Nikon D800 vs Olympus E-M1

Posted · 14 Comments

The other day a friend of mine asked me which of these two cameras he should purchase: a Nikon D800 or the new Olympus flagship, the E-M1.   On the outside, these two cameras couldn’t be more different:  the D800 is a honking 36 megapixel, full-frame monster, and the E-M1 is a lilliputian micro four-thirds camera with a tiny 16mp sensor.  Looking at sensor size alone, the m43 sensor is barely 26% the size of a full frame sensor; even worse, pixel density (which some people equate to “noise”) is almost twice as high for the E-M1 as it is for the D800.

So my friend – I’ll call him Will – was looking at the D800, Nikon’s DSLR-sized medium format camera. After years of refusing to join Canon in the ‘pixels’ war – preferring instead to focus on higher quality of fewer pixels – Nikon suddenly leap frogged the entire market with the 36 megapixel D800. I for one jumped on the bandwagon, selling my ‘old’ D700 – but I found it a bit of a rocky road. The camera demands that you use premium lenses but even then, it seemed my photos were not nearly as ‘crisp’ as with the old D700. Of course, I was forgetting that when you zoom in at the pixel level on the D800, you’re effectively looking at your photos 3x closer than with the D700. So yeah, you’re going to see the blemishes and the blurs. It just took me a while to recognize that I would only be seeing those if I blew up the photo and placed it on a billboard.


Before we look into the other tradeoffs, let’s pixel-peep, shall we? The two photos below are 100% crops of photos taken first with the D800, then with the E-M1. Why didn’t I set up a shot that shows the same subject from the same vantage point? Because I’m a real life photographer, not a lab photog.


D800 100% crop

E-M1 100% Crop

E-M1 100% Crop

So, which one of these looks more blurry? To me, it’s the D800 shot.  Assuming that I didn’t mess up on the focus when shooting with the D800, does that make the E-M1 a “better camera?”  Not necessarily. Remember that the D800 photo is much higher resolution so of course it’s going to show blemishes about as well as a microscope would. But we don’t use microscopes to view photos, do we?  Let’s look at the same two photos at regular size.  You can click to enlarge to fill your screen; both have been down-sampled to 2400 pixels wide.

D800 Cat picture w/ 24-85 f/3.5~4.5 zoom @85mm, 1600 ISO

D800 Cat picture w/ 24-85 f/3.5~4.5 zoom @ 1/30 sec, f/4.5, 85mm, ISO 1600


E-M1 Cat picture w/ 14-40 f/2.8 zoom @ 1/1250 sec, f/3.2, 30mm (60mm equiv), ISO 200

Is one photo clearly better than the other? I dunno. At this level of magnification, if anything, I think the E-M1 is a bit more crisp – but that may be because it was shot with a ‘Pro’ zoom lens and the D800 photo was shot with a ‘kit’ zoom lens.

OK so let’s call that a draw. What are some other considerations for deciding between these two cameras?  There are hundreds, but I’ve attempted to narrow them down to those that are most critical for me – bearing in mind that I do own both cameras:

D800 E-M1
Size Large/Heavy 50% of Volume of D800
Easy to hold No doubt Excellent grip – best of any M43 camera – but not for large hands
Lens selection Excellent Excellent
Lens size/weight Large/Heavy About half the size & weight
Focus speed (depends on lens) Good Excellent
Frames per second Slow Fast
Low light  / High ISO is good until… 6400 2400
Controls Excellent Excellent
Continuous tracking (sports) Excellent Good
Dynamic Range Pro’s say it’s better, but… …I can’t see a difference

Which is better? Both are perfectly suitable for professional shooting for both digital and print publications.  The D800 is definitely better for fine art printing and fashion.  Neither is stellar for low-light sports photography. So for me, it comes down to this: which do I use more often?  That’s easy.  My entire M43 gear – two bodies, three lenses, and two flashes – travels with me at all times in a tiny sling bag (more on that later). The D800, much as I love it, has been relegated to specific shoots and sometimes on road trips.  About 80% of my photos are with the smaller M43 system and about 80% of my pro photos for magazines, are also with the M43 system. Do I still love the D800? Absolutely! I just don’t find it nearly as useful, in nearly as many situations, as the E-M1.

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 7.53.48 PM

Check out the sizes on

Oh. Almost forgot to mention. My friend ended up purchasing a Sony A7.  That lasted one day. He then took it back and got a D800. He’s got big hands.

Nikon D800 vs Olympus E-M1 was last modified: August 20th, 2014 by Michael
14 Responses to "Nikon D800 vs Olympus E-M1"
  1. benji says:

    TL:DR: A fairly cheap lens on a d800 produces worse results than a reasonably expensive lens on a Em1.

    I’m a m4/3 fanboy but only an idiot wouldn’t admit a lens of equivalent quality on the d800 would kill the em1+12-40.

  2. john says:

    Look im a big fan of MFT but comparing two cat pics in good lighting is hardly good comparison. You say
    “Why didn’t I set up a shot that shows the same subject from the same vantage point? Because I’m a real life photographer, not a lab photog.”

    which if you are honest is

    “Why didn’t I set up a shot that shows the same subject from the same vantage point? Because I know very well that an E-M1 FT sensor will not perform at the same level as a D800 35mm for resolution or noise but I want to hide that”

    This is the sort of drivel that makes MFT users look like clowns – an MFT camera is a tools that has advantages and disadvantages the same way that a FF camera does – don’t dishonestly try and mask those disadvantages because the only thing you are doing is embarrassing yourself.

    • Michael says:

      Actually, you can find many comparisons of subjects taken with different cameras from the same vantage point. That’s not my objective at all. Mine is simply to say, “look – you can take nice pictures from both cameras.” And I could extend that to day “Hey, if you didn’t look at the EXIF, there’s no way you could tell which of these photos was taken with a Full Frame, and which was taken with a M43. You also can’t tell whether a prime was used on those cameras, or a zoom.” At least, I can’t. But maybe that’s just me.

  3. Graham Smith says:

    You should have taken the same subject with both cameras.
    The contrast and perceived sharpness is always going to be more favourable to a more contrasty coloured subject rather than a dead pan mainly white one.
    I have a D800E and Panasonic GX1 With good prime lenses and whilst M43 is very good on a quality/size/weight trade off, it will never be able to match a full frame camera with high quality optics when a sound photo technique is adopted.

  4. Good read. I also own both cameras and shoot regularly with both. For me, the difference between the D800 and the EM-1 (and for that matter the D300 & EM-5 ), has always been with what I call ‘thinness’ of the image. My m43 cameras never really disappoint me, but they do lack a certain color depth/lushness/oomph that I get from the larger Nikon cameras. Try as I might in post (Lightroom & Captue NX2), I just can’t get the m43 cameras to evoke the same high-end/glossy look at a moments notice. **HOWEVER**, I don’t let this get in the way– instead, I find myself shooting more low-contrast, ‘airy’ images with the Oly- which is great for portraits and the skin tones of my little ones. I actually feel like my Oly system is more of a veritee, ‘artistic’ system for me, while the Nikon has become my glossy ‘slick’ system. Surely folks out there can achieve the same with both systems, but for me, this is how the two have evolved and coexist in my world. BTW, there is no doubt that it’s easier to transport the EM-1 wherever I go. : )

    • Michael says:

      I have read similar comments from others, perhaps even enough to color my own thinking: yes, I have also perceived exactly what you are describing. But is it just perception?

  5. JohnL says:

    As a m43 owner I’d say describing the m43 lens range with the same Excellent rating as Nikon is wrong, for example there are no high quality Telephotos available. There are a number of other deficiencies too. I’d been convincing about the tracking being Good rather than Okay for Sports too, I think usually single-shot AF is better with m43.

    • JohnL says:

      Sorry, “need convincing” auto-correct huh…

    • Michael says:

      Good points. Nikon and Canon definitely have better telephoto lenses – both primes and zooms. Agree also with single-shot AF. I don’t use tracking for sports but I do use continuous focus and I prefer DSLR’s for that because it’s much easier to manipulate the focus point positioning using the rocker.

  6. jesus says:

    2400… Man that blows. Even with the new 42.5 1.2, that’s not a lot of sensitivity. Is that sooc jpeg? noise reduction? or raw files? I could care less about jpeg, honestly.

  7. Brian says:

    Great article. I’m not sure why the FF defenders get so heated. I’ve shot with FF and MFT and I much prefer MFT. I take more pictures in more situations and I prefer the shots I get.

    I think ergonomics have a lot to do with that but I also think the MFT lenses are great and the whole system has a lot of clever, underrated designs elements.

    It always amazes how somebody who owns both FF and MFT can be called an MFT fanboy. WTF? I like what I like. What possible motivation would have to prefer some system for any other reason?

    And the value proposition is even more clear for MFT video. Awesome codecs, video pipelines, frame rates, etc. with the Panasonics, the amazing steadicam like functionality and great color with the Olympus bodies and the ability to shoot RAW with the MFT Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera.

    I love the mobility that the MFT system provides. I can take the tiny GM1 anywhere and get stellar IQ or I can use the P&S sized BMPCC to shoot RAW or I can shoot with an EM5 and get steadicam like results with no big, cumbersome rig. MFT provides great IQ with ninja mobility.

Leave a Reply