The second most incredible lens I have ever used.

Many years ago I saved up some cash and bought a Zeiss Planar 110mm f2.0 lens for my focal plane shooting Hasselblad, a 203FE. I loved that lens but never quite figured out how to really leverage the advantage of f2.0 on a 6x6 cm frame. But the lens had character. Lots and lots of character. And when you stopped down to f2.8, or even better, f4.0, it was monster sharp. And it was the fastest lens made for that entire system. It might sound funny but at the time I owned the lens I think I still had a lot to learn about the subtleties of photography/portraiture and I probably didn't appreciate the lens enough.

For many years it held a place in my brain as the sharpest and finest lens I'd ever owned.

About a month ago I took a chance and bought another lens that was a little outside my comfort zone. I don't necessarily mean that in a financial sense (although the price tag did give me pause) but rather I thought I might once again be buying a lens for which I hadn't quite developed the chops to exploit well at my current level of photographic comprehension.

I wanted a great lens to use with my new Lumix S1R bodies. Something that would show off the quality and resolution of the 47.5 megapixel sensor. Since I seem to shoot a lot of photographs around the 50mm focal length I hemmed and hawed between buying the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens and the much more expensive Panasonic Lumix 50mm f1.4 Pro S lens. The Sigma has consistently gotten rave reviews from technicians and artists alike so I wondered if the difference in cost between these two lenses was unmoored from any correspondence to quality differences. In the end I decided to take the gamble and go with the largely enigmatic Panasonic.

I've shot with it out in the street and also at rehearsals for various plays and musicals but until yesterday I'd never shot it in a more controlled way; with flash, a tripod and a non-moving subject. But that's what was on the menu for yesterday's shoot. I was commissioned to photograph the lead partner in a Downtown accounting firm. We'd be mixing the light pouring in from floor to ceiling windows with directional light from flash and I'd spend the entire afternoon moving from one interesting interior space  to another, finally capturing 12 different scenarios, multiplied by dozens of gestures, expressions and poses.

The Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens got a good workout, as did the 35mm Art lens but I tried to lean most often on the 50mm since it was tight enough for a good environmental portrait but loose enough to give me a lot of atmosphere and ambiance. I'd discussed a style with the art director and agency art buyer and it consisted of shooting between f2.0 and f2.8 to get the most dissolved background possible. The effect was perfect with the 85mm and I'll admit that I pushed the boundaries occasionally by using the 50mm S Pro all the way open at f1.4, in addition to f2.0 and f2.8.

I could tell we were getting good stuff by chimping a bit, and punching in on the review images to see how my focus was hitting, but nothing really prepared me for my post processing session today. I went through something like 500+ raw image files from a 24 megapixel S1 and the two longer lenses just floored me. But as sharp as the 85mm was the 50mm is in a whole different class.

It's literally the first lens I've shot with that, when the focus is exactly on the money, even at f1.4 the Adobe Lightroom image from raw is too sharp. The default is set to an amount of 40 with a radius of 1 and I needed to bring the amount slider down to 15 in order not to have the image be so sharp that the detail of my subject's skin, pores and hair was outright distracting. Again, this was at f1.4!

At f2.0 and 2.8, when I punched into 100% in Lightroom the images were so analytic and revealing that I wasn't quite sure how to handle them. I did play around with negative settings on the clarity slider as well as adding noise reduction to the files to take the edge off.

It was an amazing effect. I can't recall having a lens that was so sharp I might need to reduce the contrast of my typical lighting and develop a Lightroom preset to match.

Don't get me wrong: the files weren't overly sharpened by the camera and the final results weren't harsh..., it was more the effect someone would get from needing eyeglasses for years but not having them and then finally getting proper glasses and seeing the world with clarity for the first time. It would be a bit jarring. A bit revealing.

So, these attributes of the new lens are interesting to me. I don't see the difference as profoundly when I've handheld the lens, even in good light, but with the flash and a tripod in play I think I may have actually over-optimized my "shot discipline." The lens is pretty darn miraculous and I can hardly wait to do more and more with it.

The Sigma 85mm is a pretty good match as well. I guess 2020 is the year I go ultimately sharp. Some of my portrait subjects might not like that but isn't a situation like this just crying out for a makeover in Portrait Professional software?

I am still pretty amazed. I just went out to the office to take one more look to make sure I wasn't inadvertently shifting over into hyperbole, but no. The files are amazing and endlessly detailed. A very 3D look. I am very impressed. I guess Panasonic gave me some good value for the price.


Ken Bennett said...

Hey, Kirk, if you have the latest version of Lightroom Classic CC, try the Texture slider. I find a fair amount of negative Texture helps a lot with smoothing skin when the lens is too sharp :) This has saved me doing the same thing in Photoshop, which saves me a ton of time in post.

Frank Grygier said...

Black Pro-Mist Filter. https://tiffen.com/products/black-pro-mist-filter

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Ken and Frank, thanks to both of you for great suggestions! Ken, I keep forgetting about the texture slider. I tried it with the files I wrote about and it was great. Frank, I love the black pro mist. I should get a new one. Thanks!

Happy Holidays!!!

Eric Rose said...

I'm currently doing some experimenting with my old Leica 50mm f2 Summicron, Nikkor 50mm f1.4 and Pentax Super Tak 50mm f1.4 on my GH5. You hear so much about lens personality etc. so I felt it was time to test them next to each other on the same subjects. Might be interesting. Or it might be a total waste of time. I wonder if Panasonic will bring out a m43 version of their FF wonderlens?


ODL Designs said...

Have to second Ken here. I use the brush tool in ACR with negative clarity (not much) and negative texture to taste and brush lightly around the skin. Then just erase lips, eyes and hair

Greg Heins said...

+2 to negative clarity and negative texture in Camera Raw. And +1 to lens filters: a couple of different strengths of Black Pro-mist and Pearlescent. I was first tipped off to them by the video people, trying to get less clinical skin.