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|John Riley reviews the Olympus XZ-1.|
There is a definite demand for a high quality compact camera that remains compact enough to carry in a jacket pocket. These do not generally come cheap and to join the fray alongside such offerings as the Nikon Coolpix P7000 and Canon Powershot G12 here we have Olympus with their new XZ-1. This new camera stands out from the norm in sporting a very fast f/1.8 - 2.5 zoom lens. This suggests it is suitable for low light shooting and no doubt to help reduce noise levels the larger than average sensor is only a 10Mp chip. Let us see if the XZ-1 lives up to its promise.
Olympus XZ-1: Features
The aluminium and plastic XZ-1 houses a larger than average 1/1.63in CCD with 10Mp. The Olympus i.Zuiko Digital zoom lens is an f/1.8 - 2.5 6.0-24.0mm optic, equivalent to 28-112mm in 35mm film camera terms. The only viewfinder supplied as standard is the rear 3in Organic LED (OLED) monitor with 610,000 dots.
AF uses contrast detection and offers various modes plus an AF illuminator for use in low light. There is an image stabilisation system of the sensor shift type, but this is specified at offering just 2EV advantage, rather less than the 4EV suggested for the average DSLR.
A vast array of exposure modes, scene modes, art filters and flash modes is on offer and the range of options here is very much what we might expect from any top line camera.
For the experienced photographer there is a full array of shooting modes, including Av, Tv and M options that are readily accessed from a top dial. There is another click-stopped dial around the lens that changes the primary setting in any given mode. So, for example, in Av it changes the aperture.
The movie mode offers HD 1280x720 resolution in 16:9 ratio, with a maximum recording time of just 7 minutes in HD. There is also a maximum file size of 2Gb.
All of this is housed in a sturdily made body measuring 110.6 x 64.8 x 42.3mm and weighing 275g without battery or SD card. Power supply is a Li-ion battery pack LI-50B which is expected to allow 320 images per charge.
The lens is very interesting, offering a maximum aperture of f/1.8. This is fast for a modern lens and especially for a 4x zoom lens. It only becomes possible with the smaller than DSLR sensor size and this does open up new possibilities in low-light shooting.
Olympus XZ-1: Handling
The XZ-1 is actually a pleasure to use. The controls are small and fiddly but mostly quite resistant to being turned accidentally. Having said that I would prefer slightly firmer click stops on both the mode dial on top of the camera and the adjustment dial that encircles the lens. The ring that circles the four way selector switch in my opinion is more trouble than it's worth as it is far too sensitive. If this could be removed the handling of the camera would not suffer and might even slightly improve.
The camera fits a large coat or jacket pocket with no problem and can be brought into operation very quickly indeed. The controls fall well into their natural positions and there are no glaring operational glitches. The menu system for most of the settings is a little messy I think, but with practice it is usable enough. It follows the general Olympus pattern along with their other compact and DSLR cameras, so it makes sense for Olympus users to stick with the company for all of their camera requirements. In that way, operation of one camera will be pretty much the same as operation of any of them.
Olympus XZ-1: Performance
Having now handled a few Olympus cameras, they seem to share a very similar approach to exposure metering. The XZ-1 follows the pattern and produces what I would consider to be fully exposed but slightly light results. This is not in itself a problem as it can either be adjusted in Photoshop or a small amount of exposure compensation can be dialled in.
Exposures against the light are also well handled, but in any event exposure compensation can be applied where necessary. Principally this will be for unusually light or dark subjects and it rarely exceeds plus or minus 0.7EV.
ESP (Matrix), centre weighted and spot options are provided and all produce a very similar density when used correctly. If the user is in any doubt they will not go far wrong by leaving the camera set to ESP metering. Using centre weighted metering usually removes any chance of over exposing a frame and using spot metering will be invaluable when perhaps shooting stage shows and similar events.
It is worth noting that the excellent OLED screen does reflect quite closely the final exposure of the image. This means that unlike many compact cameras the screen can give a good idea of what the density of the final image will look like.
The contrast detection system is not going to be as fast as a DSLR but this is improving all the time and the Olympus XZ-1 is no slouch. Focusing is medium-fast but it is entirely predictable. It takes the same time as far as can be judged, every time, and it simply locks on accurately. This is entirely satisfactory for most general subjects and it is only really action photography where it could be a problem. As a carry-anywhere all-purpose camera the AF is spot on every time. This fine performance carries on in even quite dim light, assisted when necessary with an AF illuminator.
ISO and noise performance
Noise is extremely well handled. Up to ISO800 the noise pattern is very effectively suppressed. It is present as the ISO setting is increased but not at all obtrusive. At ISO1600 we notice an even more dramatic increase of noise levels, but it is only when we call on ISO3200 and especially ISO6400 that the noise really kicks in. Interestingly, the clean reproduction of the indoor ISO tests shows some very impressive retention of sharpness and detail, even at the highest setting.
Helpfully, what noise there is is monochromatic, so we do not suffer from a myriad of coloured specks. There is no doubt that camera manufacturers have made a real improvement in the handling of noise.
For the best quality in prints I would be happy shooting at ISO200 and for the web this could be extended to ISO800 without too much loss. For such a compact camera this would not have been achievable even as little as a year ago. This suggests that the decision to restrict the resolution to 10MP is a sound one. Larger photo sites means more signal and lower noise. This appears to be borne out by the excellent noise performance.
|Olympus XZ-1 Test chart ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.|
|Olympus XZ-1 Outdoor ISO speed test: Click on the thumbnails for larger images.|
I am very pleased with the colour performance of the XZ-1. Skin tones are very pleasing and models will, I think, be delighted with the flattering smoothness. Shooting a wide variety of other subjects it is soon apparent that the colour reproduction is excellent all round.
I am also pleased to report that even fairly garish colours are rendered correctly with no undue tendency to make them appear unpleasant. There is only one exception to this and with a backlit subject it is necessary to be very careful with adjusting the image as there is a tendency for a light sky to turn a very strange colour of blue. I must stress that this is a subtle point but it does indicate that with smaller-than-DSLR sensors there is a limit to their performance. In the case of the XZ-1 the performance in terms of colour is, however, up amongst the best when compared with similarly sized cameras.
Neutrality of colour is also impressive and whites remain a clean white. The greyscale reproduction is excellent, with good separation of tones. In the field this means that images are not subject to any unwanted colour casts.
AWB works very well in most circumstances. If desired, there are also the usual presets available. This can offer additional control of colour outdoors as well as adjustment for specific lighting types.
Outdoor shooting can be enhanced by thinking about the colour of the light, and by using the presets can dramatically enhance what we are looking at. I tried various settings in daylight and all offer a different look to the AWB result. For example, using the Shade setting in normal noon daylight results in incredibly warm, end-of-day images. It is always worth experimenting.
The weakest performance comes when using the fluorescent setting, which renders the image with a most strange magenta cast. AWB performs much better and is a usable alternative to the fluorescent preset option.
Integral Flash/Flash Modes
The usual flash options can be selected and the flash itself has to be manually switched into position. A sliding switch releases the heavily-sprung flash unit which becomes available for use almost instantaneously. Fill in flash in daylight is nicely balanced and the unit in general works well and gives good exposures.
Flash coverage is very even and this holds true from quite close distances to covering an entire room. Recharging is fast.
The XZ-1 is ready for use within 1 second and this fast performance applies to most of its functions. Write times are not a problem. The buffer seems to be quite able to cope. Sequence shooting in normal mode plods on at a pedestrian 2fps and the buffer seems to hold as long as the photographer has the patience. I gave up at 60 frames as the camera showed no signs of slowing even at that point.
Battery life is quoted at around 320 images, rather perversely being stated as using Live View 50% of the time. There is no alternative to using Live View, so it is quite pleasing to note that 325 shots later with Live View used 100% of the time and plenty of reviewing of images and menus, the battery is still going strong.
In the 1970s almost every "compact" rangefinder camera sported an f/1.8 lens, most of them very soft wide open. Zoom lenses have made us expect far smaller apertures, so it is very interesting that here Olympus have opted to make a very wide aperture zoom lens. This is possible because the rear element can be close to the sensor and the format is much smaller than a 35mm film frame.
Lens designers make choices and usually the choice has been to make long zoom ranges with modest apertures. Here we have a relatively modest zoom range of 4x and a maximum aperture from f/1.8 at 6mm to f/2.5 at 24mm. This equates to 28mm and 112mm in film format terms.
This is a very acceptable and useful range and it is even more encouraging that the quality holds extremely well.
Quality across the frame is very even and at full aperture the image is already entirely usable. Moving to mid apertures improves sharpness and this again drops off at the minimum aperture of f/8. Beyond f/8 I presume that diffraction effects would seriously hamper performance. However, there is plenty of depth of field on a small format so f/8 is probably as far as we need to go. The option of having a really wide aperture and reduced depth of field in such a small camera is actually quite a compelling notion.
Distortion follows the familiar path of being barrelling at wide angles, giving way to pincushion from the middle of the range onwards to the telephoto end. This is better than many and in most general subjects will not be a concern.
Flare is very well controlled, useful in against the light shots. There is some chromatic aberration, but this too is well controlled and will not normally be noticeable.
The f/1.8 aperture is unique and this is potentially a very powerful tool. There is huge potential for low light photography, plus the promise of some degree of selective depth of field.
||DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.
Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Olympus XZ-1.
Olympus XZ-1: Verdict
The Olympus XZ-1 is a fine compact camera, offering high quality and versatility with its extensive range of features. The lens is an excellent performer that breaks new ground for a compact camera and offers unique benefits of its own. Although not perfect in terms of its handling the results are worth it and the XZ-1 is Highly Recommended.
|This is a compact that breaks new ground and is well worth a look.|
High quality of construction
High quality of results
Versatility of f/1.8 lens
Olympus XZ-1: Cons
|VALUE FOR MONEY|
Olympus XZ-1: Specification
|What comes in the box||Li-ion battery LI-50B, USB cable, AV cable, Shoulder strap, F-2AC AC/USB charging adapter, Software CD-ROM, Instruction manual|
|Lens||4x optical zoom, 6 - 24mm (28 - 112mm equiv. 35mm), f/1.8 - 2.5|
|Max. Image size||3648 x 2736|
|Monitor||3in LCD, 621000 pixels
|Focusing system||Contrast Detection AF system|
|Focusing modes||Manual focus, Single AF, AF Tracking, Face Detection AF, Macro mode, SuperMacro mode|
|File types||RAW, RAW & JPEG, JPEG|
|Shutter speed||1/2000 - 60 sec|
|Metering system||TTL open aperture light metering|
|Metering modes||ESP light metering, Spot metering, Centre weighted metering|
|Exposure compensation||+/- 2EV|
|Continuous shooting||7fps / 20 frames (approx.) in HQ JPEG mode|
|Anti-shake mode||Sensor shift|
|Movie mode||720p HD|
|Media type||SD, SDHC, SDXC Memory Card|
|Interface||USB 2.0 (Hi Speed), HDMI|
|Power||LI-50B rechargeable battery
|Size (wxdxl)||111 x 65 x 42mm|
The Olympus XZ-1 costs £399.00 and is available from Warehouse Express here: