Olympus EM1 vs Nikon D800 systems

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Photo Pete
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Olympus EM1 vs Nikon D800 systems
3 weeks ago

Due to back problems I have finally taken the decision to move entirely to micro 4/3, ditching my Nikon D800, 14-24, 24-70 and 80-400afs. I have now purchased an OMD EM1 and am gradually piecing together a lens line-up to replace my old Nikon kit. This has given me an opportunity to try and assess the performance of the Olympus kit when compared to the current full frame benchmark. My findings are below and hopefully this will help others out:-

Nikon D800 vs OMD EM1

No surprises here, the Nikon is capable of astounding quality and continuous focus performance and when it works it knocks the OMD EM1 for six. However, 'when it works' is the key phrase here. The D800 pushes the conventional pdaf system of a dSLR to the limit. Focus errors are not uncommon with the camera and focus fine-tuning of the lenses is critical (but only possible for one focal length and one subject distance with most zoom lenses). For best results the D800 also required different focus fine tune settings in very different lighting conditions (shadow or tungsten light for example). The Olympus always nails focus on static objects. Personally, if you are printing no larger than A3 to A2 size or are not cropping heavily I think the OMD EM1 will produce the more consistent images.

Continuous autofocus is another matter. The Nikon system works very well and has autofocus area modes which are much better for tracking moving subjests and holding them in focus. The recent YouTube video which compared the continuous focus tracking of the EM1, Sony A6000 and GH4 with a dSLR is simply misleading. You do not have to buy a D4 to have better C-AF performance than the best mirrorless cameras.... most mid range dSLRs will happily outperform the OMD EM1 in this regard. Having said that, the EM1 has approximately the same C-AF performance as a dSLR from about 10 years ago, which is pretty acceptable with a bit of care.

Auto white balance performance of the EM1 is far superior to that of the D800, particularly in very warm lighting.

The build quality and handling of the EM1 is to my mind better than the D800. Not only in terms of weight and size, but in quality of construction and the tactile feel of the controls.

The feature set of the OMD EM1 also outshines the D800, and direct wireless connectivity is a real plus.

From looking at these two cameras I would anticipate that the next generation of 4/3 mirrorless will exceed Full Frame dSLR performance in every aspect other than ultimate resolution, noise and dynamic range... with those only being an issue for very large prints. The current position in my view is that the Olympus EM1 is the better camera, but the Nikon has the better sensor, but only noticeably better for very large prints or extreme crops.

Nikon 14-24 vs Panasonic 7-14

Surprisingly very little difference in resolution between these two, but the Panasonic is fatally flawed with its excessive flare and mirrored internal reflections on Olympus bodies. I have no idea how anyone with an Olympus body can put up with this lens. I have swapped to the Olympus 9-18mm, which although not as wide and not having quite the same ultimate resolution produces images which are relatively free of major flare and mirroring of light sources. I will wait for the new Olympus 7-14mm.

Nikon 24-70 vs Olympus 12-40 f2.8

The Olympus feels better built, has smoother focus and zoom rings and produces more consistent image quality across the zoom range. In my opinion it is a better lens all round. It is an excellent zoom lens. It also benefits from the Olympus IBIS, whereas the Nikon lens is unstabilised.

Nikon 80-400afs vs Olympus 75-300

This was the one lens that was really stopping me from moving to 4/3s. The new 80-400afs is an excellent professional grade long zoom and the 75-300 appeared to be a consumer grade lens which didn't seem to have particularly glowing reviews. I must say that the 75-300 has surprised me. It is really very sharp when used within its and the camera's limits, even wide open at 600mm equivalent (if f6.7 can really be called 'wide open').

So what are the 75-300's and camera's limits? Shutter shock is an issue hand held at 600mm equivalent, so turn the 0 second antishock on if you have it. IBIS also has limitations. My tests seem to show that IBIS works well at 600mm equivalent for shutter speeds between 1/100th and 1/250th. Any slower and it fails to consistently stabilise the image, any faster and the IBIS sampling rate seems to conflict with the movement, often producing slight image blur. Turning IBIS off will not give consistently sharp hand held images until 1/1000 sec. So the lens and camera limits for hand holding at 600mm equivalent are to use shutter speeds between 1/100 and 1/250th second with IBIS on and above 1/1000 second with IBIS off. You may get sharp images outside of this range, but not consistently.

Alternatively you could use a tripod, however with the lens not having a tripod collar and foot this will not always solve all the problems, with some movement still taking place between camera and lens.

The long telephoto lenses I am really waiting for are the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 which will be ideal for sports usage and the 300mm f4.0. These remain much smaller and lighter than the Full frame equivalents and also have tripod collars which make tripod usage more effective.

Flash Performance

The separate flash unit of the EM1 is a pain. I have never understood why 'pro' cameras aren't fitted with pop up flashes that can be used to trigger off camera flash units. The EM10 is much better in this regard.

The Olympus flash system has the tendency to underexpose by 0.7 to 1.0 stops on the majority of shots. This seems to be a deliberate decision by Olympus to either preserve highlights or to bias the flash exposures towards balanced fill flash. It isn't a problem. If it bothers you then set the flash compensation permanently to +0.7 or +1.0.

I have bought the new Nissin i40 flash unit. It is compact and extremely easy to use with its twin dial system. Generally it works very well, has an excellent power to size ratio and handles wireless use very well. Compared to the Nikon SB910 (and I assume the Olympus FL600) it does have some limitiations:

  • The settings on the dials are not visible in low light conditions, which is a bit of a flaw for a flashgun.... fortunately it is very easy to count the number of 'clicks' from either end of the dial and set the settings by feel only.
  • There is no LCD screen on the flash unit, so there is nothing telling you the usable flash range when set to certain apertures or zoom positions. There is also no screen to tell you by how much the flash has underexposed due to insufficient available power.
  • There is no stroboscopic flash mode.
  • The flash output for direct flash provides quite a strong hotspot in the centre of the image and generally requires the diffuser panel to be used to give even illumination. This, however reduces the guide number. The Nikon SB910 is much better in this regard.
  • If, like me, you like to use the flash in conjunction with auto ISO, the i40 has some strange quirks in the way it handles the bumping up of flash power and ISO, and this changes dependent on whether the diffuser panel is in place or not and whether the flash is in bounce position or not. Too much detail to go into here. The Nikon creative lighting system appears much more consistent than the Olympus system.

A long post I know, but I thought it might be useful for some to see how Micro 4/3 compares to full frame, in the eyes of a full frame user of many years. To be honest, the only thing I miss from full frame is currently a fully flaw free wide zoom (7-14), fast telephotos and the final improvement in continuous and tracking AF usage. Elsewhere I think that image quality is good enough and that the micro 4/3 feature set and handling has already exceeded that of full frame.

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Photo Pete

Nikon D4 Nikon D800 Olympus E-M1 Olympus OM-D E-M10 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 Sony a6000
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