Olympus XZ-1 - yet another enthusiast camera?

It's easy to worship technology and always chase the latest trick. All the more so for us poor reviewers who are desperate to find something new to write about! Everything has to be the biggest, best, worst or fastest – ignoring that the gadgets we loved are just as good as they always were.

Once in a while however there's some real news and even if it isn't earth shattering, like a really cool cardigan, there's enough clear water around it to make a splash. This new, serious compact is just that. If a normal compact isn't good enough and you won't move up to the size of a micro system camera (let alone an SLR) then here's a quality focussed option. What makes it different?

A rolling camera gathers no extra moss

Bright Eyes

My review of the Panasonic LX3 was all about the lens. Leica's help made it a hit with enthusiasts who couldn't resist that glass. The XZ-1 plays the same game, and becomes THE lens fetish compact of the moment. This compact is the first to carry Olympus' own swanky marque - Zuiko. I'm not sure it has the same cachet as Leica but the spec is unmatched.

The Olympus XZ-1 is all about that lens!

Eyeing up the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000 you can see the lenses are a step up from the mundane, but on this Olympus there's no mistake that it's a leap beyond that. It's quite a statement piece and doesn't pack away small or have an integrated cover. Harking back to the heyday of bridge cameras, when Olympus made some crackers, before a move to wider lenses lost us a stop and f/2.8 ruled the compact world for years. This one starts at f/1.8, not a number you see much these days.

You can see the fade in/out of the focal plain around this snowdrop

We've all got used to having more depth of field (DoF) these days. DoF is inversely proportional to sensor size - the smaller the sensor the more you have. So you need a very bright compact lens to even hint at the subject isolation that an SLR or system camera can offer. There's been plenty of forum speculation over the DoF control that the XZ-1 can offer... and the conclusion is that its aperture is so relatively large that it really can match kit lensed SLRs. They're no gold standard in isolation but it's a huge leap over typical compacts. Several factors combine to make the most of things. The sensor is, like all the latest super compacts, slightly larger than average (1/1.63”, it's the one from the LX5). The aperture range is a stellar f/1.8-2.5 from 28mm wide to a properly portrait friendly 112mm tele end (equivalent).

Subject isolation isn't bad at all - not just for macro like most compacts

Making a bright lens wide is one thing but keeping a zoom bright all the way up is another. The LX5 closes to f/3.3 when zoomed to a modest 90mm and Samsung's EX1 might look a match on paper but reaches only to a 72mm (equivalent). Both start 4mm wider, giving another 9 degree angle of view so, as ever, you have to choose your favoured compromise. The otherwise healthy Canon S95 is a mean two tele stops darker, though shares the excellent lens surround dial.

The control dial round the lens is excellent

The XZ-1 wouldn't win at top trumps all the time – it's not a Lamborghini Countach LP500QV for god's sake – but it has a significant advantage over most rivals and at portrait focal lengths it is head and f stops over the rest.

Is it me or the camera?

It may sound like you should marry the XZ-1 and have its children, but while this is the cream of compacts it can't perform miracles. If you want wafer thin DoF you'll have to upscale to a system camera or SLR and buy good lenses. If you're a kit lens devotee then let your eyes linger.

I shot the XZ-1 wide open all the time - sharp and not too much DoF

All the flash glass in the world can't disguise that a small sensor doesn't have the light gathering real estate of an SLR so as ISO rises noise will creep in – although like the rest of the super compacts it does well. This may seems inevitable but remember that the XZ-1 doesn't have to use high ISO much (I said this in the LX3 review too). Wide open it can use ISO settings a quarter of those a basic SLR would have to use. Add the image stabiliser and rather than pushing the speed up you can use natural light, big apertures and long exposures for some striking, natural shooting.

The IS helps keep shots natural - one handed, no flash, f1.8, 6th second, ISO200

Solar Powered Pants Please!

So what doesn't shine out of the XZ-1's backside? Well, it doesn't have as many direct controls as the bigger rivals, but what it has is done well - I love that round lens dial. It's missing the option to separate focus and exposure lock... but I admit I wouldn't fret over that.

There's a cursor pad ring as well as the one round the lens

Worst manual ever? Maybe, the paper booklet in the box is 4 pages of info in 29 languages... so it should annoy everyone, the full manual is supplied on CD.

It's a very similar size to the LX5, but feels slimmer and good to hold despite lacking a grip. The slightly rounded, tapered body may be one reason it shares a battery with some of Olympus' smallest cameras. I didn't expect stellar longevity but it was fair, although a spare would be high on my shopping list. Olympus are over their xD card infatuation now so the SD card slot beside the battery is no surprise.

The pop-up flash is tiny but springs up far enough to clear your fingers and as well as the hotshoe option for more power it will control off-board flashes, just like E-Series SLRs. That gives you options other compacts (and most SLRs) don't have. From there it just pulls further ahead, it can run its internal flash and any dedicated flash TTL or manual in any exposure mode – none of its rivals can do that. Sadly it's locked out of any flashing in super macro mode. I really don't see why you can't even use the manual flash modes – grrrr!

The pop-up flash can remote control off board units

There's no charger, just a USB supply in case you can't find a spare. Charging happens via the USB port which also handles video and remote control. If that's not enough there's HDMI too and another port under the hotshoe which can enjoy some of the Pen accessories. Those include an electronic viewfinder, microphone port and new wacky, bendy armed LED macro lights. Because of this commonality there's a case to be made for it as a backup for Micro Four Thirds Pen people too. It more easily fits a niche below an SLR than some of the enthusiast compacts I've tried recently. Where the G12 and P7000 weren't really small enough the XZ-1 (and LX5) is clearly pocketable without too much effort.

It's clean and minimal... apart from that lens!

Everyone enjoyed handling this pleasantly weighty, little thing - it's well endowed and knows it. The turned control dial and lens sections are oversize to match the glass. The dial indents 'clunk' but there's no confusion over what it's doing. There's something of Panasonic's Germanic retro style but with a more modern, minimal flavour. The front is satin finish, pressed metal and the back textured, self coloured plastic. It's very rigid and there are no creaks. On the rear Olympus have installed a beautifully crisp 3” OLED screen. This self illuminating wide angle display technology is waiting in the wings to supplant LCD but still rare at the moment.

Where's my menu?

Other reviews have gushed that the usual extensive Olympus menus have been pared back. That's OK if you're a meek technophobe but I missed them. I put my bid in now for a full fat version! That said, what's there is easy to navigate. The shooting menu can be picked up in seconds and in iAuto mode prodding OK will offer an even simpler interface - like the little Pens do. I fret that this may pander too much to the config phobic market but that's where the money is, sales suggest those people are normal and I'm a bit of a geek ;-)

The XZ-1 is all about that lens!

A novice picking up the camera won't appreciate the lens but would notice that compared with most compacts the XZ-1 is fast. Focus is as fast as any compact I've tried and that bright lens seems to let it dig into dingy corners. Unlike the Pens it has a focus assist light too. All the controls are responsive without the need for a wake up poke like the G12 or the menu exit lag of the P7000. I guess the LX5 would be on par (the LX3 was pretty good) but right now it's my compact leader.

One risk of turning out a cute but capable camera is that it treads on the toes of its own family. There's a lot of the same thought behind the XZ-1 as the Pens but the size and capability gap between the two ranges is just big enough. As a pocket alternative to an SLR it's a home run.

The sharper image

So is the lens just for looking at or for looking through? It's no surprise that this compact can take good pictures. On a level playing field there isn't much between the best of the enthusiast cameras but like the P7000's 7x lens has more reach than the others the XZ-1 can catch more light. It can do things the other can't.

Like an SLR, shooting in Aperture priority is the creative choice

Maths and testing confirms that the XZ-1 can, amazingly, match the depth of field control and subject isolation of much larger sensor SLRs. The enticing f number means it has an aperture which is physically the same size as those less exotic but larger kit lenses. This lends the same control as an SLR, although at a much lower f number so the XZ-1 can play this trick in less light and at higher shutter speeds. Little cameras don't have the same upper apertures as SLRs, like most other compacts this tops out at f/8, which can be limiting in good light. So like the G12 and P7000 there’s a 3 stop ND (neutral density) filter to allow slower shutter speeds for long exposure effects.

In default 'Natural' mode Olympus have managed a pleasing balance of colour punch and subtle accuracy. Whichever colour mode takes your fancy you can give it a tweak; separate contrast, sharpness, saturation and graduation controls are remembered for each. In the black and white mode the photography student in all of us might enjoy the option to with a virtual coloured filter. Try the red filter on a blue sky, that'll give you a dramatic look... talking of which there's the latest smattering of Art Filters including my favourite, Dramatic Tone. Suffice say it's as much fun as it was on the E-PL2, so please read about it there.

The Dramatic Tone filter is a gift for graveyard shots

Conclusion

After the rebirth of the enthusiast camera it is fast becoming an enthusiast 'must have'. For those who don't have the brass neck to shove an SLR into every face, can't keep one safe out on the lash or merely have weedy arms it's great to have a capable small camera to hand.

These lens fetish cameras are trying harder than ever to add the SLR magic that people want – even if they don't know an f/stop from a g-string. Of the enthusiast compacts I've tried recently, the XZ-1 strikes the best balance of pros and cons; it mimics many of the positive characteristics of an SLR with a kit lens. The non scientific market research of the multi millions of SLRs sold has identified that as a solid set of core features! So it's ideal as an SLR fiend's stealth camera, and you can reassure yourself that you won't be missing much.

The lens is a field of its own...

Ratings

Lens fetish factor 9.9/10 Embarrassingly sexy glass, we're not worthy
Build 8/10 A subtle setting for that jewel of a lens
Handling 8/10 Great lens dial, simple menus, just enough buttons
Performance 9/10 Fast! With that glass you are the man! (or the woman!)
Value 8/10 Worth putting your hand in your pocket for new glassware

Overall score:
8.5
Ready for the red carpet season