Olympus E-330 SLR Review
The Olympus Evolt E-330 is replacement for the Olympus E-300 we tested in 2004. It retains the E-300's unique body shape and light path, and its effective Dust Reduction System, but adds the unique Live View feature that enables the camera's large 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor to be used as a viewfinder, much like the LCD's of consumer digicams. The E-330 continues to implement the "Four Thirds System" originally announced by Kodak and Olympus, later joined by Sigma and most recently by Panasonic and Leica.
The first thing you'll notice about the E-330 is its unusual (for an SLR) shape. It is missing the bulge at the top of the body normally reserved for the pentaprism; instead, it has a flat top. Because there's no center mounted pentaprism, the viewfinder could be located close enough to the left side of the camera body so that the photographer's nose rests comfortably outside the body and not pressed against the LCD. The E-330 is also a relative lightweight in the dSLR world, weighing in at just two pounds three ounces, 14-45mm lens, battery and CF card included. Despite its compact size, I found the E-330 to be comfortable to hold and easy to operate, with its switches and controls well-placed to avoid accidental activation. And battery life was good, capturing nearly 500 images before a low battery warning appeared.
Camera operation was a breeze. It lacks the usual top-mounted data LCD; the settings are changed on the large 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor, allowing you to make changes with the camera at eye level. The display is rather complete, including such settings as sharpness, saturation and contrast that can be viewed on other cameras only by entering the menu system. And rather than forcing you to wade through a menu system to make changes, the E-330 provides buttons that directly access common shooting parameters, including white balance, image size/quality, exposure compensation, AF mode, ISO and metering mode; changes are made by rotating the control dial. The E-330's playback mode was responsive and informative; it has the ability to enlarge an image up to 10x, allowing critical examination in the field. Overall, the E-330's controls and LCD display were a pleasure to use.
While dSLR's have been the cameras of choice for enthusiasts and professionals, the LCD viewfinders of some prosumer digicams can offer some advantages over the optical viewfinders their more highly regarded cousins. Ever try over-the-head, waist-level or ground-level shooting with your dSLR? It's a snap if the camera has a tilting LCD viewfinder, but difficult if not impossible with a dSLR's optical viewfinder. How about shooting in very dim light? While AF-assist lamps help with focus in low ambient lighting, the intensified live image on a consumer digicam's LCD viewfinder can be much easier to use than a dSLR's optical viewfinder in those conditions.
Olympus' Live View feature endows the E-330 with LCD viewfinder features that users of some prosumer digicams have long taken for granted. When you need to shoot overhead or waist/ground level, simply switch to the A Mode of Live View, remembering to close the eyepiece shutter. The big LCD becomes a high-quality electronic viewfinder, complete with on-screen indications of shooting Mode, ISO, Focus mode, Picture mode, Image quality setting, memory card type, Metering mode, Shutter speed, Aperture and focus indicator. The LCD is bright and resolute enough to present a usable image even on the brightest of days. But like the LCD viewfinders of consumer digicams, there's a lag of about 2/10 second in the live image, enough to limit its usefulness in capturing a moving subject. The LCD does not blank during continuous shooting; it displays the last captured image until the next shot is taken. In Live View Mode A, the E-330's continuous capture rate slows to 6/10 intervals, about 1/2 the camera's rate when using the optical viewfinder.
Live View's B Mode, which uses the E-330's primary image sensor, has a more specialized purpose - the ability to use manual focus with a degree of precision not possible using the optical viewfinder. To use this mode effectively, position the green magnification frame at a point you want to focus on, then depress the OK button; the area is enlarged 10x, providing a very useful image for your manual focusing effort. When you are happy with the focus, depress the OK button again to return to a full viewfinder image. Shutter lag increases dramatically using mode B, to 6/10 second when pre-focused. But Mode B's continuous capture operates at the E-330's normal 3fps rate.
Like its Four Thirds siblings, the E-330 imposes a 2x focal length factor on its attached lenses. That's great if you shoot a lot of telephoto, but it's a difficult pill to swallow for those who shoot wide angle. Olympus offers an 11-22mm (22-44mm in 35mm-equivalence) wide zoom whose street price recently dropped to under $700. With the 14-45mm kit lens, Olympus is providing an inexpensive standard zoom; its 28-90mm effective focal length fits the bill for an every day walkabout lens, with sufficient field of view for landscape and interior shots, and a short telephoto focal length for portraits. The lens exhibits a moderate amount of barrel distortion at full wide angle, but is without any pin cushioning at telephoto. It's reasonable sharp throughout its focal length range, but is noticeably soft when stopped down to f/22. On balance, it's a good match for the E-330.
Olympus also provided their 18-180mm f/3.5-6.3 lens for our test. It has a 35mm-equivalent 10x zoom range of 36-360mm, but that versatility compromises image quality at its extremes. Barrel distortion is noticeable at its full 18mm wide angle, and pin cushioning is present at moderate to telephoto focal lengths. Images are soft throughout at wide-open apertures and at the edges fully stopped-down; the lens delivers excellent results between aperture settings of f/8 and f/16. Chromatic aberrations are well-controlled, with very little purple fringing evident in the highest contrast areas. With a street price in the low-$400 range, many will find it to be a good value, perhaps the only lens they need.
The E-330's shooting performance falls a bit short of its competition. From power-on till the first image was captured measured just under 3 seconds, most of that time attributable to the Dust Reduction System. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 4/10 second including auto focus time for a high-contrast subject. Rapid shooting in single shot mode without flash captured 5 images at 8/10 second intervals, with subsequent shots at 1.4 second intervals. With flash, shots could be captured at intervals ranging between 1 and 5 seconds, depending on subject distance. Continuous Shooting mode captured only 4 SHQ JPEG shots in 1 second, and you must remove your finger from the shutter button before the next sequence can be captured; buffer clearing took 3 seconds. Continuous shooting in RAW mode also captured 4 images in 1 second, but took 5 seconds to clear the buffer. The E-330 slowed further when shooting TIFF images, capturing the same 4 images in 1 second, but taking 7 seconds to clear its buffer. I was disappointed that the E-330's buffer limited continuous shooting to a depth of only 4 images. The above times were observed using a very fast Lexar Professional 133x 2GB CF memory card, 14-45mm Olympus lens, flash off, AWB, 3136 x 2352 image size.
The E-330 has dual memory slots, supporting both CF and xD media types. The xD media performs much, much slower than high-speed CF. The continuous capture depth remained at four frames, but the buffer clearing times went through the roof; using an Olympus Type M 512MB xD card, a buffer full of JPEG images cleared in 13 seconds (versus 3 seconds for CF), RAW images took 38 seconds (versus 5 seconds with CF) and TIFF images took 60 seconds (versus 7 seconds for CF). If camera responsiveness is important to you, forget the xD-Picture card slot in this camera.
The E-330's auto focus system, although accurate, falls short of that found on the competing amateur dSLRs. Like the E-300, it has only 3 focus points organized horizontally across the frame while most of the competition has more. The E-330 provides a choice of focusing modes including Manual, Single AF and Continuous AF and can be set to allow the camera to auto-select the focus point from the 3 available, or the photographer can manually select the AF point. Low-light performance is good even without the use of a focus assist lamp, and the E-330 will fire a burst from its internal flash, if raised, or turn on the focus assist lamp of an attached FL-36 flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness. The E-330 offers a choice of release or focus priority in both continuous and single AF modes.
Manual focus is a fly-by-wire affair, with the focus ring actuating the lens focus motor. While using manual focus, the E-330's auto focus system is not entirely disabled; it monitors your focusing adjustments and provides visual feedback by lighting the viewfinder's AF confirmation mark when it is in agreement with your focus setting. For precision manual focusing, use the Live View B mode; it provides a magnified viewfinder image on the LCD.
As an amateur dSLR, the E-330 competes with prosumer digicams as well as other dSLR's while meeting the needs of the less-experienced photographer. Borrowing from its prosumer siblings, the E-330 incorporates scene modes that optimize camera settings for 20 distinct shooting conditions/subjects. But while most cameras shield the photographer from the exposure settings chosen by a scene mode, the E-330 displays the exposure settings on the LCD. This information can be educational for the intermediate photographer, providing a basis for experimentation using the E-330's more advanced shooting modes. The E-330 also provides 5 dial-selectable Easy Shooting modes whose settings can be overridden.
I was happy with the E-330's image quality. Indoors and out, its images were well-exposed, and color reproduction was realistic. The E-330's image quality was very good at ISO 100 and 200. Noise becomes detectable in shadow areas at ISO 400, and noticeable at ISO 800. While noise could be found throughout at ISO 1600, levels were much lower than the predecessor E-300, fulfilling Olympus' claim of lower noise at high sensitivity settings.
Most dSLR's, even the professional ones, have a few gotchas. The most common and annoying problem is keeping the CCD imager clean. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics at small apertures. Those of us that use these digital SLRs always keep a bulb blower handy to "blow" away most of those contaminants but it doesn't always work. The Olympus E-330 has an ingenious feature it inherited from the E-300 called a "Supersonic Wave Filter"; it vibrates dust particles off the image sensor every time you turn the camera on. While I didn't purposefully deposit any dust onto the sensor during the test, I can say that the sensor remained remarkably free of dust.
Building on the the architecture of their Four Thirds system and the concepts of the E-300, Olympus has produced yet another amateur dSLR worthy of your attention. For about $1400 you can get the E-330 with 18-180mm kit lens, a package that covers an effective focal length range of 36-360mm without changing lenses. Its image quality, flexibility and viewfinder compete favorably with the high-end consumer digicams, and its scene modes offer the ease of use needed by less-experienced photographers. But while the E-330 competes well with the prosumer cameras, its performance lags its amateur dSLR competition, most notably in autofocus performance/flexbility and continuous shooting. What makes the E-330 stand out is the Live View feature, offering a hybrid of prosumer digicam and dSLR viewfinders, and enabling you to enjoy the advantages of each in a single camera. Please have a look at our sample images to see what the E-330 is capable of.
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