Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Olympus XZ-1 Digital Camera Review - Amazing Lens, But Could Be Better

Olympus XZ-1 Digital Camera Reviewed by Dmiko on .

I have always wanted a camera (other than my digital SLR) that had all of the following: 28mm wide angle lens, large aperture, optical image stabilization and a sharp lens. And now I have the Olympus XZ-1. I also use the Canon Digital Rebel XS digital SLR camera.

About the Olympus XZ-1 
The Olympus XZ-1 is a 10-megapixel digital camera with a 4x zoom, 28-112mm equivalent zoom range, f/1.8 maximum aperture at wide angle (f/2.5 at telephoto), optical image stabilization, a 3-inch OLED display with 610,000 pixels, 720p HD video mode and an accessory shoe. The minimum aperture is f/8 at wither wide angle or telephoto. 

The camera is powered by a rechargeable Li-Ion battery and stores pictures and videos on SD/SDHC memory cards. It has full manual control, aperture and shutter priority mode, art filters and a built-in Neutral Density filter (ND). It also has face detection and ISO range of 100-6,400. 

Getting Started 
The camera arrived with a small printed quick start guide, but the full manual is on the included CD, which I have not opened yet. The battery is charged in the camera either through the USB cable from the computer or though the same cable through the AC adapter with folding prongs. 

The charging can take up to 3 hours, but upon arrival took less than 2. I inserted the 4-GB Toshiba SDHC card I had, attached the straps to the lens cap and the camera itself and tried out the case I bought separately. Then I was ready to see the camera in action. 

The camera asked me for the current date and time, location and the language I would like to use for the menus. After taking a few pictures indoors, I realized that the f/1.8 lens and optical image stabilization allowed me to take reasonable pictures indoors with no flash. I also realized that he “Program” mode had face detection disabled by default for some reason, but enabling it in that more was easy. 

Ease of Use 

While the camera is very well built and has solidly-feeling controls, it is moderately sized and not light. To a point that you would only be able to put it in a pocket if it is a large pocket that you don’t mind bulging out. Which rules out most pockets. But at least the camera looks and feels substantial. 

It also doesn’t have a well-defined grip, which makes holding it slightly awkward. But, this aside, the controls are well laid out and the 3-inch screen is not only large, but has high resolution, is bright and easily viewed from any angle. In fact, it is too contrasty and makes pictures appear more colorful and contrasty than what you see when you view them on the computer. 

The top deck has a rotating mode selector with Auto, Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Art effects, Scene modes, etc. The large screen has enough real estate to show you all shooting parameters, settings, live histogram, etc. and have enough space for framing your subject. 

Settings are changed by rotating the ring around the lens, rotating the small ring around the control buttons on the back panel or pushing the said buttons. Sometimes it is not clear which does what. Also, using the ring around the lens is counter-intuitive in two ways. 

First, you would expect that ring to be used for either zooming or focusing, but you can’t ever use it for either. Even in manual focus mode, you have to use buttons to adjust focus. Why? 

Second, when you try to adjust the setting using that ring (e.g. ISO), the setting is actually adjusted in the opposite direction of what I expected. But you can get used to this, I suppose. 

There is no viewfinder (although you can buy and attach an electronic viewfinder (EVF). And the lens cap has to be removed and recapped manually. That is probably due to the size of the lens, and I accept that. 

The LCD is large, has high resolution and is bright, but it becomes barely visible in bright light. 

The camera powers up fast, in less than 2 seconds. Same applies to the shutdown. I could take pictures with no flash about once a second. And the battery lasted over 200 shots so far and is not discharged yet. 

Not only is the lens bright, allowing you to shoot in low light with relatively low noise; it is also very sharp. Unlike most cameras that exhibit blur in corners of the frame, this one has is sharp corner to corner at wide angle at all apertures and is only slightly blurry in corners at full telephoto and its largest aperture of f/2.5. 

In JPEG mode, the barrel distortion at wide angle is very mild and pincushion is low at telephoto. In RAW mode, there is more barrel distortion at wide angle. There is some purple fringing at both wide angle and telephoto in the corners in the areas of high contrast. 

As most zooms, this lens behaves best in the middle of the zoom and aperture range, but even at very wide angle and f/1.8 it was sharp and therefore detailed. One issue with such a big lens though is flare. And unlike some mega-zoom models from Panasonic, there is no lens hood included. Plus you have to buy an adapter to use filters, although I found one for only $7. 

Formats, Settings and Modes 
You get a choice of several resolutions and 2 compression levels for each (Fine or Standard). You also get a choice of saturations, with Natural being default. Natural is not something I expected Natural to be. From using Fuji cameras, I am used to Natural being soft, muted colors. In the case of this Olympus though, Natural means pleasing to the eye with saturated colors, enhanced blues and reds. But there are other modes for muted colors, vivid colors and even monochrome. 

There are also art filters, including the one that looks like black and white grainy film and another for soft focus. 

There is an Auto Gradation setting that helps preserve shadow detail in harsh light. It works very well. 

The flash is extended when you slight the corresponding switch. The flash is slightly uneven at the wide angle and slightly dim at telephoto as well as in most shots indoors where I used automatic settings. But you can adjust the flash output to compensate. Plus it is useful to have a slightly dim flash if you want to combine available light with the flash. The flash recycles in 4 seconds. 

There is strong detail and low noise at ISO 100. Some chroma noise visible at ISO 200 in very low light, but not in moderate to bright light. ISO 400-800 result in more noise and less detail. Fortunately, with wide available apertures and sensor-shift optical image stabilization, there is normally little need to venture into higher ISO range. 

The camera has automatic focusing as well as manual focusing. The automatic focusing is aided by face detection and by AF-assist light in low light. It has little trouble focusing in low light. 

With 10 Megapixels of resolution and relatively low noise, you can print up to 13x19 at ISO levels up to ISO 400 with good results. 4x6 prints are okay up to ISO 1,600. I wouldn’t go higher than that, but you can if you absolutely have to. 

USB Interface 
The USB 2.0 interface on the camera is very fast. I figured it is close to 8 MB/sec. I prefer to use the card reader though because it does not discharge the camera’s battery and doesn’t make you plug any cables into the camera. 

Excellent lens, sensor, large LCD, great build quality, looks and performance, value.

Not compact, strange control choices, filter adapter sold separately.

Bottom Line 
I am happy with the Olympus XZ-1 and plan to use it a lot. Although it is not pocket-able, it is still more compact than an SLR and produces pictures that are of better quality than the compact models. Plus it has all the flexibility I need, including full manual control, ND filter and RAW mode.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

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