Exploring Chiang Mai Old Town With Olympus XZ-1

I found a cheap used Olympus XZ-1 in great condition so I bought it and I used the XZ-1 as my travel camera on my recent work trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I did not have much time to myself for this trip as most of my time were spent shooting for a job, but I did find an empty morning slot and I decided to roam the streets with no plan, with just one compact camera, the XZ-1 and had some shutter therapy. Boy oh boy it was so, so fun to shoot at Chiang Mai, this was my first time there (I have visited Bangkok before, not Chiang Mai) and I must plan a trip here again soon just purely for my own photography. I have made a video to talk about my experience shooting with the XZ-1 here (click). 

The Olympus XZ-1 was launched in 2011, and was an advanced compact camera. It features larger than normal at the time 1/1.63 inch CCD image sensor for a compact camera. This was the first compact camera from Olympus that houses the name "Zuiko" which was used for high grade DSLR and Micro Four Thirds lenses. The XZ-1 has a 4x zoom lens with coverage equivalent to 28-112mm and bright aperture from F1.8-F2.5, which was the first in class, before Sony, Panasonic and other manufacturers use similarly bright aperture in their compact camera lenses. Being an advanced camera, the XZ-1 is capable of full manual control, is generally snappy and responsive when it comes to shooting performance and it also has built in image stabilization. Build quality is excellent, the camera is made of metal body and feels very solid in hand. There is a lot to like about the XZ-1. 

Image quality in good light, using low ISO numbers came out stunning. Though the camera has only 10MP, it manages to resolve incredible amount of fine details and good contrast. The lens renders very true to life looking images, almost three dimensional and the colors from the CCD sensor was beautiful, rich and almost too saturated, without looking overbaked or too-processed. I'd tone down the saturation either in the camera settings or post-processing for a more natural look. The images look punchy, lively and almost professional-like under ideal shooting environment. 

However, things quickly take a bad turn in more challenging conditions. In harsh light, dynamic range is a problem, there is only so much the small sensor can cope with extended highlights and shadow capture within a frame. In extreme conditions, clippings cannot be avoided. Similar problem can be observed in low light, when ISO numbers need to be raised. At ISO400, there are noticeable noise in the image, and anything from ISO800 and beyond, they just look almost unusable. The problem is not just grain and noise, but loss of useful details, pixel integrity and overall image structure. High ISO images look waxy, soft, flat and just overall, bad. Nevertheless, this is a compact camera with small sensor from more than 10 years ago, perhaps at its time of release this was the best available option for compacts out there. 

I did enjoy shooting with the XZ-1 tremendously, it was so small, so light, so easy to handle and the versatile zoom lens was convenient to use, allowing me to do a lot with just small footprint. The lens is sharp, and it renders beautiful images, and at lower ISO I get almost PRO-like looking results, which was quite fantastic for such a small camera, and certainly something I cannot even achieve with modern smartphones. I acknowledge the limitations of a compact camera when it comes to dynamic range and high ISO, but hey, we have larger sensor format these days from Micro Four Thirds or even full frame cameras if we want to push the shooting envelope. For good light shooting, street photography and something compact to carry around, the Olympus XZ-1 was an awesome travel camera!

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  1. The XZ-1 was my first Olympus digital camera, and my introduction to "Olympus colors".