DigitalCameraReview.com
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW Review
by David Rasnake -  12/29/2008

If you've ever shopped for a camera designed to stand up to serious outdoor or underwater use, you know how frustrating the experience can be: traditionally, your options have been either an expensive all-weather compact, a la the $400 Olympus Stylus 1030 SW, or an even more expensive dive-grade housing for your compact or DSLR. For those serious about underwater shooting, a dive housing makes sense, but casual users looking for a rugged, weather-ready camera to take into the great outdoors are often disappointed to learn that there simply aren't many cost-effective options out there.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW


A long-time player in the all-weather camera space, Olympus recently expanded the range of available budget-friendly, outdoor-ready ultracompacts with the addition of the relatively inexpensive, extremely rugged Olympus Stylus 1050 SW. With some serious depth limitations (its waterproofing is only certified to 10 feet down), the 1050 isn't going to be your next dive camera: for that, you'll still need a separate underwater housing. But for more casual encounters of the liquid kind – snorkeling, skiing, even just getting caught in an afternoon downpour – the 1050 is the real deal. Plus, shock and freeze protection make the camera good for a host of other indoor and outdoor situations that would be too much for the common ultracompact.

Of course, most of this capability is meaningless if the 1050 can't also take some nice looking snaps while you're out there in the rain or snow. Olympus has our attention with the 1050's all-weather prowess, but in order to keep us interested, this Stylus needs to be more than a one-trick pony.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The 10.1 megapixel, 3x zoom 1050 SW is designed to handle just about anything active shooters can throw at it (or throw it into), with a body that sealed against the elements and designed to absorb impacts. The camera's 2.7 inch HyperCrystal II LCD display is also ruggedized, and provides five steps of brightness adjustment for shooting in a range of lighting conditions. Low-light illumination courtesy of a front-mounted LED expands the underwater shooting versatility of the 1050, which, as noted, can safely be submerged at depths of up to 10 feet without a separate waterproof housing.

What sets the seemingly indestructible 1050 – which can also handle five-foot drops onto hard ground and temperatures to 14 degrees Fahrenheit – apart from other rugged models, however, is its innovative tap interface: using an accelerometer, the camera can register taps anywhere on the camera body. For more on tap control, check out our overview of the system in the next section, or see this technology – as well as the rest of the 1050 – in action in our video review.

More conventional features include face detection technology that can recognize up to 16 faces at a time, as well as a Smile Shot feature that tracks a subject's faces, detects a smile, and fires the shutter accordingly. Aforementioned Shadow Adjustment Technology provides some leeway for shooting where lighting conditions are harsh or less than ideal, and Perfect Shot Preview and Perfect Fix in-camera editing provide tools for correcting image exposure either before or after the capture.

Processing is provided by Olympus's current-generation TruePic III imaging engine. Unfortunately, though, image stabilization technology is a little more behind the times, with the 1050 receiving only an ISO-boosting digital image stabilization system.

An auto-exposure only camera, the 1050 features a list of basic shooting modes that carry over, largely unchanged, from previous Olympus efforts:

The 1050 also features two playback modes: a basic image review setting, and a "My Favorites" operation that shows only tagged photos. In both modes, in-camera editing options are limited to basic cropping/trimming, resizing, and the aforementioned Perfect Fix exposure correction tool.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality
The Stylus 1050 SW is all about rugged good looks, but from a distance, you're only likely to notice the "good looks" part.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

Whereas the 1050's counterpart in Olympus series of all-weather cameras, the Stylus 1030, plays up its ruggedness in its visual cues – with exposed case bolts, visible gaskets, and double-reinforced panels – the 1050 is like the sleeper version of a rugged camera. Even looking it over carefully, you'd be hard pressed to spot evidence of its waterproof alter ego, as it looks very much like most other pocket cameras. And while the 1030's tough guy appearance has its fans (as do other products that play up their ruggedness to the point of gaudiness: Hummer, anyone?), the visually refined 1050, which comes in three subtle, "grown up" colors, is a lot easier on the eyes.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

It probably will surprise exactly no one out there that the 1050's overall build quality and attention to detail in its construction is top notch. If it weren't, we'd be worrying about its credentials as an impact-resistant camera. Cased in brushed-finish alloy and thick plastic, the camera feels dense and extremely tightly built. Internals are shock mounted, affording protection from drops of several feet, and with its solid metal frame, we're betting you could even step on the 1050 without damaging it – although unlike the 1030, this model is not officially rated as crushproof.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

Press the buttons or open a port cover and you'll get further evidence of the camera's weather resistance, with gaskets giving the camera's buttons and doors a spongy feel that can be hard to get used to for some users. Likewise, there appears to be a double layer of plastic guarding the 1050's HyperCrystal II LCD, although we were able to put a small scratch on the top protective layer of the screen during our torture testing. On the whole, though, compared to the 1030, the 1050 provides much of the same solid feeling as its counterpart while cleaning up some compromises and annoyances related to the more expensive model's high-impact design.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

For instance, the 1050's redesigned sliding lens cover is more forgiving than the small lens-only cover on the 1030 (which gave us some trouble when a little bit of dried mud got trapped in the lens area during our review of the 1030, temporarily preventing the camera from starting up). In more than a month of roughhousing with the 1050, we had no such problems with the cover jamming up.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

While we're on the subject, try as we might with repeated dunkings, drops, and even a night in the freezer, the 1050 never showed signs of giving in to our tormenting. The battery did, as expected, lose a lot of juice in extreme cold, and we had a few issues with the outside (though, pleasantly, never the inside) of the lens fogging up in transitions from cold to hot, but it would be unfair to dock the camera any points on its shockproof/freezeproof/waterproof claims for these sorts of general concerns. In short, whether you fully intend to test the limits of the 1050's "everything-proof" design or you're just looking for some extra security in a camera you can feel comfortable taking on outdoor adventures, this Stylus strikes a nice balance that doesn't sacrifice style or usability in designing for extreme durability.

Ergonomics and Interface
Use the 1050 for awhile and you may become convinced that the camera's menu system and overall interface suffers from multiple personality disorder. If you stay out of the camera's menus and just use the options afforded by the shooting screen – a pop-up sidebar, called up by the center button on the four-way controller, that allows you to fine tune most parameters, and dedicated buttons for a few other functions (flash, exposure compensation, etc.) – the 1050 serves up a pleasant, logic control arrangement.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

There's even a handy playback button (in addition to the playback mode on the mode dial) for quick image review, and a display button cycles four different screen configurations and levels of information. It's all very good on this front, and most users should take to the basic shooting experience immediately.

Sadly, my positive feelings don't extend to the menu itself. Call up the main menu and you're cast into yet another take on Olympus's generally feared and loathed options list. From the get-go, the menu's structure is confusing – it divides options, often unclearly, among three primary submenus a few other lists of options – and the system lags terribly when accessing menu options besides. Compared to the relative order of a Panasonic or a Canon menu, this one's a real mess that we'd really hoped Olympus would clean up for this go-round.

Shooting Guide Mode
Unfortunately, the same goes for one of this camera's more interesting features: the Guide shooting mode. What you get when you select Shooting Guide mode from the dial is a list of things you might want to do or situations you might encounter when using a camera – blur a background, for instance, or take a portrait after dark.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

Select one of the list's 14 options, though, and you often get another list, either of steps for performing said action, or of other options for the action you've selected. Click on the steps involved and the 1050 automatically sets itself up accordingly: if you're trying to take a night portrait, for example, the 1050 will automatically select the Night Shot scene preset for you if you click on that option in Shooting Guide mode.

But while the basic idea makes sense, navigating these menus can be both slow and challenging (there's not always a clear step backwards command for starters, meaning you have to go back to the top level of the menu and start over), and many of the options are either not worded clearly ("Targeting with assistance"?) or are already fairly clear ("Adjusting image quality"). Like the overall menu structure, Olympus's Guide mode has been around for a few model cycles now, and while I like the theory, this too could do with a refresh.

Tap Control
The 1050's primary interface innovation is its inclusion of a tap control system, which allows users to change certain camera settings by tapping particular camera surfaces. For instance, tap one side of the camera and you'll cycle through flash settings; tap the other to turn Shadow Adjustment Technology (Olympus's shadow/highlight balance tool) on or off. A double tap on the screen jumps into playback mode, in which images can be flipped through by tapping left or right. Our video overview of the 1050 shows the system in action.

Tap control can feel finicky at first, and it definitely takes some time to get your motions in sync with what the 1050's looking for – especially on the double taps required for confirmation. Playing with the calibration settings, which allow you to specify both the recognized interval between double taps and the force required to register a tap, can help dial in the tap control system as well, but even getting the camera set to your liking is no replacement for spending some time getting used to the feel. In time, though, it does become almost second nature. The only thing more I might wish for with tap control, in fact, is the ability to customize what each tap surface does: it would be nice to be able to change ISO or white balance settings with tap control, rather than being limited to controlling flash and Shadow Adjustment Technology settings.

Display/Viewfinder
The 1050 features a 2.7 inch HyperCrystal II display. In order to make the screen appropriately rugged, Olympus appears to have placed an additional polycarb layer over the top of the screen surface itself, and while the protective coating serves admirably (after all our abuse, only one tiny scratch appeared on the 1050's outer screen layer), it also induces more glare in bright light. Likewise, while screen colors are generally accurate, tending only slightly toward cool, the 1050's display is a mess in low light: it gains up nicely, but the on-screen preview is grainy and loses any sense of fluidity, often taking a second or more to "catch up" with even moderately fast motion (a person walking through the frame, for instance).

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

Similarly, I do wish that the 1050 came equipped with some manner of optical viewfinder. As a camera that most buyers probably intend to take outdoors, the ability to even crudely frame images without having to check the screen can be a shot-saver on extremely bright days.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
Shooting speed with the 1050 is a mixed bag, with some solid numbers but also some shaky ones showing up in our testing.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.02
Canon PowerShot SD880 IS
0.03
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 0.04
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.04
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.23
Canon PowerShot SD880 IS
0.32
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.42
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.46
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 1.03

The Stylus's pure shutter lag is not at all offensive. Get the camera pre-focused and shots are fired off instantaneously. A focusing time of more than second under ideal conditions, however, is a disappointment these days, with most ultracompacts doing considerably better in good light.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 3 2.5 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 10 1.6 fps
Canon PowerShot SD880 IS 1.4 fps
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 5 1.4 fps
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 3 0.6 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Likewise, while the 1050 has a reduced resolution high-speed continuous mode, if you want full-res captures the camera is painfully slow and limited. Some of the blame undoubtedly rests on the 1050's primary use of slower xD memory. In this case, we didn't have a high-speed microSD card with which to test the 1050's alternate memory capabilities, though it's likely that you'll see some modest speed gains with the faster memory type.

Auto Focus
As noted above, even in good light under ideal conditions, the 1050's auto focus performs on the slow side of average by contemporary standards. Move away from well-lit scenes and into the world of indoor or low-contrast shooting and things get even shakier. The 1050's AF speed and reliability make some decided improvements on previous rugged cameras from Olympus, but you still give up a fair amount of performance for the 1050's "go anywhere" privileges. Even daytime indoor shooting taxed the 1050's ability to quickly lock focus, with the camera needing to search the focus range more than once before deciding on a lock. Even then, focus misses were all too common in lower contrast situations. Using the center-area spot focusing mode helped speed things up somewhat, but not enough to call this camera's low-light AF performance anything more than adequate at the very best.

Similarly, the face detection technology used in this model is a clear step behind many of its ultracompact competitors in terms of reliability and accuracy. The system frequently missed faces framed head-on, and seems to have no ability to recognize faces in partial or full profile. Overall, face detection focusing is capable enough for family snap use, but compared to some of the rock-solid new technologies out there, this one comes up short.

Lens and Zoom
The 1050's 3x zoom covers a fairly typical 38-114mm – not the kind of wide-angle coverage that many outdoor shooters may hope for. The trade-off, of course, is that the lens unit itself is contained entirely within the camera body, meaning there's not protruding barrel to get damaged or allow water infiltration.

Depress the 1050's reasonably large (by ultracompact standards) and well-placed zoom toggle and you'll find that zooming is fast and quiet – yet another benefit of no external moving parts. Given that it's unlikely that lens noise would be a problem, it's unclear why you can't zoom during video recording.

The 1050's optic also provides some formidable macro mode capabilities: while the standard macro setting is lackluster when it comes to minimum focusing distances, a Super Macro setting yields a lock on objects as close as half an inch from the lens.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

The zoom is locked in this mode just beyond full wide-angle, and while you have to nearly touch the camera to the subject (and give the focus plenty of time to hunt) to make full use of this setting, the results (again, when the 1050 is able to find focus in a timely manner) are impressive.

Flash
As we'll get to momentarily, this Olympus doesn't have an overly powerful battery. And one casualty of the decision to save weight and size in powering the 1050 is flash range. The Stylus boasts a paltry 12 feet of flash coverage at a noisy ISO 800. Good luck trying to fill a room with that. Conversely, this often means that there's not enough power to give subjects a "blasted" look when shooting at any distance. Even so, the 1050's flash exposures suffer the same inconsistencies that afflict this camera's metering generally, with both under- and overexposure all too common in flash shots.

Even with a slightly weak battery, the 1050's low-power burst keeps flash recycle times under control. A full-power discharge of the flash recycled in a moderate 5.3 seconds, and average recycle times were a few seconds at most. In many cases, it will take the camera longer to focus in low light than to recharge the flash for the next shot.

The physical position of the 1050's strobe may bother some. As with many "deck of cards" ultracompacts, if you have long fingers you may find yourself accidentally covering over the flash unit.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Super Macro Mode, LED illuminator activated

Amid all this ho-hum news, one unique touch is the 1050's inclusion of an LED illuminator, which works in conjunction with the camera's Super Macro mode to provide even fill when shooting detailed close-ups or firing off shots underwater.

Image Stabilization
The 1050 sports an anti-shake mode on its mode dial, but you're not getting optical/mechanical image stabilization with this model. Instead, the camera boosts ISO to bring shutter speeds up and compensate for camera shake. While the 1050 is certainly not the only ultracompact to forgo "true" image stabilization, it's increasingly in the minority on this point.

Battery
As noted, the 1050's a bit of a lightweight – even for an ultracompact – when it comes to power. The camera's 660 mAh pack is good for around 200 shots in our testing under ideal conditions, but without a lot of juice in reserve, you'll find that your mileage may vary greatly. Enabling tap control does seem to sap the battery faster, and of course the kinds of cold weather for which this camera was designed can also reduce available power. Overall, the 1050 scores average marks for battery life, with better or worse performance largely dependent on how the camera is used.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

As a minor aside, I also find it disconcerting and a bit frustrating that the battery can be inserted into its receiver in either direction – unlike most current li-ion packs, which are keyed to only go in in the correct direction. This led to more than one frightening moment after charging the camera in which the 1050 refused to turn on because the battery was in backwards.


IMAGE QUALITY
From the perspective of a casual shooter, the 1050 provides plenty of imaging horsepower for capturing album-worthy snapshots when shooting outdoors or in good light.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW

A closer inspection reveals the camera's overall output to be a little watery, and some additional exposure and lens quibbles may bother more advanced photographers hoping to do more with the 1050. For its intended audience, however, the 1050 delivers an on-par performance.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
Shots come out of the 1050 just a little soft for most consumer tastes, and there are no built-in color modes or processing controls to modify the camera's saturation, contrast, or sharpness to your liking. But this leaves plenty of "headroom" for post-processing. Similarly, colors are neutral and, on the whole, quite accurate – with the exception of some slight shiftiness in the way the 1050 handles reds. For snapshots or general shooting, JPEG output is clean and very usable in the Auto ISO range.

Exposure is calculated using either multi-area (Olympus calls it "ESP") or spot metering. In general, the 1050 hits a good middle-of-the-road compromise on exposure in scenes requiring lots of dynamic range, but we also found the camera to be a bit unreliable where metering is concerned – especially indoors with light coming from a strong single source.

Exposure compensation uses Olympus's Perfect Shot Preview system, which shows you what the shot will look like on-screen with different levels of adjustment, but unfortunately the thumbnail presentation is slow to access and makes this camera's much-needed exposure compensation difficult to get at quickly and easily.

Olympus has joined most of its rivals in offering a shadow/highlight balance tool for shooting in strongly backlit or other high-contrast scenes. The 1050's Shadow Adjustment Technology works exactly as advertised, adjusting contrast to bring out detail in shadow areas while preserving highlight exposure.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Without Shadow Adjustment Technology

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
With Shadow Adjustment Technology

As noted, beyond the option to turn Shadow Adjustment Technology on or off, you won't find any other image processing or exposure controls on the 1050.

White Balance
Few digital cameras perform well in this area, and the 1050 actually does a better job than many at neutralizing casts when shooting with auto white balance under indoor light.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

As a rule, the camera's presets meet expectations for their intended uses. This is good considering that there's no user-set or custom white balance option.

Lens Faults
Not surprisingly, shots from the 1050's internally contained zoom lens aren't usually razor sharp. There's some obvious corner softness throughout the zoom range, which gets worse toward the wide end of spectrum. And even in the center of the frame at moderate zoom lengths (like the one used for our studio shots), the Stylus's optic is a bit fuzzy in the details. Unless you're making big prints or obsess over detail capture, though, it probably won't concern you too much.

Some chromatic aberration/fringing also manages to lightly edge into contrast boundary areas. Compared to some other cameras with lenses of this type, the problem is relatively well controlled on the 1050. But it is present, albeit faint, in the expected places.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Wide-Angle

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Telephoto

Although this lens doesn't offer lots of wide-angle coverage, the 1050 does show some noticeable barrel distortion (where lines bow out from the center) at the wide end of the zoom range. There's very little of the opposite effect at the telephoto end, however.

Sensitivity and Noise
Like most cameras with small, high-res sensors, there's some noise present in the Stylus 1050's shots from the lowest ISOs.

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 80
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 80, 100% crop
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 100
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 100, 100% crop
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 200
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 200, 100% crop
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 400
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 400, 100% crop
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 800
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 800, 100% crop
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 1600
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
ISO 1600, 100% crop

The problem doesn't start appreciably taking detail off edges until around ISO 400, however, and even then the 1050 is in keeping with most of its competitors. ISO 800 is another step back in terms of softness/detail loss and noise, but it's still quite usable for normal prints. The single biggest jump comes between ISO 800 and ISO 1600, with the highest setting showing desaturated colors, very little edge definition, and lots of intrusive graininess. Overall, the 1050 performs in keeping with class expectations up until the very end, but its highest sensitivity setting is a clear step behind other competitors in this class.

Additional Sample Images

Olympus Stylus 1050 SW Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW Olympus Stylus 1050 SW
Olympus Stylus 1050 SW Olympus Stylus 1050 SW


CONCLUSIONS
On the one hand, Olympus has done something truly impressive with the Stylus 1050 SW: build a meticulously crafted ultracompact that's capable of going anywhere, and bring it market at a price well below what's been expected for an extremely rugged ultracompact. Reliability and, for the most part, even usability are top notch, making the 1050 an attractive option for adventurous snapshooters who don't want to worry about their camera – whatever the weather, or the day's activities, may bring.


But even with the compromises that have to be made in the name of ruggedness, it's not too much to ask to expect the camera to also focus quickly and reliably (even indoors!), take usable ISO 1600 pictures, and offer decent battery life. Unfortunately, these performance and image quality issues form a contingent of concerns that will likely steer many advanced shooters away from the otherwise capable Stylus 1050. Olympus deserves kudos for building a serious all-weather camera, and casual photographers should be very happy with the value and durability that this camera represents. But the 1050 comes up just short on the promise of offering both great go-anywhere performance and excellent – and not merely just acceptable – shooting speed and image quality.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 10.1 megapixels, 1/2.33" CCD
Lens/Zoom 3x (38-114mm) zoom, f/3.5-5.0
LCD/Viewfinder 2.7", 230K-pixel HyperCrystal II LCD with five steps of backlight adjustment
Sensitivity ISO 80-1600
Shutter Speed 1-1/1000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Digital Image Stabilization, Guide, Scene, Movie
Scene Presets Portrait, Landscape, Landscape with Portrait, Night Scene, Night Scene with Portrait, Sports, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Available Light Portrait, Sunset, Fireworks, Museum, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot & Select 1, Shoot & Select 2, Beach and Snow, Pre-Capturing Movie, Underwater Snapshot, Snow, Smile Shot
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3
Metering Modes Digital ESP, Spot, Face Detection AE
Focus Modes iESP Auto, Spot AF, Face Detection AF, Macro
Drive Modes Single Shot, Continuous, Continuous (Hi)
Flash Modes Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
12 seconds, Off
Memory Formats xD-Picture Card, microSD (with included adapter)
Internal Memory
41.6 MB
File Formats JPEG, Motion JPEG
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Lithium-ion rechargeable, 660 mAh
Connections USB 2.0, AV output
Additional Features Shockproof, Waterproof, Freezeproof, TruePic III processor, Digital Image Stabilization, Face Detection, Perfect Shot Preview, Shadow Adjustment Technology, In-Camera Panorama, Tap Control