Olympus XZ-1 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Olympus Cameras / Olympus Point & Shoot i Express Review
Basic Specifications
Full model name: Olympus XZ-1
Resolution: 10.00 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/1.63"
Lens: 4.00x zoom
(28-112mm eq.)
Viewfinder: LCD
ISO: 100-6400
Shutter: 60-1/2000
Max Aperture: 1.8
Dimensions: 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.7 in.
(111 x 65 x 42 mm)
Weight: 9.7 oz (274 g)
includes batteries
MSRP: $500
Availability: 01/2011
Manufacturer: Olympus
Full specs: Olympus XZ-1 specifications
10.00
Megapixels
4.00x zoom
1/1.63"
size sensor
image of Olympus XZ-1
Front side of Olympus XZ-1 digital camera Back side of Olympus XZ-1 digital camera Top side of Olympus XZ-1 digital camera Left side of Olympus XZ-1 digital camera Right side of Olympus XZ-1 digital camera

XZ-1 Summary

Offering a lens that's both faster and sharper overall than its rivals, the Olympus XZ-1 comes out swinging and lands quite a few punches. High ISO performance isn't quite what we hoped for, but we'd be happy to stick with lower ISOs for access to the XZ-1's fine glass.

Imaging Resource rating

4.5 out of 5.0

Olympus XZ-1 Overview

by Mike Pasini, Shawn Barnett, Stephanie Boozer, and Zig Weidelich
Review Posted: 04/18/2011

With the market's increased focus on low light photography, it seems quite proper that Olympus has jumped into the fray, introducing the XZ-1, a high-end pocket camera with a fast f/1.8 lens and HD video recording. Designed to compete with the likes of the Panasonic LX5, Canon S95 and G12, Nikon P7000, and Samsung TL500, the Olympus XZ-1 is a first for the company; though it harks back to the larger C-2040, Olympus's first digital camera with an f/1.8 lens, dating back to 2001.

Olympus is quick to point out that the XZ-1 is the first pocket camera to have a Zuiko-branded optic built in. Officially dubbed Olympus i.Zuiko Digital, the new lens ranges from 6-24mm, or 28-112mm equivalent, with a widest aperture range of f/1.8, changing to f/2.5 when zoomed. The smallest available aperture is f/8, with 1/3 stop increments available in-between the largest and smallest apertures. Though early literature dating back to photokina 2010 referred to the lens as "fixed," what they mean is that it's not removable; it most certainly does zoom.

Its optics aren't the only story with the Olympus XZ-1, however: it also has a 3-inch OLED display with 610,000 dots. Olympus says the OLED "reproduces colors and shades more accurately with deeper black tones," while using less power than an LCD. OLED should also offer a wider viewing angle than most LCDs.

The Olympus XZ-1's 10-megapixel CCD sensor is designed for low light, with a larger 1/1.63" size, and its TruePic V image processor is said to keep colors real while processing out sensor noise. The XZ-1 can also capture 720p HD video at 30 frames per second maximum. Video mode is quickly accessible via the Record button on the back of the camera.

Though the Olympus XZ-1 has iAuto, Art filters, and 18 Scene modes, it also sports Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes, as well as a Custom setting on the Mode dial; just what the enthusiast photographer is looking for. The Neutral Density filter can also be turned on and off at will to slow shutter speeds and tolerate brighter light.

Its built-in hot shoe allows the Olympus XZ-1 to use the company's entire line of FL-series flashes, and the accessory port supports much of the PEN lineup of hot-shoe-mounted accessories, but not the just-announced PENPAL Bluetooth accessory that allows wireless transfer of files to select smartphones.

ISO ranges from 100 to 6,400, and the Olympus XZ-1 includes Dual Image Stabilization (both sensor-shift and Auto ISO).

Art filters and Live Guide modes first introduced in the PEN series are also included in the Olympus XZ-1, and the new camera comes in two colors, black or white. Pricing is set at US$499.99.

 

Olympus XZ-1 User Report

by Mike Pasini

The Olympus XZ-1? Y? I mean, why? Why slap your flagship digicam with such an unimaginative, hard-to-remember, indistinguishable name? Just to add to the confusion, seen upside down, it looks like 1-ZX. Sure, everybody does it. Guess who these belong to: P7000, TL500, LX5, S95, G12. They could belong to anybody.

But as it happens they belong to the Olympus XZ-1's competition. The very high-end of the digicam world. Nikon, Samsung, Panasonic, Canon and Canon again, respectively. And, frankly, the worst thing about any of them is their name.

Image Quality. Quite a bit of noise reduction at ISO 800, but pretty as a painting.

But they don't need more trouble. As it is, digicams are having a hard time distinguishing themselves from the high-end cellphone cameras (which all have better names). Long zooms have made a compelling argument for continuing the breed. And the quality of the flagship breed is undisputed -- until you compare them to the Micro Four-Thirds crowd. Then you have to love these flagships for their more compact size.

The image quality barrier has been the digicam sensor size. Micro Four-Thirds cameras have larger sensors, perform better with less light and have plenty of resolution to go with an interchangeable lens set.

So the flagships have gone to faster glass. Panasonic and Canon both offer f/2.0 lenses. Nikon gets to f/2.8. And Samsung matches Olympus XZ-1 at f/1.8. That, it turns out, is pretty exciting.

Look and Feel. Shawn's description of the Olympus XZ-1's design in the Hands-on Preview needs no updating. But comparing his observations with my notes confirms a few issues.

Olympus XZ-1 grip. Richard Franiec was fast getting the XZ-1 grip ready for the camera. Though it covers the f/1.8 logo, it really makes a difference in the XZ-1's handling.

Grip. I never did get used to the grip on the Olympus XZ-1. Probably because there isn't one. While there's a nice rubber pad on the back panel for your thumb, Olympus left the front of the camera bare. It makes for an attractive camera front but what I would have given for a strip of plastic down the front. Something like Richard Franiec's new Olympus XZ-1 grip, which is even more than a strip of plastic, offering a nice curve for the fingers to sink into.

The problem is that the weight of the camera is not where you grip it, but at the lens. So the Olympus XZ-1 is always slipping south on you. I used a wrist strap to prevent accidents but it really needs a grip. Had I owned the camera, I would have applied something to the front.

Battery Door. The battery door also continually confused me. Opening it is clear enough. Just fingernail the latch back and the spring-loaded door opens. But I kept thinking I had to move the latch back to lock the door when I closed it. It's spring-loaded, too. No need.

Controls. While the controls are easy enough to master and free of most design mistakes, there is one problem I never solved. The Mode Dial is set on the right and back edges of the top panel. I was always accidentally changing modes taking the camera in and out of my jacket pocket. Shawn had the same problem and we're both professional athletes of uncommon intelligence.

The problem is that it's just too close to the edge not to inadvertently change the mode when you are retrieving the camera from your pocket or camera case. Eventually I stopped doing that, but it was a problem.

Lens Ring. I thought I might have problems with the control ring on the lens. I would nervously fiddle with it when the camera was in my pocket. And it does move very easily, more easily than an aperture ring on an SLR lens. But I really didn't have much trouble with it because my hands were never near it when I was shooting. And fortunately fooling around with it when the power is off doesn't change its setting.

It's just a tad too loose for my taste, though. Like any fly-by-wire control, it's unnerving. You feel like you're adjusting the setting, but you're only putting in a request. A few milliseconds later it's approved or ignored or tabled for discussion.

At first I dug through the manual looking for a different kind of discussion on setting its function. But it's not up to you. It's up to the shooting mode. Olympus did a nice job picking what the lens ring controls in each mode, but I'd still like to vote.

Scroll Wheel. It was nice to see the Scroll Wheel (on the back) do double duty in Manual mode as the shutter speed control (at least after you press the EV button). But it also points out the main problem with the Olympus XZ-1's body design: not enough buttons. Canon G12 users win this round. But then that's one reason why the G12 is a brick.

OLED. Just loved it, really. Until I got the images on the computer. Usually I feel obliged to warn you that the camera display isn't worthy of the capture so study the histogram. In this case, it flattered the capture. I should have worked a little harder on the exposure than I did, prematurely satisfied by what I saw on the OLED.

I found the OLED menu display unusually attractive, although the font size was small. I can confirm Shawn's perception that the OLED displays color a bit more saturated than it is actually being captured. But unlike Shawn, this did cause me grief. Well, continuous uninterrupted disappointment anyway.

On the other hand, it was very difficult to use in direct sunlight. I really couldn't frame images or even see them in either Shooting mode or Playback.

EVF. Lucky for me, I had the chance to use the $250 VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder with the XZ-1. It's one of those accessories that precludes the use of a wrist strap. You're better off anyway with the shoulder strap, to which you can Velcro the included VF-2 fabric case.

You don't always want the VF-2 on the camera, actually, because it requires you to shoot with the camera close to your face. It can be used like a dSLR viewfinder, with your nose smashed into the OLED, or you can unclip it from its dock and swing it upward on its hinge. This isn't as useful as it sounds, because you still have to get your eye to the eyepiece. You can't, that is, use it at your belt like a twin reflex camera or an articulated display.

When you do peer into it, it's a refreshing sight. It's a bigger view than you may be used to from a dSLR and a very bright one, too. It's easy to fall in love with, frankly.

A button on the VF-2 switches between the OLED and the VF-2 for display. I found that a little disconcerting. I would compose using the VF-2 but I always wanted to check the exposure on the OLED. There's no option for that. Review is on the VF-2, although Playback is on the OLED.

It attaches to the hot shoe for stability with a data connector plugging into a slot just below the hot shoe in a very secure fit. It does preclude the use of the hot shoe for controlling an external flash but you still have the pop-up flash, which you can use as a trigger. There is no PC sync connection.

Peek Inside. Bright and sharp.

By twisting the rubber eyepiece, you can fiddle with the dioptric adjustment, too. It's really well done.

Lens. The i.Zuiko lens with 11 elements in 8 groups is a 4x optical zoom starting at a 28mm equivalent and reaching 112mm (6.0 to 24.0mm actual). That's a wide-angle starting point (which left me a bit short in the telephoto department for those distant shots of famous places you take on vacation).

Digital zoom is a combination of approaches. When enabled with image size at full resolution, only digital zoom is used. With an image size at less than full resolution, the Olympus XZ-1 first zooms the image and crops it to maintain quality before using purely digital zoom.

The most remarkable feature of this lens, though, is how fast it is. At wide-angle, the maximum aperture is f/1.8. And at telephoto it is still f/2.5. As Shawn points out, that isn't greatly more than the competition. But this is one spec that matters.

You can do a lot with that just by itself, but Olympus has enhanced it with a low light mode on the Mode dial, Neutral Density filter options in the Menu system (so you can use fast apertures in sunlight) and high ISO speeds (from 100 to 800 in Auto and up to 6,400 in Manual) for dark scenes.

As nice as the maximum aperture settings are, the minimum isn't too shabby either. At both wide-angle and full telephoto, we were able to use f/8.0. And there's lots of stops along the way.

The Olympus XZ-1 also features sensor-shift image stabilization, which it calculates affords a two-stop advantage in low light. If you shake the camera slightly when it's off, you can hear the thunk of the stabilizer system.

Modes. As you might expect from any high-end digicam, the Olympus XZ-1 provides the standard PASM and Scene shooting modes. But there are a couple of other modes to explore, too. Here's a brief rundown:

INTELLIGENT AUTO mode enables the camera to automatically select among Portrait, Landscape, Night+Portrait, Sport, Macro, and Low Light modes. A small icon in the bottom right corner changes to indicate which mode the camera has selected. A Tips option is available on the OK settings menu where color icons keep things simple for the other options. You can change the color saturation, color image, and brightness settings as well as blur the background -- all with real-time feedback in the OLED. Olympus calls this Live Guide.

PROGRAM mode gives you access to all of the controls on the settings menu. Exposure is controlled by setting an EV value using the Up button. At the same time, the lens ring lets you pick among ISO values. For equivalent exposures with control over the aperture or shutter, you have to use one of the priority modes.

APERTURE PRIORITY has new meaning on the Olympus XZ-1. Aperture options include 1.8, 2.0, 2.2, 2.5, 2.8, 3.2, 3.4, 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, 5.6, 6.3, 7.1, and 8.0. That's quite a range for a digicam. To change apertures, you simply rotate the lens ring. There isn't a direct correlation between the ring position and aperture, however. It seemed like the first click wakes it up and subsequent clicks change the setting.

SHUTTER PRIORITY adjust the shutter speed from 60 seconds to 1/2,000 second at fine intervals, again by using the lens ring.

MANUAL mode lets you control both the aperture and shutter speed. The lens ring controls the aperture and the rear scroll wheel controls the shutter speed. The scroll wheel goes into shutter speed mode when you press the EV or Up button. Once you know the trick, it's a snap. There is also a Bulb setting (up to 16 minutes) among the shutter speed options.

Multi Exposure. A rare treat.

SCENE mode includes e-Portrait, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Night+Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Self-Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Multi Exposure, Cuisine, Documents, Beach & Snow, Underwater Wide, Underwater Macro, Pet, and Panorama.

The Olympus XZ-1 does not offer a sweep Panorama mode, limiting you to three shots. You can elect to have them stitched in the camera or saved as individual frames you can put together later on your computer. The latter has the advantage of not restricting you to a 1,600 x 1,200 image size.

Art Filters. Just turn the lens ring.

Particularly noteworthy are the Multi Exposure and Underwater modes, which are not usually provided.

You'll want to encase the Olympus XZ-1 in an underwater housing like the $300 PT-050 underwater case before trying the Underwater modes, but Multi Exposure is easy to play with. The XZ-1 simply combines two exposures, overlaying the first shot on the OLED as you compose the second. Auto gain is enabled to control the combined exposure. Considering how easy it was to make double exposures on film cameras, it's surprising to see how few digicams offer this function. It's a lot of fun.

CUSTOM mode can save shooting menu settings other than EV. To save settings, you enter the Setup menu with the Menu key and use the Custom Mode Setup's Set option. To delete the settings, you use the Reset options.

ART mode offers five special effects: Pop Art (high saturation), Soft Focus, Grainy Film (black and white), Pin Hole (strong vignetting), Diorama (central focus only), Dramatic Tone (high contrast). These effects are accomplished partly with camera settings but primarily with post processing, so if you are shooting Raw, the camera will also record a JPEG image.

When you first access the option on the Mode Dial, all the choices are available. You simply scroll through them with the arrow keys or the scroll wheel before selecting one with the OK button. But to change from one to another, you use the lens ring.

LOW LIGHT mode optimizes settings for low light, handheld shots, establishing a safe shutter speed (which seemed to be a rather conservative 1/100 second), opening the aperture and raising the ISO (again rather conservatively). It's a nice concept, but we preferred to roll our own low light settings.

MOVIE mode is not on the Mode dial itself but accessed at any time with a special Movie button on the back panel. That has the advantage of applying any selected Art Filter to the capture.

Options are simple to set up. HD Quality offers a 1,280 x 720 image size in 6:9 aspect ratio while SD Quality restricts image size to 640 x 480 in a 4:3 aspect ratio, both at 30 fps. Sound recording can be muted. Optical zoom is available and autofocus functions (if a bit slowly). Movies are recorded in AVI Motion JPEG format, which restricts clips to a 2GB maximum.

Click to view movie. AVI player required.

HD Video. A 56MB capture at 720p30 in very low light. Video courtesy of John Pascucci (Click to download large AVI file.)

As Shawn noted in the Hands-on Preview, Olympus uses image stabilization for video that crops the capture and responds slowly to your camera moves. I'm sure the pizza chef in this clip could have used a little dough stabilization like it, though.

Menu System. The XZ-1 behaves more like a PEN camera than an Olympus digicam, as Shawn said. That's a good thing. It just doesn't have as many buttons, relying instead on the menu system. Not such a good thing.

Main Menus. Accessed from the Menu button.

The Menu button calls up the top end of this hierarchy, featuring four tabs for the Camera Menu, Movie Menu, Playback Menu, and Setup Menu.

For settings that may change from shot to shot, the OK button displays the shooting menu along the right side of the OLED. Options vary depending on which mode you are in but include ISO, Color (natural, vivid, etc.), White Balance, Self-Timer/Release mode, Aspect Ratio, Image Size, Movie Quality, Flash setting, EV, Metering, ND Filter, Focus mode, and Face Priority.

Shooting Menu. Accessed from the OK button.

The Olympus XZ-1's arrow keys on the scroll wheel are shortcuts to EV (top), Flash (right) and Self-Timer/Release (bottom). They let you select an Autofocus point (left).

Live Control. Colored icons of iAuto lead to Live Control sliders with real-time feedback.

The XZ-1 also offers what Olympus calls Live Control from the menu system. This gives you real-time feedback on the OLED when you change a setting that affects image rendering. So if you increase saturation, you see saturation increase on the OLED.

Storage & Battery. The XZ-1 includes 54.6MB of internal memory, a rather generous amount. But you'll still want to slip an SD card into it.

You can store four raw images in internal memory or nine large, fine images. A 1GB SD card will hold 70 raw and 173 large, fine images. You can store a 12 second HD clip with sound in the internal memory or 3 minutes, 34 seconds of video on a 1GB card. Clips are limited to 2GB each by the AVI format. Olympus rates the Li-50B lithium-ion battery for about 320 shots, which is pretty good. I didn't run into an low battery conditions on my shoots. And I didn't recharge between shoots.

The charger is compact, but really only a brick that plugs directly into an outlet. It has no bay for a battery, only a USB connection. You plug a USB cable into that and connect the cable to the Olympus XZ-1 to charge the battery in the camera. That, of course, disables your camera whenever you have to recharge the battery. But if your cellphone hasn't gotten you used to that, get used to it anyway. That's how your electric car will work too.

Olympus does offer an optional battery charger, the LI-50C, for about $25 street.

Playback. Playback mode offers a few convenient editing functions in addition to simple slide shows with music. You can, for example, add sound to your still images and retouch red-eye (saving the edit as a new file).

 

Shooting with the Olympus XZ-1

I'll second Shawn's experience of the Olympus XZ-1 as "a pleasure to use most of the time." The "most of the time" problem for me was having to resort to the menu system to make the changes I wanted to make. But the pleasure part was that I had some real choices. It was fun to ask myself how I might capture a familiar scene a little differently. And it was just as fun to think about the best way to approach a new venue. Very few digicams give you that kind of a thrill.

Shooting Screen. Live histogram, and every setting.

A few experiences are worth highlighting:

Super Macro. Shooting Super Macro was fun, but I had a problem with focus on one subject. I didn't expect depth of field to be more than very shallow so focus was critical on the little clay figurine. But autofocus seemed to focus on the figure's hands not his face.

It was hard to see this on the OLED itself. The small image appeared in focus. But there were two solutions. One was to simply move the focus point up to the face from the center of the image. The other was to use Manual Focus. That had the advantage of showing an enlargement of the image on the center of the OLED frame as I changed focus.

Exposure. I took a walk on an overcast day through Golden Gate Heights, taking pictures of rain-kissed flowers, shiny rocks and wavy walls. The light was very nice, saturating the color of the flowers and evenly illuminating surfaces.

I shot almost everything in Program mode without changing the EV. But when I looked at the images, they were mostly overexposed. They just were not as dark as the scene had been. I hadn't noticed this on the walk. Things looked very nice on the OLED, actually.

OLED simulation

Actual Capture

 

I was able to salvage the shots in DxO Optics Pro simply by applying a custom curve that dropped the middle tones most of all tapering off to the highlights and shadows. I made the same correction in Photoshop to confirm the solution.

Setups. I hit the OK button a lot as I shot with the Olympus XZ-1 to change aspect ratios and focus mode.

I moved for 4:3 to 16:9 to 3:2 to 6:6 (shouldn't that be 1:1?) aspect ratios constantly, depending on the subject. That adds another thrill to composing, and while it isn't as convenient as the switch on Panasonic lenses, it isn't burdensome. I might have liked to be able to assign aspect ratio to the lens ring actually. But it is programmed for ISO in Program mode.

Focus modes were another setting I found necessary to change. Autofocus was my default, and I would have liked to have left it at that, using the Left arrow button to change which part of the scene to focus on when it wasn't at the center.

And the Olympus XZ-1 does automatically shift into Macro mode -- but only in the somewhat restrictive Intelligent Auto mode. So I had to shift for myself. The camera has two Macro modes, actually: the common Macro for nearby subjects that are not kissing distance from the lens and Super Macro for when you get the lens right up into the subject's face (at wide-angle). There is also a Tracking mode and Manual Focus, which I often resorted to when Super Macro wasn't precise enough.

And when I did resign myself to cheating the exposure down a bit, that was one more setting to fiddle with. That one, fortunately, is on the Up arrow key, so I didn't have to sneak into the Menu system for a third setting. The Menu system does remember where you left it, but that's no help if you have to change multiple settings.

Firmware Update. There was a firmware update for the Olympus XZ-1 so I downloaded it. But unlike other updates, this one required installing a 5.7MB application. And it required a restart of my computer.

This really isn't the way to handle a firmware update. Let's just leave it at that.

Fortunately, the update only resolved a problem with the Power button on dedicated flash units so it would have made no difference to the tasks I was testing.

Zoom Range. 28mm to 112mm to 4x digital zoom.

Twin Peaks. The first time I took the Olympus XZ-1 to Twin Peaks for the zoom series, I didn't bring the VF-2 viewfinder. That was a mistake. Using the XZ-1 in strong sunlight just isn't feasible without it.

I could not see the OLED clearly enough to frame the image of the Golden Gate Bridge. Even shading the OLED, it was as if no image at all appeared. I was barely able to make out the outline of the dark trees in the foreground to get my bearings, but I saw no bridge in the OLED.

And I seriously misread the exposure of the zoom series itself. I'd left the camera in Aperture Priority mode with the aperture wide open. The 1/2000 second shutter speed the camera resorted to (its maximum) wasn't fast enough to prevent overexposure. Had I really wanted a wide open aperture, I could have used the neutral density filter. But I was just asleep at the wheel and couldn't tell how far off my exposure was by looking at the OLED in sunlight.

It's certainly true that you can see unshifted colors from any angle when viewing the OLED. And that the image itself has deep blacks and saturated color. But it was consistently misleading. I liked it, sure, but it didn't represent the captures accurately. So beware.

ISO. Funny how people rave about the Art Filters and moan about high ISO noise. I had some fun trying out ISO 6,400 when I thought of it as an art filter. (See our Print Quality section below for more on the practical limitations of the Olympus XZ-1's range of ISO settings.)

Bouquets to Art. Every year the de Young museum puts on a flower show. Various floral artists prepare a bouquet to one or another work of art in the permanent collection and they are displayed together. It's a short show, only a few days (not even a week), but there are about 150 displays. I took the XZ-1 on the last evening.

I stuck with Aperture Priority so I could control depth of field. I knew after the first shots that I would be using open apertures and slow shutter speeds. But I had to hand-hold the camera (no flash) so I bumped the ISO up.

How far? Well, I knew Olympus restricts Auto ISO to ISO 800, so I settled on that. I was delighted to discover later that noise wasn't objectionable at that speed. And that gave me a few apertures to play with at shutter speeds above 1/30 second.

With exposure settled, I considered aspect ratio. There were a lot of people but they were surprisingly considerate about stepping in front of a camera. Well, except one guy who seemed to think it was what you do when you see a camera. But there's always one guy. And he can't be everywhere at once.

Favorite Aspect Ratio

Still, the wrong aspect ratio would crop in things I didn't want, so I was constantly moving from my preferred 3:2 (for 4x6 prints) to other aspect ratios. My second favorite was 16:9, which let me get a slice of the scene (horizontally perfect for HDTV), and third was 6:6, which more often than not very neatly captured compositions of the flower arrangements and the images that inspired them. I did grab a 4:3 once or twice, too, but only as a last resort.

More rarely but never far from my mind, I considered focus. Almost everything was taken with focus set to AF for autofocus at normal distances. But a few shots were taken with Macro. The problem was, as the guards were quick to point out, we were required to stay a foot away from the installations. Not a macro lover's favorite vantage point.

Shifting Focus Target

Even juggling two menu settings was a pain, though. The problem was that they weren't close to each other. So I was constantly spinning the control wheel to get to them. I really wished I had just one button I could set for either of those options.

When I imported the images into Lightroom 3, I was glad to see that ISO 800 hadn't been too noisy. Or very noisy at all, really. I've seen ISO 400 look worse.

But there were other problems with the exposures that the OLED had masked.

Bouquets. ISO 800 did well but I had to adjust white balance and blacks (mouse over the image).

I made two corrections to all of the images: White Balance and the Blacks setting. I found a more neutral white balance and increased the blacks two units. That made a dramatic difference in the images, comparable to the curve shift I used for the rain shots.

A number of shots also required highlight recovery. The Olympus XZ-1 wasn't careful about highlight exposure (all these except a couple with black backgrounds were automatic exposures) so hot spots on white flowers often burned out. I was able to recover them, though, in Lightroom.

I also had to recover shadow detail on a few images after bumping up the blacks. In general, though, this was best handled by increasing the fill light rather than undoing the black setting (which was pretty moderate). It was more a case of the Olympus XZ-1 not exposing for shadow detail.

These corrections were not really enhancements. They were fixes for exposure problems that I couldn't tell I had with the OLED.

Those images were destined for a slide show on my personal site so I didn't worry as much about detail as if they were going to be 13x19 prints. Noise suppression at ISO 800 is pretty active, which really robbed the images of detail while smoothing the colors nicely. But that's pretty much par for the course these days -- even with flagship digicams.

 

Comparing the Olympus XZ-1 to its rivals

Since we compared the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5 to each other in their respective reviews, we thought we'd do the same here with these top contenders in the premium pocket digicam space.

The Olympus XZ-1 does fairly well from 100 to 400, but quickly starts to lose detail at ISO 800. The Canon S95 has more of a clear edge against the XZ-1, while the Panasonic LX5 is pretty close to the XZ-1 from ISO 800 on up. Let your eyes do the peeping, but remember that viewing 10-megapixel images at 100 percent onscreen can give you irrelevant information depending on how often you crop, and how large you print. The XZ-1 can make a very good 4x6 all the way up to ISO 3,200, but its ISO 100 setting produces an image that prints quite well at 16x24 inches. See our Print Quality section below for more on that. (Note that the S95 and LX5 have different ISO ranges. Both start at ISO 80 and the XZ-1 starts at ISO 100. Blank spaces indicate that there's no such setting for that camera.)

Olympus XZ-1 vs. Canon S95

ISO
Olympus XZ-1 ISO series
Canon S95 ISO series
8
0
1
0
0
2
0
0
4
0
0
8
0
0
1
6
0
0
3
2
0
0
6
4
0
0

 

Olympus XZ-1 vs. Panasonic LX5

ISO
Olympus XZ-1 ISO series
Panasonic LX5 ISO series
8
0
1
0
0
2
0
0
4
0
0
8
0
0
1
6
0
0
3
2
0
0
6
4
0
0
1
2
8
0
0

 

Olympus XZ-1 lens comparison

Maximum Aperture
XZ1
S95
LX5
Wide Center
Wide Corner
Tele Center
Tele Corner

The Olympus XZ-1's lens quality is another subject worth considering, as it's quite a bit sharper at wide-angle than the competition when wide-open. At right on the top row, you see the same XZ-1 crops from our lens analysis below, then matching crops from the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, each showing the worst corner.

It seems there is something to what Olympus says about their new i.Zuiko lens. Landscape photographers in particular, take note. You can set this baby on a tripod at a nice low ISO and get some very sharp images, corner-to-corner, especially at wide-angle.

 

See below for our analysis of Lens and Image quality, and look just a little further down for our Pro/Con and Conclusion writeups. Overall, the Olympus XZ-1 was fun to use, and the image quality between 100 and 400 is quite good.

 

Olympus XZ-1 Lens Quality


28mm eq., f/5.6
50mm eq., f/5.6
112mm eq., f/5.6
4x Digital Zoom, f/5.6

Zoom: As mentioned previously, the XZ-1 is equipped with an Olympus i.Zuiko lens with a focal length from 6.0-24.0mm, covering the equivalent of a 28-112mm zoom on a 35mm camera. The 4x optical zoom ratio is a little better than the 3.8x zoom offered by the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5, though it doesn't go as wide as the LX5's 24mm equivalent. Performance was generally excellent across the zoom range at f/5.6, with very good sharpness, low coma distortion and very little corner softening even at maximum wide-angle. A low to moderate amount of chromatic aberration was visible in the corners at wide-angle and telephoto at f/5.6. The Olympus XZ-1 also offers up to 4x digital zoom which performed reasonably well, but with the usual loss of detail that accompanies that much digital magnification.


Wide, f/1.8:
Sharp at center
Wide, f/1.8:
Minimal blurring, upper left
Tele, f/2.5:
Sharp at center
Tele, f/2.5:
Mild blurring, upper left corner

Sharpness: The wide-angle end of the Olympus XZ-1's zoom shows only the smallest hint of blurring in the corners of the frame compared to what we see at center, which is excellent; a testament to the value of Olympus's i.Zuiko lens design. At telephoto, performance is still quite good, though very mild blurring is present in the furthest corners. Great results here.


In-camera JPEG
Wide: Moderate barrel distortion; slightly noticeable
Tele: Moderate pincushion distortion, slightly visible
Uncorrected RAW
Wide: High barrel distortion
Tele: About the same pincushion distortion

Geometric Distortion: Barrel distortion at wide-angle is moderate at 0.5%, and only slightly noticeable in the XZ-1's images. At telephoto, pincushion is also moderate at 0.2%, and is also minimal in appearance. Thus, the Olympus XZ-1's processor does a fair job of keeping distortion in check.

As expected, uncorrected RAW files show much more barrel distortion at wide-angle, about 1.2%. Pincushion distortion at telephoto remained the same, at about 0.2%. Note that most RAW converters including Adobe Camera RAW and Olympus Master 2.3 automatically correct for this distortion similar to how the camera does.


Wide, f/1.8: Moderately high and bright
Tele, f/2.5: Also moderately high, fairly bright

Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle is moderately high in terms of pixel count, with bright coloration on both sides (more pixels on the pinkish side than the cyan). Telephoto shows similar distortion, though with stronger purplish pixels. Some mild blurring in the corners intensifies the effect at telephoto.


Macro, f/5.6
Macro with Flash, f/5.6
 
Super Macro, f/5.6

Macro: The Olympus XZ-1's Macro mode captures a very sharp image with strong detail throughout the frame, and manages to do so without any strong blurring in the corners of the frame (a common limitation among consumer digital cameras in macro mode). Minimum coverage area is 3.80 x 2.85 inches (97 x 73mm), which is larger than average. The camera's Super Macro mode captures a much smaller area at 1.16 x 0.87 inches (30 x 22mm), but the left side of the frame is blown out and a bit soft, with distinct chromatic aberration. Detail on the dollar bill, however, is still quite good. The camera's flash throttles down a little too much in normal macro mode, resulting in a dark image overall. Focus distance is too close in Super mode to allow effective use of the flash.


 

Olympus XZ-1 Viewfinder Accuracy


Wide: OLED Monitor
Tele: OLED Monitor

Viewfinder Accuracy: The Olympus XZ-1's OLED monitor showed just over 100% coverage at wide-angle and at telephoto, which is very good.


 

Olympus XZ-1 Image Quality


Color: Overall color is good and vibrant, with bright yellows just about spot-on accurate. Bright reds are pumped quite a bit, though strong blues are more controlled. A few small hue shifts are noticeable, such as cyan toward blue, orange toward yellow, and lighter greens toward yellow. Darker skin tones show a strong shift toward orange/red, while lighter skin tones have a more decided pink/purple shift. Overall though, color looks pretty good, but the pinkish skin tones will be noticeable.


Auto WB:
Quite warm
Incandescent WB:
Good, a hint reddish
 
Manual WB:
Also good, though still a hint red

Incandescent: Both Manual and Incandescent white balance settings produced good results under our incandescent household lighting, though both show a very slight reddish cast. Still, results are better than Auto, which was much too warm.


Horizontal: 1,600 lines
Vertical: 1,500 lines

Resolution: Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,600 lines per picture height horizontally, and to about 1,500 lines per picture height vertically. Extinction of the pattern occurred at around 2,400 lines per picture height.


XZ1FARI0100 (ISO 100)

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs: One of the advantages of shooting RAW is you have greater and often complete control over the detail versus noise tradeoff. In the table at right, the first crop listed on the left is from an in-camera Fine JPEG taken with default settings. The second is from a RAW file processed using Olympus Master 2.3 software (a free download from Olympus is available here), at default settings. The third is from a RAW file converted with Adobe Camera RAW 6.4 beta with default noise reduction applied, then sharpened with Unsharp Mask of 250%, radius 0.6 in Photoshop. The fourth is also converted with ACR, but with luminance noise reduction turned up to 50 and then sharpened a little stronger with USM of 350%. Mouse over the links at the bottom to load the corresponding crop into the area above, and click the links to view full resolution images.

Olympus Master 2.3 at default settings produces results that are very similar to the in-camera JPEG, with little extra detail. The ACR conversion using default noise reduction shows more detail, but also shows more noise, which is already quite visible at ISO 100 with these relatively small sensors. You can of course increase the noise reduction settings in ACR like we did with the last conversion, to produce a better compromise between detail and noise. You may want to consider using a good third-party noise reduction program such as Neat Image, Noise Ninja or Noiseware to perform more advanced noise reduction for best results, especially at higher ISOs where noise is more of an issue.


Gradation Settings

Gradation: Similar to dynamic range optimization systems from other manufacturers, Olympus' Auto Gradation setting applies local contrast adjustments in an attempt to open up shadow detail while preserving highlights.

To the right are examples of the various settings available applied to our "Outdoor Portrait" scene, which is shot in very harsh lighting to help determine how well a camera deals with high-dynamic-range subjects. As you can see by mousing over the links below the image at right (click on the links to get to the full resolution images), compared to the Normal setting, the Auto setting does a very good job of lightening the shadows behind the mannequin, in the face and below the bouquet, while holding on to more highlights in the white shirt and flowers. Despite the bright appearance, very few highlights are clipped in the Auto shot. Shadow noise is a little more apparent; however, this is quite normal when darker tones are lightened. Very good results here when using the Auto Gradation setting.

The Low Key setting applies Gradation for subjects you wish to remain dark (in the image right, you can see that it toned down the highlights and really darkened the shadows), while the High Key setting does the opposite for subjects you wish to keep bright (lightening shadows slightly but really boosting highlights). Note that the camera's Contrast setting is ignored when Gradation is set to anything other than Normal.


Wide: Falloff in the corners
Tele: Even, but dim
Auto Flash

Flash: Flash coverage at wide-angle is a bit uneven, with shadowing and falloff in the right corners and along the right side of the frame, as well as some more slight falloff in the lower left corner. At full telephoto, coverage is more uniform, though the exposure is dim.

Auto flash produced slightly dark results in our indoor portrait scene, retaining some of the ambient light despite a quick shutter speed of 1/80 second, ISO 200. You won't need to worry about camera shake or subject motion for typical portraits at that shutter speed. Shot taken at ~5 feet (~1.5m) on a stable tripod.


100
200
400
800
 
1,600
3,200
6,400

ISO: Noise and Detail: Detail is quite strong and well-defined at ISO 100 and 200, with a small amount of softening noticeable at ISO 400, though results are still good here. By ISO 800, detail softens quite a bit, and continues to decrease in clarity as the sensitivity increases. Chroma (color) noise is controlled at the lower settings, though does appear faintly at ISO 1,600 on up. Luminance noise and noise suppression efforts are more problematic at the higher settings, and by ISO 6,400, the image is quite garbled. See Printed section below for more on how this affects printed images.


Print Quality: ISO 100 shots look pretty good printed as large as 16x24 inches, though detail cannot be called crisp upon close inspection, it's still pretty good.

ISO 200 shots are still good at 16x24, with only slightly greater softening. Our difficult red leaf swatch starts to soften already, though.

ISO 400 images are too soft for printing at 16x24, but look pretty nice at 13x19 inches.

ISO 800 shots are too soft for printing at 13x19 inches, but look better at 11x14, except for that red swatch and red floss, both of which look artificially blurred.

ISO 1,600 files are better at 8x10, though color saturation starts to drop, and the red swatch is just a flat blur.

ISO 3,200 files look better printed at 5x7, though darks are somewhat plugged and color looks odd.

ISO 6,400 shots are not great, even at 4x6. Depending on your subject, they might be just fine, but they won't look normal without a little tweaking in a program like Photoshop.

Overall, I'd recommend sticking to ISO 100-400 for most important shots, as printed quality goes down pretty dramatically at ISO 800 and up. You can also shoot raw and process your images in a program like Aperture, Lightroom, or Photoshop.


 

Olympus XZ-1 Performance


Startup and Shutdown: Startup time is about 1.5 seconds including taking a shot, which is pretty fast for its class. Shutdown is slower, at about 2.2 seconds.


Shutter Lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is average, at 0.52 second at wide-angle and 0.54 second at full telephoto. Enabling the flash increased lag to 0.84 second. Prefocused shutter lag is 0.071 second, not the fastest, but still quick enough.


Cycle Time: Cycle time is about average for its class, capturing a Large/Fine JPEG, RAW or RAW+ L/F JPEG frame about every 1.2 seconds in single-shot mode. Full-resolution continuous mode captures a frame every 0.49 second or at 2.03 frames per second for JPEG, RAW or RAW+ L/F JPEG frames. Buffer depths are very good at over 20 JPEG or RAW frames, and 14 RAW + L/F JPEG frames. Buffer clearing is fast considering buffer size, at 2 seconds after 20 L/F JPEGs, 5 seconds after 20 RAW files, and 9 seconds after 14 RAW + L/F JPEGs. High Speed mode 1 (2,560 x 1,920 pixels) captures frames at 7.19 frames per second for a total of 100 frames with 11 seconds to clear. High Speed mode 2 is even faster at about 10 frames per second for 100 frames, but it only captures at 640 x 480 pixels.


Flash Recycle: The Olympus XZ-1's flash recycles in about 4.3 seconds after a full-power discharge, which is good.


Low Light AF: The camera's AF system was able to focus down to just below the 1/16 foot-candle light level without AF assist enabled, and in complete darkness with the AF assist lamp enabled. The fast f/1.8 lens certainly helped here.


USB Transfer Speed: Connected to a computer or printer with USB 2.0, the Olympus XZ-1's download speeds are very fast. We measured 8,824 KBytes/sec.


 

In the Box

The Olympus XZ-1 retail box includes:

  • The XZ-1 camera
  • Shoulder Strap
  • Lens Cap
  • LI-50B Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • F-2AC AC Adapter
  • USB Cable (CB-USB6)
  • AV Cable (CB-VC2)
  • Quick Start Guide and Warranty Card
  • Image Management software and Olympus Viewer 2 software

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Olympus XZ-1 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent build, refined appearance
  • f/1.8 i.Zuiko lens performs well
  • 3-inch OLED is crisp
  • Captures 720p HD video
  • Built in hot shoe
  • Built-in support for wireless flash
  • Dials front and back to adjust controls
  • Compatible with optional excellent VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder and other accessories
  • Neutral density filter for use in bright light
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Effective electronic image stabilization for movies
  • Optical zoom supported in movies
  • Dedicated movie button
  • Full Auto, Semi Auto, and Manual modes
  • RAW support
  • Auto Gradation does a good job at maximizing dynamic range in JPEGs
  • Intelligent Auto
  • 18 Scene modes
  • Multi-exposure mode
  • Art filters
  • Good battery life (320 shots)
  • Optional wired remote
  • Impressive lens sharpness from edge to edge
  • Very little geometric distortion in JPEGs
  • Sharp macro mode
  • Good, large prints from ISO 100 to 800 (16x24 to 11x14 inches)
  • Fast flash recycle
  • Cycle-time and continuous modes don't slow down with RAW files
  • Deep buffers for its class, with fast buffer clearing
  • Excellent low-light autofocus
  • Fast USB transfer speed
  • Mode dial is too easily changed by accident
  • OLED display is hard to see in bright light, making image composition more difficult
  • Needs a grip
  • Would like the option to change the function of the dials
  • You have to return to the Menu too often to make common settings changes
  • Image quality deteriorates from ISO 800-6,400
  • No control over noise reduction
  • Some chromatic aberration in the corners
  • Auto white balance has trouble with incandescent light
  • Flash coverage is poor, and built-in flash shots are dim
  • Large movie files; Motion JPEG format only
  • Documentation not very detailed

 

Olympus has entered the flagship digicam fight with a winner. It's learned from its competitors, avoiding the brick in favor of an almost too svelte box, adding a manual control with the lens ring, including a pop-up flash and a hot shoe, avoiding the noise of a 14-megapixel sensor for the sanity of a 10-megapixel sensor, delivering a versatile zoom range that starts wide enough, and concentrating on optical performance.

As a low-light tool, the Olympus XZ-1 has both strengths and weaknesses. Sure, its brighter lens can deliver 1/3 stop more of light-gathering capability, but its sensor's abilities at low ISO leave much to be desired, faltering after ISO 400. Still, that optical performance issue doesn't stop at "stops," it continues into the corners of the frame, where we find excellent performance, giving the Olympus XZ-1 an edge in an area where even Photoshop can't reach: No matter how you try, short of cropping, you can't return the S95 or LX5's corners from the smudge we see at wide-angle to anything resembling the relatively crisp image we get from the XZ-1.

So once again, we find a set of fine cameras where which you prefer depends heavily on what you plan to do with it. And the good news is that most hobby photographers will be happy with any of the three, with properly adjusted expectations. Expect to check the Mode dial on the XZ-1, for example, and keep the ISO under 800 if you plan to enlarge; and 4x6 is your goal, you'll be safe up to ISO 3,200.

Ultimately, the Olympus XZ-1 is a pleasant companion that behaves more like a mature offering than a maiden voyage in this tough crowd. A Dave's Pick, the Olympus XZ-1 promises to put some enthusiasm in any enthusiast photographer.

 

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Olympus XZ-1

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