Full-frame or Micro four-thirds… or Bust?

Camera Bag
My camera bag. Shot with D7000 in very difficult lighting (I’ve pulled in masses of shadow and highlight detail from the RAW).

My current camera bag is pretty hefty. It’s the size of a large laptop bag, divided into compartments and pretty much full with two Nikon bodies (D5000 and D7000), and five lenses (35mm f1.8, 18-200mm, 11-16mm, 70-300mm, and a Lensbaby Composer). There are a few other small items, such as an SB-400 flash and an IR remote shutter release. Sometimes I carry a compact tripod. The D5000 usually has the 35mm or the 18-200 and sits in the “quick access” compartment — the D7000 is barely able to pass through quick-access compartment’s opening.

God Rays
God Rays on my office roof. D5000 35mm f1.8. Guess I should have used my lens hood.

If I were to rank the lenses in my order of preference, it would be:

  • 35mm (also great for my daughters, since they don’t know how to deal with zooming)
  • 70-300mm
  • 11-16mm (I have no clue how to use this lens, but it is great fun)
  • 18-200mm (even though it’s second from the bottom, it’s a damn fine lens)
  • The Lensbaby is a stupid toy.

I’m not that serious a photographer — I don’t need a “backup body”, but I don’t tend to sell my old stuff so it just accumulates. Even so, the D5000 is hardly the bulkiest item in the pack, and I really like it, especially for odd-angle shots. Also, my daughters can manage the D5000’s body (kind of) but the D7000 is just a bit too big and heavy for them. Also, I don’t want them to drop it.

Romilly using the D5000
Romilly using the D5000 (with 35mm f1.8). Shot with the D7000.

So, I’ve been sorely tempted by Micro four-thirds, and having seen several Olympus OM-D E-M5’s in the “wild”, they’re very small, neat, attractive, and apparently well-made cameras. And they’re tiny. The idea of switching to M43 has become very tempting. I even resigned myself to an EVF.

Bridge Support
This photograph was shot with the D5000 — two generations behind and half the sensor size of the D600 — using the “mediocre” Nikon 18-200mm VR zoom (at 200mm). The D5000 has a DxOmark sensor score of 72, vs. 71 for the OM-D E-M5.

So: how much will it cost to switch? Let’s start with a “fast prime” system, since fast primes are what makes Micro four-thirds so compelling.

  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 $999
  • Zuiko 12mm f2 $800
  • Panasonic (Leica) 25mm f1.4 $540
  • Zuiko 75mm f1.8 $900
  • Total $3240

Not bad. When I mentioned this to a colleague who is also an avid photographer, he said “wow, about the price of an FX body”. My thoughts exactly.

Let’s compare the cost for Nikon.

  • Nikon D600 $2100
  • Nikon 24mm f2.8 AF-D $360
  • Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D $330
  • Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-G $500
  • Total $3290

Let that sink in for a second. A D600 with three very credible primes costs a total of $50 more than a similar Olympus / Panasonic system.

Seagull
Seagull photographed with D5000 and 18-200mm lens (at 200mm). I haven’t included a 100% crop, but it is seriously sharp.

Clearly, this is going to be a lot bulkier than the Micro four-thirds option, but it will be much smaller than my current DX kit and, frankly, pretty awesome. It actually makes simply going for a D800 (with the same set of lenses) seem like a pretty reasonable idea.

While we’re at it, here’s the cost of the equivalent Canon system.

  • Canon 6D $2100
  • Canon 20mm f2.8 $490 (the 24mm f2.8 is twice the price and not especially well-reviewed – go figure)
  • Canon 50mm f1.4 $360
  • Canon 85mm f1.8 $370
  • Total $3320

That’s not much more.

You’d think that for fast zooms the advantage would be more decidedly in favor of Micro Four-Thirds, but not really.

Certainly the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 zoom is $1100 is far cheaper than $1900 for the 24-70mm f2.8 Nikon (and even more for its Canon counterpart). But there’s no f2.8 ultra-wide zoom for M43, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 is $900 versus $1300 for the far more versatile Nikon 16-35mm f4 (and $850 for the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8). Finally, the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 isn’t available yet but Amazon has it listed for $1500 — less than the $2400 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, but more than the $1000 Nikon 80-200mm (without VR).

So, M43 comes to $3500 versus $3750—$5600 for Nikon FX depending on your choices, but no matter which options you take on the Nikon side you end up with better glass and more DOF control. The M43 options are far less bulky, though.

But there’s no way I’m going to buy $3500 or more worth of lenses, and certainly not all at once.

Cheetah Cub
Cheetah Cub — early morning at the Smithsonian National Zoo. (Woefully underexposed. I had “bracketing” switched on and didn’t realize it immediately.)

Finally, I like to have a long telephoto lens and the options for Micro Four-Thirds are actually quite depressing. The two longest lenses are the Panasonic 100-300mm (200-600mm equivalent) f4-5.6 which is pretty poor and doesn’t focus close at all. Then there’s the Olympus 75-300mm (150-600mm equivalent) which is a bit sharper, focuses somewhat closer, but is slow (f4.8-6.7) and $900. Now, it’s pretty hard to find inexpensive lenses beyond 300mm for full-frame DSLRs, but the IQ of even a cropped image from the FX camera will tend to exceed that of a M43 camera and it will be easier to frame the shot. (A 400mm lens on an FX camera cropped to APS-C is effectively 600mm.) The Nikon 80-400mm is around $1700, but the Sigma 150-500mm is around $1100 and is better regarded than the M43 options.

Butterfly
Butterfly at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. D7000 with 18-200mm at 200mm.

I should also add that the Olympus has in-body image stabilization, whereas the D600 doesn’t and neither do any of the primes listed. Even so, the Nikon is a freaking FX camera with a DxO sensor score of 94 and a giant 100% coverage optical viewfinder. And judging by how often I end up resorting to the 18-200mm for difficult shots, I’ll probably end up getting either the 28-300mm or the 24-120mm Nikons, and — again — the Micro four-thirds equivalents are not inspiring.

Quick Dismissal of the Other Options

Fujifilm XE-1 and Olympus OM-D E-M5
The Fujifilm XE-1 is a handsome beast and comparable in size to the OM-D E-M5.

Probably my favorite alternative is the Fujifilm XE-1.

  • XE-1 Body $1000
  • 18mm f2 lens $520
  • 35mm f1.4 lens $520
  • 60mm f2.4 lens $600
  • Total $2640

I think it’s pretty astonishing that an XE-1 system (or an X-Pro1 system for that matter) ends up being considerably cheaper than the comparable M43 system.

The problem is that there’s not much more to the lens range (and no serious telephotos for the foreseeable future, to begin with), autofocus is the weakest feature (and I have high-speed twins), and RAW-processing remains an issue. No question the cameras look great and Fujifilm is definitely making great choices in terms of lens rollout (compare it to Nikon 1!) but in the end I think it’s just too limited (and then there’s the whole EVF thing). I guess the X-Pro1 has an optical viewfinder (and I cut my teeth on rangefinder-style 35mm cameras) but do I really want parallax and glowing crop lines?

There’s always Leica. Haha. Not bloody likely.

The Panasonic GH-3 looks like a great body, but in the end it has the same pros and cons and will probably be more expensive than the OM-D E-M5.

The Sony A99 is the ugliest damn thing I’ve ever seen, costs almost as much as the D800, uses that accursed translucent mirror technology, and has a borked lens selection. Also, I’ve been burned by both Minolta and Sony in the past. On the other hand, the RX-1 is almost the camera I was pleading for in Full Frame or Bust, but it’s also $3k, has a focal length I don’t care for,  an orange ring with advertising on it, and no viewfinder. The sample shots I’ve seen on dpreview aren’t exactly tack sharp either.

Benches

So, despite everything, it looks like Nikon (or perhaps Canon) wins this round. Once you realize that you can turn a D600 into a complete FX system for about $1200 it simply makes all the other options seem ridiculous. The only real question is whether to upgrade to the D600 or wait for a successor with built-in GPS and WiFi (or a successor to the 6D with a 100% viewfinder and — hopefully — a better sensor).

Addendum

I should really cost the Sony NEX system as an option.

  • NEX-6 Body $850, but I’d be inclined to pay an extra $150 for the folding 16-50mm “power zoom” kit lens. (The NEX-7 is $1200 for the body; I don’t care for the $1350 kit lens option.)
  • 16mm f2.8 Prime (and it’s a pancake) — $250
  • 35mm f1.8 Prime — $450
  • 50mm f1.8 Prime — $300
  • And there’s a 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom — $350
  • Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 6 and three primes — $1850
  • Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 7 and three primes — $2200
  • Add the compact zoom and telephoto zoom — $2350

Perhaps I should stop dismissing Sony’s NEX cameras out of hand. The lens selection remains limited, but it’s less limited than Fuji’s and they’ve got their bases covered now (there’s even a 10-18mm ultra-wide zoom now), and Sony has by far the best video capability (60p) along with every gimmicky feature you can think of.

Full frame or bust

Rollei 35
Rollei 35 (image from cameraquest.com)

I thought this point (already made in an update to my Low Noise Camera post) was worth emphasizing: in 1966, Rollei released a pocketable “full frame” 35mm camera with a sharp 40mm f2.8 lens. (The Rollei 35 is still being used actively and examples in good condition are selling for well over $200 on eBay.) Given the processing capabilities of the iPhone, there’s no question the supporting electronics and battery to do the necessary image processing can fit into the space occupied by the 35mm film cartridge and a winding spool, so what the heck is up with today’s camera makers?

D7000 vs. NEX5N
D7000 vs. NEX5N from camerasize.com

I remember coveting the Rollei 35 when I was a kid. But if you go grab a serious (but not pro) Nikon body from the 1980s you’ll discover it’s hardly any bigger than many M43 or Sony bodies, and with a fast (manual focus) prime it’s size competitive. For that matter, my $250 (new) plastic Nikon FM10 had a huge viewfinder with a glass pentaprism, and looks tiny next to my D5000. (My Nikon FA, bought second hand, is the same size. I’ve got it sitting next to my D7000 as I write this; it’s the same width as the D7000 but only slightly taller and deeper than the NEX5N, but then it has a big glass pentaprism and hard controls for everything.)

So…

Dear Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Ricoh, Fujifilm, et al:

In 1969 we could put men on the moon and build tiny full frame 35mm cameras with sharp, bright lenses.

Why are you messing around with fat, heavy camera bodies, tiny sensors, slow lenses, and idiotic control layouts? It makes me think you are all stupid and deserve to die. Look what Apple did to the smartphone business in 2007 — in retrospect the iPhone was obvious.

Here’s your wakeup call: give us a big sensor, small body, small fast lenses, sensible controls. Or someone else will and you will all die.

Stop inventing new mounts, new sensor sizes, and redesigning control layouts unless what you give us is a big sensor, small body, fast lenses, and sensible controls. We need two or three dials, a mode selector, a few buttons, enough room for a 35mm sensor, a body we can grip, and a fast lens. Stop messing around.

Acknowledgement: I got the Rollei 35 photo from here. I hope it’s OK. If not I will take it down and apologize. The screen shot is of a comparison on camerasize.com (pity they don’t show lenses).