Most compact cameras are pretty hopeless at low-light shooting, forcing you to use a flash in murkier conditions. Not so the Olympus XZ-1, according to its makers: with its bright F1.8 Zuiko lens, dual image stabiliser and ultra-sensitive CCD sensor, it should make shooting in dingy pubs and on gloomy evenings a piece of cake.

Flash-free fun

Is that the case? Well, pretty much. That F1.8 aperture is as big as any you’ll find on a compact (the Samsung EX1 matches it, but that’s it), and you can merrily snap away in poor light without having to lash the camera to a tripod. The ability to use higher shutter speeds than normal in such conditions combined with the image stabilisation allows you to get handheld shots without motion blur.

But don’t expect those shots to be noise-free: all our low light snaps with the Olympus XZ-1 showed a lot of speckly, spotty noise. It’s unlikely you’ll be blowing your nighttime photos into huge poster-sized prints (unless you set it up for a long exposure – it’ll go for up to 16 minutes).

Noise annoys

In fact, even at lower ISO settings you’ll spot a fair bit of noise and a lack of sharpness if you zoom right in to the pixels. It’s here that the Olympus XZ-1 can’t match up to a DSLR, despite the manufacturer’s boasts.

Still, there’s much to admire about this camera. The large aperture allows you to take snaps with softly defocused backgrounds, giving your subject more prominence. That’s something the average compact simply can’t manage.

While bigger and bulkier than most compacts, it’s well built and the sturdy metal body sits snugly in your hand. The OLED screen is large and detailed, and the menu system and button layout make it easy to whizz around changing settings once you’ve figured it out.

Ring of power

Taking its cue from the Canon S90, the XZ-1 has a twistable ring around the lens. This can be used to swiftly change settings such as aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but it can’t be used for focusing.

Anyone who wants full control can dig into the full manual settings, and there’s also the option to shoot in RAW mode. This will fill up your memory card much faster but you’ll end up with the full, uncompressed images to tweak as you like on your computer.

Review continues after the break…

Special effects

Newbies needn’t fret though, as there are the usual auto and scene modes (including a low-light mode), plus a selection of Art Filters to add special effects such as soft focus, retro styles and black and white film simulation.

So while the Olympus XZ-1 doesn’t beat a DSLR or other swappable lens camera on the quality of its images, it does have a lot more to offer than most of its compact peers. It’s not cheap, but if you’re looking for a premium shooter and don’t fancy the interchangeable lens route, it’s up there with the Canon G12 and S95 as a top choice.

Stuff says... 

Olympus XZ-1 review

Not a DSLR-beater, but a damn fine compact camera