The Olympus XZ-1 incorporates the most classy design elements of its Canon and Panasonic competitors and has an amazing lens to match. (Image from Olympus Japan)
Updated 1 Feb with a new gallery of evening shots
Updated 5 Feb with more thoughts on the camera (no, I still love it)
I always tell people that I’m a Canon fanboy, but my first serious camera was actually an Olympus mju II compact film camera. You know, the one that came with a rock-solid 35mm f2.8 lens.
The good ole mju II from the film days.
I brought this small mju with me for a Nepal trekking holiday in 1998, and it turned in consistently great images even though I was untrained in photography then.
These days, I often have mixed feelings about Olympus. It sometimes demonstrates forward thinking in its products and really focuses on great image quality, but is often let down by its inability to follow up on a good thing. Or perhaps is just saddled by a poor marketing (read to the end).
Two years ago, Olympus created a whole new target market with the Pen series of Micro Four Thirds, but since then has lost momentum to Panasonic (GF series) and Sony (NEX series).
I love my beautifully designed EP-1, wrote extensively about it, and still use it weekly 18 months after I bought it. But the lack of prime lenses has dampened my enthusiasm for the system.
Olympus seems to think that coming out with cheaper bodies like the EPL1 and EPL2, or even fancy decals, will help its fortunes, but doesn’t seem to get it that the Pen series just needs a solid range of professional-grade lenses (ie. more bright aperture fixed lenses like the 17mm f2.8 instead of consumer grade zooms) to beat the competition.
Even as a faithful owner, I don’t think the Pen series is going to win the hybrid camera war with today’s state of affairs.
Now Oly has another shot at industry greatness, and that’s in the high-end compact camera segment with the new XZ-1.
Image from Olympus Japan
To be honest, I’ve not bothered with Oly’s compact digicams ever since my mju II died. In this segment, Oly lost its way trying to push a dead memory card format (remember the silly xD format? They took about 8 years to finally ditch it and of course, were very discreet about switching to SD cards) and middling camera tech specs.
The XZ-1 could well put Olympus ahead of the pack. In fact, the XZ-1 is so good, it could actually cannibalize Oly’s own Pen series.
THAT BIG, BEAUTIFUL LENS
Let me cut to the chase – there is no compact digicam today that matches the technical specifications of the XZ-1. It’s not obvious in product shots, but the zoom lens is huge compared to the camera body and is its strongest selling point.
The i.Zuiko lens, which does an equivalent of 28-112mm zoom, has a really impressive aperture range of f1.8 to f2.5.
In plain English, this lens sucks in a huge amount of light no matter the zoom range, allowing you to take sharp pictures in really low lighting situations. It is as capable as a dSLR prime lens in collecting light, and that’s why it’s so big in size. This is what we photogs call a “fast” zoom.
Another selling point is the lens contains ED (extra-low dispersion) glass for better image quality (reduce color distortions like purple fringing in high contrast bits) where most other compact digicams have normal glass.
So does this lens make the XZ-1 a professional camera for the masses? Nope. It does make it a great camera for professionals and other good photographers though!
Let me explain.
The tiny sensor in a compact camera is far inferior to that of a m4/3 or dSLR camera so you’ll never get professional-grade image resolution. But most people don’t need that kind of image resolution if they don’t print their photos.
Why, I’m an ex-photojournalist and all I do now is share 2 megapixel-sized images on Facebook.
So sensor size aside, what matters in a compact camera is the ability to take shots under any condition and the XZ-1’s impressive i.Zuiko lens does the job better than any camera out there. The nearest competition is Panasonic’s respectable LX-5, which goes slightly wider at 24-90mm, but takes in less light at f2.0-f.3.3.
Canon has been trying to take down the LX5 with its S90/S95, but I’ve stayed away from that camera due to its much weaker light collection (28-105mm, but with a terrible f2.0 to f4.9 aperture range). The XZ-1 effectively knocks out the Canon S95 from the high-end compact cam race and the Canon G12 is too bulky and irrelevant in today’s landscape.
I used to own a Panasonic LX-3 (read my old review here) due to its great lens, but when the XZ-1 was released, I sold off the old Panny straightaway.
OTHER GREAT HARDWARE BITS
The XZ-1 also features rock solid components like the following:
Light but rugged aluminium body. Coated in matte, the black version does not pick up fingerprints and is always cool to the touch. Exudes pure classiness.
A nice clicky front dial around the lens for changing major settings like aperture or shutter speed, or even photo filters. Hard to quantify this, but the “clickiness” is just right!
Decent pop-up flash that can be adjusted to do subtle fill-in flash with 1/64 flash output! Overall flash output is great and the flash shots don’t look “fake”, but natural thanks to the fast lens + fill-in flash capabilities. Also, thanks to its flash hotshoe, I also plonked on the FL-14 flash accessory from my Pen and it works well too, albeit flash-overexposure at anything less than a 1m away. Same problem when used on the Pen.
Ultra-sharp and color-accurate OLED screen. I could discern if my photos were wrongly exposed by 1/3 stops just by relying on this screen.
Sensitive and reliable shutter button. I don’t really care how many frames per second this camera can do (it’s about 2FPS I think). But good photographers need to trigger off their shots accurately to one-shot-one-kill and this camera does just that. I remember the days when there would be a pause between pressing the shutter button and getting the actual exposure on digicams. Thank goodness that’s history.
NOT SO GOOD HARDWARE
Why can’t Olympus build in an automated lens cover? The pop-off cover scares me because the lens’ front glass is so exposed, it could get easily scratched if accidentally brushed against some other object. And obviously, no screw-in filters are possible on this lens.
No ISO or White Balance button. Seriously, we need those, Oly.
Small rear wheel dial. I had the same type of rear wheel wear out (and replaced under warranty) on my Pen. In full manual exposure mode, this rear wheel is used for changing shutter speed on the XZ-1, and is a poor companion to the excellent front dial. Yes, I know that I won’t be using the manual mode most of the time on this camera (it’s really easy to change the exposure compensation using the same rear wheel dial), but one’s gotta be demanding right?
No image rotation? This is ridiculous, or maybe I haven’t read the manual, but I don’t think there’s a gyroscope in the camera. So when you rotate the camera when viewing the image, it doesn’t rotate to fill the screen automatically. You have to turn the front dial instead.
Ok, this is where I insert in my XZ-1 photos from the first day of shooting.
Not often that you’ll find a Chinese New Year decoration that matches Isabel’s clothes
For me, Olympus gear is only second to Canon when reproducing skin tones. The original E-series dSLR displayed really naturalistic film qualities, and the Pen improved on that further. The XZ-1 shares the same color rendition as the Pen, and that is nothing but good news.
You can expect very pleasing, yet not overdone colors from the XZ-1. You get warm tones while not losing the cool palette, all in the same picture. Other cameras, like the Panasonic LX3, just focus on reproducing the cool palette, which is not to everyone’s taste outside of Japan. And unlike Canon IXUS cameras, the XZ-1 avoids trying to be too punchy with bright colors.
Isabel takes flight, after lunch no less.
I’ll admit I haven’t tried every compact cam out there (why waste my time?) but the XZ-1 produces images that are really good in contrast, tone and saturation. I had a pretty good experience getting the right exposure and contrast in auto modes (Program, Aperture and Shutter Priority) such that there was little need to edit in Photoshop. That translates to dummy-proof photography for many people.
My kids’ idea of a breakfast conversation.
Art Filter: Grainy Film. Too aggressive with contrast, but still nice to use.
There’s only one issue with the image quality – there is a little too much noise-reduction going on in the XZ-1. Look, it’s not that bad considering most people never blow up their images to 100% on their computer. You will only notice it if you crop your images tightly, or zoom in to look at its 100% magnification in your photo editor.
For folks like me who are used to film grain and video noise, it’s always a bit disconcerting to see fine details smeared over to form a slightly “watercolor” look. But that’s the one compromise that has to be made with small sensors in compact cams – there’s really only so much detail you can squeeze out of it.
It’s not a dealbreaker in this case, but I’m sure there are a lot of pixel peepers (ie. amateurs who are more concerned about the gear rather than actual photography) out there who will miss the forest for the trees. If you want sheer detail and the ability to discern every strand of hair on a person’s head, just use a dSLR. Even a Pen will not give you that kind of fine detail.
I do wish Oly gave us the option to adjust the noise reduction so we can see what the image would have looked like otherwise.
And if you haven’t noticed, the Oly XZ-1 is 10 megapixels. I’m so thankful that camera makers have realized there is no point chasing after 14 or 16 MP in a small compact cam when it would only mean more image noise. Unless they can somehow increase the camera sensor size, 10MP seems to be the limit for balancing noise and resolution.
VIDEO QUALITY (Updated 1 Feb 2011)
I haven’t done extensive testing with the video function and so far it isn’t encouraging. The HD video quality isn’t particularly sharp or detailed. I need to go take more outdoor videos before I can say how it really is.
Well, I guess you can’t have it all.
CONCLUSION AND OTHER THOUGHTS
Morning games on the couch.
If you want the complete technical lowdown on the XZ-1, read the Dpreview.com hardcore review. I agree with most of its findings but I would also emphasize that readers remember that the XZ-1 is a compact camera, not a dSLR. I get annoyed sometimes when I read forums and you see people expecting the moon from a compact camera – well, keep dreaming guys.
A compact camera is essentially a compromise on many fronts to allow for convenience and portability. And the masses are easily satisfied with the quality they can get from a basic digicam. The XZ-1 is not the camera for them. Most people would spring for a S$400 digicam where possible and see little need for a S$699 XZ-1 (That’s the price I purchased at MS Color in Ang Mo Kio).
The XZ-1 falls into the highest end of the compact category which has come under severe price and performance pressure from hybrid dSLRs like the Pen, GF series and NEX series. If you want better image quality than what a compact can give, hybrid dSLRs offer a great step up for just a little more money.
But the hybrid dSLRs have a long way to go, and like I mentioned, it’s because they lack good prime lenses. Putting a bulky zoom lens on a hybrid dSLR is not ideal, because I would rather carry around a real dSLR instead. To make matters worse, the zooms available for hybrid dSLRs are just consumer grade – they offer poor light collection capabilities, and don’t provide excellent image quality for the money.
So my situation with my Oly Pen today is that I use only two prime lenses with it – 17mm and 25mm, both f2.8. They give me 35mm and 50mm equivalent focal lengths. For 80% of my photography that’s fine, but there is no wide or tele prime lens available for me to buy. How can I take nice landscape or portrait shots with my Pen then?
Now you can see why that I think the XZ-1 might actually cannibalize the Pen camera range, especially at the EPL-2 range (sub S$1,000). It shares similar color rendition, similarly restrictive manual exposure controls (you need to upgrade to the Pen EP2 for better manual use), and most potential buyers will be happier with the XZ-1’s solid zoom range and “fast” apertures.
It’s ironic, but in trying to create the best ever compact camera and pricing it aggressively, Olympus has actually put its own fledgling Pen series at risk.
I’ve stopped using my Canon EOS 5D regularly since I purchased the Pen, and I still believe the Pen series is the best thing that ever happened for professionals and enthusiasts. But right now, the XZ-1 might be both a blessing and a curse for the company’s ambitions to dominate the consumer market.
And if you’re dying to know whether you should buy an XZ-1 instead of a Panasonic LX-5, sorry but I really can’t say.
My personal preference is Oly’s pleasing film-like image quality, but the LX series does provide better portability (and the same annoying pop-off lens cap!). The aperture differences between both cameras is not that significant from a professional’s point of view. It really boils down to whether you like Panasonic’s very Zen and cool color rendition.
What I know for sure is that the XZ-1 effectively kills off every other high-end compact digicam below S$1000. I personally hope this camera wakes up Canon, who has let its G-series decline from a great camera in the early 2000s (my old G3 had a f2.0-3.3 lens!) to a bulky camera with a slow zoom lens and way too many buttons. Canon’s S90/S95 series was no fight for the LX-3/5, and looks even worse now compared to the XZ-1.
I remain a Canon faithful, but their attempts in this camera category space has been feeble for so many years it’s saddening.
In conclusion, the XZ-1 is a modern classic with best-in-class hardware and top notch image quality, but it does come with some puzzling shortcomings. And from what I’ve seen, it’s not a strong performer with video recording.
Thanks to its impressive lens and color rendition, it is the current compact champ.
I’d dare say that casual shooters are more likely to get more great keeper shots out of this small guy than if they were using a bulky dSLR. After all, you don’t have to fumble with lenses with the XZ-1, nor do you have to invest in expensive f2.8 prime lenses (like I did) to get sharp indoor shots.
So for goodness sake, Olympus, don’t lose your momentum again like what happened to the Pen series.
And that leads me to….
POSTSCRIPT: Questionable Marketing
Last Friday, I saw the launch print ad for the XZ-1 in the Straits Times and got really annoyed. Take a look at it:
Now if you read it carefully, the main visual is actually a photo from the Oly E-5 dSLR with a much bigger image sensor and lens. Oly Singapore was using the dSLR picture to promote the depth-of-field capabilities of the small XZ-1.
Look, all the legal disclaimers are there, but such an approach demonstrates a lack of faith in the actual product. And it’s questionable marketing with some funky colloquial grammar – “DSLR Can Do It, So Can XZ-1”. Someone fire the copywriter because it should be “If a DSLR Can Do It, So Can The XZ-1”.
To irritate one even further, they used a big picture of the white XZ-1, which isn’t available here yet as they’re shipping in the black matte version first. There’s a tiny picture of the black version though.
Now you know why I can own and recommend two Oly cameras BUT still not be a fanboy. This local marketing campaign is a downer for what is essentially a killer product, and the prose doesn’t match the classiness of the product.
There’s plenty of great marketing being done on the Oly XZ-1 Japanese site, so one really wonders why the local office doesn’t use those simple, but really effective marketing assets.
MORE SAMPLE IMAGES FROM ME
These BnW images show the great tonality possible with the XZ-1:
I’ve had some folks ask me about the fill-in flash. Here’s what it looks like before, and after using the pop-up flash at 1/64 power, very natural results under mixed lighting in the evening.