There are a number of articles I’ve read on the internet that attempt to make a comparison of Micro 4/3 to Full Frame. The majority of them were obviously written by proponents of Micro 4/3 as the underlying bias leans heavily to that format. There’s no denying, micro 4/3 has a lot going for it. It presents a very serious challenge to the APS-C format in terms of IQ and it would be wise for anyone considering a consumer level APS-C DSLR to also consider the m4/3 line-up as an alternative .
However, after owning and using an Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a couple of years along with a good selection of lenses as my travel photography solution that replaced a Nikon D7000, I have now traded it all in for a Full Frame Nikon D610. The reasons? Well, let’s look at the key arguments for and against each format and camera and I’ll attempt to explain my preferences and why. My experiences are primarily based on using a Nikon D800 and Olympus EM-5 for two months in New Zealand last year and just the EM-5 for 10 weeks in South America and Canada this year.
Now, to clarify one thing from the start. I am not stating here that “FF is better than Micro 4/3”. From a purely objective standpoint, there are, and always will be, pros and cons for each format. I am merely informing the reader why, after using Micro 4/3, I am returning to a Full Frame DSLR as a travel solution. The recent experiences of using the Olympus E-M5 as my sole travel camera made me realise what aspects of travel photography are most important to me and those aspects happen to be best suited to a Nikon D610 over an Olympus OM-D E-M5.
1.) Viewfinder (OVF versus EVF / LiveView versus LCD Touchscreen):
EVFs are getting significantly better than they were a few years ago. The Oly EM-1 EVF is class-leading but, however good EVFs may get, I’m pretty convinced I will always prefer viewing a more “natural” organic representation of what I’m going to shoot. It could be just a case of old habits die hard but, for me, it’s the difference between seeing through a window or seeing it on the TV – a totally different experience.
The EM-5’s LCD Touchscreen is nothing short of brilliant and it is one of the features I will miss the most. However, I almost invariably preferred using the EVF when outdoors, i.e. bringing my eye up to the camera. No matter how much technology they seem to incorporate in order to improve LCDs, they still remain hopeless for viewing in bright daylight, period.
Winner: FF DSLR
The design of a mirrorless camera gives it some serious benefits with regards to Autofocus over Single Len Reflex, especially in Single Servo mode. However, mirrorless has always fallen down when it has come to continuous AF performance. It certainly can’t compete with the big boys at the moment. Nikon D4S or Sony A7 for professional sports photography? No contest!
However, for the general enthusiast, mirrorless AF will provide more than adequate performance.
Winner: Micro 4/3 (just about)
3.) Ergonomics, Size & Weight:
One of the reasons I gave up completely on compacts is that they’re just too darned small and finicky. Yes, great for slipping into the pocket and catching that spontaneous moment in time but that can now be done by your average smartphone.
I like something that I can get a good grip on and feels good in the hand. Something that feels solid and well-made and I’m not having to use my fingernails to press any pin-head sized buttons or controls. Obviously, it’s no good being too big and heavy for a travel camera – the likes of the Nikon D4 fly out of the window but, in the D610, Nikon built one of the smallest and lightest FF DSLRs. With a 24-85mm VR lens fitted, it weighs in at around 1.2 Kg. Put the 50mm f1.8 prime lens on it and it’s just under 1 kg.
I found some buttons and controls on the EM-5 just too small and those are big minus points towards the overall handling of the camera. I could never seem to get a proper grip on the body, even with an HDL-6 vertical grip attached.
Winner: FF DSLR
Both formats have a great selection of lenses to choose from but each have their distinct benefits over the other. Micro 4/3 lenses, in general, are smaller and cheaper. FX lenses have a significant benefit when it comes to light gathering and DOF control. The fastest consumer micro 4/3 lens has a minimum aperture of f1.4, equivalent to f2.8 in 35mm terms. You can get Shallow DOF with the likes of Panasonic’s 25mm f1.4 and, certainly, with Olympus’s 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8 but the fastest zooms have a minimum aperture of f2.8. That’s equivalent to f5.6 in 35mm terms. Mmmm! Not so great.
Shallow DOF is a lot easier to accomplish with FX lenses and the extra light gathering ability provides a significant advantage in low-light performance. However, because the range of m4/3 lenses are so good, I’ll call this one a draw.
It’s arguable whether this should be considered a factor in this particular case because cost may not be important to some and it’s not an inherent quality of the system. It wasn’t too important a factor with me but, obviously, I did have a budget in mind. The Nikon D610 is one of the cheapest full-frame DSLRs on the market at £1,400. The Olympus EM-1 is £1,300 – not far behind.
6.) Image Quality:
Regardless of lens used and settings, I have always been able to tell the difference in quality between photos taken with my D800E and E-M5 and the D800E has always been the outright winner in my eyes. I’d probably be a bit miffed if it wasn’t as there could be over a couple of thousand pounds difference between the two systems with one of the pro lenses attached to the Nikon.
There’s just something about FF image quality that sets it apart from the rest and it’s not just to do with resolution. Contrast, colour, clarity, texture, sharpness, etc. all seem on a higher level out of the camera. There’s a certain “pop” to the images that other formats just don’t possess and that always bugged me when using the EM-5. I kept thinking, how would these photos look taken with a Full Frame SLR?
Winner: FF DSLR
7.) ISO / Low-Light Performance:
The clear winner again here is FF. Sparing you the technical details of which can be found on many other sites around the internet, the full frame sensor runs rings around the m4/3 sensor in this aspect. Above ISO 3200, noise will become an issue with m4/3. It will also be harder to deal with in post processing. Images from a full frame, in general, will be usable OOC up to ISO 6400. They are also more responsive to noise reduction techniques in PP.
One of the main benefits of a DSLR like the Nikon D800 is the ability to crop extensively and retain resolution. I continue to be amazed by how extensively I can crop images from this camera and still end up with a usable picture. It won’t be as much with the D610 but I am getting 24 megapixels to play around with as opposed to 16.
At the end of the day, it’s each to their own preference. My likes, dislikes could be as different as the next photographer along but, hey, that’s what makes the world go round. One has to try different cameras in order to find out what’s right for you. I know I will feel happier with a D610 slung around my neck than a smaller mirrorless system. Here’s to the next adventure!