7 days living with... the Olympus XZ-1

Olympus has flexed a little high-end muscle and given us the XZ-1, a camera looking to stir things up at the top of the compact pile. It’s an increasingly congested place with some substantial offerings from the likes of Canon, Panasonic and more recently Nikon. The XZ-1 is also priced close to the entry point for DSLRs, which might be a concern for some looking for more advanced features.

So the Olympus XZ-1 was handed over to me, and I was tasked with living with it and putting it through its paces. Here’s how I got on.

 

Saturday

I’m packing for Mobile World Congress, and that means I’m stuffing my hand luggage with tech. The Olympus XZ-1 has just arrived and I pop it from its box. We last met in Valley of Fire in the Nevada desert and I’m keen to see if I get as impressive results in a less dramatic environment. I consider - briefly - leaving my DSLR behind and taking only the Olympus, but old habits die hard and I take both.

It doesn’t take up much space to add to my collection, however, and thankfully I don’t need an extra charger as the battery will charge in the camera via USB. It’s a propriety connection however, so it is another cable. 

I love the look of the Olympus XZ-1; it looks like a serious camera and wherever you pull it out eyes strain for a look. It’s a little on the large size, however, so I can’t slip it into my jeans in the same way I could with the Canon PowerShot S95. The size means there is space to hold it and the controls don’t feel congested.

I’ve instantly got a problem with the lens cap too. Most compacts these days have a self-contained lens cover that slips away when you power-up. The XZ-1, however, has a proper plastic push-on cover. Power up and it disappears onto the floor. To counter this, I deployed the supplied retaining string, but you still end up with a dangling cap, which is something of a pain and ultimately I removed the string again and slipped the cap into a pocket whilst shooting instead.

With that I’m set and I’m heading to the chaos that is Mobile World Congress.

 

Sunday

One of the first tasks of MWC was the Sony Ericsson press conference. Once finished, I grab some low light shots with the XZ-1. Using manual on the camera is a breeze because of the control dials. In operation it is very close to the Canon S95, using a combination of both the front and rear dials to adjust the shutter speed and aperture.

I head out onto the beach and see what I can get. I try several handheld shots, but it’s too dark to shoot unsupported. Setting the camera to manual, I attempt to grab a shot along with promenade, without too many people, looking at the venue of the Sony Ericsson launch. The process is easy enough and I opt for the 2-second self timer on an F/8 4 second exposure, with the camera sitting on a picnic table. The camera tells me it will give me the right exposure as a result.

What the camera didn’t tell me was that by default the manual shooting options were paired down to a slightly lower resolution and with the option of fine or normal compression on the JPEG. In reality I should have taken the shot in RAW, or JPEG and RAW, which that camera easily allows through a press of the “OK” button to enter the menu.

So the result is passable rather than great, but at least I know it is easy to get to the settings I should have used.

 

Monday

Monday is one of the big press days for Mobile World Congress and things are frantic, so I have an early start. I roll out of bed, stroll over to the curtains and fling them aside. To my surprise, I find that during the night a cruise liner has parked outside my window.

I shake last night’s Ull de Llebre from my head and look again. It’s quite a testament to the hotel’s double glazing that I didn’t hear this thing pull up and parallel park outside. I crack open the window, and let some of the fresh Mediterranean air, tainted with marine diesel fumes, into the room.

It does at least provide an opportunity to show off the 4x optical zoom lens. This runs from 6-24mm (or 28-112mm in 35mm terms) and is of the folding type, tucking away into the body of the camera. The F/1.8 max aperture was class leading until Nikon announced the P300 a few weeks ago, and we’re guessing it goes some way to explaining the lens size overall.

What is pretty impressive, is that at 112mm, max zoom, you still get a max aperture of F/2.5. Many compacts find themselves at around F/4.0 at this point, so this may prove valuable for those shallow depth of field shots on small objects you can’t get right close to and is also great for portraiture.

However, with the absence of flowers or pretty girls to take pictures of, I snap off some shots of the dirty ship outside in iAuto mode, then get some shots at full zoom. It is still a little gloomy, but the XZ-1 has no problem giving me realistic shots and there’s no noticeable problems at either end of the zoom.

The colour fidelity is very good and the resultant pictures reflect the light conditions. Although uninspiring, I’m pleased the XZ-1 gives me what I ask for, without colour casts or complaining about the dull conditions.

The grey miserable sky is a reflection of my mood as I head off for my Valentine’s Day breakfast, on my own, 1000 miles from my wife and kids, facing a 16-hour working day.

 

Tuesday

By the time we hit Tuesday afternoon, all of the big announcements of Mobile World Congress have been made and we’re in what we call “minesweeping”. We’re working the floor picking up on details we didn’t get at the press events, or getting extra playtime with the things we’re interested in. We land on the Sony Ericsson stand and shoot a little video introducing the new phones using the XZ-1. Stuart fluffed his lines a little, so I've chopped that together as a quick example below - sorry about the rough iMovie editing.

Video is rather strange on the XZ-1. Although the camera has a mode dial, that dial doesn’t offer a video position. Instead, you have to press the button on the back for instant video capture.

This is all well and good, but you don’t get any overt video controls. You can use the zoom lens, whilst filming, but there is a perceptible dip in the capture volume whilst you do so - we’re guessing so you don’t hear the servo motor powering the lens. But other than that, the only settings you get to directly control the video is the option to turn the mic off, or switch to a lower resolution through the menus.

It isn’t quite that simple, however, because the video mode will also pick-up on settings you’ve applied to stills capture. This means that if you’ve had the exposure compensation turned up or down, you’ll get this in video, or if you are using an Art Filter, you’ll get this in your video too.

Without a “neutral” video position, you need to make sure that you’re shooting video the way you want it to turn out and in most cases that will mean returning to the iAuto position before pressing the video button, or changing the settings in the stills shooting mode before hitting the video button.

It’s something of a double-edged sword, because it’s easy to forget that you’re in manual focus in a particular shooting mode and you’ll find your video is also manual focus. Sure, there are times that you might want manual focus in video, such as if you are filming a still scene and don’t want the continuous AF seeking whilst you film, but you definitely need to use caution.

The results, however, at the 720p “HD” setting are nice and clean and the audio is surprisingly good for a busy show floor. Unfortunately the file type limits you to 7 minutes, or 2GB, of capture per file.

 

Wednesday

It’s the last day in Barcelona for me and the sun comes out. I head out into the streets to take some typical tourist shots: it’s iAuto all the way as I grab whatever looks interesting. I’m a little weary of La Ramblas because of the reports of robbery during the time we’ve been there, so it’s great to be able to have a compact camera to hand.

The focusing is fast, but on numerous occasions I found the focal point wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Often, the selected focal point was bottom left of centre. Perhaps this is something to do with the way I compose shots (often using a lot of diagonals) and there is nothing you can do about it in iAuto.

Switching to P, or Program mode is an easy option, letting you fiddle with settings whilst the camera keeps the exposure in check for you. Essentially it is like Auto shooting, but letting you tinker with the settings as you please. In P (and the other advanced shooting modes) a left click on the rear control will bring up a focal point selector where you override the autofocus and have it focus where you want. For me this is often dead centre, or to one extreme end of the frame, because of the way I like to take pictures.

Given a decent sky, we see the XZ-1 pull a trick that many Olympus cameras do and that’s give you brilliant blue skies. Many compacts lose grip on the sky in bright conditions, but the XZ-1 gave a wonderful blue whilst maintaining the exposure across the rest of the scene. It makes for nice easy holiday shots.

 

Friday

On returning home from Barcelona, I found my family had been struck down with a stomach bug, so I pick up the action a week later. I’m now in Weston-Super-Mare, the sun is gone and I’m staring at the Atlantic (or the Severn estuary, depending on how glamorous you want to be).

Weston-Super-Mare isn’t quite the jewel in the crown of the southwest that it used to be, but the restored pier provides the opportunity for some interesting shots with the XZ-1. The weather is appalling, but that’s to be expected on a February morning at a seaside resort. The sterling British public are undeterred by the weather, and donkey rides, ice cream and sand castles are still on the menu for a hardy few.

It’s a perfect opportunity to roll out some of Olympus’ Art Filters. I'm really pleased to find these in the XZ-1, because there was the chance that a camera like this could take itself too seriously. But they are fun and can make an interesting scene out of very little without much effort.

The newest addition to the pack is Dramatic Tone and it really comes into is own in scenes where there is a grey sky that otherwise adds little. Sure, if you were into HDR photography or could use a filter you could add more drama, but as it is, we like what we get from Art Filters. You can see the dramatic difference in the two shots above.

Of course you also get pop-art, which really makes the colours of the arcade machines come to life and who can resist a little soft focus on our favourite beach donkey Bobby. The perennial favourite, the self-stitching panorama is also included, guided with an icon on-screen. 

 

Saturday

I've promised my daughter we're going to the land of cheese today, so we head over to Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. It's another miserable day, but we do get some cave-aged vintage Cheddar, which fulfils the requirement to come back with some sort of cheese.

The Gorge itself provides a dramatic backdrop, but more grey skies sees me struggling to really get creative. I snap a typical tourist shot which does reveal something about the camera. The contrast of the rock against the sky could throw out some purple lines but it looks to be under control. The dividing line is a little heavy, but the XZ-1 fares better than many lesser compacts would.

Then we stumble across a wier. I'd been wanting to find to running water up here to try a slower shutter and get some movement in the shot. I find that the XZ-1 is slightly restricted because it only offers a minimum aperture of F/8.0 (typical of this type of camera). I try dialling down the exposure compensation, but the resultant shots are still over exposed, so I don't get the results I want. I settle for a straight shot and head off to mull over the meads and ciders instead.

 

Conclusions

I’ve been impressed with just how easy it is to get a decent shot out of the Olympus XZ-1. It’s not alone in this space, the Canon PowerShot S95 is my other favourite, that also delivers impressive results easily, whilst giving you the controls to shoot as you might with a DSLR. Ultimately, the smaller sensor and and lens mean you don’t get the results you would from a DSLR, but this is the sort of compact camera I’d want in my pocket.

But the Olympus isn’t really pocketable, not in the same way that the Canon or the new Nikon Coolpix P300 are. That means I’m less likely to slip it into my suit pocket for a wedding, which is exactly where this sort of camera needs to be. That’s my biggest sticking point with the XZ-1. It’s undoubtedly fun and very capable, but it’s just too big as my second camera.

However, that’s just me, and I’d argue that the Panasonic Lumix LX5 suffers with the same problem and that's been hugely popular. If it is to be your only camera and slipping it into your pocket is less important than the option to add accessories that the extra size brings, then the Olympus XZ-1 is a seriously attractive camera, and I've had great fun with it.



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