Olympus Evolt E-300Some things a man just can’t explain: What drives him to drink. Why he can’t stop a-cussin’ and a-brawlin’. And why he lugs around a big, beefy digital SLR when there are pocketable cameras aplenty.

But when you start taking pictures with an SLR, you’ll understand. People straighten up a little more when you take their picture. Bystanders step out of the way of your shots. And your photos turn out bigger, better looking, and more impressive than ever before, thanks to your SLR’s bigger image sensor and superior optics.

But while the design of pocket cameras has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past five years, digital SLRs haven’t progressed as much. They’re still too big and too heavy, and they ape the design of 35mm film cameras.

The Olympus Evolt E-300 is a step in the right direction: It’s an innovative, easy-to-use, fairly lightweight SLR that also happens to take terrific shots.

With a light path that turns horizontally inside the camera (instead of vertically), the Evolt E-300 has a low profile, without the knobby bump on the top that, in most SLRs, contains the viewfinder prism. The Evolt E-300 also has a self-cleaning image sensor: Whenever you turn on the camera, it briefly vibrates the CCD at 35KHz, shaking dust off the sensor like a dog shaking water off its fur. That should lead to sharper pictures, although its superiority over a cotton swab and alcohol is debatable.

The 14mm-45mm, f3.5-4.6 Zuiko zoom lens included with the camera is compact and extremely capable. The lens excels indoors, with a wide angle that’s perfect for group shots and parties, as well as a longer focal length for portraits and detail shots. The Evolt also accepts any lenses compatible with the Four Thirds System standard.

The Evolt E-300 produces crisp photos with outstanding color — it has the best automatic white balancing of any camera we’ve tested, resulting in accurately colored photos in nearly every situation. And it’s fast and responsive, with less shutter noise than most SLRs.

Another Evolt kit, with the same camera body and two lenses (the 14mm-45mm zoom plus a 40mm-150mm Zuiko zoom lens), is only $1,100. Those two lenses give you the 35mm film equivalent of 28mm-300mm — a remarkable range for the price. With the Evolt’s image quality, speed, and light weight, this two-lens kit is hands-down the best digital SLR value we’ve seen yet. -DylanTweney

Best Feature: Terrific image quality
Worst Feature: LCD seems scrawny

Olympus Evolt E-300
Price: $940
Weight: 2.1 pounds
Size: 5.7 x 5.5 x 3.2 inches
Specs: 8 megapixels; 3.2x optical zoom (as tested); 1.6-inch LCD; CF slot; USB connection; pop-up flash

* * * * 1/2

Link: Olympus Evolt E-300

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