Olympus E-300 Digital SLR Camera

Olympus introduced its new 4/3 open digital standard last year with the E1, its first digital SLR. While the E1 was a good camera, in a market dominated by the battle for the consumer rather than professional digital SLR (DSLR) dollar, at $2,999 it wasn't going to steal too much business from Canon and Nikon. Olympus has now followed up with the E-300, and at $1,599 including lens it's much more competitive, at least on paper.

Like Canon's EOS 300D, the E-300 trims fat in areas the average photographer won't notice. Even so, it manages to look and feel like a more expensive camera. Its solid body has an aluminium chassis covered in Olympus's trademark sturdy plastic; like the C8080 this camera feels rock-solid.

Where most DSLRs feature both a colour LCD for using the menus and image playback and a monochrome LCD for displaying camera settings, the E-300 dispenses with the monochrome LCD altogether. Instead the colour LCD does double duty, using the larger screen real estate to show all your settings.

The E-300 is an 8 megapixel camera, using a Kodak sensor and an f3.5-f5.6, EZ 14-45mm zoom lens (28-90mm 35mm equivalent). Olympus has also introduced the EZ 40-150mm zoom lens (80-300mm 35mm equivalent) and in addition you've got access to the range of Olympus 4/3 lenses which, while not as extensive as the offerings from Canon or Nikon, is growing.

The E-300 has an unusual profile for an SLR, with a flat top and the viewfinder offset to the side. This is the result of its unique mirror arrangement, which uses a sideways rather than upwards winging mirror and a further series of mirrors to direct the light to the viewfinder.

A disadvantage of this is that most DSLRs have their pop-up flash on top of the hump containing the viewfinder's prism. Without this hump the E-300's pop-up flash needs extra length to stand as high as it does in other DSLRs. Even so, it doesn't stand as high as the flash on a Canon 300D. Potentially this will impact flash performance since it increases the likelihood of the lens casting shadows.

In terms of image quality the E-300 does well within its optimal shooting range. The 8 megapixel sensor produced great images at ISO 100 and 200 - lots of detail and with little evident noise. But at higher ISO ratings it could not produce the same kind of low-noise images seen from Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Image noise at ISO 400 was evident but within tolerable limits, but once you hit ISO 800 the noise became unacceptable compared with Canon and Nikon models. If I had to choose between a 6 megapixel Canon 300D or the 8 megapixel E-300 when shooting at ISO 800 or 1,600 - in low light or for action photography - I'm afraid I'd be leaving the Olympus in the bag.

The Olympus's other failing is in continuous shot speed. The camera will shoot at 2.5 frames per second up to 4 frames, which is the same as the Canon 300D. However, the 300D has now been superseded by the 350D, which dramatically improves continuous shot speed - 3fps up to 14 frames - while Nikon's D70, which has been around for some time, will shoot 3fps for up to 12 frames. Essentially, that means that the Olympus E-300 is a camera that will take great photos but in a much narrower range of circumstances than price-competitive models. To stay in the game, Olympus needs to m atch these key performance advantages that Canon and Nikon enjoy.

Price: $1,599; Vendor: Olympus; Phone: 1300 659 678; URL: www.olympusimaging.com.au

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