Olympus XZ-1 £310

29th Jul 2011 | 14:50

Olympus XZ-1

Olympus has finally produced a 'serious' compact camera

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Great usability; Responsive controls; Good lens; Good images at lower ISO; Good supplied software; Wide aperture;

Dislike:

Some noise at higher ISOs; Smaller focal length than some;

Olympus XZ-1: Overview

The 10-million-pixel Olympus XZ-1 enters a market in which compact and compact system cameras are becoming increasingly popular.

In addition to the burgeoning collection of interchangeable lens hybrid models, the enthusiast photographer who wants to travel a bit lighter now has options available from Canon (PowerShot G12), Fuji (X100), Leica (X1), Nikon (Coolpix P7000), Panasonic (Lumix DMC LX5), Ricoh (GR Digital III) and Sigma (DP1x and DP2s) as well as Olympus.

Update: See our video review below

So if the XZ-1 is to prove a commercial success for Olympus it's going to have to offer snappy performance and deliver top-knotch images.

With the exception of the APS-C format models from Sigma and Leica (and Fuji in the next few weeks), the Olympus XZ-1 has the largest sensor of the popular enthusiast-level compact camera collection, with a 1/1.63-inch CCD unit. This is only matched by the Panasonic LX5, while the Canon G12, Nikon P7000 and Ricoh GRD III have 1/1.7-inch devices. A larger sensor should give the Olympus camera an advantage as it often allows for bigger photosites, which usually means less image noise.

Another reason to get excited about the Olympus XZ-1 is that it is the first compact camera to have a lens with the Olympus Zuiko moniker. The iZuiko Digital 6-24mm f/1.8-2.5 optic is equivalent to a 28-112mm lens on a 35mm camera.

Impressively, even at its longest point this lens has a wider maximum aperture than the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000 lenses at their widest setting. This affords a much higher level of control over depth of field than is normally available with a compact camera. It also means that faster shutter speeds are available in low light to help cut down camera-shake.

The chance of blur from involuntary camera movements spoiling images is further reduced by the Olympus XZ-1's sensor shifting image stabilisation system, which is claimed to extend the safe handholding shutter speed by up to 2 stops.

Unlike the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000, the Olympus XZ-1 doesn't have an optical viewfinder built-in, though given the pokey nature of the Canon and Nikon units, this isn't that much of a hardship. There is, however, a port that allows an optional electronic viewfinder (EVF) to be attached and mounted in the Olympus XZ-1's hotshoe. In the absence of a viewfinder, images are composed on the XZ-1's 3-inch 610,000 dot LCD screen.

Although there are 6 Art Filters and 18 automatic scene modes (including a double exposure mode) that tailor the exposure and white balance etc to the subject, enthusiast photographers are more likely to choose the XZ-1 because it has program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes.

In these advanced modes shutter speed can be adjusted in the range 60-1/2000 sec, with the bulb option allowing exposures as long as 16 minutes, while sensitivity can also be adjusted in 1/3EV steps from ISO 100 to ISO 6400. In case ISO 100 isn't quite low enough, the XZ-1 has a built-in ND filter that can be used to cut out three stops of light. Light measurements may be made using 324 Digital ESP, centre-weighted average or spot metering.

The Olympus XZ-1's Trupic V processing engine allows 1.2-million-pixel images to be captured at up to 15fps (without the mechanical shutter moving) in High Speed Sequential shooting mode. However, around 20 full resolution JPEG images can be captured at a rate of 7fps.

As we might hope for a top-end compact camera, the Olympus XZ-1 allows images to be saved as raw or JPEG files (or both simultaneously) and there's plenty of control over the appearance of images via the Picture Mode and Gradation (dynamic range) options (auto, high key, normal, low key).

Impressively, in addition to providing the Olympus XZ-1 with a small pop-up flash unit, Olympus has given it the ability to trigger compatible flashguns such as the FL-50R and FL-36R wirelessly.

Video technology is also present and 1280x720 pixel movies may be recorded at 30fps as AVI Motion JPEG files, with mono sound via the built-in mic or stereo via an external mic.

It all adds up to a comprehensive package and on paper at least the Olympus XZ-1 seems a worthy competitor to the Canon PowerShot G12, Panasonic LX5, Nikon Coolpix P7000 and Ricoh GRD III.

Olympus XZ-1: Build and handling

Olympus has opted for understated elegance with the XZ-1 body. It feels well made and comfortable to hold. The XZ-1's body isn't littered with control buttons and dials, so even though it's small (think Olympux XZ-1 vs Panasonic LX5 or Olympux XZ-1 vs Canon S95 rather than vs Canon G12 or Nikon P7000) there is still room for your fingers and thumb.

While the front of the camera is smooth and grip-free (the raised letter of the Olympus badge provides the only purchase) the rear has a textured rubber pad in the natural thumb resting position and this helps to make the camera feel safe in your grasp. It prevents the XZ-1 from slipping between your fingers when composing a shot one-handed.

Of course keeping the number of buttons down means that there are a few direct controls missing. There's no sensitivity or white balance button or dial for example. Fortunately these options and 11 others can be reached reasonably quickly via the XZ-1's control screen, which is accessed by pressing the OK button the camera back.

Although it's not unusual for a compact camera (or an SLR for that matter), the Olympus XZ-1 has an exposure compensation button which is used in conjunction with the adjustment dial. I much prefer the immediacy of the exposure compensation dials found on the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000, but these are substantially larger cameras.

When you look at the Olympus XZ-1 vs the Canon S95, the XZ-1 also has a dial around the lens barrel that is used to select the aperture setting in aperture priority and manual exposure mode, and shutter speed in shutter priority mode. It's quick, easy to use and given the unusually large number of aperture settings that the Olympus XZ-1 has for a compact camera, it's much better than continual button pressing.

It's not a major issue, but I found that the mode dial changed position fairly easily, and on a few occasions the camera switched modes while I was carrying it between shots. A mode dial lock would prevent this, but it would also slow down deliberate changes. The message for the XZ-1 is to check the mode dial before taking a shot.

In summary, the Olympus XZ-1 is very pleasant camera to use. Olympus has kept the menus short and to the point, but there are few occasions when it is actually necessary to use them. There are automatic shooting options available for the less experienced photographer (iAuto and scene modes etc) as well as more advanced options for enthusiast photographers. Unless the ambient light is very bright, the 3-inch, 610,000-dot LCD screen also provides a decent view of the image being composed, but it's a little over-saturated.

Olympus XZ-1: Performance

With 10 million photosites on a 1/6.3-inch sensor the Olympus XZ-1 isn't going to be able to match the image quality of a DSLR, but in good light when low sensitivity settings are used it can match the output from its main competitors. In fact, in some conditions its raw files have more detail than those from either the Canon G12 or the Nikon P7000.

To achieve this the files need to be processed using the supplied Olympus Viewer 2 software, as this is the only way that the Noise Filter can be turned off. Even then, the lack of chroma noise in the final image makes it clear that there's a fair bit of noise removal activity still going on.

When viewed at 100% on the computer screen, high sensitivity images have quite strong edges around softer even-toned areas. If the noise filter is left in its default Standard setting, images taken at higher sensitivity values look almost like water colours at Actual Pixels (100%) on screen, with well defined edges surrounding soft, smudgy patches. The effect is even noticeable at ISO 400, though it is much less so.

While pixel peeping is interesting, it's the results at more sensible viewing and printing sizes that are important. At the lower sensitivity settings the Olympus XZ-1 is capable of producing images that make very pleasant A3 prints. This is even true in some cases with the very highest sensitivity setting, ISO 6400, but I wouldn't take this for granted and would only use it where strictly necessary. It is safer to keep prints to A4 size or smaller if the images are shot at ISO 6400 or 3200.

Images of strongly linear subjects reveal that the XZ-1's iZuiko lens isn't able to correct distortion completely. It's most noticeable at the wide-angle end where barrel distortion is visible, especially in close-up images. Pin cushion distortion is also apparent at the telephoto end of the lens, but it's less noticeable than the distortion at the wide-angle end. Although Olympus Viewer 2 has a distortion correction control it isn't able to correct the most extreme bending visible in macro images.

On a more positive note, chromatic aberration is not an issue and I only found a few very limited examples of it in my images from the Olympus XZ-1. The majority of the brightly backlit edges in my images show no sign of chromatic aberration.

Olympus has a good reputation for colour reproduction and the XZ-1 doesn't call this into question. The auto white balance system also performs well in a variety of lighting conditions, often capturing the atmosphere of mixed lighting without overly correcting or totally eradicating any colourcast. Even when shooting under a heavily overcast sky, however, the Cloudy white balance produces images that are too warm to be natural.

In the default Natural Picture Mode the Olympus XZ-1 produces punchy, vibrant images, which push the 'natural' description a little, but are nevertheless likely to find favour with most users. As usual, on many occasions the results from the Monochrome Picture mode look better when the contrast is pushed to its highest value.

The overwhelming majority of the images shot during this test were taken with the XZ-1's metering set to its general-purpose 324-zone multi-pattern mode. Although I had to adjust the exposure using the compensation facility occasionally, it was no more often than I would expect, and in some instances is was unnecessary when I expected it to be required. In fact, even when shooting with a bright overcast sky in part of the frame, the XZ-1 managed to correctly expose the main subject in the foreground with no intervention from me.

Thanks in part to the development of compact system cameras, contrast detection AF systems have improved a fair bit over the last couple of years. The XZ-1's AF system is on a par with its competition and is probably assisted by the brighter than average lens, which allows more light to reach the sensor. It struggles when light levels drop or subject contrast goes down, but it is respectably quick in more average lighting conditions.

I found the AF Tracking system has a mixed performance. On some occasions it managed to latch onto and follow a fairly low contrast subject as it moved around the images frame, while on others it failed to follow a more distinctive subject. When it works it's very good.

I had less success with the XZ-1's manual focus system. Although the camera displays an enlarged section of the scene, there's no focus scale to give any indication of where the focus point is. Also, the level of detail visible isn't high enough to allow you to set the focus with a great degree of confidence.

Olympus XZ-1: Image quality

As part of our review process we've implemented a new testing procedure. To test the Olympus XZ-1 image quality, we shot our resolution chart.

If you look at our 100% crops below or download the images and view the central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, at ISO 100 the Olympus XZ-1 is capable of resolving up to 22 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files. Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

test chart

JPEGs

ISO 100

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 100 Score: 22 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 200

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 200 Score: 20 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 400

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 400 Score: 20 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 800

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 800 Score: 18 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 1600

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 1600 Score: 14 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 3200

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 3200 Score: 12 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 6400

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 6400 Score: 12 (Click here to view full-res version)

Raw files

ISO 100 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 100 Score: 22 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 200 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 200 Score: 20 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 400 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 400 Score: 20 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 800 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 800 Score: 18 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 1600 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 1600 Score: 18 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 3200 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 3200 Score: 16 (Click here to view full-res version)

ISO 6400 raw

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 6400 Score: 14 (Click here to view full-res version)

Olympus XZ-1: Sample photos

test shot 1

Olympus XZ-1 Review: JPEG at f/2.8 and ISO100 using macro focus mode (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 2

Olympus XZ-1 Review: Raw at f/2.8 and ISO100 using macro focus mode (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 3

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 400 raw file with noise filter turned off post capture (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 4

Olympus XZ-1 Review: ISO 400 raw file with noise filter at Standard setting (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 6

Olympus XZ-1 Review: 28mm (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 5

Olympus XZ-1 Review: 112mm (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 7

Olympus XZ-1 Review: Monochrome mode with contrast set to its maximum of +2 (Click here to view full-res version)

test shot 8

Olympus XZ-1 Review: Taken in very overcast conditions, this image taken using AWB is neutral (Click here to view full-res version)

Olympus XZ-1: Noise and dynamic range

These graphs were produced using data generated by DXO Analyzer. The raw files are analysed with no conversion or processing to enable us to evaluate the intrinsic image quality of the sensor. This avoid the problems that arise from the fact that different raw converters produce very differnt results. We also analyse JPEG images with the camera in its default settings, so we can see what you get straight from the camera.

Olympus XZ-1 Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) graph

Signal to noise ratio

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner image. As we would expect, the JPEG images have less noise than the raw files and the level of noise goes up with sensitivity and thus image quality decreases. The difference between the raw and JPEG files gives an indication of the amount of in-camera noise reduction applied.

As we analyse more cameras we will add to this graph to allow comparisons to be made.

Olympus XZ-1 Dynamic range graph

Dynamic range graph

Our analysis indicates that the dynamic range of the XZ-1's raw output decreases in an almost linear fashion from just over 10EV at ISO 100 to around 4.5EV at ISO 6400. The in-camera optimisation, which happens automatically to make images closer to print-ready, means that JPEG files have a higher dynamic range than simultaneously captured raw files. JPEG dynamic range bottoms out just above 7EV at ISO 6400.

Olympus XZ-1: Verdict

Olympus has managed to produce a compact camera that is a real joy to use. It's perfectly pocket sized, jumps quickly into action and has responsive controls that are sensibly laid out. The wide aperture lens also means the camera can be used handheld where some others can't and a greater degree of background blur is possible.

Although they are not completely without fault, the images are also very good provided the lower sensitivity settings are used. It's also worthwhile shooting raw images so that they can be processed through the supplied software, Olympus Viewer 2, which is really rather good.

It may not have as versatile a focal length lens as the Nikon P7000 and Canon G12, or some of the direct controls, but the XZ-1 has a much wider maximum aperture and is considerably smaller. Its controls are also more responsive than the Nikon P7000's.

Well done Olympus: you've made choosing a high-end compact camera much harder for enthusiasts.

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