Working on shallow depth of field with fast lenses on smaller formats.

The usual hit on micro four thirds format cameras is the lack of control over depth of field. Not that you can't get everything you want (usually) in focus but that you can't drop enough stuff OUT of focus to get the kinds of results you might be used to if you are coming to this format from a full frame camera and moderately fast lenses. The lens I have been pining for is the old Canon 100mm f2.0 which is fairly (but not perfectly) sharp wide open but really seems to be more comfortable when used stopped down to f2.8 or lower. It's a great focal length for my work and there are three contenders in m4:3 that I've been considering. I just initiated ownership of one of these three. It's coming from Amazon.com and I'll be testing it on a series of portrait assignments over the next week. 
If it doesn't meet my "stringent" test results I'll send it back and go on to choice number two and, if that doesn't work, choice number three (the choices being order by the decreasing desirability of increasing cost). 

I've been on a cheap lens buying jag for the last couple of months and I'm not really slowing down much. I (re-)bought the small and beautiful Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN Art lens because I've always liked the ones I owned before. I like this one as well but even at f2.8 there's more in focus than I would like in some situations.

I thought the Sigma 30mm f1.4 would get me into sweeter territory, and
it does help when shooting subjects close to the camera (see just above or just below), but it's still tough to get a really over the top, out of focus background because of the shorter focal length. I've been using a Zeiss 50mm f2.0 lens with good results in portraiture but if I want to go all zany have eyes in focus and ears profoundly out of focus I'm still getting images in which the background is too detail-y.

The portrait images I've liked best from this format so far are the ones I've done with the 40-150mm f2.8 Pro zoom lens from Olympus. But the main reason I like them is that I've mostly shot them at longer and longer focal lengths. Bring the photoshoot into a smaller studio and you quickly run out of ways to back up and put more distance between you and your subject... 

Now, at this juncture I should mention that it's not like I'm getting any pouty feedback from clients. Nope, they are pretty happy when everyone is in focus and everything they want to see in a frame is sharp. Some even consider shallow depth of field to be a technical mistake on the part of the photographer; not  high art. 

And I should also say that it's great to shoot group shots at something like f4.0 or f5.6 and not be worried that someone on a second row is going to be visibly unsharp. No, the mania for less sharpness in the backgrounds is just a personal preference based on my years of shooting bigger formats. Real formats; like 6x6cm and 4x5 inches.

In quiet moments spent during the first half of this month, in a lonely house seventy miles from the rest of my family, I would research some fast, one hundred millimeter equivalent lenses for m4:3 after getting my dad to bed. (Incidentally, I made almost continuous use of my iPhone to create personal hotspots for my laptop. My parent's house was a computer-free zone). 

I narrowed down my choices to three. They range from low price to high. There are additional choices I toyed with but ultimately I restrained myself to looking at nothing over $1,500 dollars. I figured that if the price for getting reasonable OOF (out of focus) areas was a couple thousand dollars I'd be miles ahead just buying an older full frame camera and a 100mm f2.0 or, to be even more retro, an older full frame camera on which I could use one of the Nikon Ais 105mm f2.5 lenses I still have rolling around in a tool cabinet drawer. 

The final candidates are: The Rokinon 50mm f1.2 lens (a smaller lens made specifically for cropped format. Available in the m4:3 mount).  This one gets great reviews for wide open sharpness, additional kudos for having nice bokeh and many stars from me for costing just under $400, delivered. 

The second contender is the Olympus 45mm f1.2 Pro lens which would be the tied first choice for me if I had almost boundless cash. This is a lens that, on paper, is the one I really want. I've loved using the two Olympus Pro lenses I already have and I'm over the moon about the clutched switch to a nice manual focusing mode. But every time I buy another Olympus Pro lens I find myself trying to talk myself into getting an Olympus OMD EM-1.2 to go with it. You know, so I can take full advantage of the dual I.S. features.... It's quite a bit pricier at around $1200. 

The third applicant to grace our list of finalists is the odd, Quixotic, 42.5mm f1.2 Panasonic/Leica lens. It has the usual, mystic Leica allure. A vague and almost indefinable promise that your photos will rise above the rank and file and show themselves to be exceptional by dint of the lens's magic, Bavarian Hessian-induced super performance. This lens falls in and out of my consideration as its price sways back and forth, now under $1500 and now over $1500. I'd probably give into my barely restrained Leica lens worship (even if the lens in question isn't really made by Leica....) without looking back if it were just a little bit longer. 45mm would be nice. 50mm would be better. I'm a sucker for the cosmetics and the visual theater of the lens's presentation but I hate the idea that I'd always be cropping away at the sensor to get where I want to go. 

Earlier today I went out for a nice walk around downtown. The light was flat and people were scarce so my camera didn't see much action. There's a limit to how much grayness I want in my work, but I did see a few things to look at more closely and each time I wished I'd brought along something longer than the 30mm on my camera. Never did I wish for even a fraction of a mm wider...

By the time I got back home, drank another cup of coffee, had a grilled cheese sandwich and paid a few bills, I was keyed up and ready to start the competition. I took one more look at the Rokinon 50mm f1.2 on Amazon.com, decided to forego the money savings on settling for the cheap looking silver finish, and pushed the "one click" button to select the "prime" option. The lens set me back a whopping $378 (which always makes my friends in the movie industry chuckle - "Hell" they say, "We've got filters that cost more than that!").

The lens will arrive via some carrier or another on Sunday. Sure, I would have bought it locally but it's not in Precision Camera's inventory. At least not according to a deep dive onto their website....

I'll shoot it for an hour or so after it arrives and, if it's a good one, I'll use it for a series of portraits I'm scheduled to shoot on Monday evening. The portraits are of doctors from a practice I provide photos to here in Austin. There are 14 partners, that gives me 14 chances to get stuff just right....

This one is wide open at f1.4 and I still wish it was a bit less crucnchy in the background. 

It was so cold in Austin this week that we started insulating the sidewalks. 


  1. Have you checked out the Helios 44-2? I have one and will take a close up shot and email it to you. Super cheap lens and has some really interesting optical qualities. I have used it for video as well.


  2. I purchased the Pany 42.5 last summer and when the Olympus 45 came out I went to the local camera shop to do a comparison. I could not see any differences in sharpness or background separation but the “look” of the Pany is different. I have read about lenses having a special look but I never understood until I saw the files from this lens. The Pany is big and heavy compared to my other primes (I have the
    Olympus 17mm and 25mm f1.2’s) but I’m keeping it. It’s special!

  3. I have an EM1.2, the PL 42.5, and just received the OLY 45 1.2 earlier this week. So far, I really prefer the rendering of the OLY. The reason I added the OLY to my kit was I have never felt the PL was a good fit on an Olympus camera. It always seem too big so I often don't use it. The OLY does not feel as big or unbalanced. But, the surprise has been the difference in rendering between the two. The OLY seems to have better contrast and saturation and a beautiful falloff between the in focus and out of focus areas. In contrast, the PL does at first seem maybe sharper in the in focus area (eyes) but crunchy in the out of focus. This is most apparent when photographing my dogs in not the best of light. Crunchy, out focus fur can get your attention. I had never thought the lens I was using had as much to do with this as the light.

    I had been planning on keeping my PL for possible use on a GH5 which I have thought about picking up for video so I would have the dual IS but I am not so sure now.

    PS The OLY 45 does not have IS so if you choose it you won't need an EM 1.2 :-)

  4. It's interesting that you are looking at prime lenses. I picked up a few older Nikon primes for low money 135AI for almost no money. Its manual focus and tack sharp. Not as "easy" to use as modern primes returns excellent results. I am thinking about picking up a Nikon 105 F2.5-the Afgan Girl lens-still not that much money and built like a tank.

  5. I recently bought the Olympus OMD5 II along with the Oly 25mm f/1.8 and Oly 45mm f/1.8. The portraits I've taken with them thus far have mostly been f/4 or smaller.

    I know it's a cheat but I use Photoshop for help with the blur on my cameras that aren't full frame. At f/1.4 my Fuji X-E2 with a 35mm f/1.4 lens is decently blurry but produce photos that are kind of wiry with tree limbs. A Photoshop layer with Gaussian blur clears that right up.

  6. I have been using the Oly 45 1.2 since Christmas on my EM1.2. I'm surprised by it. It does have good sharpness at 1.2 but is consistently very sharp from 1.4 to 6.3 (in my work (fine art photography) I have been using the camera's 80Mb hi-res mode and can really see this). Consequently, one just has to select the aperture for depth of field required and not think about optimum aperture at all. This focal lens is not my most comfortable, but I find this lens is on my camera most of the time - it is a delight.

  7. 6x6cm - there, you've said it. There is no substitute for larger formats, and not too long ago I've written a short article on it, with examples from a landscape photographer. And when I see old photos, like ones from my grandfather, yes, that's the look I'm after. Medium- or large format film, not so much, tho there *is* an initial cost advantage, but in the long run digital is far cheaper.

    About portraits on Micro Four Thirds: see my portrait album on Flickr. The first example is the older 50mm/2 Four Thirds macro lens, which is special, and which I love dearly. But for this one, yes, you'd better have an OM-D E-M1 (Mk2) for its phase detection AF. On my E-M10 it's still really nice, but focussing is a bit on the slow side.

    The next two are made with the PL 25mm/1.4, then I changed to the cheap and small 45mm/1.8 lens. And for your typical what Americans call "head shots" (head and shoulder portraits), it's good enough. Examples I like:

    My colleague Vyshanta, or
    my former colleague Lin Liang if you prefer women examples. Also,
    models like Fynntastic, or
    a full-body example of Meike in Mainz at the river Rhine.

    It's that "full body" type of images where things get difficult. And instead of spending thousands on faster Micro Four Thirds glass I'm really thinking about getting a Sony A7 or something like it to use my older OM Zuiko 135mm/2.8 on it. Or something like that.

    Hope these thoughts and examples help a bit.


  8. The 42.5mm f0.95 vl lens can be had for around 800.

    Just a thought.

  9. Depends on what is too long a focal length. The Mitakon 85mm f1.2 in Nikon mount may adapt well if you already have the adapter and was reported to be better than the Rokinon 85mm f1.4. However the f1.2 can be had for $600 best ebay, were I got the f1.4 for $120. Both new.
    I have the leica 42.5mm f1.2 and it is excellent. I have read the reviews compared to the Olympus and my thinking is sample variation accounts for the difference. But the Leica has IS which is important to me.

  10. I have the inexpensive Olympus 45mm 1.8, and the Olympus 45mm 1.2 Pro. The Pro is sharper wide open and provides a seemingly very shallow dof. However, I find that the old 1.8 is also very effective for my uses.

    I also use 6x7 film, (where shallow dof is more of a problem to be dealt with than an additional benefit) and full frame digital 35mm, and film systems. I find that modern digital cameras give the impression of having a narrower dof than their film equivalents (e.g. comparing so called full frame in digital and film). I think that this may be due to sensor resolution capability and modern lenses where the field of focus is so sharp that ANY degree of out of focus seems to be enhanced and thus emphasizes the (lack) of depth of field. If I'm right, then it should be possible to use somewhat smaller apertures even on smaller sensors, and get satisfying results. Seems this way to me. As they say... just my 2cents.
    Peter Wright.

  11. Hi Kurt,

    When you write "but if I want to go all zany have eyes in focus and ears profoundly out of focus I'm still getting images in which the background is too detail-y." my first thought is the mZD75/1.8, but that may dictate a longer working distance than you prefer. I'm fond of Oly's eye detection when shooting such shallow DoF portraits and tend to stick with AF lenses because catching the eye often seems tough. (I have the CY 85/1.4 Planar and it's tough to use wide open without a tripod and bolting the subject to the ground.)

    It's amazing we have so many options for m4/3 now and I look forward to the work you do with your chosen King of Portraits prime.

  12. Hendrik van ZeelenJanuary 20, 2018 at 5:46 PM

    Hi Kirk, nothing Bavarian about Leica (What gave you that idea?). The company hq is in Wetzlar in rural Hesse, that state's capital is Frankfurt, which you may have heard of. BMW is Bavarian -- it actually means Bavarian Motor Works -- Audi is, too, and Adidas.

  13. I'm going to agree with the other Rick and suggest you at least try the Olympus 75 1.8; if you've been shooting portraits at the long end of the 40-150, you should have plenty of working space for the 75. You should be able to snag a nice used copy for ½ the price of the Olympus 45 1.2 PRO (be sure to pick up a lens hood, which sadly isn't included), and even new, it's discounted to $825 at the moment. It's widely regarded as one of the magic lenses for m43, and for someone who makes his bones as a portrait photographer, you really should try it.

    I'd recently noted on a forum that the 75 was the one lens that I owned that I hardly ever used but wouldn't sell, but the release of the new 17 and 45 PRO lenses led me to take another look at my lens inventory and rationalize things a bit (to try to keep myself from buying them). I have both the 17.5mm and 42.5mm Voigtlander f/0.95 Noktons, but I wasn't really using either of them that often (I've found my shoots tend to be too fluid for manual focus), and realized that I could probably get by with adding a shorter, fast AF lens for the times when I don't have enough room for the 75 and save myself a ton of money. So I grabbed the Sigma 30 f/1.4 (very nice, as you've noted) for when things are a bit tight, and the 75 for when they're not, and I'm probably going to sell the Voigtlanders on to good homes in the very near future.

  14. Hendrik. I thought the company's HQ was in Solms. The camera division, at least...

  15. Kirk,

    Have you considered the OM Zuiko 85mm F/2? It is absolutely fun to shoot with and not bankbreaking expensive as it sells here (NL) for around $300. Or the Olympus F.Zuiko 1:2 / 70mm Pen FT?


  16. Years ago I had a Canon EF 100mm f2.0. It had no faults that I could see on film. It was better than my Leica 90mm f2.8 Elmarit-M at f2.8 and up. I have a f1.8 105mm Nikkor manual focus lens. It's beautiful optically. Soon I'll have an adapter to use it on my Sony A7II and test how well it does on full frame digital.

  17. Since both have been mentioned, I'll point out that Olympus sells a kit with the 75 1.8 and 45 1.8 for $999 -- including the absurdly priced hoods. The 75 and hood currently add up to $886.50, so $999 sounds like a pretty nice price if a person wants both.

  18. Kirk, a few quick thoughts.

    First, as I have the Olympus 75mm f1.8 for outdoor portraits with sufficient distance between me and the subject and the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 for indoors or small kit portraiture, I have been agonizingly searching for a lens to let me best keep my ISO low in low light and to best blur short distance backgrounds indoors.

    Second, I tried the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 for a while. The microcontrast and sharpness are fantastic...the bokeh is dirty like an Outback Steakhouse blooming onion with nasty rings, pink chromatic abberation, and strangely shaped point light source bokeh balls on the edges wide open. Though some of these abberations can be minized by stopping down a bit, what is the point of shooting an f1.4 lens at f2.8? I can just use my Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 lens for that, right?

    Third, have tried the SLR Magic 25mm t0.95 Cine III and it has some of the smoothest, cleanest, and prettiest bokeh I have seen on the Micro Four Thirds format. While the borders take on a cat's eye shape wide open, I find it to be a very flattering and cinematic (i.e. lower contrast and a bit dreamier rendering wide open) lens which is very usably sharp in the center wide open. However field curvature (presumably from deliberately uncorrected spherical abberation to give it a dreamy bokeh) is pretty horrific and the borders and corners are heavily blurry until signicantly stopped down. It is far from a perfect lens, but it has loads of personality. It does struggle with busier backgrounds (e.g. lots of foliage and dappled sunlight), but works well with indoor backgrounds.

    Fourth, I also tried the Rokinon 50mm f1.2. I hope you like it. My copy was sufficiently sharp wide open and the overall bokeh was nice, though like the PL 25mm, I found the onion ring effect from the moulded aspherical elements to be highly distracting. So it quickly got returned to the vendor.

    Fifth, I am now trying a Metabones Speedboosted solution. I have a Tamron SP 45mm f1.8 Di VC USD for Canon EF lens on the way. Reviews have been stellar and Roger Cicala at Lens Rentals places it near The Ziess Otus 55mm lens MTF performance. Dustin Abbott also has some nice reviews of it. Though reviews suggest it still has some onion rings in the bokeh, it sounds mild and the bokeh otherwise looks delicious. With the electronic Canon EF Speedbooster, this Tamron will be fully AF and provide EXIF data to the camera. Adapted, this lens will be a 64mm f1.3 full frame equivalent lens. Additionally, by going this route, you could also add a Rokinon 135 f2 lens, which has even better reviews and is compared to the Sigma 135mm f1.8, but is MF only. However, adapted it would make for a 192mm f1.4 full frame equivalent.



    So many choices...never a perfect solution. Good luck!



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