It's the available lenses that make Micro 4/3 an
easy choice. Especially this one.
By Kirk Tuck
There's a lot of pressure put on reviewers to be fair and balanced in a way that seems the same as the social pressure to give everyone who participates in a contest a medal or a trophy. If we say we really like a small camera, we feel some sort of compulsion to moderate the statement with a rejoinder like, "for a small sensor camera...." It's almost as though there is consensus now that an objective prioritized list of camera features exists, and we, as writers and as astute image makers, have to hew to that conventional value.
Yes, the new Nikon and Canon cameras have bigger sensors than the Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 cameras. By extension, we realize that the big cameras will have less electronic noise in the images taken at higher ISO settings. But does that really make those cameras the "obvious" choice for all serious photographers?
From my point of view a lot of what makes a system work is the available lenses. And for many of us there are one or two focal lengths (or, more precisely, the angles of view) that we keep coming back to over and over again for our own work. If the system we shoot with has a great example of the lensmaker's art in the focal lengths that we gravitate to, then that system has more value. If the cameras are much more fun to shoot with, then that has more value as well. The combination of great optics and great handling goes a long way to minimize the perceived value differences between "differently abled" systems.
I'm a sucker for two specific angles of view/focal lengths. On a full frame, 35mm-type camera I am drawn to the way 50mm and 85mm or 90mm lenses make images look. I think of the short telephotos as my "normal" lenses, and what most people think of as normal lenses I consider my moderate wide angles. So I was interested when I started hearing good news about two recently introduced lenses for the Olympus/Panasonic Micro 4/3 system: the 25mm Leica Summilux ƒ/1.4 and the Olympus 45mm ƒ/1.8. I bought them and I've been using them (to the exclusion of everything else) for the last two weeks.
I like them both very much. But for now I would like to report my opinion of the Leica 25mm Summilux. It slots into the Micro 4/3 world as a very high quality high speed normal optic. In a word, it is superb. On my first foray out with the lens, attached to a Panasonic G3, I walked all over Austin. I was heading back to my car in the dark when I came upon the architectural detail above. I aimed the camera, took a meter reading and shot. The auto white balance of the camera nailed everything in the scene, from the deep, rich blue of the sky to the white light indoors.
But what I really found compelling about the shot was the structure of the image and the impression of sharpness. Considering that the shot was taken at ƒ/2.2 I find the final product even more interesting. I'd done a similar shot with a Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 ZE on a Canon 5D Mark II a few weeks earlier, and found that the lens needed to be stopped down a lot to yield the same impression of sharpness. The smaller format and the greater depth of field of the shorter focal length lens creates a different look that, for things like architecture, seems better than longer focal lengths on bigger sensor cameras.
This image is interesting for another reason. There's a series of bare street lights just outside the right side of the frame—but there isn’t a hint of flare or veiling. This structure and lack of artifacts is good news but there's one aspect of the lens, and indeed most of the recent Leica lenses, that is harder to describe. It's an almost three-dimensional character in the images. It may not be obvious in the small, compressed JPEGs that accompany the article [the blogging software also degrades images subtly —MJ] but if you borrow the lens from your local dealer and shoot it you’ll see what I mean. It's just more...dimensional.
This image shows both a resistance to flare and the 3D quality I tried to describe. In the larger file the edges of the bright areas roll off more gracefully, but even in this smaller file I think the overall effect will be noticeable.
This afternoon I had the assignment of photographing one of Austin's top chefs and a highly successful restauranteur, Emmett Fox. I have photographed Emmett on other occasions and have always brought along lights, stands and high-dollar cameras and lenses. Today I decided I would go in light. Very, very light. I tossed a Panasonic G3 with the 25mm Summilux over one shoulder and I stuck the 45mm ƒ/1.8 on the front of an Olympus E-P3 and slung it over my other shoulder. I brought along a tripod just in case but I left it in the car.
Emmett greeted me at the door and I decided to get started right there.
This next series of images is a full frame image followed by a 100% image followed by a 250% image. Even though I was handholding the camera and shooting nearly wide open, the lens is sharp across its plane of focus, lusciously contrasty and full of detail.
What I discovered during today’s shoot is that the Leica 25mm is much sharper at its maximum aperture and in the range of one stop down than my Carl Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 ZE is until you stop it down to ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6. And the combined "system" of the G3 camera and the 25mm lens also gave me the opportunity to cheat. I did something I'd never been able to do on a commercial assignment before. I used the face detection autofocus for every shot. And of the 220 or so images I ended up taking, only a handful needed to be rejected for minor focus issues.
The real magic in using a "normal" lens is that you can step in a create the illusion that the lens is longer or, as in the image just above, you can step back a few feet, include more environment, and mimic the feel of a shorter lens.
Emmett and I worked around his restaurant and I felt freed up not having lights and cable and triggers in tow. The small cameras worked well and the files have the necessary image quality to be used in printed publications, and certainly on the web. The ability to shoot quickly and without effort was a different experience for me. I am used to setting up in one or two locations, lighting the subject and the background, putting the camera on a tripod and so on. Working without all that made changes of direction quick and seamless.
My tests show me that my copy is sharp in the center two-thirds of the frame even wide open. As I stop down it becomes even sharper in the center (although its wide-open performance more than satisfies me) and the sharpness spreads across the frame so that by ƒ/2.5–2.8 you've probably reached the maximum performance of the lens.
Being able to shoot at those apertures brings the whole Micro 4/3 system to life and explains why Micro 4/3 photographers like their Panasonic 20mm ƒ/1.7 lenses. In comparison, the 25mm is a good bit sharper wide open and has a solid feel to the frame. It maintains a certain feeling of depth to the details in the files that the Panasonic doesn't share, right through the useful aperture range.
The 25mm is big. The supplied square lens hood makes it appear nearly twice as big. The aperture "chatters" in bright light when mounted on an Olympus camera but there is no issue with the visual quality. If you manually focus you'll be "focusing by wire." Those are the cons.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I also brought along the Olympus 45mm ƒ/1.8 and I find many things to like about that lens as well. I included two images of chef Emmett taken with the 45mm and the Olympus E-P3. In this instance I got to cheat even more. I used face detection auto focus and I "instructed" the camera to focus on the closest eye. It did. If we’re going to demand cameras that do all the heavy lifting, we may as well use the features.
The two images above were taken with the 45mm ƒ/1.8 Olympus lens on an E-P3 body. Adding the 12mm Olympus lens to the two I've written about here would give me an easy-to-use and very high-performance camera system that can be packed into a shaving kit and which is able to go toe-to-toe with just about any system out there.
The 25mm Summilux is quickly becoming the anchor in my small system. I'm loathe to take other systems out anymore. The addition to a product line of an exceptional optic (or three) can make all the difference in the world.
Photographer, photo book author, and photography blogger Kirk Tuck is a successful commercial and editorial photographer in Austin, Texas. His latest book, about "the hottest new trend in lighting technology"—LED lighting for digital photography and video—has just been published by Amherst Media.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by mbka: "I couldn't agree more. I had the sister of this lens (the 4/3 version with adapter on a Panasonic G1) and when the native Micro 4/3 version came out I bought it right away. I have shot literally thousands of frames with it (mostly preschool kids assignments) and the quality is superb. But the eeriest thing was right at the start, when I stuck the lens on my aging G1 in the store to check it before I bought it. Even on the so-so back LCD of the G1 the image seemed more plastic, with much better color than the kit zoom I also had around. I now almost loathe to use any other lens. It's that addictive."
Featured Comment by Kenneth Tanaka: "I agree that the Leica 25mm ƒ/1.4 DG Summilux is a wonderful little lens for all the reasons you cite, Kirk. I, too, really like the 50mm field of view and jumped at the first availability of this lens for my E-P3. (Although, no, a 25mm lens does not produce the mild compression of a real 50mm...my personal gritch with the Micro 4/3 format.)
"Of course I immediately wanted to know how this light plastic lens compared with the 'real' Leica Summilux 24mm ƒ/1.4 ASPH M-mount at less than 10% of its price tag. [The 24mm Summilux ASPH is $6,995 when it's available, which it isn't now —Ed.]
"Short answer: On my E-P3, this little lens easily takes the crown for sharpness, contrast, and, of course, all-around usability. The 'Lux 24mm is unquestionably the superior optic. On a Leica M body it features very good corners, excellent flare resistance and beautiful rendering at nearly all apertures. And, of course, it's built to withstand a D-Day invasion. But on my E-P3 the 25mm DG 'Lux, no doubt in cooperation with the E-P3's firmware, produces a superior wide-open image to the big guy. (Of course the 'big' 24mm 'Lux can only focus down to three feet...ah, that rangefinder intimacy!...versus the cute 25mm which focuses to a few inches.)
"I posted four casual comparison images for those interested.
"My main complaint with the Leica 25mm on my E-P3: that incessant chattering! I don't know if it's really the iris, a stabilizer, or if the damn thing's cold up here in Chicago, but it drives me nuts. Chat-chat-chat-chat...shut up!"
Featured Comment by Marcin Wuu: "I absolutely love the first paragraph of this article. I just hope you're willing to cut some slack for those of us photogs who like our cameras properly black, bulky, and big...
Featured Comment by Oskar Ojala: "Nice review, thanks. However, it makes me want to buy the 25mm ƒ/1.4, even though I have a perfectly working 20mm ƒ/1.7! It's comforting to hear that other people have similar experiences.
"I'm completely sold on face detect; my last portraits with the 45mm ƒ/1.8 were entirely with face detect AF and the eyes were perfectly sharp, even when the subject was wearing glasses. It allows me to practically ignore focusing, so that I can pay more attention on the composition and the subject, a very important factor to me."
Mike replies: John Kennerdell wrote a nice piece here on TOP about using face detect...and trans-species face detect.