Plugged In: Micro 4/3 lenses maximize quality

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

It’s an apt time to conclude our discussion of lenses for Micro Four-Thirds cameras, currently the most popular interchangeable-lens compact system cameras. At the moment, several very good M 4/3 cameras are priced to sell quickly.

Panasonic is steeply discounting two of its better current M 4/3 cameras, the rangefinder-styled GX1 and the digital SLR-styled G5, selling these new-in-box cameras in the $330 to $500 range, kit zoom lens included.

Some Olympus dealers, including Cameta Camera, are offering highly regarded, older-model Olympus E-PL2, E-PL3 and E-P3 cameras, some as low as $230 for an E-PL2 body without kit zoom lens. Of the discounted Olympus cameras, the E-P3 is the most recent and probably the most capable, although I’m fond of the handling and looks of Olympus’ E-PL2. Image quality is basically identical for all three Olympus models.

Among M 4/3 cameras, I have a general preference for Olympus cameras because Panasonic does not build image stabilization hardware directly into its camera bodies, but only into some selected lenses. As a result, many excellent M 4/3 lenses, even some lenses made by Panasonic itself, are stabilized only when mounted on Olympus cameras, all of which include in-body image-stabilization hardware. As a result, every lens that’s physically mounted on an Olympus M 4/3 camera is inherently stabilized. That’s a major advantage — camera shake is a common, and avoidable, cause of technically poor photographs.

When buying heavily discounted cameras, be sure that you understand what you’re ordering. Some of the less-expensive kits are factory-refurbished cameras that come with a store warranty, rather than Olympus’ factory warranty, not a deal-breaker if you’re dealing with a reputable seller like Cameta. Buying factory-refurbished cameras is often a great way to save a lot of money on gear and Cameta seems reliable, based on my past dealing with them.

Compact-system cameras are at their best when used with high-quality, single-magnification prime lenses. Prime lenses are usually smaller, sharper and better in dim light than zoom lenses. For a while, though, camera makers encouraged the belief that the average zoom lens was both sharp enough for precise work and also fast enough to use effectively in poor light.

More recently, we’ve had experience with excellent, fast prime lenses from Panasonic, Leica and Olympus. Careful users now understand that, optically, most zoom lenses are not as good as high-quality prime lenses. In this regard, we are returning to an earlier era of photography, when prime lenses were the preferred optical choice.

In addition to the M 4/3 lenses discussed last week, there are several others worth considering. Remember to multiply M 4/3 lens focal lengths by two to equate them to 35-mm optical effects.

  • Samyang’s 7.5-mm fisheye lens is also sold under Bower and Rokinon brand names. It’s inexpensive but quite sharp, easily covering the full M 4/3 image area. This is clearly the best value among fisheye lenses for M 4/3 cameras. Its aperture is manually set and it’s manually focused, but so what? Exquisitely precise focus is not needed with such a short focal length because depth of field is nearly unlimited. If you set your camera to aperture-priority mode, you should have autoexposure in any event. Although I generally don’t use fisheye lenses, this sub-$300 lens is compact, fairly inexpensive and surprisingly sharp. It’s particularly fun to use when experimenting with Olympus’ “art” modes built into their Pen and OM-D cameras.
  • Olympus’ 12-mm, f/2, wide-angle (about $800) is a premium lens, with precise metal construction rather than the usual plastic. Some consider this to be the highest-quality wide-angle lens available for M 4/3, although the data that I’ve seen indicates that Panasonic’s 7- to 14-mm, superwide-angle zoom lens is even sharper, although larger, heavier and even more costly. The high cost of Olympus’ 12-mm wide-angle lens is a concern. Panasonic’s 14-mm, f/2.5 lens is nearly as wide, very compact and nearly as sharp, yet costs only about one-third as much. I don’t think that the 12-mm Olympus is a cost-effective purchase.
  • Compared to its 12-mm wide-angle prime lens, Olympus’ own 14- to 42-mm M. Zuiko II R kit lens is almost as wide and just as sharp at its lowest 14-mm magnification, at least when used at f/5.6 through f/8. Realistically, the Olympus 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lense is adequate for the needs of most users and costs little or nothing when bought with a camera body. Olympus also makes a somewhat sharper, weather-sealed 12- to 50-mm kit zoom that’s sold with their weather-sealed OM-D camera body. I’ve found this Olympus 12- to 50-mm lens to be adequate for most needs, particularly in hostile weather conditions. It’s a good travel zoom, sharper than the more expensive, but not weather-sealed, Olympus 14- to 150-mm travel zoom.
  • Panasonic sells four normal-range kit zoom lenses, two of which have no equivalent in Olympus’ optical lineup. Panasonic’s regular 14- to 42-mm kit zoom is easily as sharp as the Olympus equivalent, while the premium-priced 14- to 42-mm “X” series powered zoom is smaller and slightly sharper. Panasonic’s professional grade 12- to 35-mm zoom is very sharp, as befits a lens intended for demanding professional users. At about $1,200 average retail price, it’s beyond the means of all but a few. Panasonic’s 14- to 150-mm travel zoom is somewhat sharper than Olympus’ equivalent 14- to 150-mm lens. If you want a high-magnification M 4/3 travel zoom, then you’ll probably be more satisfied with the Panasonic lens.
  • Two minuscule, unusual, yet interesting lenses are available for M 4/3 cameras. The first is the Wanderlust Pinwide body cap ($38 at Amazon), which fits all M 4/3 cameras. This is a real pinhole lens for digital cameras, so if you occasionally hanker to try old-time photography using modern equipment, the Pinwide is about the only game in town.  Not quite as extreme as the Pinwide, Olympus’ 15-mm f/8 body cap ($50) includes a three-element lens that’s unexpectedly sharp across the center 50 percent of the image, softening rapidly toward the edges. Even Olympus’ own catalogue lists this item among “accessories,” rather than lenses. Both are inexpensive and fun.
  • Among normal focal-length lenses for M 4/3 cameras, Olympus’ older 17-mm f/2.8 is not particularly well regarded. It’s not very sharp compared to its competitors. Olympus’ recently introduced 17-mm f/1.8 lens ($500) likewise does not seem quite as good as its less-expensive competition, particularly Panasonic’s outstanding 20-mm f/1.7 lens. Compared to Olympus’ products in this range, Panasonic’s 14-, 20- and 25-mm lenses are definitely better and only marginally more expensive, if that. Again, Olympus’ own 14- to 42-mm M. Zuiko II kit lens is as sharp or sharper at this magnification than both Olympus 17-mm prime lenses, so why bother spending money unnecessarily?
  • There are several good macro lenses for M 4/3 systems. Panasonic’s 45-mm Leica-designed macro lens is well regarded, although not quite as sharp as Olympus’ less-expensive 60-mm macro lens for M 4/3 cameras. However, the older Olympus 50-mm f/2 macro lens that we discussed last week remains the sharpest macro lens of all and, even better, it’s the least expensive of the three. Although designed for Four-Thirds cameras, it’s fully usable on any Olympus M 4/3 camera equipped with Olympus’ MMF-2 or MMF-3 fully automatic adapters. It remains among the value leaders among M 4/3 macro lenses, even after purchasing the adapter.
  • Beyond 75 mm, there are no really excellent prime nor telephoto zoom lenses for M 4/3 cameras, although the 40- to 150-mm and 45- to 175-mm zoom lenses from Olympus and Panasonic are quite usable. Olympus’ 40- to 150-mm lens is usually the better buy, especially when bought as part of a two-lens kit, although Panasonic users should use Panasonic telephoto zooms, which include image stabilization hardware in each lens.

The newer M. Zuiko 40- to 150-mm version seems to fare better in objective tests than the older version intended for Four-Thirds dSLR cameras. However, after comparing these newer models against my older 40- to 150-mm Four-Thirds lens, (mounted with an MMF-2 adapter), I decided that my older lens was definitely sharper. I may simply have a better than average sample.

Panasonic sells three zooms in this range. Its 45- to 200-mm lens is not particularly sharp. The newer 45- to 175-mm zoom is touted as a “premium” grade lens, with very good to excellent sharpness when used at f/8, but it’s probably overpriced. Panasonic’s recently introduced 45- to 150-mm lens ($250) is a well-constructed, less-expensive consumer model with decent but not overawing sharpness between 45 mm and about 115 mm. Compared to Olympus’ competing 40- to 150-mm “R” lens, the Panasonic’s sharpness diminishes more rapidly toward maximum magnification. At this point, your best bet will probably be one of the Olympus 40- to 150-mm versions.

I’ve tried Panasonic’s 100- to 300-mm telephoto superzoom and decided not to buy one personally, even though I frequently use telephoto lenses. It just wasn’t sharp enough. Olympus’ equivalent 75- to 300-mm and 70- to 300-m­­m lenses show roughly the same level of optical capability when compared to the Panasonic 100- to 300-mm lens in side-by-side tests, so I’ll likely avoid them, as well. Olympus recently announced a newer version of its 75- to 300-mm M 4/3 superzoom, but it’s too soon to determine whether its a worthwhile improvement.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

2 Comments

Filed under photography, Plugged in

2 responses to “Plugged In: Micro 4/3 lenses maximize quality

  1. Jon Wilson

    Do you have an opinion of the quality of an image using an Olympus lens (4/3) with an adapter on the micro 4/3 Olympus body? Thanks. Jon

    • Using some of the excellent older Four/Thirds lenses with a newer Micro Four/Thirds camera is probably the most successful adaptation of which I am aware. Although there are some strong reasons for believing that long focus telephoto-type lenses work better, I have had excellent success adapting the following 4/3 lenses to several Olympus cameras:
      9-18 ED 4/3 superwide-angle zoom
      35-mm macro
      50/f2 macro lens (also a very excellent midtelephoto for M 4/3 cameras)
      40-150 (newest 4/3 version) consumer telephoto zoom

      You will need to use an Olympus MMF-2 adapter or an Olympus MMF-3 weather-sealed adapter. Cheap, third-party adapters do not work work because of alignment problems. The Olympus adapters preserve autofocus and autoexposure, as well.

      Regards,
      Joe Kashi

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