DCRP

Olympus XZ-1 Review

Using the Olympus XZ-1

Record Mode

It takes the Olympus XZ-1 about 1.1 seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's pretty quick.


A live histogram is available on the XZ-1

The autofocus speeds on the Olympus XZ-1 are about for this class. Typically, the camera took between 0.2 and 0.4 to lock focus at the wide end of the lens. Telephoto focus times were between 0.5 and 0.9 seconds in most situations. Low light focusing was generally accurate, with focus times hovering at or slightly above the one second mark.

I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.

Shot-to-shot delays were about two seconds long, regardless of whether you're shooting JPEG or RAW images, or using the flash. Nice!

There's no way to delete a photo immediately after taking it -- you must enter playback mode first.

While there are numerous image size and quality options available on the XZ-1, there are only five "slots" available at any one time. Below is a list of the default resolutions and their file sizes:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 54.6MB onboard memory # images on 2GB SD card (optional)
RAW
3648 x 2736
RAW 14.3 MB 4 140
Large
3648 x 2736
Fine 5.8 MB 9 346
Normal 3.3 MB 17 610
Medium
2560 x 1920
Normal 1.3 MB 44 1552
Small
1280 x 960
Normal 360 KB 162 5506

Chart corrected on January 4, 2013

The XZ-1 lets you take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG of the size of your choosing. I didn't put the RAW+JPEG options in the chart in order to keep things simple, but simple math will tell you the file size and number of shots for the various combinations.

The XZ-1 has a newly designed menu system that's fairly attractive and easy to navigate. There are no help screens available, though maybe Olympus figures that the target audience doesn't need them. Then again, there aren't a whole lot of custom functions, either, which the XZ-1's target audience probably would like. The menu is divided into four tabs, covering photo, movie, playback, and setup options. Keeping in mind that not all of these options will be available in every shooting mode, here's the full list:

Photography Menu

  • Reset photo mode - back to defaults
  • Picture Mode (Vivid, natural, muted, portrait, monotone) - more below
  • White balance (Auto, sunny, shadow, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, underwater, one-touch) - more below
  • M/S settings
    • Medium
      • Pixel count (3200 x 2400, 2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200)
      • Compression (Fine, normal)
    • Small
      • Pixel count (1280 x 960, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480)
      • Compression (Fine, normal)
  • Flash settings
    • Slow sync (on/off)
    • Slow sync curtain (1st, 2nd)
    • RC mode (on/off) - for wireless flash control
  • Bracket settings
    • AE bracketing (Off, 3 frames/0.3EV, 3 frames/0.7EV, 3 frames/1.0EV, 3 frames/1.3EV, 3 frames/1.7EV)
    • WB bracketing
      • Amber-blue (Off, 3 frames/2 step, 3 frames/4 step, 3 frames/6 step)
      • Green-magenta (Off, 3 frames/2 step, 3 frames/4 step, 3 frames/6 step)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - see below
  • Image stabilizer (on/off) - you'll want to turn this off when using a tripod
  • Conversion lens (Off, TCON-17) - for use with the optional teleconverter
  • AF illuminator (on/off)
  • Rec view (on/off) - post-shot review
  • Info off (10 sec, hold) - whether on-screen menus disappear after 10 seconds or remain visible
  • Panorama (Auto, manual, PC) - whether the camera automatically stitches panoramas, and if it takes the photos for you

Movie Menu

  • Movie resolution (HD, SD)
  • Sound recording (on/off)

Playback Menu

  • Slideshow
    • Start
    • BGM (Off, cosmic, breeze, mellow, dreamy, urban)
    • Slide (All, stills, movies)
    • Slide interval (2 - 10 sec)
    • Movie interval (Full, short)
  • Edit
    • RAW data edit - more on this later
    • JPEG data edit - and this too
    • Voice caption (No, start, erase) - attach 30 sec audio clips to photos
  • Print order
  • Erase (All erase, select image, erase)
  • Protect image
  • Rotate image

Setup Menu

  • Custom mode setup (Set, reset) - save current settings to the "C" spot on the mode dial
  • Format card/internal memory
  • Backup - copy images from internal memory to an SD card
  • USB connection (Auto, storage, MTP, PictBridge)
  • Playback power on (yes/no) - whether the playback button turns the camera on
  • Sound settings
    • Sound type (1-3)
    • Beep volume (0-5)
    • Playback volume (0-5)
  • File name (Reset, auto)
  • Pixel mapping - remove hot pixels from the CCD
  • Monitor brightness (1-5)
  • TV out
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • HDMI out (480p/576p, 720p, 1080i)
    • HDMI control (on/off) - whether the camera can be controlled from your HDTV remote
  • Sleep (20 sec, 1, 3, 5 mins) - how quickly the monitor turns off
  • Language
  • Date/Time
  • World time (Home, alternate)

Those of you who have used other Olympus cameras will be familiar with the Picture Mode option. A Picture Mode contains various color and sharpness settings, and there are five presets to choose from. You can adjust the contrast, sharpness, gradation (tone range), and saturation for each of those presets. For the monochrome preset you can also add in filters (yellow, orange, red, green) or a tone (sepia, blue, purple, green). One parameter you cannot adjust (unfortunately) is noise reduction.

The XZ-1 has numerous white balance presets, plus a one-touch option which lets you use a white or gray card for shooting under mixed or unusual lighting. Each of the WB settings can be fine-tuned in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta direction. If that's still not enough, you can also bracket for white balance. You cannot adjust white balance by color temperature, however.

Like all digital cameras, the XZ-1 has a digital zoom feature that you usually want to keep turned off. However, it has a "crop" function that allows you to get a little bit of extra zoom power without a loss in image quality, though you'll need to lower the image size first. Olympus doesn't say how much of a zoom boost you get, but when I lowered the resolution to 1600 x 1200, it appears that I got an extra 1.25X worth.

Alright, that does it for menus -- lets move on to photo quality now!

The XZ-1 did a very good job with our standard macro test subject. The figurine is both smooth and sharp at the time time. The colors are nicely saturated, with the camera handling our studio lamps with ease. While I don't see any grain-style noise, you may spot some very mild detail smudging if you look hard enough.

There are two macro modes to choose from on the XZ-1. In the regular one, you can be 10 cm away from your subject at wide-angle, and 30 cm away at telephoto. If you switch into super macro mode, the minimum focus distance drops to just 1 cm. Do note that the lens is fixed at the wide-angle position in super macro mode.

Seeing how the XZ-1's lens tops out at 112 mm, the night shot is a bit more wide than you may be used to. That said, the results are fairly good. The camera took in plenty of light, as you'd expect, given its manual exposure controls. The buildings are a little bit soft, though I think that's due to noise reduction, rather than the lens. The camera definitely clips highlights, which is something you'll hear again in this section. There is some mild detail smudging here, though I don't think it'll keep you from making a large print at this sensitivity (which is ISO 100, of course). Purple fringing was not an issue, and I don't know what's up with the star filter effect there.

Now, let's use that same night scene and see how the noise levels look as we travel from ISO 100 to 6400:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

The first two crops, taken at ISO 100 and 200, look about the same. At ISO 400 you start to see some detail loss and noise, though a midsize or large print is still very possible. At ISO 800 detail loss becomes a lot more obvious, so I'd save this for small prints only (and sorry about the darker exposure). Image quality continues to drop at ISO 1600, and then things really go downhill at ISO 3200 and above.

The section below was updated on 3/12/11 after Adobe released a version of their Camera Raw plug-in with XZ-1 compatibility.

When I originally wrote this review, I performed the usual RAW vs. JPEG comparison test using the only RAW editor available (Olympus Viewer 2), and so nearly zero improvement from shooting RAW and post-processing. Since then, Adobe has released a version of their Camera Raw plug-in that is compatible with the XZ-1, and the results are more promising. Check it out:

ISO 800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

While neither the ISO 800 or 1600 photos look fantastic after some post-processing, they are better than the original JPEGs, in terms of both detail and highlight clipping (a little). We'll do this test again in normal lighting in a bit.


Straight out of the camera


After using Redeye Fix in playback mode

Compact cameras are redeye machines, and the XZ-1 is no exception. Even with the redeye reduction flash turned on, there's still a ton of red. Thankfully, there's a tool in playback mode which you can use to get rid of it!

There's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the XZ-1's 28 - 112 mm lens. You can see what this does to your real world photos by looking at the building on the right side of this photo. Two things you won't encounter on this camera are vignetting (dark corners) or blurry edges -- this is definitely a quality lens.

And now it's time for our studio ISO test, which shows how the XZ-1 performs across its sensitivity range in normal lighting. If you feel like comparing cameras, then now's a good time to open up the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 and Canon PowerShot S95 reviews to see their test shots (I don't have them for the Samsung or Nikon). With the usual reminder to view the full size images, in addition to the crops you see below, let's begin:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

You'd be hard-pressed to see a difference between the first two crops. At ISO 400 things start to soften up a bit, and there's also a slight drop in color saturation. This trend continues at ISO 800, which is probably a good stopping point for most folks, at least if you'll be shooting JPEGs. That's because of the noise and noise reduction artifacting at ISO 1600, which becomes pretty nasty at ISO 3200. I wouldn't even bother with ISO 6400 -- it's just there to look good on the spec sheet.

The RAW vs. JPEG comparison below was updated on 3/12/11, after support for the XZ-1 was added to the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in.

Earlier I showed you that a modest improvement in low light image quality can be had by using the RAW image format and post-processing. Let's see if we can't make the ISO 1600 and 3200 test scene shots look better by doing the same:

ISO 1600

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
 
ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

There's a lot less detail smudging (though more grain-style noise) at these two high sensitivities when shooting RAW and post-processing. I'd say it's well worth your time to shoot RAW and do some work on your computer in order to get the most out of the XZ-1. Just use Photoshop, as it got a lot more detail back than Olympus Viewer 2 did.

So how does the XZ-1 compare to the PowerShot S95 and Lumix DMC-LX5? Here are the ISO 800 and 1600 crops from all three cameras:

ISO 800

Canon PowerShot S95

Olympus XZ-1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
 
ISO 1600


Canon PowerShot S95


Olympus XZ-1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

At ISO 800, the XZ-1 holds its own pretty well, aside from the mushy details on tea box on the right side. At ISO 1600, I'm thinking that the Canon PowerShot S95 looks the best. It may be grainier than the other two, but it also retains more detail. Of course, these are JPEGs, and you should be able to get better results by shooting RAW. Well, maybe.

Overall, the XZ-1's photo quality was very good, though not without some issues. Exposure was generally solid -- I didn't find myself having to bracket every shot. While it may have a larger sensor than your typical compact camera, the XZ-1 still suffers from some pretty noticeable highlight clipping. Colors are nice and vivid -- no complaints there. While I think the XZ-1's lens is very good, I think that Olympus is using too much noise reduction, which softens photos more than I'd like. Fine details can get smudged, even at the base ISO, as you can see here and here. It's too bad that you can't adjust the amount of noise reduction on the camera. You won't see much in the line of noise on the XZ-1 until around ISO 400 in low light and ISO 800 in normal lighting, and even then, it's more detail smudging than grain-style noise. I didn't find purple fringing to be much of an issue on the XZ-1.

So, that's my opinion about photo quality, now it's your turn. Have a look at our photo gallery -- perhaps printing a few of them if you can -- and then decide if the XZ-1's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

The XZ-1 is capable of recording videos at 1280 x 720 at 30 frames/second with monaural sound. The camera will keep recording until the file size reaches 2GB, which you'll reach in about seven minutes. For longer movies you can cut the resolution to 640 x 480 (also at 30 fps), with a maximum recording time of around thirteen or fourteen minutes.

Here's some good news: you can use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The lens moves slowly, to minimize the amount of noise picked up by the microphone. The autofocus is adjusted continuously, so moving subjects will remain in focus (though the camera has the tendency to "hunt" at times). The image stabilization in movie mode is electronic, though it seems to work quite well.

The XZ-1 movie mode is a totally point-and-shoot experience. The only manual control you can adjust is focus, which you set before you press the movie recording button. You can also use the Art Filters, though note that some of them may look a little choppy.

Movies are saved in AVI format, using the Motion-JPEG codec.

Here's a sample movie for you, which seems a little soft to me.


Click to play movie (47.2 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, AVI format)

Playback Mode

The XZ-1 has a pretty nice playback mode. Basic features include slideshows (with background music and transitions), DPOF print marking, image protection, voice captions, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. The camera lacks the calendar and micro-thumbnail view of some of Olympus' other cameras.


JPEG Edit menu

The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs and another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you resize or crop an image, brighten shadows, adjust saturation, remove redeye, change the aspect ratio, smooth out skin tones, or convert it to black and white or sepia.

The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG. This is how you can apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken.

There are no movie editing features of any kind on the XZ-1.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button and you'll get a lot more, including multiple histograms.

The XZ-1 moves from photo-to-photo without delay. You can use the four-way controller or the scroll wheel to navigate through your pictures.

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