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Olympus EVOLT E-300
8-megapixel digital SLR plus lens for under $1000

The Editors, March, 2005

Olympus’s new EVOLT E-300 is an 8-megapixel interchangeable-lens digital SLR that sells for under $1000 including a wide-to-tele zoom lens, making it just 2¼3 the cost of the next-lowest-priced 8-megapixel digital SLR. And that’s just for starters. This sturdy camera also features good performance, a unique design, a Supersonic Wave Filter that automatically shakes dust off the image sensor every time you switch the camera on, and lots more.

The EVOLT (according to Olympus’s literature, the name comes from “Evolve from the ordinary, revolt against tradition”) is the second camera in the company’s “designed to be digital from the git-go” Four Thirds system. The first was the very rugged 5-megapixel E-1 pro model introduced in the summer of 2003. The basic concept is that cameras designed to be digital from the start can offer some advantages over those adopted from 35mm film SLRs. The latter save on development costs and allow AF 35mm SLR photographers to use all of their film-camera lenses when they buy the same manufacturer’s digital body, but also involve compromises, especially when wide-angle lenses are used, because digital image sensors need the light to strike them pretty much square on, while film can accept light striking it at an angle. The Four Thirds system image sensors and lenses are designed to work together to optimize image quality by sending light to the chip in a more straight-in path.

The EVOLT features a unique design, and lots of pixels for the low price.

The EVOLT’s Kodak-produced Four Thirds system image sensor has a 4:3 aspect ratio, closer to that of standard 8x10 prints than the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm SLR-derived digital SLRs, so less image area must be cropped off when making prints. The sensor is also much smaller (17.3x13.0mm) than a full 35mm film frame (36x24mm), and smaller than the image sensors in typical lower-cost digital SLRs (23.7x15.6mm), which has the side effect of doubling the effective focal length of any lens used on the Four Thirds-system cameras: Put a 100mm lens on the EVOLT, and it frames like a 200mm lens on a 35mm SLR. This is great for telephoto fans and not so great for wide-angle fans, although Olympus sells the EVOLT with a 14–54mm zoom lens (which frames like a 28–90mm zoom on a 35mm SLR), and has just introduced a 7–14mm zoom, which frames like a 14–28mm zoom on a 35mm SLR. Besides being designed specifically to work with the Four Thirds image sensors, the Olympus Zuiko Digital Specific lenses for the EVOLT and E-1 are “smart”—they communicate with the camera body and store data in the header portion of the image file that enables firmware- and software-assisted correction of edge shading and pincushion and barrel distortion with wide-angle and zoom lenses.

The EVOLT provides both single-shot and continuous AF modes, plus manual focusing, and AF with manual tweaking. Continuous AF mode features focus tracking (predictive AF): the camera determines from successive focus readings the subject’s speed and direction of motion, calculates from that its predicted position at the exact moment of exposure, and adjusts focus accordingly, thus compensating for the distance the subject travels during the brief lag between the moment you fully depress the shutter button to make the exposure, and the moment the exposure is actually made.

Three AF areas—left, center and right, indicated by targets in the viewfinder—provide a wide autofocusing “hot” zone. You can choose any of the areas, or all three for wide-area AF, by pressing the focusing area button and rotating the control dial until the desired icon appears on the LCD monitor. The central AF sensor is a cross-type, the left and right sensors line types. A red dot briefly appears in the viewfinder to indicate which sensor was used to determine focus.

Manual focusing is done in the usual SLR manner, by rotating the lens’s focusing ring. But as on the E-1, it’s electronic, not mechanical. This has the advantage of allowing you to set the focusing direction (clockwise from close to infinity, or counterclockwise from close to infinity) to suit your habits, but also the disadvantage of not allowing you to focus with the camera switched off (you can activate the Reset Lens feature via one of the LCD monitor menus to allow you to reset focus when the power is off).

The AF system functions in light levels down to EV 0 (ISO 100), and the built-in flash unit and accessory Olympus flash units emit an AF-assist beam to help out in dim light.

The controls are easy to find and use.

You can choose among three metering modes by pressing the metering-mode button and rotating the control dial until the desired indication appears on the LCD monitor: multi-segment Digital ESP (Electro Selective Pattern), center-weighted average, or spot (2% of the image area).

Shooting modes include shiftable program AE (just rotate the control dial to change the shutter speed or aperture), shutter- and aperture-priority AE, metered manual, and a host of subject/scene modes. You can select several of the scene modes (portrait, landscape, close-up, action, night-scene) the same way you select the “serious” shooting modes, simply by rotating the mode dial to the desired icon. The mode dial also has a scene position, via which you can select many more subject/scene modes using the LCD monitor. While film-camera subject/scene modes just favor faster shutter speeds or larger or smaller apertures, and perhaps set the focus mode, digital-camera subject/scene modes can do more. With the EVOLT, they also do such things as tweak color rendition (making blues and greens more vivid in landscape mode, for example) and adjust contrast and sharpening. While serious photographers will probably prefer to set everything themselves, the subject/scene modes are great for less-experienced shooters, and can speed things up for even more-serious folk. The monitor even displays a sample image and explanation of what the chosen scene mode does.

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