Back and Forth

Posted on April 30, 2023 by psu

I am apparently in a relatively small minority of humans who use a camera besides my phone for taking pictures. I do this a lot less than I used to, because the phones have gotten really good. But I still do it.

Most of my time with non-phone digital cameras has been spent using either Nikon DSLRs, which were mostly great, but always too big. And Olympus (now “OM Digital Solutions”, but I’ll still use the old brand name) mirrorless cameras, which were great once you went through the pain of setting up the four modes you want to use them in, and also deliciously small by comparison to the Nikons.

Then Nikon got into the mirrorless game, making cameras almost as small as the Olympus, and generally about as great as the DSLRs. At this point I figured my time with Olympus was over, esp. since the Olympus company sold their camera business to some nameless private equity firm which brought the brand back as “OM System”, which is piece of branding no one can love. I concluded that given that Nikon was still making new things, and “OM System” was maybe not, eventually I’d be getting back into the Nikon stuff anyway. So I jumped back in.

The Nikon Z6II is a mirrorless camera body that feels almost exactly like a Nikon DSLR to use (which in turn felt almost exactly like a classic Nikon autofocus film body to use, only better). It can really do almost anything you want. And it unquestionably does two things much better than the Olympus body that I had been using the last 5 or 6 years:

  • The noise and sharpness in low light is a lot better.
  • The autofocus system is a lot easier to control.

The tracking AF is what sold me. I don’t actually shoot a lot of moving things, but the convenience of being able to put the focus box on a thing, hit the focus button and then recompose however I want while the camera just stays locked on to the focus spot was just great. In most situations this gets you results that are identical to what you used to get by locking focus and recomposing. But if the thing in the box moved around at all, the camera would generally hold on to focus like magic. I loved this every time I used it.

So I spent a few months happily taking the Nikon and the kit lens (an emminently practical 24-70mm F4 zoom lens) around and plugging away with the focus box. Then I put the camera in a box and barely used it.

Later I started thinking about expanding the lens collection. I like zoom lenses. They are convenient and at this point in my life I am too old and lazy for the hassle of constantly changing single focal length lenses around. I generally want three zoom lenses to carry around, even though I usually only use two of them.

  • Very wide to wide.
  • Wide to normal.
  • Long.

Most of the major camera lines have these lenses. But I hesitated getting the Nikon wide zoom and long zoom. To explain my hesitation, I need to explain some boring technical things.

When camera nerds talk about lenses they tend to refer to the lenses in terms of their focal length. The focal length of the lens is nominally the distance from where the light enters the lens to where it hits the capture plane (the sensor, say). Shorter focal lengths have wider fields of view. Longer ones have small fields of view.

The Nikon Z6II has a sensor in it that is the same size as a piece of 35mm film from the old days, so we can use the standard focal length terminology from those days. So the range of focal lengths for the three zooms listed above would be

  • Very wide to wide: 14-16mm to 24-35mm
  • Wide to midrange telephoto: 24-70mm. Or if you are being adventurous 24-120mm.
  • Long: 70-200mm or 70-300mm.

The Olympus cameras that I use have a sensor that is smaller than a piece of 35mm film. In fact, it is strategically set up so that if you are using a lens with some given focal length, the field of view you see is the same as using a lens with double that focal length on a 35mm camera. This rule is harder to explain than to say with an example: A 12mm lens becomes 24mm, 50mm becomes 100mm, etc.

This means that the three lenses I want above are something like this:

  • Very wide: 7-14mm (14-28mm equivalent) or 8-25mm (16-50mm equivalent).
  • Wide to Midrange: 12-40mm or 12-100mm (24-80mm, or 24-200mm equivalent).
  • Long: 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent).

Because the “actual” focal lengths of the lenses are shorter than what you would build for a 35mm camera, the lenses themselves are inherently smaller for the same range of field of view. Plus, the lenses have to cover a much smaller chip area with a nice image, which lets you make them a lot smaller by volume.

Meanwhile, even though the Nikon mirrorless body is in fact a lot smaller than the old DSLRs, the lenses you put on them are basically the same size since they have to cover the same piece of CCD. In fact they are usually even a bit bigger than the old F-mount 35mm format lenses, because the Z-mount has grown in diameter for various technical reasons.

In any case, the result is that the Z lenses are much bigger than the Olympus stuff. So in the end the lenses become the limiting factor in size, weight, and volume when carrying the camera around.

If you compare the size of camera+lens for the two systems your universal conclusion is that the Nikon lenses are longer, fatter, and heavier than the Olympus lenses that cover similar equivalent fields of view.

Here is each camera with a midrange zoom attached. The Olympus is a 12-40mm F2.8 (24-80mm equivalent) and the Nikon is the 24-70 F4.

As we observed above, the bodies are not that different in size (although the Olympus is a bit smaller in every dimension, which adds up). But the Olympus lens is a lot smaller than the Nikon even though it’s a stop faster, and this is one of the more compact Nikon lenses.

Next, the Nikon has the same zoom as before, and the Olympus has a zoom lens with twice the range as before (12-100mm F4 (24-200 equivalent)). The total Olympus package is still a lot smaller because the width of the camera body and the diameter of the lens is so much smaller.

Here is each camera wearing the telephoto zoom I’d use on them. The Nikon lens is a 70-300mm F4.5/5.6 F lens with an adapter, and the Olympus lens is a 40-150 (80-300mm equivalent) constant F4.

The Olympus zoom expands a bit when you actually use it, but is still less than half the size and much lighter. And it’s a stop faster at the long end to boot.

Unrelated related note: I also have the 40-150 F2.8 Olympus lens, which is an incredible lens. Even at two stops faster on the long end it’s still a bit smaller than the Nikon. It also has a bad retracting lens hood design that caused me to smash the filter ring on it a couple of years ago and I could not figure out how to get it fixed. This might have made me mad enough to try the Nikon stuff at the time, or it might be completely unrelated. I’m not sure.

At this point the reply-guys in the audience are telling me that real men shoot with prime (single focal length) lenses, and surely you can find a small Nikon body/lens combination there to make you happy to which I say … remember how small the Olympus primes are? You can’t win there either.

Here is a Nikon 35mm prime on the Z6 (with an adapter, because I don’t have the Z lens, which is a lot bigger than this one). The Olympus E-M5 body is smaller than my other Olympus, but is the one I would use with this lens because the colors match.

Here is a picture I copied from the internet that has the Z version of the lens on some anonymous Z body. Looks about the same size as my monstrosity above.

Conclusion: the prime lenses will lose too.

Of course, size isn’t everything. In theory you give up a lot going to a smaller sensor, especially in terms of sharpness and noise performance in bad light. In addition, Nikon, for all its faults, is pretty good at building autofocus systems and reasonably straightforward interfaces to run them. The tracking focus system that I described above is great. Olympus has never really been able to keep up. And, there is the overwhelming possibility that by the time I post this page, “OM System” will announce that it is disappearing into the trash bin of camera brand history.

And yet I dithered. I spent almost two years using the Nikon, and never felt like I wanted to keep going with it. It turned out to be because if you more carefully examine the technical advantages that the Nikon allegedly has you can kind of tell they are just the kinds of ghosts that nerds like me chase to spend money.

Yes, the autofocus is great. But, I am really bad at actually taking advantage of the the things that it is great at. Shooting good in-focus pictures of things that are in motion is a skill that is not easy to learn and certainly not easy to keep if you don’t practice a lot. I mostly shoot pictures of stuff that is either standing still or is close to it. So I never practice that stuff. So even if the camera were perfect I’d still fuck everything up because the framing, or the timing, or something else would be wrong.

Also yes, the bigger sensor is better. Especially in low light. But honestly I take most bad light pictures with my phone now. It’s easier.

So in the end it turned out that size actually is everything. The Nikon Z lenses are, simply put, really large. Even the prime lenses are big. And the wide/tele zoom lenses that I would have wanted to get are super large. I knew I would want to use them. But I also knew I would never want to carry them. So for almost two years I sat around paralyzed. I really liked the camera, but could not get myself to buy the lenses.

And finally, to end the story … during this time that I was dithering Olympus, sorry “OM Digital Solutions”, released not only a new body that is a bit better at the things my current body is bad at, but also a set of newer and even more deliciously small lenses: the small 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent) telephoto zoom in the comparison photo above, and a really useful super wide to normal 8-25mm (16-50mm equivalent) zoom. So I picked up the lenses on sale, and will keep them in my bag for those situations where the 12-100mm won’t do the job.

Inevitably I’ll probably pick up the new OM body, even though it’s not that much better at this stuff, and the UI is still a trash fire. Hopefully the OM system keeps its head above water for as long as I need them to. Or at least long enough to sell me the one body that I’ll use until Apple figures out how to fold a 200mm lens into an iPhone. At that point I’ll well and truly give up on carrying cameras around for good.

Late Appendix:

Aside from the size and handling, in retrospect another reason I went back to the Olympus cameras is that with the Z bodies Nikon decided to standardize on yet another useless and idiotic card storage format which makes me cart around yet another card reader instead of using the SD slot that’s built in to my computer. The only saving grace is that the Z6II has a single stupid card slot and another spare SD card slot for making backup copies, so I ended up using the “spare” slot all the time and completely ignored the expensive main card slot. I’d have rather paid $200 less for a camera that had two “inferior” SD card slots instead.

And yes, we are at a point in the camera industry where the storage cards that a body uses are probably the most interesting distinguishing characteristic between different brands. If I try full frame again I’ll probably defect to Canon just because they don’t use the stupid cards.