With its predecessor having attained something of a cult status, Olympus’s latest high-end compact camera, the Stylus XZ-2, has a lot to live up to. Read the Olympus Stylus ZX-2 review...
Olympus Stylus XZ-2 at a glance:
- 12.76-million-pixel, 1/1.7in CMOS sensor
- 3in, 920,000-dot tilting LCD screen
- ISO 100-12,800
- Street price around £479
Olympus Stylus XZ-2 review – Introduction
At the time of the Olympus XZ-1’s release, photographers praised the high-end compact camera as an excellent alternative to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 and Canon PowerShot G12, which were both seen as top-of-the-range compact cameras for enthusiast photographers. Now, 21 months on, the competition is even more fierce..
Announced in September at the photokina trade show, the new Olympus Stylus XZ-2 will have to strike the right chord to exceed the popularity of its predecessor. With this in mind, the XZ-2 has undergone a redesign and received a range of new features that should, once again, see Olympus challenge the likes of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 and the Canon PowerShot G15 for the compact crown.
Image: Noise reduction is very obvious in this ISO 400 image
Thankfully, Olympus has been sensible with the improved resolution of the new XZ-2, increasing it by around 1.5 million pixels. The 12.76-million-pixel, 1/1.7in (7.6×5.7mm) back-illuminated CMOS sensor should offer improvements in image quality, rather than big increases in detail resolution. Given the size of the sensor, this is a wise decision from Olympus, and one that bodes well when we look at image quality more closely later.
However, like all other high-end compact cameras, the XZ-2 will face stiff competition from the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 and its large, 1in-type, 20.2-million-pixel sensor. The sensors in most other high-end compacts all seem somewhat underwhelming compared to the size and resolution of the RX100.
Powering the XZ-2 is a version of the TruePic VI processing system found in Olympus’s OM-D E-M5. This newer processor should help to reduce image noise, while speeding up the camera’s functions. When combined, the new sensor and processor provide a sensitivity range of ISO 100-12,800, which is 1EV greater than the ISO 100-6400 range of the XZ-1.
One feature that has remained the same is the 6-24mm (28-112mm equivalent) f/1.8-2.5mm lens. On the XZ-1, this lens has proven to be very sharp, although it does suffer from curvilinear distortion. Sadly, the XZ-2 suffers identically, and JPEG files aren’t corrected for this in-camera.
Most of the other major new features of the XZ-2 are to do with the camera’s build and handling, and the LCD screen, so more on these later.
Build and handling
At first glance, the XZ-2 looks to be a vastly different camera from its predecessor, with a more workmanlike appearance than the slick style of the original XZ-1. In fact, the new appearance is only really due to the addition of a two new features: a lever/button next to the lens, and a screw-on handgrip. Removing the grip goes some way towards restoring the look of the previous model, but as slight as the grip is, it makes a difference when holding the camera.
The lever switch next to the lens is an interesting new feature, as it actually controls the function of the ring around the lens barrel. Flick it in one direction and the barrel controls the shutter speed, aperture size or EV compensation. The ring will click when it is rotated, so you know exactly how many steps of adjustment have been added. Flick the switch in the other direction and the lens ring controls either the zoom control or manual focusing of the lens, with the lens having a smooth motion rather than clicking.
The inclusion of this lever is a nice touch, and it will no doubt be used to provide quick access to the camera’s manual lens focusing feature rather than the zoom control. On top of this, there is a function button set into the centre of the lever switch. This can be set to a variety of functions.
The camera’s top-plate has the same selection of buttons as on the XZ-1, but with a few slight changes. The shutter button, power button, zoom rocker switch and mode dial have all been made larger, and they now protrude further out from the top of the camera. The mode dial is also firmer than the same dial on the XZ’s previous incarnation, which could sometimes change modes if it were knocked while being carried around the neck or if loose in a bag. There is no such concern with the XZ-2.
Also on the top-plate is a standard flash hotshoe, which, when combined with the camera’s accessory port, will allow the XZ-2 to use the Olympus VF-2 EVF.
On the rear of the camera the button layout remains largely the same, except for the addition of a second function button, which I assigned to the camera’s metering mode. The video-record button has been repositioned, and it now sits on a ridge between the rear and top of the camera, at a 45° angle, which is a better position.
The most obvious difference between the builds of the XZ-2 and XZ-1 is that the rear screen on the new camera has a tilting mechanism. This is a good thing, although it does make the XZ-2 significantly chunkier than its predecessor. More on the XZ-2’s articulated screen later.
On a bright autumn day, I found that the XZ-2’s metering created fairly bright images, and on a couple of occasions I had to reduce the exposure slightly. Given the range of controls on the camera, this was pretty easy to do. One thing to note, however, is that by default, when the XZ-2 is set to its ESP evaluative metering mode, the AF point isn’t taken into consideration. This can be changed in the camera’s custom menu, but whether you prefer this feature to be switched on or off it is good to have the option in a camera such as this. I found that leaving the AF metering link switched off produces more predictable results when shooting landscape images.
When you combine the above custom function, the centreweighted, spot, and highlight and shadow spot metering, the Olympus XZ-2 has a comprehensive metering selection, making it ideal for enthusiast photographers demanding that little bit more from a compact camera. Of course, the iAuto mode, which selects the scene mode, exposure setting and metering itself, is always on hand for those just wanting to point and shoot.
Olympus claims that the AF speed has been improved in the XZ-2, and we were fortunate to have an XZ-1 in the office to test this out. Comparing both the cameras, I can confirm that the Olympus’s claim is true – the XZ-2 is indeed faster.
Further aiding the AF’s ease of use is the touchscreen, which is used to change the AF point and focus the camera.
The XZ-2 has a dynamic range that’s on a par with most other recent compact cameras we have seen. Blown-out highlight detail is the main issue, although when editing raw images it is possible to recover a fair amount of detail in both the highlight and shadow areas of an image.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured with the lens set to around 105mm. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.
With only a small increase in resolution, there isn’t much extra detail that can be resolved by the XZ-2 compared to the XZ-1. The resolution chart shows that the new camera resolves the same amount of detail in both raw and JPEG files as other cameras we have seen with presumably very similar 12-million-pixel CMOS sensors, in particular the Canon PowerShot G15.
Noise is reasonably well controlled with the default JPEG settings. As you would expect from a compact camera, there are signs of luminance noise at ISO 400, particularly along edges in the image. Noise reduction obviously affects the surface texture detail in some images, even at low sensitivities, but fortunately the XZ-2 has the option to turn the noise reduction on or off, or to use it automatically, as well as to set the strength of the reduction to one of three settings. Users should experiment with a few combinations to find the one that suits their needs.
Of course, if you take advantage of the XZ-2’s raw shooting option then you will have full control over the resulting images. Most software should be able to all but completely remove colour noise from raw files, although luminance noise is more tricky. Careful sharpening is key, with only slight luminance noise reduction to retain as much of the sharp detail as possible.
As mentioned previously, the XZ-2 still suffers from the same lens distortion issues as its predecessor. Curvilinear distortion is quite severe, and purple fringing and chromatic aberration are also very apparent. Sadly, there is no automatic correction for these issues in-camera, providing another reason why it is best to shoot raw files with the XZ-2.
Image: The difference in depth of field across the aperture range can be clearly seen in these shots. Also, purple fringing and chromatic aberration are stronger when the aperture is set at f/1.8. However, with the effects of refraction, the f/1.8 image is sharper than the f/8 image
White balance and colour
The colours produced by the XZ-2 are very good. Landscape images look natural, with good colour rendition, particularly in the natural setting.
The standard setting is slightly more vivid, with a higher contrast, producing great punchy images, particularly with the beautiful autumn colours that were present at the time the camera was tested.
Image: Even in its default setting the colours are rich and vivid
Viewfinder, LCD and video
Despite the tiltable 3in, 920,000-dot screen adding some depth to the XZ-2’s body compared to the XZ-1, I find the mechanism useful to have, particularly for shooting below waist height.
The screen is excellent, with a resolution improved over that of the XZ-1, and the touchscreen focus and shutter feature are useful. In fact, these are the only features set up to use the touchscreen; there are no other on-screen buttons or controls, which is good thing on a camera such as this.
The touchscreen has clearly necessitated the use of thinner glass in front of the screen, as the on-screen image appears closer than on the XZ-1. This has improved the screen in other ways, too. For instance, it is less reflective, with a higher angle of view. Olympus also claims that the screen has an anti-fingerprint coating, which doesn’t work quite as well as it should given that fingerprints are clearly visible on the surface when the screen is off. When it is on, however, they disappear even when viewing the screen at acute angles. It really is an excellent LCD screen. It is also worth remembering that the XZ-2 has the option of using an electronic viewfinder, which is a boon for enthusiast photographers.
Video capture is much improved since the previous model, at up to 1080p for a duration of 29mins. This is an increase from the 720p for 7mins possible with the XZ-1. The file format has also changed, so that the new camera records .MOV files with H.264 compression.
Initially, I was concerned that the size of the Olympus Stylus XZ-2 may be prohibitive, but while it may not be as small as other cameras, the addition of the tiltable screen is definitely an improvement over the original model. If only it could have been a millimetre or two slimmer.
What I really like about the XZ-2 is the range of options in the custom menu, which means the user can really make it operate in the way that they wish. It may not be as comprehensive as a DSLR, but there is certainly more flexibility compared to other cameras, and I particularly like the new control lever at the front of the body.
Image quality is good, particularly from raw files, but it would seem an oversight that JPEG images aren’t corrected in-camera.
Overall, the XZ-2 is a great compact camera, and those with the XZ-1 should consider upgrading. However, there is a huge amount of competition, and the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 is still spoiling the party for everyone else.