Olympus XZ-1 Review: A Field Report

Discussion in 'Open Gear Talk' started by Jeff Damron, Jun 19, 2011.

  1. Jeff Damron

    Jeff Damron SC Regular

    66
    Sep 2, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    Introduction

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    The Olympus XZ-1 is a metal-clad compact camera with a relatively large 1/1.63” sensor featuring 10MP of resolution and the ability to shoot RAW - placing it in competition with the Canon Powershot S95 I recently reviewed as well as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Leica D-LUX 5, and several other cameras. Olympus is a late-comer to this market segment but with a 28mm to 112mm equivalent f/1.8 to f/2.5 image stabilized zoom lens, face detection, a 3 inch 610K dot resolution screen, ISO up to 3200 (6400 at reduced resolution), and the ability to shoot 720p HD video, it has entered the fray fully armed. At 4.35 x 2.55 x 1.67" and weighing just under 10 ounces, it is small and light. And if you already own the VF-2 finder for one of it’s bigger siblings from the Olympus line of m4/3 cameras, there is a spot for it on the top of this camera as well.

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    Controls and Settings

    What can I say? Controls and Settings - check. It’s got ‘em. As you can see from the above picture, it’s back features a pretty standard array of buttons for this size camera. It has the standard function (or “OK”) button for accessing settings such as ISO, white balance, etc., surrounded by the larger rocker button that allows even quicker access to exposure compensation, flash setting, single/multiple/timer setting and macro. That is surrounded by a wheel to change the settings. Really the only button back there that isn’t pretty self-explanatory is the chrome one with the red dot in the middle of it up on the right top corner. That is instant access to the video mode - press the button and the camera starts shooting video. Press it again to stop the video. A nice touch if you want to shoot some video without having to change settings or access a menu. Push the menu button and a host of options are before you in a clear, organized, no frills screen. The screen itself is high resolution and high contrast.

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    Sitting atop the camera are the shutter release, the zoom control, the on/off button, and the dial for choosing the shooting mode, which includes the standard shutter priority, aperture priority, full auto for letting the camera make the choices, full manual, scene (portrait, landscape, etc.) and “art.” A lot of people seem to get excited over the “art” filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone) which each give a picture a certain “look” pretty much self-described by the names. But, as with the S95, I shot this camera in RAW using Aperture Priority and processed the files in Lightroom 3 and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 because I like to use all of the information a camera gives me and decide for myself what to do with it. I think these filters were first introduced by Olympus in their mid-range DSLR E30 a couple of years ago, so it is nice that they have put them in this camera too, though I think a far more appropriate name for these would be “Fun” filters rather than “Art” filters. Not that there is anything wrong with fun - that’s why we’re all into photography to some degree (I hope).

    Last, but certainly not least - the late entry by Olympus has allowed it to to borrow/steal/be inspired by some of the better ideas in compact camera design, including that adjustment ring around the front lens from the Canon S90/S95 cameras. It is nicely implemented although, unlike the Canon version, one can’t assign functions to it - each setting comes with its own pre-determined use of the ring. For Aperture Priority, for example, it controls the aperture setting. Well, that’s what I would have used it for anyhow so it worked fine for me.


    In the Field

    In the field this little camera is a gem. Not as “pocketable” as the Canon Powershot S95 though.

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    On paper, the XZ-1 is only slightly larger, but that small increase in size means that, unlike the S95, it is not a comfortable fit for a shirt pocket. In fact, it is a bit tight in my khakis and forget about tucking it into your jeans. It is a nice fit for the pockets of cargo shorts, though. All things considered, It is still a very compact camera given its image quality.

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    I found the auto focus to be quick enough for me. It is still in the “compact camera” class, which is to say it takes a moment to lock on - a bit longer than a DSLR, though it seemed to me to be slightly faster than the S95. I don’t think it is a deal breaker increase in speed if one wants or needs the small size of the S95.

    I had both this and the S95 at the same time to review, and went into it thinking that I would like both cameras about the same. But the Olympus was, to me, the better, more fun, camera. First of all, I like its looks. I like the fact that the lens has glass you can actually see - it looks like a “real” lens, not a compact lens. Now the built-in automatic lens cover in the S95 is a great thing, but there is something about the bigger lens that appeals to me - maybe its my retro sensibilities. But the attraction is not limited to the way the XZ-1 lens looks - I also like it’s faster speed. At f/1.8 vs. the S95’s f/2.0 at the wide end, there isn’t a lot of difference. But the smaller S95 lens loses speed quickly as one zooms, with a max f/4.9 by the tele end. The larger XZ-1 lens has a max of f/2.5 at its longest zoom. That is quite a difference and I like it - it allows use of faster shutter speeds, lower ISOs and allows some limited depth of field even when fully zoomed.

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    Add to that the fact that this lens is really sharp, even wide open, and in my opinion, you have a winner here.

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    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something though. While carrying the camera in my hand I noticed a certain wobble going on internally. After some investigation I discovered the source - it is the lens! The individual stacked rings that make up the lens when it extends fit together loosely - they actually wobble inside each other. Turn on the camera and gently wiggle the lens and the individual elements still move slightly. Now to be fair, the very first digital camera I ever owned was a 4mp Olympus C-4000z way back when and it’s lens did the same thing, except much more. So I assume this is a deliberate design by Olympus. It doesn’t seem to adversely affect performance in any way. Still, I thought I should mention it.

    The OLED screen makes focusing, composition and review of pictures a snap, even in bright lighting. It has great contrast and sharpness and the color are bold and rich. Not accurate mind you, but saturated. The lack of accuracy didn’t bother me - I mostly want the screen to work well enough for me to see what I am shooting and see if I have got the shot I want afterwards. So, this screen does it’s job well, though to be honest I found it no more usable than the more straightforward LCD on the S95 which has about ⅔ as many pixels.

    The camera comes with a lens cap that attaches using friction only, and could be easily lost but for the fact that Olympus thoughtfully includes a strap to attach it. In operation, it works simply and well - turn on the camera and the extending lens pops the cap off and you are ready to shoot.

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    In terms of macro, the lens has two settings, and both are easy to use. There is “macro:”

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    and there is “super-macro:”

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    I didn’t really look up how close each would allow, but obviously “super” let you get closer - though you can’t zoom and are stuck with the lens at its widest.

    All in all, I found this a very usable camera in the field - in fact, from a “walking around with a camera standpoint,” this is one of my favorite cameras of all time - it just hits all the right notes for me.


    Results

    In comparing results with those from the S95, I think the image quality is comparable. The XZ-1 files have a little more noise at any given ISO, but also a hint more detail and sharpness.

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    Even at ISO 400, I found the image quality to be outstanding.

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    There is a fair amount of noise in the shadows, even at ISO 100. In this scene the shadows on the walls, particularly in the upper corners, were pretty dark, and the resulting noise when I lightened them was something of a surprise - but I was able to fix it easily in Lightroom without resorting to any additional noise reduction software.

    5844720291_7a74068662_o.jpg

    As with every compact camera I have ever used, the dynamic range of the XZ-1 is not great. However, it is plenty “good enough” for most situations. A little care, and reference to the live histogram (a feature I love on compacts) should keep you on the right course. Plus I found the metering system to be really good in this camera - I really didn’t have to resort to exposure compensation very often to get consistently good results in a variety of lighting situations.

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    One of the potential problems with images from compact cameras is that their pixels, from the smaller pixels in compacts, can’t be manipulated (or as I prefer, “tortured”) as much as those from cameras with larger pixels - even when using RAW. Sometimes technical quality must be sacrificed for aesthetic quality (in my opinion) if the “mood” of a picture is more important to the photographer. This is one (of many) reasons I prefer black and white for many of my pictures - to my eye those can be pushed to limits, and sometimes beyond, better than color pictures. I tortured a few shots and think they turned out well.

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    I printed this one at approximately 12 x 16” and it turned out great with lots of texture and detail.

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    A few less tortured but still very “tweaked” shots:

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    And finally a few with minimal tweaks:

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    Conclusion

    I love this camera. I love the fast, sharp lens, I love the intuitive controls, I love the build quality, I love the image quality, I love the small size. I wish it were a little more “pocketable,” but I suspect the faster lens had to be this size and so Olympus wisely built a body to balance with it. It is still small enough to take everywhere. It is a beauty to admire and it takes great pictures. How great? Well, according to the algorithms at Flickr (and who can argue with Flickr’s algorithms?), 4 of my top 12 most interesting pictures of all time were taken with this camera. Actually 3 of my top 10. Actually my number one most interesting picture of all time. Pretty amazing. Now I’m going to say that this is as much because of my affection for this camera as it is about the camera itself. All I can say, really, in conclusion is that I really enjoyed shooting this camera and I found the resulting files were very satisfying. It doesn’t have AEL or AFL (that is, Auto Exposure Lock or Auto Focus Lock), but I have to say that I never even noticed. It did an outstanding job of focusing on the intended subject no matter where it was in the frame and so I didn’t really have to focus and then recompose - something that can benefit from such locks. It probably should have those features, but I personally didn’t miss them.


    Comparisons

    Well this whole review has been filled with comparisons between this camera and the Canon Powershot S95, primarily for 2 reasons - 1) I think the Canon is the standard by which other nominally “pocketable” compacts are judged these days; and 2) I had both of them at the same time to compare. Despite my personal preference for the Oly, let me be clear that I think quite comparable results can be obtained with the two cameras - that is, I think both are fantastic. If the smaller size of the S95 appeals to you, and you don’t mind that its lens is slow at the tele end, then you can’t really go wrong with the S95. Also, it is $100 or more cheaper. On the other hand, I think the XZ-1 benefits in design from its late entry into the battle, as it has been wonderfully thought out and is designed as a real photographer’s tool. It is a joy to use and it produces outstanding results for its size.


    _____________________


    Jeff Damron has been photographing since receiving a Minolta SLR and a basic darkroom setup in 1976. His favorite film camera is the Contax G1, which he considers his first "compact" camera. He writes about monochrome photography at his site, Better in Black and White. -Amin



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  2. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 8, 2010
    Great review Jeff! Did you ever experience any excessive noise reduction leading to something akin to "smearing"?

    Anyone compared the XZ-1 to the LX-5/D-Lux 5?
     
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  3. wt21

    wt21 SC Hall of Famer

    Aug 15, 2010
    Why couldn't it just be clear one or the other, lol. I really want to like the size of the S95, but the faster lens on the Oly is a draw too.

    Question: would you say the IQ of the S95 and XZ-1 are closer to each other than either of them compared to, say, an m43 camera? That is, while the XZ1 (or S95) might have an edge over one or the other, when compared to an m43, they're still pocket cameras?
     
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  4. Amin Sabet

    Amin Sabet Administrator Moderator

    Jul 3, 2010
    Bill, I haven't used the XZ-1, but I've used enough cameras from that class to definitively say that yes, the S95 and XZ1 are closer to one another in sensor image quality than either would be to a MFT camera. With handheld, low light photography, the fast lens on these cameras allows them to make up a lot of ground compared to a MFT camera with a slow zoom kit lens though.

    The main thing you give away with the S95 is lens speed on the telephoto end. In return, you get a more compact camera. The XZ-1 sounds like a winner for those who want to maintain lens speed throughout the zoom range.
     
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  5. Jeff Damron

    Jeff Damron SC Regular

    66
    Sep 2, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    Yes, what Amin said. :) I didn't experience any noise reduction that amounted to smearing, but then I shot RAW and did the noise reduction in LR3 and don't really know if the same can be said for JPEGs straight from the camera.
     
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  6. kyteflyer

    kyteflyer ~@¿@~

    Jan 31, 2011
    Newcastle, Australia
    Real Name:
    Sue
    I cant imagine that Oly jpgs out of the camera would be worse than they used to be... and they used to be stunning.
     
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  7. Lili

    Lili SC Hall of Famer

    Oct 17, 2010
    Dallas, TX
    Real Name:
    Lili
    OOC jpegs are quite good till you go over ISO 200 then they rapidly descend into impressionist watercolors.
    NOT like the jpegs from the eVolt DSLR's or the PEN's...
     
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  8. mmacleodbrown

    mmacleodbrown SC Regular

    197
    Oct 10, 2010
    London
    Thanks for this Jeff, Im really enjoying your field reports..
     
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  9. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 8, 2010
    Thanks. I had one of the first XZ-1s and the only available RAW processor at the time was Olympus Master 2. It would not allow you to control noise reduction at all no matter what level you selected. As Lili points out the XZ-1 JPGs can quickly degenerate into unacceptable watercolor blobs. RAW is fine, but for a P&S, even a good one, it would still be nice to have control of JPG processing and be able to use JPG. The XZ-1 has significant distortion at the wide end which also has to be corrected PP if not done in camera.
     
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  10. kyteflyer

    kyteflyer ~@¿@~

    Jan 31, 2011
    Newcastle, Australia
    Real Name:
    Sue
    Yeah, you wouldnt expect them to be that good, but for a point and shoot, I still think Oly does jpg better than most. I almost never shoot over about 400, restricting to 200 wouldnt be a hardship, and I guess if more was needed, a different camera would be called into use.

    I'm really impressed with Jeff's shots and review.
     
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  11. Jeff Damron

    Jeff Damron SC Regular

    66
    Sep 2, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    Here is a picture of a brick wall at the wide end (6mm) evidencing barrel distortion:

    [​IMG]
     
  12. Armanius

    Armanius Bring Jack back!

    Jan 11, 2011
    Houston, Texas
    Real Name:
    Jack
    I had the XZ1 for a weekend. Returned it because of the horrific auto ISO. My XZ1 would not choose anything above 200 even when the shutter speed was super slow.
     
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  13. Jeff Damron

    Jeff Damron SC Regular

    66
    Sep 2, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    That's interesting. I never tried the auto ISO. Which camera one prefers no doubt has much to do with the way they shoot, or want to shoot, or are used to shooting.
     
  14. Ghosthunter

    Ghosthunter boo! Subscribing Member

    Sep 8, 2010
    London UK
    Real Name:
    Andy
    I'm loving my XZ-1. I took a few shots over this weekend and was amazed at how sharp they turned out. The ISO thing doesn't bother me as i shoot at ISO100 whenever possible and have now gone over to shooting in Jpg on this camera. I usually always shoot RAW. Here is a pic to show the sharpness...

    [​IMG]
    XZ1 Bodium Owl by andywest1, on Flickr
     
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  15. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    Real Name:
    BB
    What a handsome owl that is Andy! How close to him were you!
     
  16. Jeff Damron

    Jeff Damron SC Regular

    66
    Sep 2, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    That is pretty much amazing!
     
  17. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 8, 2010
    I am seeing more and more amazing pictures from the XZ-1 lately. Far better than what I was seeing back in January.
     
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  18. Armanius

    Armanius Bring Jack back!

    Jan 11, 2011
    Houston, Texas
    Real Name:
    Jack
    I'd bought the camera for the significant other, who wanted to upgrade from a tiny Canon Elph, and get a new PS with better low light capabilities. She is definitely not someone who would ever set the ISO manually as much as I tried to explain to her the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed! :smile:

    Nevertheless, I'm continually impressed with the IQ of photos I see from this camera.
     
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  19. Andrewteee

    Andrewteee SC All-Pro S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 8, 2010
    I've had an XZ-1 for a few days now and so far I am very impressed. I'm getting much better pictures than I was back in January with my first XZ-1. I'm shooting RAW only and that may be the difference. The pictures are very sharp and the color is fantastic. The camera is very responsive and feels very solid. I think I am comfortable relying on the XZ-1 as my primary vacation camera this summer.

    I was able to borrow an LX5 and I prefer the XZ-1. But I've always had a thing for Olympus cameras.
     
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  20. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    Real Name:
    BB
    So Andrew what do you think accounts for the improvements? Was it a firmware update? Forgive me if this has all been explained earlier...my memory cache is almost full these days.:wink: