High End P&S versus Micro Four Thirds

Olympus E-PM1 versus Olympus XZ-1

The question often comes up for users as to whether they should buy a good point and shoot camera or a micro four thirds camera.  The threads often say the same information but there's often not examples to back it up.  I own both the Olympus E-PM1 with kit lens and the Olympus XZ-1 so I though I would compare and contrast them with some sample images so people can see for themselves.

Note: this is an informal set of tests so I shot handheld and attempted to get the same shot.  The cameras were allowed to choose the settings they wanted in P mode unless noted.  All are JPEGs straight from the camera unless otherwise noted.

 Usage:

Both cameras are quite easy to use and are similar in operation.  You can use the Super Control Panel (SCP) on either camera (after enabling it in the menus) and get to most of the good settings quickly.  The XZ-1 actually has a mode dial, while the E-PM1 does mode settings from within the menu interface.

The XZ-1 has the control ring around the lens, which is a definite plus and works very well and is intuitive.  It changes ISO in P mode, aperture in A mode and shutter speed in S mode.  The E-PM1 ring on the back of they body can perform similar functions but is much smaller and less precise.  It's easy to jump settings until you get used to it.

 Both can use the VF2 or VF3 viewfinders which can really help when composing in bright sunlight (which I have lots of here in Arizona).  It's also great for the long zooms on the E-PM1!

One thing I really like about the XZ-1 is the fact that the battery charges when it's plugged in to the USB port.   So after downloading all the pictures from the day and processing and sorting them, the battery is charged and ready to go again.  Seems like this would have been easy to do on the m4/3 cameras as well!

Focus Speed:

The E-PM1 is very fast indeed.  It is nearly instant and fairly accurate on what it chooses to focus on.  You can also set your focus box where-ever you like and even change the size of the focus box. (Though figuring out how to do so from the manual will make your brain hurt.  Search the forums instead!)  I personally use the SA-MF setting so that I can also turn the manual focus ring to fine tune the focus if the camera is "getting it wrong" like when shooting through a chain fence at the zoo.


The XZ-1 is no slouch either.  It is definitely the fastest focusing of any P&S I have used.  It has kept up with our very active 5 year old.

Zoom:

Both cameras start at 28mm equivalent (which from now on I will use for easier comparisons).  The E-PM1 tops out at 84mm and the XZ-1 has a bit more reach at 112mm.

E-PM1 fully zoomed out (28mm) XZ-1 fully zoomed out (28mm)
E-PM1 fully zoomed in (84mm) XZ-1 fully zoomed in (114mm)
E-PM1 with Panasonic 100-300 at 300mm (600mm)

General Shooting:

I enjoy using both cameras.  They both generate please images without a lot of effort.

E-PM1 XZ-1
E-PM1 XZ-1
E-PM1 XZ-1

Bokeh:

With the kit lens on the E-PM1, I was a bit surprised to see the XZ-1 with nicer Bokeh!  If you put a nice fast prime on the E-PM1 it is no contest, but as they come out of the box I was happier with the XZ-1's performance!

E-PM1 XZ-1

Low Light:

Here it's fairly close.  The XZ-1 lens is much much faster.  The E-PM1 can push ISO higher safely (1600 vs 400).  The 2 advantages basically cancel each other out.  But if you don't know to bump the ISO on the E-PM1 or if your auto-iso is set too low, then the XZ-1 does a better job "out of the box".

This is a dark corner of the parking garage.  There is no direct lighting here.

E-PM1 at ISO 200. Shutter speed is too low and IBIS was off, so camera shake prevails. XZ-1 at default settings (ISO 200) came out a little dark, but is sharp and clear and was easily lightened in Picasa.
E-PM1 at ISO 1600. Now it's usable. 800 probably would have been fine here as well XZ-1 with about 25% fill light in Picasa
E-PM1 with Panasonic 25mm@1.4 (50mm)

RAW:

Both cameras can shoot in RAW.  I'm not doing a comparison of RAW capabilities here as this article is mainly focused on point and shoot upgraders who probably will not care to do RAW processing.  That said, I personally did shoot RAW in both cameras and you can definitely get more performance out of both cameras.  Even with the XZ-1 in some cases I was able to push the ISO to 1000 and clean it up decently to get a shot I could not have otherwise. 

I've had good results in increasing the dynamic range of my E-PM1 by processing the same picture twice and pushing one up for the shadows and pulling the other down for the highlights, then merging them together afterwards.  It's like a single photo mild HDR effect.

Original picture Used Olympus viewer 2 to push one exposure up for the foreground trees and front of the church and pulled another down and fixed the color for the sky. Then merged with GIMP (a freeware photoshop-like program)

If you do go above ISO 400 with the XZ-1, then you do want to shoot RAW and at least process in Olympus Viewer 2 by changing the noise reduction from standard (which is heavy handed and smears) down to low which comes out quite nice.  It's a shame they don't allow you to chose that as a setting for JPeg only shooters!

XZ-1 iso 1000 shot taken on a rocking boat in a very dark ride!

Macro:

No comparison images here, but the E-PM1 by default doesn't really do macro.  You can get a macro only lens like the Panasonic 45mm or the upcoming 65mm Olympus.  Also the 12-50mm Olympus kit lens has a Macro mode which is decent.

The XZ-1 however has a macro and super macro mode.  You can get really close to what you are trying to take and get quite detailed images with a very short focus distance.  Sometimes in super macro the lens is nearly touching the subject!

XZ-1 in macro mode

Flash:

The XZ-1 flash is built-in, but you have to press a button to pop it up. The E-PM1 flash is a clip on unit, so you have to either leave it on or get it out when you use it.  They are both decent flashes.  Both cameras have a lot of control over the flash and allow for setting reduced flash output down to 1/64.

Also, both cameras can control an FL300R (or similar) flash unit that is off the camera via remote triggering.  This is great for control of the lighting and getting a side flash can really make a flash picture look natural and not harsh.  Even just using the FL300R on camera and bouncing can be a great help.

Video:

The video of the XZ-1 is a sore spot.  It is just barely acceptable.  Because of the fast lens and shallow depth of field the video often hunts for focus which makes the video unusable.  You can do a couple of workarounds to get past this.  You can set the focusing only to the center box and that greatly reduces hunting.  Or you can snap a photo (for initial focus) then switch to manual focus mode, then start videoing. 

The E-PM1 is much better at video, but you want to turn the stabilization off or you get a "jello effect" because of a digital video stabilization routine.  Personally I got the Panasonic 14-45 lens with OIS built into the lens and use that when videoing.  It really works well.  If you wanted stabilized video "out of the box" then a Panasonic camera (with a stabilized 14-42 kit lens) is a better choice.

Conclusion:

I've said it many times and I'll say it again.   If you are not going to change lenses, then you will not see much benefit in a micro four thirds camera versus the high end P&S offerings.  In most cases the XZ-1 is close enough or better than the m4/3 camera. So unless you need the faster focus or the improvement in dynamic range, the XZ-1 will deliver in a smaller package.

But as soon as you put on new lenses, the m4/3 really comes to life.  You can see it a bit in the above images, but at a $1100 increase in system cost for the Panasonic 100-300 and 25mm lenses. 

The Panasonic 100-300 zoom gives you DSLR style reach in still quite a small package.   The Panasonic 25mm or 20mm  or Olympus 12mm excel at low light shots at the wider lengths.   And now the Oly 45mm or Oly 75mm make great portrait lenses.