1. This is a user experience based review.
2. All images were shot in RAW and converted directly to JPEG (High Quality) via Olympus Viewer 2
3. General camera settings, Noise Filter = LOW, Contrast/Saturation/sharpness = 0, White Balance = Auto (with an option maintain warm color = OFF), Gradation = Normal
4. Minimal post-processing applied to the images. All images were as good as straight out of camera, with minimal cropping and only minor exposure/contrast correction for better presentation.
This is Part 3 of my review series of Olympus Stylus XZ-2. If you have not read my Part 1 and Part 2 reviews earlier, please do so before proceeding with this blog entry. I have covered tests of image resolution at low ISO settings as well as high ISO noise performance of the Olympus XZ-2 in my previous reviews.
In this Part 3 of my review saga, I brought the Olympus XZ-2 out for a little bit of macro shooting, and subsequently, doing some wide angle shooting. I figured that most people would buy the camera for a few main reasons: 1) travel compact camera, capturing landscape and scenery, as well as 2) general purpose everyday camera shooting, that is capable of close up shooting.. Now lets be sensible and not expect a small camera like XZ-2 to be able to capture extreme action sports or a ballet dance in a superbly dimly lit hall. It is my belief that a good compact camera should be able to fulfill these above-mentioned two purposes: shooting decent macro/close up and landscape photos.
Therefore, in an uneventful Sunday afternoon I brought the Olympus XZ-2 to an open park near my place for a quick macro shooting session, capturing whatever tiny creatures (insects and spiders) that I could find, and after that, headed down to the city by train, to capture some urban landscape shots. While shooting macro and landscape, I shall be reviewing the following features/functions of the Olympus XZ-2
Super Macro Mode vs 4x Zoom Macro Shooting
Hybrid Control Ring - Conveniently control multiple important functions
920k dot LCD tillable screen - is the LCD scveen good enough?
HDR Scene mode
Battery Life of XZ-2
Super Macro, ISO320, F/1.8, 1/100sec, equivalent focal length 28mm
I admit depth of field was not enough for this damselfly, but as I stopped down the aperture, it flew away.
One of the advantages of using a compact digital camera, is the ability of built-in macro/close up shooting function, that allows the camera to go very near the subject, while normally interchangeable camera systems would require macro lenses to do so.
SUPER MACRO MODE
There are two ways to shoot macro with Olympus XZ-2, first being the obvious choice, using the super macro mode, enabled via the menu, and this option fixes the lens to 28mm equivalent focal length (which is the widest end) and allows the lens to focus on the subject as close as minimum 1cm from the lens. The second alternative, which also works considerably well, is using the normal shooting mode (super macro disabled) and zooming the lens to its longest tele-photo end at 112mm equivalent focal length, and go as close as possible to the subject (30cm from the lens). Both methods have their pros and cons, and I shall explore them more thoroughly.
The advantage of using Super Macro mode is the ability to go very, very close to the subject, hence allowing for higher magnification, which is desirable for macro shooting. Nonetheless, getting too close to the subject will pose a few problems. Lighting is a very crucial factor in getting a good macro photograph, and pointing the lens so close to the subject, the lens actually would cast shadow on the subject, blocking much precious available light. Furthermore, shooting insects generally require some minimum working distance, getting too near the tiny creatures will surely scare them away. While super macro mode is a great implementation and a useful tool, no doubt, I dare say that it is not very practical for outdoor insect photography, which I usually shoot. In this entry, I managed to find some subjects that was kind enough not to fly away immediately and had a few photographs taken with the lens pointing dangerously close to them (2-3cm away).
No Flash for Super Macro, not even external flash, or wireless flash
For some reasons, Olympus decided to disable the flash firing when Super macro mode is engaged. It might serve as a logical move since the built in flash would not be able to reach the subject when the lens is being placed just centimeters away from the subject. However, the inability to fire the built in pop up flash also rendered the wireless flash function of the camera useless. If the pop-up flash can be fired, I could at least use it to command my external flash, which could be fired off camera, into the direction of my subject, where lighting is a problem as I have mentioned earlier, shooting with super macro mode. Therefore, in this entry, I shot all my images with available light. Olympus should really consider enabling the flash even for super macro. Why cripple your own unique feature of wireless TTL flash that other manufacturers do not have?
No Manual Focusing when Shooting Super Macro Mode
Another surprise that I figured out while shooting in Super macro mode was that the manual focusing was disabled for reasons unknown. I would have preferred to work with manual focus for such extreme close up shooting. I had no choice but to rely on Autofocus while the super macro mode is used.
ZOOMING IN TO 112mm
A more practical solution to shooting the insects would be going for the full zoom at 112mm. In this case, I have a few advantages over super macro shooting: at 112mm, I have 30cm working distance, which is good enough for some decent magnification if the insects are not too small, yet I have comfortable working distance not to easily scare them away. Moreover, at 112mm focal length, the background has better "compressed" effect, seeing less, hence producing better composed images. I also quite like how the full tele-photo end of 112mm renders the background out of focus, with creamy bokeh.
VERY GOOD MACRO IMAGES
For a small compact cameras, this Olympus XZ-2 sure produces amazing macro shots. I am not expecting it to rival dedicated macro lenses, which is on a different category altogether but the amazing resolution and details captured are evident on the macro samples. Also, the shallow depth of field, thanks to the F1.8-2.5 wide aperture opening of the i.Zuiko lens helps greatly in subject isolation. The bokeh quality is very good too, being creamy and smooth.
ISO200, F/2.5, 1/80sec, Equivalent Focal Length: 112mm
ISO640, F/2.5, 1/80sec, Equivalent Focal Length: 112mm
The following two shots are comparisons between the same subject shot with full zoom at 112mm and Super Macro mode, subsequently.
ISO200, F/2.5, 1/10sec (yikes, did not watch my shutter speed close enough), Equivalent focal length: 112mm
Super Macro, ISO250, F1.8, 1/30sec, Equivalent focal length: 28mm
CAMERA CONTROLS AND EASE OF USE
The following short demo video is to highlight several key features of the Olympus XZ-2:
Hybrid Control Ring - Options to control exposure parameter (aperture, shutter speed or exposure compensation), Zooming, or Manual Focusing
Super Control Panel with Touch Control
Touch AF and Shutter Release
Hybrid Control Ring
Olympus introduced their first "hybrid control ring", which is the ring around the lens barrel, that has multi-function. By default the hybrid control ring will be set to control of your exposure setting. If you are shooting on Aperture Priority mode, the hybrid control ring will control the aperture F-number as you rotate it. The cool thing about the ring in this mode is that it clicks with every step up or down of aperture change (by 1/3 EV stop), hence if you are operating the camera quickly by feel, if you want to stop from F/1.8 to F/2, you will know by the count of one click as you rotate the hybrid ring. Similarly, if you are shooting Shutter Priority, the hybrid control ring by default will be controlling the shutter speed.
Now this is the neat part, you can set the control lever to on and off, for quick change of functions of the hybrid control ring. The functions are fully customize-able. Logically, I set the hybrid control ring second function to Zoom. As I turned on the control lever, instead of controlling aperture or shutter speed, now I can use it to zoom the lens. While the control ring was set to zoom function, it no longer has the "clicky" feel, and the zooming mechanism is smooth and silent. This was quite a smart feature, using one ring for multiple quick controls. There are actually three functions that can be set with the hybrid control ring, 1) Exposure parameter (aperture of shutter speed), 2) Zoom 3) Manual focusing. You can have all three options, or disable any one of the options, by customizing the hybrid ring control functions in the menu.
I find this hybrid control ring very, very convenient to use when shooting macro. Two most important thing I control during the shooting of macro would be the Aperture and also focusing. The hybrid control dial takes care of these two functions easily. On the other hand, the convenient Function button Fn2 at the lever is also fully customize-able for easy access to important controls. Since I was shooting macro, I set the button to access the "Super Macro" focusing mode. As you can see, if I want super macro mode, all I have to do is press the Fn2 button. If I need to change the aperture, I just twist the hybrid control ring. It was as simple as that.
Super Control Panel
One of the wonderful things that Olympus has ever created, and got it right since the beginning of their earlier DSLR days, would be the super control panel. Super control panel lays all the important controls out at the camera LCD screen, including metering mode, focusing mode, drive mode, IS control, ISO setting, gradation setting, picture mode, sharpness contrast and saturation controls,. JPEG/RAW, JPEG compression quality, and many more, all at a glance. You have two options in controlling these: either by the control arrow pad and the control dial on the right of the camera back, or you can "touch" the LCD screen directly. The addition of super control panel (which is also the main feature available for ALL Olympus DSLR, PEN and the OM-D cameras) is a HUGE welcome !!
Super Macro, ISO200, F/1.8, 1/50sec. equivalent focal length: 28mm
ISO200, F/2.5, 1/80sec, equivalent focal length: 112mm
ISO100, F/2.5, 1/80sec, equivalent focal length: 112mm
IMAGE SAMPLE 1
100% Crop from IMAGE SAMPLE 1
FOCUSING WHILE SHOOTING MACRO
The autofocus performance was generally very good, and I almost never failed to lock focus. For larger insects, such as the grasshopper and butterfly, focus was locked almost immediately after the half press of the shutter button. However, for tinier insects like the spiders, the focusing was a little more difficult, sometimes, prioritizing the background instead. There are two ways to overcome this issue, which is not a severe one anyway: focus the camera on other subjects, something near, and then move the lens back to the main subject, and I found the lens would snap to focus immediately, or the more tedious option for control freaks: manual focus. I tried both options and they worked well. I preferred not to use the manual focus because I was relying on the rear LCD screen to shoot, and did not have an electronic viewfinder with me.
The main challenge of focusing was not whether the camera can get it right or not. Before this shooting session, it rained quite heavily. Therefore it was quite a windy day, not very suitable for insect shooting. The grass and leaves that the insects were resting on were constantly swaying and moving due to the windy condition. The subjects can be seen rocking back and forth, or even left to right. It was indeed a challenge, but it was also just a quick session to test the general macro shooting capability.
920K DOT RESOLUTION TILTABLE LCD SCREEN
Let me get straight to the point, of all newer Olympus cameras up to date, in comparison to OM-D E-M5, PEN E-PL5, the LCD screen on XZ-2 wins hands down, in terms of resolution, size and brightness. The default aspect ratio of the LCD screen was 3:2, hence viewing at shooting 4:3 ratio (the original full resolution) only has minimal crops at the sides. Image display was clear and crisp, and easy for quick review for focus accuracy. The clarity and brightness of the screen is commendable, the difference is evident, in comparison to OM-D and E-PL5. Perhaps the only screen that could rival or surpass this XZ-2's LCD would be the LCD screen on my Olympus DSLR E-5. The only complain I had about the LCD screen on the XZ-2, similar to the OM-D and E-PL5's screens, is the color balance. Somehow, the color balance just appears "warmer" with slight green cast. Nonetheless, it is surely good enough for quick judgement of white balance control.
ISO100, F/2.5, 1/60sec, Equivalent focal length: 28mm
Super Macro, ISO100, F2.5, 1/250sec, equivalent focal length: 28mm
IMAGE SAMPLE 2
100% Crop from IMAGE SAMPLE 2
ISO125, F/2.5, 1/200sec, Equivalent focal length: 112mm
IMAGE SAMPLE 3
I know this is not a macro image but hey, I love cats !
100% Crop from IMAGE SAMPLE 3
ISO100, F/1.8, 1/25sec, equivalent focal length: 28mm
Alright, enough of macro, lets go for some wide angle shooting fun. Wide angle shooting is so much easier to do, with much less technical considerations such as macro shooting. Yet wide angle is probably the most used focal length of most compact camera shooters. After the short macro shooting session, I brought the Olympus XZ-2 to the city for some urban landscape shooting.
28mm, IS IT WIDE ENOUGH?
The widest end of this XZ-2's zoom lens is 28mm equivalent focal length. Similarly, 28mm is the widest end for most zoom kit lenses offered as a bundle with DSLR's. With so many newer compact cameras offering wider and wider coverage, is this 28mm wide enough for general wide angle shooting?
The answer is quite subjective. In most shooting conditions, the 28mm is surely sufficient, in fact, it is more than enough, that I find myself zooming in a little bit to 30 or 35mm for a more natural looking perspective of the image. It all comes down to preference, just like a super zoom craze not too long ago, where all manufacturers were racing on pushing as much zoom as possible (with some staggering 30-40x optical zoom in the super-zoom camera category), this wide angle I am seeing as another craze too. It is just a phase, and as soon as people start to realize the wider the lens is, the more severe distortions and other image flaws (chromatic aberration, corner softness, etc), the phase might just die down.
However, since this is not an interchangeable lens system, having a lens with maximum flexibility is important. 28mm may be sufficient for most shooting conditions, but having something slightly wider, say 24mm, would create a whole world of difference when you really do need to fit that extra bit more into the frame. If only it was a 24mm wide, with no compromise in image quality, it would have been perfect !
HOW IS THE 28mm WIDE ANGLE ON XZ-2?
The 28mm widest end of the i.Zuiko lens for XZ-2 is excellent, with very good control over technical issues. It has very little chromatic aberration, barely visible to my eyes. Images are sharp corner to corner, which is something Olympus Zuiko lens is known for. I did not see any issue of vignetting or corner softness, which is quite impressive for a compact camera lens. In fact, barrel distortion seemed to be very well controlled, with lines appearing very straight even at edges and corners of the frame. Of course perspective distortion is not something that the camera can deal with, which only occurs naturally when shooting wide angle. I find very little to complain about the wide angle shooting with the XZ-2.
ISO100, F/2.5, 1/100sec, Equivalent focal length 28mm
ISO100, F/3.2, 1/250sec, equivalent focal length 28mm
ISO100, F/2.8, 1/200sec, equivalent focal length 28mm
ISO100, F/2.8, 1/250sec, equivalent focal length 28mm
THE HDR SCENE MODE
An interesting inclusion to the XZ-2, the HDR Scene Mode, was quite intriguing. The Guide Info on the camera described the HDR mode to be used to counter strong back-lit situation. Therefore, I believe it is some processing trick to lift up the shadow details and suppress the highlight from being overblown, should a harsh back-lit situation was encountered.
I took some samples with the HDR mode. To be honest, I do not quite like the output from the HDR processing done in camera. The HDR processing smears and blurs away fine details, giving the image the "water-color" look, probably due to very aggressive noise reduction. It does appear that the HDR is a single-shot processed file, not to be confused with multiple shots merged into one HDR. The color produced by the HDR did not look natural to me, and I much prefer the original file with some minor exposure and gradation adjustment to achieve better dynamic range.
HDR SCENE MODE
TOP: NORMAL MODE
BOTTOM: HDR SCENE MODE
BOTTOM: HDR SCENE MODE
The battery life was better than I have expected, for a compact camera. I have shot a total of 420 shots in my first street shooting session when the battery flattened out on me. In my second macro and landscape session, I have come close to about 500 shots. There was another shooting session, which I shall be blogging next, an event coverage, where I used the camera together with an external flash. In that session, I managed to fire close to 600 shots before the camera battery died off completely. The main reason why I can squeeze out so many shots in the event session, was due to the auto-preview being turned off, and I did a lot less chimping/reviewing of images. For typical usage, I can say a safe 400 shots per battery charge. However, do take note that if internal built in flash was used, and the electronic viewfinder is attached battery life may be reduced significantly. For a compact camera (considering casual shooting, not serious, demanding conditions), the battery life for the XZ-2 is actually very good.
ISO100, F2.1, 1/160sec
ISO100, F/2. 1/250sec
IMAGE SAMPLE 4
50% crop from IMAGE SAMPLE 4
10 full resolution sample images, selected from this blog entry can be downloaded via the following link, for your pixel-peeping pleasure.
I have one more Part of review to go, and in the final part, I shall be focusing on what I wish could have been better in the XZ-2.
Also, I have shot an entire event with the XZ-2, used in combination with the Olympus FL-50R flash. I shall post up the next part in a few days time !!
If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to say something in the comment section on this blog entry, or email me directly at email@example.com