Compact cameras with fast, professional-style lenses have been blowing up big time in the past year.
However, Olympus only recently joined the fun. Yes, the company did produce some point-and-shoot style models with “fast” apertures back in the early 2000s — the chunky 4-megapixel Olympus C-4040, with its f/1.8 lens was one of our favorites at the time. But of late, its focus has been on mirrorless, interchangeable lens, Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the PEN E-PL2.
All of that changes with the new 10-megapixel Olympus XZ-1, a stylish little camera with an impressive attached lens: a 4x zoom (28-112mm equivalent) with a maximum aperture of f/1.8.
The lower the aperture number, the wider the opening in the lens, allowing more light to hit the sensor which (theoretically) makes for better photos in dim conditions. Camera nerds already know the importance of this — most professional photographers consider an f/1.8 DSLR lens an essential part of any camera bag — but at the consumer level, it’s a big step up from the norm.
With compact cameras, the f/1.8 designation is a little different though. You can only achieve that aperture when the camera’s lens is pulled back to the widest focal length — 28mm in the XZ-1’s case — and because the sensor in a point-and-shoot is so small, it’s hard to get that shallow depth of field to create beautiful background blur in portrait photos.
There are other benefits to a fast aperture though, not the least of which is that you can turn off that nasty flash on your camera and still capture crisp photos in the dark. Some of the XZ-1’s competitors, such as the 10-megapixel Canon Powershot S90 and Panasonic Lumix LX5, both of which boast f/2 lenses, are veritable low-light killers. They let you snap sharp photos of your pals at the pub no matter how bleary-eyed you’re feeling. In fact, we liked the LX5 so much we named it Camera of the Year for 2010.
In addition to its fast lens, the XZ-1 uses a larger-than-average imaging chip for a point-and-shoot: a 1/1.63-inch 10-MP CCD that’s the same size as the one in our favorite LX5. With this one-two punch, plus a slew of interesting features packed in a slim, attractive camera body, the XZ-1 should be quite the little sharpshooter, right? Well, yes and no.
Though the all-black XZ-1 I tested (it also comes in white) resembles some competing cameras in this category, there are a couple of differences. For one, that iZuiko-branded f/1.8 lens does not retract fully into the body like the lens on the S90, making the camera about an inch thicker than the Powershot at its widest point.
This wasn’t such a big deal — it’s still pretty thin — but what did annoy me was the dangling lens cap. If you decide to use the cap, you need to tie it down to the neckstrap eyelet with the included leash or it will fall off when the camera extends its lens while powering on. Good luck fitting both the neck strap and the camera leash into that eyelet though. It’s a struggle. On the other hand, if you decide to forego the cap, the protruding lens has a tendency to get smudged.
Also disappointing are the tiny buttons and overly Spartan layout on back of the camera. Since the XZ-1 is, ostensibly, aimed at photographers who might know their way around f/stops and shutter speeds, why is there no button on the camera for ISO, white balance, or other important creative features? Yes, you can access some of these using the Control Ring around the lens on the front of the camera, but it’s an extra step that will slow you down.
And, while the 3-inch OLED screen with a 610,000-dot resolution on back of the XZ-1 is sweet, the camera’s menu system is cluttered and counterintuitive. The napkin-sized Quick Start Guide was also not much help in making sense of the settings and menus. So if you want to do a deep dive on the XZ-1’s functions, you have to pop in a CD-R to view the full user guide. Not convenient.
The good news is that when you figure everything out on the XZ-1, it hums like a well-oiled machine. The camera uses Olympus’ TruePic V processor and it powers on and is ready to shoot in about a second and a half. Shutter lag is almost non-existent in good light and only minor in low light. I also liked the red one-touch video button on back of the camera below the mode dial, which immediately gets the camera rolling in its 720p, 30fps HD video mode.
In decent and even mixed outdoor light, the Olympus XZ-1 produced wonderful photos full of warm, robust color and razor sharpness that, at times, rivaled the quality of a DSLR. We also really dug Olympus’ Art filters, a funky in-camera software function on the mode dial that tweaks your shots in interesting ways. Choices include punchy Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy (B&W) Film, Pin Hole, Diorama (Miniature) or Dramatic Tone. You can see the effect of the filters in real time on XZ-1’s screen and they work in movie mode as well (though in some cases the frame rate drops).
Personal favorites include the Dramatic Tone filter, which is sort of a crunchy HDR effect that makes clouds look ominous on overcast days. Also cool was Pinhole, which made a shot of the Flatiron Building (above) seem like it was taken from a different era. On the other hand, the Pop Art effect turned the brooding Chelsea Hotel into a bright funhouse. When paired with video mode, the Grainy Film filter makes your clips look like an old newsreel though the stuttering, slower frame rate is distracting.
Here’s a sample video shot with the Grainy Film filter.
While it wasn’t unexpected that the XZ-1 would perform well when the sun was shining, what was surprising was it didn’t fare better in low light. We used the camera to shoot Chef Ali El Sayed as he whipped up some tasty Egyptian food at the legendary Kebab Café in Astoria, Queens, and while the tiny eatery is dimly lit, the X-Z1 at f/1.8 should’ve been able to handle it. In our photos, Ali’s food appeared dark and unappealing even in shots captured at the fastest aperture. In real life, his mixed plate of Middle Eastern appetizers was full of tantalizing texture and tasted positively delicious.
The appeal of the having a lens with a fast aperture is that it’s not necessary to crank the ISO up and, potentially, introduce ugly image “noise” into your photos. To see if we could brighten our café shots, we increased the ISO to 3200, which introduced a new problem: Not only was there more noise in our shots than some competing models, the XZ-1’s JPEG processing algorithms smoothed out detail which made our images look soft. You’ll likely want to use the XZ-1 in RAW image mode to prevent this since you can’t adjust antinoise processing in JPEG mode.
We tried the same test later at the slightly-less-dim King Cole Room bar at the St. Regis Hotel and got similar results. We were, however, able to capture a moody shot of the bartender, illuminated only by his cash register. The camera’s HD movie mode had similar problems: beautiful clips in good light, but mushy looking video in poor lighting conditions.
All in all, the Olympus XZ-1 is something of a mixed bag. Though the camera and its vaunted f/1.8 lens and 1/1.63-inch 10-MP CCD sensor had the potential to make it a champ, it stumbled when the lights got low. On the other hand, in better conditions, the XZ-1 eclipsed its rivals, producing images that were at times positively sparkling. With its best-in-class specs, however, we do wish the XZ-1 was more of a complete package.
Photos by Dan Havlik/get-gadget. Front door photo courtesy of Olympus
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