A second look at the Olympus XZ-1. Mea Culpa.

  The Olympus XZ-1.  A second shot.

I don't why I was in such a binary and critical funk back on April 23rd (except that, according to my friends, I am always rather binary and critical....) when I dismissed the Olympus XZ-1 in a rather out of hand way because I felt like the camera was too small and thin to comfortably hold.  A few of my friends have been prodding me to give it a second shot and I finally succumbed and grabbed one, put the (must have) VF-2 finder in the accessory shoe and went out to joust with destiny.

First things first.  Every time I write about one of these Olympus cameras (EP-2, EPL-1, EPL-2 and now this camera) I mention that the VF-2 finder is incredible and I won't shoot the cameras without one firmly attached.  People write in a huff reminding me that the Panasonic cameras also have finders available and the finders are cheaper.  But the Panasonic finders also suck just a bit and they aren't in the same league with the Olympus finder.  Others write bitching because the finder is expensive.  Yes.  It costs money.  But it's an incredible way to work with these cameras and you can use the same finder across the entire Pen line (except for the EP-1) so if you own this compact and an EP3 you need only buy the finder once.

(Read Bill Beebe's intelligent rebuttal to my insistence that you buy the VF-2.  It's a fun read: http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-kirk-tuck-might-be-wrong-about-that.html  even though, of course, he's wrong.... :-) )

It makes every camera it sits on a much, much better shooting tool because it allows you to partner with the best of physics and stand in a way that gives much more stability to the process than the typical "back screen/cellphone/extended arm/squinting/sun reflection" method of holding cameras that don't offer eye level finders.  The finder alone is a reason to select one of the Olympus products over competing offerings.  It's a very high quality monitor with over one million pixels of resolution, a 1.15X magnification and 100% view.  If you can't afford the finder I understand but most people who are buying these high end compacts change them as often as they change shoes so I'm not sure that issue is cogent to the core market.  In terms of productivity it's the difference between digging a hole with a shovel or with your bare hands.  So, let's move on.

I'll get the two biggest "cons" out of the way first.  These are the things that turned me off immediately when I first worked with the camera.  First, I still think it's too thin.  I'm getting used to it but it's more a process of getting my hands and my brains to accept a flawed design process in exchange for shooting nice files.  I get the marketing point of view.  "Pocketable" is always on the checklist somewhere, and it seems like generation "cellphone" really likes the idea of being able to stuff everything they own into their pockets.  I'd like to say that you can't blame the maker for market preferences but I can't.  The haptics of tools make certain metrics less flexible.  My hands are learning to compensate and my brain is learning to become less judgmental.  I think.  The second point that makes me less than happy, and this is still related to size, is that the battery has been shrunk to fit the tiny dimensions of the body width.  The battery is barely bigger than three SD cards stacked.  And this means it doesn't hold enough magic lightning to get a prolific shooter much past mid-morning coffee before the blinking orange bars announce the end of your session.  The test camera shipped with one battery and so any tests I was able to do back in April were short and sporadic.   Part of my new testing procedure is to travel with two batteries.  But even there Olympus has done me a great disservice.  The camera ships with a USB cable that connects the camera to household current.  USB charges the battery while it's in the camera.  Probably saved the company $1.  But it costs me peace of mind and some of my gentle nature because I can't put a spent battery onto a charger while shooting with the camera.  I'm consigned to shooting thru all the batteries I have and then ending a walk or session or whatever, heading back to the studio and charging the little units, one by one.  That's not how photographers work.  That's how people with iPhones work.  All cameras should come with real chargers.

In writing this I remember the third "con."  It's the lens cap.  I didn't loose mine.  I threw it away because it was so aggravating.  When you power on the camera the lens extrudes and the cap pops off.  You can tether it with a string but it will get in the way.  Why not a threaded lens and a clip cap?  It's worked for decades.  Why un-invent the wheel and replace it with something out of round?

Will this review ever get better?  Yes.  I'm done bitching and ready to move on to what the camera does well (once you've dealt with the above in a firm manner....).

I did the bulk of my shooting this past saturday and it immediately brought home to me the advantage of shooting with a small, light camera like this one.  The average temperature on Saturday afternoon was around 103 but where I was walking, in the heat sink of our downtown with all the concrete and black top it was surely a few degrees hotter.  When your body is under heat stress any reduction in the load you carry is a welcome thing.  I carried only the camera, and and extra battery.  With an 8 gigabyte SD card loaded up I didn't even see the need to carry a back up card.  I had forgotten since having handled this camera last that the aperture is controlled by the ring around the lens, and while I like this feature I've been weened away from that kind of direct control for over a decade on digital cameras.  I kept looking for a menu or button to change aperture and found it finally by chance.  The ring has nice click stops but it can overshoot or lag as you turn it because it's a fly-by-wire connection.  Once I got my sea legs back I started walking around shooting familiar stuff.  

One of the features of the camera (and also on the EPL series of cameras) is the "art filters."  The image of Spring Condominium above was done with the "pinhole" filter and it's kind of cool but all the filters lack any user input so you get a boxed effect or you can jump into PhotoShop or Topaz Enhance and disrupt the image to your heart's content.  I think the filters are more fun when you use them in conjunction with the video capabilities of the camera but then that might say more about the novelty of new video method and their effect on me more than anything else.

The colors from the XZ-1 in Jpeg are the same wonderful Olympus palette but with one caveat,  I thought they were a bit too flat.  Granted I could work with the parameters in the camera but when increasing contrast in camera I always fear that the highlights will burn out.  I think the files look best when I process them in Lightroom and just add between 5 and 10 clicks of black to the files.  I can also go into the curves control and create a bit of a mid-tone pop and leave the highlights alone.  I can save the curve and use it on all the same kind of Jpeg files from that camera.  When looking at the screen on the back of the camera (and the VF-2) the files seem way too saturated when I use the "vivid" setting.  On my Apple monitor they look much more realistic.  In raw, all bets are off.  With noise reduction turned off you get to see just how detailed and just how noisy they are.  Now it's your job to find just the right spot on the tightrope walk between soft and smooth and hard and noisy.  I like a bit more noise and higher sharpness but your mileage......

I used the distressed filter for some of these shots because the sun was frying my brain and making me do things I wouldn't normally do.  But when I look at them I get the same feeling I do when the legion of people around me show me the special effects shots they are endlessly shooting and manipulating on their iPhones with HipsterTragic.......done to excess (meaning more than 10% of the time) IT'S AS DISTURBING AS TYPING EVERYTHING WITH THE CAP LOCK ON AND SCREAMING "LOOK AT ME.  LOOK AT ME.  AND WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS TO BOOT!!!!!!!  So I've learned my lesson and now I look for art to spring internally.  Because it's good to remember that a canned filter is not the same thing as a personal style.

What I like about the camera blurs with what I like about the VF-2 finder.  I love whipping the little, non-serious camera up to my eye and composing in a square, or in the 3:2 format.  Or even in a 16:9 format.  I love being able to see a clear sharp image even in blistering bright sunlight.  And I love the fact that when I point this little, tiny camera at people they largely ignore it and smile at me like I'm the village idiot and let me go on shooting whatever I want.

You know you can click on any of these images and they will open in their own window in a bigger size, right?

As I shot the XZ-1 more and more I came to appreciate the small size vis a vis something like the Canon g12 which feels like a little brick by comparison.  I'm sure that the image quality from both cameras is within the parameters of user capability but not having a good EVF or even a good optical finder makes the g12 less useful to me.  From a control point of view the Canon G12 is an "A" and the Olympus a high "C".  Olympus is pretty famous for the lack of friendliness in their  menu structures but a lot of that is blown out of proportion by reviewers (including me) because we tend to use a camera for a short amount of time before assessing it which means that we may know how to make a great image with it (I get lucky from time to time) but we never spend the kind of time a user who makes this their sole shooting camera would.  If I worked with this camera every day I am sure I'd feel totally comfortable with all the controls and menus in less than a week.  After a year it would seem nostalgically warm and fuzzy.  That's the nature of camera interfaces and one of the reasons why some users have such a hard time changing systems.

So in the contest between the Olympus, the Canon and the Panasonic (XZ-1, G12 and LX5) we know that the chips are pretty similar, the 10 megapixel size pretty standard and the basic performance capabilities are very similar.  At a certain point which camera is best comes down to usability, ergonomics and lens performance.  I've used all three cameras and I've got the following viewpoint.  The  Olympus wins it by a nose.  But, let's be frank, the Olympus only outscores the other two cameras because of the VF-2 finder.  The colors are good on all cameras.  Now they all have raw file capabilities.  The Panasonic and Olympus have fast, juicy good lenses.  The Canon wins on battery life and good, solid control layout.  So it makes choosing a mess.  Th Panasonic with the finder?  Naw, the price goes up but the finder isn't up to snuff.  The Canon?  Sorry but the weight and the bad optical finder are major points against.  In my skewed estimation the Olympus brings together a great lens, decent speed, good high ISO performance with a little help in a good raw converter,  and a finder that is as good (or better) than many DSLR finders (anyone looked through the finder on a Rebel Xsi lately?).

The f1.8 lens gets a bit slower at the end of the focal length range, hitting 2.5 at the tele end but it's a fun lens for candid shots at the coffee shop or around town.  The AF is fast and sure and the basic exposure metering of the camera is usually pretty good, if a little hot.  The IS works as well as anyone else's and I was able to get shots as low as 1/6th of second that were reasonably good.  Having a fast, sharp lens is a joy...

LOOK!!!!  FILTERS!!!!!

On Sixth Street.  By McGarrah and Jesse.

I call this, Blue on Blue.

A quick shot of James Evans with LED lighting.

Marcie, James and Andrew Eccles outside the studio.

 The ever patient Belinda with LED lights.  

Final recommendations:  I love small cameras and always had a Contax T2, or a Rollei 35s, or even a Canon QL17 with me in the film days.  Wonderful for carrying around and catching the stuff between the frames of the bigger studio cameras.  Now people seem to be evenly divided about the small, higher end digital cameras.  There are rank amateurs who want something small and light to carry in a  purse or a men's European carry-all (Seinfeld reference).  And many don't care much about price, they just want "the best."  For them, any of these cameras are dandy.  Then there are the hobbyist and professionals who profess to want a camera they can carry with them anywhere.  In this section I think the Olympus is a good choice, with the finder.  If you can't swing the finder you'll probably be happier with the G12 because you'll still be able to use the built-in quasi optical finder in bright sunlight.

And then there are the people who want their small camera to be a shooting tool.  These are folks who, in previous times, would have bought a Leica M or Leica CL or Konica Hexar and have been done with it.  But the market is broadening for non conformists.  The Fuji X-100 has a following as does the $2000 Leica X-1 but neither of these will make it into my camera bag because the fixed lenses are way too short for my taste.  I'd love a camera with an APS or larger sensor and fabulous lens and the option to use a great EVF as well as an articulated screen.  Sony made one for a while.  They're called R-1's and they are stunning.  But the cameras are big and bulky, the chip is noisy above ISO 400 and the EVF is a couple generations old.  All in all it still kicks butt.  I hope someone comes out with its descendent soon but until they do I'll cast my personal vote for the XZ-1 or one of the new Pens from Olympus.  The size and price are right and the performance, for 95% of the stuff we all shoot, is good.  The range of focal lengths fits me like a glove.  And I like the stealthy, black finish.

If you buy the XZ-1 be sure to buy two extra batteries.  It eats up the smaller lithiums like candy.  I got 170 shots on Saturday from my first battery but I'm willing to concede that the temperature was outside the camera's operating range as specified by the owner's manual.  In lower temperatures the batteries will likely hit the 225 frame mark before they play dead.  If you get the XZ-1 I'll presume you're getting the VF-2 finder.  As nice to look through as the finder on the Canon 60D for sure.  And very useful for movie shooting.  My method for manual focusing also depends on the EVF.  I hold the camera to my eye and hit the magnify button twice (make sure the green square in the middle of the info menu is active....) and you'll be focusing at close to 10X.  One more push and you're back to full frame, normal viewing.

As for the lens cap I notice someone already has an aftermarket product that addresses it.  You'll have to do your own research there.  I'll just keep mine front lens element clean and take my chances.

The camera is starting to grow on me.  It's not as sharp and detailed as the Canon 5D mk2 but it's great to have along when I'm traveling really light.  And it sure doesn't attract attention to itself.  Kudos to Olympus for resisting unnecessary bling..... Shoot on, my friends.

A second look at the Olympus XZ-1. Mea Culpa.

I don't why I was in such a binary and critical funk back in