How much is good enough: Image Quality (IQ) Olympus OM-D E-M1 vs. Nikon D850


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.

 

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

The Headlight

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.

Pine Needles

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.

http://www.thewanderinglensman.com/2014/02/the-practical-difference-between-full.html

http://www.thewanderinglensman.com/2014/02/the-practical-difference-part-2-between.html

Thanks Dennis!

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19 thoughts on “How much is good enough: Image Quality (IQ) Olympus OM-D E-M1 vs. Nikon D850

  1. Shawn Wright

    Thanks for this comparison. One typo in the shot info for the D850: “Nikkor was adjusted to 25mm” should read 50mm.

    Reply
  2. Dean Castle

    When looking at departing from Canon, as I wanted a lighter camera to lug around during retirement, I bought a used 16mp Olympus EM5. I took photos for about a month, then looked at my results on my Apple, after buffing them up a bit. I selected a suitable photo with lots of detail and color and sent it off to BayPhoto for enlargement to 11×14, the print size I maintain in my personal print archive. When I received the photo back, it looked comparable to the prints made of photos taken with my Canon 50D, which I’ve been very happy with since the day it came out, and am still happy with. I’ve since purchased the Olympus EM1 Mark II for my retirement camera and am very satisfied with print results I’ve gotten.

    Reply
    1. tomlismer Post author

      Nice! It is the look of the final print that matters in my opinion. Before digital, I got caught in the resolution / sharpness trap and bought a medium format Mamiya 7ii. The pictures were a bit sharper, but not by much and they certainly were not any more aesthetically pleasing. So, when I finally went digital I had long gotten rid of any desires for ultimate IQ and thus avoided getting a massively large full frame.

      Reply
  3. Lionello

    Olympus is 4/3 and has more field vertically, but because you see even more field horizontally than Nikon which is a 3/2?

    Reply
    1. Lionello

      Disadvantageous comparison for Olympus showing more objects, but smaller and with less pixels.
      Better to compare photos of a “circle” of objects whose diagonal is the diagonal of the sensor format.

      Reply
      1. tomlismer Post author

        Thanks for the note. It is certainly quite difficult to get a 100% apples to apples comparison. But, in the end, I think the main point is still valid – i.e. for prints up to a certain size, m43 is very close to a D850 (at least to my eyes).

  4. Reinhard Becker

    I have done this test a few years ago, coming from a Canon 5DII and trying an Olympus E-M5II. My Canon bag was about 15kg with some lenses and this should be changed. On the computer screen I could see the difference, but on 12×18 prints from my Epson there was no real difference! So I switched conpletely to MFT and never regret this descission!
    I‘m only missing a lens like the 11-24 from Canon in my System. But if I look at the price and size of this lens, I ask myself, if I would ever have bought it for my Canon…

    Reply
    1. tomlismer Post author

      I could never see myself carrying a big camera. It is this reason I stayed with Analogue until the OM-D E-M1 came about. I also knew that I favour telphotos for most of my work. The size differential is even greater! The end result – the camera and lenses were sufficiently light that I had no reservations taking it down and up the Grand Canyon in a rather nutso 12 hour hike last year.

      Reply
    2. robfaucher

      Recently I’m hearing comments on forums about certain m4/3 camera bodies being close in size to APS-C, such as the Pany G9, GH5 and Oly EM1 MKII. Yes that is true, yet who cares. The reduction in lens size and weight is the major difference here. The body weight and size is not that significant when you want to haul around a kit with a few zooms and primes.

      Reply
      1. tomlismer Post author

        Indeed! Also, m43 is much closer in proportions to many of the common print sizes, like 8×10. As such, if one happens to use these sizes then there are a lot less wasted pixels due to cropping. If you look at the sensor height, Canon APS is only 13 taller, and the other APS sensors about 20% higher. This is really not much, yet the lenses must be designed for a much wider image circle due to the 1.5x aspect ratio.

        In the end, you are right – who cares. In fact, I find that the better the picture is, the less resolution and sharpness really matters!

  5. Dennis Mook

    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.

    http://www.thewanderinglensman.com/2014/02/the-practical-difference-between-full.html

    http://www.thewanderinglensman.com/2014/02/the-practical-difference-part-2-between.html

    Reply
      1. tomlismer Post author

        I hope you don’t mind me copying your comment to the main article. Bye the way – your blog was one of the main sources of information convincing me that m43 image quality was more than sufficient. Many thanks!

  6. Dennis Mook

    Be my guest. I have written quite a bit about my experiences with m4/3 and please reference any content you feel your readers may find helpful. My goal is to try to share my knowledge with everyone I can. My current experiment is to use m4/3 exclusively (since the first of the year) and ascertain if it can meet all of my photographic needs or if I’ll miss a larger sensor size. So far, I don’t at all.

    You have a very informative blog. Keep writing as your bog is helping others. If we share our knowledge, we all become better photographers. Let me know if I can be of assistance.

    Dennis Mook

    Reply
  7. robfaucher

    Well said Tom. In most cases, the proof is the print.

    I would wager that people who own enthusiast or pro grade gear probably post the majority of their photos online, so the debates about sensor size become absurd. Even so, how often does a hobbyist or enthusiast even make prints, let alone those larger than 11×14? I make a few per year at best. Unless one has strict professional photography requirements, such as ad agencies, crop sensor cameras should be good enough for most people.

    Most of my photography is done on motorcycle road trips, so saving space and weight is a critical factor in my gear decisions. Micro 4/3 is a terrific system for such travels and frankly, I get really nice results and most of the photos are posted on my blog. I made 11×17 prints shot on an EM-5 MKII at 1600 ISO in low light and frankly they were more than good enough. At normal viewing distances, they look great. Only measurebaters will inspect the prints from a few inches away, regular folk don’t care and they are more objective too.

    For over a decade I owned APS-C DSLR systems with several lenses including primes and zooms. First Canon and then Pentax. For several years I shot both APS-C and m4/3. Arguably, when m4/3 first came out, the sensors were really noisy at 800 ISO and dynamic range was so-so. The differences could be spotted even online at 1080p resolution. So, when I wanted the best dynamic range and lowest noise over 800 ISO, I would grab the DSLR. I was an early adopter for m4/3 and really liked the portability and fun factor, provided I restricted myself to daytime shooting. That said, even first generation m4/3 sensors did good enough below 800 ISO. Well that was a long time ago and the latest m4/3 sensors have narrowed the APS-C gap so much, we are now splitting hairs.

    I really don’t care if FF will smack the pants off m4/3 at 6400 ISO or higher. How often am I shooting at stupid high ISO’s anyway? With a 5 axis IBIS I can shoot handheld up to 1 second in most cases. So, 3200 ISO is a typical upper limit for lower light shooting. The synergy of this technology with smaller bodies and lenses keeps ISOs and noise to reasonable levels.

    Last month I sold off all my APS-C gear and am now exclusively m4/3. I do not regret it. My main camera is now a Panasonic G9 which serves me well for both stills and video. My fun and street camera is an Olympus Pen-F that is a pleasure to use with smaller primes. The new 20 MP sensor used in both bodies meet my needs very well.

    Best of all, I can take a G9 and three Oly zooms that cover all my needs to longer motorcycle trips without sucking up all the space in my bike’s storage. Moreover, I can shoot in all weather conditions too.

    Reply
    1. tomlismer Post author

      This is all so true! Before deciding on a digital system, I was fortunate enough to get out of my system the desire for super sharp, high resolution photos. I convinced myself of the need to get a medium format camera, and settled on a Mamiya 7ii because it is so vibration free and had a reputation for super sharp lenses.

      My pictures were certainly sharper, but I wasn’t any more satisfied with them! What is worse, I discovered depth of field was too shallow for what I do, and I had to use a smaller aperture. Unfortunately, because it was often impracticle to use slower shutter speeds, I had no option but to use faster film with more grain and less resolution. In the end, many of the benefits were lost. Furthermore, though my 80mm lens was technically fantastic, I found the boken harsh. I still do film, but no longer have the Mamiya 7ii. Instead, I use my FM2 with the legendary 105mm 2.5 which, to me, provides stunning results.

      So, by the time I went digital, I knew not to fall into the Image Quality trap. Rather, I focussed on size and the quality of lenses I typically use (short telephoto). m43 was, by far, the best choice. And that was even before I realized how liberating the image stabilization is!

      Reply

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