As photographers we obsess about the gear we use to get the images we want, quite often going overboard in “gearing up” for photo opportunities by taking numerous lenses and other accessories with us on simple excursions where photography might not be the primary reason for the outing. All this really does is slow us down. While we’re busy thinking about what lens or body to use the brightly coloured bird flies off the branch, or the kids arrange themselves in a Cartier-Bresson like decisive moment that’ll never be seen again. I’m just as guilty of this behaviour as any other photographer is.
What I’ve been looking for forever is a small, “Swiss Army Knife” like camera with a great lens and features that I can actually use and that won't leave me feeling like I have compromised too much photographically by bringing it with me. I’ve tried a few “bridge” cameras in the past but many of them frustrated me with complicated interfaces, poor imaging ability or just stupid design elements that invariably got in the way of enjoying the process of photography. Things like slow start-ups, massive size, weird button positions, lacklustre lens performance, shutter lag, not enough zoom range and so on can really put a damper on photography. Some cameras hit some of the bases, but miss many others that we as passionate photographers really want. The quest has been to try and find a camera that hits as many of the bases as possible.
When it was first announced I immediately grew excited about the Olympus Stylus 1 as a possible solution to this need of mine for a great compact camera, but I wasn’t sure if the quality of the images would be quite up to the level I’d want. Then I saw Robin Wong’s review and I was like, “OK, this is the real deal. This is a camera I should be giving serious consideration to.”
Olympus SA managed to get one in my hands (a pre-production model) just before we went off to our Wild Waterways Safari this September. I had originally purchased an Olympus PEN E-PM2 with a 14-42mm kit lens to use as my point & shoot for this trip, so I took it with too, but it barely got out of the bag as I fell head over heels for this little Olympus Stylus 1.
You can click on these images to view an enlarged version.
What Is It?
Some might describe the Stylus 1 as a “bridge camera”, but because that term is often used to refer to cameras that don’t quite cut the mustard in terms of their image quality or feature set, it seems a little unfair to use it on the Stylus 1.
What we have here is a fixed zoom lens camera that offers the same range as a 28-300mm f/2.8 35mm system camera. I don’t know of any other camera that gives you that kind of bright, constant aperture zoom range. The Stylus 1 has a feature set that is as fully fleshed out as most mid-ranged DSLR cameras, including wifi, a tilting touch screen, brilliant EVF, wireless flash compatibility, 3x ND filter, 1080p HD video and many other features. In fact, there’s very little you won’t be able to accomplish photographically with the Stylus 1, so I’m hesitant to call it a bridge camera. I think a new term is needed for this kind of camera.
The 35mm equivalent of 300mm f/2.8 let's you get close enough to subjects without putting yourself in their faces
Who Would Buy One?
The current asking price is $699 which might be frowned upon since you can pick up a plastic DSLR with a couple of kit zoom lenses for less than that. In fact, even some of Olympus’ own PEN series of micro four thirds cameras with bigger sensors can be had for less money (the PEN E-PL5 with 14-42mm lens is only $599), so what’s the attraction here?
It’s the lens. This camera sports an amazing, fast, constant f/2.8 i.Zuiko zoom lens. It’s not the kind of lens you will find on any other bridge camera or mirrorless system camera. If the likes of Nikon or Canon were to build a lens like this for their DSLR’s it would be immense in size and not very practical. And it’s that zoom lens practicality combined with an excellent feature set that makes this camera very attractive. It hits many of the bases photography enthusiasts need to hit. I would certainly buy one.
By positioning the subject in front of a distant background you can get a lovely blurred effect in spite of the small sensor
How Does It Feel In Hand?
I was quite surprised at how small it is, in spite of its DSLR-like appearance. It certainly looks like a business camera and it borrows many DNA cues from its bigger OM-D cousins. You get the same tilting touch screen at the back, plus the EVF is the same big and bright one found in the OM-D E-M5. Its menu system is the same as the m43 Olympus cameras, so if you’ve ever used those you’ll be right at home figuring out how to set it up, although if you’re more used to something like the Nikon menus you might find the Olympus approach very confusing at first.
There is a protruding grip on the right side of the body that my middle finger naturally curls around and around the back a similarly protruding thumb rest gives me a confident purchase on the body. It doesn’t feel like it will easily slip out of my grip.
The buttons are small, but they offer a better tactility than what you’ll find on the E-M5 (who’s buttons feel somewhat “spongey” in comparison). The mode dial and command dial also feel good and click positively when moved.
The one thing I don’t like is that it comes with a neck strap. I put it on the camera but took it off and replaced it with a long wrist strap instead. It handles much better that way.
An interesting departure from the typical modern camera design is that instead of there being a sub-command dial on the front of the camera there is a dial around the fixed lens which does different things depending on how you have set it up. So if you’re from the era where aperture rings had to be turned to select a setting you’ll feel right at home doing that with the Stylus 1.
Getting It Set Up The Way You Want
The one thing Olympus users are never short on are ways to customise their cameras and the Stylus 1 doesn’t disappoint in this regard. As with the OM-D cameras most Stylus 1 buttons are customisable, albeit a little differently than the OM-D. For instance, while there are 2 Fn buttons on the camera, only the Fn1 and Rec buttons can accept a dedicated single function. The Fn2 button on the front bottom of the camera can be pressed repeatedly to toggle through whichever functions you have assigned to it in the menu. That’s quite different to the OM-D approach and it took me a while to figure it out (I’m not one of those RTFM guys as you’ve probably already figured).
The other thing that threw me off on more than one occasion was that there is a lever connected to the Fn2 button. When this lever is moved to it’s other position the function of the ring around the lens changes, depending on how you have assigned it. You can get it to zoom the lens or activate the manual focus assist when you’re in MF mode. The camera I got for review had been set to activate the zoom so when I accidentally shifted this lever, I found myself zooming instead of changing apertures, which was quite perplexing, especially when I found myself trying to open aperture to f/2.8 in fading light while looking at an enormous African elephant on the banks of the Chobe river! I thought that the camera might be broken. I can’t recall how I figured it out, but it was a relief when I did.
Speaking of zooming the lens, there are three ways to do this. There’s the typical T - W shifter around the shutter button, the lens ring method I mentioned above, plus there is also another T - W shifter button on the side of the lens. The latter does a much slower zoom, so is more suited for video purposes.
I almost exclusively shoot in Aperture priority mode, so that's where I begin with setting up any camera. I want to be able to quickly change the aperture and also find the exposure compensation easily, so on the Stylus 1 I had the lens ring set for aperture and the command dial set for compensation. I am also a fan of the Olympus Super Control Panel, so I have that switched on in A mode too. It makes getting to all the important settings very easy.
Something that bugs me with many compact cameras is the use of the pseudo shutter noise. The Stylus has this too, so the first thing I did was turn it off. I discovered that without it on the camera is practically silent. There’s a barely audible click when taking a shot, so for use in places where you need to be quiet the Stylus 1 is even more silent than a Leica rangefinder.
Unlike the compact and bridge cameras of old, the Stylus 1 is very responsive. Turning it on is quick, about a second for the lens to emerge and become ready to shoot. Shutter lag is negligible, so for fast moving subjects you’re all set. You will also get 7 frames per second, which is better than some DSLR’s pitched at professionals these days. On the downside the maximum shutter speed is only 1/2000s, but if things get too bright for that you can engage the built-in 3x ND filter.
The Stylus 1 actually has a lot in common with the E-M5, but it also has a few of its own tricks up its sleeve. A couple of features of this camera that appeal to me are that it has a built-in 3x ND filter, plus there is this really funky virtual horizon feature graphic that shows an elliptical disk inside a circle during live view. When the disk is visible you know that the camera isn’t level, so as you change camera position you get immediate feedback on how straight you have the camera from the accelerometer. I much prefer this method of finding the levels than the standard one that shows the vertical and horizontal gauges.
The touch screen is the same as that found on the OM-D cameras. It tilts up and down and you can set it to trigger a shot when touched or simply set the AF point. I can’t imagine using a camera without this feature these days.
The Stylus 1 also has the same wireless flash capabilities as the OM-D cameras, except that instead of having to attach the clip on flash you get with an OM-D and PEN camera, it has a pop-up flash that serves the same function. Those readers familiar with the Nikon CLS system will find the Olympus wireless flash system does pretty much the same thing, letting you control up to three groups of remote flashes from the camera.
The zoom lens has a neat cover that opens four spring leafs when the camera is turned on. On our Wild Waterways safari our guests were enamoured with this novel way of keeping the zoom lens protected. The cover screws off easily and it’s possible to use an optical 1.7x teleconverter to increase the zoom range by 70% without losing the bright f/2.8 constant aperture. I didn’t get one with the review camera so I can’t comment on how good it is optically.
The Part That Matters Most - Image Quality
Because it has a smaller sensor than the micro four thirds cameras, Olympus didn’t cram it chock-full of pixels. They stopped at 12 million of them. For some people who prefer to have more pixels this might be somewhat disappointing, but for me it’s fine. I’m not into pixel peeping or printing large, so this is a good enough resolution for me.
The images I took on the safari were all very sharp, even when fully zoomed in. I hardly ever stopped the aperture down beyond f/2.8 to try and shorten the depth of field, but shooting at f/4 did sharpen things up a little bit more. The lens only stops down to f/8.
Pointing this camera into the setting sun in Botswana definitely showed up some red flare spots, so I had to play around with my angles a little to try and minimise the effect. I got some good shots from it.
Above shot shows the flare spot, which I managed to alleviate below by adjusting the camera angle and a little post processing.
If you’re shooting in RAW and processing the ORF files with Adobe’s ACR/Lightroom engine you’re going to pick up noise even at a lower ISO, but its not an unpleasant noise. More like grain, which on Olympus cameras looks decidedly like film like. I was floating my auto-ISO between 100-3200, but in hindsight I think that 800 is probably a better upper limit. Beyond that you’re losing detail and dynamic range that might be acceptable to some, but not for me.
ISO 3200 is usable, but it isn't quite up to the same levels as you'll get on the PEN and OM-D models
The Olympus Stylus 1 is a camera that I like very much. I like the thinking behind it, which in Olympus’ own marketing terms goes like this: DSLR sophistication, compact convenience. That pretty much sums it up. You’re getting a well built, very capable camera that provides excellent IQ from its awesome lens, but is a no-fuss compact. I found myself using it a lot on our safari and I am very happy with the images it produced.
If I could improve anything about it for another iteration it would be for Olympus to re-design the EVF to be a little more discrete in its appearance. With the DSLR-like prism hump you lose the ability to slip it in a shirt pocket easily. The Panasonic GX-7 tilting EVF design is a lot more practical for compactness, so if Olympus were to make a Stylus in a rangefinder type design it would most definitely be something I’d want to carry around everywhere. In its current form factor the Stylus 1 still needs a bag that is a bit bigger than the sort you’ll use with a true compact form like the Sony RX-100 for example. Whether the compact market will live long enough to see something like the Stylus 1 being re-designed remains to be seen, especially in light of Panasonic’s recently announced CM1 smartphone.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a great little camera that hits more bases than it misses, you won’t be disappointed with the Stylus 1. It will be very hard for me to send this little fella back to Olympus.
Yours truly at the Victoria Falls (image taken courtesy of Pepe Jones)