Olympus has thrown its latest DSLR, the 12.3-megapixel E-30, into a very crowded pool. At $1,300 (street, body only; $1,400 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED lens), it's about the same price as the 10.1MP E-3 ($1,317 street, body only) on the Olympus roster. And it's surrounded by a host of competing 12-15MP cameras in the $700-$1,400 price bracket.
The E-30 shares the E-3's built-in image stabilization system, fully articulated LCD monitor with live view, and, of course, the Four Thirds sensor format, whose 2X lens factor turns the 14-42mm kit lens into the equivalent of 28-84mm in full-frame terms. So given the modest price difference, and the plethora of competing models, it may be hard to choose. But Olympus sets the E-30 apart from the crowd with a unique assortment of in-camera special effects.
If you want to get creative with your pictures without messing with image-editing software on your computer, the E-30 is for you.
Six specialized scene modes, called Art Filters, create familiar looks from film days: Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Light Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, and Pin Hole. As you might expect, Pop Art boosts saturation, while Pin Hole rolls off the brightness toward the edges to create a vignetting effect. Grainy Film is a black-and-white setting -- think Kodak Tri-X pushed 2 stops in the darkroom. While we often find new scene modes silly, these were fun to use. And in the right situations, you can get some cool images without much fuss in postprocessing.
As if that's not enough, the E-30 has a multiple-exposure mode. When you activate the setting, the camera asks how many frames you want to blend together (up to four) and whether you want to turn on Auto Gain and Overlay. Auto Gain adjusts the brightness of the frames being combined so the exposure looks normal in the final image. Overlay lets you combine multiple images and save them separately from the final, combined image. You can also combine up to four RAW images in playback mode.
Multi-exposure mode is hidden in a menu, but Olympus might want to put it in the drive mode options next time, because you'll want to play with it again and again once you get the hang of it. (For starters, always turn Auto Gain on. If you only want the final image and don't want to save the images separately, you can leave Overlay off.)
Cool stuff, but how well does the E-30 perform as a regular camera? Here our tests tell the story.
We were very pleased with the images we shot with the E-30, both in the field and in our target tests in the Pop Photo Lab. It achieved an overall image quality of Excellent all the way from ISO 100 to its penultimate sensitivity of ISO 1600.
Aside from ISO 3200, where it was Unacceptable, noise performance was impressive: The E-30 scored Very Low from ISO 100 through 800, and just barely edged up into Moderately Low territory at ISO 1600. Indeed, sensitivity and noise at high ISOs is a key differentiator in this category of DSLRs. For instance, the Olympus beat the Pentax K20D ($743, street, body only) and Sony Alpha 700 ($1,000, street, body only) at ISO 400-1600.
But images were noisier than those from Oly's own E-3, which rated Low in noise at both ISO 1600 and 3200, as did the Nikon D90 ($870, body only). The Canon EOS 50D ($1,170, street, body only) is the winner in the lowest light, with Moderate noise at ISO 6400 -- plus it goes to ISO 12,800, albeit with Unacceptable noise.
The E-30's resolution? Excellent all the way through its sensitivity range, with 2195 lines at ISO 100, dropping only a little (to 1965 lines) at ISO 1600 and to 1840 lines at ISO 3200. But the competition is strong: All the cameras in this class capture an impressive amount of fine detail, especially when the ISO is kept low -- each of the models we've named served up at least 2200 lines at ISO 100.
All but one of the cameras in this category (the Sony A700) achieved Excellent color accuracy ratings in our tests, in which a lower numerical score is better, and an average Delta E below 8 is considered Excellent. The E-30 scored 7.2, compared with 6.7 for the E-3. Of the other models, only the Canon 50D and Nikon D90 scored marginally better.
In all cases, our tests were performed with RAW files processed with the manufacturer's RAW conversion software.