Camera manufacturers are a little bit scared these days: scared that the demise of the cheap-o point-and-shoot digital camera may be nigh. Yes, they said it would never happen, that people would never turn to the cruddy imager in their cell phone for all their snapshots, that compact point-and-shoots would always take superior photos simply because their imaging chips were bigger and they used real lenses. But they didn’t anticipate Facebook and photography apps or the ease (and fun!) of sharing phone photos via text message, WiFi, 3G etc.
So instead of low-end pocket cameras, manufacturers are now shifting their focus to higher end compacts with bigger profit margins, hoping consumers will recognize just how much better these cameras are than their iPhones et al. I’ve looked at quite a few of these models lately—the 10-megapixel Canon PowerShot S95 and Panasonic Lumix LX5 being my favorites—and can report that they are capable of taking excellent photos despite still having image sensors the size of your pinkie fingernail.
One way manufacturers have worked around this deficiency is by installing lenses with fast maximum apertures in these cameras; for instance, the S95 and LX5 both have lenses capable of achieving f/2 when shot at their widest focal settings. The thinking is, if you have a bright lens capable of letting in a lot of light you won’t need to shoot at higher ISOs, which are the typical noisy bugaboo for compacts. Though an f/2 lens on a point-and-shoot is certainly a far cry from an f/2 lens on a DSLR, I’ve found they do a pretty good job in low light.
A company that has stayed out of this recent trend, until now, is Olympus, which has been busy churning out Micro Four Thirds PEN cameras such as the E-PL2 (reviewed here last month.)
Olympus actually has a history in this small/fast category. Its 2.1MP C-2040, released in 2000, had an f/1.8 lens, 3x zoom lens as did its 4-megapixel C-4040, released in 2001. I particularly remember the C-4040 garnering a cult following among pro photographers looking for a high-end, compact camera to throw in their bags.
Well, it took Olympus a while to plunge back into these waters but they’ve finally arrived with the small and slender 10-megapixel XZ-1, which has been making a splash mostly because of its advertised f/1.8, 4x zoom lens. (Aperture range is f/1.8-2.5 depending on where it’s zoomed. The smallest achievable aperture is f/8.) I recently had a chance to test the XZ-1 out and here’s how I thought it stacked up against the competition.
The design of the slender all-black version of the XZ-1—it also comes in white—looks remarkably similar to the Canon S95 and to other cameras in this class but there are a few differences. For one, the iZuiko-branded, 4x zoom lens (28-112mm equivalent) lens does not retract into the camera body and requires a lens cap. This is more annoying than it sounds.
If you don’t use the lens leash to fasten the cap to the shoulder strap eyelet, it’ll pop off when the XZ-1 extends its lens while powering on. Also, it is damn near impossible to fit both the shoulder strap and the lens leash into the tiny strap eyelet. On the other hand, if you leave the cap off, the lens gets easily smudged. This whole set-up could have been designed better.
There are other questionable design decisions. Though it’s an attractive, minimalistic camera, it’s almost too minimal. For instance, some important buttons have been left off the exterior of the camera including ISO and White Balance. I understand these are supposed to be accessed and adjusted via the Control Ring around the lens—a set-up borrowed directly from the S95—but I still find the configuration to be too slow. (I felt the same way about the S95.) I do like the one-touch video button on the back of the XZ-1, which lets you quickly start shooting 720p HD movies. There’s ample manual control and options for shooting RAW and RAW + JPEG in varying compression levels. But many of these options are buried in Olympus’ confusing menu system; and the 3-inch OLED screen with 610,000 dots of resolution is nice but gets cluttered up with icons to denote which settings are on or off. (You can rid of these icons by toggling through the display settings using the INFO button.)
Though the XZ-1 is bigger and thicker than the S95—in part because its lens does not retract—it feels aimed at slightly more advanced shooters. Details such as the hotshoe on top and the accessory port will let you expand this camera beyond point-and-shoot status. One of my favorite new accessories is Olympus’s Macro Arm Light. In this way, the XZ-1 offers a richer photographic experience than some competing models.
Overall the XZ-1 is a relatively fast performer. It uses Olympus’ TruePic 5 processor and can power on and be ready to shoot in just a second and a half. And other than being bogged down by confusing menus I never felt like I had to wait for the camera as was the case with notoriously slow models such as the Nikon P70000.
Overall, image quality was fairly decent from the Olympus XZ-1 but I really expected it to be better. In good light, the camera and its 1/1.63-inch (same size as the one in the LX5), 10-megapixel CCD excelled, capturing crisp, sharp images. Though it’s hard to get a compact camera, even one with a fast lens, to render good background blur because of the small chip size, which limits depth of field options, the XZ-1 could shoot some pretty nice portraits. Of course, they were nothing like the bokeh I could produce with the new Nikon 85mm F/1.4 G, also reviewed in this issue, but that goes without saying.
Where the XZ-1 disappointed was in its low-light performance. Though an f/1.8 lens is not drastically different from an f/2.0 lens in a pocket model, the XZ-1 produced only mediocre results in tough lighting scenarios where competing cameras such as the S95 and LX5 shined.
I used the XZ-1 to photograph a chef in a dimly lit kitchen as well as some of the dishes he created and even with the lens wide open at f/1.8, my images were not as bright or as sharp as results from those two other models. It’s important to note that I deliberately tried to shoot at as low an ISO as I could—in this case, it was ISO 200—to try to keep my images noise free. I repeated the same set-up during an indoor basketball game with similarly mixed results.
Part of the point of having a camera with a fast lens is that it lets you shoot at low ISOs in dark conditions but it shouldn’t, necessarily, produce dark results. When I cranked the ISO up to the 1600-3200 range, two other problems surfaced. One was excessive noise and the other was over-aggressive smoothing algorithms for my JPEGS, which left some detail squished. With RAW images, results were much better across the board and unless the XZ-1 gets a much needed firmware update to correct this issue, I suggest shooting RAW exclusively with this camera. You’re much more likely to get the results you expected from a camera and lens with these top-line specs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The XZ-1 is a good first entry from Olympus into the increasingly popular small camera/fast lens category but it’s not without a few bugs. On the positive side, the 10-megapixel XZ-1 is a small, attractive and portable camera which is saying a lot considering how many features are packed inside, not the least of which is the camera’s f/1.8-2.5, 4x zoom (28-112mm equivalent) lens. There are some bothersome choices with the design of the camera, including an awkward lens cap configuration, the lack of external ISO or WB balance buttons, and a confusing menu system. As an outdoor shooter in good light, the XZ-1 shined, producing high quality images on par with those you get from a DSLR. But I really expected the camera’s f/1.8 lens to do better in low light. The same goes for the XZ-1’s 10-megapixel, 1/1.63-inch CCD, which produced noisy images at high ISOs with aggressive smoothing that squished detail. I hope Olympus sticks with this category though; the XZ-1 a good start that just needs some further tweaking.
Pros: Solid camera build with options for expandability for advanced shooters; fast overall speed; excellent image quality in good light; f/1.8 aperture is great for portraits.
Cons: Was not the consummate low-light killer we had expected considering the specs; confusing menu system; over aggressive anti-noise processing smooths out image detail in JPEGs.