What camera to buy – Olympus or Nikon?
What camera to buy? If you ever thought of buying a DSLR camera then you probably asked yourself this question. There are so many different brands out there with different prices and they all come with a bag of options. It just seems difficult to make the right choice nowadays.
Myself I’ve been shooting with an Olympus E-520 and a Nikon D700 for a while now. Over time I got to know these camera’s pretty well. So I thought of sharing some of my findings that might help you decide which camera might be your thing. And yes, I know, the E-520 and D700 are in a different league. You can’t compare them. Of course the D700 is the better camera. It costs 5 times as much as well. But that’s not the point. I just want to share some characteristics that are brand specific. I’m not going to compare these two models.
For instance, the Olympus DSLR cameras are what they call four-thirds cameras. Why? That has to do with the size of the sensor. The Olympus sensor in these cameras is 18×13.5mm. That gives you a photo ratio of…right, four by three. The sensor size in the D700 is 36mmx24mm, almost four times as big and has a three by two ratio. Why do we bother about sensor size? Well, for starters, it determines the size of your camera and of your lenses. Four-thirds cameras in general are smaller and lighter than cameras with larger sensors. But also the lenses are a lot smaller, especially the zoom lenses. It does make a difference when you want to drag it up a mountain.
On the other hand, sensor size determines image quality. I’ll explain. The E520 has around 10 Megapixels crammed on a relatively small sensor. The D700 has 12 Megapixels on a sensor four times the size. Therefore each pixel point on the Olympus sensor has to be around four times smaller. The importance is that smaller pixel points compromise on image quality. This means that an image taken with an Olympus four-thirds camera will be much more sensitive to noise compared to cameras with bigger sensors. Photos taken in low light situations are going to have noise. That’s probably an issue if you’re a landscape photographer who likes to shoot early morning or late evening. And don’t let the salesman fool you when he says you can control noise with noise filters. He’s right, you can do that, but cranking up the camera’s noise filter will reduce your image quality dramatically. You will loose sharpness and detail. I’m just switching the noise filter off altogether when I shoot with my Olympus. I prefer to control the noise filter in post process. Although the E520’s ISO goes up to 1600, I find that if I shoot at more than ISO200, I get annoyed by the level of noise in the images. I don’t know why they put the higher ISOs in there. You can’t really use them.
Because of the smaller sensor, the dynamic range of the four-thirds camera is also smaller. That means that the Olympus will get into difficulty when you try to shoot in high contrast situations. That translates in images with blown out highlights and black shadows. Not nice.
Does that mean you shouldn’t go Olympus? Absolutely not. It still remains a great camera. You just need to be aware of its limitations. What am I using it for? Mainly for close-up and macro photography in the studio. Why? In the studio I can control the lighting. So I can stay at ISO100 without having to worry about noise. Also, it has a brilliant 50mm f2.0 macro lens that comes at a reasonably good price. It’s tack sharp, and easy to focus, provided you do it manually. But that’s something you should do anyway in macro photography (close-up sample). Another strong point is that the camera has a great and easy to use live view. It shows depth of field and allows you to focus while zoomed in 10x. That comes in really handy for close up photography. I find the Olympus live view much easier to work with than that of Nikon. I don’t really use the Olympus for other studio work. That’s because the auto-focus is unreliable in low light situations, as is the case in a studio. That wouldn’t matter if you’re shooting pictures of your kids. But when you have a client in front of you it can get quite embarrassing when they see you struggling with a lens that doesn’t focus. Therefore in low light situations I will use my Nikon, which has a superb auto-focus.
I also use the Olympus for outdoor photography, but only when there’s sufficient light. Otherwise I’ll run into noise problems. I like the performance of the 11-22mm wide angle lens, and it’s an easy camera to carry. The fact that I can go less wide than with the Nikon doesn’t really bother me (because of the crop factor of 2x, an 11-22mm lens on an Olympus corresponds to an 22-44mm on a full frame sensor. See here for more on crop factors). Some say that’s a disadvantage if you’re shooting landscapes. If I want to go really wide, I shoot a panorama. It’s so easy in the latest version of Photoshop to stitch a panorama together.
I use my Olympus for:
– macro & close up photography
– nature and landscape photography when sufficient light
I use the Nikon for
– portrait studio photography
– indoor and street photography
– nature and landscape in dim light
So in short, if you’re looking for an all round snap-shot camera that gives more flexibility than a point and shoot, Olympus is a good buy. If you’re a more demanding shooter, or you’re planning of becoming one, you’ll quite soon hit the limitations of the E-520 and find that you can only use it for certain jobs. In that case I’d go for Nikon.