Olympus XZ-1 Review
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The new Olympus XZ-1 is a 10-megapixel premium compact camera featuring an ultra-bright 28-112mm equivalent f/1.8-2.5 zoom lens, a high-resolution 3-inch OLED screen and a 1/1.63 inch CCD imager with sensor-shift image stabilisation. Professional features include a full manual exposure mode, raw image capture, wireless TTL flash control and compatibility with a wide range of accessories including external flashguns and macro LED lights, a detachable electronic viewfinder and external microphone set. Priced at £399.99 / $499.99, the Olympus XZ-1 also offers half a dozen Art Filters, eighteen scene modes and one-touch HD movie recording.
Ease of Use
The first mock-ups of a then-unnamed premium compact camera from Olympus were shown at the Photokina trade show in September last year. Although Olympus was rather secretive about it at the time, we were told that it would be the first-ever digital compact camera to feature a Zuiko branded lens and be compatible with a range of accessories originally developed for the Micro Four Thirds system. Then, on 6 January 2011, Olympus announced the name and full specifications of the new product. The Olympus XZ-1 was born.
While the name evokes memories of the Olympus XA, a groundbreaking but highly automated 35mm compact camera from 1979, the Olympus XZ-1 is actually a much more serious proposition offering full manual control over the picture-taking process. Similar in both size and weight to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, the XZ-1 is a fairly slim yet substantial affair made of a combination of metal and plastics. The grip-less camera feels surprisingly good in the hand, thanks to thoughtful ideas like a small but well placed thumb rest on the rear panel. The design manages to be functional and classy at the same time, with an almost minimalist front plate that nevertheless includes a highly useful click-stop dial around the lens housing; a top plate featuring a hot shoe, power button, shutter release, zoom lever and mode dial; and a rear panel dominated by a gorgeous, high-resolution OLED display. A crucial element of the design is a rear control wheel around the four-way pad, which is used to set shutter speed in manual mode, exposure compensation in a number of other modes, and can also be used to navigate menus. The camera is just a little too bulky to be carried comfortably in a shirt- or jeans pocket, but will happily fit into a small belt pouch or jacket pocket. Alternatively, it can be worn around the neck courtesy of a pair of well placed eyelets and a nice neck strap that ships with the camera.
The number one attraction of the Olympus XZ-1 is undoubtedly its ultra-fast, 28-112mm equivalent zoom lens. The company is heavily touting the f/1.8 maximum aperture at the 28mm end, but it's not so unique as it may seem at first glance - the Samsung EX1's lens is also f/1.8 at the wide end, and the Panasonic LX5 isn't that far behind either (not to mention that both offer a wider, 24mm equivalent field of view). The telephoto end is a lot more interesting: the Samsung maxes out at 72mm, the Panasonic at 90mm, with only the Canon Powershot S95 going as far as 105mm (equivalent) - but at f/4.9, it's essentially 2 full stops slower than the Olympus, which boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.5 at the 112mm end. As you can see from some of our sample images, this translates into a surprising (for a compact camera) ability to isolate the subject from the background, resulting in images reminiscent of those taken with cameras sporting much bigger sensors. The lens is protected by a sizeable lens cap that can be attached to the camera with a tether.
Subject isolation aside, the biggest benefit of a super-fast lens - combined with sensor-shift image stabilisation - is the ability to take hand-held shots in low light, without having to dial in crazy-high ISO sensitivity settings. This is important, as the 1/1.63” CCD - despite being bigger than the imaging chips built into most point-and-shoots - is still very small compared to the sensors used in DSLRs.
The other big attraction of the Olympus XZ-1 is the presence of a full manual exposure mode, complete with a live histogram and raw file support. This mode is very well implemented in the XZ-1, and is therefore likely to become the preferred shooting mode for advanced users. In M mode, the click-stop dial encircling the lens housing controls the aperture, while shutter speed can be set with the scroll wheel around the four-way pad. In order to avoid accidentally bumping this wheel, you first have to hit the Up button on the navigation pad before you can modify the shutter speed setting. The live histogram - as well as a helpful compositional grid - can be activated with the Info button. The fly in the ointment is that the camera does not offer direct-button access to ISO sensitivity settings. You need to enter the function menu - called “live control” by Olympus - to do that. That's a shame, especially given that there seems to be just enough space left for a dedicated ISO button next to the Playback button above the four-way pad.
Also present and correct are the usual aperture and shutter priority modes, in which the corresponding exposure variable is controlled via the front dial, with the rear wheel now serving for exposure compensation. Finally, in P mode you get to control ISO sensitivity directly - via the front dial, which serves no other use in this mode. Again, I would be happier if ISO was accessible by way of a dedicated button, and the click-stop dial was used for Program AE shift, a function sadly missing from the otherwise feature-packed Olympus XZ-1.
Other shooting modes on the mode dial include Scene, iAuto, Art, Low Light and Custom. The Olympus XZ-1 offers eighteen scene modes, most of which are standard fare like Portrait, Landscape, Sport etc. A few of the scene modes are more special though - these include Multi Exposure, Panorama and e-Portrait. Multi Exposure has nothing to do with HDR imaging - it's a feature inherited from the film era, which allows you to record and combine two completely different images into a single photo. The Panorama mode works exactly the same way as on some of the more recent Mju compacts: there are three options on offer, including Auto, Manual and PC. In Auto mode, you only have to press the shutter release once. After that, all you need to do is move the camera to the next position, so that the target marks and pointers overlap, and the camera automatically releases the shutter for you. Three frames can be taken this way, which are then combined into a single panoramic image automatically in-camera. In Manual mode, you can also take three frames with the help of an on-screen guide, but you have to release the shutter manually. Finally, in PC mode, you can take up to 10 photos, which can be stitched using the supplied [ib] software after being downloaded to the computer.
E-Portrait is an on-board solution to touch up portraits. In this mode, you take a picture of a person, then the camera identifies the face and tries to remove blemishes and other minor imperfections, giving the skin a smooth look in the process. The resulting image is then saved alongside the original.
The iAuto mode is a fully automatic shooting mode in which the camera analyses the scene in front of its lens, and tries to decide which scene mode to apply. Most of the typical camera controls/functions are inaccessible while you are in iAuto, but there is a live guide featuring on-screen sliders to modify things like saturation, colour, image brightness and depth of field. Additionally, the camera offers up various shooting tips on demand.
The Art setting on the mode dial lets you choose from half a dozen Art Filters that include Pop Art, Diorama, Grainy Film, Soft Focus, Pinhole and Dramatic Tone. The optimum shooting settings are preprogrammed for each filter, and you have very little control over the final look. Because of this, it is worth shooting RAW+JPEG, as the raw files can be modified later if you do not like the effect. You can see some examples of these art filters at work in the Image Quality section of this review.
Of probably more interest to serious shooters is the Custom Mode setting, denoted with a “C” on the mode dial. This allows you to retrieve your saved settings, which is great if you often find yourself shooting under the same conditions. To save your current settings, go to the setup menu, select Custom Mode Setup, and hit Set.
As mentioned earlier, most of the shooting settings and functions are available from the “live control”, a function menu called up by pressing the OK button that sits in the middle of the four-way pad. The range of available functions may differ slightly depending on the shooting mode you are in, but the full list includes the following: ISO, picture mode, white balance, drive mode, aspect ratio, image quality and resolution, flash mode, flash exposure compensation, metering mode, ND filter, auto focus mode and face priority. Most of these are self explanatory. The ND filter is an integrated 3-stop neutral density filter, which can be engaged when shooting in very bright light - with the top shutter speed being only 1/2000 of a second, it is sometimes necessary to use this filter when you would like to pick a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field effect, otherwise the photo would be overexposed even at the lowest ISO sensitivity setting.
The Olympus XZ-1 has a neat little pop-up flash that can be raised manually, by way of the sliding switch sitting in the top left corner of the camera's back plate. Apart from providing a bit of fill light for backlit subjects, this flash can also trigger up to three groups of wirelessly slaved FL-36R flashguns, which offer TTL flash exposure metering with the XZ-1. Alternatively, the user can attach one of a number of system flashes to the camera via its hot shoe. The manual lists the FL-36R, FL-20 and FL-14 units, but curiously not the FL-50R. We tried the camera with an older FL-36 unit (without the “R” designation), which worked well. This is a relatively small flashgun, but it still dwarfed the petite Olympus XZ-1, as you can see in some of our photos in the Product Images section. The FL-14 complements this camera better, at least in terms of size. Third-party flash units can also be attached as long as their trigger voltage is below 24 volts. Importantly, it's possible to sync these flashes right up to the fastest shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second, although their range will be somewhat limited above 1/500 s. The official specifications do not mention the type of shutter used in the Olympus XZ-1 but it's definitely not a focal plane shutter, so there will be no black stripes across the frame when using a flash at a high shutter speed.
Below the hot shoe is an accessory port identical to the one found on the Olympus E-P2 and E-PL1 models. This allows you to attach a number of optional accessories originally developed for these cameras, including the VF-2 electronic viewfinder, the SEMA-1 microphone adapter set and the MAL-1 macro lights. Needless to say, only one of these can be attached at a time. In use, we found the large, high-resolution Organic LED screen to be eminently usable, with great detail and simply excellent colour retention even when viewed from the most extreme angles - but there can be times when an eye-level finder could still come in handy, such as when shooting in extremely bright light, or in very low light when pressing the finder against your forehead can provide some extra stabilisation. Those suffering from far-sightedness will also appreciate the VF-2, which offers some degree of dioptre adjustment.
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Some of the shooting functions are mapped onto the four-way pad, including focus mode and AF point selection, drive mode and self-timer, and flash mode. To change the active AF point, press the Left arrow button, and pick one of the 11 auto focus points using the arrow keys - simple and effective. To change the focus mode, press the Left key and the Info button. The available settings are “normal” AF, when the focus range is limited to 60cm-infinity, allowing the camera to acquire focus surprisingly quickly; Macro AF, which lets you focus down to 10cm at the wide end and 30cm at full telephoto; Supermacro AF, which disables the zoom and the built-in flash but allows you to focus as close as 1cm from the front lens; Tracking AF which tracks the selected subject as it moves across the frame; and MF. The inclusion of manual focus is a nod towards experienced photographers, who will appreciate this feature. In MF mode, pressing the Info button enlarges the centre of the image for accurate focusing, which is performed with the rear control wheel or the Up/Down buttons. Sadly, the camera doesn't display a distance scale, even though if would be useful for zone focusing. Shutter lag in MF mode is negligible. For those who prefer auto focus, there is an AF assist light that enables the camera to focus even in low light. This lamp can be disabled if necessary.
As far as drive modes are concerned, there are no less than 3 different continuous shooting modes on offer: the “regular” sequential shooting is a rather pedestrian 2 frames per second at full resolution, but there are two High-Speed options available at reduced resolution settings. In High-Speed 2 mode, you can take 15 photos per second at up to 2 megapixels. High-Speed 1 makes little sense as it's only half as fast, and while the images are of a higher pixel count, they don't contain any more detail.
Besides capturing stills, the Olympus XZ-1 can also record HD videos, and has a dedicated movie record button in the top right corner of the rear panel for one-touch video recording. Unfortunately the camera offers precious little in the way of video controls. You can apply exposure compensation before starting to record a video clip, but that's about it. On a more positive note, you can use the optical zoom while filming, and can also have the camera apply any of the Art Filters to movies on the fly. The XZ-1 tries its best to keep the subject in focus while recording a video clip, but doesn't always succeed. Movies are stored in Motion JPEG format, which is easy to edit but takes up a lot of space on the memory card. Clip length is limited to 7 minutes, and the maximum file size is 2GB.
When it comes to playing back your images, the Olympus XZ-1 offers three main playback views: picture only, photo with image number and date, and thumbnail with detailed information and a very useful RGB histogram. There is no blinking highlights warning though. Note that the camera retracts its lens after spending only 15 seconds in Playback - this can quickly get annoying if you are in the habit of regularly reviewing your photos in the field.
The Olympus XZ-1 is powered by a proprietary lithium-ion battery, which can be charged in-camera via USB. You need to connect the USB cable either to a computer running Windows 7, Vista or XP; or to the supplied USB-AC adapter, which must, in turn, be plugged into a mains socket using a mains cable. So unless you want to charge the battery via a Windows computer, you will need two cables, an adapter, and the camera itself. Olympus does offer a conventional external charger as well, but only as an optional accessory.
In use, the Olympus XZ-1 proved to be a great little camera, providing easy access to aperture and shutter speed in manual exposure mode. Start-up was quick for its class, and so was the auto focus in most circumstances. The live histogram proved to be a real asset, and the big, high-resolution OLED screen was a joy to use for framing and reviewing images alike. Our main criticisms concerned the lack of an ISO button and the fact that the camera would retract its lens far too quickly after entering playback mode. In short, the camera got most things right in the handling department, and has left us with a very favourable overall impression.