Switching from Nikon to Olympus: Part 1 – Isn’t Micro Four Thirds a Toy format?

February 8th, 2019

Though I’ve not been a very regular blogger, I have done a decent job of documenting my various photography gear related changes here since my first DSLR, a Nikon D40, back in 2006. From that first DSLR, through my foray into 35mm film cameras, medium format, and the various other DSLRs I moved to along the way, those milestones have been written about here. And, with the exception of the medium format gear, all of that equipment has always been from Nikon.

Perhaps to my detriment, I’ve always been 100% loyal to Nikon. SLRs, DSLRs, lenses and accessories, I always bought Nikon gear. To a certain extent this stems from the idea that it makes sense to shoot the same brand of camera as your group of friends, which served me well; It was great to be able to share around lenses/gear as needed.

On the flip side though, Nikon has never made APS-C lenses a priority and as they fall further behind with, to their mind, their more important full frame equipment, their DX lenses have really suffered. When Nikon released their first DSLRs, like the D1 and D2 series of cameras, they did make some inroads with professional quality DX lenses. Since those initial releases though, they have not updated or refreshed those lenses and major features are lacking like VR and newer glass coatings. As I was rebuilding my gear a couple years ago around the Nikon D500, their high-end sports and wildlife camera, I had zero on brand options for higher end glass. Since the reason I bought the D500 was to minimize weight, without sacrificing camera features, buying their full frame lenses wasn’t an option. Their weight, size, and price are just ridiculous. Have you seen some of the glass they announced for their mirror-less Z Series cameras? Sure, the camera is a bit smaller, but the lenses are bigger!

Enough is enough. I want a smaller & lighter setup, access to stunning lenses, and a company committed to a system with the innovation to show for it. The hunt was on!

I did a quick pass of all the camera brands I could think of. Fuji, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, Olympus, etc., and did a quick scan of their current range of gear to see what I could find. Fuji has a developing business in APS-C sensor cameras, but lenses were still very large, and expensive. Canon has a LOT of product lines. They do offer a smaller line of mirror-less cameras but they have not made it a priority to release high quality glass. After some deeper looking, it felt to me like Nikon’s approach to APS-C, a second class citizen. Sony is a very popular brand these days, but I’m not willing to purchase, and lug around, huge full frame lenses. No viable options worth the hassle of changing systems.

At this point, I had more or less decided that where I was with the gear I already owned was where I had to be. There was no better options. The only other option I had was micro four thirds, and no one serious shoots that toy format.

All of this was happening toward the end of 2018 and as family events approached, and evenings spent walking around some local cities, I found myself deciding not to take my D500 and a 35mm prime lens with me. Too much weight. Too much hassle. The resulting pictures were almost never worth the trouble of carrying around even just the D500 with a 35mm prime, let alone my full kit. I could have shot more, and better, images on my iPhone.

Ok. It’s time for drastic change. My gear is officially holding me back.

After years of being in the camp of people who looked down on micro four thirds, the attractiveness of a smaller and lighter kit of gear was enough of a draw now for me to give the system a little more consideration. The knee jerk reaction for most people, myself included, was that the tiny sensor was useless at higher ISOs and not worth considering. I did some searching around on Flickr for higher ISO images and nothing I saw was alarming, so I kept digging. While my Nikon D500 could shoot at ISO 1.6 million, even by ISO 6400 the images were pretty noisy. The images I found on Flickr for the OM-D EM-1 Mark II certainly didn’t look any worse.

Next was to look into the lens options, and how they compared to Nikon’s lenses. For weight reasons, my current Nikon lens line up included some primes, but was mostly amateur zoom lenses. Image quality was fine, but AF speed is slower then with pro lenses and they aren’t built to the same standard as pro gear or weather sealed. After some web searches I came across FourThirds.org, which has a pretty complete list of available micro four thirds lenses.

I started looking around on pricing for the same quality of lens as I had with Nikon and was a bit confused by the price. They were very very inexpensive. I did a quick look around for lens reviews and found results inline with the like lenses I had on Nikon. Not perfect lenses, definitely had their faults, but workable.

Ok, so how about the higher end Olympus Pro lenses then?

This is where things got interesting. For, relatively, short money I could seriously upgrade my quality of lens without having to sacrifice by taking on a lot of weight. At this point, my thinking is that I can protect myself a bit from the noise of the camera sensor by shooting with wider apertures. Trading my F/3.5-5.6 zooms for constant aperture F/2.8 zooms would make a big impact on keeping my ISOs lower when shooting.

Ok, so I’m working my way toward starting to maybe consider micro four thirds as my next camera system.

The next hurdle, for me, is AF. My Nikon D500 was very sure-footed in terms of auto focus. My lenses weren’t the fastest at focusing, but it never hunted around and it locked on and held focus without issue. Always. I won’t get down into the weeds too much here, but DSLRs use a dedicated system for finding focus, called phase detection, and mirror-less cameras, generally speaking, use the image sensor to find focus with a system called contrast detection. DSLRs that have live view and video modes use this contrast detection system for focus in those modes. Both systems have their positive aspects, and negative aspects. (You can click through here to a site that breaks this down in detail.)

For tracking focus of moving objects though, phase detection is important because using that system the camera knows if it needs to focus closer or further away, and by how much. Then it very quickly snaps the lens to that focus distance. With contrast detection the camera only knows it’s not in focus and has to hunt in and out to figure out how to get in focus. If a person is running toward, or away from you, phase detect focus is what you need. It’s an area of very active development for the mirror-less vendors, but only Olympus offers it in micro four thirds, but using some special, extra, sensors embeded into their image sensor. So, that narrows down my camera choices. The other micro four thirds vendor, Panasonic, doesn’t have this feature and has announced they are not pursuing it.

Ok, so I’ve identified a camera manufacturer I need to look more deeply into. And, since Olympus and Panasonic are working in tandem on the micro four thirds format, two major manufactures of lenses, as well as a myriad of other third party makers.

The next step in this journey is to get my hands on some of this gear and see for myself what it can, or can’t do. The only way to know for sure if this kind of change is going to work is to rent the gear, and use it like I normally use my gear.

We’ll dig into that in Part 2 of this series, and thankfully, that’ll even include some images instead of just a massive wall of boring text!

-Topslakr

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