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Color reproduction

Color reproduction is a new addition to our in-depth reviews and provides a quick overview of the general look of images from the camera as well as an ability to compare this to other cameras. Here you can see a generated GretagMacbeth ColorChecker chart, place your mouse over any of the labels below it to see the color reproduction in that mode. Select a camera/setting combination from the 'Compared to' drop-down to comparative boxes inside each patch.

As you can see the E-3's color reproduction delivers almost the same hues as the competition, in the last two years or so there has been a clear 'normalization' of color among various manufacturers. The only difference comes from slightly different tone curves and saturation selection. By Default the E-3's output is a little 'punchier' (slightly more contrasty and slightly more saturated) than most of its competitors.

Olympus E-3 Compare to:  
      
      
      
      
NaturalVividMutedPortrait
MonotoneAdobe RGB

Artificial light White Balance

The E-3's automatic white balance performed flawlessly in daylight and coped pretty well with mixed lighting too. In our studio tests the AWB struggled with both incandescent and fluorescent lighting (despite the much-hyped hybrid WB measurement system), and the only way to get a truly neutral result is to switch to 'one touch' custom WB (which you'll need to assign to the Fn button).

Incandescent - Auto WB
Red: 8.9%, Blue: -15.7%, Poor
Incandescent - Incandescent preset WB
Red: 4.9%, Blue: -6.7%, Average
Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red: 6.1%, Blue: -11.4%, Average
Fluorescent - Fluorescent 1
Red: 6.1%, Blue: -4.4%, Average

Flash

No complaints here; with generally good metering (though we did occasionally see some overexposure at normal portrait distances) and good flash power output, the built-in flash is a useful addition to a camera, even if it is ostensibly aimed at the professional user. Our only complaint (occasional exposure issue aside) is that a camera at this level should have a 'proper' AF illuminator; using fit-inducing bursts of flash to illuminate a scene is a far from satisfactory solution.

Built-in flash Built-in flash

Overall Image Quality / Specifics

The good news is that the E-3's JPEG output is superb, unusually so for a camera at this level, striking just the right balance between the subtlety of processing that high end users want and the saturated, contrasty look that gives images the requisite out of camera 'pop'. Olympus has won many fans for its rendition of colors and, when shooting outdoor scenery in particular, you can't help but be wowed by the E-3's luscious blue skies and rich green foliage. And of course there's plenty of in-camera parameters for those who want to fine-tune the JPEG output (though the range of many is limited to fairly subtle variations either side of the default setting).

Of course there are problems, though many can be overcome by the more experienced user once he or she has spent enough time with the E-3 to learn its little foibles and idiosyncrasies. Exposure (well, metering to be more accurate) isn't as reliable as we'd like from a camera at this level, and we found ourselves having to over ride the camera's decisions way too often. This is most noticeable when using the 49-zone ESP system (which seems to be far less able to deal with unusual framing and off-center subjects than we'd expect at this level. Part of the problem appears to be the link between the metering and the focus point selected (when using the multi-AF system), but the manual is far from clear on this. As we've seen with other Olympus models even the slightest re-framing of a shot can cause the metering to veer from one extreme to the other, often by two stops or more.

To be fair we tended to shoot using the center AF point only and, being in the habit of using focus and AE lock anyway, the metering issues didn't really cause huge problems in day to day photography. But it's worth noting that left to its own devices the E-3's default settings (multi AF, ESP metering) cannot be relied on to produce the results shot after shot. We've said it elsewhere and we'll say it again; the E-3 is not a camera for anyone who likes to leave everything on automatic and just 'point and shoot'.

The only other issues have been covered elsewhere in this review, but are worth mentioning here again. There is a softness / lack of resolution that robs otherwise perfect shots of the pixel-level crispness that some of the E-3's competitors can offer. Of course at normal viewing sizes we're not talking about a deal-breaker here, but if you're likely to really push your E-3 to the limit on a regular basis it could be important.

Secondly (and far more worryingly) the E-3's rather tight highlight dynamic range means that even with careful exposure there's always a danger of clipping, and it's not unusual to see hot spots on faces or to lose detail in skies. The E-3 is noticeably better than the E-410 / E-510 in this respect but, especially when shooting in challenging conditions such as the low winter sun, the stop or so of highlight detail the E-3 loses compared to the best of its competitors could make all the difference. As covered elsewhere there's a little headroom in the raw files, but not enough to bring back lost highlights in contrasty situations. Again, this makes pinpoint metering accuracy essential.

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