Olympus XZ-1

Olympus XZ-1

Cameras for me, are like handbags are for many women. You need the right camera for the occasion. An iPhone for everywhere, a compact for gigs, a mirror less camera for times when I’ve got a small rucksack with me, and a SLR for quality. (I’ve recently upgraded my SLR to a Sony A77).

For the last 3 years my I’ve been using a Panasonic TZ-5 as my compact of choice. I bought it because it was a super zoom and I thought it would be great for capturing the stage from further back in the audience. But after three years it was showing it’s age. The image quality in low light was very poor. The max ISO is a very noisy and muddy ISO 1600. Although it’s good to have the extra zoom, the maximum aperture would drop to 4.9, not great for low light use. So often, I’d have to reduce the zoom length to get a barely usable picture. It also didn’t have a ‘PASM’ option so I had to dig into the menu system to find the option to limit the maximum shutter speed. So it was time for a change.

The specification was simple.

  • Small
  • Good lens
  • Wide aperture at zoom end
  • Good quality at high ISO
  • RAW support
  • Long zoom

Basically, something that doesn’t exist. After much research it was clear that finding a long zoom lens camera with a wide aperture at full zoom is not possible. As I’m often at the front at gigs, loosing the long zoom wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the quality of the picture was good enough to allow cropping – most of my photos are only uploaded to flickr and blogs.

With the spec solidified, the choice appeared to be between the Canon S100 and the Olympus XZ-1. The S100 has excellent ISO performance. But although it’s advertised with a fast F2 lens, after playing with one in a shop, it was clear this very quickly dropped off. So that at full zoom the aperture is a very slow F5.9. The Olympus on the other hand has fast lens that starts at F1.8 at wide angle and only drops to F2.5 at full zoom. However, it’s ISO performance was clearly not in the same league as the S100.

I spent many months debating which way to go and in the end, it was heavy discounting of the Olympus XZ1 that meant that I could say ¬£150 over the S100, that sealed the decision. After three months of use and about a dozen gigs, I feel I’ve had enough time to judge the camera’s performance and I have to say I’m really pleased with the choice I made.

The XZ-1 is on the large-end of the compact range. Although it fits in a pocket, you know you are carrying it. It features a very big lens for a compact camera, but it doesn’t have a mechanical iris to protect the lens when it’s switched off. Instead it has a plastic cap which increases the overall size.

Although it comes in white and black, from a design perspective, it’s a functional camera, rather than a pretty camera. It clearly is designed to be what it is. A compact camera for people who also have a SLR but want a quality compact.

On the top of the camera is a PASM control dial. This allows quick access to Aperture, Shutter, Programme, and Manual modes. There’s also a few special modes. An intelligent auto mode (like all IA modes – it’s not that intelligent), a scene mode, art mode, lowlight mode and special custom mode that can be configured to work the way you like.

My mirror-less camera is a Sony NEX5. Sony designed it’s interface to be accessible to people moving up from a point and click camera. Many reviewers have critised the interface for being too clunky and dumbed down for SLR users. Advanced features are hidden away in sub menus requiring too clicks to access them. As a long-term NEX5 users, I think many of these reviews are wide of the mark. Sony provide numerous ways to customise buttons to your requirements and in daily use, I find it’s interface is great to work with.

I mention this because the Olympus hasn’t been critised for it’s menus. As I mentioned, the camera will be mostly used at gigs. So I have a very clear use-case. This usually means accessing ISO settings, shutter speeds, focus zones, EV adjustments and sequential shooting opions. Having customised my NEX to provide quick access to almost all these facilities, coming to the the Olympus, the menu system feels very clunky. Yes, you can switch quickly between PASM modes, but swapping other settings often requires several clicks and I think overall it’s more fiddly than on the NEX. However, like all interfaces you get used to it and it’s not a poor interface by any means, just different from my other cameras.

I purchased the camera purely because of the lens. Few compacts offer such a fast lens and it really is very good for this category of camera. I’ve found the lens to have very little chromatic aberration and it’s relatively sharp for a compact. However, there is noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end. But at gigs, the f2.5 (at full zoom) has meant that I’ve been able to capture photos in very low light which would have been out of the question with my old compact.

The camera’s ISO performance is good, but not brilliant. It’s not comparable with the APS-C NEX. But it’s a massive leap up from the TZ5. Noise is controlled well in RAW images up to ISO800, with little colour noise and controllable luminance noise. Above 1250, the noise is more difficult to control. You’re definitely not going to get good print photos, but for web use, the photos are usable. But the great thing is that with such a fast lens, it’s rare that I need to go above ISO1600.

Alongside the tradition PASM modes, the camera offers a number of art modes such as pop art, dramatic, diorama, pin hole, grainy film and soft focus. They’re useful additions but I don’t think they’re as good as those offered on my NEX.

Tufnell Park tube station

Tufnell Park tube station. Grainy Film Art effect.

Not everything is rosy though. Olympus have decided to use a non standard USB cable and they do not provide an external charger. You have to leave the battery in the camera and charge it by connecting the USB cable to a computer or to the power block they provide. Although I’ve found that you can charge the camera through an iPhone power block USB connection, I still have to remember the extra cable when I go away. However, saying that, it can capture around 300 shots per charge. So it should be enough for a day’s shooting.

The camera also offers 720P video. But like most compacts, it doesn’t offer any option to reduce the sensitivity of the microphone. So if you intend to capture video at a gig, I’d look elsewhere. The microphone is unable to deal with the decibel levels at concerts and sounds are distorted and clipped.

Overall I’m extremely happy with the camera. It does exactly what I need it to do. It’s compact, so can be taken into gigs and is able to deal with low light and manages to capture some very usable pictures.


 Tourist-type photos

39/366 - Kentish Town Tube Station

Kentish Town tube

Red Buses

Camden shop. F3.2. ISO 160

Boro vs Millwall

Full zoom – football stadium lighting. 1/80, f 2.5, ISO 200

Orlando Air Traffic Control

Taken from a coach. (Shutter priority). 1/80. ISO100

Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Resort

Bog standard travel photo using ‘auto’

Gig Photos

Alabama Shakes

Alabma Shakes at the Boston Arms. Almost no lighting of any kind. My previous compact camera would not have been able to return any results without flash – and when I’m a metre away from the artist, it’s something I try to avoid. 1/60. f2.0. ISO1600

Chapman Family

Chapman Family, Bull and Gate. 1/80. f2.5. ISO1250

The Naturals

The Naturals, Bull and Gate. 1/80. f2.0, ISO800

Dave Gilmour

Dave Gilmour. Cropped image. 1/80. f2.5. ISO800

British Sea Power

British Sea Power. Low light. 1/60, f2.5, ISO640

Jock Scott

Jock Scott supporting British Sea Power. 1/60. f 2.4, ISO800

Laura Marling

Laura Marling, Cambridge Corn Exchange. 1/60. f2.5. ISO800

Ting Tings at Scala

Ting Tings at Scala. 1/80. f2.1, ISO640

17/366 - Dry The River

Dry the River. 1/80. f2.3. ISO800.

Dry The River

Dry the River, KOKO. 1/80. f2.3. ISO500

Hey Sholay

Hey Sholay, Koko. 1/80. f2.5. ISO800

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls, XOYO, mainly lit from behind, with little front-fill lighting. 1/80. f1.8. ISO500

Howler at the Lexington

Howler. 1/80. f2.5. ISO320

Race Horses

Race Horses, Madame JoJo’s. 1/80. f2.5. ISO800

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