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DCRP Review: Olympus EVOLT E-300
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: November 8, 2004
Last Updated: February 13, 2008
This review has been completed using a production-level E-300 camera. Product shots have been reshot when necessary, and all sample photos are from the production camera.
The Olympus EVOLT E-300 (it's just called the E-300 outside of the U.S.) is the first consumer digital SLR to use the FourThirds system. The FourThirds system (co-developed by Olympus, Fuji, and Kodak) was first seen on the Olympus E-1, which was released in 2003. The E-300 takes many of the same features used on the E-1, removes a few manual controls, slows things down a bit, and boosts the resolution from five to eight million pixels. The E-300 has a rather unique design (to say the least), and build quality isn't quite as nice as the E-1.
With a price of just $999 (including a lens), the E-300 is an excellent value. There is also some competition in this price range from the likes of Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. How does the E-300 perform? Find out in our review!
What's in the Box?
The E-300 has a good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find the following:
As is the case with all D-SLRs, Olympus does not include a memory card with the E-300, so you'll have to factor that into the total purchase price. Thankfully CompactFlash cards are inexpensive these days. With its 8MP resolution, a large card is a necessity, so I'd recommend 512MB at the very minimum. The EVOLT supports Type II cards which currently come as large as 8GB, I believe. The Microdrive is also supported, though I can't recommend them based on past (negative) experiences.
The E-300 includes the 14 - 45mm, F3.5 - F5.6 lens. Taking the E-300's 2X crop factor into account, that lens would be equivalent to 28 - 90 mm on a 35 mm camera. You'll see how the lens performs later in the review. The E-series cameras can use any of the Zuiko Digital lenses on the market, and there's now a pretty good selection of them.
The E-300 uses the same BLM-1 battery as the E-1 did. This battery has a hefty 10.8 Wh of energy, more than most batteries. Unfortunately Olympus does not publish any battery life data for the E-300, so I can't say how many photos or minutes of shooting this translates into. Based on usage it seemed comparable to other D-SLRs that I've tested.
When it's time to recharge, pop the battery into the included BCM-2 charger. It takes a sluggish five hours to fully charge the battery. This isn't one of those handy "plug it right into the wall" style chargers -- you must use a power cable.
For those in need of more power, there are two options. The first is the HLD-3 battery grip ($100). This gives you double the battery life (it uses two BLM-1s), plus an extra shutter release button, tripod mount, and port for a remote shutter release cable. If that's still not enough then there's the HV-1 high voltage power pack. I don't know much about it except that it costs a lot of money (several hundred dollars).
As far as accessories go, if you can name any one accessory, it exists. That includes flashes (including ring flashes), lenses, remote controls, and camera cases. Far too many to list here!
Olympus includes their brand new Master software with the EVOLT, and I have to say that they did a great job with it. The first thing you'll probably do with the software is transfer photos from your camera. Once you've done that, you've got a nice thumbnail view that you can organize by date or keywords. A calendar view is also available.
It's easy to change the size of the thumbnails, and everything was snappy on my PowerMac G5.
If you want to edit a photo, that's just a click away. You can rotate, crop, reduce redeye, or do an "instant fix". If you want to adjust the color balance, you can do that as well, as you can see above.
Got a RAW file to edit? No problem! You can change all the RAW parameters in Olympus Master, including exposure, white balance, contrast, sharpness, and saturation. You'll have to wait a few seconds to see the changes, though.
The software can also be used to "stitch" together several photos into one panoramic photo.
Sharing photos is easy: you can print them or e-mail them right in the Master software. Naturally, there's a slideshow feature available as well. And, if you want to archive them to a CD or DVD, that's available too.
Just like with their old Camedia Master software, Olympus has a "Plus" version available for $20 more. The Master Plus software adds movie editing capabilities, more printing options, and the ability to make Video CDs.
Unlike with their consumer-level cameras, Olympus includes a full, printed manual with the EVOLT. As camera manuals go, it's not bad. It won't win any awards, but you'll find answers to your questions here.
Look and Feel
The E-300 looks radically different from the E-1. It's probably the least attractive D-SLR I've seen, but I figure most people don't buy cameras like this based on their physical appearance (I hope you note my sarcasm there). Here's a quick look at the E-1 and E-300, side-by-side:
As you can see, the E-300 isn't nearly as tall or deep as the E-1. In terms of width, the E-300 is slightly wider. While it's still well-built, the E-300 isn't as solid-feeling as the E-1. It's not weatherproof like the E-1, either, but it none of the other entry-level D-SLRs are either.
One of the major differences between the E-1 and E-300 can be seen in the front view above. On the E-1 and every other D-SLR, the mirror swings up when you take a picture. On the E-300 it swings to the side. The optical viewfinders are also different. The E-1 has the traditional prism-based viewfinder, while the E-300 has something called a TTL Optical Porro Finder, which uses mirrors instead. As you can see in the pictures, there's no bulge on the top of the E-300 for the traditional viewfinder.
Like all D-SLRs, the E-300 is easy to hold, though I don't like the big rubber protrusion that sticks out from the right hand grip. The important controls are within close reach of your fingers.
Speaking of which, here's a look at how the E-300 compares with some of the competition in terms of size and weight:
It's not quite the smallest or lightest D-SLR out there, but the E-300 is close.
Okay, let's take a tour of the camera now, beginning with the front.
In this front view of the E-300 you can get a better look at the side-swinging mirror. You can also see the FourThirds lens mount, where you can attach any Zuiko Digital lens. There's a decent selection of lenses these days, though not nearly as many as you could have on a Canon, Nikon, or Pentax camera.
Sitting in front of the 8 Megapixel CCD is something Olympus calls the Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF). This uses ultrasonic waves to literally "shake" dust off the sensor. Anyone who has used a D-SLR for a while knows how annoying dust on the sensor can be, and I'm glad Olympus has done something about it on their E-series cameras.
Up at the top of the photo is the E-300's pop-up flash -- and when they say "pop-up", they mean it! That should be good news when we get to the redeye test. Information about the flash range was not available when this preview was written. In addition to the built-in flash, the E-300 supports an external flash via the hot shoe you'll see in a minute.
To the right of the lens mount is the release for the lens mount. That red thing to the left of the E-300 logo does two things: it's the self-timer lamp as well as the receiver for the (optional) remote.
While there's no dedicated AF-assist lamp on the camera, if you pop up the built-in flash, the camera will use it as a focusing aid. Best of all you can set up the camera to not take a flash picture in that situation, unlike some other D-SLRs. If you're using an Olympus external flash, the camera will use the AF-assist lamp on that.
On the back of the E-300 you'll find a 1.8" "HyperCrystal" LCD display. This display has 134,000 pixels, which is plenty. Do note that the LCD is only used for reviewing shots in playback mode and using the menus -- you cannot do a live "preview" before you take a picture. This is true for 99% of D-SLRs on the market (the Fuji S3 Pro does it... sort of).
Above the LCD is that new-style viewfinder that I mentioned earlier. It's huge, and shows 94% of the frame. Inside the viewfinder, on the right hand side, you'll find various symbols and numbers showing the current camera settings. I found them hard to see in that position, and would've preferred them to be on the bottom instead. A diopter correction knob focuses what you're looking at through the viewfinder.
To the left of the LCD are five buttons:
There are plenty of white balance options to choose from on the E-300. First you can do the usual daylight/cloudy/tungsten thing by choosing one of the color temperatures in the list above (the camera shows a little icon next to each temperature so you know what you're picking). If that's not enough, you can use the one-touch feature to shoot a white or gray card to use as your reference for white. Still not satisfied? You can also manually select a color temperature between 2000K and 10000K. And finally, you can use the white balance compensation feature to tweak a chosen WB setting to your liking. Whichever way you do it, you shouldn't have any white balance worries on this camera.
Info screen in record mode
The info button can be used in two ways. Pressing it in record mode shows the screen above -- which replaces the LCD info display normally seen on the top of a D-SLR. When you press one of the buttons on the back of the camera, the item you are changing is highlighted on this screen, so you can see what you're changing. Pressing the info button in playback mode shows various exposure data, including a histogram -- but more on that later.
Over on the other side of the LCD are even more buttons. The topmost button is to pop up the flash. The next two are self-explanatory: playback and menu. Below that is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation and also:
There are several focus modes on the E-300. Single AF is the usual "press the shutter release halfway to lock focus" mode. Continuous AF works the same way, but it keeps focusing while the shutter release is halfway-pressed. Manual focus is just as it sounds -- you use the focus ring on the lens to do the work yourself. Single AF + MF lets the camera focus automatically first, and then you can tweak things manually using the focus ring.
To the lower-right of the four-way controller is the OK (for menus) button, which is used for image protection in playback mode.
At the top-right of the photo are the two final buttons on the back of the camera. These include AE Lock and focus point selection. The E-300 has just three focus points: left, right, and center. For the sake of comparison, there are seven focus points on the Digital Rebel and five on the D70.
Something worth pointing out about the kit lens is that it doesn't show the focus distance on the lens, making manual focusing slightly more challenging.
Now onto the E-300's hot shoe. This can take an Olympus (FL-20, FL-36, or FL-50) or third-party flash. The Olympus flashes integrated with the camera, and their AF-assist lamps can be used as well. If you use a third-party flash you'll have to manually choose its settings. The camera can sync as fast as 1/180 sec with an external flash, and 1/125 sec with studio strobes.
All the way over on the other side you'll find the command dial, mode dial (with power switch under it), and shutter release button. A blue light illuminates when the Supersonic wave filter is being used (at startup or when selected in the menu). The command dial is used to change manual settings, and is also used for zoom & scroll and thumbnail view in playback mode.
The mode dial has the following options:
I should mention that the scene mode option gives you a description of each mode as well as a typical photo that you'd take in that situation. More cameras should have this.
The only things worth mentioning here are the E-300's I/O ports, which are kept behind rubber covers. Behind the top door you'll find the USB and video out ports. The camera supports USB 2.0 Full Speed, which is marketing-speak for the old, slow USB 1.1. Behind door #2 is the DC-in port for the optional AC adapter.
Over on the other side, you'll find the CompactFlash slot, which is behind a reinforced plastic door. This is a Type II slot, so the Microdrive and other high capacity cards are fully supported.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. This compartment is protected by a sturdy door with a locking mechanism.
The tripod mount is inline with the lens, as you'd expect on an SLR.
The included BLM-1 battery is shown at right.
Using the Olympus E-300
It takes about 2 seconds for the E-300 to "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. While that's comparable to the Digital Rebel, the Nikon D70 is ready to go instantly.
While I wasn't wowed by its autofocus speeds, the E-300 focuses fairly quickly, and faster than most fixed-lens cameras out there. In low light, the EVOLT's flash-based AF illuminator allows it to focus in almost total darkness -- very nice.
As for shutter lag, there really isn't any. That's why you're interested in a digital SLR, right?
And, as you'd expect from a D-SLR, you can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot -- at least until the buffer fills up. When shooting at the SHQ, RAW, or TIFF setting, that happens after about four photos.
There is no way to delete a photo after it is taken -- you must enter playback mode.
Now, here's a look at the numerous image quality options available on the E-300:
The E-300 supports both the RAW and TIFF formats. RAW images are unprocessed image data straight from the camera. The beauty of RAW format is that a) they're smaller than TIFFs and b) they allow you to manipulate photos without losing any quality. Botch the white balance? Just change it later and it's just like taking the shot again. The disadvantage? You must process the images on your Mac or PC in order to export them to other formats. You can choose to have a JPEG image saved along side the RAW image, which comes in handy (if the JPEG looks good, why bother processing the RAW image?).
TIFF format is uncompressed image data that takes up a lot of space on your memory card, without any of the benefits of RAW.
Olympus uses one of the better file numbering systems that I've seen. Files are named Pmdd####.jpg, where m is the month (1-9, A-C), d is the day, and #### is 0001-9999. This way your file numbers are always unique (well, for one year at least). File numbering is maintained as you erase and switch memory cards.
Let's discuss the menu system now!
The E-300 uses the same easy-to-use menu system as its big brother. The menu is divided into five "tabs": shooting 1 & 2, playback, and custom 1 & 2. Here are the menu options:
There are a few things in the menus that I want to touch on quickly. First are the various drive modes. Continuous shooting mode lets you take shots at 2.5 frames/second, with a limit of 4 images, whether at SHQ, RAW, or TIFF, which isn't great. Dropping the quality setting down a notch results in much better numbers -- I was able to keep shooting at the HQ setting. Auto bracketing takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. You can choose from a ±0.3, ±0.7, or ±1.0EV interval. White balance bracketing is similar. The first shot is taken with the chosen white balance, the second slightly bluer, and the third slightly redder.
Well, enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.
I had a heck of a time with the usual macro shot. First of all, the kit lens is hardly a macro lens, with a minimum focus distance of 38 cm (Olympus makes a macro lens that does a lot better -- in fact I use it for my product shots) -- so I had to move the subject pretty far away. Then, I just couldn't get good white balance, so I ended up shooting in RAW and adjusting it later in software. After all was said and done, I got a decent result from the EVOLT. The subject isn't overly sharp -- it's pretty soft and smooth. After I fooled around with the white balance a bit, I was satisfied with the colors of our subject.
The E-300 did a pretty good job with the night test shot. Like with the macro shot, it was softer then I would've liked, but remember that sharpness can be changed in the camera menu if you desire. With full manual control over shutter speed (including an 8 minute bulb mode), taking in enough light for shots like this is easy. Purple fringing was not a major problem in this photo.
Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images. You can click on the thumbnail to see the full size images.
The camera does a good job at keeping noise levels low all the way through ISO 400. Things start getting worse at ISO 800, and by ISO 1600 you're losing detail. I do think the other D-SLRs in this class do a little better in terms of high ISO noise than the E-300.
There's very little barrel distortion to be found at the wide end of the 14 - 45 mm lens that comes with the E-300. What you can see here is a bit of vignetting (dark corners), and I spotted this in one of my real world photos as well. So this kit lens isn't perfect, but it was pretty solid in most of my shots.
There was no redeye to be found in our flash test -- yay!
Updated 1/16/05: Overall, the E-300's image quality was very good, though not quite as good as I would expect from a D-SLR, at least at its default settings. Photos were generally well-exposed, with accurate color and low levels of noise and purple fringing. At the same time, they seemed somewhat soft, with details seeming "muddy" at times. I think this is more of an image processing issue rather than a testament to the quality of the kit lens. Check this out:
|14-45 mm lens (kit lens)||14-55 mm lens (optional)|
RAW -> JPEG image
RAW -> JPEG image
I took these pictures at the same time. First, I used the kit lens, and took the above photo in RAW+SHQ mode. You can compare the original SHQ JPEG with the RAW image that I converted to a JPEG in Olympus Master. You'll see subtle differences in sharpness and color, with the converted RAW image being more pleasing to the eye (in my opinion). To see if the kit lens was producing the soft images, I also tested the Zuiko 14-55 lens that I happen to have sitting around. The differences were minor at best. Thus, I think that you'll get the best results from the E-300 by shooting in RAW mode. I know it's a pain and all, but unfortunately that's the way things worked out. You could still shooting in SHQ mode for most purposes, though, reserving RAW mode for large format prints.
Don't just take my word for it, though. View our photo gallery and print the photos as if they were your own. Then decide if the E-300's photo quality meets your expectations!
No digital SLR would be caught dead taking movies!
The E-300 has a playback mode typical of those on D-SLRs. The usual features are here, including slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. The camera is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to a compatible photo printer.
The zoom and scroll feature lets you blow up the image by a factor of up to 10 and then scroll around.
You can rotate and resize photos, or change them to black & white or sepia by using the JPEG/TIFF edit function.
The RAW edit feature lets you apply the current camera settings to a RAW image. Did you botch the white balance? Choose the settings you wanted to use, then use RAW data edit to fix your image (the original RAW image is saved). For more control, use the Olympus Viewer or Studio software on your computer.
By default the E-300 doesn't tell you much about the photos you have taken. But by pressing the Info button, you can cycle through various screens full of exposure data, including a histogram.
The camera moves through photos instantly in playback mode.
How Does it Compare?
The Olympus EVOLT E-300 is a very good digital SLR whose most impressive feature is its price. Okay, maybe the dust removal feature is up there too. Anyhow, the E-300 gives you more resolution than any of the low cost D-SLRs out there, though the photos seem softer and fuzzier than I would expect from a D-SLR. One solution to this problem is to shoot in RAW mode and then convert the images to JPEGs -- this improved sharpness and color too. In addition, high ISO performance isn't quite as good as those cameras. But for $999 (with the lens) you get a heck of a camera. Camera performance is what you'd expect from a D-SLR, with pretty fast focusing, no shutter lag, and fast shot-to-shot times. The Nikon D70 does beat the EVOLT in terms of startup and continuous shooting performance, though. In terms of features, the EVOLT has plenty, from full manual controls to custom white balance to support for RAW and TIFF images. While the camera doesn't have a dedicated AF-assist lamp, it will use the built-in flash for that purpose, and the flash does its job well. Being a D-SLR, the E-300 is totally expandable, with several lenses, flashes, filters, and more available. As you'd expect from a totally new system (FourThirds), there aren't as many accessories out there as you'd find for the Canon, Nikon, or Pentax cameras. (Updated 1/16/05)
So what's not to like about the EVOLT? I already mentioned the photo quality... so here are some other niggles. The kit lens is good for the most part, though I was surprised to see some vignetting show up. The camera is quite well built for the price, though it isn't as easy to grip as the competition (my opinion, yours may differ). The EVOLT only supports the old, slow USB 1.1, which is a shame considering the size of these images.
Overall the E-300 gets my recommendation. If I was buying an entry-level SLR I would probably lean toward the D70 due to its superior performance and image quality, unless having 2 million more pixels was of absolute importance. The E-300 easily bests the Digital Rebel, but if I were a betting man I'd say that the Rebel is due for a replacement soon that will help it match or beat the competition.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Other digital SLRs to consider include the Canon Digital Rebel and EOS-20D ($$), Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D ($$), Nikon D70, Olympus E-1, and the Pentax *ist DS.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the EVOLT and its competitors before you buy!
Photo GallerySee how the photos turned out in our gallery!
Want another opinion?
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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