Olympus XZ-1 Camera Review
Sometimes you don’t need or want to carry a big DSLR camera around with you but still want the ability to make high-quality photographs and this is where the “premium compact” camera comes in. The Olympus XZ-1 is a very well equipped 10 megapixel premium compact camera with an excellent lens and solid feature set. The camera includes many professional features that make it a great back-up for pros as well as a great option for serious amateurs looking for something more portable then a DSLR. For me, I wanted something that could offer me the manual controls and great image quality I demand in my professional work in a package that I could through into my backpack’s hipbelt. The Olympus XZ-1 fits the bill perfectly.
Features and Functionality
This camera has a ton of features and I won’t be able to describe all of them here but will go over the highlights. There are two aspects of the XZ-1 that allow it to produce great images for its size. The first is a super bright (f1.8) 28-112mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens. The fast aperture allows this camera to let in a lot more light than the competitors, which in turn allows the camera to keep the noise level down and maintain great image quality. Quick photography lesson: as light levels drop, cameras usually compensate by raising the ISO sensitivity level. As the ISO goes up in number, the amount of digital noise in the image goes up as well. Because the XZ-1’s lens can let in more light, it doesn’t have to raise the ISO as much. The other feature that helps with low light image quality is the sensor-shift image stabilization. This compensates for camera shake at slow shutter speeds by moving the sensor around opposite to the shake. The second aspect of the Olympus XZ-1 that allows it to produce great images is the 1/1.63 inch CCD image sensor. The size of the image sensor is just as important as the number of megapixels when evaluating a camera as it determines the quality you will get out of those megapixels. Putting too many megapixels on a small sensor results in poor image quality. For some comparison: a full frame DSLR camera has a sensor that measures 43mm diagonally, a typical small point and shoot camera has a sensor that measures 6mm diagonally, and the Olympus XZ-1 has a sensor that measures 9.5mm diagonally. While it is obviously well below the size of a DSLR, that extra 3.5mm on the XZ-1’s sensor makes a difference. I will discuss how these features contribute to image quality later in the review.
Some of the other features of the camera include 18 scene modes that apply settings to help you capture different types of subjects and 6 Art Filters that can apply some really cool filters as you shoot. The Grainy Film Art Filter actually takes some really fun old school black and white images. In addition to JPEG files, the XZ-1 has the ability to capture in RAW format, which is a professional feature that allows the most amount of image data to be recorded in a file. The XZ-1 does offer a movie mode for recording HD video and it records in the easily editable Motion JPEG format. Another professional feature is the inclusion of a flash hot shoe at the top of the camera that is compatible with Olympus’s off-camera flash line. While I didn’t have an Olympus flash to test this with, I tried it in manual mode with one of my Nikon flashes and it worked flawlessly. A feature that will probably be overlooked by most users but that I found great, is the built-in ND (neutral density) filter, providing 3-stops (3EV) of light limiting. There are two primary uses for an ND filter, one of which is perfect for outdoor photographers. To achieve the beautiful flowing river effect you see in a lot of nature photographs, you must set the camera on a tripod and use a very slow shutter speed. The challenge is that a slow shutter speed often lets in too much light during a bright day for the camera to get a proper exposure, even when using the smallest aperture available. The ND filter corrects for this by lowering the light level reaching the camera sensor. A ND filter also comes in handy when you want to use a fast aperture to blur the background but can’t compensate with a fast enough shutter speed. One nitpick about the camera’s feature set; I found the pop-up built-in flash to be fairly underpowered, having trouble illuminating night snapshots consistently. I am quite spoiled by using full powered off-camera flashes but I felt that Olympus could have thrown in a slightly higher powered unit.
Handling and Controls
The Olympus XZ-1 is a camera that feels about as good in your hand as a camera its size can. While there is no real grip, I had no problem holding the camera steadily while shooting. The controls of the XZ-1 are only as complicated as you choose to make them. In iAuto mode, you can just point and click. However, the XZ-1 features a solid number of external controls for a camera this size, making it easier to adjust settings on the fly. On the top of the camera, the mode dial allows you to quickly cycle through the available modes. Among these are:
- iAuto – Intelligent Auto Mode
- ART – Art Filters Mode
- SCN – Select on one of the camera’s 18 scene modes
- Low Light Mode – Uses higher ISO settings and open apertures. Not much different from what the camera does in iAuto mode when in low light situations.
- P – Auto mode with user adjustable settings
- A – Aperture priority mode. You set the aperture and the camera determines the shutter speed and ISO
- S – Shutter priority mode. You set the shutter speed and the camera determines the aperture and ISO
- M – Full manual exposure mode
- C – A custom made version of one of the P, A, S, or M modes, retaining your settings.
The front of the camera features a jog dial around the lens that has different functions depending on mode. These include: ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Select Scene Type, and Select Art Filter. This wheel is easy to control and offers a good means for quick adjustments. On the back of the camera is a much smaller control dial that controls exposure compensation in every mode except full manual, in which case it controls shutter speed. This small control wheel surrounds 5 buttons with access to functions including exposure compensation, macro mode, drive mode, and flash settings. I found the controls to be fairly self-explanatory. There is one glaring omission in the control set and the only reason I can imagine for it’s non-existence is to keep things simple; there is no AEL (auto exposure lock)/AFL (auto focus lock) button on the XZ-1. This makes it impossible to use any sort of focus and recompose technique when framing shots. Going back to a positive control aspect, there is the dedicated movie record button, which allows one touch access to recording a video. This is way more convenient than the cameras that require you to go into another mode and then hit another button.
There are some functions that are menu-driven and thankfully the menus are well organized with just the right amount of sub-menus for customization. The image review display has 3 modes to view your recorded pictures; full-screen image review, info display with histograms and exposure info, and a 5×4 thumbnail view. You can also zoom in on images using the zoom rocker. My only complaint is the way the review screen handles photos taken in sequence mode; it can be a bit confusing as to how to see the pictures because the camera stacks them all together and it isn’t a simple process to browse them individually. All of this takes place on a 610k dot OLED display, which is an excellent screen with great contrast, brightness and viewing angles. As a professional photographer accustomed to full size DSLR cameras, I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of use of the Olympus XZ-1.
Overall, I found the performance of the Olympus XZ-1 to be perfectly adequate for the outdoor photographer. While it won’t win any speed awards, I was never waiting for the camera enough to get frustrated. Starting up the camera, bringing up menus, and changing modes all worked responsively. The autofocus was fast enough for most uses although I wouldn’t rely on the XZ-1 or any camera its size to take sharp action/sports photos. I never found the autofocus hunting excessively or overly confused by scenes. There are 11 autofocus points that can be manually or automatically selected, depending on mode. The AF points give you pretty good coverage of the frame and can be used to place your subject off-center for a more interesting composition. A crucial feature that was thankfully included on the XZ-1 is an autofocus assist lamp that illuminates to help achieve focus in very low light. This was a smart inclusion by Olympus that takes advantage of the XZ-1‘s fast lens. My favorite part of the focus system is the ability to take very close macro shots with the Supermacro mode, which allows focus as close as 1cm from the lens. I used this to take a few wedding ring pictures that I would have been happy to include in one of my albums for a client.
The sensor-shift image stabilization works as advertised, allowing the ability to capture sharp images at much slower shutter speeds than normally achievable. I find image stabilization to be one of the best innovations in camera technology of the last decade. Combined with the fast lens, the XZ-1 offers some impressive low-light shooting ability. The camera takes advantage of a digital image stabilization in movie mode that is actually more useful than the image stabilization in still mode. Because of the relatively (compared to stills) low resolution of the movie mode, there is a greater benefit seen from stabilization.
The image quality of the Olympus XZ-1 is very impressive. Olympus clearly chose the smart route by sticking with a perfectly reasonable 10 megapixels and putting their effort into making those megapixels high quality. Instead of looking at detailed image comparisons and zooming in on noise and color, I think an easier testament to the image quality is the fact that I would be perfectly comfortable selling some of the images taken with the XZ-1 to my clients. One of the important aspects of image quality to look at with any digital camera is the digital noise visible in the images. As mentioned before, image quality degrades as ISO increases. The XZ-1 performs well in this respect until you go over ISO 400, at which point noise becomes apparent. While sharpness drops off at ISO 800 and 1600, the color quality stays pretty strong throughout this range. Above ISO 1600, and the image quality drops substantially. Fortunately, the fast lens helps keep you from having to increase the ISO in all but the lowest light situations. The camera’s abilities are well suited to the outdoor photographer’s needs and captures solid colors with good detail. Landscapes showed good resolution and solid dynamic range performance. Dynamic range refers to the camera’s ability to capture a range of light from low to high. This is particularly important with outdoor photography, where the contrast is often high with very bright areas next to dark shadows. The photo below of the Holden Marolt Mining Museum provides a good example of the XZ-1’s ability to capture the bright sky while still retaining some detail in the much darker building.
Overall, the XZ-1 makes a great case for being your high-quality portable camera of choice for your next foray into the outdoors. With it, you get great image quality, solid performance, and a nice HD movie mode, all in a package small enough to fit in many hipbelt pockets. There are some other great cameras in this class but the XZ-1’s great lens sets it apart for me. For more information, go to: https://www.olympusamerica.com/