How does the latest four thirds addition fit into the enthusiast DSLR market?
The E-30 is the latest top-end DSLR from Olympus and bears an uncanny resemblance to its older brother, the E-3, in both aesthetics and specification, yet Olympus assures us that the new model is a neat fit in between the E-520 and E-3 models. As such the E-3 is set to remain the first stop for those photographers looking to bag themselves the flagship Olympus DSLR. But where exactly does the E-30 fit in to the line-up with regards to performance, and does it provide a challenge to the mantle of the E-3 as the king of Four Thirds cameras?
It?s interesting to consider how camera manufacturers try to differentiate their various offerings these days. The fact of the matter is that having a strong line-up of four or five DSLRs that sell in decent numbers is far more likely to increase profits than having just the one camera that sells excellently. Because of this manufacturers will identify a specific section of the market ? beginner, entry-level, enthusiast, professional ? and then launch models targeted at each, in the hope that customers will adopt a model at all price points.
To target more than one market at a time manufacturers will also release ostensibly similar models. For example, Canon?s recent 50D was not, insisted the manufacturer, a replacement for the 40D, even though it was essentially the same camera bar a few more megapixels and a slight LCD improvement.
On the face of things, it appears to be a similar case with the Olympus E-30. The new model features the same Four Thirds 17.3 x 13mm Live MOS sensor as is present in the E-3, though Olympus has seen fit to cram an extra couple of megapixels on it, taking the effective pixel count from 10.1MP to 12.3MP. With its extra pixels the new sensor can deliver a maximum image resolution of 4032 x 3024 pixels. The ISO range also remains the same, stretching from a low of ISO 100 up to ISO 3200 at the top end. As is the case with both the Olympus E-520 and E-3, the E-30 adopts both image stabilisation and dust-reduction technologies within the body of the camera, as opposed to the dust-only approach favoured by Canon and Nikon.
The similarities between the E-30 and the E-3 extend to the camera?s metering and focusing systems. Both models possess the same 11-point fully-biaxial focal point configuration, arranged in a three by three grid with points at the far left and right of the central horizontal line for extra focal flexibility. Both cameras also feature a 49-zone multi-pattern metering system, and are capable of a continuous shooting rate of 5fps.
One of the real standout features of the E-3 is its articulating LCD screen. The ability to remove the LCD screen out 180° from the back of the camera and then pivot it through about 270° on a horizontal axis, and then combine with Live View, was deemed a blessing to those who either like to shoot at unusual angles or those who use tripods below the conventional height. Those admirers will be pleased to know that the E-30 also features said LCD technology, with the added bonus being that Olympus has managed to stick an extra 0.2in on to the resolution of the E-3?s LCD, bringing that of the E-30 to 2.7in and 230k dot.
The main difference between the E-3 and E-30 are that the latter features a big round mode dial on the top with the PASM modes featured in the E-3, but with the addition of an Auto mode, five commonly used scene modes and an extra ?Art? setting that gives you access to six ?Art Filter? effects. These effects range from a ?pop art? style colour-pop effect, a misty ?soft focus? filter type setting or a vignette-style ?pin hole? filter. Essentially they take care of image post-processing in-camera, eliminating what Olympus labels ?complex image processing techniques?. Similar post-processing effects are normally found on compact cameras, so to be pushing them as the main selling point of a £1,000 DSLR seems a bit misguided.
One of the first things that strikes you when picking up the E-30 is how sturdy it feels in the hand. While it lacks the weatherproofing of its big brother, you get the feeling that the E-30 could more than handle a bump or two without too much cosmetic damage occurring.
The body of the E-30 is not all that much smaller than the E-3, being only 0.5mm, 8.5mm and 0.7mm smaller in width, height and depth respectively. However, the removal of the weatherproofing would probably account for the difference in weight between the pair, with the E-30 weighing in at just 655g, compared to the 810g of the E-3. This reduced weight is by no means to the detriment of the camera, though ? if anything, it?ll probably allow you a few more shots before having to give your wrist a break.
As mentioned previously, the top left of the E-30?s top-plate sees the addition of a mode dial ? an addition that serves as one of few indications that the E-30 is targeted at those who may not be immediately confident with much beyond PASM exposure modes. That said, the mode dial is useful in some situations. For example, if you regularly switch between the four conventional exposure modes, then the mode dial of the E-30 makes this process easier than it is on the E-3, where you have to hold down a mode button and use the control wheel, losing precious seconds of shooting time.
The introduction of the mode dial results in the AF and metering buttons being shifted to a new but comfortably reached location on the rear of the camera. The remaining buttons on the rear of the camera are intelligently distributed and, once acquainted with the layout, I found that the required function or change was never more than a few buttons away.
One of the main claims on release of the E-3 was that it was the fastest focusing DSLR in the world. This claim was, of course, according to a survey conducted by Olympus and was true when used with a specific lens. However, the general consensus was indeed that the E-3 was an incredibly fast-focusing camera. The same can be said with the E-30 ? it?s incredibly prompt at selecting one of its 11 AF points, and, more often than not, accurate.
Another traditional benefit within the Olympus system of cameras is image stabilisation. The stabilisation is very effective, performing well towards the five-stop advantage Olympus claims it will allow you. What?s more is that the image stabilisation is customisable to support panning either horizontally or vertically, by switching off either the horizontal or vertical image stabilisation ? a nice touch if you find yourself panning and want that extra step towards sharpness.
The live view system of the E-30 is also impressive. With the obvious bonus of the articulating LCD screen, I found myself using it more than ever before. In addition, the E-30 presents a genuinely usable autofocus system within the structure of live view, meaning you won?t be left yearning to put the camera to your eye while using the LCD to compose.
As is often the case with the performance of a DSLR, it?s not all good with the E-30. During the test I found the metering system to be somewhat of a challenge. Whenever the light fell on the challenging side of good, the E-30 had a tendency to either under- or overexpose. This results in you having to take matters into your own hands with some creative exposure compensation, and on a camera at this price point that comes as a disappointment.
And as regards the art filters, it really is quite mystifying that Olympus has chosen to make these the marquee feature of its new DSLR, especially given that it is pitched above entry-level. The E-30 is much closer to the E-3 than it is the E-520, for example, so one can only assume that Olympus has taken the approach so as to reinforce the differences between the E-30 and E-3. The art filters are a drain on the camera buffer, taking some five seconds to process a simple ?art filter? shot. What?s more is that these art filters offer no form of customisation within each specific filter, meaning that the more advanced user has no option to further their creativity with them.
RAW And JPEG
JPEGs are inherently sharper, but this is to be expected thanks to the in-camera sharpening that is applied. With a simple sharpening process post-capture, Raw files are equally as sharp, and thus you can determine a level of sharpening to suit the shot rather than be dictated to by the camera. Raw files also maintain more detail in shadows and highlights than JPEGs, and take a warmer appearance than JPEGs straight out of camera.
Noise is well controlled up to ISO 800, but from there upwards quality does gradually fall off, with ISO 3200 barely usable. Noise is also more evident in areas of shadow and highlight at high ISO settings, with this being a particular issue with sunset or sunrise shots.
Tone And Contrast
The E-30 does a very good job at rendering the mid-tones throughout the frame, producing a pleasing appearance and a good differentiation between tones.
Colour And White Balance
In normal light conditions, white balance is regularly accurate, with colours adopting a natural tone slightly on the muted side of saturated. This changes in more challenging light, though, with the white balance showing a tendency to err on the warm side, with colours affected in a similar way.
Sharpness And Detail
Detail is good throughout the frame, with the added benefit of a slightly higher resolution evident in this regard. The quality of this detail can be somewhat adversely affected by a slight lack of sharpness throughout the frame, but this is something easily rectifiable with a simple sharpening procedure in post processing.
Value For Money
The E-30 launched with an RRP of £1,100, nearly exactly the same as the E-3 at launch. The main concessions you?re making if you choose the E-30 over the E-3, is that you are losing out on the weatherproofing and a 100% viewfinder. If you?re not likely to be shooting in rotten weather or in a sandstorm, then the weatherproofing shouldn?t really be an issue. As for the 100% viewfinder ? the 98% viewfinder of the E-30 should be more than adequate for most. On the other hand, you?re gaining an increase in resolution in both pixels and LCD size ? the sensor of the E-30 will churn you out an extra 2.2MP, while the LCD screen has been boosted an extra 0.2in.
So, essentially, the trade-off seems to neither favour one camera nor the other especially, considering the target market of the E-30. And when you consider that the £900 street price tag is surely due to fall over time, the E-30 looks like being very good value.
The E-30 is a strong DSLR that performs well and delivers good quality images with relatively little fuss.
The fact of the matter, however, is that this is a circa-£1,000 DSLR where the main thrust of innovations or improvements are focused on ?art filters? one would normally assume better suited to a compact camera. Why didn?t Olympus just ignore the art filters and simply boost the resolution and LCD size of the E-3 in an upgrade instead? The natural conclusion is that Olympus wasn?t quite ready to make the E-3 redundant until they had finished a new E-?X?. Either way, if you can do without weatherproofing and don?t mind the 98% viewfinder, you?ll be getting an E-3 equivalent for a couple of hundred pounds cheaper, which can only be a good thing.