Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Breaking the ponderous camera habit – the Olympus XZ-1

Over the past few years, a small number of cameras have gone against the trend for small, pocketable digital cameras. They were built in response to owners of DSLRs who had got a little tired of the bulk and weight of their DSLR gear. Time and again, diehards would evoke the memory of the Olympus XA or similar rangefinders.

Image courtesy of wikipedia entry

The initial response from the manufacturers and photographer peers was “this isn’t the sales and production trend” – the trend is towards higher and higher megapixels, bigger and bigger ultrazooms – those two numbers sell to would be buyers whilst a small body, with a good lens and excellent technical image quality would not be marketable.

Once the competitive market saturated though, the manufacturers could take a breather and assess whether such a modest sized, modest pixel sized, larger sensor camera might be a saleable, niche product item.

First out the door was the Panasonic LX-3 – I have held and admired my friend’s camera and it is indeed a good camera – good technical image quality, an expansive wide angle, clever automatic mode and built to feel like your money was well worth parting with. Canon with their S90 came with an even slimmer body, less wide lens. Again, it “hit the right spot”.

Olympus is late coming to the game but they have achieved some understanding of this market sector. Their candidate is the XZ-1. David Chua courtesy of Olympus Malaysia was kind enough to let me use it for half an hour during a recent field trip / photo walk.

Now, I’ve had interests in both camps – I shoot a DSLR with several lenses and I also shoot a Kodak P880, V705 and even the Samsung Galaxy S Android phone. I’m used to the purposefulness and explicitness of the DSLR and I am used to the quick draw and shoot of V705 and the Galaxy S.

The XZ-1 is smaller than the Panasonic LX-3 – and more importantly, it doesn’t feel so expensive. That’s not such a negative. When I feel that a camera is way expensive, it interferes with my desire to be casual with it, to use it freely. When I held my friend’s LX, it was with some trepidation and care that I handled it. I placed it gently on the table even though it was dense and heavy. The XZ-1 does have a relatively conspicuous and enormous lens (f/1.8 at brightest) and that’s the part that you might be careful with but the package didn’t make me feel overly precious with it – maybe it has less density.

Update: On second acquaintance, the XZ-1 is thinner, taller than the LX-5. The LX-5 feels denser with more cold in the feel of the metal skin. The LX-5 has a stubby protrusion to help your right hand grip the camera. The XZ-1 is taller and thinner than the LX-5. Somehow it doesn’t feel as cold or dense or expensively precious – it’s a perception thing. My right pinkies don’t seem to curl like when you hold a dainty teacup.

Now, the XZ-1 has a short focal length (physically) lens and yet a small f/no – f/1.8 – this means that often it has tremendously deep depth of field and yet with f/1.8, it grabs a lot of light. I set it on Programmed Mode (“P”), even though it has “A” and “M” – my experience with the Kodak P880 is that the designers know they have a deep depth of field and don’t want to go down the slippery slope of high ISO, grainier photos early – so “P” is not an unintelligent optimisation. For small sensor cameras too, the theoretical bogeyman of diffraction limits appears towards f/8 so the idea is to keep your f/no small mostly. In fact, just set it on “P”, point and click.

And I did, at fellow photographers in our group at a shopping mall called The Pavilion in Kuala Lumpur – it was not dim but it was indifferent light and just right for some casual point and shoot testing. Whilst the gang were practising their manual focus lenses on their E-P somethings (and I had also on my E-510 DSLR), the XZ-1 epiphanic moment is that you just go near, point, the face detect auto focus draws a focus square very quickly and the click is done. Takes longer to say than to action.

The result? Overbright white walls (because the faces were in slight shadown and darker than the walls) but the intelligent auto exposure calculation had optimised for the faces –which was the intent. The JPEG White Balance? Very satisfactory, again, nothing to wring your hands about.

If the ISO had to be automatically raised (I had set it for Auto ISO), then of course, you would have some JPEG smearing, viewed close due to the noise reduction but really for  small, let’s point and click cam, that is the last thing on your mind.

Once outside, I happily pointed and clicked, not being very slow behind two of our group. I’ve been the photographer in a family group with a DSLR before and it’s painful for all concerned – you delay them, you are stiff from the waist down because you’re carrying gear and a ponderous “I am a camera” DSLR. With the XZ-1, I happily bent the body, knees, lowered the camera to chest level to helow waist level, all very nimble like. I’ve seen discussions from DSLR owners about “OMG, the XZ-1 does not have this feature, OMG” – really you are in a completely different mindset when you have such a small camera. You really don’t care.

 

 

The Obligatory Brick Wall

My conclusion?

Nice JPEG colours, the package knows which subjects I want sharp and well toned – it just works. A breath of fresh air from DSLR shooting.

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