Sony A7R II vs. Olympus OM-D E-M1

August 27, 2015  •  14 Comments

EM1 and Voigtlander 17.5mm f/0.95

Olympus E-M1 and Voigtlander 17.5mm f/0.95

The internet is quickly filling with glowing reviews of the Sony a7RII.  Many mirrorless enthusiasts and pioneering professionals are considering making a switch to this more mature Sony product.  This post will not be another traditional review, but instead a comparison with my previous camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which is another mirrorless heavyweight that has earned the praise of a similar crowd over the past two years.  I'm sure many current E-M1 owners are curious to hear how these two stack up.

Design and Ergonomics

Both cameras feel like high quality photographic tools.  Neither disappoints in the hand and each has its own ergonomic strengths.

The Sony has dedicated C1 and C2 dial positions, a bigger and generally better EVF (although aliasing is common), minimum shutter speed for auto ISO, better feedback on button presses, and an easier to customize set of rear buttons.  Some people strongly dislike Sony's menu system and button layout, but I prefer the Sony system to those of competitors.  Despite the Olympus's extra buttons, I was able to configure the Sony to my liking in afternoon better than I could with the Olympus in two years.

The E-M1 has a slightly more attractive finish, the best grip I've ever used, a dedicated directional pad for selecting focus points, much easier to turn front and rear dials, a smaller but arguably smoother EVF, and better mode dial operation.  As for weather sealing, in nearly two years of use, through rain, snow, and a trip through Niagara Falls, the E-M1 never had a single issue with its seals, except it did take a minute to turn on after a run through Niagara, but then it was as good as new.  I can't yet speak to the weather sealing of the Sony. Finally, the Olympus battery life is probably 2x better than the Sony.

Verdict - Tie:  The custom buttons, EVF, minimum shutter speed in auto ISO, and easier customization of the Sony are just as important as the tougher build and better dials of the E-M1.

Note to Sony: In the future, rethink the always-locked mode dial.  Sometimes we just need to move it quickly.  Also, the rear control dial is the most difficult to turn of any camera I've ever used.  Finally, give us a slightly deeper hand grip.  Every lens that we could possibly attach to that camera will extend much farther than the current hand grip, so we wouldn't be giving up any practical size.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Olympus E-M1 and PanaLeica 42.5 f/1.2

Image Quality

The Sony wins in every major category - 1) Resolution, 2) DoF flexibility, 3) Dynamic Range, 4) Tonal Response, and 5) High ISO SNR.  (Check DxOMark or photonstopphotos for a technical review).  However, the Sony is often a 20 foot ladder when I only need to climb 10 feet.  The Olympus was a perfectly suitable 12 foot ladder most of the time.  In the end, the extra latitude of the Sony system is appreciated when needed.  This extra latitude doesn't really come at a weight cost because all of the high quality m43 lenses are almost equally heavy as their aperture-equivalent full-frame counterparts (see below for more on weight).

I'm also really happy to be done with Olympus's odd color casts - I often had to deal with a bizarre greenish-yellow hue to images shot both inside and outside (even in RAW).  The Sony seems to suffer less from this problem.  Plus, Olympus cheats their focal length measurements at the wide end.  The 4:3 factor at 7mm is not as wide as the 3:2 factor at 14mm (I've tested this).

The Olympus IBIS system is good for a solid extra stop over the Sony, so in static low-light situations, the high ISO advantage of the Sony mostly disappears.  Plus, the Olympus lenses are sharper per pixel than the Sony lenses.  While images from the 42mp full-frame Sony are overall sharper than the 16mp m43-frame Olympus, the difference isn't as stark as you might imagine.  Finally, the minimum focus distance of the m43 lenses is better than full-frame lenses, which allows each lens to function as a near-macro and also allows for interesting shallow DoF effects at those close focusing distances.

Verdict - Sony Wins.  Undoubtedly, the a7RII is capable of producing better images, and in more difficult situations, than the E-M1.  But in many photographic situations, you would be hard-pressed to see the difference.  The cropability of the Sony, the dynamic range flexibility, and the DoF possibilities make it a more versatile tool, but it may not be a tool you need.   Remember that the IBIS of the Olympus allows for hand-held exposure bracketing for extreme HDR in post-processing and the IBIS effectiveness can be great in static night photography.  The a7RII is indeed a longer ladder; know your needs.

Sony a7RII and Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA

Autofocus

I've shot weddings and indoor basketball games with the Olympus and have had reasonably solid success.  Many complain that the mirrorless cameras aren't as fast as their DSLR counterparts and I can't necessarily disagree.  But I've found that the E-M1 is sufficient for wedding use and, paired with a fast lens, such as the PanaLeica 42.5mm f/1.2, can even be used for indoor sports.  On the other hand, the Olympus sometimes does hunt in low light, and, while the 40-150 f/2.8 Pro lens is beautifully built and exceptionally sharp, it particularly struggles in low light, making the system's premier event lens unreliable in practice.

So far, I'm very pleased with the autofocus performance of the Sony.  I currently only have one lens (the 35mm f/1.4 ZA) and it has quickly nailed autofocus in single-autofocus every time and in every lighting situation.  I look forward to testing the a7Rii further in this arena.

Verdict - Jury's Still Out:  The Olympus was mostly solid and the Sony hasn't disappointed yet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Olympus E-M1 and PanaLeica 25mm f/1.4

System Considerations

Weight: I recently brought an Olympus E-M1, PanaLeica 42.5mm f/1.2, Voigtlander 17.5mm f/0.95, Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8, and Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 to a wedding shoot.  The total weight for body and four lenses was 2877g.  If I instead brought a Sony a7RII, Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8, Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA, Sony 16-35mm f/4, and Sony 70-200 f/4, the total weight would have been 3088g.  The m43 system covering roughly the same focal lengths would only save me 7% in weight and each lens would be 1 stop slower in aperture equivalence (DoF and high ISO SNR).

I'd rather the Sony's extra stop, higher resolution, higher dynamic range, and better tonal response than a 7% drop in weight with the Olympus.  The Olympus might extend to 300mm but the Sony 70-200 cropped to 300mm on a 42mp full-frame camera will give you about the same result.  I will say, however, that the m43 lenses feel like higher quality tools in the hand than even the best Sony FE lenses.  I already greatly miss the PanaLeica 42.5 f/1.2, Voigtlander 17.5mm f/0.95, and the 40-150 f/2.8 Zoom.

System Future:  Sony makes the best sensors in the world and apparently no longer licenses them exclusively to Nikon for a period of time before including them in their own products.  Olympus waits for Sony or Panasonic to design sensors for them.  This is troubling for a m43 user.  Sony also has a ton of momentum right now.  Olympus is still trying to shed the early reputation of m43 as a bunch of "toy cameras."  If Olympus started the m43 system with (1) the OM-D series bodies, (2) a set of f/1 autofocus primes, and (3) a massive investment in their own sensor technology, then I wouldn't currently own a full-frame camera.  As we have it, I'm confident that the Sony FE system will be around in five years and I can't say the same for m43.

Verdict - Sony Wins:  The best m43 lenses are still a stop slower than their FE counterparts and a bag of those slower m43 lenses only saves you about 7% in weight.  Plus, m43 isn't getting any love with the best sensor tech right now and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Sony a7RII and Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA

Conclusion

The E-M1 system is good enough for most photographic situations, but the a7RII is clearly better in terms of imaging flexibility.  Considering the FE lenses are a stop faster in aperture equivalent terms (with respect to high ISO SNR and DoF effects) than the m43 lenses of roughly equal weight, the reasons for sticking with m43 seem fleeting.

Pro Sony a7RII over Olympus OM-D E-M1

  • Faster lens options allow for greater DoF control and high ISO SNR performance when compared to m43 lenses of equal weight
  • Dynamic range easily bests m43 cameras
  • Tonal response allows for RAW files to be pushed harder
  • Fewer color cast issues
  • Better menu system, dedicated C1 and C2 buttons, minimum shutter speed in auto ISO, and general control layout
  • Better EVF and rear screen
  • Seemingly brighter system future

Pro Olympus OM-D E-M1 over Sony a7RII

  • Smaller files that provide indistinguishable picture quality in most photographic situations
  • Much better grip, more easily manipulated front and rear function dials, and better overall finish
  • Better current lens selection, including some excellent lightweight prime lenses (e.g., the PanaLeica 25mm f/1.4)
  • High quality lenses squeeze more detail out of the 16mp 4/3 sensors than you might think
  • Generally shorter minimum focusing distance is helpful is some situations and obviates need for macro to the occasional macro shooter
  • Better IBIS evens the playing field in static low-light situations

Both cameras are great, but the Sony a7RII offers more in a similarly sized package.

- Greg Racki