A Tale of Two Cameras: #DSLR -v- #Micro4/3 Shootout

(Click here to cut to the chase. Otherwise, here’s some deep background:)

The Nikon v- The Olympus

Nikon -v- Olympus. Which would you rather carry? The answer may not be so obvious.

As many in my Vast Legion of Followers and Readers know by now, I have been in the midst of a migration in my camera preferences for the past half-year or so – from the “DSLR” format to a newer format called Micro 4/3rds.

I started using a DSLR with the purchase of a Nikon D100 in the summer of 2003. I selected Nikon because that’s what I’ve been using in the 35mm SLR realm since I got a Nikon F2 back in 1974.

The DSLR format has always frustrated me slightly, due to what is known as the “crop factor” with most “35mm” DSLRs – because they are not, in fact, actually “35mm.” The sensors in the early (and now most but not all) DSLRs were smaller than a typical 35mm film frame by about 1/3rd. This means that a “crop factor” of 1.5 is applied to whatever lens you’re using – so a 100mm lens on a “crop factor” camera yields a frame sized as though the lens were actually 150mm.

Since my earliest days of shooting with the Nikon F2, I have always been enamored of the perspective and ultra-wide angle afforded by a 24mm lens. But when the crop factor is applied to a 24mm on a typical DSLR, you wind up with a frame more like what you would get from a 36mm lens, which is a fairly standard wide-angle. In order to get the perspective of a 24mm on a crop-factor DLSR, you’d have to get a 16mm lens (the cropfactor is 1.5, so 1.5×16=24).

With the D100, I used a Sigma 17-35 wide-angle zoom, which at it’s shortest focal length worked out to ~26 or 27mm, which was close enough – well, no, not really. In 2006, before Ann and I went to Ireland, I got the then new Nikon D80, which offered a noticeable improvement in image quality over the prior models (particularly in low light settings) but still had the smaller sensor. With the D80 I often used a Nikon 18-200 f/3.5-5.6, which is a great all-purpose lens, but again, with the crop factor, it translates to 28-300mm. Same with the Nikon D300s that I have been shooting with since the summer of 2009. Still no 24mm without going to pricey 16mm fisheye lenses. and even then, it’s still not the same as my cherished 24mm.

There are now what are called “full frame” DSLRs, with a frame that is equal to the frame of the old 35mm film cameras, so a 24mm lens = 24mm. But the full frame models tend to be a full third more costly than the crop-factor models. I’ve never quite been able to justify the cost.

As Ann and I got close to our trip to Scotland in the fall of 2012, I started giving serious thought to buying a “full-frame” DSLR, either the older Nikon D700 – which is the essentially the same technology as my D300s in a “full frame” sensor, or the newer Nikon D800, which offers the next generation of sensor and camera technology. A used D700 I might have been able to score for well under $2K; the D800 would have set me back $3K. I wavered… and started thinking seriously about switching altogether to the new Micro 4/3 format.

I’d learned about the Micro 4/3 in the summer of 2012 by attended a seminar hosted by Will Crockett that extolled the virtues of the new “mirrorless” format.

Yes, the sensors are even smaller than the sensors in a typical DSLR. But sensor technology has come a long way in the three years since I purchased my D300s.

This is the sort of perspective you get with a 12mm lens on an M4/3 body - the equivalent of 24mm on a full-frame DSLR.

Kinloss Abbey in Scotland: The sort of perspective you get with a 12mm lens on an M4/3 body – the equivalent of 24mm on a full-frame DSLR.

M4/3 is really a whole new ball of wax. It’s greatest virtue – aside from image quality that is virtually indistinguishable from the costlier DSLRs – is the compact size and negligible weight. And there is no crop factor, only a new kind of math. To get the angle and perspective that a 24mm lens would provide on a full frame DSLR, you use a 12mm lens on an M4/3 camera body.

Long story short (hah!): for what it would have cost to take one full-frame DSLR to Scotland, I could purchase TWO Olympus OM-D EM5s, one for each of us (yes, the lenses cost more, but who’s counting?) The OMDs were perfect for the trip and we’re immensely satisfied with the images we brought back.

But there was one aspect of my photo work where I had reservations about the compact cameras and lenses: shooting live club/concert stills – where the light is dim and the action is pretty relentless. Last week I finally had a chance to borrow suitable lenses and run some (very unscientific tests) tests, and I’ve compiled the results on a separate page with circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back of each one.

Click here to see how the compact, lightweight Olympus OMD compares to a big, bulky and heavy Nikon D300 when shooting in clubs and concert halls.

If you have any comments, corrections, or feedback to offer on what you see on that page, please share them in the comments section below.


–Paul Schatzkin
February 14, 2013