Is the Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f2.8 good enough for portraiture?
Although I enjoy using the 20mm f1.7 on my m4/3 camera for “environmental portraits” (i.e. portraits with surrounding context), I bought the Pany-made, Leica-designed DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f2.8 a little while back to explore some more close up head and shoulders type portraits as well as to experiment with some macro work. On m4/3 this lens is approximately 2X or 90mm equivalent on 35mm (full-frame), a mid-focal length which is considered very good for tight portraits, or when you can’t or don’t want to get too close to your subjects.
When the Elmarit went on the market, a lot of the gear site reviews were a little hard on it, saying that at f2.8 it was not really bright enough for general portrait work and the price was too high, although the lens got pretty good remarks in most other aspects. In contrast, most of the comments from people who had actually bought and were using the lens were very positive. Based on some positive individual reviews and the images I had seen I purchased the lens, and although it hasn’t seen nearly the use that the 20mm has on the camera, I’ve been itching to play with it a bit more.
When the pundits say that the Elmarit is not really suitable for portraiture, they are essentially saying that f2.8 is not wide enough at this focal length on m4/3 to blur the background enough for a good portrait. This of course, assumes that one wants a blurred background, and begs the question of how blurred is enough. In other words, can we achieve suitably shallow depth of field with this lens for what would be considered a decent portrait?
I am on a quest to find out. It is going to require lots of experimentation because depth of field is related to many things beside aperture and sensor size, including the distance from the subject to the background and the distance from the subject to the camera. The amount of blurring that one would like in a portrait is obviously somewhat subjective. I think the trend toward extremely shallow depth of field portraits with everything in the background blurred to near oblivion is a relatively new taste, given the history of photography. Certainly not until the wide use of 35mm cameras and fast lenses did this style of portraiture emerge. On the other hand, it is nice to blur distracting background elements enough that they don’t compete for the viewer’s attention with the main subject.
Today I grabbed a couple of somewhat willing subjects and set them up for a quick portrait test in the garden. I put them a few feet in front of some foliage and myself a few feet in front of them, a distance at which I could get a sort of standard head and shoulders type portrait. I opened the lens up all the way and fired off a few quick test shots at f2.8, from which I selected the above shot.
From the overall photograph and the zoomed image shown here in the editor, I can say that this lens sure looks to my eye to be a decent portrait lens at least. The sharpness in the center of the frame seems to be very good. The background blur is enough not to let the eye rest comfortably anywhere, although at this particular camera-to-subject/subject-to-background distance it is still quite recognizable as foliage of some sort. The color and contrast are outstanding, as you might expect from a Leica design, and really gives the image a nice 3D look to it.
When I get a little closer to the subject, the difficult side of shallow depth of field emerges. In the half-profile shot of my dog, you can see that with the camera so much closer to the subject that the background was blurred even more and at f2.8 it wasn’t deep enough to keep the whole head in focus: the left ear, eye and collar are all slightly fuzzy.
This all leads me to wonder exactly how one can decide how fast a lens needs to be for decent portraiture. I could certainly see that the Elmarit might not be fast enough if one wanted to blur the background immediately behind a person’s head. Some might argue that you’d need to go full frame with an f1.4 to do that properly, but I can imagine that you might be often fighting to get some decent depth of field back just to have your subject’s ears and nose in focus in that case.
I have to admit that part of what got me thinking about all this is some of the hype around the new Olympus 45mm lens that was just released. At f1.8 it is not quite 2 stops faster than the Elmarit f2.8. It’s also currently about two-thirds the price (and compared to the original price of the Elmarit it’s about half!). The price differential is partly explained by the fact that the Oly lens doesn’t have macro capability, as close of a focusing distance, or the Leica branding. Nonetheless, to listen to the hype, this is the holy grail in the portrait length we have been waiting for in m4/3 since it has an f1.8 lens. I must admit it looks very nice and is on the market at an attractive price point, but I don’t really want to own two 45mm lenses, especially if mine can do double duty for macros.
For now I’ll continue my experimentation, I’m liking what I see so far. I certainly would enjoy comparing the two lenses if I ever get the chance.