Testing Portrait Primes

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Key: R20120121-142844

Regular readers will know that a short time ago I purchased some old Konica Hexanon manual focus (MF) lenses off of ebay to use with my u4/3’s kit as portrait primes. I’d been meaning to do a little further testing of these lenses and seeing how they compare to my PanaLeica native prime (AF) lens.  Today I had all three lenses handy and shot some comparison images in a pretty non-scientific test. Mostly I just want to get a general feel for the characteristics of each.  I won’t bore you with a lot of uninteresting test shots, but if you are interested you can check out this Flickr set.  I shot some other sets as well, but this set I feel mostly illustrates my findings, below.

So, straight to the summary–comparing the Konica Hexanon 40mm (f1.8) and 50mm (f1.4) with the PanaLeica 45mm Elmarit (f2.8):

Both the 40mm and the 50mm Hexanons exhibit quite a bit of softness and halation at the widest apertures on u4/3.  This disappears rapidly as you stop down.  By modern lens standards this would be considered quite a defect, but for formal portraiture it can also be considered a feature or even an asset, if you don’t want a clinically sharp image or to have to resort to blurring in postprocessing, which almost always looks worse.  The 50mm is still a tad soft at f2.0, but does not exhibit nearly so much halation at that f-stop compared to wide open at f1.4 (mind you, I’m not testing with a lens hood, which would improve things somewhat).  This might be the perfect aperture on this lens for flattering portraiture. This lens features 1/2 aperture detents, so one would have the option of shooting at five different settings between f1.4 and f2.8 for soft and hazy to to sharp and contrasty and still take in a lot of light and providing a pleasing background blur.  The 50mm is almost as sharp at f2.0 as the 40mm is at f2.8 and definitely exceeds the 40mm at f2.8.  The 40mm gets a lot of attention on the forums, but I think it is mainly because it is smaller and lighter (and cheaper).  It definitely is a decent performer, but the 50mm is on a different level, at least from what I can tell by my two samples.  It is about the same size (with adapter) as the 45mm native lens, but considerably heavier.

The 50mm vs. the 45mm native lens is an interesting comparison.  Now this is comparing a 50 year old lens with a 5 year old one, so bear that in mind reading the following comments.  Bear also in mind that the 50 MF can be had for about 1/6th the price of the 45 or less!  The 45mm has all the benefits of the electronic interface, of course, meaning that you get full automated aperture control (if you want it).  I’m usually shooting in aperture-priority mode myself, so that’s not such a big issue.  With the 45 the aperture is shown in the viewfinder, and you can see the number with the camera to your eye; with the 50 I sometimes find myself looking down and fiddling to see what aperture I’m working at.  More importantly, with the 45 I can simply twist the focus ring and automatically the view enlarges for manual focusing; with the 50 I have to make two button presses to engage the enlarged view (this is a little better on the GH2, which only requires one button press, but still not as handy as just grabbing and twisting the focus ring).  Of course the 45mm works with AF as well, which is a big win for impatient subjects.  However, I find that when I am doing formal portraiture (as compared to candids), that I almost always prefer to be in MF mode (with the camera on the tripod and a remote cable release attached)–set the focus and exposure–and then just concentrate on minor framing adjustments (with ball head movements) and engaging with, and directing, my subject.  In that sense it is very liberating to have “locked down” those two variables, and for this the MF only aspect of the lens is almost a non-issue.

Ergonomics aside, to my eye the 50mm is just a wee bit sharper than the 45mm at f2.8, but this is an excellent showing for the 45, because that is its maximum aperture, compared to a stop plus down for for the 50.  By f4.0 they are neck and neck.  The 50 being just a little longer focal length and a little faster will be able to blur the background just a little more, but I would say the main interesting aspect of the 50 is the option of opening up where the softness and halation effects kick in.  This lens will likely be a niche lens for portraiture and still life uses, while the native 45 will be used for macro, candids and as a general short telephoto, where the sharpness, AF and light weight are appreciated.  I didn’t yet test the color characteristics of the lenses, this will require controlled lighting and a few test shots of my color chart, but informally I see a little less saturation in the blues and greens, and a slightly warmer overall feel to the image in the 50.

There is also the new Olympus 45mm f1.8 which is a very good lens and reasonably priced, by all accounts.  I don’t have access to one, but if I can borrow one at some point I’d love to compare it as well.  It does have a wider maximum aperture (f1.8 vs. 2.8), but also lacks the macro focusing capabilities of the Elmarit and would lack image stabilization on my Panasonic camera.  The latter is very useful when hand-holding.

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