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Nikon D800 Vs Olympus OM-D E-M5 Comparison

Nikon D800 Vs Olympus OM-D E-M5 taken on a quick landscape shoot out on Baslow Edge. Noise pushed to the limits - can the tiny Olympus deliver comparable quality? Peter Bargh finds out.

|  D800 in Digital Cameras
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Many photographers are facing a dilemma of buying the best, which tends to be big heavy full frame digital cameras such as the Nikon D800, or considering what appears to be a compromise by opting for the light weight approach offered in a Micro Four Thirds camera. I was in that position a few months ago and decided to go down the Olympus route as I tend to to travel lighter these days and have been mightily impressed with the Olympus PEN I've been using for the last year.

As a method to satisfy my decision and show others who may be facing a similar choice I decided to take both cameras out on a landscape jaunt and at the same time push them to their limits of their ISO settings. It's by no means a comprehensive test but should prove an interesting view for those looking at either camera choice.
Nikon D800 vs Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Nikon D800 (photos to scale)

For the test I used the Olympus 9-18mm lens (equivalent to 18-36mm on a FX camera) and the Nikon 14-24mm.

D800 Anvil | 1/25 sec | f/8.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 200Omd Anvil | 1/25 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 200 
The sun sets behind the Anvil stone on Baslow Edge so it was a good chance to see how both camera fared when shooting with the sun in the shot and a backlit subject. The exposure was 1/25 sec at f/8.0 and ISO 200. The Olympus lens was at 9mm and the Nikon at the comparable 18mm setting. Both did a grand job although the Nikon has the edge on flare handling, contrast and colour.

Omd Tree | 1/100 sec | f/6.3 | 9.0 mm | ISO 200 D800 Tree | 1/40 sec | f/8.0 | 14.0 mm | ISO 200
This tree is on the approach to Baslow Edge. I made an error not having identical settings, but it still gives you an idea of sharpness and each camera's handling of contrast.  Olympus was at 1/100 sec | f/6.3 | 9.0 mm | ISO 200 and the Nikon at 1/40 sec | f/8.0 | 14.0 mm | ISO 200. Contrast is handled better on the Nikon, colour balance is also slightly more neutral.

Omd Heather | 1/10 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 200 D800 Heather | 1/20 sec | f/9.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 200
Another potential problem in flare disaster. Heather with the sun in shot Olympus at 1/10 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 200 and Nikon at 1/20 sec | f/9.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 200. The flare pattern on the Nikon is better controlled and impedes less of the photo, although the Olympus has delivered a slightly better auto exposure.
Omd Wall | 1/20 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 3200 D800 Wall | 1/25 sec | f/8.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 3200
The first noise test was at ISO3200 and both cameras give remarkable good results. Olympus exposure was 1/20 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 3200 and the Nikon was 1/25 sec | f/8.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 3200.

When racked up to ISO25600 the Nikon totally outshines the Olympus:

Omd Noise Tree | 1/80 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 25600 D800 Noise Tree | 1/50 sec | f/8.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 25600
Olympus auto settings 1/80 sec | f/8.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 25600 Nikon auto settings 1/50 sec | f/8.0 | 18.0 mm | ISO 25600. The D800 can be used comfortably at this setting whereas you'd really have to be pushed to consider using the Olympus at this ISO. That said in some occasions getting a shot of this quality may be better than not at all.

Finally here's what happens when shooting in the dark:

Omd Noise Night | 1/4 sec | f/5.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 25600 D800 Noise Night | 1/4 sec | f/8.0 | 16.0 mm | ISO 25600
Both cameras on auto gave these settings - Olympus: 1/4 sec | f/5.0 | 9.0 mm | ISO 25600 and Nikon: 1/4 sec | f/8.0 | 16.0 mm | ISO 25600. Again the detail from the Nikon sensor is incredible. But here we also found the focusing gave up on the Olympus - it just couldn't cope, so manual was needed whereas the Nikon performed effortlessly.

So the verdict is... the Olympus gives a good run for the money and will satisfy in general terms... but it cannot compete with the mighty full-frame Nikon when pushed to the limits.

For full reviews of these cameras and our studio comparison noise photos go here:
Nikon D800 Full Review
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Full Review

Comparison Table

Nikon D800Olympus OM-D E-M5
Image Sensor
Pixels36.3Mp (Megapixels)16.1Mp (Megapixels)
Pixels (W)73604608
Pixels (H)49123456
Sensor TypeCMOSLive MOS Sensor
Sensor SizeFull FrameMicro / Four Thirds
Sensor Size (width)36.5mm17.3mm
Sensor Size (height)24mm13mm
Aspect Ratio
  • 3:2
  • 16:9
  • 4:3
  • 3:2
  • 16:9
  • 1:1
LCD Monitor
LCD Monitor3.2in3in
Screen resolution910,000 dots610k dots
Touch ScreenNoYes
Focusing modes
  • Autofocus
  • Face Detection
  • AF Tracking
  • Manual
  • AF Fine Tuning (Micro Adjustment)
  • Autofocus
  • Manual
  • Face Detection
  • AF Tracking
  • Touch AF
  • Spot
  • Multi
Exposure Control
Shutter speeds shortest1/8000sec1/4000sec
Shutter speeds longest30sec60sec
Bulb modeYesYes
Exp modes
  • Program
  • Aperture-Priority
  • Shutter-Priority
  • Manual
  • Program
  • Aperture-Priority
  • Shutter-Priority
  • Manual
  • Scene modes
  • Multi Pattern
  • Centre-weighted - Average
  • Spot
  • Centre-weighted - Average
  • Multi Pattern
  • Spot
ISO sensitivity50 - 25600200 - 25600
White balance
  • Auto
  • Manual
  • Bracket
  • Outdoors/Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Shade
  • Flash
  • Auto
  • Manual
  • Incandescent
  • Fluorescent
  • Outdoors/Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Shade
  • Flash
  • Underwater
Exposure Comp+/-5+/-3
Viewfinder ResolutionNo Data1.44million dots
MagnificationNo Data0.575x
Shooting Options
Continuous shooting4fps9fps
Movie modeYesYes
Video Resolution
  • 1920x1080 FullHD
  • 1280x720 HD 720p
  • 1920x1080 FullHD
  • 1280x720 HD 720p
  • 640x480 VGA
Video FPS50,30,2430
Stereo SoundYesYes
Optical Zoom with VideoYesYes
Other Features
Image StabilisationNoYes
Wi-FiNo DataNo Data
Card Type
  • CF1
  • CF2
  • SD
  • SDHC
  • CF
  • SDXC
  • SD
  • SDHC
  • SDXC
File Type
  • RAW
  • JPG
  • TIFF
  • RAW + JPG
  • RAW
  • JPG
  • RAW + JPG
Power Source
Battery TypeAA, EN-EL15, EN-EL18 and EP-B5Lithium Ion
Battery Life (CIPA rating)900shots330shots
Box Contents
Box ContentsEN-EL15 rechargeable Li-ion battery with terminal cover, MH-25 battery charger (AC wall adapter supplied only in countries or regions where required), Strap (AN-DC6 for D800, AN-DC6E for D800E), UC-E14 USB cable, USB cable clip, BF-1B body cap, BS-1 CaptuBody, Flash FL-LM2, Li-ion battery BLN-1, Li-ion battery charger BCN-1, USB/Video Multi cable, Shoulder strap, OLYMPUS Viewer 2/ib CD-ROM, Instruction manual, Warranty card
View Full DetailsView Full Details

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Photographs taken using the D800

Kapiti Island from Kuku Beach.1448-1One of the Ugly 5Thornham NorfolkSwallows over Chrystall's Lagoon, Otaki, N.Z #0051The best Engineer !!I Know I Knowin the morningGoliath is my name !!Abandoned warehousedragonflyAloneJuvenile BateleurIn the sunlightGary Beachbutterfly

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brian1208 18 11.8k 12 United Kingdom
24 Sep 2012 12:20PM

Quote:So the verdict is... the Olympus gives a good run for the money and will satisfy in general terms... but it cannot compete with the mighty full-frame Nikon when pushed to the limits

As one should expect given the price difference! Wink
nirofo 14 9 United Kingdom
26 Sep 2012 5:24PM
I don't see the point of comparing two totally different league cameras against one another, the old saying, horses for courses springs to mind.
LenShepherd 13 4.4k United Kingdom
26 Sep 2012 5:27PM
I found it a very useful comparison - from the size and weight perspective.
DSLR photography tends to be a middle aged and older male activity.
This may be part because until the kids are grown up and the mortgage is paid off there is less disposable income, part because women like my wife prefer shoes, and part because as we grow older we tend to be less active and photogragph rather than take an active part in activities.
Up to about age 65 back packing a D300, a D3, a 24-70, a 70-200, a 200-400 and a good tripod to be on the right mountain top at the right time wass something I did at least every 2 weeks.
Now at age 70 back packing the D800, a range of macro lenses, flash and a good tripod is making possible the best wild flower photography I have ever done - but in less than 5 miles I get tired Sad
Enter the Nikon P7700.
I know it will not have the resolution and noise performance of the D800 and I will need to overcome or work with the 4 stop difference in DOF for a similar viewfinder crop - but I will be able to hike 10 miles with a decent camera Wink
I have yet to try the D7700. When I do not need top resolution (12 MP is still good enough for a 16x12 print) or high ISO it might replace my D7000 and 18-200 when I want to travel light.
This review gives me a good idea of D7700 compared to D800.
My preference for the Nikon is 28-200 f2-4 lens, extremely compact and light, and I can process the files in NX2 which I was lucky enough to get for £50 at Focus 3 years ago.
I thing not done - and perhaps worth considering in similar future comparisons - is to take along something like a D200 era DSLR.
I get the feeling an OM-D or 7700 would compare favourably with a lot of 5 year old DSLR technology.
JohnHoppy 12 5 United Kingdom
26 Sep 2012 5:29PM
Bit of a smug comparison given the price disparity. Nikon combo £3454, Olympus £1463 (Wex current prices). Who with £1500 to spend is going to look at a D800? So why compare? Even a Nikon D7000+12-24mm f4 comes in at £1728, how low do you want to go? Conversely, stick some better glass on the Olympus. For most practical purposes, and given the huge difference in sensor sizes, the EM5 looks to do pretty well, and it's still early days yet for CSCs - as everyone is now talking about future FF mirrorless, I wonder how long the D800 types will remain "mighty".
26 Sep 2012 5:30PM
Not a very valid comparison, interesting but just not all that usable. I sold my Nikon D90 after buying a Sony NEX 5N. The ease of lugging a lightweight camera added greatly to my shooting results and pleasure. The sharpness and low noise results of the 5N easily matched the D90, and often was better. I recently acquired a Olympus Pen LP2 and again was very impressed, not quite as good as the 5N, but much better handling. Either of these cameras (5N or LP2) were more than adequate in every type of shooting 98% of the time. They both fall down for sports, but I do little of that. And considering that both cameras use contrast detection auto focus rather than phase detection, they did remarkable in low light. Also, the sweep panoram feature of the 5N was just fantastic to use and a very desirable feature.

oldvic 9 7 United Kingdom
26 Sep 2012 5:32PM
Comparing two cameras with similar specifications would have been a better exercise.
26 Sep 2012 5:44PM
I have just bought an Olympus OMD to substitute for my Nikon D200.
I did the same sort of test when I bought the OMD and found the cameras to be much more similar in output than the differences shown here for the very much more pricey D800.
Perhaps someone like me should review........ a like for like comparison would be more vadid.

Plus, I love the ease and responsiveness of the OMD compared with the trickier Nikons, all that palaver with the add-ons to get the same effect I'm getting with the OMD.......
26 Sep 2012 6:14PM
I just reread the article and I am even more unhappy with this kind of comparison, very much like a apples vs oranges kind of thing. It would have also been very benificial if the author would have labeled the images as to which camera produced which image. My original view of the article was on an iPad, I am now looking at a full size view on a desktop and find less real difference between shots. I am also surprised at what I anticipate to be the Nikon's (larger images) at the lack of sharpness or DOF in the tree leaves.
meyeview 12 1.4k 1 United Kingdom
26 Sep 2012 10:48PM
who was the braniac that came up with the idea to compare these cameras against each other?what next, the hasselblad H4D v the vivitar iTwist 7028?
please, get serious and give us true comparisons.
26 Sep 2012 11:21PM
Sorry but I think some didn't bother to read the intro/reason for compare using a heavy, lump of a DSLR compared with what can be expected from using a reasonably recent concept..something a lot lighter and more compact but fairly "high tech"....

Interesting trial, thank you....the way technology moves I'd expect the latter to catch up rapidly in the areas it appeared "deficient"...!!
Rab90 9 1 Scotland
27 Sep 2012 10:51AM
I share the difficulty of comparing two such different cameras but it did show how well the OMD did on its own terms. Of course the nikon was always going to be better but for me it is instructive to see how much or how little better it was. I am considering a D800 as a full frame upgrade from a D7000 which is itself a brilliant bit of kit, now that would be a really useful comparrison for me. Is it worth the money? Do I need the extra DOF, will it make me a better photographer? Good questions yet to be answered and meantime the money stays in my piggy bank.
Milva 8
2 Oct 2012 5:19AM
I can see this comparison annoying many owners of FF cameras, especially those owning older DSLRs like the 5DII etc. Grin

As mentioned, they are in totally different classes. So, the fine details in image quality differences are not so important as to the requirements of people considering their purchase, size, weight, the best possible performance or value. To me, that they are even compared speaks volumes of what technology is like these days, or how quickly cameras can become obsolete if you keep pursuing the ultimate image quality. The D800 may not get updated for at least another years. However, in a couple of years time, I won't be surprised that this D800 looks like a 5DII when compared with the brand new mirrorless camera at that time, e.g. to the OMD E-M7 with its latest sensor.

The point is if you are not a pro or really have to have the very best, FF DSLRs are going to be very expensive and even more so as technology picks up pace.
Milva 8
2 Oct 2012 5:21AM
I meant to say the D800 may not get updated for another 5 years.

But what happens to quality of the much cheaper little mirrorless cameras?
14 Oct 2012 6:47PM
Great comparison.
Took me a while to discover the mouseover revealed which photo was taken by which, but it was a testament to the lower iso shots that I could not tell by looking.

The truly huge weight advantage of m43 means that I carry prime lenses with me everywhere. The 9-18 is a nice piece of glass, but nothing to the clarity of the 12mm. for the weight and cost of the D800 + 1 lens you could probably buy and carry pretty much every single m43 lens and an em5. And that is the beauty of the system.

Faced with very low light and the em5 all you need is the pana-leica 25m 1.4f and you are set. I doubt the day will come when a smaller sensor can ever outperform a larger sensor, but that is not the point, the point is which system works better. For a studio where weight and size are irrelevant, big will always win, for walking about in nature I think the days of the big boys are numbered. All you big-boy fans, get over it, buy something small and fun that you take everywhere and keep your big stuff too for when you dont mind the extra weight and size!
14 Oct 2012 6:52PM
for a great example of the advantages of going small see

“This is not a rumor, but I thought I’d share with your readers my experience riding the Cycle Oregon 2012 bike ride earlier this month. I exclusively used micro 43s cameras and lenses and produced some great images. Everyone on the ride was amazed that I was carrying an interchangeable lens camera with many lenses under my bike seat bag. The OM-D EM-5 and the lenses were a joy to use and I had a great time over the week long 450 mile ride. For those who are not familiar with Cycle Oregon, it is a one of the most popular organized bike ride. About 2200 people ride for a week along Oregon scenic country side. This years ride was in South Central Oregon visiting landmarks like Crater Lake. The challenge with such a ride is carrying camera that would allow to capture the experience without weighing you down. The typical camera on such rides would be a point and shoot. But thanks to the magic of m43, I was able to carry the OMD EM5 and an assortment of lenses in an under seat carrying bag. In addition to it being an extremely challenging ride, I was rewarded with opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful landscapes and capture them with all the flexibility afforded by an interchangeable lens camera. I carried the OMD body with the M.Zuiko 12mm, 40-150mm, 12-50mm and the Panasonic-Leica 25mm lens, 1 circular polarizer and a 10 stop ND filter. On a give ride day, I would only carry 2 or 3 lenses, using the 12mm and 40-150mm lenses for a majority of the pictures. Both these lenses are just brilliant. Everybody expects the 12mm to perform well and it does live up to its hype, but the 40-150mm lens was the true star of my kit. Its easily one of the best lenses in the system for the size, quality and price.
Here are some of the pictures I took over the week. The complete set can be found here”
flipmac 10
14 Oct 2012 8:29PM
Interesting test that is a bit flawed as most of the shots are more or less affected by the lenses used. Not really a camera body test if you're cheacking for flare, contrast, sharpness, etc. Even AF speed is affected since the lens is slow (no better than F/4) and the camera sets the lens wide open for AF acquisition; surely a brighter lens help here and there's a big difference between F/4 and F/2.8.

As an owner of a 9-18mm I know for a fact that it's a mediocre lens in terms of optical quality. Other lenses, like the 20/1.7 and 45/1.8, which I also own are much better. That said, it is great if you want a small UWA zoom for not much money; paid $500 for mine from BestBuy Canada. 

If you wanted to use UWA zoom, the Panasonic 7-14/4 would have been a better choice because it is equivalent to 14-28, better optically, and fixed aperture, albeit still slow.

It would have been far more interesting if comparable primes were used, like Panasonic/Leica 25/1.4 and Olympus 45/1.8 vs Nikon 50/1.4 and 85/1.8.
14 Oct 2012 11:01PM
As the sensor size of 4/3 is half that of FF and the OMD is a 16Mpix and the D800 36Mpix the pixel density of both sensors must be roughly the same, so are the ISO 25600 results down to better processing from the EXPEED 3 image processing engine in the Nikon? or is it still in someway down to sensor technology?
21 Nov 2012 1:20AM
D800 may be better at ISO 25600, but it's still incredibly noisy!
G_Man 8
21 Nov 2012 9:05PM
Complainers are right - it is not a fair comparison - but they are wrong to complain because it is not presented as a fair comparison: "...can the tiny Olympus deliver comparable quality?" (among other disclaimers). I don't believe any knowledgeable person would expect a u43 sensor to compete with the D800s large sensor.

However, I was quite impressed on how well the OMD performed considering its limitations. Since I've never been a fan of noise or grain, having shot ISO 125 or below for 35mm (Kchrome, Velvia, PlusX), anything beyond 400 for me is moot.
cameracat 17 8.6k 61 Norfolk Island
21 Nov 2012 9:35PM

Quote:Complainers are right - it is not a fair comparison - but they are wrong to complain because it is not presented as a fair comparison: "...can the tiny Olympus deliver comparable quality?" (among other disclaimers). I don't believe any knowledgeable person would expect a u43 sensor to compete with the D800s large sensor.

However, I was quite impressed on how well the OMD performed considering its limitations. Since I've never been a fan of noise or grain, having shot ISO 125 or below for 35mm (Kchrome, Velvia, PlusX), anything beyond 400 for me is moot.

Agree entirely with G_Man......Smile

Seems the oh so offended Muppet brigade are out in force.....Again...!!!

Read the whole point of the article, Then read it again, Then keep reading it, UNTIL you get the true point of comparing two totally different cameras......!!!

Quote:D800 may be better at ISO 25600, but it's still incredibly noisy!

You don't say....LOL...Smile Give this reader a " Blue Peter Badge " ......Grin

Find me a camera that has absolutely no noise what so ever at ISO 25600.....Coz ! I wants one...Wink

Until then dial in the actual meaning of reading this article in the first place.....
10 Mar 2013 10:48PM
I started looking at the two rows of photos and thought the ones on the right looked distinctly better than the ones on the left. Being me, I had omitted to verify which was which before starting, but had to assume the ones on the right were from the D800. I was amazed when I learned that it was in fact the other way round, with the OMD on the right. Cameras can only be evaluated on the quality of the photographic images they produce, and on the basis of what I've just seen, I'd be buying the OMD.

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