With cell phones offering what many snapshooters see as a reasonable alternative to stand-alone compact cameras, many camera makers are focusing their attention on premium models. The Olympus XZ-1, with its fast f/1.8 lens and slightly larger sensor, is a prime example.
The Olympus XZ-1, which was introduced in 2011 and is available now for $499, is in direct competition with the Canon S100 and Panasonic Lumix LX5, offering high-quality optics, DSLR-like exposure control options, RAW image capture and a solid build. The XZ-1's digital features are similar to those found on their E-PM Pen Mini, including the same six Art filters for in-camera effects that can be found in the Pen Mini.
But what really caught my eye is the lens. When zoomed out to its 28mm equivalent, the 28-112mm (equivalent) lens has a wide aperture of f/1.8, which makes it the widest-aperture lensed compact in the Olympus line. At its full extension, it's still an f/2.5, which is brighter than the largest aperture of most other compacts at their widest setting. The 1/1.63" CCD sensor is a bit larger than what you typically find on compacts (and is even a bit larger than the competition). Collectively, this gives it the promise of low-light superiority. I spent a week with this camera on a winter break in sunny, warm Florida and also at an indoor family gathering back home, and got to put this little camera through its paces.
A nice little field camera: The XZ-1 handled this idyllic scene at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida, with aplomb.
In the hands
The XZ-1 is not the smallest compact camera around. In fact, its the largest of its competitive set, which includes the Canon X100 and Panasonic Lumix LX5. While it fit in my pants pocket (cargo pants, that is), it was a bit too large to fit in my shirt pocket. Perhaps thanks to its larger dimensions, it was easy and comfortable to hold, despite the lack of a protruding grip. Control layout is good, and zoom and exposure can be controlled via a ring around the base of the lens barrel as well as through more traditional back-of-the-camera control dials and buttons. The generously-sized 610k, 3-inch LCD monitor worked well in most situations, but was difficult to read in direct sunlight.
The lens—which due to its large aperture and the camera's-slightly larger sensor, is somewhat bigger than a typical compact camera lens—collapses into the camera body, protruding around 1/3 inch when not in use. A removable lens cap protects the front element. Be careful not to lose it! A movable ring around the lens base can be used in concert with the back-of-camera dial to control exposure and/or focus. A small pop-up flash can be augmented via a hot shoe, which can accommodate either an additional, more powerful flash as well as wireless flash operations via the FL-50R, or can host an eye-level viewfinder such as the Olympus VF3, which simultaneously inserts into the hot shoe and data port. I recommend getting this viewfinder so you can do eye-level shooting.
The thumb-operated mode control wheel atop the camera gives quick access to: PASM exposure modes; custom settings; a unique low-light mode that chooses the widest aperture; scene modes with 18 scene options; the “Art” filter mode, with the same six art filters found on the Pen Mini (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, and Dramatic Tone); and iAuto, which basically takes over all functions, and is fine for beginners.
If you already own an Olympus mirrorless camera such as the E-PM1, the menu structure will be familiar. Press the back-of-camera OK button and use the four-way switches surrounding it to navigate through the most commonly-changed settings: ISO, color intensity, white balance, burst mode/self-timer, aspect ratio, image resolution and RAW options, video resolution, flash settings, exposure compensation, metering pattern, ND filter on/off, AF on/off or macro, and face priority settings. You can burrow deeper into the picture-taking and post-capture modes using the menu button. The info button adds settings, histograms, composition grids or clears the screen entirely, as you keep pressing it.
Strobists, rejoice: you can control Olympus's wireless flash units or use any Olympus shoe-mounted flash on the hot shoe!
Jump for joy: The XZ-1's click-to-shoot speed (also known as lag time) was almost instantaneous, and I was able to capture my daughter in mid-leap with no problem.
The XZ-1 starts up fast (within half a second), focuses quickly even in low light, and shutter lag is barely noticeable. The buffer cleared fast enough in JPEG to keep chugging along indefinitely about 3 frames per second, but choked after 14 shots in rapid sequence when shooting RAW+JPEG files when using a class 10 memory card. 'Nuff said.
Although image quality at higher speed settings were average for a compact camera, you'll be less likely to need high ISOs, thanks to the XZ-1's fast f/1.8-2.5 zoom lens and its built-in image stabilization. This indoor shot was taken at 28mm (35mm equivalent), f/1.8 at 1/60 second, ISO 200.
Image Quality Courtesy DxOMark Labs
Overall Score: 34
Color Depth: Good
Dynamic Range: Very Good
Low-Light ISO: 117
Notes: ISO settings were consistently around 1/3 stop lower than the indicated speed. At ISO 100, image quality was excellent but I could already see the beginnings of JPG compression artifacts by ISO 200 and noise became apparent by ISO 400. Signal-noise ratio starts at 31.7dB at ISO 100 and quickly dips into below-average noise quality by ISO 400. Overall, according to DxOMark lab tests, low-light image quality lagged behind that of most other current high-end compact cameras, despite the slightly larger sensor. The lens speed certainly helps to even things out vis a vis the competition, but I found that if I wanted high-quality results I had to keep ISO set at 100 or 200.
The lens delivered high-quality results and excelled in macro and low light situations. Minor flare was apparent at the shortest focal length but was more apparent as I zoomed out. Nevertheless, the camera handled backlit situations well.
Image quality information provided by DxOMark, used with permission.
I flipped over the XZ-1's action-stopping responsiveness. Very short lag time meant I was able to catch unpredictable moments such as this one at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida. Exposure: 1/250 sec at f/8, ISO 100.
Conclusion and recommendation
I found the XZ1 to be a comfortable camera to hold and use. Its controls were easy to learn and use, and being able to do everything manually when I wanted to was an important plus. While I was more impressed with the image quality produced by interchangeable-lens siblings such as the Pen Mini, which deliver better image quality thanks to the larger sensor, the f/1.8 lens delivered terrific results and encouraged me to explore low-light situations while keeping ISO low. It certainly got me to put away my smart phone.