Olympus E-30, a First Look

Just a cheaper, smaller, lighter E-3?

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

This article is a quick look and a commentary on the E-30 SLR from Olympus. The full Technical Review and Reference has more detail on this camera than you could wish for.


While I am using Olympus digital SLRs in (almost) all my shooting, I decided not to get their '2008 budget entry, the E-520: it is basically the same camera as the E-510 I'm quite happy with, and the (relatively minor) improvements did not justify spending my hard-earned money for the new model. If a camera is good one year, it does not become any worse as soon as a "new, improved" model is introduced.

For a different reason, I also decided against getting the pro-level E-3. This was not just because some complaints I had about the camera's interface (especially the absence of the mode dial); this camera, while very capable and delivering most satisfactory results, is a bit too large and heavy for my daily use. While I've learned to appreciate it in the two months I've spent with it, I've decided to wait until Olympus delivers similar specs and performance in a smaller, lighter, and less expensive package.

Well, it seems like my wait is over: in November, 2008 Olympus announced their upcoming "mid-line" model, the E-30.

This camera is supposed to fill the gap between the entry-level (whatever that means) E-520 and the professional (ditto) E-3 — in all aspects: capabilities/performance, weight/size, as well as price. Aimed at an advanced amateur/enthusiast, this is a tough balancing act, especially taking into account that the E-520 (or E-510) is already a very capable camera, "entry level" or not, able to satisfy an advanced user in all (or almost all) areas, and at a most attractive price.

(Promotional image by Olympus)

Let us do a quick review of some E-30 features, comparing them to those of the E-3, but also showing what has changed since the E-510.

So, what is new?

The new camera has much more in common with the E-3 than with the E-510/E-520, so it should be rather compared with the former model. On the other hand, the people who will be most interested in it are the current users of the E-510/E-520, so some comparisons will be unavoidable.

Body shape, size, and weight

The size and weight are compared in the table below:

E-520 E-3 E-30 Remarks
Body weight 562 g
(475+75+12 g)
897 g
(810+75+12 g)
742 g
(655+75+12 g)

The top value includes battery and memory cards (itemized below).

Body size (W×H×D) 136×92×68 mm 142.5×116.5× 75.5 mm 141.5×107.5×75 mm

The 'D' dimension describes the grip depth; it is not really meaningful in handling.

The numbers show that the E-30 is almost exactly the same width (and depth, although that is less relevant) as the E-3; the camera's height has been, however, reduced significantly, almost by one centimeter. Still, the new model is significantly bulkier than the E-510/E-520.

Weight-wise, the new model is almost exactly (a tad above) half-way between the E-510/E-520 and the E-3. Not too bad, considering the swiveling LCD screen; the savings down from the E-3 can be attributed to non-metal body and smaller viewfinder.

For comparison: the recent Canon EOS 50D is sized at 146×108×74 mm: almost identical, except for being 4.5 mm wider. It is also quite a bit (80 g) heavier than the E-30.

The E-3 has a magnesium alloy chassis with a polycarbonate shell around it. The E-30 does not offer this luxury: the body is polycarbonate, reinforced with fiberglass. It also does not have the weatherproofing of the previous model; these two changes account for, I believe, most of the difference in weight and price. I can live with that.

Hands-on: the weight and size reduction show more in actual handling than it could seem from the specs. This, actually, is the largest camera I can live with on a daily basis.

Control layout, ergonomics

A major difference from the E-3, is the return of the mode dial. Hallelujah! This was perhaps my biggest complaint about the Olympus flagship SLR, and I was not alone in that. Someone in Japan listened, and we have the mode dial back — except that it is now placed to the left of the prism. Actually, I like this arrangement better; it leaves enough room for the generous LCD (low-power) status panel on the top-right.

(Image by Olympus)

There is a fly in the ointment: Olympus used the dial space for a quick access to the "scene modes" (portrait, sports, etc.), and to the new "art modes", while there is no such option for any user-defined presets. Looks like someone is quite confused about the market this camera is aimed at.

In many sessions I switch often between two lenses: the 14-54 mm and 70-300 mm. With the latter, but not the former, I set ISO 400 and image stabilization on by default. Toggling between two such user-defined presets just by turning the wheel would be, I think, more useful than a "trust us" portrait mode.

Other than that, the controls seem to be somewhat improved from the E-3, and offer direct access to more settings than those directly accessible in the E-510 or E-520.

Thus, Exposure Compensation, ISO and White Balance have their own dedicated buttons at the same location as in the E-3, which is good.

Two of the three buttons which used to be on the top deck, to the left of the prism (and I really disliked that arrangement!) have been moved to the back side, left-top. One of them is used to set the AF mode; the other serves the dual purpose of switching between metering patterns or drive modes. I can live with that.

The third one, operating the flash, has been functionally integrated with the button raising it, to the left-hand side of the protrusion behind the lens mount. In actual use, this solution operates better.

Most importantly, with the E-3 I had to tilt the camera backwards to see which of these identical buttons I was operating. Not any longer.

The back to the right of the LCD monitor remains almost unchanged compared to the E-3, with just two modifications.

First, the card compartment lock is gone (the cover now slides to the back and then hinges open, a more secure solution than a simple hinge with a spring-loaded lock in the other cameras (about which I had no complaints, either).

Second, the on/off switch is now placed on a ring around the cursor key cluster.

Other buttons in that area remain where they were in the E-3 (and, mostly, the E-520), which is a good thing.

(Image by Olympus)

Like the E-3 (but unlike the E-xx0 cameras), the E-30 has two control dials. While customizing the E-3, I found it quite useful to assign these dials to different functions, so I am glad Olympus does not economize here.

I hope the successor to the E-3 will have the control design tweaked, and similar to that of the E-30; I find this one better, even if it is not a deal breaker.

Inherited from the E-3 is one thing many found missing in the lower-shelf Olympus models: a tiltable (two degrees of freedom) LCD monitor. While this is really essential only for Live View shooting, it is also nice to have for other applications.

The LCD screen itself is a tad larger than in older models: 2.7 inches (as opposed to 2.5) diagonally, an increase of about 5 mm. The resolution is still at about 230,000 dots (77,000 RGB pixels): adequate but nothing special.

(Actually, I suspect this size increase might have been canceled in the E-3 just before it was released: the LCD panel on that camera seems to be designed for a larger screen.)

The viewfinder

Some of us were complaining about the apparent viewfinder size in the E-5x0 or E-4x0 models (that size was not really smaller, taking into account the different aspect ratio, than in other cameras in the same class, see my comparisons here). The E-3 addressed these concerns in a grand way, introducing one of the largest, brightest finders in the industry (at least for comparable sensor sizes). We've been expecting to see something similar in the E-30.

Now, we have good news and bad news on this front. The good is that the finder magnification in the E-30 is, at 1.02×, about 11% greater than in the E-510/E-520 (0.92×). The bad is that it is less than the 1.15× seen in the E-3. Obviously, size and weight constraints stopped Olympus from going all the way here (the manufacturer claims the prism system weighs 50% less than in the E-3).

Another good news is that the finder may be smaller, but not dimmer (actually, it should be brighter) than in the E-3: as this promotional picture by Olympus shows, the new camera uses a real pentaprism rather than a "pentamirror" commonly applied in less expensive models (including those by Olympus). The coverage is 98% (linear), close to the 100% in the E-3 and clearly better than in other models.

(By the way, the same picture clearly shows that the E-30 still uses the light off the viewing screen for exposure metering.)

(Image by Olympus)

A clear economy measure is forgoing the eyepiece shutter and using a plastic cover instead, like the one in the E-520. I wouldn't really mind that, except that the cover cannot be affixed to the camera strap, so you will lose it within the first day or so. On the upside, the eye relief has been increased from 20 to 24 mm, a welcome news for glass-wearers.

The information shown in the viewfinder is arranged horizontally and seems very similar to that shown in the E-3. This is good, as I never liked the vertical arrangement in the E-500, E-510, and their siblings. Still, wearing glasses I have to move my eye up a bit in order to see the information display.

A new feature in the E-30 is the level gauge, allowing you to check the camera for horizontal alignment in both directions (sidewise and up/down). This information is available in both viewfinder (sidewise dimension only), status display (ditto), and the LCD monitor. How useful this is? I will tell only when I use it.

The imaging pipeline

The most visible difference here is that the E-30 uses a 12-megapixel sensor, while all other Olympus SLRs of the last two years used "just" ten megapixels. I do not think this is really important (actually, I could easily live with 8 MP), but I have no doubts that at least some of the Zuiko Digital lenses (to mention just my favorite trio of the 7-14, 12-60, and 50 mm Macro ZD) are perfectly capable of filling this pixel resolution with detail. Oh, yes.

The image size is 4032×3024 pixels; why didn't Panasonic go for the more elegant size of 4096×3072, which would make the pixel count a round 12 "binary" MP? Not that it matters...

The sensor is of the same NMOS type (made by Panasonic) as in the other Olympus models of the last two years. While, most probably, it has been tweaked since the previous models, nothing in the specs seems to indicate that explicitly.

The processing pipeline has been updated to TruePic III+, which means exactly nothing, except that something has changed from TruePic III. The captured information is still digitized to 12 bits per RGB component, and this is what really counts (some of the Canon and Nikon models use 14 bits per color). Olympus also claims a wider dynamic range than in their previous cameras; indeed, it seems to require less care to avoid burned-out highlights than in was the case in the E-510 (even if I never complained about that).

Autofocus

The camera uses the 11-point phase-detect AF system first introduced in the E-3 (the "budget" models use three points). More importantly, all AF sensor are of the cross type, i.e., use the detail in two perpendicular directions.

While I'm not really hooked on the number of AF points (one is plenty; that's what I've been mostly using on the E-3), the system seems to be as accurate and responsive as any found on the market now.

From the E-520 and E-420 the E-30 inherits contrast-detection autofocusing in the Live View mode. While this is slower (and perhaps less accurate) than the phase detection AF used in the "regular" SLR viewing, it may come handy in those occasions where Live View is useful (table-top, infrared). Actually, the user may still set the camera to move the mirror down and do the contrast-detection AF as the last-moment adjustment, like in the E-520.

The contrast detection AF is "officially" working only with a few most recent Olympus lenses, including the 14-54 mm F/2.8-3.5 II ZD, replacing the true-and-tried older (no "II") version of that lens. Others, at the moment, are the 14-42 mm and 40-150 mm "kit" zooms, the 9-18 mm wide-angle, and the 25 mm "pancake" prime.

For perfectionists, the E-30 adds an option to fine-tune the autofocus individually for each lens used (with up to 20 such memorized by the camera). While this may be potentially useful, some others will inevitably mistune their lenses, so that we can expect an avalanche of complaints about back- and front-focus. Well, I have to see by myself how this works in real life with the ten Four Thirds lenses I'm currently using.

Level gauge

The E-30 has one new feature making it stand out from the crowd: an attitude sensor, detecting its roll and pitch (left-to-right and front-to-back tilt). These deviations are best shown on the LCD display, allowing the camera to be leveled quite accurately. The roll can be also displayed in the viewfinder, and in the top status panel.

I need more time to say if I find this feature genuinely useful, but there are chances it may. At least it seems more accurate than bubble-type level gauges available optionally. It also makes a great conversation item.

December, 2009: It turned out I don't just like the level gauge; I find it essential! One of the biggest complaints I have about the E-620 is the absence of this feature.

Minor interface improvements

There are quite a few of those in the E-30, as compared to the E-3. Here are some examples:

  • Most of the monitor view modes, both in image review and in Live View, can be now disabled, to speed up the display mode scrolling sequence. Small but thoughtful.
  • Custom reset setups can be recalled without using the menu system (press two buttons simultaneously and turn a dial);

Trinkets

There is a full class of camera features which I consider mere trinkets: not introducing any advantages to the imaging process (at least not for a semi-serious user), but attracting the attention of the widely-understood mass market, including some reviewers with IQ not much higher than the room temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit, that is, to be honest).

Following that trend, Olympus is advertising some of the "creative" features of the E-30 which I consider to belong to the trinket class. Here is a brief list (not pretending to be complete).

  • The "Art Filters": Pop Art, Grainy Film, Pinhole and some others. These do not affect the raw image, being applied only at the stage of the raw-to-RGB conversion. Yes, you can play with this, but you will be better off applying similar effects to straight images in postprocessing (for example, the latest Paint Shop Pro has a nice set of these effects).

    I might revise my skeptical opinion on the Art FIlters when I actually start using them. It is possible that they may deliver pleasing effects while saving me some postprocessing work; if not sure, the raw+JPEG mode allows me to keep also the straight image, just in case. Still, this is not a revolution like Olympus would like us to believe.

  • Multiple exposure: again, any postprocessing program with a layer capability allows you to combine two frames for the same effect, offering you more control over the process.
  • Selectable image aspect ratio: this is really in-camera cropping of the full captured frame. Big deal.
  • Face detection: the camera tries to detect human faces in the scene, adjusting the exposure and autofocus to have them rendered best. This works based on the continuously updated Live View information and therefore is available only in the Live View mode. In other words, you can using your SLR as a point-and-shoot camera.

    This was introduced already in the E-420 and E-520, and most other manufacturers believe it will appeal to first-time SLR buyers who are considered, by the said manufacturers, to be idiots.

  • Perfect Shot preview (in Live View mode only): same as above; do not get me started on this.

Inclusion of these features (especially if they stand in the way of someone not using them) makes me think that Olympus may be confused about the intended market for this camera. Its purchasers, at this cost, performance, and specifications, are unlikely to have any use for such gimmicks, while some potential buyers may be put-off by their inclusion, as those are rather associated with "tyro" models. It is possible that E-30 will, because of this, lose more sales in the advanced segment of the market than it will gain in the entry-level one.

On the other hand, I've seen magazine reviews in which the "art modes" were prominently featured as something major for "creative users". With all my sentiment for Popular Photography, from time to time they manage to offend my intelligence.

Features inherited from the E-3

Other than the differences mentioned above, the E-30 shares most of the features with the E-3. Here is just a brief (and possibly incomplete) list of those which I find of significance and which I haven't already mentioned:

  • The top shutter speed of 1/8000 s (twice as high as in E-520), with a single-burst flash synchronization down to 1/250 s. This is. however, not the same shutter: that one was rated at 150,000 exposures; here Olympus does not make that claim.
  • Body-based image stabilization working very nicely with any lens, thank you.
  • The sensor gain range in the E-30 extends from ISO 100 to 3200 (double the value of the E-520, same as E-3). Only a hands-on experience will tell how useful the ISO settings of 1600 and 3200 are.
  • A dust shake-off system like in all Olympus SLRs, probably better than anybody else's.
  • Built-in flash unit with GN 13 (ISO 100, meters): same as in the E-3 and slightly more powerful than in the E-520; the unit is capable of controlling external, Olympus-dedicated flashes. External flash socket with the same pesky screw-on cap which I hate since 2000 on every Olympus model.
  • Two card slots: Compact Flash and the (brain-damaged) xD-Picture.
  • Additional, external white balance sensor. If you insist on using the auto WB, this helps. (I usually set WB manually, for more predictable results, regardless of the camera.)
  • Sequential mode rate of 5 frames/second, same as in the E-3 (improved from 3.5 FPS in the E-520 and 3 FPS in the E-510), can be throttled down to 1..4 FPS. The image buffer holds 12 raw images, nice.
  • The (excellent) Control Panel on the color LCD display remains almost unchanged from last year's cameras (perhaps just one data item added); the menu system looks very much like that in the E-3 (which means: close, but no cigar yet).
  • Monochrome, low-power status display on the camera top.
  • Viewfinder data display below the image frame (much better than the vertical layout used in other models).
  • Power source: the same BLM-1 as in most of the recent Olympus cameras (excluding the E-4x0 models). The camera will also accept the HLD-4 battery holder/grip used with the E-3 (the latter uses one or two BLM-1s or six AAs).

Looks like 95% of what I wrote about the E-3 will also be applicable to the new model. I hope the performance will be similar, too (perhaps better, taking into account an extra year of tweaking the image engine).

My first samples make me very happy. The colors are accurate, image manipulation (sharpening, noise reduction) not too intrusive, and the highlights seem to be a bit better protected from overblowing than in the E-510. I'm using the camera mostly with the 12-60 mm ZD lens, so no wonder that the detail is exceptional, utilizing the extra megapixels.

Price and availability

The E-30 became available on the US market in mid-January, 2009, at the street price of $1300 (body only). With the E-3 costing (as of this writing) about the same, this does not seem like a bargain. I would guess eventually the price will drop down to $1000 or so, becoming be more reasonable and quite attractive, too.

The camera will probably also come bundled with the 14-54 mm F/2.8-3.5 II ZD lens (the version providing Live View AF), which sells at B&H at $600 (January, 2009). I like the original version of that lens, but I would rather recommend spending just $140 more for the outstanding 12-60 mm F/2.8-4.0 ZD as a better option.

After my initial experience with the E-30, I have all reasons to believe that this is the camera many Olympus users shooting with the older models have been waiting for, myself included. As an upgrade to a "lesser" model, or a second body to accompany your E-3, it looks like a no-brainer.

Those who haven't (yet) discovered the joys of the Four Thirds system should also seriously consider the E-30. It is a most capable performer in a smaller and lighter package than its sibling.

Web resources

This is not an attempt to provide a full reference list of articles on this camera; just ones I found interesting, entertaining, or meaningful at the beginning of 2009. A more complete list, periodically maintained, can be found in my full review of the E-30.

  • A photographer's write-up of the E-30 can be found, out of all places, on the site of John Foster from England, my old friend and an expert in all things Olympus. This is a highly recommended reading.
  • The E-30 Review at the French Let's Go Digital site contains lots of useful information, even if the English translation is sometimes mechanical.

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2008/12/20; last updated 2009/01/26 Copyright © 2008-2009 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak