Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year-end Camera Purchase Cliffhanger

Nikon D600 with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR zoom 
Olympus OM-D E-M5 with M.Zuiko 12-50mm zoom and HLD-6 grip system
I have been holding back purchasing replacement equipment for my stolen 4:3rds gear for quite some time. I wanted to wait as long as possible before making any kind of commitment to any camera, let alone a given vendor or product line. I wanted to be sure I was making the right purchase. To that end I've gone through a considerable amount of foot work and research, pinging a number of knowledgeable folks, at times pushing the limits of friendship with endless questions (sorry, Matthew).

I have yet to make the purchase, but I've narrowed my choices down to just two cameras, the Nikon D600 and the Olympus OM-D E-M5.


For some really odd reasons, Nikon sellers (B&H and Adorama, just to name two) have been selling the D600 body with the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR zoom for a smidge less than $2,000, the same price the D600 body only was first introduced at. It's like getting a free lens! What's not to like?

I'm well aware of the admonition to not look a gift horse in the mouth, but I do it anyway. My concern is with the bundled zoom. I've researched the bundled lens and find it's a nearly all-plastic utility zoom with a metal mount. It appears to be of similar (if not matching) mechanical quality to Olympus' digital Zuiko 4:3rds standard grade lenses. The Nikkor zoom comes equipped with three aspherical and one ED element (16 elements in 11 groups). It sells separately for $600. It isn't the lens I would chose to go with this body, but then, free is free. Ideally if I had the choice I would have selected the D600 for say $1,500 (subtracting the cost of the bundled zoom) and then purchased either a Nikkor 28mm or 35mm prime to go with the body. B&H tries to sweeten the base deal a bit with several "mega" bundles that include the body, lens, and minor peripherals, such as a Rode shootgun mic with dead cat cover and SDHC card, or body, lens, and an inexpensive tripod and SDHC card. I can't help but wonder why Nikon is making these kinds of deals. I've never seen quite this kind of dealing from Nikon before.


And that leads me to the Olympus E-M5. What I'm considering is the E-M5 body and 12-50mm kit lens, plus the HLD-6 grip kit. That total is about $1,600. All the Olympus deals have expired, so I'm paying full price for all the gear. If I'd taken advantage of the earlier deals, I could have gotten the grip kit for a lower price, or possibly free (the beginning of 2012 when it was first released). But I held back, starting with the reason that I'd had a personal financial issue wipe out my pre-order fund. And yet, even though it's full price, it's still $400 cheaper than the D600 plus lens deal. That's enough to almost pay for a decent µ4:3rds lens, such as the M.Zuiko 60mm macro.


As for other options such as Canon, Pentax and Sony, well, I've never been particularly keen on Canon or Pentax, and my strong desire that seemed to develop for the Sony α77 and α99 has faded rather quickly. Fuji and Samsung just never seemed to catch on with me. Even now, writing this, I have to stop and remember who they are and that they're even making cameras. Especially Samsung.

What Matters

Ignoring price, what matters to me?
  • Sensor. The sensor in the D600 has four times the area of the E-M5. That's four times the light gathering power of the D600 over the E-M5, or any other 4:3rds sensors. Since we're considering "cropped" sensors, it's also 2 1/2 times the area of every APS-C sensor out there. Getting back to the E-M5's sensor, the DxOMark for the D600 is 94 (third highest) while the E-M5, while a respectable 71 (considering that the E-3 was 20 points down at 51), is still a staggering 23 points lower than the D600. What's more significant is the exposure range of the two sensors; the D600 has 14.2 EVs while the E-M5 has 12.3 EVs. The exposure range of the D600 is a practical 2EV greater then the E-M5 (at least on DxOMark), which at base ISO is what I care for in a sensor more than anything else. Combined with 14 bits of information, I have enough information in both the highlights and the shadows to pull detail back into a given photo (on a case-by-case basis). You'll note I've said nothing about pixel resolution. As far as I'm concerned I see no real difference between 16MP (Olympus) and 24MP (Nikon) at the image sizes I like to work with, either printed or electronic. If I were to make a decision strictly on image quality then there'd be no question: chose Nikon over Olympus.
  • Lenses. There's no getting around the fact that on the surface the Nikon mount has far more lenses available for it than any other mount today except perhaps Canon. But here's the part about the large lens catalog many need to understand. By the time you weed out older versions no longer manufactured, duplicates of existing versions that vary only by minimal features, and marginal quality or use lenses, then everybody's lens catalogs get pretty close to one another in what they have to offer for my use. Nikon and Canon offer some highly specialized lenses that aren't available in the Olympus catalog (and consequently cost quite a pretty penny), but if you don't need such specialization then the Olympus catalog can satisfy your needs as well as Canon and Nikon. To me, the lenses are as key as the sensor. I kept my original 4:3rds bodies for as long as I did because of the incredible quality of the Zuiko 12-60mm and 50-200mm high grade zooms. Having those zooms stolen hurt more than the 4:3rds bodies they were mounted on. As far as I'm concerned those zooms have not been matched in any catalog to my satisfaction, not even in the current µ4:3rds catalog.
  • Size and Ergonomics. I have been using small mirrorless cameras for some time now. I was pushed exclusively to mirrorless with the theft of my primary 4:3rds system back in early August of this year. I was already using the Pens primarily, with only an occasional reach for the E-3. When the E-1 and E-3 were pinched I used the Pens exclusively even though I still have another E-1 and several 4:3rds lenses. I used the Pens because they were exceptionally light and strong, and compared to the E-3, produced photos of equal (or at times, better) quality. Going back to a larger camera like the D600 is going to be like going back to an E-3, or E-5. That is offset by the rich external controls of the larger camera body. The Pens are heavily menu-centric, even the E-P2. The D600, as was the E-3 and E-1, are not. Their most useful controls are literally at your fingertips. In spite of that, I find the Pen design more conducive to my photography. It's why I was pretty heavily engaged with my Pens before the robbery of the larger cameras, and why I had so much I could immediately switch to after the robbery.
  • Existing Equipment. In spite of my losses I still have three 4:3rds lenses (30mm, 50mm macro, 9-18mm) that can be used with adapters, as well as a 14mm, 17mm, 20mm, 25mm, 45mm, 14-42mm zoom, and 40-150mm µ4:3rds lenses. I have a pair of FL-50R flashes that can be used with my existing Pens (E-PL1 and E-PL2) as well as the E-M5. The Nikon zoom would essentially cover the µ4:3rds equivalent focal lengths from 14mm (28mm) to 45mm (90mm) and the 14-42mm zoom.
  • Battery Life. There's no getting around that a smaller camera like the Pens have smaller batteries which lead to fewer exposures/charge. Add to that the live view required by the E-M5, and you wind up with a situation where you have to carry backup batteries vs you can get through the entire day on a single charge with the D600 (at least for my kind of photography). The fewer bits you have to carry with you, the few things you have to manage, especially when tramping around urban areas for long periods like I did last year in Toronto.
Looking more critically at the new sensor in the E-M5,  it should be noted that it's close enough in performance to APS-C sensor cameras (D7000, DxOMark overall score 81, Pentax K-5 II, DxOMark overall score 82, Canon 7D, DxOMark overall score 66) as to not really matter for the kind of photography I do. It's one reason why I tend to ignore just about everyone else with APS-C cameras.

The biggest impediment to me making a final decision is how much money I would sink into either camera. The theft of my older equipment six months on still bothers me. I still have that sense of violation, and a fear that has developed about re-investing all over again. I'm not a working pro and I take a different view of my camera equipment expenditures. The more I spend on it, the dearer it becomes to me. No matter how hard I try I can't shake those feelings, and I probably never will.

I have until tomorrow to decide which, if either, I'll get. Until then I'm headed off to sleep on it.

Update 30 December

As usual I waited too long for the Nikon deal. It ended Saturday the 29th 3am EST (midnight west coast time). So I missed The Deal. Now I go back to thinking about the E-M5 in its various combinations, or "moving down" slightly to the E-PL5. Or maybe not; the "articulating" rear screen is atrocious in use.


  1. I'm pretty much torn between the same two choices. Which makes these choices even more difficult, for me:

    - I personally don't have a "normal" fixed focal length lens for my Pen, and I'd be very interested in getting the PanaLeica 1.4/25mm together with an OM-D. Together with that battery grip, that would make roughly 2000 Euros. For the same price, I could get a D600 body and an 1.8/50mm G (or for a bit more, the 1.4 D or G type). Which is the better camera? The D600 without any doubt. The better lens? That PanaLeica. And then...
    - I'm sure I'd really miss the IBIS of those Olympus cameras. With the combination like mentioned above, I'd end up with a non-stabilized solution for Nikon vs. a very nicely stabilized one on the OM-D. So when I'd have to use ISO 800 on the Olympus, it would be maybe ISO 3200 on the big gun - and while that not only "stabilizes" camera shake, it's also good for freezing the action, with image quality maybe about equal (except for resolution, which is hard to figure out because of the differences in those lenses).

    So the question turns out to be like: would I go for ultimate image quality (Nikon), or a much lighter and smaller design (Olympus)? Hard to figure out, really. You can't get that "full frame" look with the Olympus, but on the other hand, even a "small kit" with only 28, 50, and 85 (or 100 macro) primes would be much bigger and heavier with that Nikon...

    I will follow your choice and experience with great interest. And let me wish you a great 2013 already. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks, Wolfgang. You points are also important to me. That issue about lens size hits home with me. I have small Olympus film zooms (75-150, 65-200) that look like they would fit nicely on the E-M5. But then they're manual focus, all metal, and tightly engineered. The curse of digital is this incredible bifurcation in sizes and overall very high cost.

  2. Both cameras are capable of great image quality, so ultimately it's you the photographer who makes the difference and not DxOMark scores. Besides, in 12-24 months there will be other products on the market that will make both of these seem like yesterday's technology, if technical specs are what one focusses on.

    Ask yourself this. Which camera, when you pick it up, makes you most excited about getting out and making photographs? Which feels most comfortable in your hands?

    If you still can't decide then try this. Toss a coin, heads for Nikon, tails for Olympus. If you're in any way disappointed with the way the coin falls you'll know which one you really want...

    1. You're right about the relatively short time it will take to make today's purchases seem like "yesterday's technology," and that's what I find particularly annoying. To drop considerable cash on what is still an evolving product like like an expensive digital camera, where you have to buy an entire new camera the next go-around, as apposed to a new type of film. I use the DxOMark scores as a part of the decision process. As a user of the E-3 (and earlier E-1) I learned long ago not to get upset over "low" scores; I learned to use those cameras appropriately and got great results. But I can see how the DxOMark scores can be a predictor of certain types of performance, especially at the sensor level. As far as I'm concerned there's no need for anyone to get bent out of shape over where their camera ranks. Getting upset over DxOMark scores is like getting upset over horsepower differences between cars. My Prius has a low horsepower engine, but it's more than adequate for the type of driving I do. Besides, I appreciate getting 55MPG on average out of that car, which is far more important to me than how fast it can go with a big engine.

  3. I moved from an E-5 to an E-M5 and thankfully borrowed the 12-50mm before I bought, although its a really convenient lens with macro abilities, I was sorely disappointed in its performance against the pictures I had taken with my 14-54Mk1 on the E-5. My solution was to splash out on the Panasonic 12-35mm. And now I have a Panasonic 45-200 which shows just how good the Olympus 50-200 was. So I bought an Olympus 75mm - that is a wonderful lens.
    I seriously suggest you try some test pictures with the D600 with that kit zoom before you purchase, my prior experience with kit zooms on the big players demonstrate just how poorly they serve their consumer customer base with poor quality glass.

    Happy New Year

    1. I've heard more complaints about the 12-50mm, most of them centering around sharpness (the apparent lack thereof) and the very slow maximum f-stop (f/6.3) at 50mm. But it does have a singular characteristic that makes it worth considering: dust- and splash-proof build like the E-M5. It is unfortunate that Olympus has not seen the need to re-design some of their 4:3rds high grade environmentally sealed lenses for µ4:3rds uses, such as the 12-60mm f2.8-4 zoom and the 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 zoom. That, and the fact that their more expensive primes (specifically the 12mm and 75mm) aren't environmentally sealed at those prices.

  4. Bill... did I miss something or have you held both cameras in your hands and played with them a bit? I wouldn't buy before I did. And one other point: You don't sound like you're really ready to buy right now. Your hesitation and inaction is a decision in and of itself. That's not a criticism, mind you. I have observed the same behavior in myself at times. As you say, you're still bothered by the theft. If you can get by a while longer with the gear you have, maybe you shouldn't be pressing this purchase right now.

    1. I have held both, at least the bodies. But I have made a purchase decision, and it satisfies the fear of loss by cutting the purchase down to the absolute minimum. I'll have more later.

  5. You dodged a bullet with missing the "Deal" on the Nikon D600! I owned the camera and lens from B&H for almost a month at the full original price. After 2 weeks of continuous use, I had an unbelievable dust and oil problem on the sensor. I had only the one kit lens and it never was off. The crap was inside from the manufacturer. I tried contacting Nikon on the website and after 7 days, they emailed me to just ship it to them and they will look at it. There is NO Service with Nikon! I called B&H and told them about the problem. They quickly emailed me a free UPS label and told me to send the kit back to them. Within 3 days, I got an email and B&H returned my total purchase to my Mastercard. I will always be a client of B&H. I am very soured on Nikon. I bought the Sony NEX with the kit zoom 16-50mm and am pleasantly surprised after a big trip out to New Mexico and plenty of Missouri and Midwest photos with this little machine. I don't care for the power zoom but the lens is very sharp. So, I will keep the Sony kit and keep an I on bigger sensor equipment in the future months. Enjoy your OM-D - a much wiser choice than the Nikon Dust Vacuum!


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