The fact that there had been so much speculation about a 'tweener' E System SLR ('tween the consumer level E-520 and the 'professional' E-3) is perhaps an indication of the frustration felt by Olympus Four Thirds users that they had nothing in the 'high end amateur' sector of the market - a Canon EOS 40D or Nikon D300 killer. In truth the E-3 does exactly that, especially now its price has fallen to more reasonable levels - I'm sure very few E-3 owners are full time working professionals - but there's no doubt that there remained - and remains - demand for a slightly more affordable high end E-system body to fill the yawning gap in the current lineup.
The E-30 fills that gap perfectly, though the inevitable slide in the E-3's price combined with increased costs and the vagaries of international exchange rates mean that it is arriving with a price tag that means it will - for the earliest purchasers at least - cost the same as an E-3 (in fact looking today it's actually $5 more). Of course we'd expect this to change as the E-30's price settles to a more reasonable level.
Externally the E-30 is a handsome, well proportioned beast that softens the E-3's rather austere lines whilst looking considerably more purposeful than the cutesy E-520. It's bigger than we expected (roughly Nikon D300 size); certainly a lot heftier than the E-520, and it's the same depth and width as the E-3 (it takes the same battery grip). The E-3's extra height is all viewfinder prism, and side by side the two cameras are essentially the same size. At just over 100g lighter it pulls a little less tightly on the neck strap than the E-3 though.
Externally the E-30 doesn't veer too far from the Olympus family blueprint, and although a few buttons have moved around the basic control layout is the same as the E-3 and has a lot in common with the E-520 too. Our experience was that the changes from the E-3 - though often very subtle - improved handling and make the E-30 a more pleasant camera to use, though of course this always going to be a matter of personal preference.
Side by side
The E-30 is a similar size to the Nikon D300 and the Canon EOS 50D (which actually feels a lot bulkier) and most of its other closest rivals, though it is considerably lighter than the Nikon or Canon.
(W x H x D)
(inc. battery & card)
|Canon 40D||146 x 108 x 74 mm( 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in||822 g (1.8 lb)|
|Olympus E-30||142 x 108 x 75 mm (5.6 x 4.6 x 2.9 in)||740 g (1.4 lb)|
|Sony DSLR-A700||142 x 105 x 80 mm (5.6 x 4.2 x 3.2 in)||768 g (1.7 lb)|
|Pentax K100D||129 x 93 x 70 mm (5.0 x 3.7 x 2.8 in)||660 g (1.5 lb)|
|Nikon D300||147 x 114 x 74 mm (5.8 x 4.5 x 2.9 in)||925 g (2.0 lb)|
In your hand
There's no denying that the E-30 sits very nicely in the hand indeed. It doesn't have the indestructible feel of the E-3 (or the D300 for that matter), but it's very solid and well balanced with the 14-54mm lens attached. All the important controls sit where they should and there's little chance of accidentally pressing anything with your thumb. The E-3 felt nice but the E-30 actually feels a lot more comfortable and seems less intent on 'getting in the way' of my picture taking. Our only complaint is that the new position for the four-way controller is a bit too low to get your thumb to when using the camera, not that you really need to in normal picture taking on a regular basis.
The E-30's LCD monitor is marginally smaller (2.7") than the best in this class (which are moving towards 3" screens), and it lacks the super high resolution offered by the latest Nikon, Canon and Sony models, but it is very bright and very clear and is noticeably better than the E-3's screen (which is also slightly smaller). Of course the E-30 has one thing none of its competitors can match - its screen is fully articulated, something that brings a whole new dimension of usability to live view.
One of the small criticisms of many recent digital SLR offerings has been that the usefulness of Live View is somewhat compromised by the lack of an articulated screen. Like the E-3, the E-30 has a versatile 'swing out and rotate' screen that swings out through 180° and swivels through a full 270°, meaning you can view it from pretty much any angle you wish. The screen can be stored 'face in' to the body when not needed.
Despite noticeable improvements in the E-30's contrast-detect autofocus system, live view still offers a less than perfect alternative to the good old optical viewfinder (thanks to the shutter delay and drain on battery life), but in certain shooting situations the powerful combination of live preview and a multi-angle screen should not be underestimated.
Although it has a top plate LCD control panel the E-30 offers Olympus's ubiquitous 'Super Control Panel' on the LCD screen, accessed simply by pressing the INFO button. You can press the OK button to change settings as they appear on the display (functions with dedicated external controls also work here). It's an intuitive 'at a glance' way to change image parameters than the top control panel (or the endless menus), and one that many other manufacturers have seen the value of. We like it very much.
On top of the camera is the control panel, which is angled very slightly towards the photographer (rear of the camera). It provides an overview of the current camera settings as well as remaining storage space (number of frames), buffer status and other options. When changing settings such as ISO and White balance the panel changes state to display the current selection. This panel also has a back light which can be activated by pressing the LIGHT button. The top LCD is almost, but not exactly, the same as that on the E-3 (there's no indication of the current shooting mode, for example, since you can glance at the mode dial to check that).
A detailed breakdown of displayed information can be found on the diagram below.
The E-30's viewfinder isn't a match for the large, bright finder on the E-3; the magnification is slightly lower (1.02x versus 1.15x) and the coverage is only 98% (the E-3 offers full 100% viewfinder coverage). That all said the E-30's viewfinder is a lot, lot better than any of the consumer E series SLRs. In side by side tests the E-3 finder matches the Canon EOS 40D and the E-30 looks about 20% smaller. It's a lot nearer to an E-3 than an E-520. Although we've seen some users complaining of blurry viewfinder images we really didn't see any problems, and the viewfinder info is perfectly readable (unlike the E-XXX cameras, which require a certain amount of 'peering round' to see).
As mentioned above the viewfinder view is a little smaller than the E-3 (and thus the majority of APS-C cameras) but it's not a huge difference, and it is nice and bright. The viewfinder information along the bottom is essentially the same as the E-3; it's comprehensive and, importantly, includes the ISO sensitivity.
As well as having a comparatively sophisticated autofocus system, the E-30 has probably the most adjustable AF setup we've yet encountered. It's possible to fine-tune every AF point individually. With separate settings for wide-angle end and the telephoto-end if it's a zoom lens. And, not only can different values be specified for every lens you own (by serial number, so you can compensate for differing behavior between two copies of the same lens), you can also set up multiple presets, just in case you find out your lens behaves differently at different focusing distances.
However, the process just for inputting the corrections requires an awful lot of button presses, and it's not at all clear how you're supposed to collect the data to allow you to choose the correct input settings in the first place. Clearly it's no bad thing to offer this level of control but, if it is necessary, it would appear to make more sense for this to be a feature controlled via a computer, rather than via a four-way controller.
The E-30 uses the familiar BLM-1 battery as used in E-Series cameras going right back to the E-1 (aside from the E-4x0 series and the E-620), and you can comfortably expect to get well over 600 shots on a single charge (providing, of course, you don't use Live View, which by our reckoning drops the capacity to 100-200 shots). The battery fits into the base of the camera on the hand grip side behind a locked door and has a small retaining clip to prevent it falling out. As long as your platform isn't too large you can remove the battery without taking the camera off the tripod. The battery takes approximately 2 hours for a full charge.
An optional accessory allows you to replace the BLM-1 with three commonly-available CR-123A Lithium batteries, which might be a useful - though expensive - standby option should you find yourself shooting far from any mains power.