Plugged In: Reflecting on mirrorless camera optics

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Consumers can choose from quite a number of large-sensor compact cameras capable of producing excellent images, but finding an excellent camera body is merely a beginning.

Camera bodies are rapidly superseded as digital sensors continue to improve yearly. Rather than merely choosing a camera body, it’s more important to select an overall system that has a good range of affordable, high-quality lenses. While you’ll likely replace your camera body every few years, high-quality lenses typically remain useful for decades. That’s become especially true in the past few years as new optical materials and techniques have allowed vendors to produce affordable yet extremely sharp lenses for compact-system cameras.

This week, we’ll take a detailed look at Micro Four-Thirds (M 4/3) lenses, by far the broadest and most developed series of optics for mirrorless, compact-system cameras. As a result, Micro Four-Thirds cameras tend to be preferred by professional and serious photographers. Any M 4/3 lens will mount and work with any M 4/3 camera body, regardless of manufacturer.

The only compatibility concern has been that many of the best Panasonic lenses and camera bodies did not include image-stabilization hardware, and hence are not stabilized, even on Panasonic’s own cameras. Every Olympus M 4/3 camera, on the other hand, includes in-body image-stabilization hardware that stabilizes any mounted lens, even old manual-focus Leica lenses. Panasonic’s new top-end GX7 camera now includes in-body image stabilization, so that omission should cease to be a problem for Panasonic fans in the near future.

Here’s my short take on the best lenses for Micro 4/3 cameras, taking into account price as well as optical quality. Remember to multiply the focal length of an M 4/3 lens by 2x in order to get the equivalent traditional, 35-mm film magnification.

Sigma

I’m pleased that up-and-coming Sigma makes a range of affordable, decent optics for M 4/3 cameras, two of which, the 30-mm long-normal lens ($200) and 60-mm medium telephoto ($239), are spectacularly good, especially given their low prices. Sigma also makes a 19-mm wide-normal lens ($200) that’s decent but not quite as good toward the edges and corners of the frame.

All three Sigma prime lenses have a modest but useful f/2.8 maximum lens aperture that’s bright enough for most situations and are well constructed with mostly metal bodies. A complete set of all three Sigma prime lenses for M 4/3 cameras would set you back about $640, a very fair price for this level of quality. Don’t be concerned about the apparent rattle when these lenses are turned off — the linear focus motor makes that sound but it’s harmless. Unlike, say, a sudden loud rattle in the front end of your car.

Because M 4/3 sensors are somewhat smaller than APS-C sensors, these lenses act a bit differently on M 4/3 cameras, with the 19-mm lens equating to a 38-mm wide-normal lens, the 30-mm to a 60-mm long-normal lens, and the 60-mm to 120 telephoto equivalent. Because only the sharper central portion of the lens image is used on M 4/3 cameras, these Sigma lenses show better edge and corner sharpness on M 4/3 cameras compared to the same optics on APS-C cameras.

Wide-angle lenses

Olympus 12-mm f/2 prime lens is one of the best wide M 4/3 lenses but it’s a bit controversial because of its relatively high price, $749, and somewhat soft corners at wide apertures. Stopped down to f/4 to f/5.6, though, it’s just about the sharpest M 4/3 wide-angle prime lens. If you’re a landscape photographer or wide-angle enthusiast, it’s probably worth saving for. Panasonic’s tiny 14-mm f/2.5 prime is nearly as sharp when stopped down, except in the corners, but only half the price. Olympus’ standard 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens is reasonably sharp at its widest 14-mm setting, and may be all that you really need. Olympus’ more expensive 12- to 50-mm weather-sealed zoom lens, shipped as part of the OM-D E-M5 kit, is somewhat wider and sharper overall, although corners are a bit soft at the widest settings.

Really wide-angle M 4/3 optics are all zoom lenses. Panasonic’s 7- to 14-mm superwide zoom is rather large and costs well over $1,000, but it’s reputedly the sharpest superwide-angle M 4/3 lens of all, even though it’s a zoom lens. Olympus’ 9- to 18-mm M. Zuiko superwide-angle zoom ($699) collapses into a very compact package that gives good results, though not quite as good as the Panasonic zoom. I bought an older used ED series 9- to 18-mm Olympus originally designed for Olympus SLR cameras. Although it’s larger and requires an Olympus to MMF-2 adapter to work on newer M 4/3 cameras, this older design ($599 new) is fully automatic on current M 4/3 cameras, rather sharper and a very good value when purchased used.

Normal lenses

There’s an excellent variety of good M 4/3 normal lenses. In addition to the 19-mm and 30-mm Sigmas mentioned above, both Olympus and Panasonic kit zoom lenses do well in this magnification range when stopped down to f/5.6 or so. Among premium zoom lenses in this range, the Panasonic 12- to 35-mm f/2.8 zoom is well regarded but too expensive (over $1,200). Olympus has announced a 12- to 40-mm prograde zoom lens but it’s not yet available for detailed testing, so no one knows how good it is and whether it’s worth the undoubtedly high price.

Very good single-magnification prime lenses in this range include Olympus’ 17-mm f/1.8 ($499), Panasonic’s 20-mm f/1.7 ($420) and the Panasonic-Leica 25-mm f/1.4 Summilux ($500-$650). All of these are excellent lenses. Avoid the older Olympus 17-mm f/2.8 pancake lens — it’s not very sharp. Sigma’s 30-mm f/2.8 prime lens is clearly the value leader in this range. It’s a very sharp lens at any price, and a steal at $239.

Telephoto lenses

There are a number of exceptionally good and well-priced M 4/3 telephoto lenses, but really long telephoto lenses are still rather lacking. Clearly the best buy, and one of the sharpest lenses around, is Olympus’ 45-mm f/1.8 short-telephoto lens ($399). This lens should be in every M 4/3 camera bag. It’s that good and very fairly priced. Olympus’ 60-mm macro lens ($499) is very sharp, but if you don’t need close-up capabilities, then Sigma’s 60-mm f/2.8 lens is even sharper for less than half the price.

The quality king of M 4/3 telephoto lenses, indeed of all M 4/3 lenses, is Olympus’ 75-mm f/1.8, equivalent to a 150-mm medium-telephoto lens. Several professional review sites claim that it’s possibly the sharpest lens they’ve ever tested, with resolution that tops even Leica’s fabled 50-mm Summicron. Although it costs nearly $900, it’s worth saving for. It’s that good.

Beyond 75 mm, your M 4/3 telephoto options quickly narrow. The only practical prime lens option is purchasing a used, manual-focus Leica 135-mm f/4 Tele-Elmar lens and a Leica-to-M 4/3 adapter. The later-model Tele-Elmar lenses from the late 1980s and 1990s are superbly sharp and not very expensive if you can find a decent used lens. These are heavily constructed manual-focus, manual-aperture lenses without any automation at all, so be sure you understand what you’re getting into. Although they’re slow to focus manually and require careful use, I’ve gradually learned how to get the best performance from mine and am now very pleased with the results.

A decent telephoto zoom is more practical for most users. The lower-end 40- to 150-mm ($149) consumer zoom from Olympus and comparable 45- to 150-mm Panasonic zoom ($249) both produce decent results at a relatively low price, although I’ve been less satisfied with recent copies of the Olympus zoom. The 45- to 150-mm Panasonic seems to be as sharp as Panasonic’s higher-priced telephoto zooms and is probably the best consumer-grade choice for both Olympus and Panasonic users. Panasonic’s newest 14- to 140-mm all-in-one zoom receives generally good reviews, although wide-range zooms like these require more design compromises and hence tend to be less sharp.

In my experience, the best all-around M 4/3 telephoto option is Olympus’ new 75- to 300-mm II telephoto (usually $500 to $550). Be sure to get the II model — it’s sharper than the older model and $300 less expensive. Up to about 200 mm or so, edge-to-edge sharpness is excellent when the lens aperture is closed by about one stop. Between 200 mm and 300 mm, sharpness softens but it’s still very usable when you need that superlong telephoto shot. Be sure to use a fast shutter speed at the supertelephoto magnifications, even with image stabilization. Although the Olympus lens is somewhat larger and heavier than most M 4/3 lenses, its size and weight are reasonable for its class. I’ve not had much less luck with Panasonic’s equivalent 100- to 300-mm telephoto zoom, with most shots showing too much blur or softness to be usable. Stick with the new Olympus — it’s the sharpest affordable M 4/3 telephoto option.

Specialty lenses

If you like the optical distortions of a fisheye lens, then the 7.5-mm Rokinon/Bower ($239) is a very good buy. It has a nice, frame-filling fisheye effect and is very sharp across the entire frame. Although manual focus only, that’s easy with a lens this wide. Wanderlust makes a $39 pinhole-cameralike M 4/3 attachment that works well with aperture-priority exposure. You’ll need to use a tripod for the necessarily long exposures. Olympus’ 15-mm “body cap” lens ($49) is another simple lens that’s basically a protective body cap that opens to expose a simple but surprisingly good wide-angle lens. It’s not the sharpest lens in the bag but inexpensive and fun to use when edge and corner sharpness are not critical.

Don’t forget to buy quality multicoated UV or Skylight filters for each lens to protect your investment against scratches on the front element. Olympus doesn’t provide either lens hoods or protective pouches for its lenses, so I buy third-party lens hoods that match the equivalent Olympus hood or inexpensive screw-in hoods similar to the classy vented hoods that ship with many Leica and Zeiss lenses. I’ve usually protected these small lenses with leather Pentax pouches made for Pentax’s 21-mm Limited lens, usually available at http://www.bhphotovideo.com for $14 or so.

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.

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