OMD EM5.2 shot with Nikon D610 and Sigma 50mm Art.
Oh sure, I love the big Nikon full frame cameras, especially when I have the time to put them on a tripod and take test exposures and chimp. Seriously though, it would be hard to dispute that for many applications that require very high resolution and very high sharpness the combination of the D810 or even D610, coupled with a killer lens (like the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art), is tough to beat. But that presupposes that every shooting situation requires those very structured and measurable performance attributes. Your jobs with a camera may the same day-after-day and year-after-year but mine sure aren't. And when I'm off the clock and shooting for pleasure my mind wanders into other areas. Other camera system strengths. On most routine jobs the bigger cameras are overkill.
Don't get me wrong, I love overkill as much as any other red blooded American male who grew up driving big block V8's too fast. Always nice to have some in reserve in case you need to pass...
The flipside is that I also sit in the other chair. The editor's chair. The post processing strato-lounger. The Eames chair of file enhancement. And setting there for a long time takes the creative starch right out of you while making your butt bigger. I re-discovered this yet again on Tuesday morning when I sat down to convert about 900 D610 raw files into Jpegs and Tiffs. The fast SD cards (UHS3) and the quicker buffers of the newest generations of cameras make it easy to shoot fast, and shooting fast generally ends up meaning, "shooting a lot." I could have shot less but you never know what you'll get next and....the cameras make it so easy. Hand me another slice of pizza...
But dang! Processing those files took longer than I'd like and in the end I'm going to guess that 98% of the images won't make the final cut into the two or three ads that are planned. And in the same vein once the client finds those three killer images they'll probably abandon everything else from the day's take and use the "keepers' over and over again. In this instance I felt like I needed the high ISO performance that the D610 provides. It's no little deal to pull off ad-ready images while hanging out at 6400 ISO.
When I shoot for myself I mostly come right back to the Olympus micro four thirds cameras and the motley assortment of Panasonic, Olympus, Sigma lenses, and the weirder, third party lenses I have adapted to the format. And I sat down today to figure out why.
I started shooting with the micro four thirds Olympus cameras the minute they got the first EVF enabled body ( the EP-2 ) into Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. The size was perfect and it was the first camera I could really use the Olympus Pen FT lenses from my half frame collection on. While we'd never call the 12 megapixel sensor "state of the art" the camera made mighty good images from day one. In fact, when I go back and look at work I did with that camera in 2010 I find that I love the color and really can't see the visual manifestation of lower dynamic range the way I thought I might. The color is as gorgeous as I remembered.
The full frame Nikons are great for things like theatrical photography where I need to make images during a dress rehearsal performance of a play. The size of the sensor and the speed of available, long lenses makes subject isolation easy while the high ISO performance of the same sensors makes getting good, rich exposures with low noise easier as well.
The Olympus OMD cameras make nice enough images of stage performances but they have lose out to the high ISO performance of the D610s by at least two stops. The alternate reality is that the OMDs have great EVFs and that means every bit of action I shoot during a show comes pre-chimped and well corrected before it's even been shot. And the 16 megapixels on the sensor is the absolute sweet spot for almost every application while keeping editing from being a full time, cave dweller job.
Where the OMD cameras come into their own is travel. Whether you are traveling from your house to downtown and then walking around for hours at a time or when you are traveling to faraway places and need to pack and carry what you'll be wearing and playing with for weeks at a time the smaller cameras just have it all over the bigger, heavier ones. I can pack two cameras and three small lenses in one of my smallest bags and have everything I want in a package that camera be carried across my shoulder for an entire day without screaming for a chiropractor to fix my lower back, shoulder and neck as a result (not that I would ever willingly see a chiropractor...).
The OMD is much more at home sitting on the edge of the restaurant table at lunch and
it's much less intimidating when used to photograph strangers and skittish dogs. There are trade-offs in both directions but I am unable to reconcile the need to narrow down to one system with my need to be happy and comfortable shooting in different styles and in different ways. Unless you are operating the at the bleeding edges of low light or needing to print enormous prints in most cases you just won't see a difference in image quality.
The trade-offs are easy to list:
The OMDs are smaller, lighter and easier to carry around than my FF Nikons.
The Nikons have far longer battery life than the OMDs.
The Nikons make subject isolation with a wider variety of focal lengths easier.
The OMDs have a much nicer sounding shutter.
The Nikons lock focus on quickly moving objects better (by far) than the OMDs
The OMDs have more accurate focus on people in portrait situations and other slow moving subjects.
Nikon has done a better job in the current generation of cameras when it comes to getting the video files right.
Olympus is unbeatable if you want in body image stabilization that beats the crap out of everything else out there.
Because of the different sensor sizes the two cameras have very different looks to their files when it comes to angle of view as it relates to the fall off of focus in front and behind the main, focused subject plane. There are advantages in both directions. As I'm learning when shooting full frame video files sometimes a deeper depth of field for the same angle of view is a wonderful blessing.
Used properly both systems have good on camera, ttl, flash capabilities. I used both of full automatic at a large, five hour long function last week and my percentage of keepers with both cameras, while using their respective flashes, was high. The flash for the Olympus was half the size. The flash for the Nikon was one stop more powerful.
With the Nikon professional series cameras one can use just about any "ai" (auto indexing) lens from 1976 onward without modification. And there are a wonderful range from which to choose. But to trump that the Olympus can use just about any lens from any system and still get perfect auto exposures, full image stabilization and focus peaking (in the Olympus EM-5.2) which makes focusing older, manual focus Nikon lenses from as long ago as 1959, easy as pie.
The Nikon D810 has a really big, really juicy optical viewfinder that makes everything look cool when you look through it.... but you'll still need to chimp and chimp to dial in the exposure you want and the overall look of the files you want. The Olympus has a really nice (but not yet perfect) Electronic viewfinder that lets you easily see the relative exposure, with color balance information before you even mash down the shutter button. It allows you to instantly magnify your finder view for deadly accurate focusing. The same finder allows you to select different image formats (like a nice square) and see it accurately and exclusively defined in the viewfinder. The same EVF also allows you to shoot movies at eye level without having to add a big Loupe to the back of the camera. I know I can use the Nikon in live view, with a big loupe and everything will workout okay in video but darn them for not thinking beyond the rudimentary and allowing us to have focus peaking as well.
The Nikons are currently the working man's cameras in the field of professional photography. You'll pretty much be able to find the camera body and lens you need to do any sort of still photography well. You can put your big D810 on a healthy tripod and trip the shutter electronically to quell the impact of the mirror slap and you can walk aways with great images. But you'll feel it at the end of the day (and that's not always a negative thing---). By the same token the big Nikon is also a working videographer's camera to a greater extent than the Olympus. Sure, you'll probably want to tether it to a field monitor so you can get a bigger live view and one that gives you focus peaking so you can actually see in and out of focus areas while shooting. You'll also want to put the rig on a tripod because, with the right lenses on the front the whole package becomes heavy really quickly and you'll have trouble getting a steady and watchable image from the shaky cam. But the bottom line is that the look for the files you'll get in movie mode will be better.
The Olympus on the other hand brings to the table the reality of high quality "snapshot" video. The IS means you can do lots of short takes with the camera handheld and not pay too much of a penalty. I love using the EM5.2 for video in which the subjects are moving around and never stationary. Like during a tour of a corporate facility where dragging a tripod along is just a nuisance. With a camera planted on a tripod, surrounded by a crew and ministered to by a sound engineer and a team of lighting grips there's no doubt that the Nikon rules. By the same token the Olympus makes solo film making more likely and likable, mostly because the camera can move with you and do its part to keep everything from flying into a kinetic chaos.
The bottom line, to couch things in a Texas-centric venacular, is that the Nikon D810 is like a Chevy Suburban. You use it to haul the kids, haul the mulch for the garden, cram the extended family in for a long drive vacation and stuff it full of crap when you are moving from house to house. It's big. It's crappy to park. It sucks gas but for some stuff the Suburban rocks it like nothing else. A variant of the analogy is that the D810 is the Ford F250 pick up truck. Load it all up and haul big, stinky stuff from one place to the next. Haul your boat. Pull stumps. But would you really want to drive one for the fun of it? Naw.
That's why Texans who can afford it have two vehicles. One for work and one for play. A Suburban in one side of the garage and a Porsche on the other. A more practical Texan may choose a pick up truck and a little BMW or Mercedes sedan. Something that drives well and feels good when you are heading out to grab a bite to eat at Franklins or zooming to the lake house for a weekend off.
That, to me feels exactly like the difference between the Nikon and the Olympus cameras. One for work and one for play. One for art and one for commerce.
After a week of working with the Nikons over both shoulders, followed by a full day on a video set with one in each hand I found the Olympus cameras today to be wonderful and just as capable. As long as you don't need to be quite as rezz-y or running in the ISO stratosphere. And that's why I'm keeping both.
Final call? The D810 is the best imaging camera on the market for an accessible price. The Olympus is the most fun camera on the market extant. They make a remarkable team. Hmmmm. Maybe Nikon should buy the Olympus camera division and inter-breed them. Could find a sweet spot between them that's just right....