Olympus Evolt E-300

After several years of producing expensive, higher-end film SLRs, Olympus has finally entered the consumer digital SLR market with the first SLR that conforms to the 4/3 standard, a lens and image-sensor spec that has yet to be widely adopted. Priced at $999, the new Evolt E-300 competes directly with Canon’s $999 EOS Digital Rebel XT and Nikon’s $1,299 D70. While I’m glad to see Olympus finally entering this market, I’m a little disappointed that its first foray is a camera that falls more in the “catch-up” category than in the “setting-the-standard” category. Nevertheless, the E-300 delivers very good quality photos in a body that’s comfortable to hold and easy to use.

The E-300 is shorter in height than a typical removable-lens SLR. This is due to Olympus’ unique viewfinder engineering, which uses a series of mirrors to bounce light around the side of the sensor and up to the viewfinder, rather than traditional SLR designs, which use a single mirror to bounce light upward into a prism, and then to the viewfinder. The practical upshot is a camera that looks like an SLR with its top cut off. The Evolt is larger than the Canon Digital Rebel XT and Pentax ist DS, but a little smaller than the Nikon D70 (   ), thanks to its truncated top. Unlike Olympus’ previous E-series SLRs, you cannot use the Evolt’s LCD as a viewfinder.

Olympus ships the E-300 with a 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. As with most digital SLRs, you must apply a multiplication factor to any lens you attach to the Evolt to determine its equivalent 35mm focal length. With its 2x multiplication factor, the stock lens is equivalent to a 28-90mm lens on a 35mm film camera. (Olympus makes a range of zoom and prime lenses that provide an equivalent focal length range of 14-600mm.) In addition, because the camera conforms to the 4/3 spec, you can use third-party 4/3 lenses, although at the moment, there’s only one—Sigma’s Sigma 18-125.

Because their lenses are removable, D-SLRs can occasionally suffer from dust on their image sensors. The Evolt sports a unique dust-repelling feature called the Supersonic Wave Filter, which puts a special transparent filter in front of the CCD to catch dust. Every time you power up the camera, this filter shakes vigorously to jostle the dust loose, and the dust is collected by a piece of sticky tape below the sensor.

This is a clever mechanism, though the extra cleaning time does mean the camera has a slightly slower startup time than some of its competitors.

Shooting

The Evolt’s plastic and metal construction makes for a camera that feels sturdy and comfortable to hold, while its thoughtful control layout makes it easy to quickly adjust settings on the fly. A dial on the top of the camera lets you choose from a typical assortment of shooting modes—program, priority modes, full manual, and a variety of pre-programmed scene modes.

Buttons on the back of the camera provide quick access to white balance and flash settings, exposure compensation, metering and focus modes, and ISO settings. Unlike its competition, the Evolt lacks a separate status LCD. Instead, the main LCD is used to display the current shooting parameters, and to provide feedback when altering settings. Changing essential settings is simple and quick and because the camera includes a good status readout inside the viewfinder, you can change important settings without having to take your eye from the viewfinder.

The Evolt’s autofocus is fairly quick, though I found that it consistently had trouble locking focus in low light, and even in bright-light and low-contrast situations. The Evolt’s viewfinder is bright and provides comprehensive feedback of your current shooting settings, making for an overall comfortable shooting experience.

My only complaint with the camera’s controls is the lack of any type of control for cycling through reciprocal exposures after metering. Several competing cameras have such a feature, and it’s often all the manual control that you need.

Shooting performance is perfectly adequate, offering a burst rate of approximately 2.5 frames per second, and the camera writes files to memory very quickly. Unfortunately, the camera can only shoot bursts of about four images before it needs time to write its data to memory. Until it’s done, the camera locks up and won’t shoot. I’d prefer a burst-rate slowdown over a complete shooting lockout. Though the camera lacks a bulb setting, it can do exposures of up to 8 minutes.

Image Quality

As I expected from an Olympus camera, the Evolt delivers excellent image quality. Shooting with the included 14-45mm lens, the camera yields very nice detail and sharpness, thanks to the quality of its optics and its 8-megapixel sensor.

Color tone and quality are both very good, though Olympus seems to have tuned the camera to produce slightly oversaturated images. (Many people have reported that the oversaturation is more pronounced when shooting in the Adobe RGB color space than it is in the sRGB color space.) However, the Evolt offers a number of options for adjusting contrast and color, and provides a far greater range of contrast and color settings than any of its competitors. If you really want to get good results from this camera, you’ll be better-served by shooting raw images and processing them yourself.

Though the camera offers ISOs from 100 to 1600, anything above 400 produces significantly grainier photos. This is the only place where the Evolt falls down when compared to its competition - the Canon Digital Rebel XT and the Nikon D70 simply do better at higher ISOs.

Further complicating the issue is lens selection. Though Olympus has made a good effort to produce a full range of lenses, offering a good selection of zoom lenses and some select primes, the 4/3 standard has not taken off. While this won’t be a huge issue for the casual photographer, it can be a limitation if you who want the most quality and price options as your photography skills grow. Olympus claims that their “built from the ground up to be digital” lens/camera combination gives 4/3 system cameras the advantage over digital cameras adapted to use film lenses. While there’s plenty of good theory to back up this claim, in the end, the Evolt’s images—though perfectly competitive—don’t show a noticeable improvement.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

The Olympus Evolt E-300 is a very good camera. It’s well-built and yields excellent images. However, you’ll get better high-ISO image quality from Canon and Nikon cameras (as well as better JPEG burst shooting) and a better lens selection from just about any other camera manufacturer.

However, the camera is compact and comfortable when shooting. If you’re shopping in this market, you should definitely get your hands on an Evolt and give it a try.

[ Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography , 3rd Edition (Charles River Books, 2004). ]

[ 5/6/05 - We corrected information about the focal length range of Olympus’ zoom and prime lenses and clarified information about JPEG burst shooting using Canon and Nikon cameras. Also, the Evolt E-300 can do exposures of up to 8 minutes, not 30 seconds as we’d previously noted.—Ed ]

Specifications

Resolution 8 megapixels
Storage Format CompactFlash
Batteries Proprietary, includes charger

Jury Tests

Color Quality Excellent
Clarity—Detail Very Good
Clarity—Artifacts and Noise Very Good

Scale = Excellent, Very Good, Good, Flawed, Unacceptable

How we tested: We took a photo of a standard test scene with each camera under controlled conditions, with the flash turned off, with the white-point setting at tungsten, and at the same aperture and shutter-speed settings. All other settings were at automatic and all in-camera image-processing options were set at factory defaults. Images were saved as JPEGs. A panel of experts looked at our test image, both on screen and printed by an Epson Stylus Photo 2200, and rated color quality and clarity as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Flawed, or Unacceptable. —Macworld Lab testing by Ben Long and James Galbraith

Olympus Evolt E-300

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