Yesterday I sat down to write a blog post about my thoughts regarding my new camera system versus the old one, and ended up writing a rather lengthy piece about why I decided to switch systems in the first place instead. So tonight is the promised follow-up, or, what does Zed really think about the Olympus E-3 vs the Nikon D700.
First off, for the gearheads among us, here’s my old kit:
- Olympus E-3
- Olympus Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5 ED
- Olympus Zuiko 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 ED
- Lensbaby 3G (with macro and creative aperture kits)
- Olympus OM 50mm f1.8
And this is my new kit so far, since flipping systems means it’ll take time to build everything back up:
- Nikon D700
- Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f2.8G ED
- Nikon AF-S VR 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G IF-ED
While I don’t have a novelty lens or lowlight prime for the new system, the day-to-day difference between the two kits is negligible, since my two digital Zuiko lenses were my primary work horses before.
Now, thoughts. First off, the most tangible benefit the D700 has is the sensor. That big ol’ full-frame sensor is the heart and soul of this deal, bringing with it shallower depth of field, better dynamic range, and greatly enhanced low-light performance. Greatly enhanced. For example, both of the following were quick shots in my bathroom, lights off, at the end of a dark hall. Both were shot on Aperture priority, at 28mm equivalent, at f2.8, at ISO 3200. ISO 3200 is the push ISO on the E-3. On the D700, it’s got another three ISO settings higher than it. Here’s the E-3:
And here’s the D700:
The term “night and day” comes to mind, if for no other reason than one looks like it was shot at night and the other in the middle of the day. The sensor is a star, here.
Also in the D700’s favor is a more flexible auto-focus system with considerably better continuous focus tracking, and a superior LCD.
And that’s about as much as I can say is distinctly better than what the Olympus system had to offer. Most of the features are the same between the two models, including flash sync flexibility, mode options, etc. The E-3 is actually the superior camera in configurability, when it offers features. The E-3 allowed both control wheels to be defined individually for each of the four shooting modes. More options were accessible directly through buttons. The rear LCD displayed more settings and offered the ability to change them directly. Instead of odd transient “Custom Banks,” it had two proper resets, and two custom modes per reset. Auto ISO was a setting on the ISO dial, and not the weird toggle buried in a menu that Nikon uses. And anything you could control with a button on the E-3 you could do without taking your eye off the viewfinder. Try changing the D700’s white balance without taking your eye out of the viewfinder, I dare you.
Also, regarding auto-focus. The D700 has lots of cross-type sensors, but weirdly clusters them in the middle, making portrait focusing in low light… fun. Not a full win because it’s the only weakness in an otherwise superior AF system for Nikon, but the E-3s cross-type sensors did cover more working area. (I actually leave the selectable points on the D700 set to 11 because they’re in basically the same 11 spots I’m used to on the E-3. Small comforts.)
The D700 is weather-sealed, but Nikon rather cautiously calls it “splash resistant.” There’re pictures of my E-3 dripping water after shooting in the rain, and I never had a single problem. That’s going to be the hardest part of this transition. I miss feeling invincible.
On a completely subjective, personal note, the E-3 was also better sculpted to my hand. My fingers cramp a bit more when carrying the D700 around. That’s going to be a per-person thing though, so we’ll just consider it a niggle and not a complaint.
Moving onto lenses. Nikon makes stellar lenses. No doubt. They’re sharp and the auto-focus on AF-S models is fast. That said, Nikon lacks a clearly defined middle tier of lenses, and you’ll find yourself with little ground between a slow f4.5-5.6 zoom and a fast f2.8 constant. Actually, there frequently isn’t any ground there. You have consumer or pro, screw the in-between. Olympus’ line-up wasn’t as extensive or storied, but when they got a chance to do it from scratch, they did it pretty good. They had three clearly laid out ranges, with a full focal length coverage in each with three zooms. Zuikos, because of their shorter focal lengths or something, also had about half the minimum focusing distances of their Nikon counterparts, letting you focus on things right up on you. And if you’ve never used the ZD 50-200mm before, let me tell you this. For its cost and features, it has no equal. It’s equivalent to a 100-400mm f2.8-3.5, had IS thanks to the E-3’s in-body system, and was weighted to be sharper closer to wide open. I’ll miss that lens. A lot.
Speak of IS. More subjective, I don’t have the data here. But I’ve found I have to go back to practicing tighter form to get sharp shots with the unstabilized 24-70mm, and even the VR 70-300mm seems a bit shakier. But, then again, thanks to the 2x crop factor, the Oly was working with physically shorter lenses, and it could just be down to that.
I haven’t ever been much of a flash shooter, other than manual, so, I didn’t use the Oly flashes much, and I haven’t used the CLS much, so, flash will have to wait, but I hear from everyone that Nikon is king of flash systems. I’m willing to believe that, and we’ll chalk the possibility to go that way up as a win in the D700 corner.
Also in the D700 corner are the big, attached-to-the-damn-camera rubber boots over the ports. The E-3 used some teeny-tiny plastic caps that I was forever losing. How could you not? They seemed to be made to lose.
And… that’s most of my thoughts. The E-3 handled better. Some of the decisions made going into the Four Thirds were really, really good. It was well thought-out. It’s just a pity the sensor tech couldn’t keep up. The D700’s sensor is beyond reproach. It’s good. It’s really good. Sure, when the E-3 was happy with the light, you were going to be happy to. With adequate light, the E-3 and those Zuikos turned out quality shots. But man, if the E-3 wasn’t happy with the light, it was going to make sure you were unhappy too. When the studio lights turn off you get to see just what the fuss about the D700 is. I’ve taken better causal shots easier indoors and at dusk with the D700 than the E-3 would ever have given me. The number of shots I can go for has greatly increased. Which is what I needed, ultimately. Performance where the E-3 did well isn’t vastly superior, but it is as good or maybe a slight bit better, so I’m not losing ground. But I’m gaining flexibility outside controlled environments. The trade off for that is a less customization and some awkward control decisions. And a weird lens line-up (although, there’s complexity even there. Sure, 4.5-5.6 isn’t as fast as 2.8-3.5, but, thanks to the 2x crop factor on the E-3 the depth of field is nearly identical, and thanks to the D700’s superior low-light performance the noise is slightly better even after using ISO to compensate for the slower aperture).
So that’s that. Like a wise, wise man (my design prof Fred Bower) once told me, “It is what it is.” Both systems have a lot going for them, and at the end of the day I needed that sensor, and that means the compromises that go with it, too. The cost of keeping what I liked about the E system was locking in to a dead system, and fewer photographic options. It had to happen, but man, I still find myself torn about it.
Oh well, Zed. It is what it is. For you the end viewers, the differences will be nearly transparent at first, since my main series right now started with the old system and I want to keep the look consistent. But, especially on Flickr first, you’ll start seeing some new boundaries being pushed as we go forwards. New tool, you know, I got step up to it, or it doesn’t matter for squat.