Digital Photography: Olympus E-30 and Portable Drives

May 1, 2009

By John Rettie

Last year at Photokina, Olympus gave us a sneak peek of one of its future cameras, the 12-megapixel E-30, which was then publicly announced late last year. The $1250 camera is aimed at advanced amateurs and sits in the lineup just below the pro-level E-3. Yet in many ways it is an advancement upon the more expensive (approx. $1650) 10-megapixel E-3, as it delivers better resolution yet maintains the positive aspects of the E-3, save for the environmental sealing and high-speed frame rate.

The E-30’s main feature that sets it apart is a series of built-in artistic filters. They include soft focus, pop art, pale & light color, pinhole, grainy (monochrome) film, and light tone. I must admit I was a little cynical about them and wondered if professionals would find them useful. After all, these effects are easily achieved in Photoshop after a shoot.
Now I have had the chance to use an E-30 I have changed my mind. During a couple of recent photo shoots with models I was trying a Nikon D3X and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II along with an E-30. As I tried each camera I chimped and showed the model the image I was capturing. It quickly became apparent that they loved the ethereal soft focus look best of all—no surprise there! By the time I was on my third shoot I used the E-30 exclusively. The truth was that I had no need for 24-megapixel images, 12-megapixel images were fine and the look I was getting was ideal. It meant that the models had “edited” images they could use immediately and I would not have to do any post-processing work in Photoshop.

The main drawback to the art filters is that they only work on an automatic setting so you cannot control shutter speed, aperture or ISO. Sometimes I had to compensate by underexposing a couple of stops, otherwise the shot tended to be toward overexposure—it varied depending on the color of the background and the model’s skin color.

It takes a couple of seconds or so for the camera to process each image and save it as a JPEG. It takes longer if you save it as both a RAW and JPEG file, but then you at least have an original photo as well as the modified one.

The E-30 also has the ability to pre-crop images in nine different aspect ratios, which could prove useful for portrait photographers. It is also possible to overlay an image on a photo pre-loaded on the xD card. Yes, the E-30 has two card slots—one for Compact Flash and the other for xD. It’d be great if you could save RAW files on one and JPEGs on the other, but the camera does not allow for that facility.

Other features include a built-in digital leveler that shows a display on the 270-degree rotating rear LCD screen—the same one found on the E-3. (A rotating screen is really warranted on cameras with live view—it’s only now being adopted by Nikon in the new D5000 DSLR. Canon still does not offer such a worthwhile feature.) What’s more, the E-30 features autofocusing in live view without the mirror having to go back down. It’s still slower to focus than through the viewfinder but much more pleasant in operation than on many other cameras.

Although the E-30 is aimed at advanced amateurs I found it quite usable as a pro. What’s more, its compact size and lightweight rotating rear screen are certainly additional plus factors. Incidentally, Olympus has recently announced the E-620, which is a scaled-down version of the E-30 and sells for just $699 (body only). In all honesty it makes the E-30 look rather expensive.

I’ll bet that built-in custom filters such as these on the E-30 and E-620 will find their way into pro cameras before long. After all, why not run “Photoshop actions” in a camera in real time—think of the time saved. And, the subject can see the results immediately.

Portable External Hard Drives
External hard drives used to be bulky, as the drives themselves were physically bigger (3.5 vs. 2.5. inches) and required an internal power supply or external AC (brick) adaptor. Nowadays the newest ones on the market are small enough that they can be powered by a computer through a USB or Firewire cable yet their capacity keeps increasing.

I’m typing this column on my five-year-old PowerBook G4 that only has a 80GB hard drive. The lack of capacity has been a shortcoming this past year as the size of files produced by the latest DSLRs has skyrocketed. After downloading images I used to burn a DVD for backup and just keep a few images on the laptop. But that’s not very convenient when I often end up with more than 8 GBs from a single shoot. It’s tiresome having to burn to multiple DVDs.

Now I have a solution that works very well.
I am using a 500GB WD (Western Digital) My Passport Studio external drive, which comes equipped with a Firewire 800 port as well as regular Firewire 400 and USB ports. I can transfer images to the laptop, check them out, do some quick sorting and move them to the Passport drive. I can even take the images straight off a card reader onto the hard drive, using the computer for the transfer, without saving them on the computer’s hard drive. Of course, if I do this I do not reformat my cards in the camera until I have returned back from the assignment and made a backup on my main desktop iMac. You always want at least two backups of files!

When I return to my office I transfer the images to my desktop computer and I also copy them to a larger, second external hard drive. I also burn DVDs when time allows but if I don’t get around to it immediately I still have at least three copies, so it is not as critical. I leave the originals on the My Passport drive as I am using that as my primary backup for both the desktop and the laptop—in this way I always have all my current files available on either computer.

I must admit that I was tempted to purchase a new laptop this year in order to get more capacity but this system works well as it has, in effect, given my old laptop a new lease on life. The 500GB Passport Studio retails for between $150 and $200 depending on where you purchase it. True, the WD My Passport Studio is not the only solution on the market but it is the neatest and fastest one I have tried.

Coincidentally Pexagon, who like WD were exhibitors at WPPI, have a series of portable hard drives that they sell with engraving on the external case. You can purchase a 500 GB drive with engraving for just $150, but it only comes with a USB connector, so it is slower than the WD Firewire models. It’s worth noting that if your needs are for small capacities, Pexagon also sells customized engraved thumb drives with very favorable pricing.

USB OTG Drives
In case you haven’t heard of OTG, it’s a fairly new acronym I learned at WPPI. It stands for On-The-Go and is a USB specification that allows USB devices to be used without being hooked up to a computer. A camera is a USB-OTG device as are most new inkjet printers that can talk to each other via a USB cable without requiring a computer. Although PictBridge uses a USB cable it is an independent software standard that has no direct relationship to OTG but is obviously compatible. The digital portable photo albums that have been on the market for several years fall into this USB-OTG category.

Recently, some much less expensive portable OTG storage devices have appeared on the market that also allow one to back up images while on the road without the use of a laptop. The Nexto extreme is one of these devices. It is a small portable hard drive with two sockets to accept a CompactFlash or SD card. It can copy a CompactFlash card at a fast rate of up to 1GB in 40 seconds. There is a small LCD screen that shows the number of files being transferred and displays minimal detail, including the success or failure of the copying process.

Naturally, with such a small screen it is impossible to see the images displayed, but nowadays with such good LCD displays on the camera it is not as important a feature as it once was. The beauty of not having a large LCD display is that battery life is far better. Nexto claims that up to 60GBs can be copied on a single battery charge. I did not experience any battery problems while I tried the unit so it certainly does not seem to be an issue. An auxiliary AC adaptor can power the unit and there is also a socket for an external battery pack for added flexibility.

When it comes time to transfer the files stored on the Nexto to a computer it can be connected via a USB or eSATA port but not Firewire. If you want to be able to back up images while on the road without using a laptop I was quite impressed with the Nexto extreme. The unit is available with different size drives ranging from 160GB to 500GB. It is also possible for the user to upgrade the drive in the future when more storage capacity is required. Although the official retail price of the Nexto ND270160 with a 160GB drive is an astronomical $430, it seems to be available for half this price, which is reasonable.

It’s worth noting that despite the fact portable drives (as I’ve discussed above) are supposed to work with only a single cable connecting them to your computer, the truth is they don’t always. For example, I found the Nexto drive would not always connect. It was frustrating as I could not predict when the computer would find the drive. I had the problem on both my PowerBook and the Lenovo W700 I tested last month.

The solution became apparent when I opened up the box contacting the Pexagon Store-it drive. Inside there was a USB Y-cable with two plugs at one end—something I’d never seen before. The instructions said that if there was insufficient power being delivered though one USB port, try plugging the cable into two ports on the laptop. Bingo—I tried this cable with the Nexto drive and it worked every time. The WD My Passport Studio instructions also noted this potential problem but did not include a separate cable. I guess there is not a problem with Firewire connections as it provides enough juice.

John Rettie is a photojournalist who resides in Santa Barbara, CA. He has been using a camera as a professional for 39 years, a computer for 29 years and has combined his knowledge of both for the past 16 years. Readers can contact him directly by email at john@johnrettie.com.