The Olympus Stylus 1 Review

Olympus Stylus 1 Comparison

I had a chance to play with the recently announced Olympus Stylus 1 for an extended period of time — Charles from Olympus let me use it for several weeks. However, it was a pre-production unit, without the final firmware, so I’m not allowed to post photos taken with it. Even so, I got a good feel for the camera. I usually post a lot of real world photos in my reviews, so this one’s going to be a bit different.

Competitive Landscape

Olympus Stylus 1 details
Olympus Stylus 1 details

As we start 2014, The camera industry has become really challenging and the manufactures are doing their best to fill every conceivable niche. On the low-end the ubiquitous and basically free smart phone camera has sucked the air out of the point and shoot market. But they also affect the higher end cameras too. I can tell you from experience that most parents at our elementary school have switched to camera phones, even the parents who previously would have used DSLRs. What can camera companies do to complete?

In the point and shoot market, adding a bigger zoom and increasing image quality has been the response. With the Stylus 1, Olympus have come up with a unique combination of features. They use a bigger 1/1.7″ sensor with a very usable 28 – 300mm (10.7x) equivalent zoom range. Though not a super zoom per say, with a crazy 30x – 50x lens, the up to 300mm zoom has a very practical range. The image quality is also better since unlike the normal point and shoots, the Stylus 1 uses a larger sensor.

On the very top end of the point and shoot market, Sony has released the RX-10 with even a larger sensor (1″) with a smaller 24mm to 200mm range. While an interesting camera with very good video features, the RX-10 is quite large with a hefty $1300 price tag. I briefly played with this camera and found it entirely too large and too expensive. In this price and size category, I prefer to use the micro 4/3 interchangeable lens cameras which can be less expensive, have higher image quality and have more versatility.

The 1/1.7″ sensor, typically used by premium compacts such as Canon’s S120 and G16 and Olympus’ XZ-2, is also in the Stylus 1. Olympus managed to fit an EVF (Electronic View Finder) and a generous constant f2.8 zoom in a body not much larger than the XZ-2. They did this for only $100 over the list price of the XZ-2 and while $699 is not inexpensive, you get a heck of a lot of features.

Styling

Olympus Stylus 1 details

The Stylus is clearly inspired by the OM-D E-M5, Olympus’ high-end micro 4/3 camera. Unlike the E-M5, the Stylus 1 is made primarily of plastic. I was initially disappointed by the feel of the body and controls. The build quality is adequate but I was expecting more of a E-M5 heft because of the visual similarity. The Olympus XZ-2 also feels more premium but I could understand the trade offs that Olympus must have faced to add all the extra features for only a $100 more. After a week or so of use, my initial disappointment faded. I came to appreciate this light weight and versatile camera.

The camera is packed with physical controls and in usual Olympus fashion, very configurable. The camera can be enjoyed by both novices and more experienced shooters. The menu system is also very familiar, especially if you’ve used an Olympus micro 4/3 camera or XZ-2.

A modern-day S2 IS

Olympus Stylus 1 Comparison

Back in 2005, I got the Canon S2 IS, one of the early super zooms — it was the 2nd digital camera I ever bought. Using the Stylus 1, I was struck by the similarity. Both cameras are about the same size, both with tilting screens and long image stabilized zooms. They both work great for stills and video. They are “do everything” compact cameras, the kind that a novice can grow into as they step up from their first point and shoot.

That was the case for me. I used that S2 IS on my trip to Disneyland. One camera that did everything. No need to worry about interchangeable lenses or multiple camera bodies. I see the Olympus Stylus 1 as the modern equivalent. Of course, image quality wise, 9 years of technology improvements have done wonders. While that old Canon had acceptable image quality at ISO 200 – 400, this modern Stylus increases the usable range to about ISO 1600, a 2 – 3 stop improvement. Resolution also increased from 5MP to 12MP.

For people using the Stylus 1 mostly in daylight, it may be the ideal, small do everything camera. It’s fast, versatile and with the a rear tilting LCD and EVF, you will have no problem using it in any lighting condition. Low light shooting will also work if you use flash. Available light photography indoors or at night will be challenging, though still possible with careful shooting.

Image Quality

Olympus Stylus 1 details
Olympus Stylus 1 details

While I’m not allowed to post photos from this camera, even with the pre-production firmware, I’ll say that image quality is in the same range as my Canon G15. High ISO noise levels even look better than the Fujifilm XF1 which is currently my favorite point and shoot. This is very impressive. It just goes to show how amazing these small cameras have become. These modern small sensors and the sophisticated image processors allow high ISO noise levels to meet or exceed DSLRs from 8 years ago. In 2006, my Canon Rebel XT DSLR needed additional processing to make ISO 1600 look acceptable.

Just to be clear, I’m only talking about noise levels when I compare point and shoots to DSLRs. There are other factors that determine image quality and things like depth of field. I still prefer portraits from a 2006 vintage DSLR for example.

While a 28 to 300mm constant f2.8 zoom lens is very impressive, for low-light shooting, f2.8 can actually be slow, especially on a point and shoot. Many premium point and shoot have a f1.8 or f2.0 aperture on the wide end. f2.0 is 1 stop faster than f2.8 which means it has double the light gathering ability. In practical terms, I can shoot at ISO 800 instead of ISO 1600, or I can shoot at 1/30 of a second instead of 1/15 of a second which might make the difference between a blurry and sharp portrait.

In early 2014, I find ISO 1600 is at the borderline for these type of high-end point and shoots. Of course, your mileage and opinion will vary. I like to view my photos full screen (not at 100%) on a 27″ monitor and see minimal amount of noise. If you plan to view your photos on smaller screens or print 4 x 6 inch photos, ISO 3200 might be acceptable for you.

If you like to shoot mainly indoors or at night like I do, you might consider a point and shoot that has at f1.8 or f2.0 lens. The less expensive Olympus XZ-2 ranges from f1.8 to f2.5. However, on the XZ-2 you lose the EVF and the zoom only goes to 112mm.

My Likes

1. Long and usable zoom range
2. A constant f2.8 aperture
3. A very good 1/1.7 inch sensor
4. Compact body
5. Light weight
6. Very good image quality, usable up to ISO 1600
7. Excellent image stabilizer, better than the entry-level Olympus Pen cameras
8. Fast focusing and good overall performance
9. Good quality EVF
10. Tilting Rear LCD

My Dislikes

1. Mostly plastic build without a true premium feel
2. The f2.8 aperture not ideal for low-light conditions

Conclusion

The Stylus 1 is a very versatile camera in a small package. It’s light enough that you can carry it all day and forget that you have it with you. Image quality should satisfy most people especially if you plan to use it in decent light. If camera phones are what you’re used to, the Stylus will blow them away and produce good photos even in low light. Picky people, like me, might quibble a bit at ISO 1600 and above but it all depends on where you’re going to display your photos. Are you just going to post the photos to Facebook or print 4 x 6s? Then don’t worry about it. The camera should meet your expectations.

Since I shoot in low-light for a majority of my photos, the XZ-2 would work better for me. I also tend to shoot wide-angle and rarely need to zoom more than 100mm. However having that extra zoom can be fun at times. If Olympus ever adds a f1.8 lens to a future Stylus, I would be tempted indeed.

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