Wednesday, August 21, 2013

An unfair comparison Review of the Sony Alpha a58 and OMD - An enthusiast perspective

Important Notes:
1. This is a user based review with no lab or scientific testing
2. All images are post processed in lightroom 4 according to personal taste/preference
3. Images were taken in Raw and converted to JPEG (unless otherwise noted)
4. Feel free to ask questions in comments

Before I made the purchase of the Sony a58, I obsessed over whether I should buy another micro four thirds body or invest in another system.  In a previous post, I discussed why I opted for another system. Also see some my initial sample gallery

The Sony Alpha a58 - taken with the OMD and off camera flash

I want to preface this user review by reminding readers I am an enthusiast, a student of photography, who wants to help people make a decision on what camera system to purchase/add to their collection.  Now that I've properly qualified this review with hopes of defending myself from the internet, I wanted to do a different kind of review that pits one system against the other and in this case it's the Sony Alpha a58 with the Olympus OMD em-5.  I understand certain factors are not the same like focal length, crop factor, sensor/megapixel size, but at the end of the day I ask myself if the a58 can produce acceptable/desirable photos similar to that of my main workhorse (with or without post processing).  In short, I can say yes, but will qualify my answer with a breakdown below.

Image Quality - The a58 has some big shoes to fill and in a way is an unfair fight.  The OMD with the 75mm f1.8 are both considered professional grade equipment (one of Olympus' flagship cameras). At the moment, I am using the inexpensive Sony 50mm f1.8 on what most would consider an entry level camera.   I break down Image quality to several sections, as I think several factors play into 
        
Detail/Sharpness - For an inexpensive prime lens, the 50mm can produce some sharp images especially when stopped down to about 2.8.  Wide open it can be a tad soft, but very usable and in fact, can often create something dreamy.  It is important to note that there are a number of factors that can affect this, one being shutter speed.  Having used this at the Mad T Party, I noticed anything under 1/20th of a second can cause a bit of motion blur (not really the fault of the camera, rather the fault of the performers =) ).  To truly test this, I propped the camera on a tripod, set it to a 10 second timer and used the base ISO of 100 and fired away at additional items/decorative pieces around the house. I was thoroughly impressed with the micro-details I was able to capture, like specks of dust or the scuff marks.  Under controlled settings, I would say it is a toss between the two cameras, but under hand-held shooting, the OMD wins.  The sharpness of an image for moving objects is possibly more a factor of the image stabilization than anything else, but I will go into greater detail about that below. Edge goes to the OMD  
Voltron - Childhood toy taken on Tripod - Base ISO

Noise - I will be the first to admit, I am guilty of pixel peeping.   I have in the past judged a photo FIRST on the sharpness/cleanliness of the file, THEN the composition or other elements that create a memorable photograph.  Regardless, I include this section because I know I will continue to pixel peep especially if I have an image I want to present to a client.  At ISO 100 to 400, Sony's files are very clean.  But when the camera is pushed to 800 and above, the digital noise begins to rear its not-so-ugly head.  Luckily for me, Lightroom's luminance slider can solve this problem in a pinch.  However, I do have to note that I spend most of my time shooting in Aperture priority mode and one of the features I love about the OMD is having the ability to set my ISO range. The a58 does not have this ability. To my knowledge the a99 (it's full-frame big brother) and the a77 (thank you, digitalandfilm, for helping me out in this area) is the only modern SLT that can do this.  The default auto-ISO setting for the a58 is 100 to 3200.  In a perfect world, I would limit the ISO to 800 or even 1600 under more extreme conditions.  I would rather have the camera lengthen the shutter speed than increase the sensor's sensitivity to light.  When I shot the Mad T Party, I would just manually set the ISO to a prescribed value (400/800) and call it a day in manual mode.  This isn't a deal-breaker in my eyes, but a misstep nonetheless on Sony's part.  It is hard for me to believe that adding an ISO limit adjuster to the menu is a taxing feat for developers/manufacturers nor would it increase the manufacturing cost.  For this reason and the fact that the OMD produces much cleaner files from ISO 800 and on, I give a definitive edge to Olympus in this department.  

Captured with the kit lens - ISO 1600 - Disney Artist

Color -  There is not much to say about the colors other than they vibrant and pretty much close to true-to-life.  The auto white balance works very well and correctly compensates with changing light temperatures.  The only thing I noticed when adapting an m42 mount lens to the a58 is that the camera has difficulty getting the white balance just right - it tends to lean on the yellow/orange side.  Since I shoot raw, this really isn't too big of an issue and easily corrected in post.  However, spending less time in post is always a plus and for this reason the OMD gets a slight edge, as it doesn't struggle color correcting when adapting vintage glass.  Note: The Takumar 50mm f1.4 was used and who knows the radioactive gasses could have played a part in this =)

The color rendering is just great - March Hare 

JPEG - I exclusively shoot in raw mainly because I enjoy the control in white balance and highlights/shadows.  I prefer to let my brain process a raw image rather than an internal processor that might not always capture my vision for that particular image.  The JPEGs from the Olympus OMD seem to have a slight edge. These files contain slightly more detail and do not aggressively apply as much noise reduction on the default setting.  The noise reduction creates unrealistic skin tones/smoothness I don't really like. With the noise reduction set to low, the JPEGs are more comparable.  However, the default JPEG setting on the OMD is slightly too orange/red for my tastes and I had to turn off the warmth feature to get it to the color levels I like.  So the winner here is the OMD, by a slight margin.  

Taken using the crop zoom feature in JPEG - with low noise reduction - Mad Hatter

Handling and Features
     
Ergonomics - When I first bought the OMD, I found the handling to be a bit difficult due to its small size.  When adapting my heavier OM glass, the camera felt unbalanced and at times front heavy (this was not the case for native lenses, except for the 75mm).  For this reason alone, I bought the 2 piece grip/battery adapter and I pretty much leave the grip on at all times.  As far as the a58 goes, the camera fits perfectly in my hands. All the buttons are easily accessible with my thumb/pointer finger and the on/off switch is perfectly placed (unlike the OMD).  The a58's buttons have a nicer tactile feel whereas the OMD's buttons are a bit "mushier" (to help with weather sealing), but this is really a non-issue.  The a58 would have won hands down in this department if it weren't for the fact the OMD has two dials to change settings.  For this particular SLT model, you have to press and hold a button and turn the aperture dial in order to change exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode (as an example).  As much as I like having two separate dials, this felt immediately familiar as it reminded me of the GF-1.  The edge goes to the a58, especially since I had to pay an extra $300 to get the desired feel with the OMD. 

Weight - Surprisingly enough, the OMD with grip (no lens) is slightly heavier than the a58 body despite being physically larger.  I have not weighed nor do I care to get the exact differences because I know that once I slap a zoom lens on the a58, it will be heavier than my m43 camera.  I knew this when I purchased the camera and the size/weight was something I was willing to compromise to get my desired zoom lenses (ie the Sigma 18-35 f1.8).  As mentioned in a previous post, the size-to-cost benefit just wasn't there for me. Panasonic's premium zoom lenses go for about the same price as a Carl Zeiss zoom.  Not to say that the Panasonic lens performs any better or worse than CZ glass, but my pockets cannot justify the cost thus my purchase of the a58.  However, if overall weight is concerned, then the OMD has the edge
          

LCD Screen/EVF - Both cameras have a similar tilting screen, so shooting above your head or below your waist becomes extremely easy.  That's where their similarities end.  The OMD's screen is far superior by leaps and bounds.  Oly's screen is so crisp and clear that composing/metering your subjects is effortless.  I would even say that its rear screen is better than the display in the EVF.  I bought the OMD for its built in EVF, but I have fallen for the LCD especially when I do product photography (in fact, I rely solely on the rear screen for this).  The inverse is true about the a58.  The screen has a lower resolution but the EVF is phenomenal.  The resolution, the refresh rate and the EVF screen size is everything I want in an EVF.  You would think the a58 would win in this department, but the OMD offers a touch screen that is pretty darn useful.  Being able to tap-to-focus/shoot has been very resourceful if you find yourself needing to take a quick and dirty shot.  In fact, on the very rare occasion I hand my camera over to someone, I tell them to tap-to-shoot.  At least this way, I know the shots will be somewhat in focus.  For the LCD screen, the OMD has the edge.  For the EVF, the a58 has a very slight edge.

Matterhorn, Disneyland - Composed using LCD

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage - Again composed with the LCD 

Image Stabilization: There's nothing really to argue here.  The OMD has the best image stabilization systems over all cameras.  The 5-axis system is simply phenomenal.  I can attest that I have taken a long exposure shot at 2 seconds hand-held and came away with an acceptable/usable picture.  I have heard from rumor-based websites that Sony and Olympus will partner up and introduce the 5-axis system to their future Sony NEX and Alpha line of cameras.  At the moment, Sony uses the Steady Shot system, which unfortunately is not as impressive or stable as the OMD's, but incredibly useful when using vintage glass (with a chipped adapter).  Although I can't take 2 second long shots, I would gladly take this over anything Canikon offers, which really isn't much since it relies on the built in stabilization within the lens.  Without a doubt in my mind, the OMD has the edge

My first panning shot taken with the a58 - Great continuous focus and image stabilization

Focusing - The age old question: What is better, contrast detect or phase detect auto focus? This is a fairly tough decision to make a call on, as I believe these two systems strive under different applications.  The OMD's contrast detect system is fantastic when taking shots of people who aren't moving around a lot or coming at you at high speeds, while the phase detect is fantastic with continually focusing on your subject, especially when doing video.  Having the right tool for the job is what I have always heard and is part of the reason why I purchased a more traditional camera system.  If auto focus speed is the determining factor, I would say the OMD wins by a land slide, but that does not translate well for some reason with continuous focus.   The a58 really shines in this department and when I tested out the AFC at the Mad T Party, I was amazed at how well it could track the performers.  However, in poor lighting conditions, I would rely on the OMD's AF accuracy over the a58, as I noticed a bit of focus hunting with the Sony while in a dimly lit room. I find it difficult to give any system an edge here, especially since I haven't had the opportunity to test out other pieces of glass.    

Tomasina - The AF held up with this fast-moving artist


Manual Focus: Manual focusing is a whole different department.  Part of the reason why I love EVFs is because you can fine focus on your subject by electronically zooming in to the desired area (like a model's eyes) to confirm critical focus.  Nothing irks me more than a portrait that is focused on the eyebrows or a nose.  Pro photographer, Jeff Cable, says you don't have a portrait if you don't focus on the eyes, and I agree wholeheartedly.  Couple the fine focus feature with focus peaking and I have myself a dream set up when shooting with manual glass.  The focus peaking is not only accurate, but nicely implemented on the a58.  Under high contrast areas, the focus peaking color is very clear and one can easily determine when you have reached critical focus.  I really wish the OMD had this feature and is one of my biggest gripes with Olympus.  It appears the Company is purposefully holding back tech so that they can sell what is seemingly an identical camera in the EP-5 (the EP-5 has focus peaking).  Ergonomics also plays a key role here.  Legacy lenses tend to be a lot heavier due to its metal construction and on a stock OMD, the feel is just off.  Not only is it front heavy, but it also feels awkward trying to resist the camera pitching forward with 4 fingers.  The traditional DSLR grip/ergonomics really helps and is my preferred way of shooting with m42 mount glass. Edge in Manual Focus - a58.
      
Focus peaking worked great for this long exposure shot - taken with the kit lens - Base ISO

Closing Thoughts
Some might argue purchasing an "entry-level" camera is a step back from my "flagship" OMD.  I bought this camera not as a replacement to my OMD, but to supplement and backup my workhorse.  In a previous post, I talked about how this was a numbers game for me, but I failed to mention that I was also extremely curious/excited with what Sony is doing.  In fact, I will go as far to say that Sony is one of the big movers and shakers in pushing camera technology forward.  In 2014, Sony is rumored to completely remove all mirrors from their line of cameras (both Alpha and NEX lines) - a bold move that could open the doors to new tech and force Canikon to question their future strategies (who knows, this could fail completely too). I wanted new tech that would meet my needs and not be the end-all-be-all device, which does not exist.  My wallet has forced me to be a satisficer and not a maximizer (please read this article posted by Eric Kim to get a better understanding of what a satisficer and maximizer is: What to consider when buying a new camera for street photography) and I am truly satisfied with my decision.

There are still so many things I still need to explore with the a58 and these are my initial thoughts about both systems.  You can bet I will post more and more things about the a58 once I get more accessories or delve deeper in world of Single-Lens Translucent cameras.  Thanks for stopping by and reading.

More Sample Photos Below


Disney Parking lot - HDR

Nathan Shrake as the Mad Hatter 

Dan Franklin, Jenny Kidd

The fabulous Tomasina


Johnny Gomez - Tomasina Band


So say we all,
Dino