Note - the images used in this article are of a pre-production Stylus 1 that Olympus describes as 'not cosmetically final'. This means that they may not be entirely representative of the final production camera.

The rapid collapse of the compact camera market has pushed all the major manufacturers to look for new markets - to create reasons for people to still need a 'real' camera as well as a smartphone. At one end of the spectrum, this has meant attempts at 'social' cameras, such as Canon's PowerShot N but, more interesting to us, it's meant much more capable, higher-end cameras, such as Sony's Cyber-shot RX100. The latest example is Olympus's range-topping Stylus 1.

It's probably the most capable compact the company has made - a feature-packed, flexible camera with a lot of direct control and the longest zoom range we can remember seeing on a camera with a 1/1.7"-type sensor. In terms of styling, it's been modeled on the company's excellent OM-D E-M5, but in concept it's perhaps closer to being a super XZ-2 - the company's erstwhile top-end enthusiast model.

The Stylus 1 utilizes a 12MP BSI CMOS sensor similar to that used in the XZ-2 (and many other cameras in the enthusiast sector), set behind a 28-300mm equivalent lens. That in itself would be interesting enough, but the lens's constant F2.8 maximum aperture makes the whole package very impressive. It also has a built-in electronic viewfinder that's borrowed from the E-M5, and which with its 1.44M dot resolution and 0.58x magnification, is larger and sharper than almost any other 'superzoom' camera.

The obvious other reference point is Sony's recently announced Cyber-shot RX10 - a camera offering a 24-200mm equivalent, constant F2.8 lens, and an even larger viewfinder. The important difference is sensor size - the Stylus 1 uses a smaller sensor, providing a different balance of size, price and (in theory) image quality. Overall, then, the Stylus 1 offers another balance of size, price and capability in a sector that had, for a long time, settled into offering just one or two body styles - instead sitting somewhere between an enthusiast compact and a conventional superzoom.

Olympus Stylus 1 key features

  • 12MP 1/1.7"-type BSI CMOS sensor
  • 28-300mm equivalent optically-stabilized F2.8 lens
  • Two-mode (click/free turning) control dial
  • Built-in 3 EV Neutral Density filter
  • 1.44M dot LCD electronic viewfinder
  • 1.04M dot 3" tilting touchscreen rear LCD
  • ISO 100 - 12800
  • Built-in Wi-Fi with smartphone control

Many of the features that appear in the Stylus 1 are ones that we've seen before in the company's PEN series of cameras - its Wi-Fi works in much the same way as its recent, flagship E-M1 model. This means it has one of the easier-to-setup Wi-Fi systems - you can either install the Olympus app on an iOS or Android device, then use the QR code on the back of the camera to establish a connection, or type them in yourself. This second option makes it fairly easy to connect other people's devices to your camera, so that you can share selected images with them, without them needing to download the app.

The Stylus 1's OM-D-esque design risks being a little misleading - not just by potentially diluting the public perception of the Micro Four Thirds cameras, but also because the Stylus's control method owes more to the XZ-2 than the E-M5. The click/free dial around the lens is the primary control, but there is also a second dial on top of the camera. This does the same things as the small, fiddly and imprecise rear dial on the XZ-2, but is very much more usable, giving the camera a true twin-dial interface. However, what you don't get is the ability to directly access AF point selection - something we kept expecting from a body that looks and feels so much like an OM-D.

It's a RX10 competitor, then?

When Sony announced its RX10, we felt it necessary to point out that knowing a camera's F number and equivalent focal length isn't enough, if you're going to understand the consequences of its sensor size. The same is true with the Stylus 1 - it gives a good idea of what you gain and lose compared to cameras such as Panasonic's DMC FZ200, but also what you're giving up in compared to the bigger, more expensive RX10.

A quick recap, then. Although in terms of exposure (and by definition), F2.8 = F2.8 = F2.8, that doesn't tell the whole story. In terms of depth-of-field and total light on the sensor (which is a major determinant of image quality), you also need to consider sensor size.

  Equivalent focal length Maximum aperture range Sensor size Equivalent aperture range
Panasonic DMC-FZ200 25-600mm F2.8 1/2.3"-type F15.5
Nikon Coolpix P7800 28-200mm F2.0 - 4.0 1/1.7"-type F9.5-19
Olympus Stylus 1 28-300mm F2.8 1/1.7"-type F13
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 24-200mm F2.8 1"-type F7.6

So, while the Panasonic DMC-FZ200 at first glance looks most impressive, the equivalent aperture figures tell a very different story. Equivalent apertures tell you how the lens compares to a full frame lens with similar characteristics - much as the more familiar 'equivalent focal length' does. However, rather than telling you which lens has a comparable field-of-view, it tells you which full frame lens would provide the same control over depth-of-field and the total light hitting the sensor.

So, while the 'equivalent focal length' and 'maximum aperture' columns tell one story, the 'equivalent aperture range' figures paint a rather different picture. In the graph below, the lower the line, the better the camera is likely to be for low-light image quality and blurring backgrounds, at any given equivalent focal length.

As you can see, the Stylus 1 isn't about to compete with DSLRs or other larger-sensor cameras, but offers a competitive balance of lens range and brightness when compared to compact peers such as the Nikon P7800. So, while the lens isn't as bright as the likes of the company's own XZ-2, with all the depth-of-field and low light benefits that brings, it does offer a significant advantage in terms of range.