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Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent out-of-camera JPEG results with good Dynamic Range, pleasing color and subtle tonality
  • Bright clear viewfinder far better than most Four Thirds cameras
  • Slightly improved resolution and pixel level sharpness over E-3
  • Good range of image parameters (but not enough latitude in terms of contrast and saturation)
  • Efficient DR enhancement setting (Auto-Gradation)
  • Efficient sensor-shift image stabilization system (around 2.5 stops)
  • Vertical panning image stabilizer mode
  • Solid build quality and excellent handling - very well balanced with kit lens
  • Probably the best ergonomics of any Olympus camera yet, and one of the most 'photographer friendly' control layouts in its class
  • Large range of customization options and comprehensive feature set
  • Clear and bright articulated screen
  • Intuitive 'Super Control Panel' allows quick access to all important shooting settings
  • Contrast-detect AF in live view (though see cons, below)
  • AF fine-tuning per AF-point
  • Decent battery life
  • Optional battery grip
  • Wireless flash system (with certain Olympus flash guns)
  • Good range of live view viewing options including white balance and exposure compensation preview
  • Supersonic Wave Filter ensures no dust on sensor (small point: would sometimes be nice to be able to turn it off for faster startup; there's custom functions for everything else)
  • Art filters give interesting creative options
  • Digital spirit level
  • Speedy and responsive overall performance, short shutter lag
  • Fast focus with new SWD lenses (less impressive with other lenses, however)
  • Excellent color, good daylight white balance
  • User control over ISO noise reduction ('Noise Filter')
  • Up to ten times magnification in Live View for manual focus
  • Black and white mode with selectable filters
  • Kelvin white balance option, all white balance presets fine tunable
  • Fully customizable RAW+JPEG (many competitors have fixed JPEG settings)
  • Spot metering with shadow and highlight based spot
  • Mirror lock-up with custom delay
  • In-camera RAW development and JPEG image editing

Conclusion - Cons

  • Resolution not quite as good as best in class, though you won't see it in JPEGs
  • Higher noise levels/noise reduction at higher sensitivities than its best competitors
  • Not much highlight headroom in raw files (around half a stop)
  • Unreliable auto white balance and presets in artificial light
  • Nice though it may be, the viewfinder is visibly smaller than the E-3 and APS-C cameras in this class
  • Lower resolution screen than the competition
  • Long, unstructured menus make finding some settings frustrating (though to be honest you're not likely to be spending too much time in the menus)
  • Live histogram and preview brightness inaccurate if you use Live Preview Boost.
  • Contrast detect AF slow and incompatible with many lenses
  • Art filters 'baked in' - no controls over effects - and some take way too long to apply
  • Can't flip between Art Filters in live view mode (forced to use a menu)
  • Flash must be raised for AF assist (no dedicated AF assist lamp)
  • Autofocus in auto AF point selection mode a bit jumpy
  • Base sensitivity is almost certainly ISO 200 - shooting at ISO 100 loses you almost a stop of dynamic range. This is not indicated anywhere in the manual or on the camera.

Overall conclusion

Olympus DSLRs keep getting better, and the E-30 is undoubtedly the best yet. Despite only twelve months gap between them the E-30 is a considerably more appealing camera than the E-3 (which, thanks to its tank-like construction, still sits above it in the range). This isn't because the image quality is better (which at lower ISO settings it arguably is - certainly it has more highlight dynamic range and a touch more resolution), but because it's just so much nicer to use. The controls just feel like they're in the right place, and it handles as well as anything in this class - and a lot better than some.

The E-30 is also packed to bursting with features; some (in-body IS, articulated screen) you'll appreciate every day, others (live view magnification that actually shows something useful, digital 'spirit level') that will prove more useful to some than others, and a lot (Art Filters, Multiple Exposures, wacky Aspect Ratio options) that veer dangerously close to novelty status, especially on a camera at this level. That's not to say they won't be appealing - or useful - to many people (some of the Art Filters are actually pretty cool and produce formulaic but not tasteless results), but we're not sure just how much value they bring to a product that's priced to compete with the semi-pro models from Canon, Nikon et al.

But let's not allow Art Filters and other fripperies to distract us from the fact that there is much to like about the E-30 - far more than there is to complain about. It has a superb set of photographic controls that make the bit that matters - taking pictures - enjoyable, fluid and intuitive. The differences are small, but compared to the E-3, which I often felt 'got in the way' of the picture taking process and sometimes left you feeling clumsy, using the E-30 felt like slipping on a well worn glove, and everything I needed was exactly where it should be.

Of course it's not all good news; the viewfinder is noticeably smaller than any of its competitors (or the E-3) - though to be fair, in use I didn't really have a problem with it (unlike the entry-level Four Thirds cameras, which have viewfinders that are like peering down a long corridor at a distant screen). We'd also like to see a slightly higher resolution LCD screen on the next generation.

As for picture quality, again there's a lot to like - even if there are also a few weak areas. As we've seen with previous Olympus models, pixel level quality isn't quite up to the class standard, though the gap is closing, and you'll need to shoot raw and develop carefully if you actually want to see the difference. The JPEG quality is superb, with excellent dynamic range and a slightly more subtle approach to color and contrast than we're used to from Olympus, giving results that look great 'out of the can' but respond well to post processing too. The tone curve manages to avoid clipping highlights even at ISO 100 (which as our tests show is not the optimum setting - ISO 200 gives you a stop more range), and highlight range stays consistently high throughout the higher sensitivity range.

Noise is slightly higher than the class average, and if you regularly shoot at anything above ISO 400 for large prints then the E-30 should probably not be your first choice; many APS-C cameras at this level do a slightly better job in the upper reaches of the ISO range. If you look closely at E-30 files you'll see noise at ISO 200 if you turn the noise filter off, or shoot raw. Until Olympus and Panasonic find a way to produce less noisy Four Thirds sensors then that will always be the compromise demanded by this format, but again the gap is narrowing and noise should no longer be a deal maker or breaker for most potential buyers.

But when light levels are good it's hard to fault the E-30, particularly its JPEGs, and particularly when using the high grade Olympus Zuiko optics. The more I've used Olympus SLRs over the last few years, the more I've come to appreciate just how impressive the Zuiko lenses - especially the wide zooms such as the 12-60mm - really are (even the cheaper kit lenses are surprisingly good). A long term investment in a system is a far bigger commitment than the purchase of a single body alone, and the Olympus lens range is currently a far better incentive to invest in Four Thirds than any individual body.

Putting access to those excellent lenses aside for a moment we need to address the thorny issue of price, and look at how well the E-30 compares with its direct competitors. The answer will depend on how much low light work you do and on how much value you put on features like the articulated screen and Art Filters. At the moment its price puts it head to head with the Nikon D300 and the Canon EOS 50D (which is actually a lot cheaper), which is pretty tough competition for any camera. Olympus has already indicated (in our recent interview) that the E-30's price needs to be looked at, and if it falls to a more sensible level - putting it into competition with the likes of the Nikon D90 for example - it will be an easy recommendation for anyone, not just existing Olympus users.

I personally found the E-30 to be a far more engaging camera than the E-3, but when you can get the E-3 - with its full weatherproofing and far superior viewfinder - for the same price, the positioning of the E-30 just seems illogical. The arrival of the E-620 half way through this review simply muddies the water further; the price difference between it and the E-30 is way too high, and I'd buy the considerably more portable E-620 over this camera any day of the week, and put the difference towards a 12-60mm lens.

Price aside, there's a lot to recommend the E-30. I really enjoyed the two months I spent with it, and was constantly impressed by the output under ISO 800. It's a fantastic upgrade for E-420/E-520 users, and it's the best Four Thirds camera we've seen to date (though the E-620 is looking like a close contender). What I struggled with was a killer argument for anyone not currently invested in the E system to choose it over any other camera in this price range. Whereas the E-620 represents, for us, everything that's great about Four Thirds; packing a huge feature set into a tiny body, the bulkier E-30 has to work a little harder, and to rely on its unique 'in camera creativity' features to make it stand out in the hugely competitive mid-range market.

Whether these features - and those great lenses - are enough, well that's up to you to decide. But (as long as you're not a high ISO lover) I can assure you that if you are tempted by the E-30's many charms, you're unlikely to be disappointed. The E-system has long lacked a credible alternative to the hugely popular models at the top of Canon and Nikon's enthusiast DSLR lineups; with the E-30 Olympus has delivered just what was needed - and thrown some interesting creative tools into the mix too.

Olympus E-30
Category: Semi-professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Existing 4/3 users wanting the best body they can get, enthusiast photographers shooting in decent light
Not so good for
Low light work, movie makers
Overall score
71%
The E30 takes all that's good about the pro-level E3 (build quality aside) and throws in some cool new features for good measure. It's a lovely camera and the spec is certainly impressive, as is the image quality (helped by some excellent lens options). The problem is that its price and positioning put it into direct competition with some of the best cameras on the market today, and in that context, it struggles to stand out from the crowd.

Original Rating (March 2009): Highly Recommended
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean

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