The Olympus E-30 has a well-rounded feature set that should appeal both to consumers upgrading from lower-end DSLR cameras and to buyers looking for something of a more semipro caliber. The E-30 is sold as a kit ($1350 as of 7/7/09, including a 14mm-to-54mm lens) and as the body only ($950 as of 7/7/09).
Compared with its older sibling, the Olympus E3, the E-30 has a smaller body and a lighter weight. On this model Olympus has sacrificed the weatherproof, magnesium-alloy body in favor of a plastic and fiberglass version, which may be a deal-breaker for photographers inclined toward outdoor shooting. The E-30 features a handy swiveling LCD so that you can capture shots from odd angles, or even simply rotate it and snap it inward to protect it while you're out and about.
The E-30 boosts the image sensor to 12.3 megapixels, from 10 megapixels in the E3. It also adds Art Filters, effects such as pinhole, soft focus, pop art, and grainy tone. Though you can preview these effects in Live View, you can't modify them in-camera. As for more-concrete functionality, the E-30 adds improved contrast detection focus, in-body stabilization for vertical panning, and improved electronic AF adjustments for older and third-party lenses.
When paired with its bundled, short, f2.8-to-f3.5, 14mm-to-52mm Zuiko lens, the E-30 is reasonably lightweight. Even so, this camera may feel a bit hefty to anyone upgrading from an entry-level Olympus DSLR, such as the E-520 or E-530. Its controls are also slightly more intimidating, as it has no fewer than 23 buttons and three dials. Some settings (such as the cool multiple-exposure one, which shows layers building in Live View) require quite a bit of digging, but after a session of manual study (and maybe checking some crib notes) they become easier to access. Luckily, you can save your favorite settings in the Super Control Panel on the camera's 2.7-inch LCD. Like its Olympus brethren, the E-30 is highly customizable, including several RAW+JPEG settings, white balance controls, noise-control levels, multiple spot-metering modes, and wireless flash controls.
Scene selections are available on the dial, sharing a spot with the Art Filters. You'll also see icons for portrait, landscape, macro, sports, and night portrait. Naturally, you can go all-manual whenever you choose.
The E-30 shares the Gradation settings of the E-520 and E-530. These settings, which you access through the menu, work reasonably well when used judiciously. You can switch among Off, Normal, High-Key, and Low-Key. The proprietary Gradation technology will open up a picture's shadowed areas (and tone down blown highlights) in closer approximation with what the human eye sees. In my hands-on tests, the Gradation settings brought out additional midtone detail and kept extreme darks and lights from going flat. However, Gradation is meant to be used only under certain circumstances, such as a landscape with low foreground light and high sky lighting, and it will not do you any good if you leave it on all the time. And I found that Gradation was no substitute for spot-metering of highlights in a high-contrast image, because the E-30 tended to blow out highlights in my tests.
Generally, though, the E-30 was capable of taking incredible, sharp shots outdoors at ISOs of 400 and below. The camera produced saturated but realistic landscapes (it offers Vivid, Natural, and Monochrome settings if you're in the mood to mess about). The 14mm-to-52mm lens's autofocus was quick and almost always accurate, except in low light and indoors. Regrettably, the image quality falls off from ISO 400 depending on the lighting situation, and the performance of the Live View screen also declines, losing saturation and sharpness. The noise rendered in indoor shots taken above ISO 400 was muddy. In low light, I also found that, even with the AF assist lamp, the lens hunted for focus and the shutter often fired regardless of my AF point, doing so long after the subject had moved away.
The new features and extra megapixels of the Olympus E-30 may be enough to draw some current E3 users, or people wishing to graduate from a more entry-level model. This camera, with its high degree of customizability and the good-quality optics of its kit lens, could be an attractive upgrade. However, at $1350 it's competing with the Nikon D300 and the Canon EOS 50D, and its performance is outclassed by both.