By Alex Burack
Editor-in-chief, Head-2-Head Reviews
Introduction: The Matchup
Canon and Olympus are both major players in the DSLR space, stocking a range of interchangeable lens cameras for photographers of all levels. The 15.1-megapixel Canon EOS 50D and the 12.3-megapixel Olympus EVOLT E-30 occupy similar positions in their respective lines, balancing automation and versatility at a low four-digit price point. Both cameras integrate a familiar collection of point-and-shoot support, though not at the expense of performance or control. Priced just beyond the $1,000 mark, these feature-laden DSLRs arguably offer the best values within their established product lines.
Canon maintains a large, proprietary DSLR system backed by CMOS sensors of various sizes. Olympus's DSLRs are built on the Four Thirds standard, a design with fixed sensor proportions that spans multiple manufacturers. Both product lines are supported by an array of high-quality lenses. Canon offers a wider selection, while Olympus's optics are digital-specific, which, in testing, have proved to offer a slight advantage in sharpness.
Face Off: Design & Features
The Canon 50D and Olympus E-30 have an assortment of features. Both models deliver the standard options offered in their class -- Dust Reduction, Live View, Burst Mode (5+ fps continuous capture), and Face Detection -- and well beyond.
The E-30's feature set includes a collection of "Art Modes," which the manufacturer touts as something of a creativity preset. The aesthetics are a bit limited, but they do lend a fresh feel to snapshots and encourage experimentation.
The feature set within the Canon 50D is less exciting than the Olympus E-30, though it's generally as usable. The 50D's noteworthy settings include a Creative Auto mode with a shooting reference guide, and a Peripheral Illumination Correction that adjusts the darkened edges of the frame when falloff occurs.
Olympus's inclusion of built-in mechanical image stabilization sets these cameras apart. Unlike Canon, which incorporates a moving element only in select "IS" lenses, the E-30's imaging sensor sits on a mechanism that moves to correct for hand shake, regardless of the lens applied. This is invaluable for live view shooters who hold the camera out at a distance from their body, which could result in a lot of blurry pictures.
Integrated image stabilization can also help reduce blur when taking photos in dim settings, when the light levels don't allow for a quick enough shutter speed to stop motion. Olympus claims 3.5 to 4 stops of compensation and beyond. We can confirm about 2.5 stops on the E-30, though integrated image stabilization is a clear advantage.
The Main Event: Performance & Image Quality
Lab and field tests yielded a split decision. The Canon 50D's larger CMOS sensor performed far more impressively in challenging conditions -- low light, high ISO, and extreme contrast. Images from the 50D consistently retained more information in the highlight values, while shadow noise was less egregious than the Olympus E-30.
The E-30's digital-specific lens offers an advantage in the degree of detail it renders. Its impressive 14-42mm Zuiko kit lens proved sharp enough to virtually negate the approximate 3-megapixel difference between cameras.
Color reproduction is generally the first noticeable image quality element. Saturation and hue are equal parts of its perception, though a shift in saturation is generally easier to correct in Photoshop post capture.
Using the default color settings, the Olympus E-30 captures a more accurate, saturated look than the Canon 50D. The Canonís slightly muted rendering can be easily corrected by boosting the saturation when post processing, as its default is quite low.
The Olympus EVOLT E-3o more accurately reproduces hues, showing a more faithful reproduction with slightly embellished saturation levels. Prints made directly (without any processing or adjustments) from the Olympus E-30's files will have more life and pop to them.
Canon EOS 50D
Larger image sensor
Larger LCD, more resolution
Better high ISO performance
Greater Dynamic Range, handling of highlights
Wider selection of lenses
Olympus EVOLT E-30
More accurate color reproduction
Wireless flash control
More autofocus points and faster speed
More compact, digital-specific lenses
Image stabilization in the camera body
Value & Conclusion
Billed as mid-range DSLRs, the Olympus EVOLT E-30 and Canon EOS 50D compete fairly directly. The cameras both supply a similar blend of speed, mechanics, and features to give them broad appeal. Their intended market ranges from first-time DSLR owners to cost-conscious pros.
Ultimately, the basic advantage of Olympusís system centers on cost and portability, while Canon's advantage lies in the selection it has to offer. If you buy into the Canon system with the 50D, there are three potential cameras above it to grow into. In the Olympus lineup, the E-3 is the only camera above the E-30, and the technology is now dated.
Each camera has clear advantages. The Canon 50D has an edge in high ISO performance and high contrast lighting, while the Olympus E-30 is fitted with in-body image stabilization and wireless flash control, features that will make a usable difference in the field. Both the 50D and E-30 are well rounded DSLRs that warrant careful consideration. However, the decision should be as much about the system as the model.
For a side-by-side comparison of key advantages of both cameras, as well as detailed test results and a head-to-head scorecard, read the full report on the Head-2-Head Reviews website.