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.
Pressing the OK button centred in the four-way navigation switches brings up the 'super control panel' on the LCD. You can access almost every setting through the display. Some not previously mentioned include sharpness, saturation, contrast and gradation (normal, low key and high key), plus the picture mode presets (and custom settings) that encompass those; white balance, which includes manual tweaking along amber/blue and green/magenta sliders; and flash compensation and intensity.
Toggling the display using the info button brings up a pair of digital levels which show pitch (forward/backward) and roll (z-axis rotation) information. The roll display can appear in the viewfinder as well.
At the bottom, beneath the power switch, sits the IS button, which controls the sensor-shift stabiliser mode. In addition to a mode for horizontal panning, the E-30 also has a mode for vertical panning. This model also introduces an interesting multiple-exposure mode.
Right in the middle of the camera's back is the flip-and-twist 230,000-dot, 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD. Although it's smaller than the 76mm (3-inch) versions on most competitors, we'd gladly exchange that screen real estate for the flexibility of the articulated LCD.
Otherwise, the display is pretty typical -- bright enough for viewing under a variety of lighting conditions, but not accurate enough to make serious decisions about colour or exposure tweaks.
The viewfinder is pretty good as well. It's large and bright, and, while it doesn't offer 100 per cent coverage, it comes pretty close, at 98 per cent -- better than the 50D's 95 per cent and the D90's 96 per cent.
One last notable feature is the dual-card slots: one CompactFlash and one xD-Picture card.
The E-30 certainly includes all the essential features -- and then some -- that you'd expect in a camera of its class. In addition, Olympus has thrown its new art filters presets into the mix, with a set of six effects -- pop art, soft focus, pale and light, grainy film, light tone and pin hole -- that the E-30 applies during shooting.
In theory, we can understand how applying the effects at shot time, where they can simultaneously compensate exposure, white balance and so on, can help produce a better result than applying effects afterwards in software. And in practice, they're fun to use. Since you can shoot JPEG plus an untouched raw image simultaneously, you can feel free to experiment -- sort of.
Unfortunately, there are just a few too many drawbacks to keep this from being more than a now-and-again novelty. It's a fully automatic mode, so you can't set shutter speed, aperture or even ISO, which limits the desire to experiment. (Yes, you've got the raw file, but, if it's shot at ISO 800, it may not do you much good.) Nor can you modify any of the parameters for the effects, such as amount of grain in grainy film or colour saturation in pop art. We hope Olympus adds some flexibility to this feature in future implementations.
Given their internal similarities, it's no wonder that the E-30's performance in our tests matches -- and in some ways surpasses -- the E-3's. While its time of 0.7 seconds from power on to first shot beats the E-3's, the E-3 is oddly slow to start up, and the E-30 is still slower than the rest of the competition.
As with the E-3, however, it seems as if a fast AF system helps deliver best-in-class single-shot performance in both bright and dim light: 0.3 seconds and 0.7 seconds, respectively. That low-light performance is an average, though. The E-30 displays significant variability in its low-light focus speed, and, in the field, we frequently found ourselves waiting as the lens loudly ratcheted through its iterative focus search.
Its 0.6 seconds raw shot-to-shot time (JPEG is slightly faster) is about the same as the typical Nikon mid-range dSLR, but slightly slower than Canon's. Its 4.9 frames per second continuous-shooting rate is more than adequate for non-sports shooters, and, as you'd expect, it falls right in the middle between its more- and less-expensive competitors.
Overall, we were quite happy with the photos produced by the E-30. Although its weakness seems to be high-contrast light (which may require 14-bit processing rather than its 12-bit, to adequately capture the dynamic range), it otherwise fares very well. Under most conditions, it renders very accurate colours, even correct exposures, and, with a good lens, a very sharp image. While the sensitivity range maxes out at ISO 3,200, photos are usable all the way up (depending upon scene content, of course), and excellent at ISO 800 and below.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Much of the E-30's competitive appeal will depend upon trends in the price of it and its competitors. Unless you need the dust- and weather-sealed body construction or better burst performance of the E-3, the higher-resolution E-30 makes a great inexpensive alternative, but we've seen prices for the E-3 dropping. If you're not committed to a system from Canon or Nikon, the Olympus E-30's in-body stabilisation and articulating LCD alone probably make it worth consideration.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet