The first ‘consumer’ DSLR for the Four Thirds camera format. . . [more]
Quality rating (out of 10)
Ease of use: 8.5
Image quality: 8.5
Value for money: 8.5
The Olympus E-300’s boxy shape looks strange for a DSLR camera, although it’s probably easier to pack into a camera bag. The pentaprism is replaced by a hinged side-swinging mirror system that directs the light to the left, instead of up, then on to the optical viewfinder, which is mounted slightly off-centre to the lens. This design harks back to the Olympus Pen half-frame film camera, which was around in the 1960s and quite well-regarded.
Interestingly, despite having no pentaprism, the E-300 is actually larger and heavier than some competing DSLRs! Its die-cast aluminium frame and polycarbonate shell are solidly constructed and the grip is comfortable. Most controls are logically positioned. However, since roughly two thirds of the top panel is occupied by the viewfinder and flash hot shoe, there’s no room for a LCD data display so users must rely on the 1.8-inch LCD monitor on the rear panel to view and adjust menu settings. Some photographers may consider this a serious oversight.
Fortunately, the monitor’s ‘HyperCrystal’ display is bright enough for outdoor use and the menu system is well designed, though complex. It’s worth noting that pressing the Info button left of the LCD provides a comprehensive display of all key camera settings, regardless of the shooting mode selected. It even works with the Scene settings (see below), where it shows the adjustments each setting applies. Kudos to Olympus for this excellent feature!
The viewfinder is clear and comparatively information-rich, although most data is crowded into a narrow column right of the viewing screen. Settings covered include aperture, shutter speed, AE mode, AE and AF lock, exposure compensation, metering mode, white balance override, flash indication/confirm and AF confirm/fail. The AF area is also defined in the field of view, with the selected AF point illuminated in red.
The E-300 has a single card slot, which accepts CF cards and Microdrives (plus other formats via adaptors). The ability to recognise FAT32 files makes it usable with cards of more than 2GB capacity.
Whereas Olympus’ first DSLR lacked a built-in flash, the E-300 makes it easy to take shots in dim lighting with a pop-up flash that slides forward to ensure a wider area of illumination than a conventional flash. It also rises high above the camera’s optical axis to minimise red-eye in flash shots. A hot-shoe is provided for accessory flash units, details of which are provided on page ??. The E-300 is also the first Olympus DSLR with PictBridge direct printing capabilities.
Sensor and Resolution
The E-300’s sensor was developed by Kodak, the other key player in the Four Thirds format arena. (Kodak also made the imager in the Olympus E-1.) The E-300’s KAF-8900CE imager chip has higher resolution than the E-1’s, with 8-megapixels, instead of 5-megapixels, which means its photosites are smaller (5.4 µm2 vs 6.8 µm2). On the basis of Kodak’s performance figures, its image quality should match that from the Olympus E-1, although its higher resolution will give it an advantage for photographers who wish to make poster-sized enlargements from their shots.
As with all DSLR sensors, the E-300’s CCD has been designed specifically for still image capture; video is not supported. Like the E-1, its LMF remains at 2x compared with 1.6x for Canon’s 8-megapixel EOS 20D and EOS 350D models, and 1.5x for DSLRs from Konica Minolta, Nikon and Pentax. However, none of these cameras includes in-camera dust reduction, whereas the E-300 sports the Olympus-developed Supersonic Wave Filter (SSWF), which was a big hit on the E-1 model.
Three capture formats are provided. RAW and TIFF files are recorded with 3264 x 2448 pixel resolution, while JPEGs can be captured at 3264 x 2448 (SHQ and HQ) or SQ size. The default camera setting is 1280 x 960 pixels for SQ but users can adjust that to 3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 1024 x 768 or 640 x 480 pixels by toggling to the third page of the second camera menu. TIFF files are typically just over 23MB in size, while the 12-bit ORF (Olympus Raw Format) files average 13.4MB. Two levels of compression are provided in HQ mode (1:4 and 1:8) and three in SHQ format (1:2.7, 1:4 and 1:8). RAW+JPEG capture is supported for all JPEG settings.
It’s worth noting that the Zuiko Digital lenses used by the E-300 and E-1 cameras have been developed to complement the camera’s sensor. Unlike film camera lenses, they use a more ‘tele-centric’ design, which makes the light rays pass into the camera more vertically. This has the dual effect of maximising the light-capturing potential of individual photosites and ensuring an even spread of illumination across the sensor area, thereby minimising quality loss towards the edges of recorded images.
Unusually for a consumer camera, the E-300’s mode dial has no ‘full auto’ setting, but it does have the standard P, A, S and M modes. Adjustments in these modes are made with a thumb wheel, which is conveniently located behind the mode dial. This wheel is also used to change settings in conjunction with the function buttons beside the LCD display.
For novice photographers, 14 illustrated scene modes can be accessed through the Scene setting on the mode dial. Illustrated scene modes are a novelty in a digital SLR but Olympus has recognised their value in a DSLR that is likely to be the first purchased by many photographers. Selecting the Scene mode activates the menu display and users are shown an initial sample illustration that typifies the selected mode. Scenes are selected with the up and down arrows on the four-way controller. Each display opens with a sample image at full screen size, which becomes a thumbnail as the camera shows details of what each mode does. If you press the OK button and the Info display is active, you can see the changes that have been made to camera settings such as exposure, white balance, resolution, sharpness and contrast. This is a great way to learn more about how camera controls are used and makes the E-300 useful as a novice’s camera.
The mode dial itself carries five scene positions that replicate some of the Scene settings: portrait, landscape, close-up, sports and night scene. These are not illustrated, although the Info display works with them as it does with the Scene menu, and they’re faster to access than the Scene menu.
Shots taken with the test camera had plenty of detail and excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and the camera’s sensor and image processing system reproduced most colours very well. Images had similar levels of saturation to popular consumer slide films, a feature many buyers will find very attractive. Skin tones were outstanding and the traditionally difficult pure reds and blues were recorded accurately. Greens, mauve and maroon were slightly less well handled, although the camera’s overall performance with these colours was above average.
White balance performance was outstanding – and among the best we’ve seen from any camera. The auto setting produced close-to-accurate colours with both fluorescent and incandescent lighting and the manual pre-sets and ‘one-touch’ custom measurement were spot on. Fine-tuning the white balance was easy and effective with the WB +/- setting, which supports seven levels of adjustment in each direction for any Kelvin setting.
However, we were disappointed with the test camera’s exposure metering system. In very bright conditions, it overexposed shots by about a stop, sacrificing highlight detail, whereas low-light shots were somewhat under-exposed. Image noise was low, with none detectable at ISO 100 and very little at ISO 200. Obvious noise at ISO 800 and 1600 was subdued when the noise reduction system was engaged.
The test camera was quick to start and generally quite responsive. We measured an average combined AF/shutter lag of 0.35 seconds, which reduced to less than 0.1 second with pre-focusing. The burst mode captured a sequence for four JPEG images at 3264 x 2448 pixels or 45 shots at 1280 x 960 pixels at 0.4 second intervals.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to evaluate the test camera’s RAW format as it was supplied without a software CD and the ’30-day trial’ version of the software we downloaded from the Olympus website indicated its trial period had expired when we tried to use it. This problem should be rectified by the time this review is published. 
Image sensor: 18.0 x 13.5 mm Kodak Full Frame Transfer CCD with 8,900,000 photosites (8.0 megapixels effective)
Lens mount: 4/3 standard lens mount
Lens multiplier factor: 2x
Colour space settings: sRGB, Adobe RGB
Dimensions (wxhxd): 146.5 x 85 x 64 mm
Weight: 580 grams (without lens, battery and card)
Image formats: RAW (12-bit), RAW+JPEG, TIFF (RGB 8-bit) and JPEG
Shutter speed range: 30-1/4000 second plus Bulb
Focus system/modes: 3-point TTL Phase Difference Detection with single/continuous AF plus manual focusing
Exposure metering/control: Digital ESP, centre-weighted average and spot (2%) metering/ P, A, S, M plus 14 illustrated scene settings
White balance: Auto, Incandescent (x2), fluorescent (x3), sunny, cloudy, shade; Kelvin adjustment 2000-10,000 K; custom; +/- 7 levels of fine-tuning for all auto, Kelvin and custom settings plus WB bracketing (3 frames, 1-3 steps)
Flash type/synch speed/GN (ISO auto): slide pop-up flash/1/180 sec (1/4000 sec in Super FP mode)/ GN 11
ISO range: Auto (ISO 100-400), ISO 100, 200, 400; expansion to ISO 800, 1600
Sequence shooting: 2.5 fps for up to 3 frames RAW/TIFF (JPEG max. depends on image size/quality)
Storage Media: CompactFlash (Type I and II), Microdrive
Viewfinder: Eye-level TTL Optical Porro Finder (95% FOV)
LCD monitor: 1.8-inch Advanced Super View TFT LCD; 134,000 pixels; 100% coverage
Power supply: BLM-1 1500 mAh Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery
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