Olympus E3 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Olympus Cameras i Initial Test

Olympus E-3 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Slight oversaturation of strong red and blue tones, and very undersaturation of some greens, but better than average accuracy and pleasing color overall.

In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located towards the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.
Saturation. The Olympus E-3 oversaturates reds and blues a little. It also undersaturates some greens very slightly, but results are still pleasing, and overall color accuracy is considerably better than that of much of the field. Some may find overall saturation somewhat subdued, but this is typical of semi-pro and professional SLRs. (And as you'll see below, the E-3's saturation adjustment gives good control, if you'd like a bit brighter color.) Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. In this case, the E-3 did render skin tones a bit on the pale, pink side in most cases. Still, results are quite reasonable, well within an acceptable range. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. Overall results here are pretty accurate, though some reds are pushed toward orange, and cyan towards blue. Still, overall color is quite good, closer to accurate than many DSLRs on the market. The other important part of color rendition is hue accuracy. Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Saturation Adjustment
The Olympus E-3 lets you adjust the image saturation, contrast, and sharpness in five steps each. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment worked very well, providing a reasonably fine-grained adjustment over a useful range of control. The saturation adjustment also has almost no impact on contrast. That's how it should work, but we've often found interactions between saturation and contrast (and vice versa) on the cameras we test.

Saturation Adjustment Examples

-2

-1

Default

+1

+2

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Auto white balance is a quite warm, but Incandescent and Manual white balance settings both produce very good color, though more than average positive exposure compensation required.

Auto WB
+1.7 EV
Incandescent WB
+1.7 EV
Manual WB
+1.7 EV

Color balance indoors under incandescent lighting was very warm with the Auto white balance setting, with a strong orange cast. The Incandescent setting was actually pretty good, producing nearly accurate color, though just a hint pinkish overall. (This is unusual for this shot, the Incandescent white balance option on most pro cameras is set to the 3200K color balance of incandescent studio lighting. That setting for the E-3 is much closer to the roughly 2800K temperature of the household bulbs used in the shot above.) I felt the Manual setting had the most pleasing overall results. The Olympus E-3 required a good bit more than the average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +1.7 EV. Overall color is quite good, if just very slightly on the pink side, but the blue flowers didn't look too purplish as they often do with this shot. (And many users would prefer a little bit of the warmth of the lighting to be left in the final image, as the E-3 does here.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S. Apologies for the missing Kelvin white balance shot here: The E-3 has a Kelvin option (called "Custom" on the White Balance menu), I just didn't notice it when I was shooting.

 

Outdoors, daylight
Good color overall, though a tendency toward a warm cast and slightly high contrast under harsh lighting. About average exposure accuracy outdoors.

Auto White Balance,
+0.3 EV
Auto White Balance,
Auto Exposure

In the "Sunlit" test shot above, the Olympus E-3 tended to lose highlight detail under harsh lighting while requiring a below average amount of positive exposure compensation of +0.3 EV. Contrast was slightly high, resulting in some clipped highlights in Marti's shirt and some of the flowers, and lost shadow detail in the darker areas, but the E-3 does better than most in this regard. The outdoor house shot is slightly overexposed at default exposure, but with natural looking color.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Resolution
Very high resolution, 1,700 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
Strong detail to
1,700 lines vertical

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,700 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions, with extinction past 2,000.

Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Our interpretation of this standard is somewhat conservative. We watch for artifacts and color fringing then move back to the nearest pure part of the scale. In our opinion, detail with artifacts shouldn't be considered detail. You may see other numbers quoted elsewhere, but across the site, our reviews judge this parameter by the same conservative standard.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Reasonably sharp images overall, though slightly soft details in some cases. Some noise suppression visible in the deep shadows.

Despite slight evidence of edge enhancement, images from the E-3 are a little soft overall. Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the darker parts of Marti's hair here.

Sharpness. The Olympus E-3 captured fairly sharp images, though details are a hint soft overall. In the high contrast shot above, there's only slight edge enhancement visible along the edges of the white house trim and roof. This means that, while the E-3's JPEGs are a little soft straight from the camera, they tend to take sharpening in image editing applications pretty well. There are some minor artifacts from the in-camera sharpening though: Sharpening on the computer does tend to bring out the slight halos that are present in the original images, but generally not noticeable unless additional sharpening is applied. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)

Detail & Noise suppression. The crop above right shows some visible noise suppression in the shadows, though quite a bit of fine detail in the strands of hair remains visible. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

 

JPEG vs RAW

JPEG vs RAW Comparison

Mouse over the links to compare the difference in sharpness and detail from camera JPEG versus RAW file processed with Olympus' Studio software and Adobe Camera Raw 4.3. Camera settings for the JPEG settings were the defaults.

In our testing of many DSLRs, we're finding that there is often more detail locked up a the camera's RAW files than makes it out in the camera-produced JPEGs. In the case of the Olympus E-3 though, the only RAW converter we had available when we were doing the testing that could process its RAW files was the Olympus Master software (version 2.0.4). It appears that Olympus Master is using virtually identical algorithms to those employed by the camera itself, as we found virtually no difference between JPEGs made by the camera and those made by the software from camera RAW files. We did find that exporting JPEGs from Olympus Master with the sharpening set to its lowest value, and then applying unsharp masking in Photoshop let us produce sharper-looking images without sharpening artifacts. It's quite possible that third-party RAW converters will be able to extract more detail once they can decode the E-3's RAW format, but we won't know that until some point in the future.

Update: Adobe has since released a version of Adobe Camera Raw (4.3) that supports the E-3, so we've updated this comparison to include results from ACR. We had sharpening set to 0 in ACR, but used USM 500% with radius=0.3 pixels in Photoshop.

ISO & Noise Performance
Low to moderate noise at the normal sensitivity settings, higher noise with some blurring at the highest settings.

ISO 100
(sorry, slight mis-focus)
ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1,600 ISO 3,200

Noise levels are low to moderate at the Olympus E-3's lower sensitivity settings. We start to see some luminance noise in deep shadows already at ISO 200, but its a very fine, with a tight pattern. A little more noise is visible ISO 400, but detail is still superb. "Grain" is more apparent at ISO 800, but most fine detail is still intact. At ISOs 1,600 and 3,200, noise is much higher (as you might expect), more blurring, increased chroma noise and a slight shift in color balance. In the shots above, we like that Olympus chose to leave more subject detail present, at the expense of higher image noise. (Our Still Life shots though, seemed to indicated that there is some deliberate blurring going on at high ISO settings, even in the RAW files. - Although that last conclusion will have to remain tentative until we can look at the E-3's RAW files with good third-party converters, where we can be certain of seeing the file data with no noise reduction applied.)

Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
High resolution with strong overall detail, though details are slightly soft. Slightly high contrast and slightly limited shadow detail, however. Good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images under average city street lighting and much darker conditions.

0 EV +0.3 EV +0.7 EV

Sunlight. The Olympus E-3 struggled a little with the deliberately harsh lighting of the above test, producing slightly high contrast with some washed-out highlights and slightly plugged shadows. The E-3 did much better here though, than did its consumer-oriented siblings, the E-410 and E-510: There's much more detail present in the shadows than the consumer models managed to hold onto. Though Marti's face still looks a little dark at +0.3 EV, I preferred it to the image at +0.7 EV, which had too many blown highlights for my preference. (In "real life" though, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)

Contrast Adjustment Examples

-2

-1

Default

+1

+2

The series of shots above show the results of the different contrast settings. While it can be difficult to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, it's pretty easy to see the impact of the Contrast adjustment in the images above. At its lowest setting, the E3 actually does an excellent job of handling the deliberately horrific lighting of this shot. (Although the deep shadows are a bit noisier than I'd like.) Like the Saturation adjustment, the control for Contrast is quite effective, and interacts very little with color saturation.

Note: Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)


  1 fc
11 lux
1/2 fc
5.5 lux
1/4 fc
2.7 lux
1/8 fc
1.3 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16fc
No NR
ISO
100
Click to see E3LL0103.JPG
1.6 sec
f2.8
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2.5 sec
f2.8
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5 sec
f2.8
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10 sec
f2.8
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15 sec
f2.8
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13 sec
f2.8
ISO
200
Click to see E3LL0203.JPG
0.8 sec
f2.8
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1.3 sec
f2.8
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3.2 sec
f2.8
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5 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
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8 sec
f2.8
ISO
400
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0.4 sec
f2.8
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0.8 sec
f2.8
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1.6 sec
f2.8
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2.5 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
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4 sec
f2.8
ISO
800
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1/5 sec
f2.8
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0.3 sec
f2.8
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0.8 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
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2 sec
f2.8
ISO
1600
Click to see E3LL1603.JPG
1/10 sec
f2.8
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1/5 sec
f2.8
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0.4 sec
f2.8
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0.8 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
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1 sec
f2.8
ISO
3200
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1/20 sec
f2.8
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1/10 sec
f2.8
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1/5 sec
f2.8
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0.3 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8
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0.5 sec
f2.8

Low light. The Olympus E-3 performed well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night), at all ISO settings. The E-3's metering and exposure at these low levels was a bit non-linear though, as can be seen from the somewhat uneven exposure times. Color balance is just a bit warm from the Auto white balance setting. You'll probably want to keep NR on, as quite a few hot pixels are visible with it off - and there are also some present even when it's on, particularly in long exposures at high ISOs. Some very slight banding is present at ISOs 1,600 and 3,200 in darker areas of the target. (Slight at ISO 3,200, almost invisible at 1,600.) The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level with its AF assist light turned off. Do keep in mind that the very long shutter times necessary here absolutely demand the use of a tripod or other camera support to get sharp photos. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is a foot-candle? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Olympus E-3 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Good print quality, great color, great 13x19 inch prints. ISO 1,600 images are surprisingly good at 8x10, even better at 5x7.

Output from the Olympus E-3 was good enough to produce sharp 13x19 inch prints. At 20x30, its images were softer looking, but would be just fine when seen at the viewing distances typical for such large prints. High ISO images were actually better than we had been expecting from the smaller 4/3-format sensor. There's more noise present than the very best cameras with APS-C size sensors manage, but the difference is one of good vs a little better, rather than terrible vs wonderful.

Shots under daylight lighting at ISO 1,600 were a little soft and noisy at 13x19 inches, but really not bad at all (they'd be quite acceptable for wall display), and at 8x10 inches they looked great: You could see noise in the shadows, but we didn't find it obtrusive. Images shot at ISO 3200 were definitely noisy at 8x10 inches, but again, would probably be acceptable for wall or table display. Under incandescent lighting, noise becomes more of a problem. As with any camera, the yellowish cast of the lighting requires the more noise-prone blue color channel to be amplified, emphasizing the noise more than is the case with daylight illumination. Even the incandescent ISO 1600 shots made decent-looking 8x10s though: Again, there was noise to be found, but it was for the most part pretty fine-grained, so wasn't as obtrusive as it might have been.

Color-wise, the Olympus E-3 acquitted itself very well. Its color isn't oversaturated the way many consumer digicams and SLRs are, which might lead some people who like very bright, punchy color to be underwhelmed. In our shots though, we felt its rendering was very natural looking, and plenty colorful enough for our tastes. (And if you'd like your color a little brighter, the saturation adjustment works very well.) Hue accuracy was good, and the overall effect was quite pleasing. A very good performance overall.

Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)

 

Olympus E3

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