Olympus XZ-1 review

High performance compact camera equipped with bright f/1.8 lens

Image 1 of 2 Olympus XZ 1 main
Olympus XZ-1 main
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Olympus XZ-1 art

Great picture quality from this classy compact

To place this solid-feel enthusiasts’ camera in context, the 10 megapixel, 4x optical zoom Olympus XZ-1 comes across as a ‘lite’ version of its equally new Micro Four Thirds system E-PL2 compact camera. While, like the E-PL2, the Olympus XZ-1 features a larger sensor than your average snapshot camera – but not the exact same one – the lens on the front cannot be changed, unlike the E-PL2.

That’s made less of an issue by the fact that the lens here is one of the Olympus XZ-1’s strongest selling points. It offers a bright aperture of f/1.8 – letting in much more light than usual for a compact in its class.

More light combined with a bigger sensor equal, in theory, better pictures and improved performance when light is low, hence the ‘high performance’ tag. The focal range, or breadth of the zoom, is equivalent to 28-112mm in 35mm film terms. Hence it’s useful for wide-angle shots as well as pulling the faraway slightly closer, and is aided by built-in anti shake to prevent blur.

This is Olympus’ first such ‘serious’ model, and a sensible move for the brand as this section of the market is expanding fast. Thus there is already strong competition for the Olympus XZ-1 in high-end compacts including the Canon PowerShot S95 and G12, Nikon P7000, our past fave in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, plus the Samsung EX1 and forthcoming Fujifilm FinePix X100 to name a few.

Only the Samsung and the new Nikon P300 match the Olympus XZ-1 for an aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end of the zoom however, allowing for shallow depth of field effects. Narrowing the depth of field concentrates the viewer’s gaze and so can be particularly effective for portraiture

Olympus XZ-1: Controls

This is not just a camera for serious photo enthusiasts. Olympus is also drawing in the less experienced photographer perhaps upgrading from a basic point-and-shoot model. Thus there are not too many confusing buttons and dials, and at least in its black version – a white lacquered alternative also available – the Olympus XZ-1 looks quite minimalist in appearance.

As well as a large and obvious shutter release encircled by a zoom lever and nestling next to a half-penny sized shooting mode wheel on the top plate, top right of the backplate we find a dedicated video record button for the camera’s 1280x720 pixels HD clips.

With the camera powering up in just over a second, a single press kick starts filming no matter which other shooting mode might be selected on the top-plate dial at the time. This prompts the usual 4:3 aspect ratio image (dictated by the physical proportions of the screen) to narrow to the equivalent 16:9 widescreen ratio to ape how the video will look when replayed on a flat panel TV. Incidentally, HDMI connectivity as well as standard AV and USB output is provided under a side flap for this purpose. Although the XZ-1 is more portable than any of the Olympus Digital Pen models, it’s still too much of a squeeze for a pair of jeans.

Olympus XZ-1: Features

We’ve mentioned the bright and fast lens providing a capable all-in-one option, but another feature worth noting is Olympus’ incorporation of a bright and colourful OLED screen at the rear, as opposed to LCD, a feature shared by the Samsung EX1. Olympus’ variety is a clear 3-inches in size, visibility aided by a high 610-dot resolution in the absence of any optical (or electronic) viewfinder. The latter can be purchased as an optional extra and clipped on via the XZ-1’s vacant accessory port and hotshoe – another facility shared with its E-PL2 big brother.

Although an accessory flashgun is another possible extra, built-in flash is provided and very coolly it’s sunk into the top plate, again as with the E-PL2. There’s an activation switch just behind that prompts it to rise with a satisfyingly solid ‘clunk’.

Another standout feature is one that the Olympus XZ-1 borrows from Canon’s PowerShot S95 – namely its function-adjusting lens ring at the front. Give this a twist/spin and the likes of ISO speed (light sensitivity, here up to ISO6400) can be adjusted in double-quick fashion, and in the absence of a dedicated ISO button.

Olympus XZ-1: Image Quality

The Olympus XZ-1 delivers natural looking pictures and video, with colour tones that veer towards the flatteringly warm at times. However there’s the ability to boost the look of both further courtesy of built-in Art Filters – in other words digital effects. Here these include the contrast boosting Dramatic Tone, which enhances otherwise flat detail for a heavily treated look, and Pop Art, for those who like their colours verging on the day-glo. We also get the less successful but self explanatory Grainy Film, Soft Focus, Pin Hole (subtly smudging the corners of each shot), and Diorama – which is miniature mode by another name. Fun if you want to visually ‘shrink’ buildings to appear as if on a toy town scale by narrowing the area in focus to a central band.

Overall, images look sharper than your average snapshot camera, but are no match for a digital SLR proper, nor a compact system camera. But if lens swapping ain’t your bag anyway, the Olympus XZ-1 is the next best thing out there for achieving higher quality images than an (almost) pocket camera normally allows.

Olympus XZ-1 launch date: Out now, link: Olympus

Olympus XZ-1 price: £330-£399