I’m a new initiate into the Micro 4/3rds (hereafter “m43”) world. I resisted for a long time, preferring the look and capabilities of full frame cameras to either APS-C or the even smaller m43 formats. Stepping down in sensor size felt like downgrading, something I was reluctant to do, even to the point of buying the full-frame Sony RX1R for my walk-around, travel, everyday camera (and it is a great little camera). But times and gear requirements change, and for various reasons I have found myself the owner of an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a pair of lenses, including the subject of this review. I’ll go more into the ‘why’ behind my partial move to m43 (not a full switch because I’m keeping my Nikon D800E full-format DSLR and lenses) in a later post. For now, though, let’s look deeper into Panasonic’s new halo lens.
I’ll be up front: this is, overall, a fantastic lens. As a “halo” product – a lens that establishes Panasonic as a producer of wonderful lenses, albeit at a higher price, that can pull in users and get them to purchase other Panasonic products – this certainly fits the bill. It is very expensive, particularly for a m43 lens and especially when weighed against its most direct competitor, the well-regarded Olympus 45mm f/1.8. But that expense seems justified if you are looking for maximum image quality with that lovely maximum aperture of f/1.2.
A few things to clarify. One: this lens says “Leica” on it but it isn’t a ‘true’ Leica lens – it is a lens co-designed by Leica with Panasonic and manufactured by Panasonic according to Leica quality standards. I don’t care about that – as long as it produces great images, is built well, and lasts a long time, I don’t care who makes it. But if that’s important to you, well, there you go. Be prepared to spend a lot more to get yourself a ‘true’ Leica lens, and in the process you’ll lose autofocus.
Two: what does f/1.2 really mean on an m43 sensor? There are lots and lots of misconceptions about this. I know I was confused for a long time. Here’s the reality: this is a “real” f/1.2 lens (compared with an f/1.2 on a full frame body) in terms of light gathering ability. The difference from, say, a Canon 85mm f/1.2 mounted on a Canon 5D Mark III vs this lens on my Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the depth of field: while both lenses show a field of view equivalent to 85mm in full format terms and both gather light at the big f/1.2 aperture, the smaller size of the m43 sensor means the depth of field at f/1.2 on the OM-D E-M1 is more like what the 5D Mark III would show stopped down to f/2.5.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this fact. Disadvantages? You can’t get quite the razor-thin depth of field at a distance with the m43 sensor + 42.5mm f/1.2 lens that you can with the full frame sensor + 85mm f/1.2 lens. If you need or want that, you’ll need to go full frame (or possibly investigate the manual-focus only Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95). Advantages? This lens is usable for portraits wide open, letting you gather the most possible light in lower-light situations, thus letting you keep your ISO lower (image stabilization, on lens for Panasonic bodies or in-body on Olympus bodies, also helps this). What I mean is unless you are really looking to just get a sliver of the iris of the eye of your subject in focus, having a little more depth of field – but still enough to blur the background and give good subject separation – is actually a benefit, giving you the chance to get both eyes in focus, for example, or two faces that are next to one another.
Back to this lens. It is built extremely well, with an all-metal exterior that feels professional and high grade. It comes with a metal, screw-clamp-on style lens hood, unlike some of the pricier Olympus m43 lenses (which require you to buy the hood separately). Unfortunately it is not billed as a weather-sealed lens; therefore in adverse conditions I have chosen to switch to the other m43 lens I currently have, the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8, which is weather sealed.
Image quality is where this lens truly shines and lives up – mostly – to its exorbitant price. It is bitingly sharp even at f/1.2 and clear across the frame – something that is certainly easier to accomplish on the smaller m43 sensor but still impressive. Stopping down corrects the mild vignetting some and clears up the remaining chromatic aberration that you can sometimes detect at f/1.2, but the sharpness doesn’t really change much – it just stays razor sharp until it hits the diffraction limit of the sensor around f/8. I pretty much leave it at f/1.2 unless I want more depth of field for a given shot.
Can it deliver subject separation and bokeh? Yes. Absolutely. Not as much as a full frame 85mm f/1.2, of course, as noted above, but I’ve had no trouble getting great bokeh and separation even with my main subject several feet away from me. The closer you get, of course, the smaller your depth of field, until at the minimum focus distance you are back to that razor’s edge depth of field with just a slice of your subject in focus and the rest of the world a blur ahead of and behind it.
And it is a beautiful blur. It can’t quite match the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 100mm f/2 in terms of gorgeous bokeh – although bokeh is subjective and some may prefer this lens to those in terms of rendering – but it is also cleaner than those lenses are wide open in terms of longitudinal chromatic aberration, with less purple and green edges to the bokeh outlines. It isn’t a full APO lens, but whether through in-lens corrections or in-camera processing (even on RAW) or both, chromatic aberrations are on the whole very well controlled.
There’s not a lot more to say. This is a very expensive, very fast, very high quality prime lens, among the best lenses you can buy in the m43 format – a format that has a large and growing stable of fantastic lenses. Is it better than the Olympus 45mm f/1.8? I don’t have one of those lenses to compare against, but the resources I’ve seen online that have compared them back to back generally say that the Panasonic is slightly sharper in the center when both lenses are wide open and much sharper on the edges/corners, and (again, subjectively) has better bokeh. The color and rendering also appear to be slightly different – you may prefer one or the other. The Olympus has the benefits of being much smaller and much cheaper. If you love your Oly 45mm f/1.8 then there isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade unless you need the best; similarly, if you are debating between the two and you don’t need or want the best performance at f/1.2, then the Oly is a great and much cheaper alternative.
But: if you want or need the highest quality in the 85mm equivalent (classical portrait) focal length for m43, this is it.