Olympus Stylus 1 Field Test Part I

Dreamy Bokeh on a Budget

By Dave Pardue
Posted: 12/19/2013

When a camera company unveils a new product it's generally accompanied with claims about all the special features embedded within, so I went to the Olympus website and read their claim that the Stylus 1 and its fixed i.Zuiko f/2.8 lens could: "...produce pro-quality stills with beautiful, defocused background..." That's quite a bold statement, but the sharp subject and gorgeous blurred background in the image below are proof that they're onto something rather good with this unique little camera. So let's take a closer look!

300mm eq., f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 100

At a price point of US$700 we're no longer in traditional consumer camera territory, but have instead entered "enthusiast" land, that nether world between the consumer and the professional market. Enthusiasts often have particular styles or types of shooting they gravitate to... wildlife, portraiture, street shooting, etc... and as such are naturally interested in finding tools to support that particular style.

So when we at IR saw the Stylus 1 for the first time, most of us scratched our heads and asked "who is this camera for?"

While all of us at IR like cameras from a variety of manufacturers, I feel I should let you in on a little secret: Most of us have one brand that we lean towards and/or own personally, and for me that brand is Olympus. In fact, the first camera I bought with my own money after joining IR was the XZ-1, a terrific little compact that has the same sensor size as the Stylus 1, but in a smaller package and costing hundreds less (but with much less zoom range, I should add). Olympus fan that I am, though, I still wondered whether there was really a case to be made for a camera with a 1/1.7" sensor selling for $700.

I'm happy to report that after just a short time with this camera, I realized something rather interesting: It can do what few other cameras at this price point can do, and that's produce terrific portraits and nature shots that include the highly coveted "creamy bokeh" at the shallow depths of field often seen in many professional and commercial photographs.

242mm eq., f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 100
300mm eq., f/4, 1/500s, ISO 160
182mm eq., f/4, 1/250s, ISO 200

Skimming the cream. Not all background blur (aka: bokeh) is created equal. It comes in a variety of different "flavors", some of which are highly desired and others not so much. The flavor that most pros and enthusiasts strive for yields results that are often described as "buttery" or "creamy", and like a fine Bordeaux or a fabulous french soup, the achievement often takes quite some doing.

"Good" bokeh depends on quite a number of factors, not least of which is the right composition and technical execution of the shot (it's obviously best if you can keep background elements as far away as possible), but the gear is certainly important as well. The "hat-trick" for achieving creamy bokeh is a complex combination of lens quality, the aperture blade configuration and being able to achieve your desired depth of field. This used to require high-dollar rigs that had large sensors and therefore high price tags and lots of heft. That has changed a lot over the last few years with the smaller mirrorless APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, and the landscape changes even more with the introduction of the Olympus Stylus 1 (and another new competitor, the Sony RX10).

The law of physics states that the larger your sensor, the larger your optics must be in order for its image circle to cover said sensor, which explains why a camera with a tiny (1/2.3") sensor can achieve such extraordinary zoom ranges and still remain relatively compact. It also explains why a truly "professional" rig looks gargantuan in comparison, since the pros use full-frame cameras that require a large body and an even larger lens for telephoto shots. The Stylus 1 and the Sony RX10 come in between these two extremes, both in size and in price, but the Stylus 1 is quite a bit smaller and much more affordable than the RX10 (list: $1300), although the RX10 has a sensor with roughly 2.7 times the area.

The Olympus Stylus 1 sports a constant aperture 28-300mm equivalent f/2.8 lens. As of this writing it is the only fixed lens camera other than the Panasonic FZ200 to achieve this (the FZ200 offers a much larger zoom range, though, at 25-600mm eq.), and also one of the only cameras in this price range and sensor size capable of delivering such a shallow depth of field. Sure, you can buy a lens for your ILC to do this, but you'll leave this price territory far behind in the process, and you'll also have to give up the relatively small size of the Stylus 1. After all, this little guy may not be a true compact by strict definition, but it fits quite easily into a vest or coat pocket and is quite light for what it can deliver. And Olympus has a solid track record with lens quality, having delivered some terrific offerings across the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds lines for many years now, and even providing some of the best compact lenses to date (including the terrific lens on the XZ-1 and XZ-2).

The Olympus Stylus 1 - Shallow Depth of Field Potential
300mm eq., f/3.5, 1/640s, ISO 100
How shallow can you go? The first shot above shows the full image, and the second a crop from it to showcase just how shallow your depth of field possibilities are with the Stylus 1. These two ducks are less than a foot apart, but the top one is nice and crisp while the lower duck is quite blurred, giving the overall image a good sense of depth and isolation of the primary subject.

Ducks are easy targets, though, because they're slow and most don't mind being fairly close to people, so for the next test I wanted to try my hand at capturing a few faster birds. Most of the subjects out on the day I chose to shoot were very quick movers who don't like being close to people, so I felt they'd be a real test. Yes, I had the bird feeders to lure them in, but that was little help to ease their trepidation regarding my presence.

I knew the Stylus 1 had the zoom range I would need for the shots I was trying to capture, and the fast AF required to react quickly to the speed of these particular birds, but I discovered one additional benefit to this camera as compared to mirrorless and SLR cameras in its price range, and that was virtually silent operation when the sounds are switched off. I was able to position myself fairly close to the action and fire away without frightening them too badly, allowing for nice close-ups that yet again had the subject to background isolation I was hoping for. The Stylus 1 should be especially interesting to nature photographers or anyone needing a measure of stealth compared to the "clack" from a typical interchangeable-lens camera shutter.

I also grew to love the simple controls on the front of the Stylus 1. Having a zoom lever instead of worrying about manual zoom simplified certain shots, such as zeroing in on the fast birds below. I often found myself flipping the convenient toggle beside the lens that allows for jumping back and forth between manual and automatic focus. With my right forefinger on the zoom lever, my right middle finger on the focus toggle and my left middle finger on the control ring (which acts as a focus ring while in manual focus) I was able to rapidly adjust both zoom and focus while still being ready to fire away at will.

300mm eq., f/2.8, 1/640s, ISO 400
242mm eq., f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 800
A fast and stealthy performer. This Titmouse and the Red-bellied Woodpecker were not particularly fond of me being close by, but the Stylus 1 had the zoom range, fast AF and quiet operation I needed to get pretty good shots of these two shy customers.

Now let's talk about the obvious trade-off that I'm sure some of you are concerned about: that relatively small sensor housed inside the Olympus Stylus 1. To many enthusiast shooters, a 1/1.7" sensor is simply too small to be worth considering for their needs, and is in fact less than half the area of the sensor inside the compact Sony RX10, and less than a quarter the area of Micro Four Thirds sensors inside so many of Olympus' enthusiast lines. The smaller sensor, however, is why the Stylus 1 can be so small and yet deliver such great zoom range at a constant f/2.8 aperture. When you migrate upward to even a 1"-type sensor like the one found in the Stylus 1's closest rival, the enthusiast zoom Sony RX10, the body size and weight needed to house the lens grows substantially, even though the RX10 is only capable of 200mm equivalent at its maximum telephoto setting, compared to the Stylus 1's 300mm (the RX10 does go much wider, though, to 24mm equivalent).

View the IR Lab's Olympus Stylus 1 image quality test results by clicking here, but be sure to read further on to see side-by-side comparisons of the Stylus 1 against its top competitors.

The most common complaint about smaller sensors is their poor image quality at high ISOs, and typically poor performance under dim lighting, so I took the Stylus 1 indoors and out at dusk for some lower light and higher ISO tests. The results were much better than I'd anticipated given its sensor size, and while not of the caliber you can expect from much larger sensors, I was still pretty pleased with what this relatively small camera could do under these challenging conditions.

The Olympus Stylus 1 - Low Light and ISO Testing
28mm eq., f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 800
182mm eq., f/2.8, 1/30s, ISO 1600
124mm eq., f/2.8, 1/20s, ISO 2500
How high can you go? While smaller sensors have traditionally struggled with noise as ISO rises, the Stylus 1 packs a decent low-light punch for its modest sensor size, thanks in part to its relatively fast lens. Above are images shot at ISO 800, ISO 1600 and ISO 2500. Click on any image to see it at full resolution.

Bokeh. When the lens is wide-open at f/2.8, it renders pleasing circular blur patterns to smaller background elements like the little holiday lights in one of our gallery shots. Below are images that show this in more detail, as well as crops of the images to allow a closer inspection of the effect.

We'll add some shots with the lens stopped-down a bit soon, as aperture blade configurations with fewer sides tend to render blur patterns that are less circular and more polygonal in nature, which is often viewed from an artistic perspective as less desirable.

124mm eq., f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 200
300mm eq., f/2.8, 1/40s, ISO 320

The above two images were taken wide-open. The first and third image are of the full shot, with a crop of the shot below each to showcase the blur patterns. You'll notice just a hint of axial chromatic aberration (the faint green ring) in the holiday light bokeh, but it's quite a bit less than we're accustomed to seeing. You'll also note the "onion-right" effect, which is generally the result of aspheric elements in the lens itself or diffraction. This is generally undesirable but doesn't occur often, and perfectly smooth circles are the ideal. (For more detailed information on bokeh please click here.)

In summary for part 1 of my Olympus Stylus 1 Field Test, the shallow depth of field and dreamy bokeh possible with this $700 fixed lens camera is astonishing. It spurred me to look for other cameras to compare it to in this price range, and I simply couldn't find any. Yes, there are plenty of fabulous interchangeable-lens cameras out there for under $700, but a high quality constant aperture lens of this caliber for any of them will take you well over the Stylus 1's price point. As mentioned, the Sony RX10 has a larger sensor and gets close in the zoom department, but stops at 200mm vs the Stylus 1's 300mm equivalent. And the Panasonic FZ200's smaller sensor means higher noise as well as less-shallow depth of field at equivalent settings. Bottom line, there just isn't a competitor currently on the market that can do all the things that the Stylus 1 can do as good as it does at anywhere near this price.


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