This post attemps to question the need to full frame in order to get pleasing prints. We will examine how the image quality of Olympus OM-D E-M1 with a 16 megapixel m43 sensor stack up against a Nikon D850 possessing a full framed 46 megapixel sensor.
Let’s just get one thing out-of-the-way. As pixel peeping will show, the technical image quality of the full-framed Nikon D850 is demonstrably better than that of the 1st generation Olympus OM-D E-M1.This should be no surprise given the D850 has 3 times the number of pixels on a sensor 3.8 times larger.
What about a final print? Will the superior image quality translate to a more pleasing print? Unfortunately, pretty much all the information on the internet focusses around pixel peeping. This makes sense, as one cannot view a paper print on a computer! What is missing is the ability to compare the printed results of the same picture made by two cameras for whatever sizes the photographer typically prints.
Why should this matter? If you are buying into a system, you may feel safer going with a bigger, heavier and more expensive system than you need because of uncertainty in the quality from smaller formats. If you have multiple systems, you may find yourself lugging around very heavy gear on vacations where the results from a smaller camera might provide sufficient results.
In this post, I will first show what everyone knows – the IQ advantages of the D850 over an OM-D E-M1 based on a test photo. But these results will not necessarily translate to a better print. For myself, I will argue my Olympus is totally sufficient and indistinguishable from the D850. But, I am not everyone, and so I offer you the ability to download test photo RAW files so that you can edit, print to whatever dimension and assess the results yourself.
The Test Photo
My colleague (with a D850) and I used a car for a test photo between his and my Olympus. We chose lenses and settings to produce approximately the same angle of view and depth of field:
- The Nikon was fitted with a Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 lens, and the Olympus with a M. Zuiko 25mm lens. To achieve roughly the same angle of view, the Nikkor was adjusted to 50mm.
- To obtain similar depth of field, a m43 lens must be opened up 2 stops compared to a full frame lens with the same angle of view. Therefore, the Nikkor was set to f8.0 and the M. Zuiko to f4.0. For both these lenses, the respective apertures correspond to peak resolution (see the tests at http://www.lenstip.com).
- Both cameras were set at ISO200.
D850 with 24-70 2.8 @ 50mm f8.0
OM-D E-M1 with 25mm 1.8 @ f4.0
In both cases, we centered and focussed on the license plate of the vehicle. In Lightroom, both photos were sharpened, cropped to 8×10 proportions and adjusted to approximately the same brightness.
Pixel Peep Comparison – D850 is Better
Double clicking on the photos below and adjusting for equal size you will notice a few things:
First, the noise from the Olympus is much more noticeable than that of the Nikon. Second, the Olympus shows some pixelation – particularly in the black hood outline. The gradation of the blue bumper is also noticeably smoother with the Nikon, thereby giving a more three-dimensional feel.
The overall image quality of the D850 is superior.
Towards the top left portion of the photograph are branches with pine needles and cones. Click on the crops below to compare the full-sized images.
The D850, with a higher megapixel count, clearly exhibits significantly greater detail. The E-M1 appears washed out in comparison. Of course, the green pine needles are rendered quite differently (which is “better” is entirely personal opinion).
The D850 is clearly able to resolve far greater details.
Pixel Peep Conclusions
In looking at the above comparisons, one can clearly see superior image quality from the D850. Both resolution and gradation are noticeably better when viewed on a monitor.
Print Comparison – It Depends….
In my entire life, I printed 2 photographs larger than 8×10. I like that size, and don’t really wish to make bigger prints. For myself, I might justify going to a larger sensor and/or more pixels if I could see a discernible difference at viewing distances.
I had made 8×10 prints from my Olympus and my friends D850. Here is what I found.
- Observing the prints at viewing distance (about 1 meter away), myself and friends could not readily distinguish a difference. In isolation, I don’t think one could reliably guess the which camera took the picture.
- The difference in gradation was much less noticeable in the final prints.
- Moving a few inches away from the prints, the clarity pine needles clearly identify the picture taken by the D850. The difference, however, appears diminished compared to viewing on a computer monitor.
In my mind, the picture needs to look good at viewing distances, and not necessarily a few inches away. As 8×10 is my size, I am happy to say the image quality of my m43 systems is completely sufficient. I am doubly happy because I really don’t have any need to spend huge amounts of money on camera system upgrades, while I have a very compact and light system to carry around.
How About You?
Let’s say 11×14 or 16×20 is your size. Do you need a full frame sensor? You can test for yourself by downloading RAW and full size pictures from this Google Drive location. If a 16 MP m43 sensor is sufficient, then any current m43 or APS camera system should be plenty good. Feel free to edit them in the tool of your choice, and print to whatever size you like. I only ask that you post your results in the comments below!
If you are interested in low light performance of m43 cameras, have a look at my other post: Low Light Noise Performance – Can m43 Embarrass Full Frame?
Happy shooting 🙂
p.s. In a comment below, Dennis Mook passed on some links to similar tests he did a few years back. Whereas I compared prints at 8×10, he went up to 20×24″! I thought I would reference them here:
“In 2014, roughly carried out the same test and wrote about it as well. I did it mainly to prove to myself that print differences would be minor at best but also to help break down that psychological factor that prejudices photographers against m4/3 as smaller can’t possibly be any good. If you are interested here are the links.