Neck. Back. Knees. Shoulders. All are aching and all complaining at me for several decades of lugging around improbable quantities of SLR (and, latterly, DSLR) gear. Cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, flashes and all the general gubbins of a photographer’s life all take their toll on ageing joints. And that’s without considering the simple fact that carrying so much kit just gets in the way of the experience: it’s not so bad when doing what is only intended to be a photoshoot, but when the photography is part of a wider experience, it rapidly becomes a problem. So, as someone whose photography is often an adjunct to my travel and expedition work and who travels on foot, by bicycle and motorcycle, size and weight of my kit is critical to both mobility and well-being.
Which is exactly why I switched from DSLR to mirrorless systems some time ago. It’s also why, after a sojourn with Sony, I switched to M4/3: Mirrorless cameras themselves can be pretty much as small as the size of human hands will dictate but the size of their lenses is dictated more by the laws of physics than the ingenuity of engineers. Yes, good design plays a part but, beyond the distinction between retrofocus and telephoto lens designs, no-one has (yet) come up with a universal model for designing lenses whose size isn’t a function of maximum aperture, desired image circle (itself driven by sensor size) and focal length.
So, whilst Sony has done a most impressive job in shrinking the cameras themselves, their full frame lenses are inevitably relatively either rather large and/or slower than their M4/3 or APS-C equivalents. Meanwhile, Nikon and Canon carry on with the same-old, same-old approach: fine cameras but increasingly found with a whiff of decaying dinosaur. [Updated 6 April 2016]
There’s a never-ending debate on the pros and cons of different systems – this being just one (and where I don’t agree that Sony’s made a mistake, although I do agree with some of the issues raised). I don’t want to get involved here, other than to provide some real data and to point out that there are in fact very few ‘bad’ cameras out there: simply ones that will be more or less suited to an individual’s needs. So, rather than just list a few comparative component sizes and weights, I’ve actually looked at the gear that a photographer is likely to be carrying around at any given time. For comparison, I’ve built three comparable systems in terms of field of view, maximum aperture and battery life, based on Olympus, Sony’s full frame mirrorless offerings and a ‘traditional’ Nikon system.
My own sweet spot for a camera system lies with robustness and portability in a balanced system where lenses, sensor and bulk are well matched and where intuitive handling lets me get the shots I want at the time I need them.Which is what led me to take up the mantle of 4/3 when it first launched, only to mothball it in favour of Sony after Olympus threw away many of the inherent advantages of the 4/3 system. I then came back to Olympus in 2014, this time to M4/3, after Sony failed to deliver on the promise of its technology and Olympus seriously started getting its act back together with its high-end mirrorless cameras and lenses.
What we now have though is a new range of Olympus Pro lenses that, although still compact by DSLR terms, are significantly larger and heavier than their M4/3 predecessors or even Panasonic’s excellent M4/3 offerings. At the same time, Sony are iterating rapidly with their new and very compact full frame mirrorless E-Mount cameras, whilst Canon and Nikon largely carry on with ‘business as usual’. So is the weight advantage that helped take me and others to M4/3 in the first place still in play?
This then is purely about the bulk and weight of different systems – I’ll keep discussion of image & lens quality for another time.
What I’ve done is to look for (roughly) equivalent systems in each of M4/3 (Olympus-based), Sony FF and Nikon, using each manufacturer’s offerings at the semi-pro/pro level. In the mirrorless camp, I’m including the now well-established Olympus OM-D E-M1 and, from Sony, the A7 II (chosen for its In-Body Image Stabilisation). In the DSLR camp from Nikon, we have the highly-regarded D810 DSLR.
But of course we don’t carry all the kit all of the time, so I’ve thrown in three different ways in which many of us choose stuff to take on any given day:
- Starting with a ‘Basic‘ travelling system which includes: body, moderate-wide to short-telephoto zoom, longer zoom to a 200mm focal length equivalent, at the best aperture that each can provide, and the whole covering a continuous range from (at least) 24mm to 200mm – the typical working range for most day-to-day photography. Finally, I’ve added in each manufacturer’s smallest, fill-in flash unit.
- Then there’s a ‘Full‘ system: extending the focal range from ultrawide (at least 16mm equivalent) to long telephoto (which I’m taking as 400mm equivalent). I’m also adding on battery grips (where available) and a full single flash setup.
- Finally, we’ve got the ‘Kitchen Sink‘ option: as for the “Full” system but with added supertelephoto (600mm) lens and fast primes for carry-around, wide angle, portrait and macro work – the sort of thing you might carry for a longish photo trip.
In each case, I’m looking for a similarish battery life – covering about 800 shots (for the first two cases) and 1200 for the ‘Kitchen Sink’ option. This effectively means that M4/3 and Sony users have to include an extra battery relative to the DSLR Nikon, as their compact size and power-hungry EVFs cut down battery life somewhat.
This is also slightly unfair on Sony as, beyond the most basic option, the only way I could cover even some of the requisite focal length range is to include an A-Mount adapter and several A-Mount lenses, adding some bulk and weight. I’ve excluded bags, tripods, chargers, reflectors, cleaning gear etc as these are roughly common to all systems – what I’m trying to do here is give a flavour of the relative weights of the core systems.
So, disclaimers over, what do we see? Let’s keep it simple: here’s a radar chart of the weights for each system: you can see at a glance the relative ‘footprints’ of the Olympus, Sony and Nikon systems.
If you’d like the full table that summarises each system, here it is. I’ve tried to keep things as reasonably comparable as possible, with getting silly. Price was not a consideration – if you take that into account, the differences become even more extreme.
At the basic level, there are no surprises: the M4/3 option is, by some margin the lightest, at 1.3kg for the system – about three lunchtime pies. The Sony, despite the small size of the camera itself, gives us more than double (2.4x) the weight to carry around, whereas the Nikon, whilst 2.7x the weight of the Olympus is actually ‘only’ 400g heavier than the Sony ensemble: it’s those pesky laws of physics applying to the lenses again.
It’s when we move on to looking at the intermediate system that, perhaps surprisingly, things become rather closer. Here, the Sony kit turns out to be ‘only’ 43% heavier than the Olympus: this is largely down to my having switched from the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 lens to the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 lens plus Teleconverter. This, by M4/3 standards, is quite a heavy lens. The Nikon equivalent comes in, again, a relatively meagre 600g heavier than the Sony: not at all a bad result for the DSLR camp where, whilst carrying an extra half kilo over the Sony might not sound a huge deal, 70% extra weight (2kg) relative to the Olympus makes a big difference to neck and back strain.
Going large with the Kitchen Sink system, portability looks good for Olympus, limited for Sony and very good for chiropractors who deal with Nikon owners. This is where the laws of physics kick in, big time: adding in a supertelephoto means, for the full-frame systems, a LOT of very heavy (and very expensive) glass. A full-on Olympus system weighs in at a grand total of around 5.2kg, well under half the 12kg weight of the Nikon equivalent. And that’s before taking bulk into account: That much Olympus kit can comfortably fit in an airline carry-on bag, with room for clothes and an iPad. I’d hate to be arguing with cabin crew about the Nikon 600mm f4’s potential in hand-to-hand combat… Sony misses the game entirely here, as they simply don’t have a supertelephoto in either the E-Mount or A-Mount ranges – I’ve included the old A-mount 500mm f4 for comparison but, even as and when Sony starts pushing out full frame supertelephotos, the equation is unlikely to change much – its notional weight of 9.4kg is getting on for double that of the Olympus and slightly too close for comfort to the Nikon.
Wrapping up, we can see that, as far as weight and bulk go, the advantages of the holistic system thinking behind Olympus (and Panasonic, of course) are writ large: the M4/3 format allows manufacturers to create a range of fast, high-quality lenses at a reasonable weight. Sony are an outlier: they really are changing the game with their FF camera offerings and are now finally starting to ship lenses of a quality to match, albeit with little to no weight advantage over a DSLR’s lens system. At the system level, the trad Nikon outfit does compare well on weight and overall bulk to the Sony, but is in a different class to the Olympus. Other manufacturers are available of course and I’d expect their equivalent offerings to fall into similar weight ranges.
The size comparison image at the head of this post is courtesy of Camerasize.com – a very useful site for comparing camera and lens size.