Choosing a system: Nikon D90 vs. Olympus E-620

The ever-wonderful Jes is in the market for a new DSLR! She sold her entry level Canon DSLR and is ready to move up to the heavy-hitting power of a Nikon D90 (or similar).

So Many Choices!

Anytime a friend is considering a new camera purchase, it always gets me thinking about the different DSLR systems. Here is are just a few: Canon (full frame, non-full frame), Nikon (FX, DX), Sony (full frame, non-full frame), Olympus (four thirds, micro four thirds), Pentax, Panasonic (now primarily micro four thirds). Whew, that’s a lot to choose from!!!

DSLRs have come to the point where all the top brands product excellent cameras in the $800-$1500 range. Any of these cameras can take excellent photographs. It comes down to a choice between systems and philosophies.

The following is not targeted at Jes, who already knows what she wants, this info is targeted at people planning on entering the DSLR world. It’s easy to struggle with choosing a system, so hopefully this info will be helpful! I’ll keep this focused on two popular cameras


In my photography I’ve found that lenses make a bigger difference than cameras. Most cameras today can proficiently capture a large amount of detail with minimal noise. However, a bad lens on an expensive camera is always going to produce bad images. An excellent lens on an economical camera can produce excellent results. So, if I was starting fresh, my first priority would be to peruse the lenses available for each camera system. When I found the lenses that I liked best, only then would Iproceed to choose a camera body.

Specifically, a good lens may last through many camera bodies. Take for example the 50mm F2.0 Digital Zuiko, it has lasted me through a number of camera (E-1, E-410, E510, E620…) and will continue to. Eventually your investment in lenses is going to be more than your investment in a single camera body, so choose wisely!

Now back to cameras…

I’m all for the D90. It takes the stellar characteristics of the D300 and finagles them into a more compact body while simultaneously lowering the price.

However, having chosen Olympus as my DSLR system, I am obligated  to put in a plug for the E620 ;-).


In the comparison below I am BOLDING the points that I feel are most important.

The D90 may ultimately be the better camera for most photographers, for a number of reasons:

  1. FOCUSING: Nikon focusing is uber quick / Olympus focusing is often only super-quick with SWD lenses
  2. VIEWFINDER: The D90 viewfinder is larger
  3. HIGH ISO: ISO 3200/6400 are better on the D90 than on the E620
  4. COMMITMENT: Nikon is committed to the system and they are one the top 2 manufacturers (Canon/Nikon) in sales numbers
  5. FRIENDS: You will likely have friends/family with Nikon DSLRs that you can commiserate with and share lenses/gear
  6. VIDEO: the D90 can take video
  7. UPGRADEABILITY: you can use full frame lenses on the D90 and later if you upgrade to a FX  (full frame) Nikon, your lenses will still be useful
  8. KILLER LENSES: an avid Nikon user will know this better than me, but the 18-200mm is a popular lens…

However, the E620 has some nice features for certain purposes:

  1. IMAGE STABILIZATION: the E620 has effective in-body image stabilization, so you get IS (or “VR”) for ANY lens
  2. COMPACT SIZE: very compact size, ideal for carry everywhere
  3. PRICE: the E-620 price is substantially lower
  4. LCD: articulating LCD is actually pretty darn handy for photos of cats, flowers, other low/odd subjects
  5. EXCELLENT LEGACY LENS COMPATBILITY: the four thirds system can utilize more legacy lenses (manual focus, manual aperture)  [with mechanical adapters] than any other system (except for micro four thirds). This means you can pickup a F1.4 57mm lens for <$100 (114mm equivalent when mounted on the E620) whereas a new Nikon F1.4 85mm lens (approx 128mm when mounted on the D90). is > $1200
  6. UPGRADEABILITY: if you add a compact micro four thirds camera (like the Olympus E-P1 or to a lesser degree the Panasonic GF1) you can still use all your  four thirds lenses
  7. KILLER LENSES: the 35-100mm F2 is an AMAZING lens, the 12-60mm is a nice all around lens. 50mm F2.0 is razor sharp, but Nikon may have a similar lens with better focusing.
  8. FUTURE OF THE SYSTEM? Olympus may focus more on micro 4/3 development rather than 4/3. I don’t think this will necessarily be the case.
  9. -NOT THE BIG TWO: Olympus is often right around number four in DSLR sales behind: Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

Recommendation for the photographer: Nikon D90

For someone who wants to take good photos, simply and reliably go with the  Nikon D90, you just can’t go wrong with it as a mid level (price) camera.

Recommendation for the tinkerer and experimenter: Olympus E-620

For someone who wants to experiment and play with a variety of lenses at minimal cost, the Olympus E-620 is an extremely capable camera at an extremely reasonable price.

FINAL CONCLUSION: Both great cameras!

To reiterate: DSLRs have come to the point where all the top brands product excellent cameras in the $800-$1500 range. Any of these cameras can take excellent photographs. It comes down to a choice between systems and philosophies. The Nikon is an effective  solution, widely renowned, that can produce excellent results. The Olympus system is not as widely known as Nikon, but it can be equally effective (in my opinion).

BONUS Fun photos:

Two fun photos from some flickr folks that use Olympus:

My Perfect Wife

My Perfect Husband

(if you have time, browse some of their other photos… they do amazing stuff!)

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  • Do either the Nikon D90 or the Olympus E-620 shoot RAW files? Every time you tweak a jpg in post-production, you lose a boatload of pixels. For viewing it’s no problem. But for printing large, high-def photos, more is truly more.

  • @Uncle Harley:

    All DSLR’s that I know of shoot RAW. Frankly, I’d be surprised if any could not shoot RAW (My Canon S90, which is a high end P&S can shoot in RAW). Note that pretty much each manufacture has their own RAW format, and some have two or more (Older Canons had one format, the newer ones have another, and they’re incompatible).

    One of the biggest reasons to go Nikon is for that 18-200mm lens. It is why my uncle and his brothers switched from Canon (and subsequently tried to get the 18-200mm, my uncle received his over a year before his brothers did).

  • @Uncle Harley

    It is true if you keep editing and saving a JPEG, then opening the edited JPEG, editing it again and saving, you do lose quality. If you take the JPEG and open it in Photoshop and save out in a .PSD you should not lose quality while you edit in that format.

    Also, there is more to it than just JPEG that causes what I’d call noisy 1:1 pictures. Part of this is too small of pixels on the senor. The other part is the arrangement of the pixels, and frankly unless you are using a Sigma camera you probably will not like what you see at 1:1 on a printout or on your monitor.

    What happens is for a “normal” 10MP sensor you get 2.5M red pixels, 2.5M blue pixels, and 5M green pixels. These are in groups of four (2 green, 1 red, 1 blue) and the image processor in the camera tries to average between these to make 4 average colored pixels. While it does a fairly good job you really only get between 5MP and 7MP effective resolution (which is not bad considering only having 2.5M blue and red pixels). Kodak recently devised a new block pattern that theoretically improves the effective resolution (more even ration of R, B, and G pixels). Now on the Sigma cameras, they use a layered sensor (Foveon sensor), where each pixel is a stacked red, green, and blue senor, so a 5MP Sigma is 5MP effective.

  • J.D.

    Howdy Uncle Harley!
    The E-620 does take nice RAW photos (Olympus calls them “ORF” files). It can also do RAW+JPEG simultaneously which is what I usually shoot with…

    Good summary of sensor tech, it’s always interesting to see the different sensor techniques and the pros/cons of each :-).

  • Uncle Harley

    Thanks guys… what a response. Is Kodak licensing their technology, or is it strictly proprietary? Is Sigma proprietary?

  • The Foveon sensor is only available on Sigma cameras (at the moment, no clue on if they will start licensing it yet or not).

    As for the Kodak one, I’m not sure if they’ve released anything using it yet. However, I suspect, like Sony, they will sell the sensor to other camera manufactures (either the actual sensor chip, or the IP).

  • Uncle Harley

    Thanks again. That stacked color sensor array on each of the Foveon’s pixels sounds like it would naturally reproduce the source image with the greatest fidelity, as each pixel reproduces the color closest to that which is being received from the source, rather than synthesizing the color through averaging the individual color pixels. The proof, however, is in the test results. I’ll have to watch, et al., for references to same.

  • J.D.

    Foveon was always interesting to me because of the potential for enhanced color capture and color fidelity. Alas, IMHO either through their lack of resources or experience, they have lagged behind as other conventional technologies have improved.

    PS there has been one other camera manufacturer to use the Foveon sensor: Polaroid in their x530.

  • @JD

    Heh, never knew the Foveon sensor made it into a third party P&S camera. Though, IIRC, 2004 was before Sigma bought Foveon, so that figures. They do have some interesting P&S cameras (the DP2), but after having the S90, unless it has a control ring for manual focus I’m not getting it (I love that feature that much).

    The one reason Foveon sensors have not taken off is manufacturability. Since the pixes are stacked, if one subpixel is dead, due to a process defect, it is difficult to just “map it out”. That means the sensors must be nearly flawless, and thus expensive as you will have defects in a wafer no matter what you do.

    In “normal” sensors, if there is a dead subpixel, it can be mapped out in the controller, and the algorithm that combines the pixels to gather the color information easily masks this (as long as not too many sub-pixels are bad). This makes these sensors cheap as they can be have a few defects and no one will notice.

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