The Olympus XZ-1 has advanced features for serious photographers, but it can be used automatically by novices.
By Don Lindich
Question: I recently went to the zoo and quickly discovered that trying to simultaneously carry a 2-year-old, watch a 5-year-old and get my SLR set for a good shot was not going to work. Not to mention carrying it around my neck!
I am looking for a small camera that shoots better than my iPhone 5 but is not big and bulky like the SLR. Having Wi-Fi would be nice, but having zoom capability and better looking pictures (especially indoors) is most important.
I hope to find something for less than $375.
BOB FIDRYCH Campbell, Calif.
Answer: Compact cameras with Wi-Fi selling for less than $375 tend to be mediocre picture takers. Picture quality is most important to you, so I am going to recommend cameras that deliver the best possible picture quality at the price.
I am going to start with the standout bargain of the group. The 10.1-megapixel Olympus XZ-1 has a bright f/1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens and was one of the most highly regarded cameras in its class when it was introduced. The sensor is physically larger than in most compact cameras, and the lens screams of optical perfection. The larger sensor, superb lens and Olympus JPG processing are an extremely formidable combination.
I tested the XZ-1 a year ago, and the pictures it made were pure eye candy. I can still remember today how incredibly beautiful they looked on my high-resolution monitor. They had great color and were so clean and sharp they made some other small cameras' pictures look hazy in comparison, even if they weren't actually hazy.
The XZ-1 has advanced features for serious photographers, but it can be used fully automatically by novices as well. The only real downside is it has 720p HD vs. 1080p HD video.
At introduction the XZ-1 sold for $500. It has been replaced by the XZ-2 model so you can get this wonderful camera online for only $261 new, or $199 reconditioned by Olympus. As I write this, I am fighting myself from pulling out my credit card and getting one given the price, but I have more cameras than I use right now anyway -- www.getolympus.com.
A great camera with a somewhat larger form factor is the 12.1-megapixel Pentax MX-1 for $399. The menus are similar to Pentax digital SLRs, and the brass body makes it feel solid like a pro camera. Images are very sharp, and the colors are typical Pentax: accurate yet bold, deep and bright. (The lens specs are identical to the XZ-1 and it is rumored to be the same lens, but with Pentax's wonderful SMC multicoating.)
I was particularly impressed with the flash pictures, which looked very natural and were evenly lit. Aesthetically I would say its classic looks make it the best looking camera of my three recommendations, especially in silver. It has 1080p HD video. It is bigger and more expensive than the XZ-1, but does offer more -- www.us.ricoh-imaging.com/digital-camera.
If you are willing to go up to $450, put the 12.1-megapixel Panasonic LUMIX LF1 on your shopping list as well. This tiny, premium camera has a wide-range 7.1x Leica zoom lens, Wi-Fi, and an eye-level electronic viewfinder, a rarity in a tiny camera and very useful with the long telephoto zoom -- http://panasonic.net/avc/lumix/compact/lf1/.