Review – Olympus XZ-1 camera – Capable Fun in your Pocket

One look at a listing of cameras in the marketplace these days shows that the competition within the point-and-shoot camera market is as intense as any consumer battle you can find. There are so many models to choose from – by the time you settle on a model, new ones have already been released. From cameras that cost as little as $30 to advanced models costing 30 times that much, selection isn’t a problem. One difference is that newer models offer professional features and capabilities, including the ability to shoot in low light with faster lenses, and in the RAW format. The Olympus XZ-1 camera is one of the prime players in this field. Don’t want the size and bulk of an Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (EVIL) model such as the Olympus Micro 4/3 models, but still want the capabilities? We took a serious look at the Olympus XZ-1 to find out how it fared.

After carrying around DSLRs for years, we appreciate the advent of small cameras that can fit in your pocket with professional quality like the 35mm rangefinder of old. Such portability has been a dream of serious photographers for a long time. The Olympus XZ-1 is the size of a conventional point-and-shoot camera, but fitted with a fast iZuiko f1.8-2.5, 6.0-24mm (28-112mm equivalent angle of view in 35mm cameras) lens. While the 4X zoom won’t be confused with any of the “superzoom” models on the market, it proved sufficient for a variety of shooting scenarios. A moderate wide-angle lens is 28mm, allowing for the ability to shoot close-up and comfortably in tight situations without the perspective distortion of wider lenses. At the far end of the zoom, the 112mm angle of view is a pleasing focal length for a portrait lens. We found the zoom to work well in situations from baseball games to landscapes.

As a low-light shooter, I was keen to test the camera in varying situations. Right off the bat, the large 3-inch OLED display was a joy to use. Sharp, bright, crisp, and viewable even in sunlight, it worked well even when the light levels dropped. It did exhibit ghosting from bright sources such as the glare from a reflection from an instrument on stage, but the refresh rate was fast enough that it updated itself quickly. Having worked with the E-P1 and E-P2 models, the one accessory that I found essential  (aside from extra batteries which are always important) is the VF-2 electronic viewfinder that slides into the hot shoe and mates with a small accessory port just below it. With this in place, the camera becomes an eye-level camera: small, quick, and accurate with no need to worry about bright ambient light. It also proved great in low-light situations and I recommend it highly. At 400 ISO, the imagery was sharp, with the camera exhibiting its best balance of ISO rating, and the flexibility to insure a high enough shutter speed to keep motion blur at bay. I shot at higher ISOs up to 3200, and it performed as one would expect of a small sensor camera, with 800 producing some fine images. The system has mechanical shift-sensor image stabilization similar to the systems they first introduced in Olympus’ E-Volt DSLR models. Using it, I found I could consistently obtain sharp images in the ½ second exposure range as long as I was braced against a stationery object.

JPEGs were sharp and well-balanced, and exhibited an accurate color pattern and response. In RAW mode the files had far more flexibility in terms of noise reduction, highlight protection, and shadow detail. With a small sensor, sharpening is critical and when using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.0 it was easy to sharpen images, pulling the most detail with the ability to mask and protect areas where sharpening isn’t desirable. Normally we preach to shoot in RAW and not JPEG, but image processing from the TruePic V processor made me question at time the quality difference. In many cases the JPEG images exhibited highly corrected noise at high ISO, and the images color was often superb. I began to shoot in RAW+JPEG format so that I had the RAW file for tweaking, with the JPEG providing a “no compromise” file that could also be used as a guide to adjusting the RAW.

One feature that I found to be both fun and functional was the Panoramic mode. It couldn’t be easier to use. Switch to Panoramic mode, imagine that you will be taking three overlapping images, and then take the first image moving the camera till the arrow on the display meets a crosshair at which point the camera takes another image; do it once more and that’s it. You’ll need to wait a minute while the camera processes, stitches, and saves the resulting image. I covered a visit from President Obama at the Philadelphia Airport, and while I was shooting with DSLRs from the press area with telephotos, I pulled out the XZ-1 and shot a panorama with Air Force One in the background, which enabled me to portray the overwhelming size of the aircraft. My only issue with the mode was the inability to shoot in RAW mode, so what you get is final. I also wished I could have the option of shooting more than three consecutive images; upwards of six would have been great from some wide ranging scenes.

The build quality is first-rate and the included accessories get you off to a good start. I also tested the video capability, and found the quality in both SD and HD modes to be excellent. If you are looking for a small, easy-to-carry camera that shoots in RAW and JPEG mode, with a fast sharp lens, then the Olympus XZ-1 is a great choice. The Olympus XZ-1 is a Mac Edition Radio Holiday Pick!

Harris Fogel, posted 12/9/2011

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