When Olympus decides to take on any new DSLR project, two things are almost certain. First, you can bet that whatever they've got planned, they'll roll it out on their own schedule. And second, that they'll put a slightly different spin on a familiar idea. Whether you think the much debated decision to lead development efforts for the open-format Four Thirds system has been a smart move or not, it's hard not to respect Olympus for being a little "above the fray" when it come to the rampant copy-cat behavior in the quest for consumer dollars.
Which is why we weren't at all surprised when Olympus announced its intent to roll out what can fairly be called its first-ever advanced amateur DSLR for 2009, the Olympus E-30. A few critics have scoffed at the manufacturer for being years behind the times on a trend that has produced some hugely popular mid-priced DSLRs from Olympus's rivals, but as is their modus operandi, the folks behind the E-30 have quietly but insistently argued that there's room – and maybe even need – for a different point of view in this part of the market as well. Thus the E-30: an SLR designed for and marketed to members of a different-thinking group of camera buyers that, if Olympus's research bears out, need a camera with plenty of horsepower, but want to be able to unleash their creativity without getting bogged down in technicalities.
Up against lots of strong options, the E-30 has its work cut out for it. With a slew of technology carried down from the professional E-3 supplemented by some nifty touches that no other manufacturer can lay claim to, the E-30 also has some advantages in its corner.
Filling a perceived void in the manufacturer's line-up between the consumer-focused E-520 and the professional E-3, the mid-grade E-30 is the first Olympus DSLR to get the manufacturer's next-generation 12.3 megapixel "Live MOS" sensor. This CMOS based Four Thirds format imager replaces the 10 megapixel Live MOS technology currently in use across Olympus's DSLR line. The E-30 also lands a newly developed TruePic III+ image processor.
Like the professional Olympus E-3, the E-30's 2.7 inch "HyperCrystal" LCD can be rotated/swiveled as desired. Working with the E-30's Live View system, which continues to play a prominent role here as in previous Olympus models, the display allows for shot composition from positions – over the head, at ground level, and so on – that would be difficult if not impossible with traditional "viewfinder only" DSLR shot composition.
For its focusing system, the E-30 uses an 11-point phase detection system when shooting through the viewfinder that appears to be a variant of the E-3's extremely fast AF technology. Even more significant, though, are the improvements to Olympus's Imager AF contrast detection focusing technology (which allows the camera to auto focus while shooting in Live View mode without a screen black-out period). According to Olympus, updates to the manufacturer's 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 lens – re-released as a "II" variant – have allowed for significant speed and accuracy improvements when using auto focus in Live View mode.
In anticipation of the E-30's official release late last year, we got to spend some time with a pre-production unit, put together a brief video tour outlining this model's key specs and features.
As noted in the video, Olympus has heavily promoted the new model's artistic side, with lots of emphasis placed on the camera's user-friendly creative processing options. Chief among these is the E-30's Art Filters shooting mode: working from a list of six presets – including emulators for grainy film, pinhole cameras, and soft focus filters – the E-30 applies the selected filter at the time of capture.
The E-30 also features multiple-exposure capture, allowing shooters to overlay multiple images in a single frame. "For instance," Olympus's press release notes, "take one shot of the full moon with the E-30 and the image will appear on the camera's LCD. Then take another shot while the moon still appears on the LCD and superimpose a close-up of an owl perched on a tree branch. The two images will merge together seamlessly to form one dramatic image that has the haunting effect of a Halloween night."
In practice, the integration of multiple exposure and live view shooting makes creating digital double (or triple, or quadruple – the E-30 can combine up to four captures) exposures particularly easy in theory at least, as the camera overlays previous captures on the screen as you compose subsequent frames – though, as we'll dive into a bit later, we had some trouble with the implementation. The E-30 can also build multi-exposures from previously taken raw images, or a combination of previous captures and real-time shots.
Those who shoot for different markets or media types, or those who just want to explore different looks, may also find Olympus's multiple aspect ratio shooting worth checking out. In addition to its native 4:3 aspect ratio, the E-30 can capture images in eight other unique ratios, including 16:9 widescreen, 3:2 (like SLR systems from most other manufacturers), 5:4, and even 6:6 square format like a 120 film camera.
Like most DSLRs, the E-30 packs in a full complement of exposure control modes. Beyond the typical manual settings, the E-30 also comes equipped with auto and scene modes for those looking for a little help in setting exposure on shots. Basic shooting modes on the E-30's dial are as follows:
Like the professional E-3, the E-30 provides a pair of card slots: one for the common CF format, and one supporting Olympus/Fuji's proprietary xD-Picture Card type.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
Styling and Build Quality
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.
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. You know you're dealing with a serious piece of hardware (build 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.
Stylistically and in its construction details, the E-30 shares a lot in common with the professional E-3 – although it should be noted that the pro model's alloy body and weather sealing are not among the carry-overs.
Overall, while its angular, chunky look marks it unquestionably as an Olympus, the balanced, moderately sized E-30 is as well put together as an of its competitors, and in spite of the lack of weatherproofing proved to be a durable companion in the field during and a good match for Olympus's moderate to large zoom lenses.
Ergonomics and Interface
This camera has a lot of buttons. There's simply no way around it.
With a control layout that very closely mirrors the E-3's, you get a dedicated control for just about every conceivable function. For more casual shooters, though, this kind of physical interface can be daunting, and somewhat confusingly, many of the functions with dedicated buttons are replicated in the status display and can be adjusted from there as well.
Physically, the E-30 strikes a great balance that, as noted, works well with moderately large zooms like Olympus's own 12-60mm f/2.8-4. 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.
The E-30 provides a complete read-out of exposure settings on the LCD when shooting through the viewfinder; press the center OK button on the four-way controller, and you can access this screen to make adjustments as desired.
Beyond this quick-access function, however, Olympus's menus remain poorly polished in spots, and you should expect to do an awful lot of menu diving if you want to play with some of the E-3's more interesting functions: the fact that both the aspect ratio and multiple exposure functions are pretty deeply buried in the interface is an inexplicable frustration, as these two options are two of the E-30's more interesting features when stacked up against its competitors. If you didn't know to look for them, though, it would be easy enough to use the E-30 at a fairly high level without ever stumbling across the multi-exposure function, especially.
Olympus wants you to use live view – so much so, in fact, that they've made this camera's display one of the main attractions with the E-30. To this end, the LCD swivels, rotates, and (within reason) adjusts to just about any shooting angle you could envision. I'm not a fan of the compromises that typical live view shooting (with AF, at least) requires – either slow contrast-detection AF, or an on-screen blackout between press and capture – but the ability to setup a shot with the E-30 over your head or at ground level without having to figure out how to get your eye to the viewfinder was enough to convince me to switch it over to live view mode on a few instances during our time with this camera.
With all the hoopla surrounding its ultrazoom-style swiveling screen, the fact that this display has some pretty good specs to boot is almost forgotten. Given the high bar set by both the Canon 50D and Nikon D90 for LCD performance in this class, however, "pretty good" is about all the E-30's able to earn with its 2.7 inch, 230,000 HyperCrystal II display. As in its cross-system application with the E-3, the E-30's display is fluid in live view mode, contrasty and vibrant everywhere else, and generally works well for shot review. That said, the depth and accuracy of its colors certainly aren't what you'll get from a top-shelf screen, and a persistent bluish color cast combined with the E-30's tendency to shoot a little cooler than true by default anyway makes it hard to accurately judge tone and white balance at times.
With good magnification specs and excellent coverage, there's very little worth fretting over when it comes to the E-30's pentaprism viewfinder. No, it's not quite as accommodating as the viewfinder used in the E-3, but it nonetheless offers up a crisp field of view that works well for manual focus situations. On paper, this finder's 98 percent optical coverage bests performance from its Canon and Nikon rivals, and in use the viewfinder proves to be brighter as well with equivalent lenses mounted.
In-viewfinder setup information is typical and adequate, though the addition of a "digital level" function that displays the camera's horizontal pitch on a sliding scale that pop up at the bottom of the finder once focus is locked is a small but thoughtful touch. (As an aside, you also get both left-right and front-back level readouts on the LCD while in live view mode.)
Timings and Shutter Lag
Olympus likes to tout the performance of its E-3 derived AF system. With the right lens, Olympus claims this is the world's fastest AF system, and while we feel that there are simply too many variables involved (lighting, subject, and so on) to confidently make that kind of claim based on the single-situation evidence we gather in our lab tests, there's no denying that the E-30 is quite the performer. It lacks the tracking capabilities of more flexible Canon and Nikon systems, but makes up for it in some ways with flat-out speed in grabbing an initial lock.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon EOS 50D
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Canon EOS 50D
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
When the E-30 was launched, part of the big news from Olympus was the availability of a redesigned 14-54mm kit lens for this camera. The primary improvement to the "II" lens variant? Improved focusing speed using Olympus's contrast-detection auto focus system – which focuses the camera when shooting in live view mode without blacking out the screen to do so. Naturally, then, we were interested to see whether Olympus had put together a live view shooting combo in this camera and lens that could rival the current live view shooting speed champ: the Panasonic Lumix G1.
After some testing, the short answer is that while the G1 (which, being built as a full-time live view camera using the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, has some technological advantages) hasn't been dethroned by the E-30, this model makes the best showing yet when it comes to contrast-detection AF in a "true" DSLR. The E-30 and 14-54mm II lens succeed in cutting AF acquisition times roughly in half from the 1.5 seconds or so between press and capture that we'd seen previously: in good light with plenty of subject contrast, our best numbers were in the 0.7 second range. While you'll still get (much) faster performance using the optical viewfinder and the E-30's traditional phase detection AF system, Olympus's contrast-detection focusing technology is getting more and more usable all the time – which should make the E-30 attractive with users who prefer the point-and-shoot style on-screen shot composition experience.
|Canon EOS 50D
|Olympus E-30||9||5.0 fps|
|Nikon D90||∞||4.0 fps|
|Sony Alpha DSLR-A350||∞||2.1 fps|
Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Finally, Olympus advertised a 5 fps continuous shooting speed, and that's exactly what we found in our test, making the camera faster than everything in its class that we've looked at save the more expensive 50D.
As noted above, the E-30 provides both a traditional phase-detection AF system (where shots are composed through the viewfinder, and a separate AF sensor provides real-time focusing) as well as a contrast-detection system that allows for focusing without screen blackout while you're in live view mode.
If you prefer, you can also go the "old school" live view route, in which the screen blacks out momentarily after you press the shutter release – allowing the camera to focus using the AF sensor – and then captures the shot. Given how much faster the Olympus's contrast-detection system has gotten using the E-30's redesigned kit lens, though, we found that press-to-capture speeds were often about the same whether you used the traditionally faster "blackout" mode or the new contrast-detection system.
All of this live view focusing wizardry will likely go unnoticed by more traditional shooters, but Olympus has included the E-3's very solid 11-point phase-detection AF system for the through-the-viewfinder shooting crowd. Like most high-end DSLRs, you can manually selected either individual focus points, moveable multi-point focus areas, or let the camera automatically choose focus points as desired. All of these functions are intuitively handled using the front and back scroll wheels and a dedicated AF button, providing a quick, easy, and very professional feeling interface for the AF system.
In terms of AF drive modes, the E-30 covers all the bases as well. You can choose either single lock or continuous drive mode, with or without the option to manually override focus via the lens's manual focus ring.
The E-30 uses the open format Four Thirds sensor and lens mount technology, providing compatibility with not only Olympus's current range of lenses, but also with options from Panasonic/Leica and Sigma.
All in all, the DCR jury is still out on this format: unquestionably, Olympus builds what are quite possibly the best zoom lenses currently on the market, but compared to similar advanced-am cameras from Canon or Nikon, your lens options are more limited, and quality glass (albeit of generally superior quality) will cost you more as a rule.
The E-30's built in flash packs about as much punch as most other pop-up flash units on DSLRs, with a guide number of 13 meters at ISO 100. For as much as we used it in testing, exposure with the built-in flash was right where it should be: slightly underexposed, with no blown highlights and only the typical problems with hot-spotting.
The only other issue of note, in fact, is that the E-30's shorter prism means that the flash has a bit more trouble with interference from Olympus's larger zoom lenses.
As for external flashgun control, Olympus makes what may well be the most underrated wireless flash system currently on the market. The E-30 – like every other current E-series DSLR – features multi-channel/multi-group control of Olympus's radio-ready flashguns. Of course, you'll get the same control options, plus support for non-wireless Olympus flash units, via the E-30's hot shoe.
Olympus provides in-body image stabilization for its higher-end DSLRs using a sensor-shifting system. In the case of the E-30, several IS modes are available: in addition to regular (i.e. multi-axis) stabilization, the system can be configured to stabilize only along either the horizontal or the vertical axis – meaning you can effectively use stabilization in either landscape or portrait panning shots without worrying that the stabilization system is, in essence, fighting the panning motion of the camera.
IS can also be completely disabled for shooting from a tripod or monopod. With a dedicated IS button, it's easy enough to access these settings on the fly, though I would like to have seen more descriptive titles for the various IS modes than the provided Mode 1, Mode 2, etc.
The E-30 shares its rechargeable lithium-ion power source (and, incidentally, its optional battery grip/vertical release) with the E-3 – a nice touch for E-3 shooters looking for a (slightly) lower-cost backup in the E-30. Advertised performance when shooting through the viewfinder is 650 shots per charge, and we had no trouble cresting 500 shots on a fresh pack throughout our time with the camera.
Depending on how much you use live view, it seems likely that performance will suffer considerably. After shooting a little more than 100 shots using live view and imager AF, a battery that was freshly charged at the start of the shoot was showing half power on the built-in gauge. I expect that the actual number of live view shots would be somewhere around 300, but it seems to really depend on how hard the the AF system has to work (which can be pretty hard using imager AF, a lens other than the 14-54mm II, and/or shooting in poor light).
The E-30 shares its basic footprint with the E-3, meaning that if you want to double your power depth, the E-3's HLD-4 vertical release (which holds either two li-ion battery packs or six AA cells) will mount right up.
Checking out images from the E-30, the first thing that may catch your eye is that they're not quite proportioned like shots from most DSLRs. Like previous efforts from Olympus, the E-30 uses a Four Thirds format image sensor – in this case, an all new 12.3 megapixel unit – that, as the name implies, sports a native aspect ratio of 4:3. The APS-C format sensors found in most DSLRs in this class, by contrast, utilize a wider 3:2 ratio.
In an interesting move, the E-30 actually allows you to shoot (obviously, at differing resolutions, depending on the format selected) in different aspect ratios. As mentioned previously, the basics – like 5:4, 3:2, and even 16:9 – are covered, but there are some weird ones (7:5, anyone?) as well. For my money, the combination of the grainy black-and-white art filter and the square format setting is a winner for imitating the look of high-speed, medium-format film.
And with an emphasis on straight-from-camera creative flexibility that really is unrivalled by any competitor we've tested, changing the image size and shape is only the beginning of the E-30's image-side adjustability...
Exposure, Processing, and Color
The E-30's metering system (which features the expected multi-area, center-weighted, and spot metering modes, plus options for shadow or highlight priority metering) works as well as the similar implementation from the E-3. I found little need to step beyond multi-area metering for most applications, and was impressed with how well the E-30 preserved highlights by default.
This consistency was helped by a sensor that seems to be a bit more forgiving with its dynamic range than previous Four Thirds efforts. If anything, the E-30 shows smoother highlight transitions and less clipping than we've seen with the 10 megapixel Live MOS imager used in previous E cameras. Even when pushed to bring out shadow details, highlight areas didn't completely lose definition.
Likewise, the E-30's sensor does a nice job of accurately reproducing colors. The default Natural processing mode is about spot on in terms of sharpness, contrast, and saturation, but if you want more or less punch, the E-30 provides both Vivid and Muted modes as well.
These presets are supplemented by the ability to manually fine-tune sharpening, saturation, contrast, and even noise reduction for JPEG output right from the main status display screen – making the E-30's JPEG settings perhaps the most accessible of those on any enthusiast camera. Likewise, like previous Olympus DSLRs, the E-30 lets you specify high-key or low-key gradation, shifting the overall tonal balance of the resulting images.
Low Key Gradation
High Key Gradation
If you could possibly want more in-camera processing, the E-30 also has that expansive list of built-in art filters discussed previously. Given the average quality of most in-camera effects, I'm usually one for the "shoot first, process later" approach, but a few of the E-30's six presets (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale and Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pin Hole) are convincing enough to make them worthwhile for regular use. Admittedly, the Pop Art setting – which provides outrageously high-sat, almost posterized output – never quite hit the look I was expecting, and the Pale Color/Light Tone options can be replicated easily and with more control in even the most basic image editing software. But I can see the Soft Focus filter getting traction with the portrait set, especially.
The Pin Hole camera setting is subtle enough for adding just a little bit of drama, striking a good balance as well.
And while pixel peepers will scoff, I thought the Grainy Film setting proved to be a great way to make the most of ISO 3200 shooting in low light.
It's not a perfect imitation of pushed Tri-X 400, but for a few seconds of post-shot in-camera processing, I'm certainly not complaining. Moreover, while I don't think that every one of the art filters is a resounding success (and I wish that Olympus had given the option to apply art filters to any shot, rather than putting them in their own auto-exposure shooting mode), for a certain audience, this function alone will make the E-30 worth the price of admission.
Finally, as noted previously, the E-30 has a multiple exposure function, which allows you to composite several images into a single frame – mirroring the process of intentionally exposing a single frame of film more than once.
Being able to double-expose a frame can be fun, and allows for a kind of spontaneity in this process that digital has typically not accommodated. Even so, I can't imagine using the E-30's system (which lets you composite up to four frames, including combining pre-captured raw images) on a regular basis for this kind of work. The E-30's greatest advantage for compositing is its live view system, but I found the multiple exposure function so hard to navigate in live view mode that I'm thinking most users will just go to Photoshop after the shot for this kind of effect.
Like all but a very few digicams, the E-30 does a marginal job at best of automatically adjusting to incandescent light using its auto white balance setting.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Unfortunately, we found the presets with this camera to be a little dodgy at times as well. For whatever reason, the E-30's presets seem to impose an artificial "coolness" to most situations – as in the following shot, taken under 3200K incandescent hot lights using the incandescent preset.
In order to get a correct balance, I often found myself manually setting WB using the Kelvin temp option instead (in fact, the rest of the studio tests for this review were taken with a manual 3200K setting). These inconsistencies, while usually little more than a headache, are perhaps the strongest argument for shooting raw images with the E-30 and processing after the fact.
Sensitivity and Noise
As a physically smaller sensor technology, Four Thirds imagers begin at a natural disadvantage to their APS-C counterparts when it comes to noise and detail capture: the more tightly packed the pixels on a sensor, the more likely the sensor is to pick up more detail-erasing noise from pixel to pixel. While the functional implications of this principle on real world shooting have been debated, there's simply no denying the fact that compared to some of its APS-C equipped rivals, the E-30 – even with its redesign sensor – just doesn't quite cleanly reel in extremely fine details as well.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
That said, the above shots show the Olympus to be clean and crisp almost to the top of its range. But a combination of less capture (per a check against processed raw files) and default JPEG processing that emphasizes smoothness means a small but apparent difference in edge definition at ISO 100 between the E-30 and, say, the similarly speced Nikon D90.
Olympus E-30, ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon D90, ISO 100, 100% crop
Note in particular the D90's advantage in capturing the very subtle texture in the playing card. For typical shooting, these kinds of distinctions may be of little practical value, but as a matter of record they're worth noting.
Olympus E-30, ISO 3200, 100% crop
Nikon D90, ISO 3200, 100% crop
Not surprisingly, at ISO 3200, the differences between the good if not stunning E-30 and the class-leading D90 are even more apparent.
Additional Sample Images
There were a few minor bumps in the road for the E-30, but as a rule, we've come away generally impressed from our time with this camera. Olympus has certainly packed in all the right features to make this model appealing to the enthusiast market.
With this in mind, I'll admit that where I'm conflicted on the E-30 has nothing to do its performance or features, and everything to do with its price. For about $1300 at the moment, you get Olympus's very good, very fresh advanced amateur body. Not only does this price the body-only E-30 above most of its rivals' kit prices, but Olympus's full-on professional model is only ringing up a few hundred dollars higher at some retailers right now. Admittedly, the E-3 is starting to look a little long in the tooth, and certainly doesn't have some of the cool features and brand new technologies that the E-30 offers, but in exchange you get a highly rugged pro spec camera body.
Other than the possible temptation to jump straight into the pro system, there's very little to keep Olympus fans from coming to the E-30 in droves. Amid some stiff competition – on both features and price – from some of the best cameras we've reviewed in awhile in the 50D and, especially, the D90, it's hard to tell how successful the E-30 will be in convincing users to jump ship from other manufacturers. But on its own merits, the E-30 is a good buy for advanced shooters that, with a few operational tweaks and/or a price cut, might just be a great one. In either case, there's enough that's different here to make the E-30 worth checking out: after all and especially in photography, different perspectives can be a good thing.
|Sensor||12.3 megapixel Live MOS, Four Thirds format (17.3x13.0mm)|
|Lens/Zoom||Four Thirds system mount, 2x crop factor
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.7", 230K-pixel HyperCrystal II TFT LCD; optical viewfinder, 98% coverage, 1.02x magnification
|Shutter Speed||60-1/8000 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Program, Apeture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Scene, Art Filter
|Scene Presets||Portrait, Landscape, Landscape+Portrait, Night Scene, Night+Portrait, Children, Sports, High Key, Low Key, Digital Image Stabilization, Macro, Nature Macro, Candle, Sunset, Fireworks, Documents|
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Lamp, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade|
|Metering Modes||Digital ESP, Center-Weighted Average, Spot
|Focus Modes||11-point TTL phase-difference detection system, 11-point contrast detection AF; Single AF, Continuous AF, Manual Focus, S-AF+MF, C-AF+MF|
|Drive Modes||Single Frame, Sequential
|Flash Modes||Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, First Curtain Slow Sync, Second Curtain Slow Sync, Fill, Manual, Forced Off
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||CompactFlash Type I/II, Microdrive, xD-Picture Card|
|File Formats||JPEG, raw
|Max. Image Size||4032x3024|
|Max. Video Size
|Zoom During Video||N/A|
|Battery||Lithium ion rechargeable
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, DC input|
|Additional Features||Face Detection, Art Filters, Multiple Exposure mode, Multi-Aspect, Shadow Adjustment Technology, Perfect Shot Preview, Live View, TruePic III image processor|