Olympus Stylus 1 Field Test Part III

Ergonomics, lens comparison testing and conclusions

By Dave Pardue
Posted: 03/07/2014

For this third and final chapter shooting with the Olympus Stylus 1 I'll write more about the handling and controls onboard the camera, and take a closer look at some of the additional features and functions. I'll also explore how the incredible i.Zuiko lens compares to a high-end Olympus Four Thirds lens (the beautiful and pricey 300mm eq. f/2.0 prime), and also to the lower-priced and smaller-sensored Panasonic FZ200.

Olympus Stylus 1 - Super Macro Mode
42mm eq., f/2.8, 1/30s, ISO 200

Up close and personal. Let's start with a quick look at focus modes. There are five general focus modes, including Single AF, Continuous AF, Continuous AF with Subject Tracking, Super Macro and good ol' fashioned manual focus. Super Macro allows focus to be achieved at just 5cm (~2"), which is quite a tight range. For the Spanish doubloon image above I had the lens barrel right up against the bottom of the coin itself. You are not able to use zoom while in Super Macro mode, nor flash, but as you can see from this shot you're still afforded a very nice dose of bokeh (background blur) if it's desired. Clicking on the image will take you to a page where you can then click to see the full resolution image up close (and it's quite revealing in doubloon detail).

There are also no less than 4 face priority focus modes. You can choose from Face, Face and Eyes, and Face + either left or right eye, and somewhat to my surprise these worked quite well. As you might expect, this last mode is able to lock in more quickly the closer you get to your subject. Not too close of course, but as you begin to move in, the camera puts a large focus box over the subject's face and a smaller green box over the eye that you've chosen. Portrait shooter's will undoubtedly find this feature helpful since it's so easy to employ.

Ergonomics. I wrote briefly in the first installment of this report about how useful I found the overall control scheme, and wanted to expound upon that just a bit. The small size and relatively light weight of the Stylus 1 is naturally a big reason that so many people have become interested in this camera to begin with given its capabilities. I'd like to add that the controls themselves have a very precise and reassuring feel.

The mode dial has just the right amount of stiffness to not be accidentally bumped in a bag, but is not too tight either. The primary control dial up top is situated where it is unlikely to be accidentally bumped, unlike some other cameras I've tested recently. And the tilt-screen itself feels super-solid and well-built. I also like the rather substantial front grip and rear thumb rest, as they provide quite a bit more heft than the XZ-2, but not too much to be distracting.

The Fn1 button is nestled comfortably above the rear thumb rest, while Fn2 is on the front panel within the focus mode toggle switch. Each are customizable to varying degrees and serve somewhat different purposes. And I like the simplicity of the Playback, Menu and Info buttons around the 4-way dial. So many cameras I have tested in the past year (including one Olympus model) have moved the Playback button away from this area, but to me it only makes sense to position it where it is naturally used, beside the screen and near the 4-way pad.

One last thing to mention on the ergonomic side of things is just how enjoyable it is to not have a lens cap to lose! The automatic cap that covers the Stylus 1 is not a perfect protector, and can be pushed in if enough force is applied, so you'll still want to be careful with it and not let anything protruding near the cover itself. But not needing an external lens cap is a nice little added luxury. Oh, and by the way, for anyone who doesn't like the appearance of the lens cover while the lens is extended (to some the appearance may be a bit clunky-looking) the entire cover can be easily removed by simply unscrewing it.

Lens love. Working for IR has increased my love for both cameras and photography, but nothing has increased more than my desire to own and shoot with great lenses. While the sensor may indeed be the heart of a camera, that light portal sitting out front is surely the soul, and the lens on the Stylus 1 has plenty of it. This lens is in fact so good at delivering the goods it seemed imperative to compare it to a higher-end lens for fun, and we're fortunate to have an Olympus 150mm (300mm eq.) f/2 Four Thirds lens in-house. This gorgeous and heavy piece of glass (as shown below) will set you back more than twice what the Stylus 1 costs, and then you'll still need a body to attach it to, so the assumption going in is that it should produce a better overall shot. And, I'll save you the suspense: indeed it does, so the question becomes how close can the Stylus 1 get to that level.

It's the middle of winter as of this report, so I pulled out some faux flowers for the test and chose some immediate foreground for close background blur, set against some distant trees to see how each lens rendered these as well. I dialed each camera to aperture priority at f/2.8 with a focal length of 300mm eq. range and fired away. Below are the results, which are interesting and also, for the most part, as we would expect based on the price differential of the Stylus vs the competitors.

Testing the Stylus 1's i.Zuiko lens against a high-end Olympus
Four Thirds lens and the Panasonic FZ200 at equivalent settings

Olympus Four Thirds 150mm (300mm eq.) f/2 on the Olympus E-PL5
300mm eq.; manual exposure: f/2.8, 1/200s
Olympus Stylus 1
300mm eq.; manual exposure: f/2.8, 1/200s
Panasonic FZ200
323mm eq.; manual exposure: f/2.8, 1/200s
You get what you pay for. The expensive Olympus Four Thirds 150mm f/2 prime lens shot with the larger-sensored Olympus E-PL5 renders a gorgeous image with incredible detail paired with sublime background blur, while the Panasonic FZ200 renders an image with background blur that is not quite as pleasing in nature, but still not bad for its price and small sensor size. The Olympus Stylus 1 comes in between these two, as we might expect, but appears just a bit closer to the somewhat more expensive Four Thirds lens in quality than to the lesser-priced FZ200. [Editors note: We tried for exact settings but the FZ200 was difficult to set precisely at 300mm eq, so we got it as close as we could.]

Olympus Stylus 1 - size comparison vs a 300mm eq. f/2.0 Four Thirds prime lens
Big reach, small package. This is one example of the type of glass you'll need to get to a 300mm equivalent focal with a bright aperture in the Micro Four Thirds world (this is a Four Thirds lens with an adapter). And the size and weight is similar or larger if you step up to the APS-C world on a camera like the Canon EOS-M. You'll spend thousands of dollars on the lens itself, still need a body, and will be required to deal with weight and size elements. Of course, you will acquire better low light performance in the process, and will experience stronger and richer background blur potential as well.

After performing this lens comparison test, our reader Laszlo wrote to request a test that is just as pertinent as the ones above, namely with a lesser-priced zoom lens attached to a Micro Four Thirds body. I had not thought to perform this test because the zoom lenses in this price range (such as the one he suggested, the Olympus 14-150mm (28-300mm eq.)) are not constant aperture zooms and tend to fall to f/5.6 at full tele. But it occurred to me while thinking about his request that the difference in sensor size might more than balance the scales, so I took a quick look at both low light performance and background blur potential at full telephoto.

While the Stylus 1 at f/2.8 gives you two more stops of available light at 300mm eq. focal range than the 14-150mm at f/5.6, the Four Thirds sensor is so much larger than the Stylus 1's 1/1.7" sensor (more than 5 times the surface area, actually) that it more than balances the playing field. Below, therefore, is a comparison of the Stylus 1 at ISO 400 with the E-PL5 at ISO 1600 (2 stops different) to show you the noise level comparison. To my eye the noise levels are comparable, but the E-PL5 image crop looks a bit sharper with more fine detail (it was shot with a very sharp prime, though, so there are differences in lens performance as well as resolution at play here as well). You can currently buy the E-PL5 with a 14-42mm kit lens and add the Olympus 40-150mm (80-300mm eq.) lens for about the same price as the Stylus 1, though that means even more bulk and the inconvenience of two lenses. The 14-150mm lens is considerably more expensive than the 40-150mm, at about $600.

ISO comparison vs the Olympus E-PL5 in order to show the 2-stop difference
available with f/2.8 as opposed to f/5.6 at telephoto on the Olympus 14-150mm lens

Olympus Stylus 1
ISO 400
Olympus E-PL5
ISO 1600

Note that the above E-PL5 image was taken with a very sharp 50mm f/2 prime lens, and is only meant to compare noise levels at the two ISOs.

Background blur also looks quite similar in nature between the Stylus 1 at 300mm eq f/2.8 and the E-PL5 with the 14-150mm (300mm eq.) at f/5.6. The much larger sensor and longer actual focal length balance the scale and allows for enough added blur to make the two appear almost identical, as seen in the comparison below.

Testing the 300mm eq. i.Zuiko lens against the
Olympus 14-150mm (300mm eq.) on the Olympus E-PL5

Olympus Stylus 1
300mm eq.; auto exposure: f/2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 200
Olympus 14-150mm (28-300mm eq.) on the Olympus E-PL5
300mm eq.; auto exposure: f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 200
A $700 Olympus showdown. For around $700 (the same price as the Stylus 1) you can buy the Olympus E-PL5 with the 14-42mm kit lens and add the 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 in order to achieve the same 35mm equivalent focal length range provided by the Stylus 1 of 28-300mm, but you're unable to achieve f/2.8 at any focal length and have to carry around two lenses. (Note that the 14-150mm lens used above to illustrate background blur is much more expensive than the 40-150mm, and doesn't perform nearly as well at 300mm eq. Its bokeh may also be different.)

Given that the results for low light and background blur potential are about the same, you are therefore left with a choice: do you want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses including the ability to add faster primes down the road, or would you prefer the convenience and smaller size of an all-in-one package? We can test the cameras for you all day long, but this is a choice only you can make.

More reader requests. Thanks to our reader Bertrand for requesting some attention to the Stylus 1's flash capabilities, specifically of the fill-flash variety. Many shooters shy away from using a camera's flash in auto for portrait shots, as the flash tends to blow out and often flatten subject faces. But dialing the compensation down to allow for just the right amount can be a great aid in both day and night portrait shots, as seen below.

Olympus Stylus 1 - Flash capabilities

Nighttime Fill Flash. For this shot of my daughter studying there was enough ambient light from a lamp to allow for a compelling enough shot at ISO 640 with a 1/60s exposure time at f/2.8, but dialing in just a touch of fill flash (-2 EV) balanced the photo while still leaving the contrast and depth I wanted.

Daytime Fill Flash. Dialing the flash compensation down to -0.7 allowed me to provide just enough flash to illuminate my subject's face to smooth out some of the shadows without washing him out entirely.

The Stylus 1 with its Super Control Panel makes it quite easy to alter settings quickly, including flash mode and compensation directly from the panel itself. I've found the best way to accomplish this is by using the 4-way buttons to navigate to the parameter or mode you'd like to alter and then using the lens ring to adjust the settings directly on the panel itself. The other options are to tap the buttons using the touchscreen in order to select a parameter, and to then use the lens ring to make the adjustment or click the OK button to bring up a separate screen where you can then use the lens ring or the 4-way buttons to make adjustments. If this sounds confusing, it's actually not in practice. The Stylus 1 simply offers several different methods of achieving the same adjustment depending on your preference. [A special thanks to our reader Pauline M. for helping me discover that the Stylus 1 behaves just a bit differently while engaging the Super Control Panel than the Olympus XZ-2 when using the touchscreen, and no longer allows repeated tapping to adjust settings.]

Olympus Stylus 1 - Super Control Panel

Stopping down. I got so obsessed early in the testing of this camera with the background blur possible at 300mm eq. and f/2.8 that I nearly forgot it was capable of any other settings. Fortunately, our senior technical editor Zig Weidelich never forgets anything, and has been kindly and persistently reminding me that other readers may be interested in other settings too. As such, below is the same shot taken with the range of full f-stops possible on the Stylus 1 (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 and f/8) in order to give you an easy comparison of just how the bokeh looks at the various f-stops. Please visit our Stylus 1 Gallery page for more examples of images stopped down a bit.

Olympus Stylus 1 - Background blur at full f-stops
f/2.8, 242mm eq., ISO 200 f/4, 242mm eq., ISO 200
f/5.6, 242mm eq., ISO 200 f/8, 242mm eq., ISO 200
How do you take your bokeh? Clicking on any of these images will bring you to a carrier page where you can click on that image to access the full resolution JPEG as delivered straight from the camera. Use these to analyze the background blur at various apertures for evaluation and comparison purposes.
300mm eq., f/4, 1/320s, ISO 100
Skating ducks. Here's another real-world example of background blur when stopped down to f/4.

Outdoor sports. Our reader Bob C and a few others asked if we could weigh in on the Stylus 1 as a potential outdoor sports camera. Given the need for very fast shutter speeds to freeze most sports action, a camera with a sensor this small isn't going to excel at indoor sports shooting given its limitations at higher ISOs, even with a relatively fast aperture. But how does it do outdoors? Being mid-winter I was unable to locate any organized outdoor sporting events to use for testing, so I grabbed our faithful test-dog Charlotte (who loves to run and also garner the dog-treat-rewards afterwards) and set out to test several key aspects of the camera: burst mode, continuous AF and EVF performance.

As EVF's go, this one works quite well in real-world shooting. The eye sensor is quick to switch back and forth between the EVF and the LCD, with hardly any delay at all, which is of course critical for sports. Tracking and panning is fairly seamless and fast, with no noticeable artifacts or delays due to rapid panning. There is a typical "mechanical" look to the EVF display as well as a slight decrease in saturation, but not enough to detract from the overall usability. There are 3 info display options including a histogram display, and a convenient diopter adjustment that allows you to adjust the EVF to accommodate your eyesight (-4 to +2m-1). You can allow the EVF to come on automatically with the eye sensor, or set it to toggle manually. All in all, a nice display with a solid range of adjustments and options and a practical aid to action photography.

Sequential shooting (burst) mode performs pretty much as advertised, although it's mentioned a bit differently in the manual than how it actually fares in terms of continuous autofocus performance. The manual clearly states that in sequential shooting, focus, exposure, and white balance are locked at the first frame of a burst, with no special mention for how it behaves in C-AF. But in our tests, continuous AF actually did operate during sequential mode, albeit with somewhat mixed results.

Just how fast is the Olympus Stylus 1? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

Olympus Stylus 1 - Burst mode with C-AF
Catch me if you can. Continuous AF while in sequential shooting (burst) mode works well some of the time. It's not perfect, but on some sequences the Stylus 1 adjusted and found good focus on most frames. Above is one of the better examples, as these are the first and ninth frames in a sequential (one shutter press) burst that covered about 20 feet in just a few seconds time. Unfortunately, this was not the norm, and more of our test-runs had fewer in-focus frames than not.

The user manual suggests that sequential mode will yield roughly 5 frames per second, while the online technical specs suggest 7fps, and our lab tests managed just over 8fps. At any rate, it certainly provides solid burst performance, and the quiet shutter operation as mentioned previously is quite welcome as well.  Buffer depths were generous, too, at over 40 JPEGs, 32 RAW and 26 RAW+JPEG frames in our lab tests. The one thing that left me yearning was the mixed C-AF performance, and if using this camera to catch key moments of a child's soccer game, I would certainly try and snap many burst series in order to make sure I got some that were, indeed, in focus. On the other hand, the user manual did say focus is locked at the first frame of a burst, so the fact that it attempted to track focus in sequential mode was a pleasant surprise.

Video. The Stylus 1 comes packed with video capabilities to go along with that long fast lens, though frame rate is fixed at 30fps for high-def movies. Full HD (1920 x 1080 at 30p) is available of course, as well as HD (1280 x 720 at 30p), both delivered in the computer-friendly MOV format to a maximum 4GB file size or 29 minutes. There are also a couple of high-speed Motion JPEG modes (640 x 480 at 120fps and 320 x 240 at 240fps, both limited to 20 seconds) for slow-mo playback.

1,920 x 1,080
MOV, Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original (27.5MB)

You can start recording a video in most exposure modes (but not all, such as the new Photo Story mode), however exposure is always under automatic control even in A/S/M modes, though exposure compensation is available before recording starts. Art Filters are supported for videos, which I personally find really cool.

Optical zoom and image stabilization are supported. Zooming in video mode is far, far slower than in normal shooting, though.  But this is likely to reduce noise, as it's almost non-existent (but it does creep along). There is a zoom speed menu setting, but that appears to only affect stills shooting and not video. Autofocus is fairly slow, but it does focus continuously. Also, half-depressing the shutter prompts it to reacquire focus.

Sound is recorded in 16-bit 48KHz PCM stereo though you can choose to disable audio and record silent movies. You can adjust microphone sensitivity and there's a wind noise reduction feature as well, though as mentioned previously there's no support for an external mic.

Wi-Fi. With the assistance of our senior lab technician Luke Smith I was able to get Wi-Fi working on an iPad, (iPad 2, iOS 7) but the task was not straightforward nor intuitive. My biggest gripe with Olympus is undoubtedly their manuals, as they tend to often be counter-intuitive and even misleading at times, and Wi-Fi was no exception. We were forced to resort to using tidbits of user advice we found on the internet, but were finally able to get it activated.

Downloading and installing the Olympus Image Share application was straightforward and simple enough. After that, though, the application prompted us to scan the QR code on the camera, but neither the camera nor the manual could guide us on how to make the camera display the code. We found out how to achieve this online, and learned that you need to tap the "Wi-Fi" icon on the Stylus 1's LCD, which again is not referenced by the camera or manual. (We later discovered this step is listed in the manual in a different section than the Wi-Fi section.)

Once installed and connected, the software works well and the camera controls are fairly good. You are only presented with a very low-res JPEG of the image however for shot composing (see above), which is somewhat distracting, but this is really the only issue we found overall. You can press the focus option to tap focus on the screen for any point on your image, which is very fast, zoom the lens as desired with the zoom bar on the left side of the screen, and then snap the photo when ready. Basic parameters such as ISO can also be controlled from the software as well.

Transferring and viewing images is also straightforward, and you can bring them in one and a time or as a group and then display them at varying zoom levels. In short, once we were able to get past the set-up hurdles and get used to the low-res viewer image, the rest of the experience was surprisingly good.

"3D" level gauge. The Stylus 1 is equipped with a 2-axis level sensor, and if you are patient enough to be able to actually find the 3D-style level gauge setting in the custom menu and activate it (there are two versions of level gauge available) then you will likely be very pleased with the end result. Once activated, you can use the "Info" button to toggle these on or off, as with the histogram and other display settings. The first type of level gauge display uses familiar bar graphs on the horizontal and vertical axes along the bottom and right side of your screen, while the second option displays a 3D version which is what you see below and is quite useful.

Shown in these images are what it looks like while the camera is heavily tilted, and also the green display once fully level. Note that you can also aim the camera downwards and the display adds a white ball (bubble) similar to a carpenter's level gauge, and is level when the ball is in the center of the crosshairs.

Nothing's perfect. We're always on the lookout for the "perfect camera" but as of this writing we have yet to find it. While the Stylus 1 has many facets that are high on the scale (great lens, great size, etc.) there is one area that leaves me wanting, and that is high ISO performance. As you can see from our print quality write-up in our Image Quality section below, ISO 800 is the highest ISO that will allow for a good 8 x 10 inch print. Go above that and you'll quickly begin to introduce noise into your prints, and by ISO 3200 the camera simply can't produce much of anything worthwhile for printing (although, as seen in the first report above, you may still be able to get good images for lower resolution online use up to about ISO 5000).

By way of comparison, the Olympus E-PL5 and its Four Thirds sensor (which has more than 5 times the surface area for light gathering than the Stylus 1 sensor) is able to produce a good 8 x 10 inch print all the way up to ISO 6400, 3 full stops above the Stylus 1, and at a lower pricetag as well (although without the long, constant aperture lens). This is where the big trade-off mentioned in the comments below by our reader Bigk comes into play. The Stylus 1 is so good for what it can do, and yet it's just not a great choice for low light photography unless you can control your lighting to a degree, learn to use the flash to its best potential, and don't have fast-moving subject matter.

Olympus Stylus 1 - Creative Art Filters and Scene modes
(no filter applied) Grainy Film
Dramatic Tone Pop Art
Multi Exposure (this effect is created in-camera)

The Stylus 1 packs a wealth of creative filters and scene settings. Above are examples of 3 of my personal favorite Art Filters including Dramatic Tone, which is a flavor pioneered by Olympus and now copied by several other manufacturers. Also displayed is Multi Exposure, which allows you to compose and snap one image, then compose and snap a second image, and the camera will process it into one combined image for you. The mode dial includes "Art" and "Scene" for quickly dialing in a desired setting without having to resort to the menus.

Shooter's report conclusion. Ah, parting is indeed sweet sorrow, as I very much enjoyed my time shooting with the capable and clever little Olympus Stylus 1 and do not want to give it back. It really is just chock full of cool for what it is and allows you to do in this price range and relatively small, light body. It's a 300mm eq. f/2.8 lens on a capable body that fits comfortably in a coat pocket and delivers high quality photographs in favorable light.

It feels solid and ergonomically sound, delivers incredible background blur when desired and is hugely customizable. The dial around the lens ring is both versatile and practical, as is the dedicated focus mode toggle. The practicality of the built-in EVF, tilt-screen and hotshoe for expandability round out the professional all-around quality of the camera. Drawbacks include less than stellar low-light performance and marginal capabilities for continuous autofocus, but these are natural trade-offs you'll encounter with virtually any sensor this size. The lens is also not as wide as many compacts for getting to optimal landscape focal lengths.

Drawbacks aside, however, at the time of this report the Stylus 1 is in a class of its own in terms of the capabilities it possess at this price point and size. I suppose it's time to start saving up for one of my own.

300mm eq., f/2.8, 1/400s, ISO 320 (slightly enhanced for shadows/highlights)
I'll conclude the Field Test just as it began, by zooming in and cranking open that bright lens!
(*potential shooters beware: this can be very addictive*)

If you'd like to explore the real-world images further, head over to the Stylus 1 Gallery page for a closer look at all of the sample gallery images, including some not on display here. And, as always, feel free to write out any questions you might have about the Stylus 1 in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

And to see how the Olympus Tcon-17 1.7x teleconverter performs with the Stylus 1, click here!

[Special note: Many of you may already know, but it's worthwhile repeating once again, that we don't apply any post-processing to our gallery images other than a size reduction for showing them onscreen unless we specifically mention it in the image caption area or review text. Clicking on the images will take you to a page where you can access the full size image exactly as the camera produced it. You're welcome to download these for your own testing purposes, play with them in post-processing, etc., to help you further evaluate the cameras' potential for your own individual shooting needs. Please contact us for permission to use for commercial purposes, or on another website.]

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