Lens Testing

Size comparison: PL 45mm f1.8 Elmarit vs. Konica Hexanon 50mm f1.4 w/adapter

Key: R20111125-001905

The Konica Hexanon AR to micro 4/3rds adapter has come in. I promised that I would have some more to say about the ebay-acquired Hexanon 40mmf1.8 and the 50mmf1.4 and how they worked mounted on my micro 4/3rds kit.  I would love to start out this rolling review with a portrait image, but alas, I have not had the time to set that up yet; only brief time to play with the lenses in the late evening. I used my new little DIY mini-studio to do some simple lens testing against my only benchmark: the Panasonic Leica 45mm f2.8 Elmarit. I thought this would be a rather dull exercise, since I’m more of a “let’s just get out there and shoot and see how this thing works” kind of guy, but it turned out to be pretty interesting after all: not only did I learn something about my new (old) lenses, but I learned a lot about my old (new) lens as well!

Aperture vs. Stabilization

In my first “playing around” shots with the new 50mm f1.4, handheld and in low light, I could see that, as expected, I gained two stops over the Elmarit. What I had forgotten about was image stabilization. Testing side by side with the Elmarit, it seemed that the two stops were roughly negated when the in-lens stabilization of the Elmarit was enabled. Now of course we know that stabilization is not as useful as two stops of aperture when your subject is moving, but for still subjects this is an interesting trade-off. At least on a Panasonic camera. All other things being equal (which they are not, as you will see in a bit here) one would arguably go with the Elmarit to get the AF, electronic aperture control and other benefits of the electronic lens connection. It was at this point I had an “a-ha” moment and went and fetched my sometimes maligned Olympus ep1 body, which has in-body stabilization. The results confirmed the common wisdom that for MF lenses the in-body stabilization route is a win, as the image was slightly sharper in the details. On the downside, I found the lack of viewfinder or articulating LCD as well as the slightly more fiddly focus magnification on the Olympus to make using the MF lens not as smooth an experience as on the gh1. There are some interesting questions about the ergonomics of MF lenses on these sorts of bodies wrapped up in this, and I will likely return to this topic in a future post after I’ve had time to explore the lenses a bit more on both bodies and set up some more reliable tests.

Size, Weight and Miscellanea

The legacy lenses are solid. There is more glass in there than you need to cover the image circle needed for a 4/3 sensor.  That’s usually a good thing because it means you are getting more of the sweet center part of the glass where the lens performance is best.   The carrying balance on the gh1 is thrown significantly to the front with these old lenses mounted, especially the 50, and so a bit tighter grip on the camera is required if shooting hand-held.  Due to the weight, focal lengths (all 2X on u4/3) and the nature of the magnified focus assist (the magnified image gets pretty jiggly hand-held), I expect to be using these lenses mostly on a tripod.  Indeed, once I had the camera mounted on the tripod, articulated the LCD, attached the remote release cord, switched to MF, and either M or A mode, I felt almost as though I were operating a 4×5 view camera, sans hood.  The experience was very relaxed and pleasurable, and uniquely suited to portraiture, landscape, still life, etc.

Size-wise it is a different story.  The MF lenses are not as small as the smallest native pancakes for this format, but they compared quite respectably to the Elmarit.  As you can see, even with the adapter attached the length is comparable.  However, due to the weight and other issues mentioned above, the bottom line is that I don’t expect to be carrying these MF lenses around for most of my regular photo excursions.  They may see heavy use in my new studio type “constructed image” experiments however.  It strikes me that they might be exceptionally good for video work as well, and very possibly preferable to the AF lenses.

The fit and finish on the Konica lenses is very good.  Solid metal and glass, with distance scale in metric and english units, depth of field markings, hyperfocal distance marks, etc.  The 50mm is in pristine shape and clicks snugly into the adapter and then the adapter into the body.  For these mid-range primes I think I’m going to get a dedicated adapter for each one.  The adapters are cheap enough at $20 apiece and it’s a bit of a hassle trying to get a grip on something that doesn’t twist on the lens in order to extricate it out of the adapter–I’m a little worried that I’ll break something in the lens doing that too many times.  This is especially a potential issue for the 40mm, because it is already a pancake design in 35mm terms (with tiny rings and no space in-between) and unlike the 50mm arrived only in “good” condition: focusing and aperture rings are smooth, and no visible marks or defects in the glass, but there is a little play in the rings that is not present in the 50mm.  It’s caveat emptor on ebay of course, and all things considered I think I did all right this time around.

The 50mm has half-stops on the aperture settings, and the minimum aperture is f16. The 40mm has only full stop detents, and goes to f22.  Close focus on both lenses is 0.45m.  The Elmarit, by contrast, has 1/3 stop aperture increments (this is most likely a body issue, since it is all electronic control) and is a macro lens as well, with a close focus of 0.15m.  Unfortunately there are no markings at all on the Elmarit lens and you only get some rudimentary information via the viewfinder or LCD.

Shooting Technique

The u4/3 adapter has no electrical or mechanical contacts whatsoever, so there is no automatic aperture control.  This means you either stop down and focus and set exposure at the desired aperture, or focus wide open and then stop down to set the exposure and take the shot.  This is actually more of a pain than the manual focusing itself, but not such a big deal if you are working slowly and methodically on a tripod.  I found that in “A” mode the camera quite happily set the shutter speed and iso for me to match the chosen aperture.  To focus, there is a button press sequence on either camera body to open up a magnified view of the image. Using this magnified view it is possible to achieve quite accurate focus, although, as I mentioned already, this works best with the camera mounted on a tripod. Once focus is achieved, a shutter button press on the GH1 or another zoom button press on the EP1 will return to shooting mode. I can see how a “focus peaking” feature would be very helpful in focusing these sorts of lenses (possibly even without having to go to magnified mode) and we can only hope that Panasonic and Olympus will see the wisdom of adding that capability to future micro 4/3rds cameras, like the Sony’s and Fuji’s have now.

Konica Hexanon 50mm f1.4 at f2.8

Key: R20111123-223520-konica50mmf2_8

Image Quality and Bokeh

I can’t really proclaim anything after only a quick set of test shots and resulting analysis. It’s going to take a lot more experience with these before the full character of these lenses is revealed.  That said, I found the initial results food for thought.  My set up, as you can see from browsing the sample images here, was three bottles separated by a few inches front to back in my mini-studio, lit from the sides and shot head-on.  For accurate comparison I manually focused all the lenses on the middle bottle label (on the middle letters of the word “vermouth”).  I shot from the same distance, and didn’t change focus after focusing at the smallest aperture available.  I realize that focus can change a bit stopping down, but I just wanted to get an initial sense of how the lenses performed focusing wide open and then stopping down. The camera was set to iso 200 and “A” mode, which changed the shutter speed accordingly.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and lens stabilization was disabled on the Elmarit for the test.

Here are my general notes on the images after studying them for a bit on the monitor:

  • Both the 50 and the 40 are pretty soft wide open.  The 40 seems just a little softer and with less contrast at 1.8 than the 50 at 1.4. I would describe the image made by either lens at those apertures as “dreamy”. There is a specular glow or haze of scattered light through out the image, at least on u4/3.  This might be an interesting effect for a portrait or a still life, but I wouldn’t expect to use it at this aperture too often.
  • With the 50 stopped down to f2.0 the image has improved a lot with much improved contrast and minimal “glow”, although the image is still just a tad soft.  I’m guessing this is the ideal aperture for a portrait on this lens. By f2.8 (2 stops down) the 50 is in excellent form–contrast and sharpness are great, at least in the center of the frame.  The 40 is improved to almost the same degree at f2.8 and both lenses track pretty well from there down to the lower apertures.  What is really interesting to me here is the PL 45mm–wide open it is almost the equal of both the 40 and 50 at f2.8!  I’d almost go so far as to say that sharpness is a toss-up here, although to my eye contrast is a little better with the MF lenses at this aperture.  This is outstanding performance wide open, and helps explain the price of the lens.
  • Color is a very subjective phenomenon.  To my eye, the Hexanons produce a slightly more saturated color.  You can notice this especially in the color of the reds on the label of the out of focus wine bottle front, although it is also visible to some degree in the greens on the vermouth bottle.  Some of what I am seeing may in fact be due to subtle micro contrast differences.
  • The character of the bokeh is slightly different between the lenses, but I can’t say anything bad about any of them.  If anything I would rank the bokeh just slightly more harsh on the 50, and a close tie between the 40 and 45.  For all, perfectly acceptable at normal viewing magnifications. Obviously there is more blur at f1.4 and f1.8 than at f2.8, so the MF lenses have that advantage in portraiture, although the difference isn’t large.

All in all I’m very pleased with the new (old) lenses. IQ-wise they appear to compare very favorably with the Leica Elmarit lens at a fraction of the price. Of course the trade off is working speed. For on the move grab-n-go style shooting I don’t think too many people are going to be happy with these on their u4/3 camera, but for more contemplative photography: portraiture, still life, abstracts, macro, landscape, etc. they are more than capable and are an excellent value right now from ebay and used camera stores. I’m looking forward to using mine. I’ll try to note the shots taken with it (for a while at least) on the blog.

2 thoughts on “Lens Testing

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