Ben. Olympus 70mm f2.0 Wide Open. Panasonic GH2
Like most fans of micro four thirds cameras I've heard about the eminent arrival of the Olympus 75mm 1.8 lens for months now. By all rights it should be a great lens. It's a fairly long focal length (which is generally easier to design) and given the proven prowess of Olympus's lens designers it should be sharp and contrasty even wide open.
With this in mind I went over to the Olympus Pen drawer in the Visual Science Lab Armory and extracted what I think is the progenitor of the new lens, the 70mm f2.0 Zuiko from the late 1960's. Yes, they actually knew how to make lenses out of metal and glass even back then....
I had always remembered this lens as a good performer but I wanted to revisit it given the much improved cameras I have at my disposal these days. So I pulled out the GH2 (which seems to perform as well as the OMD, as long as we stay away from the "nose-bleed" ISOs....) and I put the 70mm f2.0 Zuiko on with the help of a Fotodiox adapter and I called Ben into the studio.
Ever the perfect child he dropped his chemistry homework on to the top of his desk and hustled to the studio. It would have been easy to set up conditions that would favor even the worst lens, if that had been my intention. I could have lit Ben with hard flash for the appearance of high sharpness. I could have stopped the lens down to its "sweet spot" which makes every lens look like a contender....
But I chose to shoot a quick portrait at ISO 160 with the camera on a tripod. No IS in this combination. Just straight ahead, late 1960's technique. I shot the lens wide open and put it on a Berlebach wooden tripod. The shutter speed was 1/20th of a second. The depth of field was so small that just by breathing Ben would move in and out of fine focus.
So, what did I find? I have the benefit of having looked at the file at 100%. Where I focused (Ben's eyelashes) the sharpness is easily equal to any of the camera and lens combinations I've shot over the years. The tonality is wonderful. The contrast right out of camera is lower than that of a modern camera/lens combination but it sparkles up well with a small application of curves in PhotoShop.
By the time you reach the kid's ears or the back of his tee shirt collar the lens is already going out of focus quickly (hello all you crazy people who think limited depth of field is only provence of larger sensor cameras). By the time we hit the background all focus is totally gone. And the background is only six feet behind him.
I probably won't be buying the new lens. I have one near that speed and focal length that is already very, very good. But I'm excited for everyone who does buy the new lens because I think it will be another product in a line of game changing products being released by Olympus this year. It will either push Canon and Nikon back to the design computer to make better and more exciting glass or it will push hundreds of thousands of camera users away from last century paradigms and into using the new technology that's even now changing all the maps of photography.
The "reverse roadmap" that will allow you to understand what Olympus is doing is the original Pen system. You have only to study it to parse what's coming next. A whole line of fast, sharp-wide-open lenses and a wide open playing field.
The defensive among us harped on the OMD's focusing as a reason why we "won't see any micro four thirds cameras at the Olympics..." One or two more lens releases and we'll be able to say "bullshit" to another worn out assumption by the mirrored class. EVF, Mirrorless and small sensor cameras are here to stay. No....that's not quite right. They are here to dominate.
The next camera from Olympus will doubtless offer hybrid autofocus for fast, continuous performance. Couple that with a bag of fast long optics that weighs less than one big, fat, L lens and photographers would be crazy to choose the "old school" methods with their attendant bad backs and hernias. You heard it here first.
And it all started with the original Pen half frame cameras....