Olympus E-330 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Olympus EVOLT E-330
Resolution: 7.50 Megapixels
Sensor size: Four Thirds
Kit Lens: 3.20x zoom
14-45mm
(28-90mm eq.)
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
ISO: 100-1600
Shutter: 60-1/4000
Max Aperture: 3.5
Dimensions: 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.6 in.
(129 x 95 x 66 mm)
Weight: 15.4 oz (437 g)
MSRP: $1,100
Availability: 03/2006
Manufacturer: Olympus
Full specs: Olympus E-330 specifications
7.50
Megapixels
Four Thirds mount Four Thirds
size sensor
image of Olympus EVOLT E-330
Front side of Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital camera Back side of Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital camera Top side of Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital camera Left side of Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital camera Right side of Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital camera
Imaging Resource rating

3.5 out of 5.0

Olympus EVOLT
E-330 Overview

by Shawn Barnett
Preview Date: 01/26/06; Finalized: 2/18/2007

The Olympus EVOLT E-330 offers something a lot of people have been hoping for. Taking advantage of how far the price of image sensors has fallen, the E-330 features not one, but two sensors. The first is an NMOS sensor with a resolution of 7.5 megapixels, which is used for image capture. The second sensor is a CCD of unknown resolution, which is used to allow a live preview image on the camera's LCD display. A couple of digital SLRs have offered live previews in the past, but these have come with strong limitations as to how long (and how) they could be used, making them essentially unuseable in the manner that most point-and-shoot digicam owners have become accustomed to. The E-330 solves this, and so the company has focused on optimising the LCD shooting experience, with a larger than average 2.5" LCD display mounted on a tilting mechanism for easy viewing from a range of angles.

The E-330 also offers a range of other features shared with past Evolt models, including CompactFlash and xD-Picture card storage, dust reduction system, and more. The Olympus EVOLT E-330 goes on sale March 2006, with pricing planned to be US$1099.99, including a 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

 

Olympus EVOLT
E-330 User Report

by Shawn Barnett

As the market for digital SLRs gets more crowded, we can expect more and more attempts at product differentiation. Companies are always looking for that something extra to make their product stand out from the crowd of traditional products, whatever they be. No company has gone to greater lengths to be different in the SLR space than Olympus, though, and they've continued the trend in the E-330, delivering the first SLR with a live view.

2005's EVOLT E-300 was quite a departure in SLR design, with a porromirror arranged on the side of the camera instead of a pentaprism mounted on top, and an onboard flash that could be used as fill in conjunction with a hot-shoe-mounted flash. It was interesting, though unattractive, and I didn't see much value. When the Olympus E-500 came out in the Fall, I thought they'd abandoned the E-300 in favor of more conventional design. Though I'd been told that the E-300 series wouldn't be going away, I thought that was just PR-speak for "We'll continue selling them until we run out." I assumed Olympus developed the excellent E-500 to take on the digital SLR market with a more traditional body, abandoning the more radical E-300 -- especially given that the price on the E-300 had dropped so dramatically.

Watch the E330 First Look video!
(Click on the image to view)

But Olympus had other plans for the E-300 design, as is evidenced by the E-330. Though it's still quite radical in appearance, the Olympus E-330 is slightly more curvaceous, with a better grip and improved control layout. The real difference becomes noticeable when you look at the back. A large LCD is mounted in a thick frame that tilts out from the bottom to face down 45 degrees, and then back up by 45 or 90 degrees.

As anyone with digicam experience knows, the only reason to have a tilting LCD is to take shots from odd angles--over crowds or at ground level. But to do that, you need a live preview like you have on all-in-one digital cameras. Up to now, few SLRs could do that trick, forcing the user to use the SLR just like you use a film camera: by looking through the optical viewfinder. For many who have grown accustomed to framing shots at arm's length with a live LCD display, the switch to a digital SLR can be jarring.

Though this wasn't the last SLR with a live preview to hit the scene in 2006, it was the first on the market; and those that did follow were really just modifications of this very design. The two cameras are put out by two other signatories to the Four Thirds System: the Panasonic Lumix L1 and the Leica Digilux 3. Two prior SLRs that display a live preview are the Canon 20Da, built specifically for astronomy, and the Fujifilm S3 Pro; but both of these can only show a live preview for seconds, and then only in monochrome mode.

Though the Olympus E-330's sensor is the same size as the E-300 and E-500, it is not the same 8 megapixel Kodak sensor we liked so much in those cameras. Olympus has instead chosen an NMOS sensor, which is more expensive, but the transistor design is faster than CMOS. The pixel count is a little lower, at 7.5 megapixels, but it can indeed clock out a live image from the sensor, with no effective limit on the duration of the live display.

But here's where it gets really tricky. Technically, the Olympus EVOLT E-330 has not one image sensor, but two. And not two viewfinders, but three.

Let's back up. The normal configuration for digital SLRs includes an imaging sensor covered by a shutter and a mirror. The first mirror reflects light onto a focusing screen, and from there into a prism or mirror assembly that directs the final image to the optical viewfinder where the photographer can see a real-time image of what they're about to capture. When the shutter is released, the mirror moves out of the way, the shutter opens, and the scene is captured and stored to memory.

Digital SLRs can't show a live image on an LCD simply because there's a shutter and mirror in the way of the sensor, directing all the light instead to the optical viewfinder. There are two ways to solve this problem. You can flip the shutter and mirror out of the way and draw the live image directly from the sensor--destroying the SLR's normal ability to auto-focus and meter. Or you can use a partially-silvered "pellicle" mirror and mount a sensor behind this semi-transparent mirror to get your live preview.

The Olympus E-330 does both.

The first and most complicated viewfinder method is called Live View A, which samples light through a series of five mirrors and at least two sets of optics after it enters the camera through the lens (see diagram below).

Light first hits the main reflex mirror and forms an image on the focusing screen. This image is reflected by two fully silvered mirrors until it hits the pellicle mirror. This is the mirror that you first see when you peer into the Olympus E-330's optical viewfinder. Most of the light (we're told 80%) is reflected out the optical viewfinder. The missing 20% of the light passes through the pellicle mirror, where it hits what must be yet another pellicle mirror. According to the diagram shown below, the light is split again before it reaches the Live View A sensor, to pass a little of it on to the 49-zone exposure sensor. I'm left wondering where the AF sensors are. They're either built into the chip for the 49 exposure sensors, part of the Live View A sensors, or else--as the A:mode diagram below seems to illustrate (and as we think we can see looking into the front of the camera body), the main reflex mirror is also partially transmissive in nature, concealing another mirror that reflects onto AF sensors nestled in the right side of the exposure chamber.

One thing's for sure, the Olympus E-330 pulls some serious reflexing, earning the name Reflex like no other.

In order to avoid throwing off the meter when in Live View A mode, the user must close a manual shutter over the optical viewfinder to keep stray light from affecting both the LCD image displayed and the exposure.

As a result of all this light splitting, however, the image in the optical viewfinder is noticeably dimmer than that of the Olympus E-330. The LCD view on our pre-release sample is big and bright, though, and excellent for composing images. It's more comfortable than using the smallish optical viewfinder, and the AF points are more visible on the LCD than they appear in the optical viewfinder.

Live View B seems more simple, and will be more familiar to owners of "regular" digital cameras, but it's more difficult to accomplish from an electrical engineer's standpoint. The mirror flips out of the way completely while the Live View B mode is active, allowing light to strike the MOS sensor the entire time. Better! No light lost, no trouble; you get the view you're used to, framed exactly as the capture sensor will see it.

Unfortunately, you do lose something. Autofocus and exposure. With that main mirror flipped out of the way to let light fall on the main sensor, this SLR's ability to focus and meter is cut off. I'm not sure why, but Olympus either didn't want to, or for some reason couldn't use the same contrast detection method used in nearly all modern digital cameras. (It's possible that the live readout is actually sub-sampling the sensor pixels, so there isn't enough resolution for accurate contrast-detect AF.) So focus is manual in this mode, made a little less sure-footed due to the digital nature of the E-System lenses. Focus is fly-by-wire on most Olympus lenses, meaning that you turn the ring, and the camera moves the optics. The cool part is that you can customize which direction you use to focus in the menu.

Though you really can't accurately focus via the LCD on this screen, Olympus included the Enlarged display mode. You press the Info button a few times and a small green square appears on the screen that you can move around about 75% of the frame via the rear-panel arrow controls. Press the OK button in the middle of the Five-way control cluster and suddenly you're in 10x manual focus mode. Unlike most cameras that use this mode for manual focusing, you can indeed judge and adjust sharpness pretty closely with the Olympus E-330's Enlarged display mode, despite the fly-by-wire focusing ring.

Finding the right target

Olympus has marketed--and priced--this camera to prosumer and enthusiast photographers. But they also hope that it will appeal to consumer shooters who want a live view. Unfortunately, the mode that sounds the most appealing and familiar for novice users, namely drawing the image directly from the imaging sensor with Live View B, eliminates one of the key tools the amateur is likely to depend on: autofocus.

Most amateurs wanting a live preview will do better sticking to Live View A, closing the optical viewfinder's shutter, and forgetting the Olympus E-330 has an optical viewfinder. Why? Well, if you forget to close the manually operated viewfinder shutter, your photos will be underexposed because stray light entering the viewfinder eyepiece as you hold the camera away from you to see the LCD is "seen" by the exposure sensors. If you hold the camera with a bright light source behind you with this shutter open, the problem becomes most apparent. Light enters the rear optic, reflects through the entire mirror system and back off the focusing screen, back through the mirrors, and right through the pellicle mirror to the 49-point metering system and the sensor for Live View A. If you put a lamp behind you, you end up with a fuzzy image of a lamp appearing on your LCD. No image of the lamp will appear on the captured image, because the main mirror will be flipped up, blocking this light from the capture sensor, but it will be underexposed. Underexposure is even worse with the sun behind you.

If you didn't follow all of that, I'm not surprised. It's complicated. I don't say it's impossible to remember to close the eyepiece shutter, nor do I judge it as bad; I just don't think the E-330 is for the point & shoot photographer wanting to take snaps of the kids. Prosumer Olympus fans are careful photographers, who will take the time to learn and appreciate a camera like this, meticulously closing the shutter and switching modes with care and complete understanding of the compromises involved. I'm not worried about them. But I just know that we're going to get a lot of emails from those who just wanted a live preview, asking me to explain why an E-330 underexposes all their images, or why it just won't focus anymore. I think Olympus would agree with me that they already make a great SLR for those who want a no-nonsense camera with interchangeable lenses and great image quality: the Olympus EVOLT E-500.

The Rest

As for the various tweaks to the existing Olympus E-330 design, I have to say I like most of them. The grip is much better, with a more normal cut. It could be a little deeper and flatter inside, but it's comfortable and not as unusual as the E-330. There also seems to be less weight on the left side of the body, making for less twisting force when you're holding the camera one-handed. The entire look is still quite unusual, but more appealing overall, with attractive accents and curves.

The Olympus E-330's LCD is big, very much dominating the back of the camera, but all controls are still where they ought to be. I'm a little perplexed by the LCD's design accents, putting a thick rectangular LCD with hard edges and a silver accent on a camera with few other hard edges makes it seem like an afterthought.

Because the optical viewfinder bezel had to be extended to clear the LCD, you can't just tilt the LCD up, you have to first tilt it down (or pull it out slightly as above), then it will swing up 90 degrees for those waist- or ground-level shots. In bright daylight, the LCD is bright and vibrant, and it's excellent just about everywhere else as well. I prefer LCDs that turn left, right, and forward as well for shots around corners and in tight spots. They'd have had to move the four buttons on the screen's left to accomplish this on the Olympus E-330, but I think it would have been worth it for the greater versatility considering all the trouble to achieve a mere 45 degrees down and 90 degrees up, for 135 degrees of arc.

On the front of the Olympus E-330, they returned to a small, distant lens release button, instead of the nice big button that's nestled right against the lens on the E-500. The pop-up flash is manually activated with a well-placed release button, which causes it to slide forward and up, as it did on the E-300. This helps it clear the lens, but a slight shadow is still sometimes visible when you focus close at 14mm and use the flash with the 14-45mm lens. As I said with the Olympus E-330, any camera that has auto modes should have a pop up that the camera can activate when necessary.

Paired with the nifty little FL-36 accessory flash, the Olympus E-330 exposes images very well. One really nice touch is that you can still use the pop up flash with the FL-36 mounted and get some great bounce/fill combinations for more flattering portraits.

Like its simpler and more affordable brother, the E-500, the E-330 accepts both CF and xD cards, a great move that leaves the camera open for Olympus digicam upgraders and E-300/E-1 users as well.

Shooting. The first thing you notice with the E-330 is that it's big and wide. This makes its weight seem greater than other SLRs, whose weight is usually closer to the grip. Having all those optics out to the left of the lens contributes to this sense of imbalance, but the better grip somewhat mitigates the effect.

The substantial thumbgrip on the back really helps keep a solid hold, countering the weight, but I'd still like to see these innovations morphed into a more traditional SLR body.

Where to look. Though my initial reaction to the LCD mode was positive, after shooting with it for awhile, I've found the general flaws that keep me returning to the optical viewfinder for most shooting. Olympus created this elaborate system to give consumers the live LCD view that they've grown accustomed to; the only problem is that the view isn't really live. SLR shooters may not even know what advantage they have when they look through their optical viewfinder, but spending time with the Olympus E-330 is a good object lesson. In fact, I'm sorry to say that if I were to arrange a demonstration of why you want an SLR in the first place, I'd choose the E-330 to illustrate the problem in one single camera.

When you look through the Olympus E-330's optical viewfinder, you see a dim view of reality, but you see it at the speed of light. If you open your left eye while looking through the viewfinder with your right, you'll see everything in real time. 186,000 miles per second doesn't slow down when refracted, so you see exactly what's happening before you capture. You won't get exactly what you see, because of shutter lag, but it's pretty close.

Put a digital sensor, a computer processor, and a set of other electronics running on a digital clock in between, and you get a slight delay. Add that delay to your shutter lag delay, and you end up with a pretty peculiar shooting experience, especially when shooting action.

I experimented taking pictures of my son running around the yard with his Tonka truck. Thanks to the LCD I was able to sit back and frame shots with the camera comfortably out front. I could also see him over the camera from this vantage. The Olympus E-330 had no trouble picking him out and focusing when I pressed the shutter halfway. As I panned following him, I pressed the shutter. An image froze onscreen. This was the last image that the Live View A mode saw before the mirror shot up. The image returned as a series of three to five stills appearing over half a second, showing the child further along in his journey. Each is a picture displayed long enough for your mind to process. Then time goes backward: You see the image you captured. It's not the image you saw when you pressed the shutter, and it's not the three to five images you saw after you pressed the shutter. Of course not. But unfortunately, as chance would have it, it's not always as good as the other four to six images you saw during the capture. But you'll never see those images again. It's the same problem I had with the Canon PowerShot Pro1, only multiplied five times. Quite a tease.

Optical. So the Optical viewfinder is indeed a viable and available option on the Olympus E-330. But the view is dim due to the partially silvered mirrors. It's not terrible, but not as good as the competition. This became very clear when I was out getting Gallery shots with the E-330 and the Pentax K10D. Even on a bright day, the view is significantly dimmer, such that your eye has to adjust to the darker view.

Live View B. The last viewing mode is the "B" mode, which draws an image directly from the sensor. This is a mode I'd only use if I were shooting landscapes and macros, and maybe night exposures. The chief benefit is the ability to manual focus directly off the sensor while zoomed in on a small portion of the image. This is pretty useful when shooting on a tripod, but more troublesome handheld. It's a significant zoom, so holding the camera still while you focus isn't easy, even at wide angle.

I would like this mode more if the manual focus were truly manual: a ring that turns gears in real-time instead of an electronically-driven motor that responds to the turning of the ring. True manual focus offers both visual and tactile feedback. Manual focusing "by wire" reminds me of an insincere, cold-fish handshake. You're pretty sure you're not sure at all, and you don't want to shake that hand again. Focusing via Live View B isn't quite that bad, but similar. Sometimes I'm impressed and pleased, sometimes I'm not.

The camera also makes twice the noise in Live View B mode. As we mentioned above, the shutter opens first, then it has to close to do the metering really quick, then the actual exposure is made. So you get a half-click/wind, then the real double-click & wind. Then you have a still image on the screen for two to three seconds, then there's another click as the mirror and shutter open again to give you the Live View B display again.

And because the camera can't do any metering until just before the exposure, you get no onscreen display telling you what the settings are. In Program mode, there's nothing. In Aperture mode, you can see the aperture you've set, but you don't know what the camera's going to do with the shutter speed until after the capture. Same with Shutter speed mode. You see a balanced image on the screen, but you get no concept of what it'll look like until after capture. So clearly this mode is only a temporary, focus-only mode. You'll have to switch back to meter and make one final framing check, either through the optical viewfinder or on the LCD, then take your shot.

On one hand, no other camera can check focus this thoroughly before capture, as modern optical digicam viewfinders do very little to help your eye confirm focus like the big bright ground glass focusing screens on 35mm cameras used to do. On the other hand, this mode is so limited, and using it so involved, that you could just as easily capture a shot, zoom in to look at it to check focus, then refocus and take another shot.

Master of none. Ultimately, the E-330 has three ways to frame your images, and each is a compromise big enough that I'd hesitate to recommend a camera with any one of these viewfinders, let alone all three. Dim optical viewfinders aren't comfortable to use over time. LCDs already introduce more lag to the shutter-lag factor, but when they get jerky, presenting still after still that you'll never see again, they're frustrating. And Manual AF with zoom assist is great when focus is important, but unless you shoot everything on a tripod, it's a lot of trouble to use.

There are those who will never be satisfied unless they have one camera that will do all these things. These people will be very happy with and embrace the compromises of the E-330. It is a versatile and powerful photographic tool in the right hands. But even these enthusiast photographers should be warned that each mode is a compromised version of what you can get in full on a more conventional digicam or digital SLR.

Despite the brilliant design and construction work evident in the E-330, they've managed to prove why having a truly live, through-the-lens view of the light you're about to capture is more important than shooting comfortably. 186,000 miles per second is hard to beat. Rather than giving consumers what they say they want, I think the rest of the industry is doing well to give consumers the greatest speed available refracted through a series of mirrors.

Still... The Olympus E-330 is a pretty good SLR. Ask me about the viewfinders, and I'll tell you about the compromises. Ask me about the rest, and I'll tell you that it takes pretty good pictures, and I'd bet it has many happy owners. I've enjoyed shooting with it, especially through the viewfinder. I've not been tempted to buy one, like I was with the Olympus E-500. That sweet, light, nimble SLR charmed me to the core. I still look at it wistfully now and then.

Since I shoot only with the E-330's optical viewfinder when it's important, I've come to think of the other modes as unnecessary gadgetry that I'd rather not have to pay for. I've used these modes for the sake of the review. The complicated viewfinder arrangement has gotten in the way of my review of the E-330, really; and I think they'll get in the way for users as well.

 

Features

  • 7.5-megapixel NMOS solid state image sensor
  • Interchangeable lens mount accommodates Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses
  • Kit includes Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
  • Digital SLR design and true optical viewfinder
  • 2.5-inch color LCD monitor with vertical tilt design and Live View capability
  • Manual and automatic focus modes, with adjustable AF area and Single-Shot and Continuous settings
  • Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 60 seconds, with a Bulb setting (8 minute limit)
  • Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes, plus 20 Scene modes
  • Spot, Center-Weighted, and Digital ESP metering systems
  • Auto Bracketing and Sequential Shooting capture modes
  • Variable ISO setting, with ISO equivalents from 100 to 1,600 (800 and 1,600 available when enabled in menu)
  • Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, Monochrome, and Graduation image adjustments
  • Adobe RGB and sRGB color space options
  • Built-in sliding pop-up flash with six operating modes and intensity adjustment
  • Hot Shoe for attaching external flash units, compatible with Olympus' own line of dedicated flash units for better-integrated exposure control
  • JPEG, uncompressed TIFF, and RAW file formats
  • Images saved on CompactFlash cards and Microdrives, as well as xD-Picture cards
  • USB cable for fast connection to a computer (USB auto-connect for driverless connection to Windows Me, 2000, XP, and Vista, and Mac OS 8.6 or greater)
  • Video cable for connection to a television set
  • Optional remote control
  • Power from rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (battery and charger included)
  • Software CD with Olympus' Master utility software (includes necessary drivers)
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format)/PictBridge compatibility and print settings

 

In the Box

The EVOLT E-330 kit package contains the following items:

  • Olympus EVOLT E-330 digital SLR body
  • Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (kit only)
  • Lens hood (kit only)
  • Strap
  • BLM-1 lithium ion battery
  • BCM-2 battery charger
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • Software CD containing Olympus Master and USB drivers.
  • Manuals and registration information

 

Recommended Accessories


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Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • First SLR to offer a live LCD preview
  • User can choose from among three viewfinder methods
  • Articulating LCD offers shooting from high or low angles.
  • Good resolution
  • Smart control design
  • Careful autofocus possible in Live View B mode
  • Good grip
  • Uses both CF and xD memory cards
  • Built-in flash can be used simultaneously with external flash for bounce/fill combo
  • Smart status display doubles as quick link to oft-used menu items
  • Shutter closes viewfinder to prevent extraneous light from affecting exposure
  • Supersonic Wave filter removes dust from sensor when camera is turned on
  • Multiple LCD display modes can be confusing
  • Optical viewfinder is dim even in bright daylight
  • LCD display is jerky during capture in Live View A mode
  • Live View B mode shows no exposure information or preview; is also noisy
  • Flash does not deploy automatically in Auto modes
  • Fly-by-wire focusing ring
  • Camera is heavy on the left, weight is badly distributed
  • Optical viewfinder shutter doesn't close automatically to prevent accidental underexposure due to extraneous light
  • Odd look and shape
  • Camera is expensive compared to E-500, offering questionable benefit with its three viewfinder modes

 

The Olympus E-330 is utilitarian, not beautiful. It's the one SLR on the market that will let you frame pictures from the ground without laying down on the ground yourself. It'll also let you shoot over crowds or obstacles. If you find yourself doing a lot of either of these things, the E-330 is a good tool for your toolbox.

The on-camera flash will allow you to mount an external flash and shoot bounce shots with fill. Not a common capability. And fine focus can be had with the press of a few buttons. If you're the gadgety type who needs a hybrid digital camera, the E-330 is that camera. If you like reading manuals and digging into menus, the E-330 has a lot to offer.

Most consumers without a special need for a utilitarian camera would do better learning to love the greater speed offered by a single-viewfinder SLR. You'd think you'd get that greater speed with this spiffy hybrid Olympus E-330 SLR, but I think most users will be so overwhelmed by the viewfinder choices that they'll only use one. Those who will spend enough to buy an SLR with a Live View LCD will probably default to the LCD, and they'll never know the value of real-time image framing with a big, bright viewfinder. Because I'm used to shooting more conventional SLRs, I default to the optical viewfinder, and I use the LCD after capture, just like I do with other SLRs. The E-500 offers only one viewfinder, is lighter, and is a joy to use, for $200 to $300 less. The viewfinder on the E-330 is just too dim to give you the full benefit, and the other two modes are also compromises. The Olympus E-330 is very much a niche camera. It's not bad, it's just not for everyone.

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