Today, all the manufacturers are talking about digital-specific lenses. And while experience demonstrates there are plenty of film-oriented lenses that make excellent pictures in digital, the theories behind digital-specific lenses are persuasive. But nobody provides anywhere near thirty or forty digital lenses. And as much as Canon and Nikon built reputations on their optics, neither of the tussling two currently offers the most such lenses. That distinction goes to another manufacturer.
In fact, quite a few distinctions go to other manufacturers. We've written plenty about the in-body AntiShake system of Konica Minolta, the dual-size pixels of Fujifilm, the auto-cleaning imager of Olympus. Each of these features is a serious improvement in its own right. And neither Canon nor Nikon has any of them. Did neither have the R&D to develop such technologies? Did they imagine no one would care? Were they too focused on what they were already doing, as they rolled past the seesaw?
Who's Got The Lenses?
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise, but it probably will anyway, for most people to learn that Olympus currently supplies the largest number of digital-specific lenses. Olympus was the first in this country to get loud about digital-specific lenses, a gospel that rose with the advent of the E-10, their first "pro" model, with a non-interchangeable 4x zoom. They're preaching the same sermon over their interchangeable-lens models, the E-1 and E-300 (Evolt). And, of course, they've been preaching the Four Thirds standard, which has great arguments in its favor but without much of a dent beyond those two cameras.
We've noted before that there are many markets under the banner of "pro" in photography, and not all of them share the same needs. The pro in the Olympus expression of cameras might have been a bit more like the medium-format user of yore, wielding a Bronica or Mamiya rollfilm camera. It's a perfectly legitimate take on the market, and the E-series cameras were capable of exceptional precision, but were not designed with the rat-a-tat world of photojournalism in the forefront of attention. The E-10, E-20, and finally the E-1 interchangeable model, were fast enough, but not the fastest.
Their latest model, the E-300, improves slightly on that score, swinging its conceptual inspiration away from the medium-format world and more toward the photojournalist world that most people inhabit.
Olympus describes the new camera as a prosumer model, more lightly constructed than the battleaxe E-1. It has a lot more pixels, however—8MP versus the 5MP of the earlier model. It also includes a pop-up flash, with all the freedoms and limitations that come with it, absent from the "pro" model.
In view of the E-1's exceptional abilities at ISO equivalencies of 800 and higher, it's a surprise to find 400 the top speed of the E-300. But then, the E-1's use at higher speeds usually requires shooting in RAW format, and working on the picture noise in software. The E-300 shoots RAW, but maybe the target market would rather shoot in JPEG, because maybe they have things on their agendas besides photo-editing. Most digicams are acceptable at speeds up to 400, and the E-300 is second to none on that account. Maybe Olympus made a marketing decision to uphold the best possible JPEG for this non-professional customer. And though cameras above 800 may sometimes save the day, when grainy is better than nothing, they don't do it with the best possible JPEG.
So although a RAW setting is present, it may not be the most-used feature of the E-300. It's probably just as well, as shooting RAW and SHQ files fill the camera's buffer after four pictures rapid-fire. As HQ JPEGS, you can shoot up to seven frames in a burst, before the buffer fills.
Using its best possible JPEG, the E-300 produces a spectacular picture. It's very crisp and well-detailed, and the color tones are clean and delicious. If cameras are bought for the picture quality they deliver, the E-300 should sell well.
The E-300 having an 8-megapixel imager, is bound to be compared with the Rebel XT, also an 8MP product priced about the same. (To be exact, the Olympus makes a 7,990,272-pixel picture and the Canon makes a 8,185,344-pixel picture, the 195,072 pixel difference being a slender margin for the XT) But those eight megapixels are distributed quite differently in the two cameras, a result of the 4:3 frame format of the Olympus versus the 3:2 of the Canon.
Which format is "better," 4:3 or 3:2? We have no idea. We use both regularly, and sometimes we're glad we used one or the other. The 3:2 format, being wider relative to its height, distributes its pixels over an area that favors horizontal, panoramic subjects. The 4:3 format distributes its pixels in a way favoring the vertical.
These are not enormously different frame formats, and unless someone shoots only horizontals or only verticals, probably not a big deal. We find ourselves cropping 3:2 originals down to 4:3 fairly regularly, and vice-versa, because pictures come in all shapes.
All the Olympus lenses we've tested have been stunning performers. The snappy, crisp output of the E-300 starts with the lens, which one way or another validates Olympus' claim for quality. At press time, the company announced the introduction of a 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, at a $799 price that could appeal to the buyer of the E-300 (whose kit includes a 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom).
A couple months ago, the company released one of its most impressive lenses, an ultrawide 7-14mm (whose angle-of-view is approximately that of a 14-28mm lens on a 35). Its view is actually wider than that of the fisheye, but it does not give a curved fisheye view. It is remarkably rectilinear—that is, straight lines look straight, or almost so—even at the edges. What looks like distortion is sometimes inevitable, simply because there's no "undistorted" way for the human eye to see as wide an angle as this lens provides. It sees "forward," "downward," and "sideways" all at the same time, taking-in a field that for us to see requires moving our eyes in our heads.