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Olympus EVOLT/E-300 Field Report at the Distillery District
Seven months after the release of the Olympus EVOLT E-300, the MyFourThirds.com guys finally got the chance to take a production version out into the field (see previous review) with the task in mind of providing members with some semi-interesting reading material. This write up has taken us much longer than expected, so we hope that you still find it a worth while read.
Following many months of badgering Olympus to donate camera equipment to the MyFourThirds.com founders, we finally succeeded in obtaining a camera and a whole slew of lenses - on a five week loan. Nevertheless, Alan and Mario were like kids opening presents on a snowy Christmas morning. The following items were received via FedEx:
The outing took place at the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. Hip and happening, the location would provide for shooting scenarios of all types (tight quarters and long paths for every focal length). One particularly interesting encounter occurred with a 20-something blonde when mounting the 300mm f/2.8 on the E-300:
HANDLING AND PERFORMANCE
The following sections will describe our observations during the use of this equipment on location. No scientific tests were used during the making of this review but we are engineers by trade after all.
IN YOUR HANDS (ERGONOMICS AND FUNCTIONALITY)
Given the promised size advantage the Four Thirds standard was to provide over the competition, the E-300 body certainly isn't smaller than some of its competitors (including the tiny Rebel XT). Neither of us minded. Unlike the Rebel XT whose vertical length left your pinky looking for a place to rest, the E-300 was superior in terms of "fitting" in your hand. It was slightly bigger than the Rebel XT and better for it - no other camera manufacturer seems to understand that camera bodies can and should mold to your palm and fingers.
Depending upon which camera system you are coming from, the control layout could require some getting used to. Once you get the hang of moving your left hand from below the lens to the back of the camera, all controls are conveniently within reach. However, what is sorely missing is a second control dial which should be located behind the shutter releases for use by the fore-finger. Without this, your thumb will get an intense workout when moving from the buttons below to the dial above to, for instance, change the ISO setting or control the exposure over ride.
Immediately comes to question is the brightness of the Optical Porro Finder on the E-300. When comparing kit lens to kit lens at Henrys Photo, the Rebel XT viewfinder outshines what appears to be a fairly dim viewfinder. It's a disappointment to be certain and we hope this will be the worst Olympus ever produces.
On the other hand, the E-300 gives you a significantly better usage of pixels. Let us explain. The viewfinder accuracy of the E-300 is a very respectable 94% while that of the Rebel XT is an uncommonly low 75%. Now how does this transfer into pixels you say? Well both cameras possess sensors which capture 8MP of data - however when viewing a scene through the Rebel XT viewfinder, the sensor is capturing only 6MP of data (versus 7.5MP on the E-300). After you upload your images and think back to the original composition, you will notice that there are 2MP of extra data in the frame of which you were not expecting due to the poor viewfinder accuracy. This results in a crop and an actual 6MP image. The 75% viewfinder is reason alone to seriously consider alternative cameras. We like our results to show exactly what we compose and expect (just another reason we both own the E-1 with its 100% viewfinder).
Moving on to the exposure metering, the camera's exposure was tack on when viewing high contrast areas within the cross hairs in the viewfinder. We did no comparison test but the results were reliable, consistent and accurate in our experience.
Similar in dimension and slightly greater in resolution, sunlight was never an issue with the bright LCD on the EVOLT - the same couldn't be stated for the Rebel XT. We struggled to see the picture in bright daylight. While the 10x zoom came standard on both cameras, it is a great improvement over the 4x zoom found on the Olympus E-1. Let's all hope a firmware upgrade becomes available to enhance that particular piece of machinery. Another improvement over the E-1 is the EVOLT's one button press to obtaining your photo's histogram. Again...firmware upgrade anyone?
We found that there was one fundamental problem with the functionality of the LCD and the playback button: when pressing the "Play" button while the initial preview is showing, that particular button press does not register with the camera. You must wait for the preview to complete before pressing the "Play" button in order to keep your latest image in view. This is not at all acceptable and very frustrating for any user. On the other hand, the back colour LCD does a good job of displaying all camera settings in one easy-to-read format. It almost makes you want to forget about those top level monochrome read outs. Almost - but we'd rather save battery life and keep the traditional read out next to the top level controls.
THE SHUTTER/MIRROR NOISE
This is nothing to write home about. Both the E-300 and the Rebel XT exhibit a very solid "clunk-whirr" sound from the mirror and shutter. They are not noticeably different from each other and certainly what you'd expect from DSLRs at this price-point.
THE BUILT-IN FLASH
We were impressed with the performance of the built in flash with portraits in low light situations (we did not test fill-in flash performance). Exposure and range were very good in all situations however even though the flash raises higher than most built-in flashes, red-eye was a persistent problem throughout.
While this was a valiant effort to introduce the first budget 8MP DSLR, the sensor technology built into the E-300 does need improvement when compared to the competition. Noise really starts to kick-in at ISO 400 which is approximately equivalent to the noise levels at ISO 800 on the E-1 and ISO 1600 on the Rebel XT. Canon is no doubt the technology leader in this aspect and if low-light conditions are your cup of tea, you have a clear advantage with the Rebel XT.
If you have a workflow that includes NoiseNinja in your artillery, it will do very nicely to clean up ISO 400 images and above for large prints. In fact, we were very impressed with Noise Ninja's results with photos taken at ISO 1600 (no we weren't paid to say that but we wish we were) and so we wouldn't hesitate to suggest you turn up the ISO if you're in those dark corridors at sunset.
KISS MY GLASS
In full honesty, our opinion is that the best reason for amateurs and enthusiasts to buy into the Four Thirds system is because of the lenses currently available for it. If you don't already own lenses from another manufacturer, and sometimes even if you do, all those claims about there being a plethora of Canon lenses available for DSLRs and thus being the reason why you should buy Canon, may be nothing more than a well fed marketing ploy to the masses. We consider the 14-54mm f2.8/3.4 the benchmark and here's why:
Canon does not have a normal zoom to compete with Olympus. The 17-40mm L lens from Canon was not available for testing but it's price point is above anything tested here and its zoom range is very limited. And while the budget Olympus lens beats out the Canon lens for chromatic aberrations, we would strongly recommend the 14-54mm which embarrasses both in that category and others.
The 40-150mm Olympus Zuiko was a joy to use however we had no baseline to compare it to. At its price point, it performed well optically and is of good build quality. The auto-focus could have been a lot faster though.
We'll leave the 300mm f/2.8 review to Doug Brown.
Can we state that the Olympus E-300 is *the* entry level DSLR to own today? We don't know. We haven't compared it to the new Nikon D50 nor the Pentax *ist DS.
Can we state that the Olympus E-300 is better than the Canon Rebel XT? Similarly - no. Truthfully the technical aspects of the camera body don't matter all that much to your final results. While it can be argued that sensor technology may be better on one than the other, opinions may vary depending on whether ISO performance, dynamic range, colour palette or megapixels are your priority. Everything else being equal (and it more or less is), hold every camera you are considering in your hands and choose what feels most comfortable and seems more intuitive to use.
Can we state that the lens offering from Olympus is better than those from Canon? That would be a resounding yes! While Canon does have the largest variety of lenses on the market, their selection cannot match the quality-for-price ratio of the Olympus Digital Zuiko lenses - let alone providing the most coverage per lens leading to less lenses in your gadget bag.
Lenses should be the DSLR shopper's primary reason for buying into a particular DSLR system. DSLR bodies come and go like an old pair of boxers. Lenses are what you marry into - and this is the best reason why we would favour the Olympus E-300.
Below is a graphical representation of our opinions on the various different aspects of a digital camera. These MFT charts are organized to list camera properties from best to worst meaning that if you value properties that are located on the right-hand side of the chart, this may not be the camera for you.
Discuss the article in the Olympus E-300 forum.
Copyrighted by Alan and Mario
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