Multi-lens speed and noise comparison of EM1x to A9

Equipment analysis
Multi-lens speed and noise comparison of EM1x to A9

In this post I make a lens speed and noise comparison between the EM1x and the A9 across the whole range of lenses that a professional or high-level amateur might use, including matched pairs of images from each camera at a range of ISO levels so that you can see for yourself what the differences are.

In an earlier post, I did a noise comparison between the Sony A9 and the Olympus EM1x cameras when used for birds in flight. The analysis compared the the EM1x with the Olympus pro telephoto lenses to the A9 with the Sony 200-600 f5.6-6.3 lens, and showed that there was no practical difference in noise between the two systems when used at the higher ISOs frequently necessary for birds in flight. However birds in flight is a fairly narrow use case. So lets look at the complete range

EM1x to A9 lens and noise comparison – G lenses

In this first comparison we will look at the Olympus pro lenses compared to the Sony G glass. The Sony G range is extremely popular with professional and amateur Sony photographers because it provides excellent quality at a reasonable cost. Faster lenses are available through the G Master range from Sony, and some photographers will supplement their general lens lineup with one or more G Master lenses. The G master lenses are substantially more expensive and heavier, but also faster with even better image quality. Very few photographers can afford the entire G master range, but we will look at the G master comparison with Olympus pro lenses in the next section.

Here is a table showing the the comparative speeds of the Olympus Pro and Sony G lenses at all the key focal lengths. Because the Olympus Pro lenses are faster (4th column in table), the EM1x (and any other native Micro 4/3rds camera) can shoot at lower ISOs and this enables the intrinsic sensor noise disadvantage of around 1 stop, to be clawed back and then some (5th column in table).

Full Frame equivalent focal lengthOlympus pro lensSony G lensLens Speed difference ( + is Olympus advantage)Noise difference in stops ( + is Olympus advantage)
14-28mm7-14mm f2.812-24 mm f41same
35mm17mm f1.235mm f1.81.250.25
50mm25mm f1.250mm f1.81.250.25
85mm45mm f1.285mm f1.81.250.25
150mm75mm f1.8135mm f1.81.250.25
70-200 f42.251.25
200mm40-150 f2.8100-400 f4.5-5.621
200-600 f5.6-6.321
300mm40-150 f2.8100-400 f4.5-5.621
200-600 f5.6-6.3
400mmPL 200 f2.8200-600 f5.6-
100-400 f4.5-5.621
600mm300mm f4200-600 f5.6-

In this noise comparison we are assuming that the the Olympus can run at a lower ISO than the Sony because of its faster lenses. This does not apply below the minimum IS0 200 of the Olympus. To investigate what happens at these and other ISO levels we need to look at real photographs.

Photographic noise comparison of EM1x to A9

DP review noise comparison

In my prior post looking at a noise comparison of the EM1x to A9 for birds in flight, I used some of my own photographs to compare noise levels. However I don’t have a comparative set of images across the ISO range for both cameras to be able to do a deeper analysis.

Fortunately however a full set of comparative images does exist. These have been taken under controlled conditions by the excellent chaps at DP review. In their camera reviews they include a ‘Studio scene’ noise comparator with which you can can look at any pair of tested cameras at a range of ISOs.

Particularly conveniently, DP review allows the images at each ISO to be downloaded so that we can compare them directly here. I have chosen jpg comparison images because that is how they will be viewed in this website. The comparisons are really instructive.

ISO comparison for Pro vs G lenses

Let’s first of all all look at the EM1x compared to the A9 with a typical scenario of lenses as described above, where the Olympus has a 0.25 to 1.25 stop noise advantage over the Sony. The gallery linked below shows image pairs with the A9 always on the left. The images are at 100% magnification on an area at the lower middle part of the test image. We start at the lowest ISO of each camera, and then move up to a final ISO of 6400 (which for me is the maximum ISO needed for the EM1x), comparing each camera at the same ISO.

The images are set up as an album, and can be seen via this link (so that they don’t take up all the rest of the space in this post). You can see that at the same ISOs the E-M1x holds up really well, with no significant noise or detail differences to the A9 from the base ISO up to ISO 3200, but it falters at ISO 6400.

Now lets look at the noise comparison when the A9 is one ISO stop higher than the EM1x, as will happen at all focal lengths above 150mm. Now there is no significant noise or detail difference even up to ISO 6400 on the EM1x. So for most ISO ranges, on the most popular pro Sony lenses, the EM1x gives nothing away.

Now to be fair, the EM1x cannot compete at all above ISO 6400. Photographers who do the bulk of their work at those speeds should be using a Sony A7, or A7s to get the best results. But that’s not me, or I suspect more than a very small proportion of the market.

EM1x to A9 lens and noise comparison – G Master lenses

Ha! say the the sceptics. You have completely ignored the very fast G Master and Zeiss lenses in this comparison. Ok let’s have a look at those lenses.

Full Frame equivalent focal lengthOlympus pro lensSony Gmaster /ZeissLens Speed difference ( + is Olympus advantage)Noise difference in stops ( + is Olympus advantage)
14-28mm7-14mm f2.812-24mm f2.8same-1
35mm17mm f1.235mm f1.40.5-0.5
50mm25mm f1.250mm f1.40.5-0.5
85mm45mm f1.285mm f1.40.5-0.5
150mm75mm f1.870-200 f2.81.250.25
200mm40-150 f2.8100-400 f4.5-
70-200 f2.8same-1
300mm40-150 f2.8100-400 f4.5-
70-200 f2.8 +1.4 TC 1.0same
400mmPL 200 f2.8400mm f2.8same-1
600mm300mm f4600mm f4same-1

Here we can see that there is an overall EM1x noise disadvantage of up to one stop at all focal lengths except 150mm FFE. That’s clearly a problem. However, there is some help at hand. Topaz Denoise AI is a superb tool for handling noise, and I use it on every portfolio image, on every camera, Sony and Olympus alike. So let’s look at the DP review test images where the Olympus is 1 stop ahead of the Sony, but where both sets have been processed with Topaz. Wow! Essentially no difference up to ISO 3200 on the EM1x! So even when G Master lenses are used, the EM1x holds it’s own at most normal ISOs.

Clearly if you’re a pro working in low light all the time, you’re going to want to be using the the Sony system. But to put things in perspective, the cost of all the G Master lenses above is £33,933 or around $50,000 and the weight is nearly 12 kilos, or 26lbs. That compares with a cost of £10,700 or $14,000 and a weight of 5.3 kilos or 11.66 lbs for the Olympus pro system. For 90% of pro work, there is going to be no practical image difference, but a huge advantage in cost and portability for the Olympus cameras.

I know, no one will believe this. But I am showing you real data from an independent source. Moreover, unlike most Internet pundits, I have owned and/or used all these cameras. The results match my personal experience of what I was seeing as I processed images from both systems under similar or identical circumstances.

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