A 12-megapixel ultra-compact
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
Among Olympus' Summer 2007 introduction of nine new consumer cameras, the FE-300 stands out by offering a full 12 megapixel of resolution at an affordable price (US$299.99 list). Only a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable, at any price. Add a high-res LCD, face recognition, image stabilization, and the FE-300 certainly is an attractive deal.
Available in silver and black, the ultra-compact Olympus FE-300 reminds me, in spirit, of the Chrysler 300. The big Chrysler offers intimidating power at an affordable price. The Olympus FE-300 offers massive resolution at an affordable price. You simply can't argue with more resolution. Sure, it fills up memory cards faster, but who cares; they cost so little these days. So no matter what the future brings, and it will unoubtedly be more resolution yet, getting one today that already hits the 12 megapixel mark means your camera won't be obsolete anytime soon (unless the photography industry pulls an Intel and all of a sudden declares megapixel meaningless).
While assessing or comparing the FE-290 is somewhat difficult, the similarities and differences between the lower end FE-280 and the higher-end FE-300 are very clear. The two cameras look almost identical, and they have pretty much the same features as well. The biggest difference is that the FE-280 is an 8-megapixel camera whereas the FE-300 packs 12. For that you pay an extra hundred dollars. The list price of the FE-300 is US$299 versus $199 for the FE-280. While the two cameras look about the same in the pictures on this page, they feel different. The FE-280 is a genuine ultra-slim, being just 0.65 inches thick and weighing 3.8 ounces without battery. The FE-300 is thicker -- 0.87 inches -- and also a bit heavier. That's about the difference between an ultra-slim and an ultra-compact. There are a few other minor differences we'll get to, but thickness and resolution are the two biggies.
Resolution is king
The earliest digital cameras had resolutions of lelss than a megapixel. Eventually, the 1-megapixel barrier was broken and then the race was on. For a good while, 3.2 megapixel was the norm, and some low end 3.2mp cameras can still be found. Then it was on to four, five and six megapixel. In the summer of 2007, most digital cameras are seven megapixel, with the 10 megapixel barrier for consumer digicams having been broken sometime in 2006. And now you can get this 12-megapixel Olympus for under US$300.
12-megapixel means you can get 4,000 x 3,000 pixel images. If you print at 200 dots per inch, that means 20 x 15 inch enlargements are possible. It also means you can drop away three quarters of an image and still get a decent print. With this much resolution, you can also zoom in and see minute details (as long as the picture is sharp enough, of course). Finally, a 12-megapixel camera won't be obsolete anytime soon, so the extra money is well spent in every respect.
The camera itself
The FE-300 is handy enough to take anywhere. It comes in silver or black, has a 3X optical zoom and a 4X digital zoom for a totaly possible magnification of 12X. The camera has a bright 2.5-inch display with 230k pixel resolution. There is a backlight boost button, and the screen is sharp enough to let you zoom into a picture and see how good a picture actually is or if you need to take another shot (if the subject is still around). There are very few controls. Push the button with the red camera icon to record. Push the button with the green triangle to review. The zoom is operated by a ring around the shutter. On the back of the camera is a large, square 4-way navigation control with an "ok" button in its center. The four sides of the navigation control double to cycle through frequently used settings: flash, focus, selt timer, and exposure. Below that are the Menu button and one that lets you delete pictures and set print options.
The FE-300 uses a combination of mode dial and onscreen menus to select the shooting mode. The mode dial lets you select automatic, program, image stabilization, portrait, landscape, guide, movie, and scene. In scene mode you can select night + portrait, sport, indoor, candle, self portrait, sunset, fireworks, behind glass, cuisine, documents, audtion and smile shot. The three underwater modes of the FE-280 are missing.
The "smile" mode is interesting. When the camera detects a smiling face in shooting standby mode, it takes three frames in high-speed sequential shooting automatically (or you can do it manually). While this mode is selected, the self-timer lamp blinks. People's smiles vary, of course, and the camera ill not always be able to detect it. Still, a clever idea.
"Guide" sort of guides you through various scenarios and sets the camera properly. This mode also lets you preview a scene through a multi-frame window that shows how the picture looks with four different settings. You then pick what suits you best.
The FE-300, like other Olympus cameras, has both a macro and a super-macro mode. That can be a bit cumbersome. As someone who enjoys macro photography, I was surprised to see that the FE-300 only lets you get to four inches whereas with the less expensive FE-280 you can get as close as two inches. That can make a big difference.
Among the interesting features of the FE-300 is "fine zoom," which allows you to zoom in up to 19X by combining optical zoom and image cropping. Image quality is not compromised as there is no data manipulation like in digital zoom.
Like the FE-280, the FE-300 has face detection that can pick out faces, make sure they are in focus, and also optimize exposure of them. It can even follow moving faces!
Digital image stabilization uses higher ISO sensitivity and faster shutter speed to reduce or eliminate blur, even if the camera or the subject is moving.
"Perfect Fix" is a feature that lets you fix images in the camera itself. You can lighten shadows, eliminaate red-eye, sharpen, and so on. This definitely does not replace image processing on your PC, but it may come in handy.
The FE-300 has the Olympus TruePic III image processor chip, initially developed for the company's professional dSLR, for superior color, sharper detail, and les noise.
The FE-300 has a stunningly high maximum sensitivity of ISO 6400 (the FE-280 maxes out at ISSO 1600). However, ISO 3200 and 6400 are only available in 3-megapixel mode or less.
Movie and audio
The FE-300 has a 640 x 480 movie mode with sound, and it shoots at 30 frames per second for lifelike video. Disappointingly, if you want to use the optical zoom for movies, you can't have sound. It is either one or the other. Also, there are no cool/fancy movie modes like you find in several other brands.
Sound is alsoo not a strong side of this camera. There is no voice recording mode, and sound clips attaached to still images are limited to four seconds.
Memory and Storage
Like the 8-mp FE-280, the FE-300 comes with a nice 48MB of built-in storage. That won't last long when you shoot in full 12-megapixel mode, but it can tide you over till you can pop in a new memory card or upload pictures. As far as removable storage goes, the FE-300 uses the xD-Picture card format, which we just can't quite warm up to because the cards are harder to find and generally costs more than more common formats like SD Card.
The ultra-compact FE-300 is all about resolution. 12-megapixel puts it at the frontline of what is currently available in conssumer cameras, and it means you always have enough resolution to zoom in, crop, and enlarge. Other than that, it's a simple, unassuming camera that is easy to use, has a nice and bright 2.5-inch display and very high ISO sensitivity so you can shoot in low light. It does not have the underwater modes of the FE-280, nor is an underwater case available for it.
Not so much:
- Bright hi-res 2.5-inch LCD with backlight boost
- 640 x 480 movies at a full 30 fps
- Advanced face detection mode
- Digital image stabilization with gyro assist
- 48MB onboard memory
- PreSet Shooting Mode lets you select best setting
- ISO up to 6400
- Can't have sound and optical zoom together in movie mode
- No voice recording mode
- xD-Picture card harder to fnd and more expensive
- We prefer zoom rocker to a zoom ring around the shutter