The Olympus XZ-1 is the latest advanced creative compact, featuring an enviable specification and packed with high end features. Could this be the best pocketable enthusiast compact yet made?
Creative compacts like the Olympus XZ-1 are aimed primarily at hobbyists seeking a high quality pocket camera as a lighter alternative to the unwieldy DSLR system that they most likely also own. To pass muster with this discerning audience there are several key features that these cameras must possess to distinguish them from your run of the mill point and shoot: a larger sensor, a superior lens with wider maximum aperture, full manual control, and the ability to shoot raw files. The Olympus XZ-1 ticks all these boxes, plus a couple more nice-to-haves, such as a hotshoe for external flash and, almost uniquely for a compact, the option to attach an electronic viewfinder. It’s also one of the smallest cameras in this class – think Canon S95 rather than Canon G12.
Olympus XZ-1 review – Features
The Olympus XZ-1 has at its heart a 1/1.63in CCD, one of the largest sensors available for zoom compacts, and bigger than, for example, the one in the Canon G12. It’s only 10 megapixels but this is part of the trend at the quality end of the compact market for fewer but bigger pixels, because this lower density results in reduced image noise and better low light performance. Images captured by the sensor are fed through the Truepic V processor, as used in the Pen E-PL2.
The lens is the first on a compact to bear the prestigious ‘Zuiko’ name that adorns its premium DSLR lenses. The iZuiko Digital 6-24mm is equivalent to a useful 28-112mm in 35mm terms but it’s big selling point is the wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end, dropping to a still impressive f/2.5 at 112mm – making the XZ-1 one of the widest aperture compacts on the market. This offers several benefits: the ability to shoot hand held in lower light, the ability to shoot at lower ISOs or at faster shutter speeds in a given situation, and the ability to shoot at wider apertures to create more shallow depth of field than is possible with a normal compact. In order to achieve this maximum aperture, the lens is physically wider than average and of course in common with all such cameras does not retract fully into the body.
Many cameras offer manual exposure controls but to appeal to the enthusiast they need to be quick and easy to access. The XZ-1 has a mode dial on the top featuring all the PASM modes (Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual) plus a selection of auto options. Olympus has also followed the path laid by the Canon Powershot S95 in providing an input collar around the lens mount, like an old fashioned aperture ring, which can be rotated to adjust a wide variety of settings, depending on the mode selected. It even has click stops. In aperture and shutter priority modes this ring scrolls through the apertures and shutter speeds respectively, while in both Program mode and the dedicated Low Light mode (which favours wide apertures) it alters the ISO. In manual it changes the aperture and the rear input dial on the back changes the shutter speed. In Scene mode the ring provides access to 18 subject-optimised programs such as indoor portraits, fireworks and pets. There’s also a setting for the now familiar Art Filter modes, which apply one of six post processing effects to your images: Pop Art, Pinhole, Dramatic Tone, Soft Focus, Grainy B&W and Diorama – again, selected via the collar around the lens. In-camera filter effects can often be a bit naff but some of these can produce quite striking results with the right subject. Finally there’s a Custom mode which lets you save preferred settings and, for when you just want to point and shoot, there’s iAuto, which uses subject recognition to pick the appropriate scene mode for you.
The XZ-1 offers a choice of three metering modes: centre-weighted, spot or Digital ESP, which uses 324 metering zones. The contrast-detect focusing options are equally comprehensive. Choose from 11 area AF, manually selectable spot focus from any of the 11 points, or manual focus using a magnified central section. The XZ-1 also boasts auto-tracking AF and Face Detection.
The Olympus XZ-1 is one of a number of recent compacts to offer high speed burst shooting options. In addition to the standard continuous mode, which shoots at around two fps, there are two dedicated high speed modes which deliver faster burst rates at reduced resolution: Hi1 shoots 5MP images at 7fps, and Hi2 shoots 2MP images at 15fps.
The built-in flash is a pop up type, which must be activated manually when required, but it also doubles as a wireless flash controller, capable of triggering the optional FL-50R and FL-36R flashguns remotely. This is unique for a camera of this type.