Testing, testing. How good is that old 150mm f4 Olympus Pen F lens?

Meredith as Tommy's Mom in the Zach Theatre Production of Tommy (The Who). 

I know it's not just me. I think a lot of photographers have boundless curiosity when it comes to the way different lenses look on cameras. We talk about sensors a lot but so much of the look and feel in an image comes from the lens on the front of the camera. While we have the general belief that newer, computer designed and computer controlled manufacturing has led, inexorably, to the creation of lenses that are much, much better than those from decades ago the reality is that precision manufacturing, tight adherence to tolerances and the right supporting materials are at least as important as the latest designs. A great lens design in a plastic barrel with lots of tolerance for geometric slop may be light years behind a classically designed and produced lens system ensconced in a metal assembly and hand calibrated for best performance.

At some point the whole discussion about old versus new devolves under its own weight but there's an aesthetic component that has more value. The real question what is the end result of the interplay between a given lens and film or sensors. One of my favorite lenses is the Nikon 105mm defocus coupling lens. It introduces spherical aberrations to create a system allowing the curved plane of projection on the sides of an image to be in front or behind the actual plane of sharp focus. The sides can be out of focus in front or behind the center for aesthetic reasons. How strange that must seem to all  the people's whose shallow view of lens quality is just how uniform sharpness is across the entire frame....

But that's just my digression for today. The reason I brought it all up is that last night I was shooting some images of a rehearsal. I'm shooting the actual rehearsal on Tues. so last night was more like a scouting visit to the theater. I wanted to see what the lighting was all about and how frenetic the production of Tommy would be. Since I didn't have to guarantee a perfect set of images, or any images at all, it freed me up to test an old lens I've been circling around to every once in a while. It's the 150mm f4.0 Olympus PenF lens from the late 1960's and early 1970's.  I used it on the little Olympus EM-5 with an inexpensive Fotodiox branded adapter. 

When I shoot theater I tend to use the cameras in the manual exposure mode. I set the ISO at 1600 and tried to maintain a minimum shutter speed above 1/200th of a second. These two shots are from the same frame. The one above is the full frame while the shot just below is a 100% crop. I did apply just a tad of noise reduction in Lightroom 5.0 to take the edge off. I accounts for the smoother skin tone in the bottom image. 

I was pretty impressed by the performance of this ancient lens, especially so since I was using it at it's maximum aperture. I can only think that if I had enough light to go to f5.6 or f8.0 the results would be even more impressive. When I look at the sharp eyelashes I marvel at the camera's ability to stabilize this long lens as well as my own ability to handhold it and to sharply focus it on a moving target, on a dark stage. 

The EM-5 is pretty darn good, noise and tonality-wise at ISO 1600. It's just about exactly as good as the GH4 under the same conditions. How do I know? Well, I shot them side by side last night. The GH4 got the easier job because it was coupled to the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 which is very sharp even wide open and it one stop faster than its 30 year old cousin. 

I have used adapters to try a range of different brands of lenses on the m4:3rds cameras but for some reason the hand selected Pen F lenses do the best job of any of the legacy lenses I've tried. Better than the Nikon manual focus lenses and better than my motley selection of aging Leica lenses. I think it's because the Pen F lenses were originally designed for very high resolution because their target was a half frame piece of film. The lens developers at Olympus knew they would have to give the smaller pieces of film every advantage they could and that meant optimizing the lens performance to render tiny detail well. It's probably the same thing the designers at Panasonic and Olympus do with m4:3 designs today. 

I am always interested in how a particular lens imparts a certain "feel" or look to an image. I just thought I'd share this little test....

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  1. This lens renders skin tone beautifully. One of the points you made is often overlooked. Oly and Panasonic know how to make lenses for the sensors they have chosen for their cameras.
    You can still find some PEN lenses on the web. Olympus Pen-FT 150/4 # 217045 ...... Minty/Box,Case,Rear Cap Item condition:Used
    Price:US $450.00

  2. Love the rendering from this lens/camera combo.

    The colours, tones and transitions here just look beautiful. (which I'd take over "precise" any day).


  3. HI Mark and Frank, I love the rendering of skin tone as well. Almost makes the manual focusing worth it. I also love the way I can isolate stuff on the stage with the 300mm equivalent focal length.

  4. Great reflections here. Those computer designs have made the low-end standard zoom lenses of today infinitely better than any of the relatively cheap zooms I ever used in the late 90s, but at the expense of making images that are often slightly cold and devoid of anything you could rightly call character.


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