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Photographic tests

White balance

The H3 has seven manual white balance presets in addition to the default Auto WB mode (Sunny, cloudy, white fluorescent, natural white fluorescent, day white fluorescent, incandescent and flash). Quite unusually among contemporary digital cameras, the H3 doesn't have a custom (measured) manual white balance option. Looking at the results from the White Balance lab tests this is rather unfortunate. Achieving anything close to a neutral result under artificial lighting with Auto WB or presets is frankly impossible. Therefore a custom white balance option would really come in quite handy. In daylight the H3's White Balance settings are much more reliable.

Fluo Auto Fluo Preset Incandescent Auto Incandescent Preset
Fluorescent light - Auto white balance poor,
Preset white balance average
Incandescent light - Auto white balance poor, Preset white balance poor

Flash

The H3's pop-up flash has a quoted working range (using Auto ISO) of 7m (23 ft) at the wide end of the zoom and 5.6m (18.4 ft) at the tele end. These are impressive numbers for this type of camera although (like most comparable cameras) the H3 uses Auto ISO which reduces quality noticeably. The flash is located far away enough from the lens to avoid red eyes but just to be a 100 percent sure anti-red eye can be applied either while shooting or in review mode. Generally the flash exposure works well although occasionally the H3 tends to apply a little too much flash power, especially in indoor portrait situations. On those occasions some negative flash compensation does the trick.

Skin tone - Color and exposure are both excellent. However, Auto ISO is very keen to push sensitivity up to 400 which has a negative impact on image quality. Flash chart - Excellent exposure, slight warm tone (this is usually a good thing since flash is mainly used for portraits).

Movie

The H3 offers the fairly standard maximum movie mode quality of 640 x 480 pixels at 30 frames per second, and like all Sony models it saves clips in MPEG format. This is slightly more efficient than the motion JPEG system used by most other manufacturers (At the highest quality setting you're burning about 1.3MB per sec). The quality leaves not a lot to complain about. Viewed at large size some compression artefacts are visible but it all stays within acceptable limits.

Zoom is deactivated during filming. The optical image stabilization system is very useful to ensure smooth framing when filming at longer focal lengths. You get an authentic 'Steadycam' feeling.

Sample movie: 640 x 480 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 9.0MB, 7.00 secs, at wideangle

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie
(caution: large file!)

Optical image stabilization

The optical image stabilization used on the DSC-H3 has two modes: Continuous (IS on all the time) and 'Shooting' (stabilization is only activated when the button is half-pressed to lock exposure). Continuous mode makes framing easier - the system steadies the preview image - but obviously uses more battery power (it's on all the time).

The system approximately gives you a 2 stop advantage although its efficiency drops drastically at shutter speeds slower than 1/50 sec. At a shutter speed of 1/25 sec (and at a focal length of 380mm equiv.) your chances of getting a usable shot are fairly minimal - with or without image stabilization.

The stabilization test

In this simplified version of our SLR IS test, ten hand-held shots were taken of a static scene with the stabilization off and on. The shutter speed was decreased for each shot (from 1/500 sec to 1/13 sec). The zoom was set to its maximum position (380mm equiv.), the test target was 5 m away from the camera. The test was repeated 10 times and an average taken.

The resulting images were then inspected and given a blur score - 'Sharp' (no visible blurring at 100%), 'Mild Blur' (the kind of camera shake that is tolerable at small print sizes) and 'Heavy Blur' (virtually unusable due to camera shake) and 'Very Heavy Blur' (little discernible detail).

As the charts below show the IS system does give you a couple of stops advantage. At 1/50 (which is roughly three stops below the recommended minimum shutter speed (using the focal length reciprocal rule of thumb) you still have a 7/10 chance of getting a usable shot. However at speeds slower than that you have to be lucky to produce a usable result.

Hand-held, no stabilization (380mm equiv.)

As you can see from the chart below only at 1/250 sec or above can we be confident of getting acceptably sharp results from the majority of shots, and once you get to 1/125 sec and below the majority of shots are blurred, and none are sharp.

Hand-held, stabilization on (380mm equiv.)

With image stabilization activated the results improve - you have a hit-rate of 100% usable images at all shots down to 1/125 sec. At 1/50 sec you still have a 70 percent chance to have a usable image, although at speeds slower than that the hit rate drops quickly.

Macro

The H3's macro capabilities are fairly standard for this type of camera; at the wide end you can get as close as 2cm, capturing an area around 44 x 33mm. Some of the competitors allow you to get as close as 1cm, although the usefulness of such a super macro mode remains questionable as you usually shade the subject with the lens itself.

At the long end of the zoom the nearest you can focus is 90cm (around 3 ft), which will fill the frame with an area of 102 x 76mm.

Focus is fairly slow in macro mode and sometimes needs a couple of attempts before it locks, particularly in low light.

Resolution

The H3's resolution is more or less in line with its competitors in the market segment. Towards higher frequencies some moiré is appearing and there is also some evidence of purple fringing and CA. Science is one thing, photography in the real world is another and you're fairly unlikely to see any of this in your photos. Sharpness is consistently good across almost the entire frame, there is very little corner softness which speaks for the quality of the Carl Zeiss branded lens. To see how the H3 compares with its nearest competitors click here.

Crops

Click here for the full resolution test chart

Horizontal LPH

Absolute resolution 1500 LPH
Extinction resolution 1950 LPH *

*moiré visible

Vertical LPH

Absolute resolution 1500 LPH
Extinction resolution 1975 LPH *

*moiré visible

Distortion and other image quality issues

As you would expect from a super zoom lens there is a fair amount of distortion visible at the wide end of the zoom - around 0.9% - not a big deal but certainly noticeable on any straight line close to the edge of the frame (click here for test chart). There is also a small (0.3%) amount of measurable - and visible - pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the zoom (click here for test chart).

General comments

The H3 generally produces appealing consumer-friendly 'ready for print' images. The colors and contrast are slightly on the vivid side but they stop just short of 'overdone'. Sharpness at the default setting looks good at normal viewing sizes, and there is generally no need for extended post-processing of images. The H3's output is really quite unproblematic, there are not any major issues to report. The only ones worth mentioning are the highlight clipping and color fringing described in the following paragraphs, a little softness and loss of contrast at the long end of the zoom and a slightly soft, smeary appearance at a pixel level. This is mostly caused by noise reduction.

Of course increasing the ISO brings a whole raft of new problems, but in decent light the output isn't going to disappoint anyone looking to produce prints or view on-screen (i.e. anyone not too attached to 'pixel peeping').

Highlight clipping / dynamic range issues

The H3 has a fairly pronounced tendency to clip highlights. This is common to almost all digital compact cameras with small sensors but the Sony is a little worse than your average model. On an overcast day you will end up with a pure white sky in your images more often than you would like to. This is caused by a steep tone curve and a limited dynamic range of the imaging sensor. You can slightly counteract this issue by carefully applying a small amount of negative exposure compensation or reducing contrast in the settings. You can also see a touch of purple fringing on the first shot.

50% crop 380mm (equivalent), F4.4
50% crop 38mm (equivalent), F3.5

Color fringing

Again, not a major problem, but at close inspection of high contrast edges you'll find some color fringing. It's all within acceptable limits though and is rarely serious enough to appear in a standard size print.

100% crop 380mm (equivalent), F4.4
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