Conclusion - Pros
- Good resolution, almost as good as the more expensive Canon EOS 20D
- Good color, contrasty images with consumer-appeal 'punch' (can be adjusted)
- Noise free images at ISO 100
- Wide range of image parameter adjustment (color, tone, sharpness)
- Good automatic white balance, indoors better under fluorescent light than incandescent
- Kelvin white balance option, all white balance presets fine tunable
- Selectable color space (sRGB / Adobe RGB), although with a caveat (see cons)
- Effective long exposure noise reduction
- RAW mode provides the 'digital negative'
- Good kit lens, provides wide angle zoom (although some vignetting at telephoto)
- Indication of setting adjustments on viewfinder display (ISO etc.)
- Supersonic Wave Filter ensures no dust on sensor
- Excellent Compact Flash write performance (3 - 4 MB/sec with fast card)
- Customizable exposure steps (1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV)
- Good bright and detailed LCD monitor (although only 1.8")
- Fast startup time, although still not instant (Nikon D70 has set a benchmark)
- Supplied Olympus Master software is well designed, same-as-camera RAW conversion
- Customizable 'OK' button
- Powerful, lightweight Lithium-Ion battery
- Playback magnification up to 10x
- Orientation sensor
- Value for money
Conclusion - Cons
- Recommended sensitivity ISO 100 - 400, images at ISO 800 usable, ISO 1600 not really
- Demosaic artifacts on JPEG and Olympus Master processed RAW
- Images not per-pixel as 'crisp' as from other D-SLR's (image processing / low pass?)
- Moire artifacts can be detected in fine repeating detail
- Noise tends have the appearance of color mottle not 'film like' grain
- Metering bug sometimes left under-exposed images (isolated issue?)
- Auto focus provides just three focus points, although AF performance good
- Viewfinder slightly darker than E-1, seems smaller than EOS 300D / 20D
- Over-saturated Adobe RGB images
- Poor continuous shooting capability, small buffer
- No focus distance indicator on kit lens
- Flash must be raised for AF assist
- Potential to lose images if CF door is opened during write
- Only USB 1.1 (no USB 2.0 Hi-Speed?)
When Olympus first revealed the E-300 at Photokina last year it wasn't too much of a surprise, many of us had been expecting (wishing) them to introduce a 'consumer level' digital SLR with a Four Thirds system mount for some time. Indeed it was my opinion that Olympus should have started the whole Four Thirds system 'revolution' with a consumer level camera and lenses, but hey what would I know?. The E-300's pricing versus the competition is pretty keen, $999 for an eight megapixel digital SLR and a decent lens easily matches the Canon EOS 300D / Digital Rebel (which is 'only' six yes-megapixels-sell) , it undercuts the D70 and is some $500 cheaper than the nearest eight megapixel digital SLR (the Canon EOS 20D, although that is a more proficient piece of kit).
So overall we were pleasantly surprised to find out the E-300 had eight megapixels and a decent sound spec sheet. Then we saw the camera in the flesh, I'll be honest it's not the prettiest design. Olympus engineers have been 'clever' and produced a horizontal viewfinder so the camera is shorter, this has two effects, firstly it makes the camera look wider than it is and secondly it removes the resemblance to SLR's that most 'switchers' (those going from film SLR to digital SLR) are used to.
Good news though, in use the E-300 is all function, it's comfortable to hold and easy to understand it starts up in a couple of seconds, focuses quickly, has negligible shutter lag, writes images quickly and is overall quite a nice tool to shoot with. Yes the viewfinder seems a little small and perhaps a little darker than the E-1 but you get used to it, yes the body is plastic but you hardly notice that, yes there's only one command dial but who's counting? Lets not forget another unique Olympus feature, the Supersonic Wave Filter, a big name for a solution to a problem many D-SLR owners have to live with, dust on the sensor. It seems to work, we didn't experience any images with dust artifacts and haven't once needed to clean the E-300 (or our E-1).
Next we come to the reasons people buy digital SLR's, flexibility and speed. They buy because an SLR gives them the flexibility to chose lenses and be able to change the lens they use to suit a particular situation. The other area of expectation is the flexibility to use a range of ISO sensitivities ('film speeds') at will, to wander in to a church and switch up to ISO 1600 and shoot without worrying too much about image quality. Here's where the E-300 begins to falter, put simply the Kodak CCD doesn't seem to like being pushed to high sensitivities. It's fine between ISO 100 and 400 (although shadow noise can be a bit more than we'd like), at ISO 800 it's usable but noisy and to be honest ISO 1600 is pretty much no-go area unless you're posting lots of VGA images on the web (but then why would you need eight megapixels?).
The next effect on image quality is image processing, it's clear from what we've managed to achieve with RAW files from the E-300 that it's capturing more than the in-camera CPU is capable of extracting in that second or two it has to do all its work. We also had problems with the camera's metering system, not one camera but two full production camera's produced the same 'problem' (in our experience anyway) which lead to under-exposed images and use of exposure compensation where I wouldn't expect to need any.
So that's the negative stuff out of the way, on the positive side the camera demonstrates good resolution (really pretty close to the EOS 20D), can produce some excellent results especially when shooting RAW, has nice punchy color and tone balance, has a wide range of image processing parameters (so you can get what you prefer). Most importantly it works well as a photographic tool and doesn't hinder your progress in actually capturing a moment. All things taken into consideration, especially factoring value for money this camera deserves our Recommended rating. If you're a real stickler for image quality however you may wish to consider other cameras.