Nikon D800 vs Olympus E-M1

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

DSC_7479-3

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 CameraSize.com

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.