With the introduction of the Olympus OM-D the natural question is how does it compare with the competition. From the pricing of the cameras and positioning in the market the Sony NEX-7 comes to mind as a logical point of comparison. Also, while the Sony was introduced several months ago, due to the terrible floods in Thailand, the actual high volume availability of the Sony will only be a month or so before the Olympus. There are surprising similarities and some big differences. I decided to write this blog post to help sort out the two systems for myself. Of course, Fujifilm also just introduced their high-end mirror-less interchangeable lens camera, the X-Pro1. However, from a pricing standpoint, this system is clearly for a different demographic. So how does the Olympus OM-D E-M5 compare with the Sony NEX-7? Let the comparison begin.
When I started looking at the feature set, it seemed clear to me that Olympus went down the Sony checklist to try to match or beat its features. Both camera companies are clearly going after the premium EVIL (electronic viewfinder, Interchangeable lens) market. When you look at the standard kit lens pricing, the two cameras are only $50 apart. The Olympus comes with a 12mm – 50mm lens for $1299. The Sony and the 18mm – 55mm lens sells for $1349. When you compare the focus length in 35mm equivalents the Olympus has a longer 24mm to 100mm range while the Sony has a 27mm to 83mm range. The Olympus also sells a less expensive kit with a very similar range as the Sony for $1099. Both cameras feature a premium build using magnesium alloy. The Olympus ups the game by adding weather sealing to the body and to the 12-50mm lens. The NEX-7 follows the previous NEX aesthetic which is a throughly modern design without any cues from the past. The Olympus plays the nostalgia card by taking styling elements from is old film based OM SLR line. Both feature tilt-able OLED displays and the Olympus adds a touch screen feature. Both have high-resolution electronic view finders. The Olympus and Sony both take HD video and feature fast focusing systems. So with all the similarities, what sets these guys apart? You can go down the feature list and you may prefer an implementation of one vendor over another but it comes down to a few key differences.
For me there are two important considerations in a camera. The first is, of course, image quality. And sure, the user interface counts for a lot and the camera needs to feel good in hand. Both cameras have loads of user configurable buttons and dials. Which you like better will depend on your individual taste. You will have to play with both and decide for yourself which feels better. The second consideration is if the camera’s design point matches your style of photography. This needs a bit of explaining. The Fujifilm X100 is a fantastic camera. It is great for street photography, casual shooting and even environmental portraits. However, it does not work at all as an action and sport camera. You have a fixed focal length lens (at 35mm) and it’s just not fast enough for most sports. If You are a sports photographer, the Fujifilm X100 would make a lousy choice even though it is a very good camera, make sense? Likewise, if you had a top of the line Canon 1DM4 or Nikon D4 which excel at sports, they probably won’t be your first choice for street photography. There are different kinds of photography and you have to keep in mind what kind of photography a particular camera is designed for.
So lets start with image quality. Image quality is determined by many factors. It is not simply just the sensor. The image processing engine, the available lenses and image stabilization all factor into the equation. And before getting into the image quality discussion, I have to say the technical image quality has very little to do with how good a photograph is. This is a point for a different blog post however, I just wanted to mention this because, I know very well that image quality is not the most important measure of a photograph. So with that out-of-the-way, here are the important differences that may set the image quality apart.
The Sony NEX-7 has a APS-C size sensor at 24MP. It is a larger sensor at a higher resolution than the Olympus micro 4/3 sensor at 16MP. Generally, larger sensors have a better image quality with lower noise at higher ISOs. While we still do not know how good the Olympus’ sensor is, the high ISO noise characteristic may not be too different. Yes, the Sony has as larger sensor but it also stuffs more pixels into their sensor. A high-resolution sensor should have a definite advantage resolving detail especially if the camera can be set at low ISOs. So for portraits, product photography and landscapes, the Sony may be a better choice.
One of the major strengths of the Olympus and a weakness for the Sony is the selection of lenses. The micro 4/3 format has been out longer and with both Panasonic and Olympus making lenses, there is a very healthy selection of good quality lenses. While some other manufactures are on board to make NEX compatible lenses, Sony is currently the only supplier. There are only a handful of lenses and many of them are not of stellar quality. Sony did release the Zeiss 24mm f1.8 which should be a great lens but with a premium price of $1000. On the Olympus side, there is a slew of high quality prime lenses such as the 12mm f2, 20mm f1.7, 25mm f1.4 and 45mm f1.8. There are super wide-angle zooms like the 7-14mm from Panasonic and the 9-18mm from Olympus and both companies have a large choice of telephoto zooms. It will take Sony a long time to catch up, if ever, with the lens selection available for the micro 4/3 platform. Note: When comparing these focal lengths to the 35mm equivalent, multiply the size by 1.5 for the Sony and by 2x on micro 4/3 lenses.
Another very large advantage for the Olympus is the in-body image stabilization (IS). All of the Olympus micro 4/3 cameras have IS but the new E-M5 improves this significantly with a 5 axis stabilization. The Sony has IS built into the lens but not every lens has IS. With the Olympus, every single lens has IS, even 30 year old manual focus lenses. Now, if you primarily shoot your camera on tripod or in good light, IS is not as much of a factor. However, if you are into street photography especially in less that ideal light, IS is a godsend. Want to shoot indoors without a flash, it maybe possible with IS and a large aperture lens. In darker conditions that expensive Zeiss lens is not going to help as much even with a f1.8 aperture. You will have to crank up the ISO to compensate. With the Olympus, I can use the 20mm Panasonic lens at f1.7, keep the ISO lower and still get the shot by relying on image stabilization. However, here is were the subject and the type of photography is a factor. If you are shooting action, image stabilization is not going to help you. IS is for slow or non-moving objects. IS will not magically stop action. So depending on what you shoot, IS can be crucial or just a nice to have option.
Finally there are purely personal factors in image processing which may sway you to one camera of the other. I have come to realize that I like the Olympus color and exposure more than the Sony color and exposure (I also own a Sony NEX-5). This, of course, is my personal taste. You may like the Sony’s image rendering better. So I can not claim an advantage for either camera in this area. This will be your personal taste.
I wrote in a blog post called Why I’m not buying the Sony NEX-7 – Revisited a couple of months ago where I talk about the factors that make me less interested in a Sony NEX-7. Don’t get me wrong, the NEX-7 appears to be a fantastic camera, especially if it fits your requirements. Getting back to what I said in the beginning, you really need to look at the camera fitting the type of photography you do. With the high-resolution sensor, the Sony NEX-7 will be a very nice camera, especially if you can shoot it at lower ISOs. The 24MP should give you fantastic resolution. Keep in mind though, that the Sony system does not have many lenses that can take advantage of this great sensor. A high-resolution sensor is no good without sharp, high quality glass. But for people who have, say a Leica lens, you can use an adapter to attach it to a NEX-7. You can get an extremely high quality camera that works with high quality Leica glass. The Sony also has a wonderful manual focusing aid called focus peaking. This allows manual lenses to be quickly and accurately focused by looking at the highlighted areas on the viewfinder. Some people claim they like to focus via focus peaking even more than the range finder focusing used on the Leicas. Michael Reichmann loves his Sony NEX-7 and compares it with a Leica M9. So there certainly people who have high praise for the Sony. However, for me, I like to shoot in lower light conditions. Having image stabilization and a selection of high quality primes is important. I don’t have a Leica lens to use and I don’t have much interest in manual focusing lenses. I’m also frugal and I didn’t think the Sony NEX-7 had the price performance that matches my Olympus setup. But how about the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (I still think this is a silly name, let call it a OM-D5 for short), it is basically the same price as the premium Sony?
For me the OM-D5 is certainly enticing but I’m unsure if I’m going to get it. I will have to see how much better the sensor is. The expensive features such as the electronic view finder and the magnesium alloy body with weather seals are features that I can live without. I’m secretly hoping that the next Olympus Pen (E-P4?) will have the same sensor but at a much lower price. I’ll keep an open mind and see how the OM-D5 stacks up when the results come in. The good news is that we have a choice. The mirror-less EVIL market is very competitive and new products are battling it out for our money. I hope I gave you a fairly unbiased view of how these two cameras stack up. And while it’s true that I’m not interested in the NEX-7, I’m not necessarily a fan of all things Olympus. Yes, I like the lower cost of the Olympus Pens for their price performance, especially the E-PL1 which I use as a basis for my two camera setup. While I’m satisfied with my cameras right now, it is always fun to think about what’s new. I will continue to see what Sony, Olympus and Panasonic comes out with next. I’m certainly eyeing the new high quality Fujifilm cameras. I’m holding out hope that Nikon will come out with large aperture primes for their V1 and J1. Heck, I still have some hope that even Canon will come out with their EVIL offering, though their Powershot G1X seems interesting. But ultimately, all this dreaming and thinking of equipment is not going to make me a better photographer so I will need to get out there and keep shooting. See you out there on a photowalk.