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.

Nikon

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.

Olympus

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.

Others

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.