The uniquely styled 8-megapixel Evolt E-300 from Olympus enters the expanding field of entry-level, sub-$1,000 digital SLR (dSLR) cameras. As with the more pro-oriented Olympus E-1, the E-300 conforms to the Four-Thirds standard for interchangeable-lens dSLRs, which in theory guarantees interoperability between cameras and lenses from any manufacturer that adopts it in the future. With the E-300 kit, Olympus starts you out with a 14mm-to-45mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens (28mm-to-90mm in 35mm-equivalent terms), and the camera offers a satisfactory feature set, crisp performance, and good build quality for the price. A giddier publication might start its discussion of the Olympus E-300's Evolting looks with some kind of noxious pun, but we eschew that sort of cheap stunt. Suffice it to say, this blocky, bricklike Olympus, with its Neanderthal forehead, is one of the uglier SLRs ever made. But like a bulldog's mug, it kind of grows on you.
One of the promised benefits of the Four-Thirds system is smaller, lighter gear. But while the E-300 is technically a bit shorter and shallower than nearly all other dSLRs, it's also wider and heavier than some of its competitors and doesn't feel smaller than they are. Its body is made of black plastic with an aluminum chassis and top cover, however, and does feel more robustly built than most other entry-level dSLRs. The camera is also very comfortable to grip and use.
The Evolt E-300 owes its unconventional, flat-topped shape to a side-swinging mirror and an unusual viewfinder design. In another departure from common SLR design, there is no top-deck LCD for shooting information. That data is instead displayed on the playback LCD on the camera's back. This took us a while to get used to, but we have no complaints about it.
There is only one command dial, so you have to push a button to toggle between aperture and shutter-speed settings in manual exposure mode, which is a moderate disappointment. Nearly all other important shooting functions have their own dedicated external buttons, and you can program the OK button to control or activate any one of several functions, including depth-of-field preview, custom white balance, and drive mode.
When you must delve into the LCD menus, you'll find them well organized and quick to operate with the four-way pad on the camera's back. On the whole, we found the E-300's control setup to be well thought out and amenable to quick shooting.The Olympus Evolt E-300 is the second dSLR (after the Olympus E-1) to implement the Four-Thirds format, which comprises a set of standards--including sensor size (17.3mm by 13mm) and lens mount specifications--for interchangeable-lens digital SLRs. In theory, all Four-Thirds cameras and lenses, regardless of manufacturer, should be compatible with each other. The focal-length conversion factor for the Four-Thirds format is two, meaning a 25mm Four-Thirds lens captures the same angle of view that a 50mm lens does in the 35mm-film format.
As of this writing, only Olympus is marketing Four-Thirds format cameras, and the company offers eight lenses, called Zuiko Digitals, for the system. Olympus has plans for more lenses, and Sigma also currently makes three lenses for the format. This is a fairly narrow selection of optics compared to what's available for competing dSLRs from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax, which can use those companies' 35mm-film lens systems. On the other hand, Olympus touts its lenses as designed specifically for use with digital sensors, as opposed to film, and claims improved image quality as a result. The E-300 kit includes a 14mm-to-45mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 Zuiko Digital lens (28mm-to-90mm in 35mm-camera equivalent).
Much to Olympus's credit, the E-300, as with the E-1, tackles the frustrating problem of dust collecting on dSLR sensors. The camera is outfitted with a mechanism called a Supersonic Wave Filter, which covers the sensor and vibrates at a high frequency for a moment when you power the camera on. This shakes dust off the filter surface, causing the particles to fall onto an adhesive strip at the bottom of the mirror box. We're delighted to report that it seems to work very well.
Like most other cameras in its class, the E-300 provides every exposure option you could want. These include all four main exposure modes, 14 scene modes, autoexposure bracketing, and three light meters--ESP, center-weighted, and spot. Ambient light exposures can be compensated plus or minus five stops in 1/3-stop increments, and flash exposures can be compensated plus or minus two stops in the same increments. You can also view a histogram of your most recent image with a single button press.
White-balance options include Auto, eight presets, four user-adjustable direct color-temperature settings, and a traditional custom setting that you measure from a white object in the scene. In addition, the Auto setting and all eight presets can be tweaked in seven levels in both directions (that is, warmer and cooler). The sensitivity of the sensor can be set from ISO 100 to ISO 400 in normal mode, and ISO 800 and ISO 1,600 become available in ISO Boost mode.
The Evolt E-300 saves images to a CompactFlash card, and you can capture JPEG, TIFF, raw (Olympus ORF file format), or raw-plus-JPEG files. For JPEGs, you can choose two different compression levels at full resolution (3,264x2,448) or a lower resolution (1,280x960) with only one compression choice. You can capture a raw file simultaneously with any of the three JPEG compression/resolution combinations. Images can be processed into either the Adobe RGB or sRGB color space, and you can select from three levels of gradation (Normal, Hi-Key, Low-Key) and five levels of color saturation, contrast, and in-camera sharpening.
Included with the E-300 is a photo-browsing and raw-conversion application called Olympus Master. With its reasonable white-balance and tonality controls, we'd call it a midlevel raw converter. But, oy, is it slow to convert an ORF--and so is Olympus Studio, an optional converter ($150) that provides more controls.