I added the Olympus XZ-1 to my collection of cameras back about 5 months ago. I was always itching for a premium point and shoot and when I found a spectacular deal, I jumped on the opportunity. And over the last 5 months, I have posted many entries about my experience with the Olympus XZ-1. For the most part, the experience has been positive. I’ve discovered that a high-end point and shoot is something I enjoy using, even though I own loads of mirrorless cameras and a DLSR. Having a small camera capable of good image quality and the flexibility of a zoom is the unique selling point for this class of camera. So after many months and thousands of photographs, here is my review.
The XZ-1 is smallish camera that is joy to sling over the shoulder. It’s too big, however, to put in a pants pocket. The camera comes in a black or white. While I generally prefer black, I got the white version because that’s what was on sale. And I’ve come to enjoy the cuter white color, especially since I’ve received numerous compliments about the camera as I traveled through airports. There are two stand out features. A larger 1/1.8 sensor and a f1.8 to f2.5 zoom lens. Combined, these two features allow the camera to create nice quality photographs even in less than ideal lighting. Certainly several notches above typical point and shoots and drastically better than smart phones.
As you may know, I’m also an Olympus Pen user and I currently own 4 of these interchangeable mirrorless cameras. Conveniently the Pen accessories also work on the XZ-1 which shares the same accessory port. Therefore, if you have a EVF for the Pens, it also works on the XZ-1. I own the small FL-300R flash which also works on both cameras. This is convenient and saves space. I share my accessories when I travel with both my Olympus E-PM2 and XZ-1.
The image quality at ISO 100 can be quite good. Not as good as my Olympus Pens but enjoyable nevertheless. Having a zoom range of 28mm to 112mm gives me the creative freedom to frame my shots whether I’m shooting architecture, doing street photography or shooting colorful food. Even at the maximum focal length, I can still get a fast f2.5 aperture. ISO 200 is also decent and ISO 400 is probably my upper limit for quality. I only use ISO 800 for emergencies and I usually convert the images to black and white to either mask or compliment the noise. The image stabilization is very effective and better than what I have on my Olympus E-P3 or E-PM2. The flash exposures also work well and blend well with the ambient light.
Because the smaller sensor has lots of depth of field (DOF), it works well for getting casual group shots. Even with a wide open aperture of f1.8 the entire group can be in focus. Pop-up the built-in flash or use that small FL-300 and even dark restaurant group portraits comes out decently. Ironically, it is easier to take group photos in dark places with this point and shoot than with more expensive cameras that have a shallower DOF. I set the mode dial to iAuto and hand the XZ-1 to waiters and they come up with real winners. I do brighten the image somewhat in post processing but it works great for this kind of snap shooting.
With the P S A M on the mode dial along with the usual art and scene filters, the camera gives control to the experts but also has the easy modes for beginners. Many of the lesser point and shoots typically don’t have the controls to satisfy knowledgeable photographers. Enthusiasts can also shoot in RAW for maximum control of image post processing. While the JPEGs are good, I shoot all my photos in RAW.
Here are the things that don’t work so well on the XZ-1. Physically, the most annoying feature is the manual lens cap. I have it tethered to the body but it’s clumsy and gets in the way. The extended lens retracts quickly when I’m reviewing pictures and ends up extending again when I hit the shutter button. So there is a constant retracting and extending motion as I shoot and review photos. It would be nice if the lens stays extended longer. The XZ-1 has a limited number physical controls and the buttons are not reprogrammable. There isn’t enough direct access to the settings that I want to change quickly. That means I need to hit the OK button and scroll to access the ISO setting, for example.
The camera does not have a separate battery charger. Like some newer cameras, it uses a USB cable to charge the battery in camera. That means I won’t be able to charge a battery while I’m out shooting. One the plus side, I can charge the camera from outlets on my car and the USB port on my computer.
The OLED display can be washed out in bright light and also has some strange flare problems when shooting into bright light. Luckily the image is not affected, the flare and light streaks can make composing the image a bit difficult.
Movies are limited to 720P, dated by today’s standards. I also prefer the MP4 compression instead of the space hogging AVI Motion JPEG.
While the shooting and focusing speed is pretty snappy, zooming into the image playback is pokey. There is also a second delay when switching between the shooting and playback modes.
You may have noticed that I described the image quality as being nice or decent. Even at ISO 100, the image quality is just a tad short of what the mirrorless cameras can do. For most people the image quality will be fine. But over the years, I’ve gotten increasing picky. Even at the lowest ISO, this is a fine-grained noise at 100%. The colors are also a bit weak, like they are slightly washed out. I need to amp them up more than usual in post processing, like I did here. They don’t have the vibrant colors that I’ve come to expect from the Olympus Pens. You may think that this is to be expected given the smaller sensor but my Panasonic ZR-1, which has even a smaller sensor, has more of a pop to its photos. That camera has an ISO 80 that really looks good. I don’t expect great high ISO quality from point and shoots but I would like to have a really clean image at the base ISO.
Image quality wise, I feel that I can’t use this camera for “serious” work. It’s a great camera for travel and to shoot interesting compositions on the go. I use it to take snap shots of friends and family. But I feel a bit compromised by the image quality even in the best light. Perhaps that is why I end up converting many of my XZ-1 photos to black and white. I find that the monochrome images have more pop and it may mask some of the minor deficiencies that I find. Not to say great color isn’t possible. I’ve included some of my favorite color images on this post. Keep in mind that I’m being very picky here. More than likely, for most people, they will be happy with the quality.
The most telling thing about the XZ-1 is that I use it constantly. It is small and light enough that I can bring it almost anywhere. And as you can tell from the photos, I do have it with me all the time. It is clearly a point and shoot and its cute white makes it a very non-threatening even approachable camera. It also has enough controls that I can take the kind of pictures that I want. The Panasonic ZR-1, for example, tries to be too smart and it works against experienced photographers. Not so with the Olympus XZ-1. It’s a fun camera to shoot and even with my slight image quality reservations, it makes effective photos — clearly better than most point and shoots. All but the most picky would be quite satisfied.
Back two years ago, when this camera was released, its image quality received high marks. But two years is a long time in technology and improvements have been made by Olympus and the competition. Last year, Olympus released the XZ-2 that seems to address many of my negatives. Amazon’s pricing fluctuates but if you can get the XZ-1 under $300 look into it. It may be worth your consideration.
Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail. Multiply the focal length by 4.66 to get the 35mm equivalent