I use my Olympus E-M5 since May 2012 and am very, very, very happy with it. It’s small, has a nice quality feel to it, it’s very responsive, and I just love the image stabilisation as well as the AF system that – for my kind of shooting – proved to be very fast and really ultra accurate.
Having owned several 35 mm DSLR cameras before, however, there is a decline in image quality when you go for a 4x smaller sensor size. I knew this when I bought the camera but figured that the new Sony sensor inside the E-M5 would be plenty good for my needs. Yes, this proved right! It’s good for huge prints, no question, and it also does amazingly well in low light situations.
What I did not really foresee, however, is the lack of high quality lenses. Now everyone will tell you – get the Olympus 12/2, the Panasonic 20/1.7 and/or 25/1.4 and the Olympus 45/1.8 and you’ll be in lens heaven. After having used all these four lenses, all I can say that I did not feel this way. The 12/2 and 25/1.4 – at least my samples – did not thrill me at all. I love the 12/2 mechanics, but found the optical quality to be vastly over-rated. Anyway, I’m not the super-wide-angle kind of guy so I can easily do without a 12mm or similar lens at all.
I kept the 20/1.7 because it was better at f/1.7 or f/2 than my 25/1.4. Also, frankly, I found the little bit less depth-of-field that the 25/1.4 offers to be a total non-issue. The 20/1.7 is really hot for what it is and I love using it, but it’s still not exactly a high-quality lens. The 25/1.4, however, in my book is just a somewhat overpriced lens that does not offer anything special, and I would always chose either the 20/1.7 or the manual focus Voigtländer or SLR Magic 25/0.95 over it.
The only lens on the E-M5 so far that is really capable of giving 100% the kind of optical quality I like, is the 45/1.8. (Some of the Voigtländer or even SLR Magic lenses might be just as good, but of course, they’re all manual focus.) But I’ve experienced some sample variation with the 45/1.8s. Again, it’s a hot lens in its price range, but at some point, I’d really love to have a set of lenses I really can count on, for a longer time of heavy use. I think the E-M5 deserves this!
Enter Photokina 2012. Some really nice new Micro Four Thirds prime lenses were announced – yay! First in the list is the new 17/1.8. Olympus only had a not approved prototype at the show, so they would let us try this lens but not take any pictures with it. The lens is really small – a bit smaller than the 12/2 – and also has that “snapshot” focussing feature of the 12/2 as well as the outer metal lens barrel. (I have absolutely no idea if the mechanics in the inside of these lenses are also made from metal.)
The 17/1.8 would offer the field of view of a classic 35mm wideangle on 35mm film. I love that. Apart from telephoto and macro, a 35 really is the only lens I need, no super wide angles, no standard zooms, no nothing. In contrast to a super-fast 35/1.2 or 35/1.4 lens in film days, this 17/1.8 will not give the same portrait style shots with very shallow depth-of-field. But we knew that when we decided on a Micro Four Thirds camera instead of a 35mm DSLR, didn’t we!
Due to the similar specifications, the Olympus 17/1.8 will be compared to the Panasonic 20/1.7 a lot. I said that I do really like the performance of the Panasonic 20/1.7 at open aperture and that it’s a very great lens for its intended purpose. But when you stop it down and try to take typical landscape shots during daylight, it’s not good enough for demanding users. I hope that the Olympus 17/1.8 will be better than the Panasonic – otherwise, obviously, there would be no real reason to get it.
Olympus 60/2.8 Macro
Olympus did recently introduce the 75/1.8, apparently a real high quality lens with optics that match or exceed the 45/1.8, and higher-quality mechanics similar to the 12/2. Anyway, in this focal length range, my main interest leans more towards a macro lens so, heading to the Olympus stand at the Photokina, I was much more curious about the new 60/2.8 Macro instead.
All I can say so far is that the 60/2.8 Macro seems to be a marvel of optics. The first reviews appearing on other blogs and websites suggest this. I don’t like “testing” lenses on a trade show. It’s loud and crowded there, you are not familiar with the new gear, and it’s all too easy to get bad and blurry results and come to false conclusions. But in this case, I took just three shots with the 60/2.8 on my E-M5 at the Photokina, all three at open aperture, and every single shot came out absolutely perfect, right down to 100% pixel peeping of the developed RAW files. That’s the performance I like and want on all my lenses!
Apart from the apparently phantastic optics, the way this lens operates is also superb. It’s super small and lightweight. It covers 1:1 life-size magnification (on a 17x13mm sensor), not changing the outside length thanks to its internal-focussing design. And, as a first for any mirrorless system, it finally features a focus limiter switch! Wow! Also it’s weather sealed. But here, you just have to moan about the fact that all the other Olympus prime lenses – even the most expensive 12/2 and 75/1.8 – are not. The 60/2.8 will come in at €599 which seems fair as long as you compare this to the $499 price tag for US customers! Regarding the mechanical quality, I have to say that the 60/2.8 reminds me very much of the 45/1.8. So let’s keep fingers crossed there will be no noticeable sample variation issues.
Three amazing Schneider-Kreuznach lenses: 14/2, 30/1.4 and 60/2.4
As I said previously, the mechanical quality of some of the Olympus lenses does bother me to some extent. I am one of those guys who don’t really want to treat their photographic tools with velvet gloves all the time and while I do care about my stuff, it inevitably suffers the occasional knock here and there. I did find a lot of lenses will go out of perfect alignment and my impression is that this happens more frequently as in the good old days. But I have to confess that there was a time where I only was using 1970s Nikon and Hasselblad lenses, and today I still enjoy my Zeiss Contarex lenses that were also made in the 1960s to the highest mechanical standards ever. Coming from there, it’s probably clear why a Olympus 45/1.8 leaves something to be desired regarding the quality and longevity of its finish. It was made for a totally different price point and it is astonishing good for this. But what way can those few Micro Four Thirds users go that really want something even better than this?
At the Photokina 2012, two German manufacturers with a truly comprehensive photographic heritage did show prototypes for exiting new mirrorless system camera lenses and these two manufacturers were Zeiss and Schneider-Kreuznach. Zeiss develops three lenses for the Fuji X and Sony NEX systems – 12/2.8, 32/1.8 and 50/2.8 macro – stating that these systems offer superior sensor quality due to their bigger size, and that they won’t do Micro Four Thirds lenses at the moment. Schneider-Kreuznach however showed three new lenses for the Micro Four Thirds mount, stating that they could easily design the optics for bigger sensors as well, but went for Micro Four Thirds because it is an open standard that makes incorporating AF more easy for them.
The three Schneider-Kreuznach lenses are a 14/2, 30/1.4 and 60/2.4 macro, so you’d end up with the equivalent of a 28mm – 60mm – 120mm setup for 35mm film. The first of these three to be actually produced will be the 14/2 Super Angulon. It seems probably a bit of an odd decision to make a 28mm lens instead of a 24mm or a 35mm. But so far, we don’t know it the optics were really developed for the Micro Four Thirds sensor size, or if they do cover the bigger 16x24mm sensor of the NEX and Fuji X as well, in which case the three lenses would offer the field of view of a 21mm – 45mm – 90mm setup. This would also fit the Super Angulon designation which previously was used for 21mm lenses for 35mm cameras. Personally, I would prefer a setup with a 35mm – 85mm – 150 macro lens, but there is more to a lens than the exact focal length, so I am really very curious as to how the Schneider-Kreuznach lenses will actually perform.
Schneider-Kreuznach states that their lenses are “Made in Germany” – the new Zeiss mirrorless lenses are marked “Made in Japan” instead, not that there would be anything wrong with that, of course. The price point for the 14/2 will be “below €1.500” whereas Zeiss said something like “about €1.000” for theirs. But the price is always a function of optical and mechanical quality, so we’ll see what kind of quality level Schneider-Kreuznach aims to produce, and if that will probably even be a notch above the Zeiss mirrorless lenses.
And there’s even more for 2013!
So, 2013 will be another exiting year for mirrorless camera users. It seems that Mirrorless will finally go high-end. Panasonic announced the development of a 43/1.2 and 150/2.8 for 2013, as well. And let’s not forget the manual focus lenses from Voigtländer and SLR Magic, some of those are really mighty efforts and also very well made. But that’s stuff for another blog entry!
I feel all this is a welcome change from the super-miniature mantra of the last years which, in my opinion, tends to cause too many compromises regarding the lens quality. The point is that mirrorless camera systems are still much more compact than DSLR systems, even with a “heavy” Schneider-Kreuznach lens fitted. You just have to remember to compare all this to DSLR lenses of the same quality, and you will see that – especially at shorter focal length – these really tend to be much bigger.
(All photos that I take with the E-M5 are RAW files, developed with RAW Photo Professional.)