Olympus XZ-1 review

After the great Fuji X100 review (the third most viewed post in March), Dan shared his experineces with the Olympus XZ-1 camera. You can follow Dan in Twitter @ZDP189. Here is his review:

Olympus XZ-1 - stuck with it

Executive Summary
If money is no object, just about any normal consumer would buy an XZ-1 over the competition. It’s so tactile, the front lens element looks sooo big and it makes some great photos at the touch of a single button. Ricoh camera fans are not normal consumers. We want intuitive control, detail, the exact image we envisioned every time. The XZ-1 is not that camera.

Build Quality, Fit and Finish
The first thing that struck me about this camera is its beauty. It is slim, has subtle curves, and every surface is tacile. The ridges of your finger tips tingle at every touch. There is a sexy rubber thumb pad that you can’t help but rub. It has a fascinatingly enormous front element.  The lens control ring feels cut, not moulded; the aluminium shell has the most sensual matt surface. It’s not particularly robust, but it’ll do. The top plate is brushed, coated aluminium. The shutter button has a machine turned finish. There’s glittering, sparkling logos and highlights. It’s positively bling city. It entices you to pick it up, use it and own it.

It’s a trap.

Image Quality
The XZ-1 certainly has a fine lens, sensor, and control system. In daylight it is sharp, punchy and vibrant. Like the GX, it has a fast lens and image stabilisation so it can avoid high ISO and noise reduction for when it cannot. Like most compacts, Noise reduction is strong. On the XZ-1 it is always strong in low light, even in monochrome, which is obviously immune to chroma noise. There is no way to turn it down or off. Even RAW looks over-processed to me. It's fairly wide and offers impressive zoom. Zoomed in to the equivalent of 112mm, it’s still very clear and very fast at f/2.5. Here it easily out-resolves the naked eye. Subject isolation (background defocus) is reasonable at the long end, but it can’t compete against a camera with a micro four thirds or larger sensor camera. Large depth of field can be an advantage though, and I’d rather have a picture that is sharp all over than one that is precisely out of focus.

Stabilisation is helpful too and I find I can shoot stops below speeds suggested by the “SLR rule of thumb” where shutter speed is the inverse of the focal length. Dual Image Stabilization is a marketing term though. It’s not like multi-axis macro stabilisation. It’s just mechanical sensor-shift image stabilisation plus (in principle) a tendency to use a higher ISO.  However, it still favours the lowest possible ISO. For example with stabilisation on, it will shoot a 1/15s exposure at ISO 200 in P mode.

At the wide end, there is a bit of barrel distortion and at the tele end, some pincushion. There’s not too much vignetting. There’s definite purple and green fringing wide open with strong contrast, but I’m not too picky about that. I haven’t noticed flare to be a problem.

If you want shallow depths of field, emotive super wide angles of view and detailed, grainy monochromes, then this is not the camera you are looking for. However for 90% of the other circumstances you will get better quality images from the XZ-1. This is especially true for most less experienced amateurs who want to just press the button and get a nice sharp and contrasty picture with maybe some special effects thrown in.

Leave it in auto and don't try to do anything fancy and you'll get along with the XZ-1 just fine. It would be incorrect and unfair to say that you cannot shoot with reasonable control, but it's quirky to the point where you need to be familiar with how it works:

In P mode you cannot change the balance of aperture and shutter. Unlike iAuto mode, you cannot change them at all. The lens ring dial changes ISO, but you rotate the top of the dial to the left to select the ISO value to the right. It's fine when you get into the habit of doing the opposite of what you want. You have to because you can't customise the dial. You get EV compensation by left right on the cross pad or rotating the Wheel Controller (thumb wheel), but only after pressing the up button. The Wheel Controller works in the opposite direction to the lens ring. In A and S mode the ring works the aperture and shutter respectively and the dial does the ISO. But first press the OK button and use the up down arrow keys to find the ISO setting. You can't use the menu. And do remember that the dial works in the opposite direction to the ring. M is a bit stranger. The ring controls the aperture, but this time the shutter is controlled as you would the EV. Remember that on the dial the direction is the other way from the ring except because the shutter speed scale is reversed, dialing left makes the exposure go to the right, the opposite from the other three modes. If you dial the aperture to the left also dial the shutter to the left to compensate or you'll put the exposure off. It's a proper manual mode; ISO is manual. They have disabled the auto ISO in manual mode in case you try to use it like a modern P-mode. That's what iAuto mode is for. LOL.

I bet you are thoroughly confused by now. Imagine trying to remember all that while watching the subject and subconsciously setting up for a shot.

The settings drive me up the wall. Depending on the mode selected, lots of things are disabled, or taken out of your control. Olympus doesn’t tell you why, it just greys out the option. For example, Olympus doesn’t tell you in the manual that you cannot use digital zoom while shooting in any image quality setting that involves RAW. It took me a lot of fiddling to discover that. Maybe I should have been able to work that out for myself. Most people won’t.

Shutter response is not bad for a compact but there is no snap focus. There is no pre-half press full time prefocus either; the camera has to complete its focus and then fire. Autofocus is mercifully fast, unless it decides it's a macro shot and then it requires changing first. There are two kinds of macro, one for close portrait range and one for real close up macro. Please choose. Macro modes disable other features with a pop-up screen warning.

There's a big red button for video. Video access is obviously a high priority for the target market. There's a lovely big rubber bad to rest your thumb on too. Would it have killed them to offer an EV compensation control here? Then they could make the dial dedicated to shutter speed and the lens ring could control just aperture. Actually it'd have been nice to have two lens rings, the other for manual focus, like the X100, and just about every rangefinder made in the 1970’s.

I shouldn't get started on focus as it's a bit of a bugbear of mine. I guess I'll have to though. Manual focus is technically possible using the lens ring. What you do is find the MF mode hidden in the left cross control button (marked with a tulip which is the Olympus symbol for 'focus') and then the INFO button (which I suppose means not ‘Information’, but ‘shooting screen second drill down menu’). MF stands for Mystery Focus. There is no focus distance indicator. There is no AFL auto prefocus. I am not sure whether turning the lens ring to the left or right increases or decreases the range. Turn it till it looks right. There is a blurry and shaky magnification patch. Infinity focus can only be found through trial and error and highly subjective. I was unable to find it shooting a brightly lit building at night.

Luckily AF is fast and accurate under most lighting conditions that you'd want an image from. AF tracking is accurate and smooth. Like I said, leave it in auto and don't try to get too creative and you'll get on OK with the XZ-1.

Speaking of which, the mode dial needs a lock or a much stronger detent. The kind of person that the camera suits would get all confused if you left it in M mode or the wrong Scene or Art mode and all the pictures ‘come out bad’. It could easily get knocked off iAuto in a handbag or school bag.

The big, high contrast, high resolution OLED display is very good. It’s detailed, bright and doesn’t really dim till you get your eyeline so far away that you can’t really see the picture. The settings are all shown but around the periphery of the picture and they are overlaid so the picture doesn’t shrink. The amount of information displayed can be adjusted. The Rule of Thirds grid has been replaced with a Golden Ratio grid, which is better. I wish it was brighter and/or had auto adjustment. In blazing sunlight, it can’t be seen, even shaded with a hand. I honestly don’t fancy using the expensive and probably not very good accessory EVF. An optical viewfinder’s not suited to a zoom compact.

Finally, the problem with the beautifully curvey, slopey case is it tends to slip from your hand like the bar of wet soap on which it is modelled, unless you are holding it with both hands or on a strap. It’s a compact camera and belongs in your hand or pocket, so that’s not good. I am not confident that the camera body will stand being dropped without leaving at least a bad dent, so fit a neck or wrist strap. Also fit the lens cap retainer cord or you’ll lose it the first time you turn the camera on and forget to catch it. I bet the Chinese third party accessory makers quickly come up with a Ricoh LC-1 style three leaf cap.

Art Effects and Picture Editing
I'm always in two minds when it comes to art effects. I only use them when I'm feeling bold and lazy. You can't always tell that a photo is ruined on the camera LCD. I've a retired professional photographer friend that shot Angkor Wat on an Olympus Pen only to get home and regret having applied the effects. I always shoot RAW on valuable or tricky shots. Art effects are the opposite of RAW. RAW maintains as much information as was made available by the sensor without modification in the conversion to JPEG. Art effects modify the JPEG picture in such a way that you cannot get back to a regular looking picture that could be tarted-up in post processing at home.  The XZ-1 has a trick up its sleeve though: shoot in RAW with art effects applied.  The camera will write a JPEG with the art effects and keep a virginal RAW copy.  It’s a bit slower to write to the card, but RAW is very nice to have if you’ve messed up your JPEG.

The same goes for picture editing. I hoped for an X100 style RAW editor, but at least it does a RAW conversion the edit. There's shadow adjust, redeye fix, crop (lousy), aspect ratio (converts 4:3 to 3:2, 16:9, or “6:6”), black and white (no filters or channels), sepia (no tone select), saturation (narrow parameters), downsize for internet, and e-portrait. Of all, shadow seems the most useful. It does a good job, but it doesn't use the extra bits in the RAW data and quality drops.

Back to Art Effects... These aren’t too bad, although they tend to be overly dramatic and too strongly applied for my taste. I find that they dominate the picture. Pop art really punches up children’s paintings, like watching Art Attack on an old TV with saturation turned up. Soft focus is usable, grainy film is very contrasty; much more than Ricoh high contrast black and white and the fake grain is strong. I’d rather not use it as it is quite likely to result in a picture that I later wish that I had post processed by hand. Pinhole gives the image high contrast and vivid colour with some shift and strong vignetting. The vignette strength is not adjustable. It doesn’t behave like a classic pinhole, selecting a narrow aperture to increase depth of field and increase the exposure time. Diorama applies a gradient blur to the top and bottom of an image. At a distance it kind of works, but looks artificial. Having the image plane angle right helps. Close up it’s subtle, but I suppose there’s true depth of field effects going on. I would much rather have had an oval mask so I could use it to focus attention on the subject . Dramatic tone creates over the top HDR like images. It’s a fad, but it doesn’t do a bad job of it. It seems to find detail in even plain clouds. Very grungy.

Scene Modes
There are several scene modes and they range from useful to highly offensive. Neither the camera, physical manual, nor the detailed PDF manual describe them adequately.

e-portrait – This badly photoshops all the detail out of your subject’s skin to make them look like you've been clone tooled by a heavy handed preschooler. Never, ever use this. It’s not like a gentle soft focus, it says that the photographer though the subject was so wrinkly and pocked-marked that she should have had foundation applied with a trowel.

Portrait –Supposedly “Produces beautiful skin tones” (portrait colour pallete). I can’t tell the difference in skin tone, but it does activate face recognition focus.

Landscape – It’s just a filter that brings out greens and blues. It does focus hyperfocally, or increase depth of field. My camera picked 1/1000s, F3.2, ISO 100.

Night Scene – OK, I suppose. It picks vivid colour and sunny white balance.

Night portrait – Bizarrely this forces sunny WB so everyone gets a thick fake tan.

Sport – It combines high ISO with high shutter speed. It also selects continuous shooting, but allows doesn’t affect RAW/JPEG toggling, so this can be a bit slow. It selects vivid colour, but has white balance in auto.

Indoor – I’m not sure what it does. It selects a slightly higher ISO and forces the colour into vivid. Olympus is obviously enamoured with vivid.

Self Portrait – Essentially, it chooses vivid colour. I would have thought it would have picked a smaller aperture and limited the focus to two and a half feet, or selected macro, but no, you have to get your face dead centre, or it will focus randomly. In my case, it peered over my shoulder and locked onto the background. It liked the nice contrasty background, even though it had to pick the left most AF sensor point (you can’t pick the point, or and face recognition doesn’t work). It then picked a f/3.2 aperture to ensure my face was completely out of focus. Diabolical genius. Actually, I just figured out what went wrong. I am in the habit of shooting self portraits with the camera upside down, which the XZ-1 can’t handle. Still, if you are a kid with short arms or you want a close wide ‘Myspace shot’, the camera can’t focus that close.

Sunset – This enhances red hues. I like this and took some lovely shots with it on holiday.

Fireworks – This picks vivid colour (no surprises here.) It also drops the ISO and aperture till you get a 2 second exposure. This obviously requires a tripod. Olympus doesn’t tell you this in the documentation.

Multiple Exposures – A gimmick you'll test only once, whilst drunk.

Cuisine – it is supposed to make vivid macro shots for people who don't want to control such a critical and tricky shot. Guess what? It selects vivid colour and Macro mode 1.

Document – High contrast for document copying. Also vivid colour. Flash is forced off.
Beach/ snow – Cloudy white balance is selected. I think it does some exposure compensation. Colour is forced into ... standard. No, I’m kidding: vivid.

Underwater Wide – Reminds you to use a housing. LOL.

Underwater Macro. Ditto – I'll have to buy an underwater sandwich baggie thing. If it gets waterlogged maybe I can claim on travel insurance and buy a different camera.

Pet – My hamster was unable to operate the camera without assistance. Essentially, it’s like sport mode with Macro1 (medium range) focussing and AF tracking, which little Chi Chi will no doubt find very useful.

Panoramic – This is a potentially very precise motion pano system using 3 frames partly user aligned then computer matched and mask blended (takes forever). Unfortunately, I can't get it to work properly especially handheld. It butchers them together creating shocking mis-matches. Having just three frames creates a lot of distortion too. You really need a two axis tilt indicator too. And a panning tripod. And don’t image things that are too close, especially with obvious lines and planes like walls.

Low Light Mode
This does help to compose, but if you need it, image quality will be poor. What you really need is flash, but low light mode forces it off.

iAuto Mode
Normally I refer to this mode by any one of several derogatory names. On the Olympus XZ-1, iAuto is actually quite good. For a start, it doesn't select a random scene mode. It's more like a creative auto mode. You get (hidden) sliders for saturation, white balance (colour tone), brightness (EV) and background blur (aperture multi program) and you still have control over timer, aspect, size, flash auto/off. Stay away from using blur mode to get a larger depth of field in low light or ISO will get too high. It’s not much of a problem, as small sensor cameras have relatively greater depths of field.

The pop up flash is very controllable and not bad considering the flash lens is the size of a Tic-Tac. Automatic modes give pleasing images. It syncs at all speeds, upto 1/2000s, all energies, including full power and all focal lengths. It has hot shoe and wireless TTL control. Wow.

The camera is moderately battery hungry, finishing about one per day and a half on our last trip, but then we were carrying a few cameras and it didn’t get used heavily. In my normal use, I figure I’d expect to drain a battery in a camera-intensive situation such as a pool party, band party, or exploring a new city. Anticipating this, the camera store threw in an extra generic battery. The trouble is there is no external charger included and you have to recharge the camera with the USB cable. This means you can’t charge one battery while you use the other. It’s not the common or garden Mini-USB Series B cable either, it’s a special combo data cable that Olympus seem to use on several of their cameras. You cannot take photos while power is supplied by the special cable; it disables your camera.

Missing Features
This camera is so full featured that there’s just about nothing missing from it. The trouble is it isn't easy to get at those features. Anyway, given a free hand, I’d add an intervalometer, tilt indicator and a decent hand grip.

Would it be my choice?
The Olympus XZ-1 goes head to head against the very best of the premium compacts, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, Canon Powershot G12 and Samsung EX1.  Despite all I have said, I think the XZ-1 hangs with, or edges above all of these in terms of image quality and handling is a common problem.  However The Canon Powershot S95 and its predecessor the S50 have comparable performance and control, but come in a smaller, far more pocketable package and sit in a much cheaper price bracket.  The Ricoh GR Digital III and the recently discontinued Ricoh GX200 are also far more pocketable and are a complete joy to use.  I love these cameras to bits.  The technical image quality of the XZ-1 is better, but they have superior handling and snap focussing.  The XZ-1 may miss the opportunity that the Ricoh would have grabbed.  This means I end up with better images from the Ricohs, a higher proportion of pictures that I want to keep or display.

Olympus is mis-marketing this camera as a creative camera for photography enthusiasts. No, it’s an un-enthusiast camera, a camera for people who like to have control functions that they won’t use and don’t need to find in a hurry. Used as a high-end automatic point and shoot, it comes into its own, taking excellent photos.

That means it’s not the right camera for me, personally. I find it confusing and frustrating. I would much rather have an old Ricoh GX200. Normally I’d have sold it on, but it’s was a surprise present for a significant anniversary and I cannot do so without offending my wife. Rationalising my situation, it’ll be the camera I proffer whenever she wants to take a camera to photograph and video the kids at school. Maybe she’s the target market. A bit of duct tape (over the mode dial) and she’s good to go.


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