11.30.2011

A brief review of a lens you probably would love to have for your Panasonic or Olympus 4:3rds camera.

I think it's funny how we pretend that optical manufacturers only really figured out how to make good camera lenses very recently.  That computerized optical design only arrived in tandem with digital imaging and how constant optical upgrades are now de rigueur.  Is the Canon 70-200mm II IS L really that much better than it's predecessor or have Canon learned how to tweak its design parameters to favor perceived sharpness and contrast over total resolution and longer tonal range?  The truth is that almost every advance has been conceived and conjured into existence to lower production costs and keep quality control manageable.  The better the lens the more hand assembly, and sample by sample tweaking, occurs.  And if you want to see the true cost of building state of the art lenses;  lenses that have price as a smaller part of the creation equation you need only look to Leica and Zeiss.  While you may not value or need the final 5% or 2% of quality over your Canon, Nikon or whatever plastic lens it's an inescapable fact that there are very few manufacturers left who offer "better than required for profitable sales" quality.

And that brings me to the latest frenzy over lenses for the Olympus and Panasonic mmc's (mini-mirrorless cameras).  The two lenses I've watched take off in the current market are Olympus's 45mm 1.8 and Panasonic's Leica 25mm 1.4.  I've played with them both and they are excellent.  And they are a good start for the systems if they want to garner widespread acceptance.  But in truth, with the older lenses stopped down one stop, the modern lenses are just about equal with the lenses Olympus was making for their Pen F film camera system over forty years ago.  Even in the late 1960's there were computers that could be used to create very good optical designs and, more importantly, there were craftspeople who could "customize" the performance of each lens they assembled.  In many parts of the manufacturing process a craftsperson could eyeball an exact fitting that guaranteed the highest performance.  Today's factory produced lenses have "tolerance targets" for their plastic mounted lens element and group modules.  Fitting into the window of tolerance makes the lens "good enough" for sale.  Not as good as it could be based on the theoretical designs!  Just good enough so that most customers who buy one won't bother to complain or will instead blame their own photography techniques.

I got a used, Olympus 150mm f4 Pen F lens sometime in the late 1980's.  I put it on a Pen film camera (what else could I use it for back then?) and tried some hand held shots.  They didn't seem amazingly sharp to me and I didn't use long lenses much so I stuck it in the drawer and was glad to have the lens because it rounded out my collection of Pen gear.

But recently, on the occasion of getting a new lens adapter for the new Pen EP3,  I decided to give the lens another try.  I mounted it on the camera, set the IS menu manually to IS mode 1 and dialed in 150mm as the focal length and I headed downtown to shoot some stuff that might help me make a better evaluation.  Here's what I learned:  1.  Image stabilization makes a lot of difference in handholding longer lenses.  I'm presuming I could do even better with a tripod but it's a good compromise between mortal and godlike performance.  2.  Single focal length telephotos don't get less sharp at their longest focal length, like longer zooms. 3.  The real promise of m4:3rds is in the enhancement of usability through size and weight reduction.  Good for the cameras, even better for the lenses.  With the 2X increase in equivalent focal length you really can enjoy the pull of a long lens without popping those lower vertebrae into the painful and queasy zone.

These images are straight out of the camera Jpegs and, if I had wanted to be disingenuous, and make my point about the quality of older lenses more obvious, I could have run them through some post processing to increase the contrast and some add some selective saturations, perhaps sharpen up the edges.  But I'm happy with the way they look as raw material.

I think we've seen a sea change in lens design.  It's analogous to what happened in color film in the ten years before the mass market for film crashed.  Film manufacturers discovered that most users loved hot saturation and harder contrast in their images.  It was more............obvious.  So they started to pump up the eye candy volume.  We thought the knobs on original Velvia slide film went up to ten but on the newer films you could turn the volume up to fifteen (a nod to the movie, Spinal Tap).  While the films were no longer even remotely faithful renderings to the original scenes the same people who like monster trucks, Big Macs and now, full bore HDR, fell in love with the miracle of MORE COLOR.  Eventually Kodak and Fuji had to issue specialty films for the professional market with the color and contrast dialed back down so professional photographers could make neutral and accurate images for product ads.  And less aggressive films were also introduced for portrait photographers once they found out that contrasty and saturated are two things that DON'T flatter most skin.

So, in lens design, given lower resolutions from the last three generations of digital imagers, coupled with acutance robbing anti-aliasing filters, camera makers started creating lenses that added snap and sparkle back in at the expense of longer tonal ranging and high resolution rendering.  You can design a lens for high resolution or high contrast but not necessarily both.  Nearly every lens is a compromise between those parameters.  Another change has been the push to even out lens performance over the frame.  Again, there are two design philosophies in conflict.  The first philosophy says that most images are of three dimensional objects and 2/3rds of images created in the U.S. are of people in or near the centers of the frames.  Lens makers can optimize for center sharpness and let natural geometry takes its course or, with the use of additional (contrast robbing) elements they can even out sharpness over the entire frame to meet the theoretical needs of a generation of number worshippers.

While even-ness is important for tilt shift lenses and macro lenses it can be completely counter productive for many day to day uses.  But I guess this is fodder for another discussion at another time.  Suffice it to say that lenses designed in the 1960's and 1970's were based more on actual use parameters since most people weren't sitting in front of monitors doing "pixel evaluations" instead of shooting and printing.  But I will end by saying that so many of the attributes we admire in the work of legendary photographers have to do with design decisions made in the glass labs and lens design labs by engineers who were far less encumbered by the current strait-jacketed, tunnel vision of marketing teams.  And we are the poorer for it.  

Do I like the 150mm lens for the Pen F?  Yes.  I like the feel of the all metal construction.  I like being able to turn the well damped, click stopped aperture ring.   And I love being able to focus the lens by hand and have a focus throw created with the human hand and brain considered.  Couple that with well made glass that doesn't suffer from chromatic aberrations and I think we've found a nice, long lens to use with the Pens of today.  But look for yourself.















Note:  If you have any disagreements about my statements concerning contrast versus resolution please read this first: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/understanding-mtf.shtml


25 comments:

theaterculture said...

Interesting thoughts, and interesting shots - the latter of which prove 2 things. First, anyone fixated on the new will miss some amazing old stuff. Second, no amount of lens goodness can make being on a Segway look cool.

Vu Le, DDS said...

The 150mm pen is the best telephoto lens I can fit inside a red bull can. I've also got the impossibly small 38mm f/1.8. Both PEN lenses take sharp images with smooth tones. And because the diameter (filter size) is so small, it's so much more low key than my modern 300mm Canon lenses. You're right about the edge sharpness and contrast vs "modern" glass. But who cares when they are so "fun to drive"?

Frank Grygier said...

I have got to get me one these. (Independence Day send up)

Paul Glover said...

All I know is I'm entirely happy with my late seventies/early eighties era Canon FD lenses and the Yashikor 3.5/80 in my older-than-I-am Yashica TLR does pretty well for being the supposed "poor cousin" of the Yashica 80mm lenses.

But then I do use them for photography and not just as something to be tested and measured...

kirk tuck said...

That's what I'm talking about Paul.

Bold Photography said...

I really do think that for the most part, 'new' and 'improved' versions of lenses really are for cost cutting on one side, and improved profit on the other side as they charge more (as it's "new"). Rarely are the optics that much improved.

Precision rents out the magic drainpipe (80-200L) -- try that against the new 70-200 II ...

Still, neither of which I have any interest in taking with me next week....

Nicolas said...

Although I've been "taking photos" for many years, I am, out of lack of knowledge, mostly what I call a "beginning amateur".
I like your blog because, among other reasons, I learn things when I read it.
So thank you for that!

kirk tuck said...

Nicholas, this might sound funny but....I learn things when I write it.

Unknown said...

Many of these new cameras have opened up a flood gate for the use of old lenses. I use a Konica 50mm f:1.8 on my Sony NEX-5 and love both the operation and the results.

Unknown said...

Many of these new cameras have opened up a flood gate for the use of old lenses. I use a Konica 50mm f:1.8 on my Sony NEX-5 and love both the operation and the results.

atmtx said...

Oh to be able to go back in time to get some of those Pen lenses before they got so expensive. Who'd ever thought that these would become so popular.

mshafik said...

Nice post Kirk, after being spoiled for a long time by Canon's AF, I decided to mount my old Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 on my Canon 60D for a full day outside, it was a very nice (and frustrating) experience, now I get what you meant by the special signature of Olympus lenses.

I will post about it soon and show you. I wish I could get my hands on old lenses here in Egypt.

Wally Brooks said...

It makes the point that figuring out which gear to make the best image, even if its an "old" manual focus lenses, shooting film and scanning then finishing digitally, is how you get better at the craft.

Andrew Cox said...

I don't know enough to know for sure that you're right about the whole "lens design by marketing department to out detriment" thing, but it certainly sounds plausible.

I don't have a micro 4/3 camera, but I've a sneaking suspicion that you're going to do for used Pen lenses what David Hobby did for the second hand Nikon SB26 (etc.) market. By the time I want one, they'll be on par with hen's teeth. Such is life.

;-)

D said...

And the problem is that many of these older lenses are becoming harder to find because some number of folks have discovered (or already knew) that they are darned good. I have been searching Tokyo for good PEN lenses and they are few and far between. Can pick up used lenses of newer versions---even the 45mm Oly---with little problem.

Than goodness I still have some of my old OM Zuiko lenses which did surprise me as to how well they perform on digital. And the old-time feel of quality and mechanical precision can't be beat.

Nick said...

I used a number of older lenses on my E-P1 for some time, and a Hexanon 40 mm rode around in my bag until I got my modern 45 mm f/1.8. I liked some of these lenses better than others, but one problem that I had with most of them is (I think) visible in a couple of your shots: veiling glare. Despite the implications of your comments, the micro-contrast on your 150 mm seems plenty good, but the large-area contrast seems very problematic in the background of the streetlight shot, the brickwork in the shot immediately above it, and in the entire shot of the train. This is consistent with problems I had with lenses like the Pen F 100 mm and the OM 135 mm. I don't know how they performed on film, but on m4/3, the contrast issues just drove me nuts. That's part of the reason they're all on a shelf now rather than in my bag. (The other reason is that I turned out to really dislike manual focus.)

On the plus side, the Pen F lenses are, indeed, mechanically lovely and satisfying. I wish I liked their other characteristics more.

The Boatwriter said...

Every time I see images from your Austin walkabouts, I feel like moving there, even though I'm a coastal person by nature. The tourist board should put you on retainer.

And the photo info you provide is good, too.

kirk tuck said...

Nick, I think you're seeing two things at work. In the photo of the street light you are seeing an out of focus background and in all the shots you are seeing the results of lenses that are computed for higher resolution at the expense of apparent contrast. Pull one of them into PS and play with the contrast control. See if this mediates the problem. If you start with a lower contrast image you have more room to apply control.

On the other hand there's the horrible possibility that I may be wrong.... :-) And, focus does become much more critical...

Marcelo Guarini said...

Nice Post Kirk. I have been experimenting with a couple of Leica M lenses in my E-P2 (90mm f2.8 Elmarit and 135mm f3.4 Apo-Telyt). They work very well and made a very compact 180mm and 270mm equivalent. A few full size samples are here

http://www.flickr.com/photos/42632173@N08/sets/72157628227687821/

Regards

Ron Nabity said...

OK, so I took the leap into M4/3 and picked up a (lightly) used E-PM1. I've ordered a couple lens mount adapters so I can start playing with some of the old-school lenses that are still clattering around in my closets. (A basic 50mm f/1.8 lens takes on a whole new meaning when it is mounted to a M4/3 camera.)

I must admit, I am noticing a bit of energy sparking up within, kind of like it felt when I helped a "millenial-gen" person get an old-school turntable/stereo up and running and I started dusting off the vinyl records.

I don't worry about the practicality of it all; I just let go and I can see myself having a whole bunch of fun.

Wil said...

Nothing to write that hasn't already been said above... I'll add a "+1" to two previous comments:

"no amount of lens goodness can make being on a Segway look cool."

and

"But then I do use them for photography and not just as something to be tested and measured"

I understand the reasoning behind people who do extensive lab tests in controlled conditions, but it feels more right to test lenses under actual shooting conditions.

Matthew Miller said...

Kirk, I very recently came across a similar complaint about modern lens design, and in my attempt to research the background of the complaint read that same Luminous Landscape article, and I think I understand it.

However, what I don't understand is when you (and the other complaint I saw) talk about longer tonal range. It's my understanding — from that LL article and from this one that the contrast in that sense is microcontrast, and has little or nothing to do with "tonal range" or overall contrast.

I'm sure you know more about this than I do; can you explain what I'm not getting? (I posted a question about this same thing on Photo-SE, and while that site is normally pretty good with the tech stuff, I didn't get any really satisfying answers. I'd really appreciate your expertise. Thanks!

Mel said...

Does liking Kodachrome over Velvia mean I'm old? Or just more subtle?

Sigfrid Lundberg said...

I am now happy owner of two mirrorless cameras: Oly E-P2 & Ricoh GXR-M.

First, I learned to love the in-body IS of the E-P2: It makes it possible to shoot things at ISO 800 that GXR-M require 1600. It is so very good.

Second, the Focus assist of GXR-M (and Sony NEX, I've understood) helps a lot.

I really think that these new cameras are creating new possibilities for photographers. I have F and M mount to m4/3 adaptor and also F to M, so I can use all my old lenses on both bodies. And have a lot of fun!

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