Another Olympus E-M1 and SONY a7 walkabout test, high ISO

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Daniel Wee
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Another Olympus E-M1 and SONY a7 walkabout test, high ISO
6 months ago

Recently I wrote up about my comparison between the Olympus E-M1/17mm F1.8 and the SONY a7/35mm F2.8. I figured that many people here might be wondering what the differences may be and how much of a difference one might get going from a micro four-thirds setup to a roughly equivalent full-frame setup. Of course, it was meant to be seen from the point of view of an end-user trying to get roughly the same kind of field of view. I had in mind also to try to show how much the difference in the depth-of-field one could expect with the slightly different setups.

Note: The Olympus 17mm would give a field of view similar to that of 34mm in FF terms, and the DoF afforded by the F1.8 aperture would be what you'd get with F3.6 in FF terms. However, the F1.8 will still be as bright as F1.8 in FF terms, and naturally brighter than F2.8 or F3.6 on FF cameras. I put this here just so that the nitpickers can stop hijacking the thread and turning it into some techno-babble debate.

In the course of that thread, someone asked if I had any high ISO comparisons. I didn't, at that point of time, but today my SONY Carl Zeiss 55mm F1.8 lens arrived. Now, this is one expensive piece of glass, but it is also supposed to be the sharpest glass you can get for the SONY a7/r right now, that offers full AF. If you don't care for AF, you might want to try the Otus if you can afford it.

So, I thought it might be a good idea to compare that with the Panasonic Leica 25mm F1.4 lens that I also had, that was also expensive though not nearly as expensive as the Carl Zeiss. This will give the field of view of a 50mm lens on FF, and the depth of field of a F2.8 FF lens. And yes, F1.4 is as bright as F1.8 on FF, we know that.

My first impressions are that both lenses are incredibly sharp and very high quality. Both are a real pleasure to use. I found that manual focusing (using only the magnification aid and not the peaking function) on the Carl Zeiss was a bit easier than on the Leica. The manual focussing ring on the CZ seemed to be less touchy than on the Leica, notwithstanding the fact that the DoF was shallower. It's not a big difference and certainly not a deal-breaker. In fact, if not for the fact that I was constantly switching between the two cameras, I probably would not have noticed it at all. I mention this here for those who want to know how well manual focusing is implemented on the SONY a7. Answer: Pretty darn good. The E-M1 is no slob either. In one scenario, I found the E-M1's implementation to be particularly better. This is when I am focusing manually and the magnifier is on. If I half-press the shutter release at this point, the magnification is cancelled and I need to move the ring to bring the magnifier back up. On the E-M1, this happens snappily whereas the a7 takes slightly longer to bring back the magnifier.

When it comes to auto-focusing in low-light, the E-M1 feels a lot snappier than the a7. Neither cameras missed their shots but the a7 hunted occasionally whereas with the E-M1, you fire away with a confidence that the camera well deserves. Having said that, I could live with the a7 auto-focusing since I don't really do sports or action photography much, and I don't often shoot in very low light (which is when this problem is more pronounced). When it gets that dark, I prefer to manual focus anyway.

Another thing that I had not written about in my previous comparison thread was the difference between the native aspect ratios. The a7 has a 3:2 aspect ratio while the E-M1 uses a 4:3 aspect ratio. In practice, this means that the a7 produces more elongated frames. I mention this because while trying to get similar framing for the photos from the two cameras, I had to make some adjustments due to the different aspect ratios. I think I could get used to a 3:2 aspect ratio. Yes, I also know that you can select a 3:2 ratio on the E-M1, and yes we can always crop it in post as well. This isn't a criticism of one or the other. Some who are wondering about the a7 may want to take this minor difference into consideration if you strongly favour the 4:3 aspect ratio.
Now, onto the test images. All were shot in RAW, and most were shot wide open, as wide as the lenses will allow - which is F1.4 on the Leica and F1.8 on the Carl Zeiss. I buy these kinds of lenses to use them for their speed so I thought it would be meaningful to test them where they will be used most (by me). In the first test pair, I shot the Leica at F1.8 instead of F1.4 by mistake. In the last test pair, the CZ was shot in F8 while the Leica in F4 on purpose. The field of view of the 55mm is a little narrower than that of the 25mm (FoV of 50mm in FF) so I sometimes had to move a bit to get similar framing. Images were processed in Lightroom 5.3 and luminance noise reduction was set to zero. I notice that the E-M1 tends to expose brighter (using center weighting, sometimes even over-exposing) than the SONY which tends to expose more accurately. As a result, I had to dial in a -0.7EV for the E-M1 on average, sometimes more and sometimes less, to get the correct exposure. I also found the reds quite strong for the E-M1 images (which tends to look warmer) when processed in Lightroom, while the SONY is more muted. I did tweak the colours a bit to get them closer. I do slightly prefer the auto white-balance on the a7 though, although this is easily adjusted in post.
Here we go:-

a7 ISO 1600, 1/1250 sec @F1,8

E-M1 ISO 1600, 1/640 sec @F1.8

a7 ISO 3200, 1/80 sec @F1.8

E-M1 ISO 3200, 1/80 sec @F1.4

a7  ISO 3200, 1/2500 sec @F1.8

E-M1 ISO 3200, 1/4000 sec @F1.4

a7 ISO 3200, 1/800 sec @F1.8

E-M1 ISO 3200, 1/640 @F1.4

a7 ISO 3200, 1/1000 sec @F1.8

E-M1 ISO 3200, 1/1000 sec @F1.4

a7 ISO 1600, 2 sec @F8

E-M1 ISO 1600, 0.6 sec @F4

As you can tell, even up to ISO 3200, both cameras perform admirably and while the a7 has lower noise, as one would expect for the larger sensor, it really isn't radically better than the E-M1. On both cameras, the noise had a very nice and pleasing grain to it and colour noise was not a problem. I'd say that the noise for these cameras at ISO 3200 was similar to what I got at ISO 800 on my Nikon D2H from yesteryear. Details were held well and I wouldn't hesitate to use ISO3200 if I felt I needed to.

As you can probably tell from the test images, both cameras hold their own. The a7 has more resolution and slightly better noise handling but not by an earth-shaking margin. It is what you would expect from a full-frame sensor and a machine/lens combo that costs more. The E-M1 has every reason to hold its head high - we're talking about comparing a m4/3 sensor to a FF one.

In conclusion, I am enjoying both these cameras tremendously and if I were stuck with either one, I'd be just as happy. Each has advantages over the other but neither has an overwhelming advantage. Both the Carl Zeiss and the Leica are really some of the best in their class lenses. You pay for them, but you get what you pay for.
Disclaimer: What is presented above are my observations and opinions. They are NOT intended as "criticism" of either machine, nor presented as gospel truth. The methods used were not intended to be scientific comparisons, but how a typical end user might use both machines to get similar images, so give them some leeway. I own both machines and am brand agnostic. Of course, my own methods are not perfect and there are certainly ways to even things out even more - that is not my intention nor do I have the time for too much elaborate testing. I wish both Olympus and SONY would be spurred by the competition to make even better cameras, because that way we all win.

 Daniel Wee's gear list:Daniel Wee's gear list
Canon PowerShot SD750 Olympus C-2000 Zoom Nikon D70 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Olympus E-M1 +17 more
Nikon D2H Olympus E-M1 Sony Alpha 7
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