OM-D  -v- "The Big Rig"

Uhh.... this just in...

....though rather belatedly. I am writing here on Sept 8, 2014, as I"ve just received a notification that somebody found this page. The information conveyed here is VERY out of date. Out of date to the point of complete obsolescence.

Because since this was first created (in the winter of 2013), I have sold ALL of my "big rig" Nikon gear (aka "the Anvil") and have converted completely to the Micro 4/3s (MFT) format - primarily in the form of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (with the 12-40 f/2.8 as my primary glass).

I have been very negligent in not writing more about this conversion - suffice it to say for now that with the addition of the E-M1 to the lineup, and with the addition of some fast prime lenses as well, I can now do everything with the Olympus that I could do with my Nikons.

I just don't have to lug around a pair of anvils any more.

If you want to know more, please contact me:

And if you still want to read the original, now woefully out of date article that appeared here, well... here it is:

Can a Micro 4/3rds Camera Hold Up to A DSLR in low/mixed light situations? 

Quite possibly... not.

As anybody reading this most likely knows by now (back-story here; previous reports here  and here) Ann and I equipped ourselves with a pair of of Olympus OM-D EM5 cameras for our trip to Scotland in October, 2012.  Considering the difference in size and weight compared to the DSLRs (my Nikon D300s and her Nikon D80, plus an array of lenses) that we would have had to lug around with us, we never   questioned the choice during the trip.  You can see samples of those results in the slide show to the right, and more here. 

As enamored as we are with the OM-D for travel and general purpose photography, there has been one application for which I have harbored some doubts that I finally got to test last week.  

I live in Nashville - Music City, USA - and one way I engage my interest in music is by shooting a fair amount of club/concert footage.   I have a Lightroom catalog devoted only to "Musicians," and that catalog has nearly 40,000 files in it (starting in 2003); I guess that qualifies as a "fair amount.' 

Shooting in clubs and concert halls has its own peculiar set of requirements.  Stage lights may seem bright to somebody on stage, but compared to natural  outdoor light the illumination is pretty dim, and typically requires high ISOs (1600-3200) and fast lenses.  I've tried shooting performance with slower lenses, like my Nikon 18-200 f3/5-5.6, but usually wind up with such slow shutter speeds that it's tough to get sharp shots of the performers.   The light is often a mix of incandescent and who-knows what (a lot of clubs are using LED stage lights these days... what is that?  Incandescent? Flourescent? None of the above?) so I use the "Auto White Balance" setting, and I try to get shutter speeds of no less than 1/30sec, preferably 1/90 to 1/125 or maybe higher (unless I'm deliberately going for some blurry effect, which I'm usually not). 

For the past  3+ years, I've been shooting club/concert still with a Nikon D300s.  I waited a long time to spring for a high-end, "big glass" (and big budget!) telephoto zoom lens; it was only a about a year and half ago that I finally got a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8.  And the first time I compared the results to my other lenses, I kicked myself for waiting so long.  These lenses are sharp and the colors are rich and true.  I still covet the next lens in the series, the Nikon 24-100 f2.8 "wide angle zoom," which is just as pricey as the telephoto zoom.   In the meantime I've been using my trusty Nikon 24mm f/2.8  prime if I need shots of an entire stage.  

There are "equivalent" lenses for the Micro 4/3rds format.  Panasonic makes a 12-35 f/2.8 and a 35-100 f/2.8, which, on the Olympus body with its much smaller sensor, are the focal length equivalent of the big Nikon glass.  

Assuming all else is equal, then the big differences boil down to size, weight, and cost - and the differences are considerable.

The Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 wide angle zoom weighs nearly 2 pounds, is 5" long and costs nearly $2,000; the equivalent Panasonic lens for the Olympus OM-D weighs only 10 ounces, is only 3" long and costs only $1,100.

The Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 telephoto zoom is a monstrous 3-1/3 pounds, 8" long and costs $2,400; the equivalent Panasonic lens weighs less than 13 ounces, is only 4" long, and costs about $1,500.   

So the considerably smaller lenses (in addition to the considerably smaller and lighter camera) weigh in at about a third to a half less, and cost about 1/3rd less than what the big glass weighs and costs.  So IF the quality of the images was also equal, or even nearly so, and if the shooting experience (i.e. shutter response, auto focus, etc), was similar enough... if I could get the same shots with the smaller, lighter, less expensive rig, then it's entirely possible that I could jettison my big guns and use the money to acquire the equivalent lenses for the Olympus.  

Unfortunately, that's a big IF.

First Night: The Oly/Pany Combo 

I'm fortunate that I'm not the only one in my circle of friends who's been bitten by the Micro 4/3rds bug.  My friend Julia purchased the Olympus OM-D on my recommendation for a trip to Europe during Christmas, and with the camera she picked up BOTH the Panasonic 12-35 f/2.8 AND the 35-100 f/2.8.  She loaned them to me for a couple of nights last week, and I finally got to test them in a club setting.  

The photos of guitarist Jonathan Brown and keyboard/vocalist Andrew Walesch in the slider above were shot at The Basement in Nashville - a venue about as well-lit as the name implies.  I used two OM-Ds, so that i could easily switch between the wide-angle zoom and the telephoto zoom;  For this room, I set both cameras at ISO 3200, shutter preferred at 1/60 and the resulting f/stops came in at 2.8 to 4.5.  At Julia's suggestion, I disabled the Image Stabilization in the camera in favor of the IS in the lenses, and used a single-image auto focus.  

At first glance, these photos are usable, particularly in a web setting like this (which is where most of my club photos wind up, though a couple have made it onto CD artwork).  But let's look at the detail, particularly the noise factor.  

Let's start with a closer look at this shot: 

This photo of Jonathan was shot with the 35-100 lens at 55mm; ISO 3200, 1/60 @ f/2.8.  The version above has been adjusted in Lightroom for  noise reduction.  Let's take a closer look at a portion of the image @ 100%: 
On the left, you see Jonathan's left hand, pretty much as the original RAW file came out of the camera.  On the right, as adjusted in Lightroom for Noise Reduction, with a Luminosity factor of 27.  Considering the ISO, the image is not too bad, and with the noise reduction is not altogether hateful.  But that's as good as it got the first night. 

Second Night: Let's Compare

The following night, I went to a show called Music City Roots, which is held each week at a venue called The Loveless Barn outside of Nashville; the program is simulcast on WRLT-FM in Nashville, and video is webcast and recorded - so the stage is pretty well lit.   I shot one batch at ISO 2500, and another at 1600.

The photos in the slider above - of host Jim Lauderdale and my new favorite band, The Troubadour Kings, was shot with the 12-25 f/2.8, at a variety of focal lengths, again using shutter priority at 1/60th and f-stops from f/2.8 to f3.5.

My first observation/conclusion from this set is that I do love not having a 'crop-factor' to deal with.  The focal length equivalent 24-70mm lens on my D300s would produce the crop-factor equivalent of 36-105mm.  With the 12-35mm on the OMD I got the true crop-factor equivalent of the 24-70mm - and the wider frame was great for shooting the entire stage.  

Now let's look at the shot of Jim Lauderdale at 1:1: 

On the left is the RAW file, right out of the camera, at 100%; on the right, the same image after having the Lightroom Noise Reduction tweaked to 40/50.  Judge for yourself: no, it's not "tack-sharp," but with the little bit of noise reduction, this is pretty acceptable.  

But this time, I brought not only the two OMDs with their Panasonic 12-35mm and 35-100mm zooms... this time I also lugged along the Nikon D300s with the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 combination telephoto zoom lens and anvil.  Must have been quite the sight with three cameras hanging around my neck and shoulders, and when the room started to fill up, it was no fund trying to get from one side of the stage to the other.

But I"m glad I made the effort, because this is where things start to lt get interesting.  

The shot on the left was taken with the OMD with the 35-100mm f/2.8 lens zoomed all the way in to 100mm; ISO 2500, 1/60 at f/4.0; the one on the right was taken with the Nikon D300s also at ISO 2500, 1/180 at f/2.8.

I notice two things right away.  The first, obviously, is the crop factor.  The OMD is framing at 100mm, the 35mm equivalent of 200mm.  The Nikon is framing at 200mm, which is the 35mm (full frame) equivalent of 300mm.  But the thing that really strikes me is the difference in the skin tones.  The skin color on the left is a nearly uniform "John Boehner orange" while the skin tone on the right is more nuanced in the stage light and a much more natural flesh tone.  Maybe the color on the left can be corrected with color temperature; this is just what came straight off the sensor onto the card.  But wait... there's more.  

Here, I think, is where the rubber hits the road... and in the case of the OMD, pretty well skids off.  On the left, the image from the OMD, at 100%, showing the fishy skin tone and - more to the point - the soft detail.  Look at the eyelashes.  Now look at the image on the right, from the Nikon "Big Rig" and you see not only a realistic, pale white-guy "studio tan," but you can just about count the individual eyelashes.  Now go back and try to do that with the OMD/Panasonic lens combination.  

Capturing The Moment

I said at the outset that I my concern with the OMD started around the issue of responsiveness.  The concern arose the first time I tried to use the OMD in a concert setting.  Granted, the camera was new to me and I was using slow lenses and slow shutter speeds, so the results were far less than satisfactory.  That's why I wanted to see what I would get with lenses I borrowed from Julia. 

Yes, I know the old saw is "the camera is an extension of the eye," but in truth it is even more so an extension of the hands.  Taking good photos depends not only on being able to see an image worth capturing, it also means being able get the impulses from you eye down the neural network into your hands and fingers, getting the frame composed, getting it in focus, and capturing the moment.  Time is of the essence.  

The simple fact is: the OMD made was not as responsive, not as easy to shoot with, as the Big Rig Nikon.  This was mostly due to two factors.

First, the matter of focus.  I had no trouble with the auto-focus in the OMD.  It was fast and reliable.  What I did have trouble with, though, was actually setting the auto focus point.  The problem is clearly illustrated in the comparison below: 

On the left is the back of the OMD; on the right the back of the D300s; both are equipped with the vertical grip/battery pack accessory.  With the OMD, there is just one set of focus setting buttons - the four buttons arrayed around the "OK" button.  They are small, and it can be very difficult to find the right button with even an average sized thumb.   

The Nikon, on the other hand, has TWO focus toggles and neither of them is broken into individual buttons.  There's a large  jog-wheel in the middle of the back, and a second jog button on the vertical grip itself.  They are both smooth and continuous.  And they fall exactly where your thumb falls whether you're holding the camera horizontally or vertically.   

The OMD fits compactly in your hand and, especially with the added vertical grip, quite comfortably.  But if you need to focus in a hurry, you're going to find the buttons hard to find.  And when you switch from horizontal to vertical, the buttons stay in the same place... but your hand moves, so, effectively, the buttons are now in a different place and you have to find them all over again.  And, more to the point, the orientation of the buttons doesn't change.  The button that you used to move the focus point up in horizontal mode, well, now you use that to move the focus point sideways to the left in vertical mode.  

And by the time you figure that out... you've lost the shot.

Second, there is the matter of what happens in the viewfinder when you trip the shutter.  

The OMD has an electronic viewfinder.  The good news there is that you are seeing what the sensor sees - unlike an SLR, where you see only what the mirror sees.  The upside of that feature is that you can the judge the exposure value on the fly.  This is particularly useful in these concert/club settings, where often the background is dark and the subject is brighly light in the foreground, causing the meter to over expose the subject.  I often set the exposure at -1/2 to -1-stop below the meter reading to compensate for the difference, and with the OMD, I can see pretty much exactly what I'm going to get each time I release the shutter. 

But the moment I do release the shutter... that's when things get dicey.   Because once the shutter on the OMD has been released, the image in the electronic viewfinder goes dark... and stays dark for a measurable fraction of a second.  If you're in burst mode, it keeps right on shooting, but you can no longer see the subject in the viewfinder.  If the subject moves during the burst when the viewfinder is dark, you've lost the shot.  

There is no such difficulty with the SLR.  When the shutter is released in an SLR, the viewfinder goes dark only for as long as the exposure time - a 30th, a 60th, a 90th of second... whatever it is.  It's less than the blink of an eye, and the image is restored.  If the subject moves, you see it, and move accordingly, no lost shots.  You may not see the exact exposure you're going to get, but if you set exposure value compensation for the conditions, you can readily make and further adjustments "in post." 


On the left, nearly 5 pounds and $4,000 of responsiveness; On the right, less than 2 pounds and $2,500 of almost but not quite. 

The photo to the right tells the tale.  

The Olympus is great for travel.  And I might consider getting the 12-35 f/2.8 lens to use for the wide-angle work in these club settings, because that would mean adding one lens to my existing arsenal and having the "full frame" wide angle effect.  But for shooting closeups of performers on stage, I'm sticking with my "Big Rig" for now.  Between the responsiveness in my hand and the resulting image quality, there really is no comparison.  The Big Rig wins in this taste test.

However, please don't construe this assessment as any kind of blanket dismissal of the OM-D or the M4/3rd platform.  I still think the format is great; I had nothing but praise for the OM-D when I reported on the detail it delivers in good light, or what sort of things you can do with the Art Filters.  

I mean only to report that for this kind of specialized situation, I'm not giving up my Nikons and big fast lenses.  

At least, not yet... 


Please share any thoughts or comments on either Facebook or the CohesionArts website.  Thanks! 

Posted by 

Paul Schatzkin

February 14, 2012