Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

How does the Canon 6D compare with Olympus micro 4/3?

It’s been nearly six months since I got my Canon 6D and have “gone full frame”. Has my world changed? Not really. But after a half a year’s use, I feel like I know the 6D well enough to make some comparisons. It may sound odd to compare a full frame DSLR to a smaller, mirrorless 4/3 camera, but stick with me. After all, they are both just cameras and the difference may not be as big as you think.

Image Quality

There are certainly obvious differences comparing a full frame sensor to a much smaller one. You have the potential for a lot shallower depth of field — the bigger the sensor, the shallower the depth of field. The big sensor collects more light so my low-light, high ISO images are a lot better with the Canon 6D compared to the Olympus E-PM2.

How much better is the low light performance? Well on the Olympus E-PM2, my newest Pen camera, I’m generally satisfied up to ISO 3200. On the 6D, I feel fine using ISO 8,000 to ISO 10,000. ISO 12,800 feels a bit grainy, depending on the situation. So I get about 2 stops of additional low-light performance.

Women in Red, Congress Avenue - Austin, Texas

Women in Red, Congress Avenue – Austin, Texas

I also feel that the color on the 6D is a bit more vibrant. Not significantly so but when compared next to each other, there is a very slight difference. It almost comes down to a feeling more than something qualitative. Seen in isolation, there is nothing lacking in the Pen’s color performance. And comparing HDRs from both cameras, the color difference disappears.

Colorful Bar, Mi Tierra - San Antonio, Texas

Colorful Bar, Mi Tierra – San Antonio, Texas

When viewed at 100%, I notice a bit more detail in the 6D. This is mostly likely due to the slightly higher resolution 20MP 6D vs 16MP on the Olympus.

Things that I expected to be better on the 6D, aren’t. That would include the dynamic range. The 6D nicely pulls out shadow detail but the highlights don’t recover very well, at least in Aperture 3. I find that, surprisingly, the E-PM2 does equally well for dynamic range. At times, it almost seems better. What also helps is that the Olympus consistently exposes a scene better that the 6D. I will talk about that in the next section.

Exposure

ROT Rally Parade, 2013 - Austin, Texas

ROT Rally Parade, 2013 – Austin, Texas

One of the biggest annoyances for me on the Canon 6D is its matrix metering. It generally seems to under expose, which I can easily compensate for, however, a small bright area in the frame can really throw off the metering. The exposure gets very dark. I have to add 1 or more stops to compensate. A good example is a photo from the ROT Rally parade. The headlights from the motorcycles really wreaked havoc with exposure. I needed to add + 1 1/3 stops to this image to have it come out reasonably.

The Olympus, on the other hand, handles these conditions a lot better. I rarely need to add more than a 1/3 of a stop possibly 2/3 in these cases. Take a look at the two photos below, taken at the same place. The Canon 6D is on the left and the Olympus E-PM2 on the right. The framing is slightly different since I used a 35mm on the 6D and a 28mm equivalent on the E-PM2. But they illustrate the behavior I get frequently. In fact, the Olympus has a -1/3 exposure compensation while the Canon has compensation upped by +1/3. You can see how dark the Canon is.

Canon 6D
Olympus E-PM2

And it will be OK if I could just always add +2/3 or so of compensation consistently on the 6D, but that doesn’t work either. For even lighting, that would overexpose. I’m wondering if Canon added this behavior because it knows that the 6D doesn’t handle highlights very well. After all, I guess it’s better to preserve the highlights than get something that’s unrecoverable.

This means, of course, that I constantly have to ride the exposure compensation dial and adjust my settings, sometimes by a large amount. Being a DSLR, where I shoot through an optical view finder, I constantly need to chimp on the back LCD to see if the exposure came out correctly. Compare this to the free-flowing way I can use the Olympus. Since I can shoot off the back LCD, I can see before I shoot, whether the exposure looks good. And usually, it nails the exposure properly. At most I might move my exposure compensation up or down 1/3 of a stop.

The bottom line is that with the Canon 6D, I either have to constantly adjust my shooting and/or I do a lot more post processing to have the images look the way I want. This takes some of the enjoyment away.

Speed

While the DSLR still has the edge, in general, over mirrorless in fast action sports shooting, for everything else, it no longer matters. At least on the Olympus, the single shot focusing is so fast that I no longer think that the DSLRs have an advantage. The 6D’s center point focusing sensor is more sensitive to lower light, which works better than the Olympus. However, I need to focus and recompose more often.

Handling

There is an obvious size difference between the two cameras. I prefer smaller cameras especially since I like to use small prime (non-zooming) lenses. For people using long telephotos (zooms or primes) the beefier grip on the 6D will work better. So the ergonomics will depend a lot on your hand size and attached lenses.

The entry-level E-PM2 has minimal controls but step up to the E-P5 or better yet the OM-D E-M1 and the available buttons and dials equals or bests the Canon 6D.

Blue Cello from the Street, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Blue Cello from the Street, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

Of course for people carrying cameras for a long time, the attraction of mirrorless is the light weight and less bulk. The 4/3 sensor on the Olympus strikes a nice balance between image quality and body / lens size. What people often overlook is that a smaller sensor shrinks the lenses a lot more than the body. So it’s really the smaller lenses that are more significant.

What I enjoy the most, however, which I talked about earlier, is the difference in shooting style. With the old fashion DSLRs, you have to compose and shoot through the optical view finder. Then you need to look at a separate LCD screen to see if the image came out properly. If you are under controlled lighting, it’s less of an issue. Adjust your settings at the beginning and shoot away. However, if you are shooting on the street under changing conditions, the back LCD becomes more important.

Bat Bar Interior, 6th Street - Austin, Texas

Bat Bar Interior, 6th Street – Austin, Texas

With the mirrorless cameras, you compose either with an EVF (Electronic View Finder) or the back LCD. Either way, you get an exposure and color preview before you take the picture. See something you don’t like, you can adjust it before you take the shot. The active preview makes all the difference. This, more than even the light weight of mirrorless, makes me enjoy photography more.

I guess you can say I got spoiled by the mirrorless cameras or perhaps you can say I got lazier. The bottom line, however, is that I enjoy shooting the Olympus a lot more. The Canon 6D, in comparison, really feels primitive and so last century.

Conclusion

Sure the Canon 6D is capable of wonderful photographs, particularly at high ISOs. It’s really fun to do street photography at night, something that is hard to do with many other cameras. For somebody like me that likes the evening and night, this is a fantastic capability. And this is where I think the 6D excels. Given relatively even lighting at night, I can make images that I would be hard pressed to create with the Olympus.

Cafe Life, Congress Avenue - Austin, Texas

Cafe Life, Congress Avenue – Austin, Texas

But the Olympus, surprisingly, is no slouch at night, especially if you are shooting things with less action. Freezing active people at night is a challenge but for still-lifes, the modern 4/3 sensor cameras come darn close. How is this possible? Well, the Olympus has in-body image stabilization which the 6D lacks. If I use the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 (a 50mm equivalent) plus the image stabilization at ISO 3200, which can offset the nearly 2 stop advantage of the 6D. Consider too that optically the Panasonic Leica is superior to the Canon 50mm f1.4.

Meaghan at Javalina Bar - Austin, Texas

Meaghan at Javalina Bar – Austin, Texas

For most situations, I prefer using the E-PM2 or the other Olympus micro 4/3 over the Canon 6D. They’re smaller, lighter, more fun to shoot and gives excellent image quality (up to ISO 3200) with less fiddling during shooting and post production.

So when do I use the Canon 6D?

Whenever I get a new tool, it takes me a while to figure out how to best use it. I have no regrets selling my Canon 7D and replacing it with the 6D. I rarely touched my previous DSLR. The 6D, however, has several district uses. Here are the cases where it comes in handy.

1. Street shooting at night, as I mentioned earlier. With its great, high ISO performance, it allows me to make images that the Olympus won’t be able to match.

2. Portraits. When I want to get the maximum shallow depth of field to blur out distracting backgrounds, I’ll use the 6D. My Canon 70-200mm f4 IS or 85mm f1.8 are my preferred lenses.

3. Ultimate Detail. The 6D is my highest resolution camera. If I need to get the most detail for regular exposures as well as HDRs, the Canon will best the Olympus, though not by a huge margin. I guess I would need the 36MP Nikon D800 to get the ultimate in 35mm DSLR resolution (No, I have no plans of getting this camera, if you were wondering)

4. Sports. I no longer do much sports or fast action shooting, however, when I do, the 6D is what I will take.

5. Looking Pro. When I’m in a situation where “a pro” like camera is required, the 6D and its beefier lenses certainly makes me play the part better. Don’t laugh. People will judge you by your camera.

So that’s about it. For everything else, I would use the Olympus Pens. Which means that 80 – 90% of the time, I’m going mirrorless.

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade
2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade

2013 Dia de los Muertos Parade

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My Olympus Pen photographs taken with my E-PM2 as well as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 that was on loan from Olympus. On the Canon 6D, I used the Canon 35mm f2 and 40mm f2.8 lenses.

Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.

15 responses

  1. I still find it fascinating that you’re able to get good image quality above ISO 6400 with your 6D. I generally don’t like to go above 3200 with my 5D Mk III. I might go 6400 if I really have to but I’m generally not happy with the result unless I’m doing a grainy B&W. I reach for my X-E1 if I’m playing that high. Don’t know what you’re doing for noise reduction but that B&W street scene at 12,800 looks amazing. That would be a blotchy mess with my Mk III. Seems like Canon did a much better job with the 6D’s sensor. If Canon had put the 7D’s AF system in the 6D, I’d have gone that route. I’m also surprised that you like the colors over the Olympus. I feel like Olympus and Fujifilm files have more “life” to them. We both know how flawed my eyes are when it comes to color though. :) Agreed that Canon’s matrix meter sucks. I tend to use spot meter or sometimes center weighted on the Canon and most of the time I’m shooting manual and riding the shutter dial instead of exposure compensation. Just works better for me.

    October 30, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    • Mike, Aperture 3 does some default noise reduction on RAWs and that’s all I use. Nothing extra on the noise reduction front.

      Regarding the color, perhaps I should have been more clear. The 6D is (a bit) more vibrant and maybe richer but overall, in terms of white balance, I may like the Olympus better. But I’m generally happy with the color on both, as opposed to the Sony NEX 5 which I didn’t like. But I do still tweak the color on all my photographs regardless if they are shot on Canon or Olympus.

      October 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      • If I wasn’t so vested in Lightroom I’d consider switching. Your images always look so much better than mine. Ah, but I’m sure that has more to do with the skill of the photographer than software though. I’m bettin’ you’d do just as well in Lightroom. :)

        October 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      • I know what you mean about being vested in a post processing workflow. I haven’t considered moving to Lightroom because of all my images and knowledge in Aperture 3.

        You’re kind but I’m not sure of all the skill talk… I see a whole lot better images out there than mine.

        October 31, 2013 at 1:10 pm

  2. Bernard

    DPP does a great job at reducing noise on the 5DIII… so I have no problems going up to 12,800…

    What keeps me in the mirrored land is that the AF on the 5DIII is very good in poor light. With indoor lighting (usually HID), I can get the vast majority of fast moving, hyper 6 yr olds in focus… and have a reasonable set of photos when I’m finished. I’d love to also have a mirrorless system… but my wife / controller of funds says “one system”…so the system that can handle the worst of the worst is what I use….

    October 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    • Bernard, The 5DIII is certainly a good camera and a good one to have as your “one system”.

      October 30, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    • I’ve played with DPP a few times but I’m not crazy about it from a workflow standpoint. I’ll have to check out the NR in it sometime. Lightroom is fine with NR on everything else but I don’t like the 5DMkIII files above ISO 3200 really. Maybe I’m doing something wrong or maybe I’ve got an issue with my camera. Dunno.

      October 30, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      • Maybe my images just appear to look better because you are not seeing it at 100%. The low web resolution does hide the details and other ills.

        October 31, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  3. Tom Swoboda

    I have never liked Evaluative/Matrix/ESP metering because I don’t know exactly how the software is going to expose the scene. I prefer to use Center Weighted metering because I know how it’s going to read most scenes and I can apply exposure compensation as needed which I’ve learned from experience. Even better is if the situation allows for a incident meter reading. For those times I don’t have a hand meter with me I carry a homemade diffuser in my shirt pocket to take incident readings by covering the lens and pointing the camera at the light source to get a reading of the light falling on the subject. Incident readings would not work for a lot of your work, like where you are trying to expose for the neon lights. Different conditions determine different metering methods.

    I prefer my Olympus four thirds for urban and candid photography and prefer my Canon full frame system for rural landscape and formal portraits. The equipment is just a tool for capturing our vision.

    October 30, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    • Tom, I’ll play with the other metering modes on the Canon to see if I them any better.

      November 7, 2013 at 11:26 am

  4. RJ

    What do you think about the live view, which in theory does the same kind of thing as the back LCD for the mirrorless cameras?

    November 1, 2013 at 3:20 am

    • Live view on the Canon is way too slow to be useful for anything other than landscapes and still life.

      November 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm

  5. Andy M.

    I recently upgraded to Lightroom 5 from 3.6 because it could process my E-PM2 raw files. I was very pleased with the resulting noise reduction and smoothing at high ISOs.

    November 25, 2013 at 8:36 am

  6. Awesome post and great pictures as well. I’ve had a Canon 40D for years and about 8 months ago got an Olympus OMD EM5 and have used the dslr a handful of times since. I had considered a 6d for a whole actually, but the omd leapfrogged it and it’s tough to look back.

    March 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    • Joe, thanks for commenting. The OM-D line is really capable and quite fun to shoot. I really don’t use the 6D often.

      March 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm

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