Olympus has long been an industry leader when it comes to producing small cameras. Their "Pen" series of 35mm half-frame cameras were small before small was cool, and the Olympus OM1 was the very first downsized SLR. After its introduction in 1990, the rugged little clamshell Stylus quickly became the 35mm P&S camera of choice for adventurous backpackers, Eurail train pass devotees, and serious travelers. This amazing popularity was due to the camera's reputation for rugged dependability and excellent image quality.
Build and Design
The earliest digital Stylus models retained the compactness and durable construction of that original "clamshell" Stylus and added twenty-first century imaging technology. With the new Stylus 1, Olympus combines tradition and innovation to create an attractive, versatile, and feature-rich digital camera that is a worthy successor to all the Stylus models that came before. The newest digital Stylus retains much of the style, charm, elegance, durability, and usability of its 35mm and digital predecessors and adds a (12.8 megapixel) 1/1.7-inch backlit CMOS sensor, a tilting 3.0-inch touchscreen LCD, an electronic viewfinder, a hotshoe, advanced Wi-Fi capabilities, a nifty control ring with a variety of function options including changing apertures, a customizable sub-dial on the top deck, a brand new 10.7x Zuiko optical zoom lens with a fixed (constant) f/2.8 maximum aperture from 28mm (equivalent) to 300mm (equivalent).
Almost everybody has heard the phrase "bridge camera" (an imaging device that bridges the gap between two distinctly different types of camera) and in my humble opinion that phrase has been heavily (and often incorrectly) overused. The new Stylus one is a perfect example of a true bridge camera. The Stylus 1's slightly larger than average CMOS sensor comes from the Olympus premium compact XZ-2 camera and the Stylus 1's TruePic VI image processor is the same unit that drives the OM-D E-M5 MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera). The new f2.8 (constant aperture) 10.7x zoom was designed specifically to maximize the image quality results of combining those two components. Build quality is first rate utilizing a tough and durable combination of lightweight metal alloy and polycarbonate body shell over a metal frame. Weather and dust seals appear to be more than adequate.
Ergonomics and Controls
Bigger cameras provide larger buttons, a better grip, and more stable handling, but bigger cameras are also heavier/bulkier and many shooters simply prefer smaller cameras. I really liked the well thought out Stylus 1 control array. The Stylus 1's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are all clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. The Stylus 1 also features a nifty manual control ring. The control ring surrounds the base of the zoom lens and enables users to choose from a variety of functions and then adjust/modify those functions by turning the click-stopped ring either right or left. The zoom control ring adds yet another way to make the Stylus 1 a unique reflection of the photographer's personal vision. One final note--unlike many of its P&S and MILC competitors, the Stylus 1 provides a real handgrip for improved handling and camera stability and a secondary zoom control (perfectly positioned on the left side of lens housing) for zooming in vertical format.
Menus and Modes
The Stylus 1's menu system is a bit complex, but certainly not too complex for this camera's target audience.
Auto: Just point and shoot--no user input.
Scene: (Portrait, e-Portrait, Landscape, Sport, Night, Night + Portrait, Sunset, Documents, Panorama, Fireworks, Multiple Exposure, Beach & Snow). The Stylus 1's scene mode instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the subject's distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to determine the best exposure parameters for the user selected scene mode. No user input except for flash on/off.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Custom 1 &2: User selected (saved) settings/preferences linked to these two mode dial positions.
Pop Art Filters: a selection of creative filters.
Movie: The Stylus 1 records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080p @ 30fps. Default audio is stereo.
Unlike most currently available P&S digicams the Stylus 1 provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder) so shooters can use either the LCD screen or the EVF for framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. In practical terms the Stylus 1 is a P&S digital camera that provides some of the flexibility and improved performance of a MILC, but in appearance the Stylus one doesn't look like either a P&S digital camera or a MILC--it looks like a small skinny DSLR with what appears to be a standard prism finder, but that prism shaped bulge (which also houses the Stylus 1's pop-up flash) doesn't contain a prism nor is there a mirror in the live view light path. That bogus prism finder actually contains the EVF (electronic viewfinder) and this arrangement allowed the designers to raise the EVF to slightly above the camera's top deck for easier eye-level (DSLR style) composition and framing. The EVF is easy to use and offers a crisp, clean viewing area.
The Stylus 1 also features a large 3.0-inch touchscreen LCD monitor with 1,040,000 pixels resolution. The Stylus 1's wide-viewing angle TFT LCD monitor is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid. The default info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences. The LCD's anti-glare/anti-reflection coating is substantially better than average. Finally, the Stylus 1's LCD flips/folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads of the crowd) shots or as a waist-level finder, but the LCD screen doesn't swivel.
In general, the Stylus 1 is very quick. From off to first picture capture is about 1.5-2.0 seconds. I did notice a very brief lag (about 1/4 to 1/2 of a second) when pushing the start/stop video button, before video capture actually begins or ends. The Stylus 1 is capable of producing dependably very good to excellent still images and very good to excellent HD video and performance was consistently competitive with (equal to or better than) premium P&S digicams from other manufacturers at this price point.
All these features and capabilities put the Stylus 1 in more or less direct competition with Sony's RX10, but the Stylus 1 is smaller (4.6" x 3.4"x 2.2" vs 5.1" x 3.5" x 4.0"), lighter (402gr vs 813gr), and substantially cheaper ($700.00 vs $1300.00) than the RX10. If you're looking for an upscale enthusiast P&S digital camera that functions like a MILC and performs like a DSLR--the Stylus 1 just might be the camera you've been searching for.
I would love to discuss how the Stylus 1 behaves in bright outdoor lighting, but we've had very little sunshine in the Ohio Valley this winter, so I'm going to focus more on the Stylus 1's indoor image quality--which is nothing short of exceptional. Check out the sample images and you'll notice that I've included several environmental portraits--that constant f2.8 aperture provides some tangible and obvious benefits over the standard f3.5-f3.9 maximum apertures of the majority of currently available P&S digicams and as you zoom out the Stylus 1 stays at f2.8 while those other digicams are fighting to capture indoor images at f4, or f5.6, or f8. The harmonica player was shot (I was only about 10 feet from my subject) in a dimly lit auditorium at approximately 135mm (equivalent) and while there are some minor color anomalies (due to stage lighting) the details are crystal clear.
The Stylus 1 features a 35-area multiple AF system, with 9-area group targeting. The Stylus 1 is capable of both single and continuous autofocusing. It also features AF tracking, Face Priority AF and Eye Detect AF. AF is dependably quick and accurate.
The Stylus 1 saves images and video clips to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards (including MicroSD with SD adaptor) and provides the ability to save images in either JPEG, JPEG+RAW, or RAW formats.
The Stylus 1's built-in flash is located directly above the lens--which is not conducive to red-eye free supplemental lighting. The Stylus 1 also includes a dedicated hot shoe for Olympus flash units with all or most features (depending on the specific flash) available. The hot shoe is a nice addition, but most of the folks who will be buying this camera are available light fans, environmental portraitists, and street shooters--folks who rarely use supplemental lighting.
Olympus claims the Stylus 1 is good for up to 410 exposures with a fully charged BLS-5 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The battery charges outside the camera via the supplied charger and requires about three hours for a full charge. Based on my experiences with the Stylus 1, I'd say 410 exposures is a generous estimate. I used the camera for almost two weeks and shot about 450 images total and I had to charge the battery twice, but it has been very cold in Kentucky the past couple of weeks (average daily high temperatures have hovered between 25 and 30 degrees) so cold winter weather may be to blame for some of the discrepancy between what Olympus claims and what I experienced with regard to the Stylus 1's power duration.
The Stylus 1 features a 10.7x (28mm-300mm equivalent) zoom with a fast f2.8 fixed (constant) maximum aperture. Most P&S digital cameras offer zooms with maximum apertures of between f3.5 and f3.9 and those maximum apertures get smaller (let in less light) as you zoom out. The Stylus 1 maintains its f2.8 maximum aperture whether the zoom is set to 28mm or 300mm. So instead of an f8 maximum aperture at 300mm--Stylus 1 shooters can still shoot at f2.8. If you were wondering what makes this camera worth $700.00 that f2.8 maximum aperture at 300mm provides much of the explanation.
The Stylus 1's moderate wide-angle to telephoto zoom covers all of the focal length range (28mm to 135mm) most often used by "Straight Shooters" who usually tend to work in pretty close. When the Stylus 1 is powered up the zoom extends from the camera body automatically by poking its way through a screw-in tulip style lens cover. The cover is removable and can be replaced with a clip on lens cap. When the camera is powered down, the lens retracts and the screw-in lens cover folds up to protect the front element on the zoom. Zooming is fairly smooth and lens operation is very quiet. The Stylus 1 needs between 3.5 and 4.0 seconds to move the lens from the wide-angle end of the zoom range to the maximum telephoto setting. The Stylus 1's new zoom is surprisingly good and even though the lens displays some very minor corner softness, center sharpness is dependably excellent. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is visible in some high contrast shots, especially when shooting dark objects against a bright background, but overall, CA is very well controlled. Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is present, but very well corrected and that's impressive optical engineering since well above average barrel distortion is a common fault with small highly complex P&S digital camera zooms.
The Stylus 1 records HD video at 1920 x 1080p @ 30 fps (and other resolutions) with stereo audio. Video clips are sharp, fluid, and hue correct, but there is a brief execution lag of between 1/4 and 1/2 second from the time you push the video start/stop button and when the video actually begins and ends.
The Stylus 1's image files are optimized for bold bright colors and hard-edged but slightly flat contrast. Viewed on my monitor, Stylus 1 images look a lot like the Fujichrome slides I shot during an earlier photographic era - midway between Velvia and Sensia in terms of color saturation.
Overall, reds are a bit warm, blues are a little brighter than they are in real life, and greens/yellows/oranges are impressively vibrant, but (Olympus color interpolation) are always a tiny bit bluish. The Stylus 1's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp. Compared to the Sony RX10, the Stylus 1's image files are generally comparable in terms of overall image quality to its more expensive competitor. The Stylus 1 images are slightly less sharp than the RX10 (in real world usage) and the RX10 does a better job with low-light performance mainly due to the larger sensor size. Check out the Sony RX10 image gallery here. However, the price difference between the two is $600. It will be important for you to decide if the difference in low-light performance and sharper image quality is worth the money. It's a win in either direction. Both cameras are very good!
Olympus Stylus 1 Concert Image vs Sony RX10 Concert Image
The Olympus Stylus 1 is a thoughtfully designed and robustly constructed imaging tool that is dependably responsive, non-threatening to subjects, and capable of reliably generating first-rate images. The Stylus 1 was obviously designed for photography enthusiasts, by photography enthusiasts.
The stylish little Stylus 1 does everything very well - image quality, operational speed, and usability/functionality are all above average. Still not convinced? The Stylus 1 is built like a tank and it makes an excellent "take it everywhere" photographic tool for serious shooters, active folks, nature lovers, and travelers, but the Stylus 1's primary talent is that it is simply one of the best environmental portrait cameras that I have ever used.