An Idiosyncratic, Unfair and Unscientific Comparison
Here's the question I'm exploring:
If I'm out photographing in a situation where I could use either a zoom or a prime, at the same settings (focal length and aperture) which lens in my kit is going to give me the best image quality?
I don't care about relative size, weight, convenience, maximum aperture, or cost. If that doesn't interest you, skip the rest of this article and come back next week.
Here are the lenses I own:
- 12mm ƒ/2 Olympus M. Zuiko Digital
- 14–42mm ƒ/3.5–5.6 Olympus M. Zuiko Digital (first generation) (NLA) [Here's the current version in black and silver —Ed.]
- 20mm ƒ/1.7 Panasonic Lumix
- 45mm ƒ/1.8 Olympus M. Zuiko Digital
- 45–200mm ƒ/4–5.6 Panasonic Lumix G Vario
- 85mm ƒ/1.4 Rokinon
I did those comparisons last week.
Jeff Goggin loaned me three wide-angle zooms:
- 7–14mm ƒ/4 Olympus Zuiko Digital
- 14–35mm ƒ/2 Olympus Zuiko Digital SWD
- 14–50mm ƒ/2.8–3.5 Lumix Leica D Vario Elmarit (NLA)
How do Jeff's lenses compare to my own set of lenses? That's where I go now.
The 7–14mm ƒ/4 Olympus zoom beats my 12mm Olympus prime at all apertures; it's sharper over the entire field and noticeably less smeary in the corners. The 14–35mm Olympus SWD zoom (at 14mm) is also distinctly superior. On the other hand, the 12mm Olympus beats out the 14–50 Lumix (at 14 mm); they're very similar on axis but the zoom is really lousy in the corners, soft and flarey with massive lateral chromatic aberration. My 14–42mm Olympus kit zoom once again shows pretty well, being as good or better than all the lenses except the 14–35mm Olympus SWD.
At 20mm, the story is similar; the 14–35mm Olympus SWD zoom is best by far over the entire field at all apertures. As I reported last time, my 20mm Panasonic and 14–42mm Olympus kit zoom run neck-and-neck, but they both lag behind that 14–35mm wonder.
"Twenty millimeter" lenses compared at ƒ/4. These are 150%-scale sections from the centers of the frames: heavy-duty pixel-peeping. The 14–35mm ƒ/2 Olympus Zuiko Digital SWD is clearly best, and the 14–50mm ƒ/2.8–3.5 Lumix Leica D Vario Elmarit worst. The first generation 14–42mm ƒ/3.5–5.6 Olympus M. Zuiko Digital and 20mm ƒ/1.7 Panasonic Lumix are very similar and fall between the two other zooms.
At the edges of the frames, the rankings don't change, but the
differences are more pronounced. In these photos, the 20mm Lumix
looks better than the 14–42 Olympus, but in most comparison sets the
Olympus comes out a bit better. At this level of pixel-peeping, there
can be substantial frame-to-frame variation, so a tester needs to
look at several comparison sets
before passing judgement.
And, still taking up the rear is the 14–50mm Lumix zoom—weak in the center and really lousy at the corners.
Finally we get to the 45's. Not unexpectedly, my 45mm Olympus prime took top honors in most photographs at most apertures, center and corner. Surprisingly, though, the Lumix 14–50mm zoom finally came through and performed nearly as well as that prime. Both of my zooms took up the rear, although the 45–200mm Panasonic wasn't much worse.
What did I learn from all of this? Well, my 14–42mm Olympus kit zoom is a much better lens than I thought. At short and medium focal points, there's no reason to take it off my camera for another lens, although it loses it at the long end of its range. I definitely shouldn't use my 12mm Olympus instead of the kit zoom unless I need the extra coverage.
most of the rules of thumb-
I'd use for picking a lens'-
My 45mm Olympus prime remains the big winner, but if I've got my 45–200mm Panasonic zoom on the camera I'm not really going to lose very much leaving it there (aside from the serious light falloff at ƒ/4 that I mentioned last column). And that 85mm Rokinon turned out to be a real surprise, a superior lens at moderate apertures.
As for Jeff's zooms? The clear winner is the 14–35mm ƒ/2 Olympus Zuiko Digital SWD, which appears to match or beat just about any other lens over its focal range. If I only wanted to be carrying one fast lens that would cover everything from moderate wide-angle to short tele, that would be it. Assuming that I didn't mind that it was huge (damn thing weighs nearly a kilo) and hugely pricey (north of two grand—eep).
Overall, this trashes most of the rules of thumb I'd use for picking a lens. Cheap lenses can be very good, kit zooms can be better than pricey primes, fast zooms can be great, and there's no way to predict without testing over what part of its focal length range a zoom will be especially good or bad.
Columnist Ctein peers deeply into various mysteries weekly on TOP, usually on Wednesday. ('Steamed Editor was behind this week.)
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.