The cost of switching camera systems

My friend Chris and I have had back and forth conversations about the merits of the µ4/3 camera systems compared to the Fuji X series and Sony α7 compact systems cameras. I'm considering moving away from the DLSR -- I have a Nikon D5100 -- to reduce the bulk of equipment I carry around. Chris holds the position that µ4/3 is lighter, smaller and that the lens is cheaper than the Fuji and Sony equivalents. I looked up the weight and dimensions of each camera body, and they are roughly the same. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is neither the smallest or lightest of these three cameras. Ignoring the megapixel specs of the Sony α7, these cameras all have similar specs. I don't think megapixels matter much for most people once you get up to 16MP. So weight and dimensions vary little between these three cameras.

Chris suggested that lenses for the Sony and Fuji would be more expensive than for the Olympus and that the µ4/3 had more lens options. While I concede that Fuji and Sony don't have as many lenses µ4/3, the µ4/3 format has very few lenses compared to Canon or Nikon. Many adapters would allow me to use almost any Nikon or Canon lens with the Sony or Fuji. I don't know of any adapters to allow these lenses to be used on the Olympus OM-D E-M1, but I'm sure they exist. The adapters enable using these older Canon/Nikon lenses on the µ4/3, Fuji X-mount, and Sony E-mount but do not support any automatic functions. I would have to use all the lenses in manual mode on any of these camera systems. It’s a draw on that issue.

Fuji has announced a roadmap for new lenses, and I'm sure that we'll see some excellent offerings soon. Sony is just getting started, but I also expect to see some excellent Carl Zeiss lenses in the next few years.

So how much would it cost me to buy into a compact camera system? Assuming that I was starting from scratch, I would want a midrange zoom lens. For me, that means a 24-70mm lens (35mm). On a full-frame camera, like the Sony α7 or Nikon D800, this is wide enough for everything from wide-angle landscapes and panoramas to portraits and events. So how much would the camera body and 24-70mm lens cost?

For my future camera kit, I would want additional lenses in the following 35mm lens equivalents. A 12-24mm (or 10-24mm) wide-angle zoom for landscape/architecture HDR photography. For landscapes, large apertures are irrelevant since I’ll be shooting on a tripod with apertures between 11 and 20. I want a midrange zoom for everyday use. While the maximum aperture of f/2.8 may be too slow for nighttime use but is fine for photo walks, some sports and indoor family portraits. Most of these I would shoot at f/5.6 to f/8, and a flash will help. I can shoot at higher ISO also. For portraiture, I would want either an 85mm f/1.8 or 90mm f/1.8 prime.

35 mm lens APS-C µ4/3
12-24mm 8-16mm 6-12mm
24-70mm 16-46mm 12-35mm
70-200mm 46-133mm 35-100mm
85mm/90mm 56mm/60mm 42mm/45mm

So let’s look at the lens offerings for some of the recently popular compact systems cameras. NOTE: Prices are from on the date of publication.

Camera Body Cost Midrange Zoom Lens (24-70mm)1 Cost Portrait Lens2 Cost Wide angle zoom3 Cost Total
Fujifilm X-T1 $1,299.00 Fujifilm XC 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS (24-75mm f/5.2-8.4) $399.00 Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 (85mm f/1.8) $999.00 Fujifilm XF 10-24mm f/4 (15-36mm f/6) OIS $999.00 $3,696.00
Olympus OM-D E-M1 $1,269.00 Panasonic : LUMIX G X VARIO 12-35mm/F2.8 ASPH X $1,104.99 OLYMPUS : M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm F1.8 $310.00 Panasonic : LUMIX G VARIO 7-14mm F4.0 ASPH $968.00 $3,582.98
Sony α7 $1,698.00 Vario-Tessar T * FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS $998.00 --------- --------- 10-18mm Wide-Angle Zoom $848.00 $3,544.00

Surprisingly, the Fuji X-T1 kit with a wide-angle zoom lens is almost a thousand dollars cheaper than the similar Olympus kit. Wow! From a sensor size perspective, the Fuji X-T1 is in the middle compared to the Sony and Olympus cameras. The Fuji X-series has more lenses than Sony but fewer than Olympus.

While the f/3.5-5.6 Fuji lens isn’t comparable to the f/2.8 µ4/3 and Sony lens, the LUMIX isn’t comparable to a Carl Zeiss (the Sony Vario-Tessar) lens either, and the Sony lens is only $300 more. I expect that Fuji will release a faster lens soon. I would expect the lens pricing to be about $1000. The Fuji kit would still end up being cheaper. While the photographer can use Sony E-mount lenses on the α7, this means I wouldn't be shooting cropped down. What's the point of a full-frame sensor if I can't use it? Sony also has no portrait lens for the FE-mount. Sony's lens lineup is the smallest of the three systems, and Sony hasn't announced any roadmap for what and when Sony might release lenses.

UPDATE: Chris pointed out that one of the µ4/3 lens I listed was actually a four-thirds lens. I have updated the table with an actual µ4/3 lens. That makes the µ4/3 camera kit is the cheapest in the line-up.

The OMD-M1 is the winner from a lens availability standpoint. Neither Sony nor Fuji has a lens that meets the requirements at this time.

Local photographer, Alan Kesselhaut recently bought the OM-D EM-1to use instead of his Canon. I'll ask him for his experience, but it seems I may have to take the OM-D M-1 more seriously.

UPDATE 2: I found an interesting article about camera lenses and crop sensors. It turns out that smaller format sensors affect more than just field of view (FOV). It turns out the depth of field (DOF)is also affected by the same multiplier as for FOV. For example, the characteristics of a 45mm f/1.8 µ 43 lens are roughly equivalent to that of a 90mm f/3.6 lens. Or, put another way, if I am shooting a subject at f/8 on a 90mm (35mm) lens, I would need to shoot the same subject at f/4 on the 45mm (&macro;4/3) to obtain the same DOF.

Reviewing the chart above in that new light (no pun intended), the &macro;4/3 lenses seem much slower than the 35mm equivalents. Of course, this affects APS-C cameras as well (including my Nikon D5100). This explains why I've found it challenging to achieve results similar to some of the photos I see online.

  1. Fuji does not have a 24-70mm (35mm) lens for the X-series. The Fujifilm XC 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OIS (24-75 35mm equiv.) is the closest to that range. 
  2. Sony does not have a portrait prime for E-mount or F-mount. 
  3. Fuji does not have a 12-24mm (35mm) lens for the X-series. The Fujifilm XF 10-24mm F4 OIS (µ4/3) is the closest to that range but not wide enough for me. I hope Fuji adds a wider zoom to the range soon. The LUMIX G VARIO 7-14mm F4.0 (µ4/3) is the widest zoom for the µ4/3 format. The Sony is an E-mount lens for the NEX line of cameras. It has a focal length (35mm equivalent) of 15-27 mm. 

Choosing a new camera system

UPDATE: The Nikon Df is a turd.

I have had a DSLR for about six years. The Nikon D40 was my first. I had wanted something with more control than my Sony DSC could offer and the D40 was just the right intro camera for me. Over the years I bought a few more lenses; an AF- S Nikkor 18-55mm (27-82.5mm)1 f/3.5-5.6 VR to replace the kit lens I broke, an AF-S Nikkor 50mm (75mm) f/1.8 G prime, an AF-S Nikkor 35mm (52.5mm) f/1.8G. Earlier this year I sold my D40 and bought a Nikon D5100 on eBay, sold the 50mm. The 50mm was not getting much use, and I wanted to do more portrait work so I bought an AF-S Nikkor 85mm (127.5mm) f/1.8 G.

My pro-photographer friends suggested that I needed to go full-frame. However, I did not like the size of the full-frame DSLR cameras on the market. They were bigger and bulkier than the “baby” DSLRs, like the D5100 and the D7100. I also realised that for family vacations and day trips that I often became the official photographer for the family. If I did not bring my camera — because carrying around a bulky camera all day gets tiring — people were disappointed, and I was rarely in any of the photographs. The last two family vacations, a trip to Niagara Falls last year and a trip to Virginia Beach this summer, I think there are only a handful of photos of me with the family. The size of the D5100 was either too intimidating (too many buttons) or too much for the non-photographers to get a steady shot. It is time for something smaller.2

For me, that immediately meant a compact system camera (mirror-less). I had tracked the popularity and success of the Sony NEX system (which I recommended a few years ago to a friend) and the popular retro-inspired Fuji X compact camera system. I much preferred the retro look of the Fuji X system cameras and rented the Fuji X-E1 earlier this year. I liked the camera in general, but the auto-focusing system needed to be better than what I expected. While I hoped Fuji would release an X-E2, I started looking elsewhere.

My friend Chris is always talking up the µ4/3 format. So, I rented an Olympus OM-D M-5 and borrowed Chris’ Olympus PEN-EP3 and his µ 43 lenses to try the system. Both the OM-D Em-5 and PEN EP-3 performed well. I love the 45mm lens, especially as a macro lens. Just as I was looking online at prices for the OM-D EM-5, Olympus announced the OM-D EM-1 just a few days before the Photo Plus Expo. The updated camera seems to be even better than the original, from the reviews.

Then, just in time for the Photo Plus Expo, Fuji announced the X-E2, an update to the X-E1 that fixes most of the issues with autofocus. Then, shortly after that, Sony threw a grenade into the compact systems market with the announcement of the full-frame Sony NEX α7 and NEX α7R. I spent a day at the Photo Plus Expo trying out the new cameras and walked away, trying to figure out what to do. Which camera system was the best choice?

Then, shortly after Photo Plus, Expo Nikon announced the full-frame compact Nikon Df with F-mount. So now I am very confused.

Sony α7

One of the challenges is that while Nikon, Sony, Canon, Fuji, etc., sell their cameras with or without lenses (for those pros and advanced amateurs), Panasonic wants consumers to buy their cameras with a kit lens. From my experience, kit lenses are compromises. I do not use them. I generally buy primes.

If I stick with my existing Nikon APS-C camera, the only other lens I would want is the Sigma 8-16mm (12-24mm) f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM FLD AF Ultra-Wide Zoom Lens for landscape photography. If I went for a full-frame Nikon like the Df (or, as some have suggested, the D610), my existing lenses could still meet my needs (family portraiture), and I could add a 12-24 zoom for landscape photography.

The downside of changing to µ 43 is that there is no µ 43 6-12mm (12-24mm) lens for landscape photography. The widest µ 43 lens is the Olympus M ED 9-18mm (18-36) f/4.0-5.6.

So, staying with Nikon makes sense if I want to maximise my potential lens choice. Almost every Nikon DSLR camera sold today can use almost every Nikon lens made since the 1970s. That is a lot of choices! Add in third-party (Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Zeiss) lens support; the list is even longer. When I look at µ4/3, I am struck by the lack of third-party lenses. It is a Panasonic and Olympus party.

From my perspective, Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic are all in the same boat with lens systems. The systems are new (relative to Nikon, Canon and Sony) and have few options. The Fuji X system seems most popular because they have a retro design, APS-C sensor, and excellent (but limited) optics. However, inexpensive adapters allow Nikon and Canon shooters to use their lenses on the Fuji.

The Sony α7 is hot in the photography press because it sports a full-frame sensor in a compact system camera (CSC) body. Lens choice is limited, but Sony already announced dates for new Zeiss lenses. Adapters will likely be available soon to use Nikon and Canon lenses. In the meantime, the NEX E-mount line of lenses can be used, albeit with cropping.

Nikon Df
Nikon Df

What I am concerned about most is the lens choice. Bodies are upgraded and replaced as technology advances, but lenses change very little. What I am buying into is not a sensor form factor (though that is important). I am buying into a lens system. It is like buying a Mac (Nikon) or a Windows (Sony) computer (camera). Switching is easier once you have the budget to buy software (lenses). I want to be sure that I make the right choice for the long term.

Its price hamstrings the Nikon Df. It is an expensive camera. However, it is full frame, and Nikon's current lens selection is large. Users will have access to almost every Nikon F-mount lens made since 1976! If Nikon were to drop the price of the Df to about $1600 (body only), I would sell my D5100 and get the Df.

The Sony α cameras, the Fuji X cameras, the Olympus OM-D and the Nikon Df are all compact interchangeable lens cameras I want. However, I have to weigh the pros and cons of sensor size, megapixel, lens availability, ergonomics, etc.

I may have to reconsider my strategy because so much has changed so rapidly in the last few weeks. My approach may be wrong. Perhaps I should focus on the original need. A compact travel-size camera that can easily be operated by the non-photographer but with enough manual controls to make me happy. The Panasonic Lumix GM1 with the 20mm (40mm) f/1.7 or Leica DG Summilux 25 mm (50mm) f/1.4 would meet that requirement. Or a Fuji X20 point-n-shoot. Or maybe wait another six months for things to change again.

  1. The number in parenthesis is the focal length in 35 mm full frame equivalent. 
  2. Most of that family vacation with a rented Fuji X-E1.