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Olympus E-30: Trickle Down or Up?



Most of us are old enough to remember the "trickle-down theory" of economics, a.k.a. "voodoo economics." Little matter its nomenclature--we might as well now call it the "law of the land." Bail out Wall Street, it'll trickle down and bail out Main Street. We earnestly hope the powerless-that-be are right, but one thing we learn from the photography business is that there's a potent trickle-up theory too. That is, as much as we're accustomed to seeing high-end features trickling down from pro models to entry-level cameras, we're also growing accustomed to seeing features trickling up from consumer cams to prosumer models.

Nice if we could develop such a smooth synergy everywhere.

If you read our reports from this year's PMA Show, plenty of examples of trickle-up can be cited. Let's take face detection. When it first became a major trend, it was applied to P&S models, but it persistently finds its way into DSLRs, too. At the show, actual face-recognition--which can be programmed to track specific faces--made its debut in several of the compacts designed for "family photography." But how long before it's in the pro cameras, too? Wouldn't a photojournalist enjoy a camera that could, for example, scrupulously keep track of the chairman of the Fed? A Congressional hearing can be lined with hundreds of irrelevant faces at all kinds of distances and placements in the frame; face recognition could be used to separate pork from the barrel.

The trickle-down theory of features recurs throughout the recent history of the market as well. Motordrives, for example, got their foothold in high-end 35mm SLRs, as did multimode AE. Now nearly all cameras have 'em, in spades at that.

It would be tempting to presume there's a rational rhyme and reason to these particular trends, but technologies build upon others and reach maturity at their own rate of speed.

So many of the new trends are, for example, software-driven. They're different interpretations of the same data harvested from the same mechanical devices. How many of the new exposure modes and systems start from the same single assembly, the one that senses the light? One factory installation, a dozen programmable features. That's why cameras these days offer such unprecedented versatility, without a commensurate increase in price.

Because features mature at their own pace, they may sometimes coincide with a cycle of design for compacts one month, or for DSLRs another. In a competitive market, the manufacturers are quick to latch onto the latest, reaping whatever sales it can draw early on. This frequently produces a leapfrogging effect, where "amateur" cameras are more advanced, at least for a while, than "professional" ones.

Which brings us to the Olympus E-30. We saw mock-ups at last September's photokina and have had a working sample for review for a few weeks as this is written. And we'd call ourselves a little surprised, as the E-30 is not quite what we expected. It looks a lot like the E-3 and was discussed as a "consumer version" when presented last autumn. We thought, oh, a lot of the E-3's features have trickled down to a less ambitious model. But after a couple weeks with the new model, we're not sure which way things are trickling. The E-30 is so different that we might as well call it "completely different" from the E-3. Naming conventions and appearances notwithstanding, we're not sure which is the more advanced camera.

Naming conventions and skin-deep appearances being your customers' first impressions--the lasting ones, the ones that the second and third impressions are based on--we thought we should bring this odd trickling fact to your attention.

PEAS FROM TWO PODS

But first, a word about the E-3. Have we mentioned we love it? For a year and a half, it's been our default camera, though we have, use, and recommend many others besides. But after awhile we began to notice that the minimal amount of adjustment we needed to make on E-3 pix--the levels, the contrasts, the saturations--we just liked the way the E-3 handled these settings. It has a sealed, ruggedized, water-resistant body, a point to ponder for us outdoorsy types. And it was the first ruggedized camera to provide a live view monitor on a pivoting mount. This combo of features fills a lot of requirements high on our list, and to top it all off, the camera takes a very sharp picture. We probably ought to just to be proactive, but so far we haven't sent it in for any kind of service.

We expected the E-30 to be a nice but dumbed-down version. The thing we remember most from those first E-30 briefings? It's not splashproof.

But now that we've sampled both, we'd call the E-30 a smartened-up version. Its smarts lead in different directions than the E-3's smarts and would probably appeal to a different customer. Or that customer might be every bit the pro that the E-3 customer is--just on a different day or in different shooting conditions. The well-heeled prosumer might also see the two cameras the same dual way--but might need your assistance in reaching this view.

For starters, the bodies of the two cameras are more different than they first seem. The E-30 is a smidgen shorter than the E-3, and the handgrip is shaped differently. Many of the controls are shaped and/or positioned differently on the body. Most noticeable is the exposure-mode dial on the E-30's left shoulder. The settings it shares with the E-3 are menu-controlled on the older model.

So once you get down to it, the E-30 sorta looks like the E-3, but it also sorta looks like the Olympus EVOLT models.

We prefer the exposure-mode knob over the menu-controlled settings of the E-3. During a documentary-style shoot, you may want to switch instantaneously and momentarily, from one exposure mode to another, including full manual f-stop and shutter settings. These things can be done a little more fluidly by using the knob. Let's say we love the E-3 despite this design feature.

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