Olympus’ first and newest pro-consumer DSLR, the E-30, sits beneath the E-3, sat at the top of the Olympus FourThirds System range and above the E-520 and more effectively bridges a gap for Olympus aficionados between the keen snappers and enthusiasts.
The E-30 looks similar to the E-3 but lacks the weather sealing and ruggedised build of the pro model, the E-30 sporting a well crafted and sculpted hand grip on a surprisingly large body, more or less as big as the E-3.
But the E-30 sports a few new features the E-3 would be proud to have within its toughened body. For a start the sensor has a new 12.3-megapixel LiveMOS sensor so the first thing to say is yes, you get Live View (more on this later) and the second is, despite the boost in resolution, image quality in terms of noise remains impressive.
However it has to be said, there’s not much difference from the E-3 in terms of captured detail with basic kit lenses. Use some of Olympus’ higher specified lenses and you can get more out of the new chip.
Another feature is the multi-angle, 2.7-inch HyperCrystal II colour LCD that can rotate and swivel to help get a good view even when you would not normally be able to see through the viewfinder. The semi-transmissive screen allows some ambient light through to be reflected back out to help boost brightness and save battery power.
The screen is clear and easy to use though the 230k-pixel resolution is standard fare for cameras at this level. Nevertheless, in bright light the screen is usable in Live View mode and when displaying the Super Control Panel. This is an interactive menu screen for direct and a fast access to controls otherwise only accessed via menus.
Control is enabled by a press of the back plate “OK” button and you can scroll through the options and adjust them accordingly from the back of the camera and using the four-way jog buttons and “OK” button.
Part of this camera’s remit is to give enthusiast users photographic features galore and as we’ll see, this it does. However a downside is the complexity this forces within the menu system, where you get to play with all the options.
Almost every setting, default or not, can have it’s values tweaked and cajoled into a form you might prefer. How Olympus squares an ever increasing feature set and the inevitable complexity that this entails with usability is a thorny issue as, even though I knew what I was doing, delving into the menus and their many controls can seem a little intimidating.
Some form of help system might be a way forward or carrying the manual with you is another, but make no mistake there’s a vast amount of customisability on offer and luckily you can save the settings you pick as “My” modes, so you don’t have to try to remember a preferred setup once you’ve configured the camera.
The E-30 also boasts a set of much talked about Art Filters within the Scene modes that can be thought of as basic, image editing effects built into the camera. Art filters provide a range of effects from black and white grainy film, soft focus and pinhole camera modes to pop art and light tone settings.
At first you might wonder why they’re there but I found each a rather exciting way to play with my snaps and because you can shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, you still have a digital negative to use without the Art Filter effects applied; a nice touch.
Other clever features include a built-in level guide that provides an active display to get the camera level, important for preventing slopping horizons in landscape shots, for example. But arguably more powerful, is the camera ability to shoot multi aspect ratios for each image. The default 4:3 ratio uses all the pixels while 3:4, 7:5, 6:5, 7:6, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6 and 5:4 ratio crops all nibble off pixels in order to achieve the crop.
Disappointingly, the viewfinder does not display any newly selected ratio, but thankfully, the Live View mode does display the crop in use, so becomes essential when tinkering with the image ratio control.
In terms of handling, the deep hand grip hides the combined CF and xD memory card slots and beneath the PS-BLM-1 lithium-ion battery pack, gives holding the camera a reassuringly safe feel, the top plate has a backlit data LCD that’s excellent to use and backs up the LCD if, say, you’re using it for the level indication for example.
A mode dial provides the usual P, S, A and M modes, five scene modes and the Art Filter access position that also allows you to get into another 11 scene modes. The shutter release is joined by direct controls for ISO, exposure compensation and white balance settings; a press of the relevant button and a spin of one of the two control dials allows for fast adjustment.
Ditto the direct buttons for the excellent optical image stabilisation, which provides around four stops of advantage, auto exposure and focus lock, AF mode control (more on this shortly) and AF point selection and there’s a Fn (Function) button that can be assigned a variety of tasks from depth of field preview to fast switching My modes.
The TTL Phased detection AF setup can be used with a contrast detect system or a hybrid of both in Live View and similar to that on the E-3 (like much of the E-30) and provides 11 cross type AF zones selectable individually or all together or in groups. It’s a fast and accurate setup and much improved over the three zone focus systems deployed in the company’s previous E bodies such as the earlier E-510 and E-520. Oh! And yes, you do get Face Detection AF as well.
You get a 5fps continuous shooting mode too while shooting both fine JPEGs and RAWs, making the camera more than adequate for fleeting moments as well as the more studied approach of a social photographer.
One of the other outstanding features on the E-30 is the metering system, which has a level of subtlety and control not easily appreciated at first. Evaluative, centre-weighted and spot are joined by high and low key presets which provides a great level of creative control, the centre-weighted setup performing about the best overall.
In fact, like the Art Filters, playing with the metering and its creative potential is all part of the fun of the E-30 and makes using it a joy as does some other neat kit.
Other advanced features include a dedicated X-sync flash socket for studio flash and wireless flash control over the Olympus FL-36R and FL-50R flashguns, these sit alongside Olympus’ renowned dust removal system that helps keep dust and dirt off the sensor after lens changes.
In terms of weight, at 655g, body only, it’s significantly lighter than the E-3 at 855g, but that’s largely because the camera lacks the E-3’s ruggedised bodywork and weatherproofing. Nevertheless the camera is sturdy to hold and reassuringly creak free, a combination that makes it eminently usable.
A couple of things did give cause for concern however: the built-in flash is a little underpowered with a GN of just 13 at ISO 100. In practice, anything over about 5 feet away quickly suffered from flash fall off.
The viewfinder also had me scratching my head a little, since no matter what I did with the dioptre control, I could not get a perfectly clear view, particularly of the information displayed inside, which seemed blurred all the time.
On a more positive note, something Olympus has improved over the E-3 is noise control and processing. With a sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 3200, the camera produces perfectly acceptable images, in terms of noise up to ISO 800, up to ISO 1600 things are still very good but above here and noise does start to become noticeable.
Other image quality parameters, such as white balance and colour, are both very good with only auto white balance leaving a little to be desired under mixed lighting indoors. Of course, like everything else on the E-30, you can adjust colour performance and even use a set of picture modes (vivid, portrait, muted and natural, plus a custom mode) if needs be.
Captured detail is good with the 14-54mm, F2.8-F3.5 zoom lens used for this test, some of the less accomplished kit lenses might not produce as crisp a result but compared with the E-3, disappointingly, there’s not that much more detail captured here.
The E-30 provides a level of control and features most professional level DSLRs would appreciate and at a great price too. True, the resolution might look a tad limiting now both Nikon, canon and Sony have 20-megapixel plus models out there, but you cannot argue with this camera’s feature set and price otherwise.
Add in the FourThirds system provides for more compact lenses and the fact that the bE-30m produces some superb results and overall this is certainly a excellent camera particularly for those already in the FourThirds system looking to trade up, but don’t need the ruggedness of the E-3 as well.