Olympus E-300

Introduction

Olympus introduced the E-300 in 2004, to provide a more consumer-friendly alternative to the heavier and more rugged E-1 with which they started the E-system of D-SLRs. The launch of the E-300 also coincided with the release of more affordable Olympus Four Thirds kit lenses: the 14-45 mm f/3.5-5.6 and first generation 40-150 mm f/3.5-4.5.

The E-300 was (and by most standards, still is) a peculiar looking D-SLR, with a flat top profile and relatively long body, more akin to a rangefinder-style body than an SLR-style body. This was achieved by substituting the pentaprism viewfinder of the E-1 with a porro-prism, which reflects the light sideways through the focusing screen and up to the viewfinder through a series of mirrors.

I acquired my E-300 in late 2015 (a few weeks prior to purchasing my E-1), as it was available at a keen price with two of the later kit lenses – the 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 ED and 40-150 f/4-5.6 ED – both of which were reportedly superior to their predecessors. My reasons for purchasing it were: to get a lower resolution body for my vintage lenses; and to see how porro-prism viewfinders compared with pentaprism viewfinders in use.

This post has been split into four sections, focusing on the physical design of the camera, the way it handles, the quality of its output, and my overall impressions of having owned and used it for a few months.

Design

The camera body is finished in a crinkle-patterned black plastic, with a slightly purplish metal trim plate over the top panel. Soft rubber with a leatherette-like pattern wraps around the hand grip, with a large ridge on the proudest part of the grip, and a few smaller ridges where the finger tips come to rest. Above this area is the small red window covering the receiver for the infrared remote control. As nice as the materials are, I don’t think that the body design integrates the differing textures too well on the front face of the camera. This is especially apparent around the grip, where the number of different lines makes it look quite busy and poorly harmonised. That being said, it’s not visible when the camera is held up to the eye during use.

On the back of the camera, the design is much cleaner, although it still looks a little busy where it meets the top plate. A lot of the perceived cleanliness of design is due to the control layout; although there are direct access buttons for most functions, including ISO, focus mode, white balance, and metering mode, the buttons are well spaced out, and placed into logical groups based upon the likely frequency with which they will be used. Augmenting the buttons is a single control wheel on the back of a pronounced thumb grip, and on the side of the grip is the CF card door. Unlike the E-1, the E-300 doesn’t have a release catch for the CF card door, meaning that you have to flick it open by inserting your thumb into a small groove. Although effective, I find it a little stiff at times, which can result in a pinched thumb.

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A log on the salt marsh at Aramoana, Dunedin, during sunset. Olympus E-300 with Olympus ZD 14-42 f/3.5-5.6 ED lens. 1/50 s, f/5.6, ISO 100.

By virtue of being based on mirrors rather than a prism, the viewfinder doesn’t protrude, giving an almost completely flat top plate above the lens. Next to the viewfinder is a pop-up flash, which extends about as far above the lens as most pentaprism-mounted flashes would. Immediately above the viewfinder is a hot shoe with contacts for Four Thirds system TTL flash guns.

Unlike the E-1 (or any E-x series Olympus, for that matter), the E-300 is not weather sealed. Given its intended market, this makes sense. However, I can verify that it will survive a light rain shower so long as no water is allowed to seep into the lens mount or the rear controls. It also lacks the E-x series’ dedicated white balance sensor, which would normally sit where the infrared receiver is located. Again, though, given its intended role as a less daunting sibling to the E-1, its somewhat understandable why the secondary white balance sensor was omitted.

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Trees in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens during a rain shower. Olympus E-300 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED lens. 1/60 s, f/5.6, ISO 1600.

In terms of control design, the only three let downs on the E-300, in my opinion, are the lack of a cable release socket, absence of a battery retaining clip in the battery compartment, and cheap feeling hard rubber covers for the ports. To be fair, I don’t use the ports very frequently, so the rubber covers aren’t too irksome. However, it is a bit disconcerting that the battery can drop onto the ground if the battery door is accidentally opened, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the only way of using a wired release with the E-300 is to source the optional battery grip.

While not as cohesive, integrated or developed in places as it could be, the design of the E-300 is generally fit for purpose, especially in terms of the build quality (for what it is), number and physical layout of the direct access control buttons.

Handling

As much as I don’t like looking at the grip on this camera, I have to admit, it’s one of the most comfortable camera grips I have experienced. It fits my hand perfectly, and all of the controls on the right hand side of the back panel are within easy reach of my thumb, even when I have the camera held up to my eye. This is all helped by the relatively lightweight body, which reduces fatigue on extended shoots. However, it should be noted that due to the truncated left hand side, it is more comfortable to brace the camera when the lens is physically a little longer and larger in diameter than the newer Four Thirds kit lenses – something like the Zuiko 14-54 mm f/2.8-3.5 feels about right.

Along with good ergonomics, the handling is helped by sufficiently responsive autofocus and reasonably short shutter lag, which reassure you that the camera will take the picture when you want it to.

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This grey duck and her ducklings were searching for shelter from the rain at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens. Olympus E-300 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED lens. 1/160 s, f/5.6, ISO 400.

The shutter and mirror movement is well dampened, helped by the physically smaller size of the mirror compared with most D-SLRs. That smaller mirror has a side effect, though, in that it contributes to the smaller viewfinder of the camera. Due to the porro-prism design, the viewfinder is also noticeably dimmer than equivalent pentaprism viewfinders. I still find it easier in low light than a number of electronic viewfinders, but the catch-22 is that the lack of image stabilisation makes it much harder to handhold in low light than either of the electronic viewfinder-equipped cameras that I own (the PEN E-P5 and OM-D E-M5).

With only three autofocus points, the focus system is nowhere near as flexible as its modern counterparts, and was already starting to look dated at the time that the camera was produced. In lower light, the situation worsens, as the focus system starts to struggle. The flash can be raised to provide a focus assist light, but that is not an option in some situations, such as photographing sensitive wildlife or working near a busy road. Manual focus could be an alternative in such situations, but due to the relatively small and dim viewfinder, it can be difficult to focus the camera accurately or quickly. This extends to manual focus lenses, which means that the camera is less than ideal at fulfilling one of the roles for which I bought it.

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Steps on the railway footbridge at Ravensbourne, Dunedin. Olympus E-300 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED lens. 1/1600 s, f/4, ISO 100.

I find the digital interface of the camera is a little clunky. A lot of this has to do with the screen, which like that of the E-1, is a 1.8″, 134,000 pixel display that was made before a lot of significant improvements in technology for small screens. Because it is not as colour accurate as one would hope, I tend to use the screen purely for viewing the menus, and the information panel which is offered in lieu of a dedicated LCD for displaying camera settings. Speaking of the menus, they are laid out differently to later model Olympus cameras, although looking at the menu system of the C-4040, E-1, and E-20N that pre-date the E-300, it seems likely that experimentation was still under way to find a satisfactory menu standard menu structure.

In good light, with a decent autofocus lens, the E-300 is a nice camera to use, although it does show its age in terms of its interface. The E-1, in my eyes, handles a little better, mostly thanks to its larger and brighter pentaprism-based viewfinder, and good autofocus assist system for low light.

Image Quality

Considering its age, and the fact that at 8 MP it’s half the resolution of my current Micro Four Thirds camera bodies, I’ve been quite happy with the images coming out the camera. Photos are able to be enlarged on high-resolution monitors with a good degree of success, especially when a higher quality lens is used, and I expect that printing will be much the same (up to A3 size, anyway). Colours are generally nice, although they can falter in some more challenging circumstances; I attribute this to the absence of the secondary white balance sensor featured on the E-1. Still, these instances have been rare, and can generally be corrected by adjusting the RAW file appropriately.

As with the E-1, a surprising amount of detail, including in the highlights, can be recovered in Capture One. However, it is still afflicted with the E-1’s warm cast in recovered highlights. On the whole, dynamic range is reasonable, but compared side-by-side with the latest sensors of the same size, it becomes evident that a lot of progress was made in the decade after the camera was released.

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Sunset over North Dunedin. Olympus E-300 with Olympus ZD 40-150 mm f/4-5.6 ED lens. 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 400.

Noise performance is similar to that of the E-1, with decent performance up to ISO 400, and more visible noise at ISO 800. Interestingly, some of my ISO 800 shots with the E-300 appear to be noisier than those of the E-1. This may be due to the E-300’s plastic body, which will not be as good at dissipating heat as the magnesium alloy body of the E-1. At its top setting of ISO 1600, the E-300 has a slight edge over the E-1 (to my eyes, anyway), which reflects the slightly newer sensor amongst other things. Although it is still noisier than I have grown accustomed to, with the right subject, a reasonably pleasing result can be obtained at ISO 1600. That being said, I still find that it’s best to try to maintain an ISO 400 limit for the best possible quality from the camera.

The E-300 is capable of good image quality, especially factoring in its age. As with the E-1, I prefer the E-300’s colours a little to the current Micro Four Thirds colours. That withstanding, it’s still amazing to see how technological developments over the past decade have significantly improved the image quality that digital cameras are capable of.

Conclusion

The E-300 has been one of the better overall cameras that I’ve used. Imbued with good build quality and decent image quality for its age, it’s nice to use in all but the lowest of light. Being one of the cheaper second-hand cameras in its class, even in very good condition, I believe it represents good value for money. However, if you want to use older, manual focus lenses, there are better options; if you want to stay with Olympus, the E-1, E-3, or any of the live-view capable bodies up to 10 MP are better options. In terms of other systems, I have had good experiences with Pentax (the K10D and K-7) and assume that comparable SLRs would be similar. From what I’ve seen, a lot of people are getting good results off older lenses with the Sony mirrorless cameras.

Be it a first D-SLR purchase, or a cheap camera to keep in reserve, the E-300 certainly warrants closer inspection.

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