With a substantial price gap between Olympus' consumer models and the E-3, the company has long had a pretty big hole in its digital SLR lineup -- a hole filled by extremely popular competitors, such as the Nikon D90, the Canon EOS 40D and the Canon EOS 50D. However, with the E-30, it looks as if Olympus has entered the ring swinging.
The E-30 has a host of attractions, including a 12-megapixel Live MOS sensor, articulating LCD, fun -- if not terribly practical -- 'art filters', sensor-shift image stabilisation, and built-in three-group wireless flash controller, plus very good photo quality and fast performance.
Like all Olympus dSLRs, the E-30 is based on the Four Thirds system, which combines sensors half the size of a frame of 35mm film and the same 4:3 aspect ratio with a standard lens mount. The resulting magnification factor is 2x, compared with 1.6x (Canon) and 1.5x (all others).
You can buy it in a number of configurations: body only (around £950) or in a kit with a 14-42mm lens (around £1,050), 14-54mm lens (around £1,400) or 12-60mm lens (around £1,700). We tested it with the consumer-grade Olympus 9-18mm f4-5.6 lens and the 12-60mm f2.8-4 SWD lens. Our advice is: if you're planning on spending £950 on a body, don't skimp on the lens.
The E-30 is similarly designed to the E-3, with some notable deviations. It lacks the complete dust and weather sealing of its older sibling, and the chassis is made of fibreglass-reinforced plastic (the D90 is plastic as well). In contrast, the 50D has at least partial magnesium alloy construction. The E-30, nevertheless, feels sturdy and comfortable to grip, while the lack of metal makes it lighter: 770g compared to the 50D's 860g.
On the top left, the mode dial contains the usual assortment of exposure mode options: program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual; the most frequently used scene program modes; full auto; and 'art/scene', in which you can select from the handful of Olympus' new art filters or an additional set of scene program modes.
The right side has back and front control dials -- a welcome touch, since many manufacturers have jettisoned at least one dial -- plus a full status LCD display. ISO (100 to 3,200), drive mode and white-balance buttons bring up their respective options to scroll through. The same applies for the autofocus (single, continuous and manual, plus AF and single with manual override) and metering (digital ESP/evaluative, centre-weighted, and shadow, highlight and standard spot) buttons. The AF and metering buttons together allow you to set exposure bracketing of up to five frames in 1/3, 2/3, and full stop increments.
On the opposite side of the body sit a programmable function button and AF area selection button. Not only does the E-30 have the same AF system as the E-3, but it also has the same options as well, including the capability to select from groups of AF points, which can come in quite handy if you're frequently shooting off-centre subjects.
The Fn button can enable/disable face detection, invoke live preview, set manual white balance, override the current AF area setting, switch between auto and manual focus, override RAW+JPEG shooting or vice versa, shoot an unsaved preview shot, use your custom 'my mode' settings, and display the electronic level. Unfortunately, the my mode implementation is pretty unusable. The camera has two my mode slots for custom settings, but the only way to choose between them is to dive deep into the set-up menus, and then the only way to invoke that particular mode while shooting is via the Fn button. We tend to think that custom settings are important enough to merit a standalone control or at least be accessible via the LCD control panel (it only tells you which mode is active).
One thing that has begun to really bother us about Olympus' selection interface within the menus is that it forces you to scroll through all the options, while apparently providing shortcuts. For instance, when selecting an ISO, it displays three rows of options -- auto, 100, 125, 160 in the first row, 200, 250, 320, 400 in the second, and so on. But you can't use the up and down keys to go from one row to the next -- you have to scroll to the end of one row to get to the next. While most systems usually require you to scroll through all the options, it's annoying that Olympus' visual cues lead you to believe you can do otherwise.