November 25, 2016
Readers of this blog know that most of my photography over the past few years has been done with the Micro Four-Thirds (m43) system. Specifically, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 cameras. I love the m43 system and have taken thousands of pictures with my Olympus cameras. I’ve had my Olympus cameras since the OM-D E-M5 was introduced in 2012 and love the system.
I converted to m43 after shooting Nikon DSLRs for many years. I used the Nikon DX (APS-C) cameras, most recently the Nikon D200. When I was ready to upgrade the camera in 2012, Nikon had not released a new DX camera since the D300s in 2009. I wanted a D400, but Nikon seemed to abandon the professional DX market. Rather than go full frame, as the Nikon marketing machine apparently wanted, I went the other way and went to the smaller sensors of the m43 system. In a surprise move this year, Nikon released a successor to the D300 after a 7-year hiatus. The company skipped the D400 label and calls the new camera the D500.
I’m now ready to supplement my E-M1 camera with another body and the choice comes down to the E-M1 Mark II or the Nikon D500. I have acquired a significant collection of m43 lenses and I love these small, high performance gems. I find that most m43 lenses are sharp right from the widest aperture, unlike most DSLR lenses. Although I sold some of my Nikon lenses, I still have a significant collection of Nikon glass — mostly the longer lenses for wildlife photography.
What’s not missing in m43?
Although many people concentrate on the high-ISO performance of the smaller m43 sensor, I have no problems with the 16 megapixel sensor in my Olympus cameras. The noise performance is adequate for my needs and I’ve printed up to 24×36 inch prints that look great.
I love the small lightweight lenses of the m43 system. I do a lot of backcountry hiking, and I couldn’t imagine carrying a DSLR system after being spoiled by the m43 system. Moreover, the IBIS system is available with every lens in the system. With DSLRs, the lens must have image stabilization, and many of the normal to wide lenses do not have this technology.
Depth of Field
Another much talked about issue with smaller sensor cameras is the depth of field (DOF) difference. I haven’t felt limited by the increased depth of field of the m43 system. Often, the increased DOF is welcome (e.g. landscape and macro). I’ve been able to get the necessary background separation in portrait sessions without any problems. If you look carefully at the portrait gallery you will see nicely blurred backgrounds using m43 cameras. Is it as blurred as it would have been with a full frame camera? No, but it certainly meets my needs.
What’s missing in m43?
Continuous Autofocus Tracking
Although I have enjoyed my E-M1, there are two areas where the camera leaves me wanting. The first is in autofocus tracking for birds. I’ve done more bird photography recently, and the E-M1 does not track birds very well. I’ve gotten some good shots, but they are the result of careful planning and anticipation. I really long for better autofocus tracking.
TTL Flash Metering
The second area that I find lacking in Olympus cameras is TTL flash performance. The camera just does not provide reliable flash metering with the FL-600r flash unit. I don’t use TTL metering that often, but when I need it, I can’t depend on the OM-D cameras. It’s just too erratic. Where this comes into play is event coverage. Occasionally I cover charity events and for this type of work I need reliable TTL flash performance. My experience with Nikon cameras is that Nikon nails the exposure in almost every situation.
Will the E-M1 Mark II close the gap?
Early reviews of the E-M1 Mark II indicate it is an amazing machine. Autofocus performance is improved and although no one mentions it, flash performance is likely improved as well. Nevertheless, the phrasing of the reviews reminds me of the reviews of the original E-M1. Basically, the reviews say the autofocus performance is great “for a mirrorless camera.” That caveat tells me that while the autofocus performance is good, it’s not up to DSLR standards.
The Choice – Nikon D500
For me, the choice is pretty straightforward — the Nikon D500. The Nikon will fill in the gaps where I need them — autofocus and TTL flash. The D500 has probably the best autofocus available for cameras costing less than $5000. My experience with Nikon tells me that the flash performance will be excellent as well. It also helps that the D500 is about $200 cheaper than the E-M1 Mark II.
In some ways Olympus is a victim of its success with the original E-M1. The camera is so good that I just don’t feel that the Mark II will give me that much more than my Mark I camera. If my E-M1 fails after years of faithful service, I would certainly buy a Mark II to replace it, but I don’t feel compelled to upgrade at this point. I still expect that probably 70% of my photography will be done with Olympus cameras. The Nikon will just give me better performance in those situations where mirrorless technology still lags a bit.
If I had sold all of my Nikon glass when I switched to m43, I certainly would not start fresh to get the D500. I would make do with the E-M1 as I have for the past few years. However, since I have a significant collection of good Nikon lenses, it makes sense to take advantage of the impressive capabilities of the D500.
In the next few years, I expect that mirrorless performance will meet or exceed DSLR performance. Overall, I prefer mirrorless cameras and I look forward to that day. Almost certainly, the Nikon D500 will be my last DSLR camera, but the DSLR is not dead yet. One day, but not today.
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