The little Panasonic 35-100mm f4-5.6 is quite a performer, yet amazingly small.
Every other blue moon I get a rush of blood to the region just above my shoulders and decide to purchase a new camera and some lenses to go with said device. Recently I decided that I deserved and indeed needed a new travel camera kit, so after much reading, thinking, more reading and then re-thinking I jumped on a new Olympus EM5 mk2 and some Panasonic Kit lenses plus an Olympus 45mm f1.8.
This is not my first foray into M4/3, that would be the rather lovely Panasonic GH2 which I bought for video duties, but is is the first time I have done an analysis of the stills capability of the format and seriously tested any lenses that one would use on the format.
Since I was going to all the trouble of doing some rather involved system evaluation and pixel peaking I thought it might be an idea to do a series of blogs on the processes and outcomes, surely there would be a few folk out there who might benefit from my explorations, thus my friends we have post one of 'The Great M4/3 Adventure".
There are a great many legacy lenses that have developed a mythology all of their own based on their performance when used on film SLR bodies or in some cases early DSLRs. Photo forums are chockers with quick and dirty lens reviews extolling the virtues of exotic glass from bygone eras and eBay sellers have cashed in like pre GFC investment bankers sending the prices of previously worthless chunks of metal and glass to stratospheric heights often well beyond what they commanded when all shiny and new. Hell even some haze ridden, fungus infested but well blessed by mythology lenses seem to be able to attract an excited buyer on the fleabay market.
Of course it is all the fault of the Mirrorless revolution rather than some mass market mind bending plan by lens dealers with axes to grind and families to feed. And let's not put the trend down, it can be great fun to attach some ancient hunk of glass to your shiny new mirrorless wonder and see how the rendering looks and pixels resolve. I have certainly done more than my fair share of old glass gazing, but I will add I am very very selective about what I will spend any real money on.
One large mistake you can make it to assume that just because lens X was brilliant optically on a film camera that it will translate to all the other digital formats without any issues. Let me tell you I have found many a great full frame film lens that proved to be an utter stinker of no optical value when placed in front of some digital sensors.
You will note I said "sensors", let me just expand on that a little. Lens X many have been great on a film camera, very average on a full frame mirrorless body, excellent on an APSC body and utter garbage on M4/3. A specific lens might work really well with brand Z camera yet be rubbish with brand Y camera. Thing is dear reader you cannot, and should not take anyones word for the perfection or otherwise of a lens or its suitability to your camera without doing some test of your own.
There is the obvious first issue, basically what you and I think is acceptable might be very different, maybe you just want to post stuff to Facebook in small low res sizes and I want to make big prints for a client. Maybe you like soft edges and a sharp middle and I want an overall level of superb clarity. Maybe you just shoot jpegs and turn up the "in camera" parameters settings and I only shoot raw with very careful custom editing.
Beyond our own personal preferences or tolerances however lies the world of interaction between lenses and sensors, there are so many variables that are hard to quantify. The factors could include (and this is by no means exhaustive) the native contrast of the lens, the size of its' cental sweet spot, field curvature characteristics, basic optical design, the thickness of the sensors cover glass, the design of the pixel matrix, in camera processing (even in raw), the depth of the pixel wells and on it goes. Basically it is very complex and most casual and probably even experienced shooters have little chance of making a call regarding a lenses performance without some structured testing and evaluation. I guess what I am saying is before you place that bid on eBay it is probably a good idea to see if you can find some tests done by someone using the same camera as you with the lens you have in mind. And not just any test either, a couple of snaps of flowers close up with the background out of focus tells you nothing, well almost nothing, likewise tests involving brick walls are meaningless unless you are buying the lens to capture "The great masonry surfaces of the world most boring architecture" series.
So to give you some insight and maybe save you from a mistake or wasting your credit I will tell you about the preliminary results of some tests I have been working through with legacy lenses on my Olympus Em5 mk 2. As an added bonus I will also refer to how these lenses compare to native M4/3 kit lenses, in this case the Panasonic 14-42 version 2 and Panasonic 35-100 f4-5.6. Later I will present some detailed blogs about each of these lenses.
First up the two lenses I am comparing the legacy lenses to are both excellent in their own right which is basically why I bought them in the first place, I wanted a very lightweight travel kit with excellent optical performance but without spending too much money. I'm not really a cheapskate but going down the kit lens route is just a practical consideration, other than the weight saving, should something go missing to a light handed holiday thief or perhaps the lens meets unexpectedly with the concrete whilst on tour it's not the end of the world and they are easy enough to replace. Truth is however that both the lenses in question give very little away to their faster heavy more expensive pro brethren.
So what are these lenses, the Panasonic 14 to 42 f3.5 to 5.6 mark 2 and the very compact Panasonic 35 to 100 mm f4 -5.6 telephoto zoom, they have been joined by an Olympus 45mm f1.8 and will soon find themselves in close proximity to a Panasonic 15mm f1.7.
Let's get the ball rolling with a few statements about the two kit zooms, of the two, the telephoto is the most impressive, especially in the 35 to 60 mm range, even wide open it is terrific and I can confirm that all the positive reviews out there for this micro miracle are indeed on the money, basically it has a consistency of performance that punches well above its weight (literally) and price.
The 14-42 is more of a mixed bag, in the 14 to 24mm range it is really fabulous in every respect, between 24 and 32 mm it remains very good but a little prone varying softness in the corners due to lens alignment/mechanical precision (frankly most people would not notice it) and falls off considerably in overall clarity beyond 32 mm. The later factor is of little concern for most telephoto duties like portraits, as the centre still remains nicely sharp.
The clincher in all the above is that if I use the 14-42 as a 14 to 32 mm lens and then pop on the 35- 100 I can get great quality across the whole focal range with very little weight in my manage and bear in mind this dynamic duo have a combined weight of just 245g!
The list of legacy lenses that I have thus far tested on the Olympus EM5 mk2 are as follows, I have made some brief comments on each, which will be followed in detail with test pics etc in later individual blog posts.
Samyang 14mm f2.8: (not a legacy lens in the true sense): Very disappointing, the stellar performance it shows on a full frame sensor does not even come close to being realised M4/3. Basically unusable in my opinion, it seems to be very hard to nail focus on the Olympus despite the 14 X magnification option for manual focus. I suspect there is some sort of weird interaction between the sensor cover glass and this particular lenses optical design, it is otherwise brilliant on full frame and rather tasty on my Sony APSC stuff.
Kit lens significantly better in every way.
Olympus 24mm f2.8 (OM) series: Rather prone to chromatic aberration but this can be fixed in RAW easy enough, but by golly gosh it has the most lovely colour and tonal rendering and the real kicker is the centre in particular is incredibly sharp, even wide open, it literally resolves at a pixel level.
The edges never get super sharp but they are more than satisfactory. This lens has a seriously lovely natural filmic look, definitely a match!
Kit lens is not quite as sharp in the centre but has much better edges due to very low CA, but lacks the character this lens has.
Nikon 35-70mm f3.3 to 4.5 Macro Zoom: (hard to nail this model down as Nikon made lots of variants): This is one a seriously sharp lens on M4/3, wide open at all focal lengths it is still nicely sharp but suffers from micro flare on bright items in the image, but close it down just one stop and it's all rather magical. No vignetting to speak of, chromatic aberration that is truly minimal, even clarity across the entire frame. What not to like? Pretty much only one thing, it's a very low contrast lens so the files need some contrast tweaking, for me this is a non-issue as I prefer to shoot with low contrast lenses but some may not like it.
The real icing on the cake is that the lens is actually very compact and a sweet ergonomic match for the EM5 mk 2.
Probably sharper than kit lenses and far more even across the whole image frame throughout its entire range, but lacks the punch of the kitties, it is actually sharper than the 45mm f1.8 when shot at f5.6.
Minolta 28-85 f3.5 to f4.5: Over the years I have made more money with this lenses than any other, it works well on full frame when combined with some careful CA correction and it's still very nice on APSC. The real kicker is that at 85mm it is just renders portraits in the most lovely way, which is why it has earnt its keep over the years.
On the M4/3 Olympus at the wider end of the lenses range, i.e. from 28 to 45mm it is utterly unusable, it is just not possible to get any edge, much less corner clarity. There is an obvious negative interaction between the sensor cover glass and the lenses design.
Ah but all is not lost, it has the most lovely rendering at 70-85mm and works magically for portraits, oddly (and I mean really oddly) it is actually sharper in the middle on M4/3 than it is on the larger formats and seems less prone to small scale blue channel flare as well. Again that M4/3 sensor cover glass must be interacting, but in this instance positively, I suspect the lack of an AA filter on the Olympus is also a factor here, anyhow it is a very good match at the longer focal lengths.
Downsides, other than the rubbish wide angle results, it is rather heavy and unbalanced on the Oly.
Kit lenses eats it alive except for that super 70-85mm range where this lens shows the most lovely character and very good resolution.
Minolta 28-135 f4 to 4.5: Oh dear me what an anachronism we have here. This lens on both Full Frame and APSC is extraordinary, it is truly clinically sharp. If you know a bit about Legacy lenses on the Sony systems you will know this baby as the "Secret Handshake Lens" and other than the standard old school chromatic aberration issue it slays just about anything up until the new Sony G lenses. It is however flare prone, quite heavy and not exactly a close focuser (like about 2m) but I have shot more than enough photos with it to know it is something special.
All that turns to complete s... on the M4/3 platform, between 28 and 50mm it has no redeeming characteristics, terrible in every way.
But wait, I said it is an anachronism....
At about 75mm something strange happens, it turns from just below average into really very good, and then at about 100mm the optical gods seem to have sprinkled some magic dust over the thing and it turns utterly stellar, come the final 135mm setting and you could shave yourself with the damned thing.
Think of this as a very heavy M4/3 85-135mm zoom and you'd have a tool that will stun you, use it for anything shorter than that and you will be wondering what all that secret handshake fuss is about.
14-42 Kit lens kills it stone dead, then dances on its grave, but the 85-100 mm range its easily as good or better than the 35-100mm Panasonic, as for the 135mm lens long end, I doubt that any of the M4/3 equivalent kit lenses or even high end lenses would get close!
Olympus 100mm f2.8 (OM): Of my gawd, I cannot believe how good this lens is on the EM5 mk 2. Remember I said the 35-100 Panasonic is really very good, even at 100mm it is still good but the 100mm f2.8 utterly creams it!
Look this is a killer lens for the Olympus, even at f2.8 it looks great. The only downside is some micro flare which is easily fixed and not any worse than the Panny at 100mm. Oh and there is virtually no CA with this beauty, best of all it just feels so nice on the EM5 mk 2. Oh this one is going to get a lot of love!
No competition, despite the gallant performance of the 35-100 Panny it is just totally outclassed by this lens, so long as your OK with manual focus of course.
Minolta 100 to 300 f4 to 5.6 APO: (autofocus) I'll say straight up, it just works and it works really well, clinically sharp at every setting, stop it down just 1 stop and everything is brilliant.
The APO is a sleeper of the old Minolta glass series, it seems few people realise just how great it is, on both FF and APSC and it's is really a cheap high end option.
Downsides, well frankly manual focusing a 300mm lens on M4/3 is pretty bloody hard to do, but with practice it is doable, it also gets physically pretty long once you go past the 200mm setting.
The lens is actually quite compact for what it is and between 100 to say 180mm it's a reasonable physical match to the EM5 mk 2
I have no M4/3 lenses in this range but I imagine it would give even the very best ones a serious run for their money, it really is that good, only problem is that at these focal lengths most folk are really going to need autofocus.
Micro Nikkor 55mm f2.8: Up front superlative at f4 and smaller apertures. The Micro has always been a great lens, it works brilliantly on any camera I have ever used it on.
At f2.8 there is a little flare and the corners are not super sharp but by f4 the clarity is pretty much the same everywhere in the frame.
It is a lowish contest lens, which is fine by me. For my needs the Micro Nikkor has one very special characteristic, (other than the fact it works as a 1:1 macro for M4/3) it has an incredibly flat field rendering, in other words you get a very defined plane of sharpness. Of course Macro lenses are designed to do just that but when that characteristic extends into the normal distance range it makes for very controllable depth of field rendering.
I have not tested this lens against the Olympus 45mm f1.8 yet but I will do so pretty soon, preliminary comparisons of photos I have already taken indicate it bests the 45mm f1.8.
Significantly better than the already terrific 35-100 Panny.
Nikon 50mm f1.8 (auto focus model): I am not going to win any friends here as most folk seem to think it is something of a stunner, frankly I found it it to pretty average at best, it is not a great match for the Oly and the thin focus ring is just bloody horrible to use.
It has some redeeming characteristics for portraiture as wide open and down to say f3.5 it is a bit dreamy so it suits that task and could earn it s keep if just used for that.
In short the Micro Nikkor eats is alive for detail and the 35-70mm zoom looks better at f5 than the 50mm f1.8 does. It is possible that mine is a bad copy but then it seems to work really nicely on full frame and APSC, I suspect it is just not well suited to the M4/3 sensor.
No competition, the kit lens wins.
Nikon 70-210 f4-5.6 Autofocus Zoom: Really very average at all focal lengths, not really worth any extra testing, simply has nothing special to offer and no reason to be used on the M4/3 platform. It does show some pretty horrific longitudinal CA at the longer focal lengths which really makes the images look disturbing to my eyes and that sort of CA is a devil to fix!
Against the kit lens, not even in the hunt, in fact I don't think it even got on the horse.
Nikon 35-105 f3.5-4.5 Autofocus zoom: Basically much the same as the 70-210, nothing terrible but nothing extra to bring to the table.
Against the kit lens, do you have to ask?
Others I have not got to:
Over the next few weeks I will fully test the following lenses, though up front I don't expect any except the last one to be stellar performers.
Minolta 70-210 (Beercan) I expect considerable CA both lateral and longitudinal, we will see.
Minolta 35-70 f4 (Mini Beercan) Nice and small is a good physical match to the EM, we will see.
(Update, I have since run the tests of this lens, it is actually quite nice from about 45mm up, gives a lovely 3D rendering and physically a great match, the final test should be interesting)
Minolta 24-50 f4 Works really well on the larger formats, shows promise, I will give a hint, I already know from preliminary tests it is much better at 24mm than the Olympus 24 f2.8!
Minolta 50mm f3.5 Macro: Reasonable chance this will be quite good. (Scrub that, I ran the tests and not exciting at all, not a contender I am afraid, despite the small physical size)
Canon FD 50mm 1.8 I have no idea at all, I'm waiting on an adapter.
And finally Sigma 18-35mm f1.8. I hope it is good!
So there is the first instalment, make sure you come back for the detailed investigations and findings and lots of sample pics over the next few weeks.