The compact consumer cameras I've used in the past year or two are excellent. However, their capabilities are limited. They can't capture indoor...

Share story

The compact consumer cameras I’ve used in the past year or two are excellent.

However, their capabilities are limited. They can’t capture indoor action without a flash, most can’t shoot at ISO 800 or 1600, and their fixed zoom lenses can’t get close-ups when far away.

To accomplish such feats, it takes a more capable camera with interchangeable lenses — a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

So when I began looking for a digital SLR (DSLR) camera to suit avid amateurs like myself, Olympus offered to let me try its Evolt-300 ($800 body only) with a range of lenses — the Zuiko ED 14-45mm (28-90mm film camera equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 ($250), the 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent) f/3.5-4.5 ($180), and the 50-200mm (100-400mm equivalent) f/2.8-3.5 ($1,000).

Olympus DSLR camera systems are designed from scratch as completely digital, which means the camera, lenses and flash units can be upgraded to take advantage of improved technology simply by downloading firmware. For example, there have been firmware improvements for color and low-light focusing capabilities.

Olympus now offers 10 digital lenses with three more coming by the end of the year. Digital lenses are designed to work with pixels rather than film and said to be better able to maintain sharpness and color definition, especially near the edges when shooting with a wide-angle lens.

Olympus DSLR cameras use a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the 3:2 ratio others use, which means the Olympus sensor and images are slightly more square than the longer shape used by Nikon and Canon, for example.

One reported advantage of the 4:3 ratio is it can support lenses that are slightly smaller and lighter with a large aperture that can maintain sharpness across the whole frame.

Unique to Olympus DSLR cameras is the Supersonic Wave Filter, which vibrates at startup (35,000 times a second) to remove dust from the image sensor that could otherwise appear on the images.

Dust in the camera isn’t a widespread problem in consumer cameras with fixed lenses, but with DSLR cameras, every time you remove a lens the camera is open to collect dust, which can be a problem.

Some of the Evolt’s other features include 8 million pixels, built in pop-up flash, support for CompactFlash and Micro Drive storage media, storage of RAW and JPEG files of different sizes, auto and manual focus, exposure settings that include automatic, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, as well as programmed portrait, macro, landscape, night and sports settings.

Now let’s move on to how the camera performs in this photographer’s hands.

When the Evolt arrives, I charge up the battery, set the date and time, load my 1GB CompactFlash memory card and notice it can hold 180 images in SHQ (super high quality) JPEG and 72 images in RAW. I twist on the 40- to 150-mm lens and start shooting.

Generally, I shoot with the flash off and the exposure setting on shutter priority. For indoor family shots, I usually start with the shutter at 1/125 and the ISO at 400.

After checking the first shot on the view screen I may have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the ISO (or both) to get enough light for a decent picture. Today, these settings seem to work since there’s light coming through the windows.

Later, I take the Evolt with a long telephoto lens to my daughter’s karate dojo. There I need a faster shutter speed (around 1/250) and a higher ISO (800-1600) to get enough light.

Back at home, I import the images from the camera to my iPhoto Library and open them for editing with Photoshop Elements. The family portraits look good with a wide range of tonal quality and color.

The action shots I’m able to shoot at ISO 400 or 800 look quite good, but when I have to push the ISO to 1600, the images are a bit noisy. (Noise is the artifacts and mottling that appears on the image when there isn’t enough light and the ISO is high.) Photoshop Elements is able to clean up much of the noise, but not all.

An Olympus spokesperson notes that the company is aware of the ISO noise issue and improvements are likely to come in firmware updates.

I’ve been using the Evolt a lot lately (mainly indoors), and the results are fairly consistent — excellent, except when I have to push the ISO to 1600 and when I shoot with a telephoto lens and do additional cropping.

Those images aren’t all keepers. Still, my consumer camera can’t even come close to capturing this kind of flash-free indoor action.

In sum: The Evolt handles all but the toughest challenges very well.

If you don’t mind shooting with a flash and don’t use a long telephoto lens, this camera is an excellent choice and costs less than the Nikon and Canon equivalents, for example. For more detailed technical reviews of the Evolt-300, go to www.dpreview.com and www.imaging-resource.com.

The concluding sentence of the Imaging Resource review summarizes my opinion: “If you’re shopping for a digital SLR, and don’t already own a bagful of Canon or Nikon lenses, the Olympus E-300 Evolt deserves a close look.”

Next, I’ll try the Nikon D70s, and that will be the last DSLR before I actually pick one and, I hope, help you choose for yourself. Stay tuned.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted