controls the lens aperture setting while the camera selects the best corresponding shutter speed. Aperture ranges will vary with the lens in use.


Program Mode (P)
: A blue "P" marks this mode on the Mode dial. In Program mode, the camera controls both aperture and shutter speed settings, while the user can adjust all other exposure variables.


Portrait Mode
: Indicated by an icon of a woman's head, this mode optimizes the camera for capturing portraits. A larger aperture is used, so that the subject will appear sharply focused in front of a slightly soft background.


Landscape Mode
: A mountain icon denotes this mode on the Mode dial. This mode is for capturing wide views of scenery, with both the foreground and background in focus, and enhances any blue or green colors in the image, for more vibrant trees, water, and skies.


Macro Mode
: The traditional macro flower symbol indicates this mode on the Mode dial, which is intended for shooting closeups of small subjects. Of course on an SLR, the closest shooting distance is determined by the abilities of the currently mounted lens. This mode also sets flash power for Macro distances.


Sports Mode
: An icon of a person running marks this mode, which biases the camera's exposure system toward faster shutter speeds to freeze action and moving subjects.


Night Scene Mode
: This mode is best for capturing night portraits or night scenery, such as cityscapes. A slower shutter speed lets you shoot under darker conditions. A moon and star icon marks this mode on the Mode dial.


Scene Mode
: Indicated by the word "SCENE" on the Mode dial, this mode accesses all 14 of the preset Scene modes. The following Scene menu automatically displays when the mode is accessed.

Playback Mode: Accessed by pressing the Playback button on the rear panel, this mode lets you view previously captured images using the Arrow Pad to scroll through frames stored in memory. The Command dial switches the image display to Index mode when moved in the wide angle direction, and when moved in the telephoto direction, enlarges a single image. While zoomed in on an image, the Arrow buttons move the enlarged view around the full image area, allowing you to inspect all parts of it.


Still Picture Shooting Menu: In any camera mode, pressing the Menu button brings up following four-tab menu screen. Note that not all Camera menu options will be available in all modes.


Image Storage and Interface

The E-300 stores images on CompactFlash memory cards, and is compatible with IBM Microdrives. The E-300 does not come with a "starter" memory card, so you'll want to pick up a large capacity card right away. The camera lets you write-protect individual images from accidental erasure through the Playback menu. (Note that individually protected images can still be erased by a card format operation). (I strongly recommend buying at least a 128 MB card, preferably a 256 MB one, to give yourself extra space for extended outings.)

The E-300 can store images in uncompressed TIFF, RAW, and compressed JPEG file formats. JPEG compression levels include Super High Quality at 1/2.7 (SHQ), High Quality at 1/4 (HQ), and Standard Quality at 1/8 (SQ). Through the Record menu, you can set the level of compression in SQ and HQ modes. HQ can be either 1/4 compression or 1/8 compression, and SQ lets you choose both compression ratio and image resolution, with compression options of 1/2.7, 1/4, and 1/8. Resolutions include 3,264 x 2,448 (HQ and SHQ quality settings only); 3,200 x 2,400; 2,560 x 1,920; 1,600 x 1,200; 1,280 x 960; 1,024 x 768; and 640 x 480 pixels. The chart below shows how many images can be stored on a 256 MB card at each size/quality setting.

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
256 MB Memory Card
Fine Normal
Basic
TIFF
RAW
3264 x 2448
Images
(Avg size)
39
6.4 MB
57
4.5 MB
126
2.0 MB
18
24 MB
10
14 MB
Approx.
Compression
4:1 5:1 12:1 1:1 1.7:1
3200 x 2400
Images
(Avg size)
41
6.2 MB
59
4.3 MB
131
2.0 MB
 -
Approx.
Compression
4:1 5:1 12:1  -
2560 x 1920
Images
(Avg size)
61
4.1 MB
103
2.5 MB
201
1.3 MB
 -
Approx.
Compression
4:1 6:1 12:1  -
1600 x 1200
Images
(Avg size)
174
1.5 MB
253
1.0 MB
491
521 KB
 -
Approx.
Compression
4:1 6:1 11:1  -
1280 x 960
Images
(Avg size)
271
944 KB
393
651 KB
715
358 KB
Approx.
Compression
4:1 6:1 10:1  -
1024 x 768
Images
(Avg size)
414
618 KB
605
423 KB
1124
228 KB
 -
Approx.
Compression
4:1 6:1 10:1  -
640 x 480
Images
(Avg size)
983
260 KB
1421
180 KB
2233
115 KB
 -  -
Approx.
Compression
4:1 5:1
8:1
 -  -

The E-300 comes with interface software and cables for both Mac and Windows computers. It employs a USB interface for computer connection, and implements a "storage-class" connection for file downloads. There's also a "Print" mode for connection to PictBridge-compatible printers. Downloading files to my Sony desktop running Windows XP (Pentium IV, 2.4 GHz), I clocked it at 500 KBytes/second. This is reasonably fast, but not nearly up to the speeds of current cameras with "high speed" USB 2.0 connections. (Cameras with slow USB interfaces run as low as 300 KB/s, cameras with fast v1.1 interfaces run as high as 600 KB/s. Cameras with USB v2.0 interfaces run as fast as several megabytes/second.)


Video Out

The Olympus E-300 has a Video Out port for reviewing previously captured images and movies, or running slide shows from the camera. Through the Setup menu, you can set the Video Out signal to NTSC or PAL.

Power

The Olympus E-300 is powered by a rechargeable BLM-1 battery pack or an optional AC adapter that can extend battery life if you're doing a lot of downloads on the computer or working in a studio environment. A battery and charger come with the camera, but as always, I recommend picking up a spare battery and keeping it freshly charged and on-hand. (Despite the camera's 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.)

Included Software

The E-300 comes with a nice complement of software on the supplied CD. Direct camera control and image downloading are provided by Olympus' Master software package for both Mac and Windows platforms (Macintosh OS 8.6-9.2/OS X, Windows 98/98SE/Me/2000 Pro/XP). USB drivers for both platforms and an Apple QuickTime reader are also included.

Olympus Master lets you download and organize images, as well as perform minor image correction and enhancement functions (such as adjusting contrast, sharpness, and color balance). It also offers utilities for printing, backing up images to hard drive or CD/DVD, and emailing, making slide shows, computer "wallpaper," albums, and for stitching shots together horizontally or vertically to make panoramas. Olympus Master's editing functions also permit you to manipulate exposure, color balance, contrast, sharpness, and saturation on images saved in the E-300's ORF "raw" file format.

Olympus also offers an optional software package, Olympus Studio, intended to be more of a professional workflow tool. Olympus Studio apparently offers more sophisticated processing of raw-format files, with a better ability to suppress color moire patterns, a sophisticated noise-reduction algorithm, and more control over image parameters than offered by Olympus Master. Studio also provides a batch processing option, to automate your workflow for raw-formatted images. Olympus Master is an added-cost option, with a list price of $199 in the US, translating into typical "street" prices in the vicinity of $150.

 

In the Box

The Olympus E-300 EVOLT ships with the following items in the box:

Recommended Accessories

 

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.

 

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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