Call 'em whatever you like: advanced amateur, "prosumer," semi-pro. In spite of our difficulty in classifying this "$1000-plus but not quite professional spec" segment of the market, they may just be my favorite group of cameras. After all, who wants to lug around a pro-grade DSLR on vacation? Not me. Especially not when a Nikon D90, Canon 50D, or Pentax K20D offers more than enough horsepower for general shooting in a package that's expensive enough to be well-speced, but affordable enough to not give you ulcers (ok, maybe only mild panic attacks) worrying about it getting stolen or damaged.
Recognizing a gaping hole in their model line between the consumer-focused E-520 and the professional E-3, Olympus added one more model to that list last month with the launch of the Olympus E-30. Our review unit of the new model rolled into the office yesterday, and I've been spending some time getting to know Olympus's latest DSLR effort.
After our initial press briefing with the E-30 last month, we put together a short video introduction highlighting specs and features of the new camera. If you missed the launch announcement, take a minute and check it out if you want the full scoop.
For those more interested in a Cliffs Notes version, the E-30 features a newly designed 12.3 megapixel Live MOS imager that works in conjunction with the same open-format Four Thirds lens and body system that previous Olympus DSLRs have participated in. A new TruePic III+ processor rounds out the system's imaging hardware, with the E-30 borrowing a variant of the professional E-3's 11 point AF system and offering an upgraded version of Olympus's well-known live view technology. A large, bright optical viewfinder isn't quite as good as the E-3's, but provides 98 percent coverage and decent magnification just the same.
As someone who's used Olympus system cameras off and on for awhile now, I immediately felt right at home with the E-30's controls. That said, if you're coming from other systems or moving up from something in a lower price bracket, the sheer number of buttons here is often a bit alarming at first. Once you get over the initial shock from typical Olympus button bloat, however, you may come to appreciate the fact that nearly every commonly made adjustment has a dedicated button – and most of them are well placed. The arrangement is definitely similar enough that those seeking a back-up to their E-3 will quickly feel right at home.
I tend to think that size-wise, advanced amateur DSLRs epitomize the oft cited "Goldilocks principle": if most consumer DSLRs feel too small and cheap, but upper tier advanced cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D300, and Olympus's own E-3 are just too bulky, the E-30 feels just about right to me.
Olympus E-3 (left) and E-30
It certainly has a fair amount of heft – especially with the substantial, redesigned Zuiko 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 II lens that came boxed with our review unit. A rubberized grip purloined straight from the E-3 from all appearances makes the E-30 one of the more stable, ease to hang onto bodies I've shot with in awhile. You know you're dealing with a serious piece of hardware – built quality should never be even remotely suspect on anything over $1000, in my opinion – but Olympus's latest won't overwhelm with its size either.
Although the E-30 is built in a composite body whereas the professional E-3 is alloy, the mid-level Olympus carries several other design touches over from the advanced model in addition to its grip and its generally robust feel. Notably, the E-30's 2.7 inch display appears to be borrowed directly from the E-3, but if anything, the hinge mechanism on the less expensive model's rotating display feels more solid and less susceptible to inadvertent damage.
Olympus also claims to have improved the E-30's live view system – namely in the arena of contrast-detection AF, which allows you to focus in live view mode without blacking out the preview to do it. Shooting a few initial tests outdoors yesterday afternoon, I was impressed with how much faster the new system feels when combined with the reworked 14-54mm lens. It may not be quite as fast as Panasonic's new G1, which uses similar technology, but when most live view DSLRs (including Olympus's previous models) still take several seconds to lock focus using contrast-detection AF, the E-30's consistent sub-second performance feels like a big jump forward. Obviously, we'll do some controlled focusing speed tests on both of the E-30's auto focus technologies – its traditional phase-detection system feels very speedy as well – and give a full report back in our full review.
Ditto for the image quality: with only a few hours of daylight to work with yesterday afternoon and foul weather ruining my outdoor shooting plans for today, I'm only just beginning to get acquainted with the images from the E-30's new 12.3 megapixel Four Thirds format sensor. I'll reserve detail and noise analysis for the full review, but so far I like what I see in terms of color reproduction and even dynamic range.
I'm also just starting to get a handle on the E-30's highly touted array of "art filters," which provide a range of in-camera emulators for things like high-grain black-and-white film and pinhole camera shooting.
In less than a full day of shooting so far, the art filters have been as enjoyable to experiment with as I anticipated based on our preliminary experience with the E-30. I also can see some use for the ability to combine the filter mode with multiple aspect ratio shooting: the square format option combined with the high-grain monochrome option is pure magic, and being able to see your framing in real-time using live view makes it that much easier to manage.
I am initially disappointed, though, that the art filters shooting mode is, as best I've been able to discover thus far, so limited. It seems that you're locked in with program auto exposure control, and several of the advanced features (continuous drive, for instance) are locked down as well. Moreover, while I like the art filters concept, I wish that it functioned as a separate setting that could be applied to any of the exposure modes – just like another color mode or processing option – rather than occupying its own space on the mode dial and functioning with many of the same restrictions that are placed on scene presets. I'm hoping that there's more flexibility here than I'm finding, but it's clear at this point that I'm going to have to pull out the user manual to figure out what my options are.
Some initial questions aside, the E-30 is coming off as expected thus far, and with so much technology from the E-3 coming down into this more size-aware platform, it stands a strong chance of vying for a spot as my favorite Olympus DSLR to date. At the moment, I'm really only puzzled by one thing: the E-30's $1300 MSRP. A little price hunting shows current street prices for the pro-grade E-3 to be coming in right around this same mark from reputable online vendors. We'll have to wait until next month's retail release to see how actual pricing shakes out on the new body, but even if the street price is around a grand, I have to wonder if that doesn't leave the E-30 too far from the sub-$600 E-520, and too close to the E-3.
Detailed analysis of the E-30's performance – and its price to performance ratio – and a whole lot more images will be coming later this month in our full review, so be sure to check back in for that.