Olympus E-30 Review
Review Date: January 28th 2009
Author: Mark Goldstein
The Olympus E-30 is the new mid-range model in Olympus's E-System DSLR line-up, slotting seamlessly into the gap between the cheaper, entry-level E-520 and the more expensive, professional E-3. The E-30 borrows quite a lot of features from its big brother, including the fast 11-point auto-focus system, shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th second, 1/250th sec maximum flash sync speed, 5fps continuous shooting, built-in image stabiliser which stabilises all lenses, Live View on a multi-angle LCD screen and the Supersonic Wave Filter dust reduction system. Key differences include more megapixels (12.3 versus the E3's 10), a smaller and lighter body, slightly larger 2.7 inch LCD screen, smaller viewfinder, addition of Face Detection, and no dust- or weather-sealing on the camera body. The E-30 also has a number of interesting "creative" features up its sleeve, including a range of Art Filter effects which are applied as you take a photo, a Multiple Exposure mode for combining images into one, nine separate aspect ratios, and an integrated pitch and roll Level Gauge which helps to ensure that both your horizons and verticals should always be straight. Olympus have taken a long time to join the mid-range market, but is it a case of too little, too late? Priced at $1300 / £850 body only, can the Olympus E-30 compete with the likes of the Canon EOS 50D, Nikon D90 and Sony A700, and is it a viable alternative to Olympus' own E-3?
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Ease of Use
First impressions of the Olympus E-30 are that it's very similar to its literally bigger brother, the E-3, with a familiar control layout. The E-30 is quite a lot smaller (141.5x107.5x75.0mm versus 142.5x116.5x74.5mm) and lighter (655g versus 810g) than the E-3, so if portability is an issue, the E-30 is the one to go for. Compared to its main rivals, the E-30 is very comparable to the Canon EOS 50D and Nikon D90, being slightly smaller than the former and slightly larger than the latter. So much then for the apparent advantage of the Four-Thirds system in enabling lighter camera bodies and optics in order to compete with the big boys in the enthusiast market, it's almost as if Olympus has decided its new camera has to be as physically demanding. On the plus side, it does feel as solid as you'd expect a camera retailing around £850 / $1300 to be. The E-30 is also available as a kit with the new 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 II lens, which we tested during this review. Thanks to a combination of the E-30's 11-point auto focus and the Zuiko Digital Supersonic Wave Drive lenses, Olympus is claiming the world's fastest auto focus speeds (as with the E-3). A respectable 5fps performance in burst mode for up to 12 consecutive RAW images, maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th sec, and 1/250th sec maximum flash sync speed further convey the impression that the Olympus E-30 is for more than just snapping the kids at play.
With a plethora of shooting settings displayed on the rear LCD screen upon start-up, the Olympus E-30 is a busy looking camera with, at first glance, a large number of buttons and dials. Though it may not be immediately obvious what task each of them performs, the main controls do fall readily between thumb and forefinger. This ensures that you can actually get up and shooting fairly quickly, with a large, chunky rubberised grip at the front, and gently curved panel at the rear, to get a firm hold. Sticking with ergonomics, the right-hand catch for attaching the supplied neck strap is set back in a recessed cavity so that you don't catch your fingers, just like the E-3, but the left-hand catch annoyingly protrudes from the camera body. Gripping the E-30 with both hands with the main LCD facing out at you means that the glass of the screen inevitably soon becomes covered with thumbprints, though this is true of most DSLRs in its class. Luckily you can flip and twist the screen so it's facing inwards and use the optical viewfinder instead if this gets too irritating, which is also a good way of protecting the LCD when the camera is stored in a bag.
Live View, which is the ability to frame and check the focus of shots via the Olympus E-30's 2.7-inch HyperCrystal LCD, is, as last we found on the E-3, a real boon when it comes to attempting shots such as our macro test shot, using the edge of a low desk as our 'tripod' where it's either impossible or tricky to get your eye completely flush with the viewfinder (offering 98% coverage if you do). The ability to adjust the viewing angle of the screen when taking that awkward shot a feature of some bridge cameras though still fairly unusual on a DSLR seems to immediately make sense. It's the kind of feature you never knew you needed until you find yourself using it all the time, though admittedly the novelty aspect may initially play a large part. The E-30's slightly larger 2.7 inch screen is also welcome, although it doesn't compare so well to other cameras in this class in terms of resolution, offering just 230,000 dots.
Also shared with the E-3 and E-510 is the impressively named Supersonic Wave Filter, whereby any dust particles that drift inside while changing lenses settle on a filter that protects the CCD, and are then shaken clear on the camera powering down. You additionally get built-in image stabilisation, with, again, a dedicated 'IS' button here located just below the on/off switch, like Canon's 50D and Sony's A700, located near the base at the back plus a new 12.3 megapixel resolution Live Mos sensor (which we suspect is the same as the sensor in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1), backed up by Olympus' TruePic III image processing engine. Though it's not the most user friendly camera I've come across, once you've worked out how to implement the main settings, the Olympus E-30 is fast in operation.
The key benefit of the new 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 II lens is much improved focusing speed when using the E-30's contrast-detection auto-focus system (used during Live View). This is of greatest interest to everyone who primarily holds the E-30 at arm's length and uses the LCD screen to compose, focus and take the shot. The good news is that Olympus have made real strides in this area, with the E-30 and 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 II lens combination achieving Live View focusing speeds of around 1 second, which is much faster than most of it's rivals (and the E-3). The down-side is that you really need to use the new lens to fully benefit from the increased speed, and as you'd expect, the system still doesn't come close to the speed of the traditional optical viewfinder / phase-detection AF system.
Olympus are heavily promoting the E-30's artistic capabilities, with two features in particular, Art Filters and Multiple Exposure, differentiating the E-30 from its main competitors. The 6 different Art Filters are Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Colour, Light Tone, Grainy Film and Pin Hole - you can see the results on the Image Quality page. Unlike most other cameras, these effects are applied before taking a shot, rather than afterwards, so you can preview the effect on the LCD screen before pressing the shutter button using the Live View mode. The Multiple Exposure function allows up to four to be superimposed onto each other, creating a composite, and you can either overlay a previous shot or, via Live View, the image that you are about to take. Multiple Exposure even works with RAW files as well as JPEGs, whilst the Art Filters are applied to a JPEG (with an unprocessed RAW file also saved). The Art Filters are a little over-the-top for my taste, and you can't change the default look, but the ability to be able to change the exposure, white balance and other key settings whilst previewing the effect is very welcome. While the Art Filters get their own setting on the Mode Dial, the Multiple Exposure is inexplicably buried away in the main menu system.
The E-30 offers nine different aspect ratios that enable individualised framing of scenes, including the default 4:3 ratio employed by the Four Thirds system. The available aspect ratios are: 16:9, 3:2, 7:5, 4:3, 5:4, 6:5, 7:6, 7:5 and 6:6. They're quite a good way of personalizing your shots in-camera, with the ability to preview the effect in Live View mode being particularly useful. The E-30 also has an integrated Level Gauge that appears on the LCD screen and in the viewfinder. This helps to ensure level shots, both in landscape and portrait mode. You can use the horizontal and vertical indicators to ensure that your shots are aligned horizontally. It doesn't sound like a big deal in theory, but in practice it really helps to make all those wide-angle and converging vertical shots perfectly level. The Level Gauge is most effective when using the LCD screen in Live View mode, as it's quite small and difficult to see in the viewfinder. As with some other key features, it's also inexplicably buried away in the camera's Custom menu.
While the front of the camera is obviously dominated by the Four Thirds lens mount, top right of this is an unprotected screw cover for a remote cable connector, directly beneath which is the lens release button. There's also a small button for activating the pop-up flash and selecting from the comprehensive range of on-board flash settings as well as controlling their intensity. Switching over to the other side of the lens mount and still viewing the camera front on we find the self-timer/remote control lamp in the bottom of the handgrip (incidentally no remote is supplied in the box), beneath which again and snuggling in close to the lens almost hidden, a preview button, whereby the viewfinder displays depth of field with the selected aperture value.
As this is in a slightly awkward place for your fingers to find at the front, you can also optionally use' the 'Fn' (function) button top right on the camera back for the same purpose just one of a variety of functions that can be assigned to it, including turning the new Face Detection feature on and off. On the foremost point of the grip is a sub command dial, which is useful if you find it easier to drop your forefinger forward of the main shutter button to effect a mode or menu change, rather than rotating the main command dial at the rear with your thumb. Both offer an amount of resistance that feels just right. Just like the E-3, the Olympus E-30 is what could be described as 'butter-off-a-hot-knife quick' in determining focus, and, with a flick of the on/off button, you can be taking a photo as fast as it takes you to press the shutter button.
Next we move to the top of the camera. To the far left a traditionally chunky mode dial/wheel has replaced the mode button of the E-3. You'll find the familiar P,A,S,M settings, plus Auto, five scene modes and the new Art Filters setting (which is somewhat confusingly combined with additional scene modes). Hopping over the hood for the pop up flash larger and sitting more proudly than that offered by the D90, A700, or 50D we find a hot shoe for supplementary flash, and come to the monochrome status display LCD (Olympus prefers to call it a 'control panel') which takes up most of the right hand flank. This is a welcome addition that is often omitted from cheaper cameras, marking the E-30 out as a 'serious' camera, and also making it possible to check the main camera settings without having to look at the rear LCD screen.
Just in front of it is a row of four further buttons. Moving from left to right the first is the self-explanatory light button for illuminating the status display window, next to which is a dedicated white balance (WB) control for manual adjustment. The third button along is for adjusting exposure compensation, while the forth is for flitting between the plethora of ISO settings, with 16 incremental settings up to ISO 3200 that should satisfy most users. Better still, at its top setting the Olympus E-30 doesn't suffer as visibly from either noise or noise reduction as many digital cameras, meaning it may be a setting actually worth having rather than a step too far simply to bump up the on-paper spec.
Moving to the back of the Olympus E-30, and above the reasonably clear but again info crammed 2.7-inch LCD screen, we find the optical viewfinder with quite a pronounced rubber eyecup. Far from being small or murky, the viewfinder itself actually appears large and clear, with that aforementioned 98% field of view, the 11 focus points clearly delineated, and the shooting information that runs along the bottom in green LED bright and visible. To the left of the viewfinder is the 'AF' button, which toggles between the focus modes, and the combined Exposure Mode / Self-Timer/Continuous shooting button, which works in conjunction with the front and rear control dials. Furthermore, you have to press both buttons at once to access the Bracketing options, not the easiest or most elegant way of doing so.
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As you'd expect, next to the eyepiece is a diopter adjustment dial to ease the plight of the myopic but, somewhat ironically, it's partly hidden by the eyepiece, so quite fiddly to get at. To the right-hand side of the viewfinder we find a dual-purpose auto exposure/auto focus lock button, or triple purpose, as it's also a means of protecting images from accidental deletion in playback mode. Above this is the main command dial, which we've touched on already, and ditto the function button to its right. To the right of this again is a curiously marked button that reveals itself as a means of switching between single target AF mode and 'all target': the camera automatically focusing on the subject in front of it from among the 11 AF targets.
Directly beneath the AEL/AFL button on the Olympus E-30's back and, again, it feels slightly hidden is the main playback button. A press of this brings up not just the captured image, but rather a thumbnail of the image surrounded by a plethora of file info, including histograms for individual colour channels. To check the fidelity of the shot you use either of the command dials to zoom in and out, while the four way control pad just below (with familiar centrally-placed 'OK' button) can be utilized for panning around the captured shot. All controls respond well and operation is fairly fluid. Above the control pad is a teeny indicator bulb marked 'SWFF', which indicates the fact that the camera's Supersonic Wave Filter is in the process of doing its funky stuff. Underneath the four-way pad is the firm but quite small and fiddly on/off switch. Below this is the dedicated 'IS' button, which either turns stabilisation on or off, or turns off the horizontal image stabilizer but leaves on the vertical one for when you want to pan with your subject and keep them sharp while the background blurs. To the right of the IS button is a flap protecting the video out and USB port, a rather strange position.
There are four rectangular buttons tucked away just beneath the LCD screen, which are a little too small to operate comfortably. For the occasional duff shot, you get a button marked with a red trashcan icon as the first and left-most button, followed by the Info button which toggles between showing the Info screen with all the settings selected at that one point in time, displaying the Level Gauge, and turning the LCD screen off. Next up is the Menu button which opens the Main Menu system, with on-screen options clearly presented even if the interface is quite utilitarian. Finally, there's a small button for activating the Live View function, denoted merely by a screen icon. Given that this is one of the camera's major selling points, why Olympus didn't see fit to simply mark it 'Live View' as on Panasonic's L10 I don't know. Rather than highlighting a major feature, it is literally tucked away.
On the left flank of the camera we find a single rubber flap that hides the 9-volt DC-in port. On the right-hand side is the memory card slot, offering a choice of both CompactFlash or (the surely-almost-dead) xD-Picture Card format. And last, but by no means least, at the camera base we discover a screw thread for a tripod, and a lockable flap covering the battery compartment.
In summary, the Olympus E-30 is a fast and full-featured camera that will initially present quite a learning curve for those trading up from a consumer level DSLR. Both the camera controls and menu system are quite complex, with key features buried away within the main menu, but the camera's snappy performance and wealth of options more than compensate. Does the E-30's image quality live up to the rest of the camera? Let's find out now...
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