Thursday, December 04, 2014

Micro-Four Thirds lens recommendations: part two

7.5 / 12 / 20 / 45 / 75 (side view)

Welcome to Part Two

In part one of this article I gave some introductory justification and offered a series of images that would help you compare the very different fields of view (FOV) these lens present. I will next discuss the available prime lenses in five categories, from widest to narrowest. I will relate the focal lengths back to "full frame" as a useful standard.

For each I will indicate the lowest price, taken from Amazon UK and SRS Microsystems, so that those of you in Europe have a good baseline for comparison. I should note that I generally buy on the used market, and have therefore completed my lens set at a significant discount.

My criteria include price, aperture (f/2 or better), weight, size, and image quality.

Widest field of view (under 24mm equivalent)

Wide lenses that produce a rectilinear perspective tend to be expensive, sometimes extremely so. A much more reasonable alternative is a "fisheye" lens, which is to say, one that produces a curved view of the scene. The "Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 UMC Fisheye" (£234), also sold under the name Rokinon, is a superlative lens with very high sharpness across the frame. It is quite small for such a design, weighing only 197g and stretching 48mm in length. It has a built-in petal hood and comes with a snap-on cap that you will want to fit at all times when not shooting. The projecting front element is easy to damage.

This lens produces a full 180 degree view, which is great fun. The resulting equal-area (equisolid) projection can be left as it is, in "fishy" mode, which can be a cool effect. But is also easy to defish in software. Try the rectilinear and Panini transformations for a start. Different treatments will suit different images.

This lens is also remarkably inexpensive. The only downside is that it is completely manual in both exposure and focus. You set the aperture ring to control how much light enters the lens, and use the focus ring to make the nearest item you are interested in nice and sharp. These are not difficult tasks to master, since the camera will set exposure correctly in "A" mode. Considering the effective focal length of 7.5mm, it is easy to get everything in focus. (In the previous article I completely forgot to focus this lens, and you can only just tell!)

In fact, the biggest problem is ending up with fingers in the shot. The lens captures so much of the scene that I have to be careful how I hold the camera.

What about other choices? The "Panasonic Lumix G Fisheye 8mm F3.5" (£549) is much more expensive and offers the advantage of auto-focus and full electronic coupling. It won't take better pictures, however.

The "Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2.0" (£525) is the widest rectilinear lens for this system. It has a lovely clutch manual focus system and is a joy to use. Image quality is excellent. But it is also dearer and captures "only" an 84 degree field of view. You must also remember to budget extra for an appropriate lens hood: in a strange and annoying policy, Olympus sells these separately. They should really change this policy!

Nice landscape lens (around 28mm equivalent)

Ultra-wide lenses produce a geometric distortion of the subject that is often inappropriate. My favourite field of view that is "wide enough" but retains a nice "natural" feeling is 28mm equivalent. The "Panasonic Lumix G 14mm F2.5 ASPH" (£250) hits this sweet spot exactly, presenting a field of view of 75.4 degrees. It is almost as wide as the Olympus 12mm and also almost as fast, the difference between the 2.0 and 2.5 apertures being less than a full stop. Remarkably, it has better peak sharpness than the much larger and more expensive lens. As a bonus, it is only 55g and 20mm long. Before MFT, this would have been a magic act!

An alternative is the "Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm F1.7 ASPH" (£499) which is a stop faster and has better corner sharpness. But it's also twice as expensive. I very much like the rendering I've seen from this optic, but cannot justify it.

Classic street lens (around 35mm equivalent)

In this category we are spoilt for choice, but the "Panasonic Lumix G Vario 20mm F1.7 ASPH II" (£289) is the smallest of the available primes. It is only 100g and 25.5mm long but renders excellent out-of-focus area smoothness (AKA bokeh). In the lab it measures as a 18.5mm, and so just about sneaks into this category. The only real disadvantage is the slow autofocus speed, but that has never been an issue for me, since I don't track fast-moving targets. (Cats and babies are generally not so fast.)

The first competition on the market was the "Olympus M.ZUIKO 17mm f/2.8" (£185) but this lens is slower and suffers from poor lateral chromatic aberration. It is a tad smaller, however (71g and 22mm long). More recently we have had access to the "Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8" (£329) which is significantly larger (120g and 36mm long), more than a stop faster, and more expensive. I was very much expecting to buy this lens, but it turns out that it is less sharp than the 20mm option. The Polish site Lenstip found it so inferior to the existing options that they questioned why it had been made!

The least expensive option is the "Sigma 19mm f/2.8 DN A" (£129), which is the second generation design from that firm. (The first gen did not have the "A" in the name.) At 140g and 46mm long it is large compared to the Panasonic 20mm but has poorer IQ all round. The border resolution in particular is not up to snuff for a wide lens.

The "normal" 50mm

When I started with photography I could never get the shot I wanted, and that was due to my complete lack of technical competence. After I learned how to expose and develop film correctly I still couldn't get the shots I wanted. I soon realised that it was because I was using a 50mm lens, which came standard with every camera. For me this field of view is not wide enough for interiors or dramatic scenes, and not telephoto enough for portraits or capturing details. It's neither one thing nor the other. And it's not even "normal"; as I've discussed elsewhere 43mm is the true normal focal length for 35mm (based on diagonal sensor length).

Though I won't make a recommendation in this category, I will note three choices. The "Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 25mm 1:1.8" (£289) is less expensive than the "Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH" (£399). The Olympus has much better edge sharpness until f/2.8 when they equalise. The Olympus is significantly smaller (137g and 42mm versus 200g and 55mm), plus it focuses 5cm closer. On the other hand the Panasonic has the edge if you want that extra fraction of a stop (f/1.4 versus f/1.8). The Olympus is the easy choice.

The "Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN A" (£129) is an odd creature in terms of field of view, but is an inexpensive alternative to Olympus and Panasonic, with similar form factor to the former. Centre sharpness fares well, but the border resolution is not up to the competition. And of course it is over a stop slower.

The short telephoto (75 to 105mm equivalent)

I love this focal range! It is perfect for grabbing little details out of scenes. Apparent depth is compressed, allowing for imaginative compositions in depth. If the lens has enough magnification it can fill in for a macro. And it is also the perfect range for portraiture.

We have once again been spoiled by the Micro-Four Thirds team. The "Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm 1:1.8 MSC" (£209) is only 116g and 37mm long. While that doesn't qualify as a pancake lens, it is tiny for what this lens delivers, which is nothing short of superlative images. Sharp from wide open, the lens has pleasant rendering qualities and is fast enough not to limit your photography. Truly a gem in the line, this lens is glued to my camera.

If you want something super-fast, you can pay an extraordinary amount of money for the "Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 ASPH Power OIS" (£1197). Build quality is excellent, and the image quality is slightly sharper than the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm by f/2.8. But it is a tank, three times the weight and double the length of the Olympus. Oh, and did I mention the price? That "Leica" in the name really costs!

Also available is the "Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm F2.8 Aspherical OIS" (£549), but centre sharpness does not get higher than the Nocticron and the border performance is poor to middling. This is definitively not what I want from a macro lens, where edge-to-edge consistency is critical. What were they thinking?

The longer telephoto (over 105mm)

Here there are two main choices, at opposite ends of the price range. The "Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 75mm f/1.8 ED" (£688) has excellent sharpness figures but, more than that, renders a compelling image. I am not sure why this costs so much more than the 45mm, alas.

The "Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN A" (£129) fares very well in comparison. It has closer focus (50cm vs. 84cm), very low CA, less distortion (though both lenses are great), and has high resolution directly from f/2.8 (higher, actually, than the Olympus).

Given the price, what's not to like? Well, often f/2.8 is just not fast enough for portraits, where one wants a nice background blur. It is also not good enough for low light shooting (concerts, for example). At other focal lengths I might be willing to make a one stop compromise, but not in this range -- it is critical! Second, the Olympus 75mm has a rendering that is second to none. Images have a certain "look" that is hard to describe but is very appealing.

There is a third option in this category, the "Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm F2.8 Macro" (£349) which is optimised for macro shots. Or that's what you might think, but it shares one disturbing feature of the Panasonic Leica Macro-Elmarit -- it's not particularly sharp across the frame. Unfortunately then, it's not really fit for any task.

7.5 / 12 / 20 / 45 / 75 (third view)

First Recommendation

It's easy and inexpensive to build an excellent Micro-Four Thirds system composed of featherweight lenses that have rapid and silent autofocus. The "tiny trio" of 14 / 20 / 45 can be had new for £750. The Panasonic Lumix 14/2.5, Panasonic Lumix 20/1.7, and Olympus 45/1.8 add up to only 271g, which is laughable!

Depending on taste, you can even omit the 20mm and go for a two-lens kit of 14mm and 45mm. That's what I carry 90% of the time.

Second Recommendation

If you need to go wide, then the Samyang 7.5/3.5 Fisheye is your obvious choice. I never thought I'd like a fisheye lens, but the impressive resolution of this beastie has changed my mind. You can defish in software and still have a sharp image.

You may need to save up for the Olympus 75/1.8 (£688), but you will be rewarded in quality. This superlative lens fills in the long end of a five lens collection that will in no way restrict your expression.

The images on this page picture exactly these five lenses, in focal length order, together with the lens protection I use. From left to right: Samyang 7.5/3.5 (with native lens cap), Panasonic 14/2.5 (with 46 to 49mm filter adapter), Panasonic 20/1.7 (with 46 to 49mm filter adapter), Olympus 45/1.8 (with 37 to 49mm filter adapter and Pentax metal hood), Olympus 75/1.8 (with JJC after-market screw-on hood). The little filter adapters normalise the front threads to 49mm at the same time as adding a bit of impact protection.

The cheapest way

If you are working on the tightest of budgets, Sigma is your friend. Their 19 / 30 / 60 combo is made up of rather peculiar focal length choices, but will set you back only £387. Then again, by being patient I landed the "tiny trio" for £485, which is a much better deal all around.

And even more...

Even if you had more money, the expensive MFT lenses are a mixed bag, often deficient in one or more respects compared to the cheaper offerings. I find it peculiar that Panasonic can't make a compelling lens at thrice the price and twice the size of Olympus. Their lenses should really blow away the competition, but this is not the case.

If you want to impress, and have been working out regularly, consider Voigtlander. Their Nokton series of huge, rock-solid, and completely manual optics are designed to impress. The 17.5/0.95 (540g and 80mm long), 25/0.95 (410g and 70mm), and 42.5/0.95 (571g and 75mm) are light-sucking monsters that weigh in almost six times as heavy as my recommended kit. They also cost £878, £710, and £799 respectively.

No matter what your budget, MFT has a tool for every task. Yes, we are spoiled indeed.


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