Olympus E30 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Olympus E-30
Resolution: 12.30 Megapixels
Sensor size: Four Thirds
Kit Lens: n/a
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
ISO: 100-3200
Shutter: 60-1/8000
Max Aperture: n/a
Dimensions: 5.6 x 4.2 x 3.0 in.
(142 x 108 x 75 mm)
Weight: 23.1 oz (655 g)
MSRP: $1,299
Availability: 01/2009
Manufacturer: Olympus
12.30
Megapixels
Four Thirds mount Four Thirds
size sensor
image of Olympus E-30
Front side of Olympus E-30 digital camera Back side of Olympus E-30 digital camera Top side of Olympus E-30 digital camera Left side of Olympus E-30 digital camera Right side of Olympus E-30 digital camera

Olympus E-30 Overview

The Olympus E-30 single-lens reflex digital camera is aimed at what are often referred to as "prosumer" users, who lie somewhere in between the casual consumer and the professional photographer. Prosumer photographers typically seek a little more control over the artistic process than is afforded by an entry level camera, but don't necessarily have the need for bullet-proof ruggedness and top-of-the-line performance that would demand an expensive professional camera. This is the first time that Olympus has offered a digital SLR in this category, with the Olympus E-30 positioned between the company's existing E-520 and E-3 DSLRs.

Olympus is looking to differentiate its new camera from other prosumer models such as Canon's EOS-50D and Nikon's D90 with the inclusion of some interesting in-body features that will appeal to artistic types. Perhaps the most unusual is a selection of "art filters" which are performed in-camera and considered when calculating exposure variables, with each of the filters bringing a different effect to the final image. There's also a nifty multi-exposure function, and a "digital leveler" which helps ensure the camera body is properly oriented, keeping horizons level and perspective true.

The Olympus E-30 digital SLR will cost $1,299 body-only when it ships from January 2009. Three kit versions will also be offered, although it isn't currently clear which of these will be available in the US market. Along with the Olympus E-30 body and related accessories, the E-30 kits will include either a ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 lens, a ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-60mm F2.8-4.0 SWD lens, or a ZUIKO DIGITAL 14-54mm F2.8-3.5 II lens.



New aperture design - rounded vs. angled.

The 14-54mm lens is a new model that's being introduced alongside the E-30 body, and has two main changes from its predecessor with the same specifications. The aperture is now truly circular to yield a more attractive look to out-of-focus areas of images, where the previous version had a 7-leaf aperture that produced somewhat angular bokeh. The new 14-54mm lens will also be capable of contrast-detection autofocusing, for compatibility with Olympus' Live View function. By itself, the updated 14-54mm lens will be priced at $599, and it should be available from January 2009, at approximately the same time as the E-30 body.

Olympus E30 Key Features

With dimensions of 5.6" x 4.2" x 3.0" (142 x 108 x 75mm), the Olympus E-30's body is almost identical to that of the company's existing E-3 model in terms of width and depth, but just slightly (0.3" / 10mm) less tall. The Olympus E-30's body is made of structural plastic rather than the magnesium alloy build of the E-3, and it also lacks the splashproof / dustproof environmental sealing of its pro sibling, but on the positive side these changes (amongst others) also mean it's quite a bit lighter than its pro-oriented sibling, with a body-only weight of 23.1oz (655g), the Olympus E-30 places almost exactly midway between the heft of the E-520 and E-3 models. The Olympus E-30 features a Four Thirds-format lens mount, compatible with lenses from Olympus, as well as from Four Thirds partners Panasonic / Leica and Sigma.



12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor.

The E-30's sensor resolution of 12.3 effective megapixels is a little higher than the 10 megapixels offered by the E-3 and E-520. The Olympus E-30 uses a newly developed Four Thirds-format Live MOS image sensor which we're told should yield similar noise levels to the previous generation (despite the necessarily smaller pixels), thanks to improvements in the microlens and photo diode design. Burst shooting is possible at up to five frames per second with a burst depth of up to 12 Raw frames, and lower burst speeds can also be set between 1 and 4 frames per second. The number of JPEG frames which can be recorded in burst mode wasn't stated in the preliminary specifications we received.

Newly developed viewfinder prism.

Olympus has developed a new prism for the E-30's optical viewfinder, which has a fixed focusing screen and offers 98% accuracy / 1.02x magnification, along with an unusually high 24.2mm eyepoint. (That high eyepoint will be welcomed by many eyeglass wearers.) The view isn't quite as large, nor the framing quite as accurate as that from the Olympus E-3, which offers 100% coverage and 1.15x magnification. However, with these slight sacrifices, Olympus was able to reduce the volume of the viewfinder assembly by 60%, as well as reducing the weight by 50% - another factor in keeping the overall size and weight of the camera body down. An eye-piece cover is included with the Olympus E-30, and the viewfinder also features an interchangeable eye cup.


Olympus E30 Display



"Super Control Panel" info display.

As well as the optical viewfinder, images can also be framed on the Olympus E-30's rear-panel LCD display, courtesy of the camera's Live View mode which streams data from the camera's Live MOS image sensor. The Olympus E-30 has a generously sized 2.7" HyperCrystal II LCD panel with 230,000 pixel resolution, and a claimed 176 degree viewing angle. The LCD is mounted on a articulating tilt / swivel mechanism, allowing to be seen from almost any direction - great for shooting with the camera above your head, low to the ground, around corners, or even with both the LCD and lens aimed at the photographer. The design also allows for the LCD panel to be closed facing inwards against the camera body, protecting it from accidental knocks and scrapes.


Flexible Information Display
Accessed via Setup screen D Separate options for Playback and Live View
Playback options (Just filling a box in the table ;-)
Live View options, page 1 Live View options, page 2

Unusually, the Olympus E-30's LCD display allows adjustment not only of brightness, but also of color temperature. Both variables can be adjusted over a wide 15-step range, potentially making the E-30's display more useful for judging color and exposure than most. Olympus has also made the E-30's LCD display particularly customizable, allowing photographers to separately adjust the info display for Live View and Playback modes, enabling or disabling options such as histograms, highlight / shadow indication, face detection, and more. A variety of grids can also be overlaid on the Live View display, to help facilitate precise framing of images. As well as the image sensor's native 4:3 aspect ratio, Olympus offers eight alternate aspect ratios through the E-30's menu system (3:2, 16:9, 6:6, 5:4, 7:6, 6:5, 7:5, 3:4). If shooting in Live View mode on the camera's LCD display, the selected aspect ratio is masked on the display, and only the area inside this mask is recorded when the shutter button is pressed. Since there is no masking when shooting through the optical viewfinder however, the full 4:3 aspect ratio image is always recorded, although the EXIF header of images can be tagged with the alternate aspect ratio if desired. (The EXIF tag could presumably be used to signal post-processing software to make the crop automatically, once the file has been downloaded to a computer.)

Olympus E30 Autofocus System

AF sensor unit, located at the bottom of the mirror box.

While the Olympus E-30 uses the same 11-point autofocusing system as that of the E-3, the company says that it has improved the autofocus speed over its previous models. The Olympus E-30 offers the ability to fine-tune focusing for up to 20 lenses, with a 20-step adjustment range for each lens. Several other companies offer this sort of focus fine-tuning, but this is a first for Olympus, and 20 lenses with a 20-step range is a pretty robust implementation. As with the E-3, it is possible to magnify the Live View display by either five, seven or ten times to assist with precision focusing.

AF target layout, and primary subject position.

Olympus notes that the layout of the AF points (which is unchanged from that in the E-3) was determined by analysis of the primary subject location among thousands of photographs as well as interviews with professional photographers. The image on the right shows the location of the eleven AF points, and interestingly also indicates the results of Olympus' analysis of the primary subject location - warmer colors showing areas more likely to be the primary subject, and cooler colors showing areas that are less likely.

The Olympus E-30 also features a Face Detection system - a feature which is available in the consumer-oriented E-520, but not the E-3. Available when using Live View or Playback modes, the E-30's face detection function can detect up to eight faces per image. In Live View mode, this information is taken into account when determining both autofocus and autoexposure, and the Function button can be assigned to allow the photographer to quickly activate face detection as needed. In playback mode, the face detection function lets photographers quickly zoom in on the primary face in recorded images to check expression / focus / exposure, and then quickly step through the other faces detected in the image. Also, the Playback mode Image Edit function can take account of detected faces when using its Red-Eye Removal and Shadow Adjustment functions.

Live View AF mode selection.

In common with other recent models from Olympus, the E-30 offers contrast-detect AF, phase-detect AF, and a hybrid mode that combines the two. As laborious as phase-detect AF is in a Live View SLR (drop mirror, focus, raise mirror, expose, drop mirror, raise again for next Live View display), it's still sometimes faster (and sometimes considerably faster) than contrast-detect AF in SLRs. Nikon recently chose to go exclusively with contrast-detect AF in their new D90, we count it as an advantage in its favor that the Olympus E30 offers both AF modes.


Olympus E30 Exposure and Flash

The Olympus E-30 features a wide range of 25 different shooting modes. As well as the typical Auto, Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual exposure modes you'd expect to find on any digital SLR, there are five "Creative" Modes  (commonly used Scene modes which merit their own separate positions on the Mode dial - Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sport, and Night + Portrait), as well as 11 Scene Select modes (Beach & Snow, Candle, Children, Digital Image Stabilization, Documents, Fireworks, High Key, Low Key, Nature Macro, Sunset, and xD Panorama), and six Art Filter modes (more on these in a moment).

The E-30 features 49-area multi pattern Digital ESP metering system, with additional options for both center-weighted average or 2% spot metering. ISO sensitivity ranges from a minimum of 100 to a maximum of 3,200 equivalents, set either automatically or manually in 1/3 or 1EV steps. The shutter mechanism in the E-30 is identical to that in the pro-oriented E-3 model, offering shutter speeds ranging from 1/8,000 to 60 seconds, plus a bulb mode that allows exposures as long as 30 minutes.


When Wireless Flash is enabled, the rear-panel LCD produces the display shown above,
with status info for all three flash channels combined with exposure info.

The E-30 includes a built-in flash strobe with a guide number of 13 meters at ISO 100, and provides for external flash strobes with a hot shoe, x-sync terminal, and the ability to control Olympus FL-36R and FL-50R flash strobes wirelessly. Wireless flash control is similar to that in the Olympus E-3, allowing flashes to be controlled in three groups, with each group set to either TTL, Auto, Manual or Off, and allowing exposure level of each group to be controlled separately. So-called x-sync flash synchronization is possible at 1/250 second or less, although Olympus' FL-50R and FL-36R external flash units permit FP-sync operation all the way up to 1/8,000 second.

Aspect ratio selection.

As well as the image sensor's native 4:3 aspect ratio, Olympus offers eight alternate aspect ratios through the E-30's menu system (3:2, 16:9, 6:6, 5:4, 7:6, 6:5, 7:5, 3:4). If shooting in Live View mode on the camera's LCD display, the selected aspect ratio is masked on the display, and only the area inside this mask is recorded when the shutter button is pressed. Since there is no masking when shooting through the optical viewfinder however, the full 4:3 aspect ratio image is always recorded, although the EXIF header of images can be tagged with the alternate aspect ratio if desired. (The EXIF tag could presumably be used to signal post-processing software to make the crop automatically, once the file has been downloaded to a computer.)

The Olympus E-30 also offers Shadow Adjustment Technology, Olympus' name for dynamic range expansion which adjusts contrast to prevent loss of detail in highlight and shadow areas of contrasty scenes. The effect can be previewed on the Live View LCD display, as can the effects of white balance, exposure compensation, and depth of field preview (with the gain being boosted during this latter function so as to keep the brightness of the preview the same).

Sensor shift stabilization mechanism.

The Olympus E-30 includes in-body sensor shift-type image stabilization, allowing for true mechanical stabilization when shooting with any Four Thirds lens. Olympus' documentation says the system will offer "up to 5 stops" of correction - a very aggressive claim which we're looking forward to testing out when we received a production sample. There are three operating modes for the system. I.S. 1 compensates for shake in all directions, while I.S. 2 restricts the compensation to vertical shake only (allowing for horizontal panning). Finally, I.S. 3 compensates for horizontal shake only (and hence allows for vertical panning).

As you'd expect, the Olympus E-30 also includes the company's "Super-Sonic Wave Filter" Dust Reduction system, which when activated vibrates a filter in front of the image sensor at 30KHz to shake off dust. The removed dust then settles onto an adhesive strip below the filter, preventing its return. The filter also serves a dual purpose by holding dust further away from the sensor to minimise its effect in images, and the area between filter and sensor is hermetically sealed to prevent ingress of dust onto the sensor itself. It's a system that has been in every Olympus digital SLR since the initial E-1 model, and has since been mirrored by other manufacturers - perhaps a testament to its utility.

Olympus E30 Level Sensors



Rock and Roll - Well, maybe Pitch and Roll... Here's the interpretation of those terms as they apply to the Olympus E30's level sensors.

A new feature in the Olympus E-30 is that it includes a roll / pitch sensor, capable of detecting whether the camera is level (and if not, how close it is) both in terms of forward / backward pitch, and left / right roll around the central axis of the lens. Both roll and pitch can be shown by gauges on the LCD display during Live View mode, and the camera can also display left / right roll on the optical viewfinder's status display, and on the top panel status LCD display. Note, though, that pitch cannot be shown on these latter two displays. It's a clever system nonetheless, which should help photographers ensure level horizons and true perspective (no converging vertical lines) in their images. An example of the possible indications can be seen above, however, do note that we're told the exact display method in live view mode may be slightly different on final production models.


Olympus E30 Image Processor, Artistic Effects

Built into the Olympus E-30 is a new image processor chip, which Olympus is calling the TruePic III+. (The previous version was the TruePic III.) They didn't go into details about this chip in our briefing, but it appears to be both faster than the prior TruePic III, and also incorporates some special hardware features to accelerate the "Art Filter" processing offered by the E-30, and that we're told will be incorporated into all Olympus SLRs going forward.

We'll get into the details of the Art Filter effects in a moment, but for now, consider the illustration above. (Click on the illustration to see a slightly larger version in a separate window.) This diagram illustrates the processing enabled by the new TruePic III+. The prior TruePic III implemented the processing chain shown across the top of the illustration, basically taking data from the image sensor, processing it and storing the result on the memory card as a final image.

The new TruePic III+ adds the new processing block shown across the bottom of the figure, which Olympus is calling the "Art Engine." What's shown schematically here is that the new Art Engine processor interacts with the sensor electronics, the flash, and the lens to achieve the effects found in the new Art Filter options. Rather than simply applying a canned effect to whatever it receives from the sensor, the new Art Engine adjusts exposure, tonal range, color rendering, and perhaps even focus to achieve the final effect. (We're not certain about that last; Olympus didn't go into detail as to the nature of the interaction between the art engine and the lens. It seems likely that focus would be involved though, because one of the filters is a soft-focus one.) Thanks to the hardware acceleration provided by the TruePic III+ processor, shooting in an Art Filter mode didn't seem to be any slower than shooting normally. The chosen effect is also displayed on the LCD in Live View mode, in real time, which was fairly impressive, given the relatively rapid refresh rate of the LCD display.

Olympus E30 Art Filter Options
Pop art: Boosts colors, but it's more than just a saturation bump, the effect is something different, "pop art" is as good a description as any. Soft Focus: Just what it says. It wasn't clear in the briefing to what extent the prototype was actually shifting focus optically vs just applying a filter. Pale & Light Color: From Olympus: "Uses muted color tonalities to create a mood embraced in a gentle light."
Light Tone: Tones down highlights, opens shadows. (Kind of like the Highlight/Shadow filter in Photoshop.) Grainy Film: Wow, this one was nostalgic for us: It really brought back memories of souping Tri-X black & white film in the darkroom. We found it very appealing. Pin Hole: Softer focus, vignetting, and skewed color to evoke the feeling of images shot with a pinhole or toy camera.

The net result of the added Art Engine processing is filter effects that in many cases would take considerable work by an experienced artist to create in Photoshop. Olympus wouldn't give us any actual images shot with the camera to illustrate the various Art Filter modes, as they said that the camera is still at too early a stage to show image samples from it yet. Instead, see the table above for the menu screens for the Art Filter options, with brief descriptions.

As you'd expect/hope, the Art Filter effects are applied only to JPEG images. If you're shooting in JPEG mode, the images saved to the card will have the chosen effect applied to them. If you're in RAW+JPEG mode, though, the JPEGs will have the chosen filter applied, while the RAW files will be undisturbed. (We asked, and it doesn't appear that the effects will be able to be applied after the fact, to saved RAW files; they can only be applied at the time of capture.)

In the product briefing, Olympus seemed to be banking quite a bit on the Art Filter feature to attract new users and differentiate their cameras from the competition. We guess there may be some people who'd find these special effects compelling enough to buy one camera over another, but we don't think there'd be great numbers of them. While engaging, these effects don't seem to us like something that's going to grab a large chunk of the mass market. We could see designers and creative professionals gravitating toward them, though, as they could certainly be a quick way to generate images with a number of different "looks" for inclusion in comps for advertising or merchandising clients.

Olympus E-30 Multiple Exposure Feature

We confess we've never been big fans of the multiple-exposure features that are finding their way onto more and more cameras, but we're sure there's a subset of photographers that find them engaging and fun.

Olympus E30 Multiple Exposure Feature Menu Screens
Select Multiple Exposure via Shooting Menu #2. Choices are number of frames, auto gain setting for merging images and overlay image selection. You can choose to combine from two to four frames into a single image.
Auto gain adjusts the brightness of each shot as you merge them, so all images are combined equally in the final frame. The third option on the menu lets you choose a single RAW file from the memory card to use as the first image of your composite.

The multi-exposure feature on the Olympus E30 goes further than most, in that it lets you combine up to four frames into a single image, and you can also choose a RAW file from the memory card to use as the first image of your composite. This first image will appear on the LCD screen while you're shooting the first new image, and will be merged into the final image just as if you'd shot it as part of the series. You can only merge-in one image from the memory card, and it must be a RAW file. The screenshots above show the menu options that control the multiple exposure feature, but, as before, note that these menu screens may be be slightly different on production models.

Here's a simulation of how the multi-exposure feature works. (Looks like it could come in handy for making Halloween masks. :-) As we said, it can certainly be a fun option, but it generally does take some fiddling to compose your shots so there's no distracting detail in one interfering with the image from another. Getting the relative exposures right can be tricky too, although the Olympus E-30's auto gain feature would presumably help with that.

Olympus E30 Memory and Battery

Dual cards - Olympus continues to support the xD format, but the E-30 also accepts the more common CF cards.

The Olympus E-30 has two storage slots, accepting xD-Picture cards and CompactFlash Type-I or Type-II cards respectively. The CF card slot is UDMA-compatible for improved write / read speeds with the latest generation of CF media, and also accepts Microdrives, in case you still have any of that older format in use. Images are stored as either 12-bit RAW or JPEG files, and the E-30 is also capable of simultaneously storing duplicates of each image in both formats. One nice touch: If the memory bay cover is opened during writing, the camera will immediately halt the write operation so as to prevent accidental corruption - but importantly, the remaining data is held in the camera's buffer and the write operation resumes as soon as the cover is closed again.

For transferring images to a computer and remote control of the camera, the Olympus E-30 includes USB 2.0 High Speed connectivity. There's also NTSC / PAL-format standard definition video output for viewing images on a television sharing the same connector and the USB port also doubles (triples?) as a wired remote control connector for Olympus' RM-UC1 cable remote. As mentioned previously there's also a hot shoe and external sync connector for flash strobes / systems. Finally, a 9V DC-in jack accepts Olympus' optional AC-1 AC power adapter.

Custom Battery Warning - Want a bit more (or less) warning that your battery is getting low? The Olympus E30 lets you set the warning threshold yourself.

The Olympus E-30 draws its power from a BLM-1 Lithium Ion rechargeable battery pack, and can also accept the same optional HLD-4 portrait battery grip that's first shipped with the E-3 digital SLR. The HLD-4 grip includes duplicates of the camera's main shutter button, front and rear control dials, function and AF target buttons positioned for easy reach in portrait mode shooting. It also accepts two BLM-1 batteries or - via an included tray - six AA alkaline or lithium disposable batteries, for extended battery life. A rather nice touch on Olympus' part is that the E-30 allows the user to set a custom threshold level at which to warn of low battery power. This level can be set to one of five steps, and allows the user to program separate warning levels for Alkaline, NiMH or Lithium batteries.


Olympus E-30 Summary

The Olympus E-30 could be an important camera for Olympus: It's their first serious effort to go after the true "enthusiast" shooter, who in the digital era have long been the almost exclusive market for Canon and Nikon SLRs. The Olympus E30 certainly hits a lot of the notes required for a camera in that market segment, and its kit lens will undoubtedly be of notably higher quality than those that most manufacturers offer as part of bundles. (The earlier version of this lens tested very well on SLRgear, where we've generally found Olympus lenses to perform well.) That said, a list price of $1,299 body-only seems pretty steep, and could be a challenge for Olympus in the marketplace.

Of course, stay tuned, we'll have full test photos, performance measurements and analysis as soon as we can get our hands on a production sample!

 

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