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Hands On With Olympus 17mm and 45mm f/1.2 Lenses In South Carolina

When Olympus first challenged the conventional DSLR-based photographic market with the introduction of their first mirrorless camera, they steered clear of the traditional full-frame and APS-C-sized sensors and instead used their internally-developed Micro Four Thirds sensor. Smaller than either full-frame or APS-C, Micro Four Thirds sensors allowed the company to design a diminutive camera system that paired to equally small lenses. The advantages of such a compact interchangeable-lens camera system helped define the mirrorless market and usher in a new era of photography.

While the size of the Micro Four Thirds sensor favors a more compact camera build, there are some tradeoffs to contend with when it comes to lens optics. Generally, it is more difficult to create wide-angle lenses for Micro Four Thirds, as the small sensor has a doubling of equivalent focal length, relative to DSLRs. It’s also more difficult to create high-quality lenses with wide apertures and good edge-to-edge sharpness. Due to the equivalent crop factors for focal length and aperture, for example, a 24mm f/1.2 lens would create an image equivalent to 48mm f/2.5.

Difficulty though is not the same thing as impossibility. It’s possible to create a Micro Four Thirds lens with a wide aperture and good sharpness, but it is considerably more difficult. It takes much more design acumen and technological prowess to pull off a lens for a Micro Four Thirds camera that’s tack sharp yet creates pleasing bokeh.

M.ZUIKO Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO And M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.2 PRO

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With the M.ZUIKO Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO And M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.2 PRO, and the previously released M.Zuiko Digital ED 25mm F1.2 PRO Olympus has set out to create a series of lenses that give their shooters a high-quality lens with “feathered” bokeh and edge-to-edge sharpness.  The company invited me, along with a select group of journalists, to South Carolina for several days of hands-on testing to see how they stacked up.

Charleston, South Carolina is a lovely backdrop for camera testing thanks to the charming historic buildings, bustling shopping district, proximity to landmarks and plantations,  and a number of restaurants using locally sourced ingredients.

The weather during our stay was uncharacteristically cold and wet, a bit of a downer for those of us visiting from the colder parts of the country. Still, 70 degrees and rainy is better than 40 degrees and snow any day.

Our live broadcast from South Carolina, below, shows off the historic plantation we visited, the rainy weather, and our initial thoughts on the new lenses.

I was provided with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and all three of the new lenses. The M.ZUIKO Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO  (with a focal length equivalent of 34mm) was my go-to favorite, as I like to shoot a lot of wide-angle when I travel, and this focal length is the closest to my preferred 24mm prime. We also tested the 45mm (90mm equivalent) and 25mm (50mm equivalent) during the trip.

All three lenses are identical in design, by which I mean that the barrel length and width, control dials and front elements are all the same size. This gives video users the ability to use a single rig with all three lenses, and have the mechanical controls perform the same adjustments. It also makes the lenses more enjoyable to use, as there’s no time spent fumbling for a focus ring in the wrong place and no changes to the balance of a setup. On the other hand, it makes the three lenses hard to tell apart, so Olympus has emblazoned them with the focal length in a large-size font for easier identification. (Perhaps I’d suggest these markings be made with glow-in-the-dark paint for easier nighttime use.)

Specialized Bokeh

In presentations both by Olympus’ U.S. and Japanese staff, the company talked about the equipment and engineering needed to create these new lenses. The primary obstacle centered around the necessity to create lens elements that stay uniform across the whole surface. They also needed to design the lens to create a soft, appealing bokeh, and for that they say they created a way to measure and characterize lens bokeh, something that hasn’t been done before. This enabled them to look at a variety of lenses from a variety of companies and design a lens to match the characteristics they liked.

This laser-cut lens is an actual production model and was hand carried from Japan to show the gathered press. the photo is taken with one of the new Olympus lenses and shows the soft focus possible with the lens.

This is the first time, according to Olympus, that a company has been able to objectively measure and reproduce bokeh. The goal of Olympus engineers was to allow for a “feathered” bokeh with these lenses, as compared to “standard” bokeh, “oval” bokeh, or the “donut” bokeh of some wide-aperture lenses.

These terms refer to the way the glass reproduces creates the circle of light found in a soft-focus area of an image when it is out-of-focus.

In this image, the blurred lights are oval, not considered to be an ideal type of bokeh. You can also see “donut” bokeh, where the outer ring of a blurred light is “thicker” than the inside. Ideally, bokeh circles like this should be one consistent tone or feathered toward the edge.

“Standard” bokeh is a reproduction where an out-of-focus light source appears as a completely uniform circle.

Oval bokeh compresses and widens the bokeh

Donut bokeh has a lighter color on the outside of the ring than the center.

Feathered bokeh, what Olympus was designing these lenses to create, has a smooth transition from center to edge.

I’m going to hold off on the discussion of bokeh for a few moments and circle back after some comments about image quality in general becasue these lenses were able to deliver on some counts and not on others.

On Target

In our days testing the lenses, shot in a number of different conditions, ranging from sunny to overcast to rainy, and shot inside a distillery. The idea was to provide a number of different shooting situations, including portraits, travel and lifestyles and that was accomplished nicely.

At an effective focal length of around 35mm, the  M.ZUIKO Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO was my favorite, as it’s the most versatile of the bunch. At the right distance from a subject, it makes a good wide-ish portrait lens with minimal distortion, and it’s relatively comfortable shooting landscapes.

Kind enough to pose for a photo, this bird helped me test the sharpness of the Olympus glass.

Detail in these travel shots is excellent, with the 17mm proving to be an all-around excellent lens for resolution. It also functions well as a lifestyle lens, allowing me to capture scenes with enough context to tell a story.


It also proved itself to be a super-fast focusing lens, allowing me to catch fast-action moments. This foal was watching the polo horse we were photographing galloping around the field and decided it would show off too. I didn’t have enough time to compose, only enough to lift the camera and capture a few images of this nice moment.

I used the  M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.2 PRO to get a closer view of the world. It’s a great choice for the portrait photographer, though I spent more time capturing details with it. The shallow depth of field is particularly impressive when you consider that the lens has an effective aperture of f/2.5 in full frame.

Obviously, the lens is whip-sharp (see what I did there?) and provides great background blur.

I returned to the 17mm to capture more lifestyle, including a band playing in low light and a distillery tour. The extra light gathering capabilities of the trio of lenses is welcome when shooting indoors, and in low light. This shot of a band playing at the restaurant where Olympus took us to dinner is a good example of the capabilities of the shallow focus lens, and the benefits of extra light. At ISO 5000, the original image was a bit grainy but cleaned up nicely in post. At a more typical Micro Four thirds aperture of f/4 I’d have been well into distracting grain, thanks to the loss of around three stops of light.

 

Inside the distillery, the lenses helped nicely capture the details of the custom still, as well as the bottle labels. It’s fortunate that Olympus cameras have such good autofocus as I came to rely on it more as the whiskey and gin samples were served.

Shooting inside the relatively dark interior of the distillery, the value of these lenses for the Olympus shooter really became apparent. While the effective f/stop at f/1.2 is f/2.5 on full frame, the light gathering ability is unaffected, so these lenses allow for shooting in lower-light conditions. No matter how good the high-ISO performance of today’s Micro Four Thirds cameras is, full frame cameras will still perform better in low-light, all things being equal. These wide-aperture lenses allow the Olympus shooter to have an amazing amount of light gathering.

When pixel peeping, it’s clear that the images are sharp from edge-to-edge, delivering on the company’s promises in resolution. Portrait shooters, and especially wedding and family photographers will love these lenses, since so much of the actoin occurs at the edge of a frame.

Mission Accomplished?

Returning the Olympus goal of creating “feathered” bokeh, these lenses didn’t meet up with the hype. Olympus talked at great length about the engineering goal of creating a bokeh with a soft transition from center to edge, and a lack of ovalization and “donut” bokeh.

One issue with the ability to produce feathered bokeh is that the lens, by design, will only produce feathered bokeh when fully open. Stop down from f/1.2 and the lens will produce a more standdard bokeh effect. That limites the usefulness to scenes where f/1.2 is desired, but it’s an okay tradeoff for a soft, pleasant bokeh.

Looking more closely at the image above with the bokeh produced by the lens, it’s pretty clear that the bokeh in shots is not feathered. In fact, images often have every type of bokeh except feathered.

And this example from a string of Christmas lights.

 

This is consistent not only with the lenses I’ve reviewed from my shoots but from the samples I’ve seen from other photographers as well. I reached out to Olympus for feedback on this, and the response from Oympus Tokyo was:

The bokeh quality of a light source tends to be affected by type of light source you’re shooting. In this case, it’s an LED light source which may make the edges of the bokeh clearer than other subjects or different sources of light. So, while in most cases the edges and color of background subjects can be controlled for a beautiful feathered bokeh, the LED light source caused the oval-shaped, ring bokeh you’re seeing in these images.

Unfortunately, neither of these images were shots of LED light sources. In the first image, the light source was these  tungsten bulbs and in the o, her it was tungsten Christmas tree lights I’ve owned for more than a decade—long before LED bulbs were used.

 

I reached out to Olympus for a follow-up comment based on the tungsten light source nature of the images, and have not had a reply despite a few attempts. we will update this piece if a reply comes back.

A second issue with the image quality was less prevalent but still something to keep in mind, and that revolves around chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration manifests as an undesirable colored fringe on the edge of a contrast area, When shooting wide-open, these lenses produce a noticeable amount of chromatic aberration, as seen in this crop from the portrait session, above.

I reached out to Olympus about this chormatic aberration as well, something that also has been noted in other reviews, including this one from DXOMark. The company’s reply was

We would propose developing the RAW data with an OM-D E-M1 Mark II or with the updated version of the Olympus Viewer 3. The camera and Olympus Viewer 3 can correct the chromatic aberration caused by lateral chromatic aberration. Note, even after the correction, you will still see some chromatic aberration caused by longitudinal (axial) chromatic aberration but the level of chromatic aberration is comparative to competitor cameras at this price point.

A few quick points here so as to not overstate the problems with the chormatica aberration exhibited by these lenses, as it’s moderate in severity, and only surprising based on the price point and target customer of these lenses.

Chormatic aberration (CA) is caused by lenses, not by cameras. Cameras are capable of supressing chormatic aberration to some degree when capturing images becasue even raw files are processed in-camera before the image is saved to the memory card. It seems that Olympus is saying that their in-camera software and their post-processing software will reduce this CA, but that’s not the same as a lens not producing CA. We requested a follow up reply to this statement, as “competitor cameras” don’t cause CA, but competior lenses might. I supect this is a translation issue.

In any case, these two imaging issues are fairly common, and I’d have only mentioned them in passing, except the stated goal of these lenses was to produce high-quality images from edge to edge with smooth bokeh and few artifacts. In other words, it’s hard to find a wide, fast, affordable prime lens that doesn’t exhibit some CA and some bokeh distortion.

Strong Showing

Despite these issues, the trio of f/1.2 PRO lenses are a must-have for the Micro Four Thirds shooter. They’re fast, they’re accurate, they’re watersealed and they’re that professional shooters using Olympus and Panasnoic bodies have been clamoring for. The identical body shape of the three lenses also makes them must-have glass for video shooters, thanks to their ability to be actuated without adapt to different control positions.

Olympus has been pushing the boundaries of camera design since they launched the mirrorless revolutiona nd with these new lenses, the company shows that they’re not only at the forfront of technology, but that they’re listening to the feedback from their customers.

For the profesesonal MFT shooter, the new M.ZUIKO Digital ED 17mm F1.2 PRO And M.ZUIKO Digital ED 45mm F1.2 PRO and the previously released M.ZUIKO Digital ED 25mm F1.2 PRO are must-have pieces of glass, able to take on any subject in any condition.

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