A Fantastic Compact Camera
Jan 31, 2012 (Updated Nov 12, 2012)
Review by jzorns
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:OUTSTANDING lens, large sensor, and a great execution of controls. Great results.
Cons:Separate charger and printed manual aren't included, not pants pocket-sized
The Bottom Line: A step-up from a point and shoot, it offers pro features and quality in a compact package. The lens is an absolute jewel. There are simple modes too.
A little background, if I may. Don't go and click "off topic" just yet!
Recommend this product?
Several years ago, I bought my first dSLR, a Pentax K100D. I took that to Europe with me and took some great pix. But it sure got old, carrying the bag around.
A few years after that, I decided that if I had a good compact camera with a zoom lens that started at 28mm and went out to at least 80 mm, I could get 90% of the shots I got with the big Pentax. So I bought a Canon S90. I was right, and it was sure liberating. But for indoor flash pictures, it is really no better than a mass market point & shoot.
But with the S90, I found myself missing the hot shoe more than any other SLR feature. Sometimes, for indoor people pictures, a flash is simply required. So I started looking again. I had narrowed it down to this Olympus XZ-1, Panasonic LX5, and the Canon G12. They all have their strong points. Olympus has the fastest lens. Panasonic has the widest wide angle. The Canon G12 has the longest zoom and most amount of direct control. Having been (occasionally) disappointed with the slowness of the S90s lens at telephoto, I ruled out the Canon. After some soul searching, I decided I like the control ring around the lens and extra telephoto over the extra wide angle of the Panasonic.
Right, back on topic.
BUILD QUALITY: 10/10
Typical Olympus execution, which is to say great. Examples of this are real hinges on the doors, even seams, and smooth-operating controls. Nothing jumps out and says to me: "Cost-cutting!"
Olympus' best quality optics are sold under the Zuiko name. Olympus has never compromised here. They have sold lots of compact cameras, and have resisted the urge to put that name on any lens that was not absolutely the best of the best. This one is no exception. Not only is it fast, having a max. aperture of f/2.5 at full telephoto, but it is sharp edge-to-edge, even wide open. This one truly deserves to bear the Zuiko name. Min. aperture is only f/8; this is one thing I miss from SLRs, is the ability to stop down to F/16 or f/22. Still f/8 is not bad for a compact digital camera.
ERGONOMICS and INTUITIVE DESIGN: 8/10
No compact camera gets a 10 from me on this point. One simply has to shape one's hand to the camera, rather than vice versa. This camera is no exception. Being a bit bigger than the diminutive S90, it is easier to hang onto without bumping any controls. -1 point.
Another thing is that although the lens protrudes from the body of the camera 1/2 to 3/4", Olympus did not add a gripping surface on the front of the body. It is almost as though they were pretending the protruding lens doesn't *really* make it thicker. -1 point.
To improve this, I'm probably going to apply some skateboard tape to the front of the body, to make the camera easier to hold with one hand, when needed. No biggie, this is, after all a compact camera.
The main mode dial is not as stiff as Canon's, and some folks have complained that it can be knocked off setting too easily sometimes. This is REALLY nit-picking, and I think it is a matter of taste. I prefer how this one protrudes a bit, and is not covered on all sides. I can actually grab the dial between my thumb and forefinger and turn it without needing any side pressure, rather than pressing my thumb against it hard and edging it around.
The control ring idea is where an old-fashioned aperture ring is on an SLR camera. Canon was the first I'm aware of to have put this on a compact camera in the S90. I loved it there, and I love it here too.
The other dial is the smaller one around the menu buttons on the back of the camera. This is a step up from that of the S90 as well, as this one has click detents. This makes it much easier to get around menu items without skipping through them 3 at a time.
Update, 12Nov2012 - I still have not gotten around to putting the skateboard tape on the front of the camera.
Some of you will laugh when you see that lofty 9 score, but allow me to qualify that. This flash was put here as a back up. In the Army, officers carry pistols. The idea is that if it comes to the point when an officer needs his pistol, then things have gone terribly badly: by that point in the battle all the grunts will have been killed, and this is the last chance to save his life.
Same deal with this flash. If it comes to the point when you need this flash, it means you are trying to shoot a moving subject in low light conditions. If the subject is static, simply use a tripod or open up the lens and raise the sensitivity. If the subject is dynamic, then use an accessory flash in the hot shoe. This one is just to let you squeak by. It will give usable party-style snapshots, or maybe fill in a bit of facial shadow when used as a fill flash outdoors. To further back this up, let me point out that the flash will never automatically pop up. It is a spring loaded, mechanically released flash, even in Auto mode. This is another thing that points to this camera being aimed at experienced photographers. If you give this to your mate and ask her/him to take party pictures and don't explain that the flash must be popped up, she'll come back with a card full of blurry photos.
On the other hand, the great news is that Olympus has seen fit to include a hot shoe for accessory flash. Olympus knows, as does any photographer who has been disappointed with on camera point & shoot camera flashes, that for serious work, we need a serious flash. I plan to buy a dedicated flash for this as my next purchase, along with a spare battery.
Most experienced photographers will only ever use this as a back-up or to trigger radio controlled flash off-camera. Speaking of which, at the time of this writing, the XZ-1 is the only camera in this class to offer wireless flash control.
Update, 12Nov2012: The Olympus FL36 flash is working like a charm. Bounce and some more power makes all the difference.
I'm not going to assign a point value here. All sizes can be an advantage to a camera. This one is quite a lot smaller than an SLR, and the lens protrudes a lot less than the interchangable lens mirrorless cameras, like the Pen series. Yet it is notably larger than a true pocket size camera, like a Canon Elph or S90/95/100. It has been said before, but it bears repeating: If you want to call this a "pocket camera" that must be qualified by adding "coat" as a prefix > "coat pocket camera." Olympus was not trying to fool us either, as they included a neck strap, rather than a wrist strap. Some folks will still prefer the wrist strap on a compact camera. Others will realize that a neck strap can easily become a wrist strap by putting one's wrist through and looping it a couple times, but not vice versa. Personally, I tried the neck strap for a few days, but it seems to be in the way more often than it is handy. It's hard to put it in the case without fighting with the strap. I changed to a cheap wrist strap left over from some earlier camera.
Again, some of you will think: "How can he give it a 10 here when there isn't even an optical viewfinder?!" Because of two things: a) If you REALLY feel like you need a viewfinder that goes up to your eye, Olympus sells an accessory electronic view finder. b) we should realize that from an engineering standpoint, there are costs for this. Price of the camera would go up a bit, the camera would be taller to accommodate it, and it would not be worth a darn if it were compact anyway. For validation of this, just look up the comments on the Canon G12's optical finder. Everyone says; "It has one, but it stinks. Last resort only." Olympus instead chose to spend that money on a fantastic organic light emitting diode (OLED) display tha is bright and sharp, and visible in all light. It doesn't articulate, but boy is it ever clear. Also, since OLED displays use less energy when some pixels are not lit, it is much more energy efficient than LCD displays. I'm glad Olympus took this path, instead of putting in a junky optical finder. A fully articulated display like that of the Canon G12 would be nice, but then the price would be higher and the camera would be thicker. It's all a compromise. I'm happy.
MOVIE MODE: 6/10
Earlier reviewers have really bashed this feature of the poor XZ-1. I can only surmise that they were testing early versions or did not bother to update the camera's firmware. I updated mine, and it did not have the focus hunting problem. Admittedly, I can't zoom while taping, but it is a good basic video mode anyhow. Just remember that it is not the main event on this camera. As others have said, the blaze orange video record button is nice, for direct access to start taping. On my S90, I have to change the mode dial to video to start recording. I don't know how many moments I have missed just by either being in video mode when I needed photo, or vice versa. That will never happen with this camera.
Update, 12Nov2012: I updated the firmware early this year, and it still cannot hold focus in video mode. Time to head to Olympus.com and see if there is another firmware upgrade. I'm not hopeful, since I see that Olympus has released the XZ-2 now, so they may not be so motivated to fix the focus issue. The darn thing just hunts for focus all the time, even on static subjects. Just a pitiful effort here. I'm taking off one more point for this shortcoming. I know it is not intended to be a video camera primarily, but it is not unreasonable to expect it to hold focus on static subjects.
LENS CAP: 10/10
This is another area where people have griped, because they are not thinking like engineers. Some folks wish it had a built-in trap-door style lens cover. I HATE those things. They are very fragile and only protect the lens from dust; sometimes not even that. If one carries the camera in one's pocket, those tiny fragile little doors are pretty likely going to get damaged, and their slots clogged with pocket lint. It's just not a rugged design. I can't count how many of these types of lens covers I've seen damaged by customers when I worked at a camera store.
On the other hand, if a seperate lens cap were provided that hung on tighter, for example into some filter threads, then the gear train that extended the lens would probably get stripped before too long, from when the camera is turned on with the lens cap on, causing it to try to push the lens out against this obstruction.
Here again, Olympus has chosen the perfect compromise: a snug fitting friction-type lens cap. When the camera is turned on, the lens can push it right off with no chance of damaging the gear train. Yet the cap can actually protect the lens better than a leaf shutter style automatic cap. Yes, it may come off if you just throw the camera in your backpack with a bunch of other stuff. But if you put the camera in a reasonably snug-fitting case, it will not come off.
If you use the included tether, there's no chance of losing this cap either. It gets tethered to either the strap eyelet or the strap itself, so when (not if) you forget to remove the cap prior to doing something that will extend the lens, there's no harm; just an instantly-deployed camera, and the lens cap hanging from the tiny nylon tether.
If you really do like the leaf shutter style automatic caps, some company named Rainbow makes a retrofit one. It is this terribly clunky looking thing...
Update, 12Nov2012: I used the tether for a week. Even while using the wrist strap on the right-side lug, and the tether on the left side, the darned tether is always in the way. So I removed the tether, and cultivated the habit of just taking off the cap and putting it directly in my pocket. Much better. One only has to remember to take off the cap each time, or the lens will push it off and to God knows where? Off the edge of your boat? Off a building? Down the hundreds of stairs of a cathedral tower? You'll have to make the decision between either not having the cap tethered in favor of better overal camera handling, or having it tethered so you don't lose it. It is a personal decision.
MENU SYSTEM and SECONDARY FEATURES: 10/10
Olympus has really done a good job here. They call it "Live View" it is what is commonly referred to as a Function Menu. It is the menu that contains items that should not be buried, but that are not needed all the time, either. Just press the 'OK' button in the middle of the rear dial, and it comes up. On the right hand side of the screen, I see and select which feature I'm adjusting, by pressing up or down on the rear dial. Along the bottom of the screen, I select the setting for that feature by either pressing left or right on the dial, or rotating the dial. Press OK again to save and exit. Very quick and easy. I deducted one point here because there was a short learning curve. After a day of playing with it, I had it all figured out. If you are the type of person who is seriously considering a $400 point-and-shoot camera, you will figure it out too, without any problems.
Update, 12Nov2012: I found out a while ago that when the "Live View" menu is activated, one can navigate vertically to choose which sub-menu with the front control ring, then, make the decision with the rear control ring. The only button pushes that are needed is to get in the menus and again to save one's settings. Brilliant. I'm giving back the point I took away for this. 10/10 now.
IMAGE QUALITY: 9/10
The only way it could be better would be if it had a bigger sensor. But then, a bigger lens is needed, and a bigger body too. The camera would then not be compact any more. Olympus has instead decided to fit that outstanding, fast lens, so that we photographers can keep the sensitivity dialed down. Even with it's smaller-than-SLR-size sensor, (but much larger than typical point & shoot cameras') the camera is capable of producing beautiful 16x20 prints and of filling several screens with the 10 MP image. This is another compromise, but they've struck a good one.
Update, 12Nov2012: I would like to see more intermediate resolution settings. I do most of my shooting at the 2xxx by 1xxx range now. The 10 MP files just hog up too much hard drive space, considering I'll never print most of these images. What they have is good enough, but we want better than adequacy, right? ;)
INCLUDED ACCESSORIES: 8/10
If Olympus cut corners anywhere, it was here. This camera charges through it's computer connection port, with a USB cable. Olympus has included a power supply too, so the USB end of the cable can either plug into a computer's port, or into the charger's port. This is nice, because when I travel, I don't need to bring a separate charger, if I'm taking my laptop anyway. Just the cord. If I'm not bringing a laptop, I just take the included AC power supply. So the only real disadvantage is that I can't charge one battery while using the other. If you're shooting enough that you need to be doing this, you will probably not be shooting a compact camera anyway, right? I deducted a point for this.
Also not included is a printed version of the full manual. Just a printed quick start guide. Whoopty do. Apparently CDs are cheaper than printing a paper manual these days. Not all computers have CD, DVD, or BlueRay palyers any more, so if you have such a computer (i.e. netbook) then you'll have to go online to Olympus' website and download the manual. On the plus side, that electronic manual is quite portable. I have a copy on my work computer, my home computer, my iPhone, and my Kindle. I'll pretty much have it wherever I go. Still, they lose a point for not including the printed manual.
Update, 12Nov2012: In practice, this cord solution is great. I have not very often missed the separate, dedicated charger, ala Canon. It has been great to only have to bring the cord along. It should be noted that the cord is not a super popular type. The camera end of the cord is between a mini USB and micro USB plug in size, and might be kind of hard to find if it is lost. The other end is a standard USB. My procedure while shooting on vacation overseas is to go out at the beginning of a day with two fully charged batteries. Probably 85% of the time, I never even use the full first battery. (flash is rarely ever needed, remember?) The times I do use it up are when I'm using the flash to fill in shadows, or when I spend a lot of time reviewing or editing pix in camera. When I get back to the hotel at the end of the day, I swap the dead battery back into the camera, plug it into my laptop, upload the pix to the laptop for back-up and some quick editing, then just leave it plugged in to charge. Put that battery into my bag as the spare. Then, put the other battery in the camera, and let it get topped off overnight. This turned out to be a great place to cut costs without cutting functionality. The one change I would make would be to replace that somewhat proprietary connector on the camera end with a standard micro-USB that everything else seems to use these days.
04Feb2012: I've ordered a spare Olympus battery and an Olympus FL-36R flash to go along with this. I'm shooting with a slow 4 MB card.
The FL-36R flash seems to be a little on the big side for this small camera, but it is full-featured. Swivel, bounce, wireless, backlit display, auto zoom, etc. Kind of expensive at $230, but it reads well.
The name brand battery pack was $15 through Amazon. Resist the urge to order an off-brand pack for $5. They just don't work as long, and may be unsafe. The Olympus packs are UL Listed. (third party, premier US safety certification) the off-brands are CE, which is self-certification. I did give into that urge with my S90, and those off-brand packs only have half the capacity as the Canon one. Ditto with a Panasonic camcorder pack vs. off brand.
Can be found http://s134.photobucket.com/albums/q112/jzorns/XZ-1/, as well as a few views of my camera itself.
Some folks have complained that it is hard to find a case that fits this camera properly. Olympus makes a leather fitted case. There is an off-brand leather fitted case too. These used to be called "Eveready cases." But my grandpa used to kid me that "Never-ready" was more acurate.
Today's cases for small point & shoot cameras are generally too small.
I have an older Tamrac case for an old 35mm point & shoot film camera that is a perfect fit. This is what you should be looking for. Take down the exterior dimensions of the camera from Olympus' site and shot ebay for a nice used case with the right interior dimensions.
09Apr2012 - I'm still loving this camera. I've made many hundreds of photos with it now, and that little lens has huge performance that is well worthy of the Zuiko name. One does notice how it protrudes from the body when one is trying to shove it into a small case, but it is fine in a coat pocket. One quickly gets used to how the front control ring and rear one work in unison to quickly scroll through settings. I haven't found any weaknesses in this camera yet.
12Nov2012 - I put some updates inline, above. In general, this is a GREAT camera. I have not used my digital SLR since I got this. The SLR feels so good in the hands, but for most practical purposes, this camera does just as well. I just got back from a trip to Guangzhou, China, and Taipei, Taiwan, and shot hundreds of pix with this little gem. The only sore points after lots of use are: terrible focusing with the video function, lens cap issue (it's either hard not to lose or in the way, details above) and the lack of grip on the front right side of the camera. The lens cap issues is addressed by developing the right habit. The grip issue is addressed with a little skateboard tape. Only the poor focusing ability for the video camera feature is really worth mentioning.
Now that the Olympus XZ-2 is out, used XZ-1s will be available for cheap on ebay. If you don't want to pony up the price for an XZ-2, but want that same optical quality, find a used, but well-treated XZ-1 and don't look back.
I love this camera, and I have had DOZENS over the years. No camera before this has done so much, so well. It is really a jack-of-all-trades. (master of some!)
If you shoot indoor candid people pictures, do plan on buying a quality bounce flash for it.
The spare battery I bought for this, although it is original Olympus, is not UL Listed, like the original one is. That is disappointing. It only bears the self-claimed CE mark, which is pretty weak by comparison, safety wise.
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