Sony A6000 vs Olympus E-M1: Analysis
It’s been almost 2 months since I got my A6000. Over that time I’ve had the opportunity to take it out on a few occasions, shoot with it around the house, and play with a few lenses. Below is a collection of observations and comparisons between the two cameras.
One of the challenges for me in comparing these two is that I have a very different set of lenses for each. For the last few years, I’ve been using three m43 primes: the 20mm panasonic, the 25mm pana leica, and the 45mm olympus. All three have their uses, but they are all fixed primes.
With the A6000, I got the Zeiss 16-70 f/4, and then later found a deal on the 55-210 f/4.5-6.3. I was also able to borrow the sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS for a couple days to try it out.
Shooting with primes vs zooms is obviously going to very different experiences. But frankly speaking, I’m tired of dealing with primes. Yes, their IQ is better especially when you get them in their sweet spot (using the 25mm leica at f/2.8 leads to some really cool shots with a huge amount of pop). But when I’m out and about with family, nobody wants to wait for dad to switch lenses. The sheer amount of time I was fiddling around with lenses was making me miss opportunities for shots.
At the end of the first two months with the Zeiss 16-70, I can basically say that in terms sharpness, all of the m43 primes I have are better. But the difference is pretty incremental, and I still prefer having a versatile zoom over having to bring multiple lenses and a bag. The Zeiss 16-70 also has pretty nice color rendition and some of the Zeiss look.
The Sony 50mm prime has center sharpness at least that is on par with the m43 lenses. It arguably degrades a bit more in the corners but that affects approximately zero percent of my shots.
The one big question still in my head is how would shooting with the Zeiss zoom compare with the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8. The pro-grade Oly lens gets rave reviews, and I suspect it probably performs better than the Zeiss. I’ve only had the chance to try one for a few minutes at a friends house, but it seemed pretty nice, if not a little large.
The A6000’s claim to fame is its fast focusing system with 179 on-imager phase detection sensors. It took me a quite bit of fiddling with the camera to learn how to use it well, but once you figure out, it’s really quite impressive.
The scenario that most impressed me was one that still seems to throw even the E-M1.. a kid swinging back and forth on a swing at relatively close distance. On all my previous mirrorless cameras I’ve tried (gh2, xe1, xe2, em1), I feel like this scenario nets me on the order of 1-2 useable shots per 10 or so that I took. So imagine my surprise when on the first try with the a6000, I get about 7-8 in focus shots per 10 on average (under good outdoor light). I was really quite impressed.
Here’s a bunch of 100% crops of shots I took in this manner (I just took screenshots of 1:1 zoom in LR, so not maybe the absolute best raw conversion). Also I took these at around 1/800, I suspect that might have been slightly slow since I was at such close distance. Some of them are not what I would call super pin sharp, but remember that this is also a 24mp sensor so the magnification factor is huge. At any normal viewing size, all of these look totally fine.
And for all these ones that I got in focus, I only had to filter out one bad shot!
There are other things I prefer about the A6000’s focusing system. For one, it’s 3x3 zone focus UI is way better. The E-M1 can also do a 3x3 matrix focusing, but the problem is when it locks, it only highlights one of the 9 squares — I’m guessing the one it used to actually obtain the lock. Some of the other squares might also be acceptably in focus but there’s no way to tell. The Sony, on the other hand, will highlight all focused squares at once. So if you’re using a 3x3 grid, 5 of the cells might light up all at the same time. Typically, when your subject is likely to not fit in just one cell, this type of UI gives you a much better sense of whether the camera picked the right area of focus.
Another area that I noticed a difference is face detection. Simply put, the E-M1’s face detection system is finicky. I can’t tell you how many times it seems to lose the face just as I’m about to push the shutter and I end up with a totally misfocused shot because the behavior is to default back to wherever your focus point was (which is usually in the center for me). I didn’t do an in-depth comparison, but I’m pretty sure the GH2’s system was more reliable. The A6000, for me, has been the best of the three. It’s remarkably good at keeping track of faces even as my kids look down or to the side. Most crucially though, it doesn’t seem to be indecisive like the E-M1.
The one major downside with the A6000’s focusing system is it’s performance in low light. Especially in S-AF mode, it really does slow down compared to when your’e in a good light situation. But it’s also not like it’s terrible. I would say it’s still better than the 20mm/1.8 panasonic on the E-M1, though admittedly that’s a low bar. Perhaps a more relatable statement is that, I’ve been shooting with the 16-70 at f4, 1/160 and iso 6400 indoors in pretty bad lighting, snapping pics of the kids doing stuff, and it’s been pretty useable. The hit rate definitely goes down but again, it’s not unusable.
For lowlight, the E-M1 definitely has the advantage, especially when I had the olympus 45mm on the body (the 25mm is not the fastest focuser by m43 standards, though it is not bad either).
The TL:DR in terms of focusing is this: In good light, I prefer the behavior of the A6000 on many different levels. In low light, the EM1 is faster, but it’s not a night and day difference. The A6000 is still usable with a little patience.
Form Factor and Physical Design
The A6000 is amazingly light! With the battery and card, the body weighs in at only 344g, which is lighter than the already hollow-feeling X-E2. The E-M1 weights in at 497g with the battery, so there’s already a huge difference there. The net of it is that the E-M1 + the 25mm prime feels about the same as the A6000 with the 16-70 zoom, even though the zoom lens is significantly bigger and heavier than the prime lens.
The A6000 has more of the traditional rangefinder shape, with the flat top, where as the E-M1 has the famous OM-D hump. Personal preference, but I like the more slender rangefinder shape. It’s more minimalist for one thing, but the other is that I find myself using the rear LCD to compose much of the time, which means that having less of the space dedicated to the EVF is not a big deal for me.
Both bodies have substantial grips. I can’t say one is definitely better than the other. Both are sufficient. I think the A6000 one is slightly smaller, but in practice it feels ok because the body is so much lighter.
In terms of overall look, the E-M1 to me looks more Pro with a hint of Gundam. The A6000 looks a little less gadgety than the average Sony product, but still hasn’t shaken that look completely. Having the black model helps in that regard though. It definitely doesn’t scream camera like, say the A7 or the Fuji designs.
The Sony’s card slot is right next to the battery, which sucks. On the plus side, it’s power switch is right by the shutter, which is good. Most of the Sony’s controls are actually on the right hand side of the body, which makes a lot of things easy to adjust with one hand.
The E-M1 has a dedicated card slot door, but the power switch is on the top left side, requiring two hands to flip the switch, which means I always forget to shut it off when walking around.
Image Quality, Metering, and Color
There are a ton of things that go into what we perceive as good image quailty. Sensor, lens, lighting, subject, etc. I’ll just talk about the sensor here. DXOMark gives the A6000 sensor an 82, and the E-M1 sensor a 73, which seems about right.
In good light, the A6000 sensor kicks ass. You get 24 million very good pixels. I didn’t realize how much I would appreciate having 24MP over 16MP — it gives you just that much more ability to crop and zoom. The one downside is that it makes my brand new 13 inch retina mbp work its ass off. Time to get a Mac pro I guess.
In low light, I think the most interesting observation is that between the E-M1 and the A6000, the per-pixel noise levels seem to be about the same. So if you look at images at, say ISO6400, and zoom them both to 1:1 the noise profiles look quite similar. But with the sony being 24mp, that means at any normal viewing size, you’re getting more pixels being down sampled into the same amount of space, so the overall noise profile looks better, and that’s born out in the dxo results as well.
In terms of metering, both are quite proficient, but each has its quirks. The E-M1 seems to prefer brighter exposures than the A6000 for the same scene. One thing that drives me bonkers with the E-M1 is that how aggressively it spot-meters a face if it one is found in the scene. I’ve had many occasions where the face was in a shadow, causing the rest of the scene to blow out. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to shut this off. A6000 does this too to some extent, but it’s not nearly as prominent.
In terms of color, the Sony and Olympus color profiles are traditionally different, but the bigger thing I noticed is in how each camera handles white balance. The E-M1 is very aggressive at trying to automatically correct the white balance. You’ll often see the color shift smoothly over a few seconds when pointing it at a new scene. This is especially true if you turn the “don’t auto WB for warm scenes” setting off. Sometimes this works quite well on the E-M1, saving me work in lightroom, but other times it’s too aggressive, making my kids faces look a little ghosty. The A6000 does not seem nearly as aggressive, but I do end up with a bunch of yellow or greenish shots from indoor lighting. Overall, I’d say the E-M1 system works slightly better.. in terms that I end up tweaking it less than shots I get from the Sony.
In terms of the built-in filters, I definitely like the Olympus ones better. Somehow the Sony ones feel just a tad cheesier, but in general I only use the B+W filters anyways. For some reason I find it very fun to be able to use the camera to see in black and white. Neither beat the Fuji film modes, though.
If you get this far, it probably sounds like I have a strong preference towards the A6000. But when you start to look at general handling, you start to see where the E-M1 justifies it’s price.
For one thing, operating the E-M1 is just plain faster. Everything from turning the camera on, reviewing images, zooming in during review, twiddling settings, all that stuff feels a bit faster on the E-M1. Perhaps it’s the fact that it only has 16MP images to deal with vs the 24MP for the Sony. Or maybe it just has a better processor inside. On the A6000, reviewing an image at 100% is painfully slow. It feels like there’s almost a whole second between when you hit the magnifier button and when you see the zoomed image. Then, once you’re zoomed, you can use one of the dials to navigate back and forth between images, but each ones takes the same delay to show up on the screen. This is particularly painful when you’re trying to go back through your stream of 11fps photos to see if you the shot you wanted in focus. I’ve experienced no such delays on the E-M1.
The buffer depth is pretty good on both cameras. Compare to cameras of even just one generation ago, buffer depth seems to be a disappearing issue. That being said, with the A6000 @ 11fps it’s pretty easy to max it out. On the E-M1, I’m not sure I’ve ever hit the buffer limit in normal use. Both cameras let you do very little while images are getting written out.
I can’t say the menu systems are significantly better on one or the other. Both are clunky to navigate, and I wish these guys would just find some real UEX designer to re-think their menu systems. On the E-M1, the item for formatting the card is pretty close to the default state of the menu, which is handy, but some other settings are frustratingly deep, and the in-camera documentation is terrible.
Both cameras have lots of customizable buttons, though the E-M1 has more. The E-M1 has a sort of “everything” menu that lets you get to all the photographic settings pretty easily. The Sony has the Fn button which lets you program shortcuts to 10 settings, covers what I need 99% of the time. The Olympus also has the 2x2 switch lever, which changes what the front and back dials do w/o going into the menu system. I thought this would be useful, but I mostly find it confusing. I often flip the switch w/o realizing, and then get really confused when my dials don’t do what they usually do.
Both cameras have twin control dials, but they feel much better on the E-M1, which has a dial in the front under the shutter, and one on the back by your right thumb — the typical DSLR layout. Sony on the other hand, has one dial next to the mode dial, and the circular jog dial servers as the second dial. In absolute terms, I prefer the DSLR layout, but I’ve found the Sony layout is not too bad once you get used to it. The difference likely goes away after using one or the other for a long time.
One often cited disadvantage of the A6000 is the lack of the touch screen. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that much. The only thing I ever used a touch screen for on any camera that supported is for setting the focus point. But even when it does work, I tend to keep it off, otherwise I find myself moving the focus point through accidental touches. So while it’s a minor inconvenience on the A6000, I personally don’t consider it a crucial difference. One thing I should note is that it seems some reviews claim that the focus point is hard to change on the A6000, and I’m not sure what people are talking about. When your’e in “flexible point” mode, all it takes is a press of the center button inside the circular dial, and you’re in the mode to move the focus point. A few clicks in one direction or another, and another click of the central button and your’e done. It’s certainly not really any worse than the E-M1 if you’re not using the touch screen.
In terms of the LCD and EVF. I find the E-M1 LCD easier to see. It’s bigger, glossier, and feels like a clearer image. Same for the EVF.. which is also more magnified compared to the Sony. The Sony’s LCD feels a tad small, and it’s got a weird aspect ratio that doesn’t get filled up when you’re looking at thumbnails. I suppose it’s shaped for video recording.
There is one handling quirk on the Olympus that does drive me insane. If you’re in review mode, looking at the back LCD, and you move your eye up to the view finder to get a better look, the camera goes out or review mode. You then have to fidget and hit the review mode button to get back there. How annoying! None of the other camera’s I’ve used have this behavior (Sony, Panasonic, Fuji).
One I really like about the A6000 is the pop up flash. It’s small, tilt-able, and strong enough to bounce off the ceiling a medium size room. I’m not a big flash person (yet), but I find this one useful enough that I’ll often use it with the kids at home.
The last big difference I’ll mention here is around the stabilization. As all the Olympus reviews talk about, the E-M1’s built in stabilization is simply awesome. I took the camera out to shoot fireworks handheld, and actually got a bunch of pretty good shots at 1-second exposures. The 16-70 lens I got for the Sony does have OSS, and it does a reasonable job, but the E-M1 is just simply insane. It’s also apparent when you take videos with each camera. E-M1 sometimes looks like you’re on a much fancier stabilizer of some sort.
These are things that aren’t that big of a deal at the end of the day, but didn’t really fit cleanly into one of the other sections.
- A6000 allows you to charge over USB. This turns out to be handier than I expected. Namely, it allows me to charge the camera in the car, or with my portable battery pack that I use for my phones. On the flip side, the camera doesn’t come with an external charge, which is lame.
- Video quality is way better on the A6000. The PDAF-based continuous focusing really helps track subjects. It’s also got a lot more options for bitrate and framerates. Videos of my kids never looked this good.
- I like the iPhone app for the Olympus a bit better. I expect both to evolve significantly over time.
- Getting sharp shots on the E-M1 requires you to remember to use the “0-second anti shock” mode which engages the electronic first curtain shutter to kill any blur caused by the shutter. I don’t know why this isn’t enabled by default, and critically, on the E-M1 it seems you can’t use this in burst modes. A6000 has not such issues.
- Totally personal preference, but I like 3:2 framing of the Sony over the 4:3 framing of m43. Probably because I learned on 35mm film and then used a Nikon D70 APS-C for such a long time.
- E-M1 can do in-camera RAW development, which comes in handy from time to time.
Which one will I keep? At the time of this writing I still have both. I can honestly say though that I’m leaning towards the Sony. When I do finally decide, I’ll write some more thoughts about why I ended up where I did.
One thing I have to constantly remind myself is that the A6000 is only $600 retail compared to the E-M1’s $1400. The price differential is unbelievable considering how well these two bodies compare.