Considering a Smaller System

Lots of people are talking about mirrorless cameras these days. Listening to people ramble is rarely a good idea, but you can’t ignore the noise when the level is this high. This idea they’re tossing around, DSLR quality at half the size and weight, is tempting. It’s sell-all-my-Nikon-gear and switch systems tempting.

I own a D610 and I love this camera. I love the photos it takes, the clarity at 100%, the dynamic range I have to work with, the way details hold up at high ISOs. It’s a joy to shoot with, and always surprises me when I load my images after a trip. But I couldn’t stop listening to the noise, all the noise, so I purchased an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in the hopes that the rumors were true and the DSLR is dead. My DLSR to be exact.

I used the E-M1 exclusively for 30 days and then I returned it without any remorse. Well maybe a little; focus peaking is a great feature and the sensor stabilization will be sorely missed, but for me the real benefits stopped there. Let me explain myself:

  • If you go m43 you’re sacrificing image quality, period. It’s not an opinion it’s physics, the sensor is a quarter of the size. It’s incapable of achieving the pixel-level quality of a full-frame sensor. However, I agree that quality is subjective and companies are doing amazing things with these small sensors. Maybe I’m spoiled, but in the end it always felt like a step back and I couldn’t shake that idea.
  • When people say that 25mm on m43 is equivalent to 50mm on full-frame they’re missing the point. Yes the viewable area (aka “crop”) is equivalent but you’re still shooting with a 25mm, thus you’re getting the wider perspective. Take out your 24mm full-frame lens and crop the picture in half and let me know if it’s the same look as a 50mm.
  • Lets say you want the look of a 50mm, so you get a 45mm M. Zuiko but now you’re cropped at 90mm equivalent. Now your workable area with a subject requires twice the distance. No my math isn’t 100%, but you get the idea. This is the exact reason why people speak about the “full-frame look”; 50mm is 50mm and you don’t have to stand across the street to get the compression you want. There are benefit’s to the inherent increase in working distance, but I’m not a street photographer looking to be discrete.
  • High ISO is important to me. I’m working on my strobist skills, but during a day out with the family I’m working with available light. All the talk is about noise, and how nice the noise is on this camera vs that camera, and how it looks like film grain, and how its super clean noise. I don’t care much about noise, what I care about is detail retention. The E-M1 starts to chew at the files around 2000 and things get muddy. I can take the D610 up to 6400 before I feel like I’m loosing details, and that’s a difference I don’t want to work without.
  • The EVF is a great tool and I really liked the idea of seeing the histogram ahead of the shot. In actual use though, I kept looking up over the camera to see what was really going on. I couldn’t shake the cheap feeling of looking into the viewfinder of an old digital camcorder and snapping a still. I realize that I’m in the minority here but there’s something romantic about seeing things through the lens and not a display with readouts.
  • Battery life is a big issue for me. I don’t want to watch my battery meter, I don’t want to carry spare batteries, I simply don’t want to think about battery life. I also don’t like to shut off features to save battery life. Sensor stabilization and focus peaking aren’t features they’re selling points, but they’re a huge battery drain. With the D610 a weekend trip is a breeze, but the E-M1 was giving me low-battery warnings halfway through a day. Not charging the battery every night becomes a concern. Spare batteries sound great until you have to check the charge on those too and then you’re spending every night swapping batteries out of a charger just to make it through a busy day.
  • The E-M1 feels laggy, as do other m43 cameras I’ve used. When I flip a command dial or go into the menu system on the D610 the response is instant and feels mechanical; the displays are just readouts. With the E-M1 there’s a perceptible delay which, whether it’s the processing or the screen refreshing, reveals the computer system between me and the mechanical components.

Sticking with the D610

Sounds like a clear cut decision, but here is that remorse I spoke about earlier:

  • The sensor stabilization in the E-M1 is downright amazing. Now that I’m back to the D610 full-time I miss the lazy way in which the E-M1 could handle lower shutter speeds. The adage of “1/X shutter speed for Xmm focal length” doesn’t apply anymore; I was more than comfortable shooting at half those estimates. Not having it makes my D610 feel outdated, and it puts Nikon lens VR to shame. It’s the one and only feature that I really miss.
  • The increase in DOF does have it’s benefits when it comes to getting more than eyelashes in focus on super wide open shots. It’s also nice to get a theoretical 2 stops more light on the E-M1 with the equivalent DOF of a full-frame. I found that the transmission of M. Zuiko 12-40mm wasn’t on par with the Nikon 24-70mm so it was more like 1.3 stops more light, but the difference was noticable.
  • When I pick up the D610 I silently say “why can’t you slim down and look like your little brother” especially when the 24-70mm is attached. I don’t travel enough to relish carrying my gear around, and I like to think that 35 is still pretty young so I can’t complain about the weight. However, I’m hoping that full-frame mirrorless cameras are the norm when I start to show my age. Both are inevitable.

In the end I went with the camera that I enjoyed using, regardless of the pros or cons. I follow a good number of photography sites related to gear and gear reviews. Plenty of them look at m43 and say things like “this camera is more than enough camera for 90% of the population”. Two things bother me about this statement, 1) They never consider themselves in the 90% and 2) who wants to be in the 90%? We all want to be in the top 10%, and if you don’t then you’re probably not aware of the m43 vs full-frame debate. What they should say is “this camera is more than enough camera for people who will never read this article.”

I can’t say how I’ll feel when they release the M. Zuiko Pro 80-150mm and a 7-12mm. The ability to carry the trinity in a small sling bag does sound appealing for travel. Yes that second lens is a prediction but I’ll assume that Olympus is pitting their M. Zuiko Pro line-up against the Nikon full-frame trinity. If you want to beat the king then beat him at his own game. Give me a generation or two for sensor development, a dependable TTL flash remote system, throw in a rumored M. Zuiko Pro super telephoto, and I might give m43 another test drive.