Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Solid, but not quite a classic.
The Long Version: The E-300 is the second interchangeable-lens digital SLR from Olympus, and was the "consumer" model designed to complement the E-1. Packed with eight megapixels, it was announced in the same month as the D2x, *ist, and 7D, while the D70 and 20D were already ruling the camera-store shelves. That was tough competition then, and while the E-300 was an important addition to the Olympus E-system, it didn't exactly set the world on fire.
Time has moved on since then, and it shows. Olympus wasn't be able to claim the world's fastest auto focus for many more years, the stock 14-45 kit lens is far bigger than (and optically inferior to) their later 14-42 lenses, and the odd aesthetics of the side-mirror porro-prism body will only appear on one more camera before it disappears once again. As a final coup de grace, the inspiration for that unusual design – the half-frame Pen-F – has been reincarnated as the mirrorless E-P series that has made the entire Olympus entry-level optical SLR line obsolete.
Image quality is a tough one to compare to the contemporary market. It's unfair to pick a current SLR or its successor MILF (mirrorless interchangeable lens format, naturally) camera that's had an extra six years of Moore's Law on its side. It's tempting to put the camera and 14-45mm lens up against the typical advanced compact camera, which are still more expensive than a used E-300 kit; the older Oly comes out quite well in that comparison. The E-300 may only go to iso400 without amplification, but it captures raw images and doesn't lock up in the process. Sure, it's huge, but it's a real SLR even if it is dated and slow. That still counts for something, right?
LCD size is like tree rings for digital cameras. The E-300's back is not exactly dominated by its 1.8" display, which packs 135,000 pixels into a device that gives a reasonable approximation of what the photograph looks like. According to my math, that actually gives a greater pixel density than the Nikon D80's 2.5" screen, and exceeds many current digicams as well. The menu system really doesn't suffer from the smaller-than-contemporary screen size; it shows fewer options at a time, but everything is there and organized as well as they can be. I continue to not understand the icon that represents the auto-focus confirmation beep, but perhaps that's just me.
The counterpoint to the small display is a luxurious amount of room for controls, and although the buttons themselves are small they're well spaced. The camera back also has a generous thumb rest, which couples with the bizarre ridge on the hand grip to provide a very solid hold on the camera. While some of the ergonomics are dated, the E-300 remains an easy camera to use and learn.
Anyone who already has an E-300 will know enough to either use it or retire it according to their personal preferences. Frankly, it's nowhere near the evergreen status of the E-1, which remains one of the most sublime digital cameras ever built. But the weather-sealed build of the E-1 demands good lenses, while the more pedestrian E-300 does not. When it comes time to pay the credit-card bills that can be a real advantage.
Now selling used for less than a Nikon D40, the E-300 has suffered a little more than most from the ravages of depreciation. So conversely, today it's something of a bargain for an SLR. That makes the E-300 an excellent camera for a beginning photographer who wants to get started without picking a side in the perpetual Canon v. Nikon battle. It may not be a great camera, but it is a good one and it's an excellent value. Sometimes that's enough.
last updated 26 aug 2011