You might think it’s a bit odd to compare a small, entry-level mirrorless interchangeable lens camera like the Olympus E-PM2 with the Prosumer Canon 7D. You would expect the 7D to outclass the Olympus in every way. An unfair comparison, most people would say. But, I was very surprised with the results. Shocked actually.
Before I get into the results, a little background. I attended SXSW Japan Nite again this year. I brought along my Canon 7D with the 50mm f1.4 lens, like last year, and I also brought my newest Olympus mirroress, the E-PM2 with the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 lens. The two cameras actually make a decent combo. The 50mm on the Canon is equivalent to the 80mm when accounting for the 1.6x crop factor while the Olympus 25mm is a 50mm with the 2x crop. Both are f1.4 lenses which I wanted for these darker, indoor music venues. I also had external flashes attached to both cameras.
This is the first time I used both of these cameras together. A nice opportunity to compare them in a challenging, real-world setting. I shot both typically at ISO 800 and sometimes at ISO 1600 in Manual exposure. With the Canon, the bounce flash became the primary light source. Aperture set to f2.5 to with a shutter speed of 1/250s. With the Olympus, I balanced the ambient, colored stage lights with a touch of fill from the small FL-300R flash. Shutter set to 1/160 and aperture set to f1.4.
The difference in look between the cameras is due to the way I use the flash. If I did a bounce flash with the Olympus, you will get the nice skin tones but lose of the feel of the ambient stage lights. The tiny FL-300R flash is much too underpowered to do a bounce so I opted to do a very weak direct flash.
Here is what I found.
The E-PM2 is much lighter and easier to handle. Its main advantage — since I can used the back LCD screen like in a point and shoot — I was able to hold the camera high above my head and frame shots with no difficulty. This gave me a point of view closer to the level of the on stage performers. With the Canon, all my framing needed to be done via the optical view finder, creating more restricted compositions. The 7D live view is primitive and unusable for anything with motion.
Though both are f1.4 lenses, I didn’t use the Canon wide open. The Canon 50mm f1.4 is not very sharp wide-open. It also has an extremely shallow DOF. In order to make it easier to focus on the eyes and get sharper results, I shot at f2.5 instead. The Panasonic Leica f1.4 on the Olympus is one of my best lenses and I have no problems shooting wide open at f1.4. Also because the Olympus sensor is smaller, I get more DOF and thus had no problems getting the entire performer’s face in focus.
Surprisingly, for relatively steady subjects, the E-PM2 actually seemed faster to focus than the 7D. This is perhaps affected by light levels but at this club, I noticed the 7D hesitated more. For fast action, like Karoi’s samurai sword performance, I preferred the 7D.
I consistently got better and sharper focus with the E-PM2. While the E-PM2 may miss focus once in a while, the 7D had more misses. Perhaps because of the softness of the 50mm even at f2.5, I generally didn’t get many tack sharp photos. The contrast detect focusing and the ability to place the focus point at nearly any place on the screen let me nail the focus on the Olympus. I was a bit surprised by this.
At ISO 800 and 1600 image quality from both cameras were in the same ballpark. The fine noise pattern at 100% differs between the two but the details and level of noise were similar. If pushed, I think the Olympus has slightly less noise.
Raw Image Latitude
This was the biggest surprise in this comparison. When I post processed the RAWs and pushed the processing, the Canon files started to fall apart faster than the Olympus. When I lightened the shadows and added some sharpening, I noticed tiny white pixel-sized specs on the Canon photos at 100%. They showed up ISO 800 and got noticeably worse at ISO 1600. Luckily, these processing artifacts do not show at regular screen resolutions on a 27″ monitor, only when I pixel-peep at 100%. My Olympus photos were generally darker since I used primary ambient light with a touch of fill, I needed to brighten the photos a lot more. Even so, I noticed very little of these types of artifacts with the Olympus RAW file. Photos from both cameras were processed using Apple’s Aperture 3 software with Apple’s RAW converter for each camera.
I created nice looking photos with both cameras. And certainly the lens is important to the overall quality and capability of the cameras. But when you consider what the newest generation of Olympus Pens can do, it’s a real eye opener. Even though the E-PM2 is the entry-level model, it shares the same processor and processing engine as the flagship OMD E-M5. So this little camera is deceptively powerful.
As for the Canon, the 7D is now a 4-year-old camera. Perhaps it’s beginning to show its age, especially in the RAW processing and high ISO image quality. For Canon, the problem is their newer APS-C DSLRs are not much better than the 7D. Also, the 7D is still in the Canon lineup with no replacement. And what about the focusing speed and accuracy. Isn’t that what DSLRs are known for?
Even though the camera tech improves rapidly, I was surprised by the results. At Japan Nite, as the performances continued, I used the Canon less. I tucked it in my bag and had fun shooting with the small camera. I enjoyed the ergonomics but more importantly I was confident that I was getting great pictures.
UPDATE: As my friend Steven correctly points out that even at f1.4, the micro 4/3 format is not going to give you the extremely shallow DOF that the 7D or especially a full frame (35mm) camera will give you. The bigger the sensor (or film) the shallower DOF field that is possible at any given aperture or focal length.
Shallow DOF can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on what you are photographing and what you want to achieve. In this case, having a shallower DOF will have the advantage of blurring out any distracting background elements and focusing more attention on the subject.
Click on the photographs to see a larger image and hover over the photos to see the exposure detail.