• Price: 595

  • Company: Olympus

  • Pros: Digital SLR with compact body, clever viewfinder, Four Thirds lens and flashgun compatibility, for a keen price. Sophisticated auto and manual controls produce excellent images.

  • Cons: Slightly fiddly menu-based controls instead of dedicated dials or buttons for manual exposure and manual focusing, but you can easily get used to these. E-1 not too much more expensive.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

With the E-300, Olympus has lowered the entry price into the digital SLR market even further, creating a hi-tech, high resolution and very compact camera with a list price that undercuts many of the less well-specified compact cameras. It offers an eight-megapixel resolution and a 14-45 mm lens for £595, but we can expect lower street prices. It’s the highest resolution available from a digital SLR that costs less than £3,000.

The E-300 is built to the Four Thirds specification, originally intended as a multi-vendor standard for digital SLRs, with an optimized relationship between lens and sensor. It provides standards for lens mount, autofocus, and flash interfaces, so different manufacturers’ products will be interchangeable. So far, only Olympus has built Four Thirds cameras, first with the professional-quality, five-megapixel E-1 in 2003 and now with the ‘prosumer’ E-300. Both use Kodak-sourced CCD sensors.

Because the sensor’s physical size (but not resolution) is defined by the specification, the field of view for a given lens is the same on any Four Thirds camera. Olympus introduced six high-quality but relatively pricey ‘E-Series’ Four Thirds lenses for the E-1, but with the E-300 it has also introduced two lower cost lenses.

The E-1 originally shipped as standard with a 14-45mm f/2.8 lens with ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass for greater contrast, but the E-300 includes a 14-45 mm f/3.5 lens that costs about half as much but doesn’t have ED glass. This lens is now an option with the E-1, dropping its price by about £200 to £899 on the street (or you can buy the body on its own for £799). There’s a new lower-cost 40-150mm telephoto zoom, too. Sigma is the only other manufacturer to support Four Thirds so far, and has introduced three zoom lenses at competitive prices.

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The E-300 doesn’t have the same high-durability metal body and weather seals as the E-1, but its plastic and aluminium body has a die-cast aluminium chassis and seems very well built. The E-1’s clever ultrasonic wave mirror cleaner is fitted to the E-300. 
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The viewfinder optics are unique – all other digital SLRs use a flip-up mirror and prisms to project the viewfinder image vertically from behind the lens up to the viewfinder at the top of the camera. 
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The internal ‘pentaprism’ gives the characteristic pyramid shape on top. With the E-300, Olympus takes advantage of the fact that there are no longer any film spools occupying space inside the body, so it uses a side-swinging mirror arrangement (Olympus calls it ‘optical porro’) that bounces the image sideways, then upwards and back through more mirrors and lenses to a viewfinder that’s offset slightly towards the left upper corner of the camera’s back panel. It seems to work as well as a pentaprism. The viewfinder is marginally less bright than the E-1’s, but you have to look hard to tell. 
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The flat top makes the E-300 look compact – it’s significantly smaller than the E-1, while at 624g it’s about 125g lighter. However it’s wider than the marginally taller Pentax *istDS, the smallest digital SLR to date, which weighs 605g.
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A double battery holder is available at extra cost for the E-300. This screws into its base and adds a second shutter button for vertical shooting as well. It’s battery-hungry compared to the E-1, possibly because it can use the monitor as an info screen prior to shooting.
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