The E-system, introduced by Olympus in 2003, reminds us of the Olympus of old: lean, daring and technically very clever. Driving the new system is the industry's ambition to reduce the size of the 35mm format, so that cameras can be smaller and lighter.
A key innovation of the E-system is the use of near-telecentric lenses: the rays leave the lens nearly parallel, whether they're wideangle or telephoto. This simplifies the design not only of sensors but viewfinders as well, which helps keep cameras very compact.
The Olympus E-1 was the first camera to use the E-system, and although it's aimed squarely at the professional user, it offers a disappointingly small resolution of 4.9 megapixels.
The E-300 is the second camera to use the Olympus E-system, and with an 8-megapixel sensor, it's designed and priced for the mass market. At the same time it accepts all the pro-quality lenses of its sibling.
So, on paper, it offers a combination of innovation, low cost and high performance. The E-300 is one of the lightest and smallest DSLRs around. With its 14-45mm (28-90mm 35mm equivalent focal length) zoom that comes in the kit, it's not much larger or heavier than some fixed lens DSLRs.
The camera's compact, low profile is achieved by using mirrors instead of prisms to fold the light path and reverse the image. It's like one half of a binocular, so the eyepiece is located to one side of the lens. As a result you view through the lens well to the left of the camera's centre-line, making it easy to use for both left- and right-handed photographers.
The E-300 offers the usual range of camera features, such as four metering modes (Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual and Programmed), metering patterns ranging from a simple pattern evaluation based on three zones, to a 2% spot meter and auto-focus on three zones.
The shutter runs from a respectable 1/4000 sec up to 60 sec, depending on the mode selected, and flash synchronisation is 1/180 sec. Digital controls such as white balance, image processing to improve sharpness, saturation and contrast, as well as black and white and sepia modes can all be set - some via menus, some through their own buttons.
The various image sizes ranging from Olympus Raw (giving 13.4MB files) through to VGA resolution are easily set: the range of sizes offered is impressive and helpful.
Furthermore, the camera is PictBridge-compatible, and EXIF-compliant so you can store information on each shot. As the E-300 is a true SLR camera, no video recording is possible, but it can output to composite video.
How it handles
Controls are found on the top plate (a mode dial with on/off slider as well as a thumbwheel) and on the rear. On the back you'll find the usual plethora of buttons: one set to the left of the LCD screen, a navigational rosette to the right, an OK button, plus a few others. For the right-hand thumb, you'll find separate buttons for locking the auto-exposure reading and to change focusing zones.
Frequently-used controls, such as white balance, image size, flash mode, sensitivity, autofocus mode, metering pattern and exposure overrides, can all be set with one press of a button and a scroll of the thumbwheel.
The LCD screen is not large by current standards (1.8 inches on the diagonal), nor is it very high resolution at 134,000 pixels, but it delivers a bright and easily viewed image, even in quite sunny conditions. The text on the menus is easy to read, being a mix of white on black or bright blue.
Navigating the menus is easy, but the large size has the drawback that not all choices can be shown at once, so there's a lot of scrolling to do. Olympus needs to indicate more clearly that only part of a list is on view.
Easy use, easy error
In use the camera is reasonably responsive, with the wake-up time at about a second. This is acceptable, but it could be more willing. Once focused, shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter and getting your picture) is noticeable, but it's not too much of a problem.
More irritating is the fact that shots at high resolution in rapid succession are limited - we missed many shots waiting for the camera to write to memory.
While the mode dial for choosing different ways of exposure control or scene settings is easy to use, we found that we had to be careful not to knock the on/off switch and turn the camera off.
Similarly, while the dioptre correction control for the eye piece is simple to use, it's too easily knocked by accident, and this lead us more than once to puzzle why we couldn't see anything in focus. In the same vein, the shutter button is weighted so lightly that a first-pressure to focus and get a reading took a picture.
The viewfinder image is fairly bright but it's not always easy to judge focus. The bright red spots indicating the focus zone are large and bright, making them distractions instead of indications. We used the camera to photograph a BBC4 production, 'A digital picture of Britain', over two weeks of filming in tough winter conditions which included intense cold, damp days and very poor light.
The camera came through these testing conditions very well - it worked quietly, focused reasonably rapidly even in dim conditions, and dealt well with a full range of light.
Taken as a whole, the images with the 14-45mm zoom are fairly sharp, with good-to-acceptable white balance and they require little post-production work beyond expanding the Levels. The latter problem is the result of the camera's conservative use of the dynamic range - we had to increase both black and white points, to liven up the images.
Other weak points are the occasional errors in exposure, quite high noise levels at high sensitivities which limits the usefulness of a high ISO setting, and a tendency for highlights to be weak - that is, lacking detail and colour. We've also noticed a dip in lens performance at large apertures, which causes images taken in dim light to be somewhat soft.
What's the verdict?
Overall, this camera's performance will please all but the most critical users. It offers brilliant performance for its price point, while offering plenty of room to grow with its access to an expanding range of pro-quality flash units and lenses.