The Olympus XZ-1 has a full range of sophisticated photographic capabilities, but what really sets it apart are two low-light-loving features: a fast f/1.8 zoom lens and an extra-large light sensor.
When we talk about how "fast" a lens is, it's a measurement of how efficiently it passes light to the sensor. The relevant stat is called "maximum aperture," and a lower number is better. The lenses that come with most cameras, compact or SLR, offer a maximum aperture of f/3.5. An f/2.8 lens is considered unusual. And an f/1.8, like the Olympus XZ-1 lens? Extraordinary.
To put this fast lens blather in perspective, the slowest shutter speed most of us can get away with before shaky hands lead to blurry shots is about 1/30 second. In a room that let me shoot with an f/1.8 lens at 1/30 second, an f/2.8 lens would require 1/15 second, and an f/3.5 lens pushed me to 1/8 second -- only practical for shooting inanimate objects using a tripod.
Where sensor size factors in is the grainy image noise you so often see in low-light photos. When manufacturers push up the megapixel count on a small image sensor, it creates electrical interactions between the tiny light receptors – your low-light images start to look like pointillist paintings. Olympus not only used a sensor twice as large as you'd find on most compact cameras, they also stuck to a reasonable 10 megapixel resolution – more than enough for big prints, but low enough to avoid excessive crowding and minimize noise.
Beyond the lens and sensor, the XZ-1 features are closer to a digital SLR than a standard compact camera, albeit in a package you can fit comfortably in a purse or jacket pocket. You get full manual, aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure control, the option to shoot in uncompressed RAW format (great for extensive image editing) and a flexible metering system. The rear display isn't your typical LCD – it's an OLED screen that displays deeply saturated colors and great detail, with very high 610,000-dot resolution. Another unusual feature is the hot shoe on the top, which can be used to mount an external flash, or an external mic, or the electronic viewfinder Olympus makes for its PEN series cameras. The viewfinder is a bit pricey at $250, but it offers the increasingly rare option of holding a compact camera up to your eye when taking a picture, offering increased stability and a clear view even when bright sunlight makes it hard to see the rear screen.
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