Plugged In: Stay sharp when buying high-end lenses

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

In preparing this series, I tested quite a number of Micro Four-Thirds single-magnification prime lenses and ultrawide-angle zoom lenses, finding several that are both optically good to excellent and relatively affordable.

Ultrawide-angle zooms are difficult to design and manufacture compared to lenses with more moderate magnifications. Corner sharpness, in particular, tends to fall behind. Producing one at an affordable price is a minor miracle.

I’ve never particularly liked medium-wide-angle lenses optically equivalent to a 28-mm lens on a traditional 35-mm film camera. Somehow, their field of view and perspective never looks quite right to me, yet ultra-wideangle lenses with a 35-mm equivalent of 18 mm to 24 mm produce images that I often find powerful because of the exaggerated foreground perspective. Your personal taste, and hence your mileage, may vary.

When comparing the optical effects of an M 4/3 lens, simply multiply its focal length by two to get the 35-mm equivalent. Olympus lenses do not include any optical image-stabilization hardware because that’s built directly into Olympus’ camera bodies. Both Panasonic and Olympus lenses are image-stabilized when mounted on Olympus bodies, but Panasonic camera owners will likely be happier using Panasonic lenses that include optical image stabilization built into each lens.

There are at least four ultrawide-angle zooms currently available for M 4/3 cameras. Of these, I’ve found that Olympus’ older, 9- to 18-mm ED zoom is the sharpest affordable option. It’s even quite sharp when used at 64-megapixel resolution. This is an older lens, originally designed for use with moving mirror Four-Thirds dSLR cameras, so this lens requires an Olympus MMF-2 or MMF-3 adapter for fully automatic operation with current M 4/3 cameras. This relatively large lens remains available both used and new. I know that I won’t part with mine.

Olympus’ newer M. Zuiko 9- to 18-mm ultrawide-angle zoom is a collapsible design and much smaller than the older ED version for dSLR cameras. The newer M. Zuiko often sells used for about $450, making it a bargain for an ultrawide-angle zoom. It’s not quite as sharp as the older ED version and not very suitable for 64-megapixel mode. However, it produces very sharp images at standard M 4/3 resolutions.

Beyond those two Olympus options, ultrawide-angles get even wider angled and prices climb rapidly. Panasonic’s 7- to 14-mm zoom is an older design that’s starting to show its age a bit, with decent but not stellar resolution and a price that’s twice as high as Olympus’ older ED. Olympus recently announced a new PRO model 7- to 14-mm zoom that’s more compact than Panasonic’s comparable zoom, but with a $1,300 introductory price. Resolution of existing PRO line lenses is superb, so much is expected of Olympus’ newest ultrawide-angle zoom, as it should be in this price range.

Although I like ultrawide-angle zooms, the extra cost of one of these 7- to 14-mm is too rich for my taste. Those extra 2 millimeters on the wide end likely will not be used often enough to justify the substantial additional cost.

Among single-magnification M 4/3 wide-angle prime lenses, Olympus’ 12-mm f/2 has a good reputation, but I’ve found it both overpriced and not quite as sharp as one might expect. For not much more money, Olympus’ own 12- to 40-mm PRO model zoom is noticeably sharper yet more versatile, and is a better buy unless you absolutely require the smallest possible lens.

Similarly, Panasonic’s 14-mm f/2.5 lens is quite small and has good resolution, but both the Olympus 12- to 40-mm and 9- to 18-mm ED zooms are sharper, although much larger and more expensive. If you need a very small, adequately sharp yet inexpensive 14-mm lens, this will work well. I have one and find it generally sharper than all but the best, most-expensive zoom lenses.

More recently, Panasonic introduced a 15-mm f/1.7 lens designed by Leica. This is a decently sharp lens but I expected more given its $600 price. Olympus’ competing 17-mm f/1.8 moderate-wide-angle prime lens is $200 cheaper, more compact and beautifully made of metal throughout. In my tests as well as daily use, I’ve found it to be quite sharp at both normal and 64-megapixel resolution. Used with a compact Pen-style camera, the 17-mm Olympus prime lens is a winner.

Moving on to the “normal” focal lengths, there are several competitors. Sigma’s 19-mm f/2.8 is decently sharp and inexpensive but falters at the corners and edges. Panasonic’s 20-mm f/1.7 is a very nice lens, quite compact, very sharp with nice color rendering and no obvious faults. Panasonic’s slightly higher magnification 25-mm f/1.4 Summilux prime lens is extremely sharp. It’s rather expensive for a normal lens and quite prone to severe flare-type internal reflections.

Olympus’ 25-mm f/1.8 model is nearly as good and about $200 less expensive, while Sigma’s slightly higher-magnification 30-mm f/2.8 model is nicely sharp lens and costs about $200. If you can afford it, the Panasonic 25-mm is the best lens, but the others are nearly as good for quite a bit less. Except perhaps for the 19-mm Sigma, any of these will produce results as sharp or sharper than the best zoom lenses.

Users now benefit from wide choice among moderate magnification M 4/3 telephoto lenses. Sigma’s 60-mm f/2.8 model is spectacularly sharp across the entire M 4/3 frame and usually sells for about $210. Among photo gear, it’s the best deal you’ll find.

Olympus’ 60-mm macro lens provides comparable magnification and sharpness along with macro capability. Unless you actually need that macro, the 60-mm Sigma is a sharper lens and a much better buy.

An older Olympus ED dSLR lens, the company’s 50-mm f/2 macro lens, is so sharp that it’s still used by many professional testing sites as the reference lens to test new M 4/3 camera bodies. It’s an excellent, relatively affordable lens that’s still available new, but it’s larger than the 60-mm Sigma and requires an MMF-2 or MMF-3 adapter for fully automatic use on new M 4/3 cameras. Buying the adapter increases your final cost.

Olympus’ 45-mm f/1.8 lens has a great reputation, is priced reasonably and generally considered a must have for serious M 4/3 users. I’ve found mine to be sharp in daily use, but early tests definitely suggest that Panasonic’s newest 42.5-mm f/1.7 is noticeably sharper for the same price. I’d go with the new Panasonic, all else being equal.

The highest-magnification, currently available M 4/3 prime lens is Olympus’ 75-mm f/1.8 model. It’s beautifully made of high-quality metal throughout and is, by my personal experience and general consensus, one of the sharpest lenses currently on the market. Although an expensive lens, selling for about $900, it’s a prime example of the old adage that, “You get what you pay for.” It’s easy to recommend this lens to the serious user who needs that level of optical and mechanical quality and is willing to pay for it.

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

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