One of my absolute all time favorite lenses has been my EF 135mm f/2 L USM. Before I’d acquired this lens, I was looking for a mid range tele lens that I could use for portrait work as well as use for events, sports, etc. The 135L a few years back cost me exactly as much as the Oly 75mm f/1.8 does today. Yes, the Oly uses much less in the way of materials, far less glass, and is actually a 75mm lens, not a 135mm (or 150mm to be more accurate) lens, but, for the Micro 4/3 format, it is as close to that magical piece of glass that the 135L is for the Canon system. Both are metal, neither are weather sealed and they’re each their own system’s mid-tele master. Even with the extra glass, the 135L is a noticeably faster focuser (I’d assume largely due to the USM focusing motor and a superior PDAF in the EOS DSLR’s) but as to the quality of the actual images…
For those who may see this (or may begin to see this, trust me, it’s pretty gratuitous) as a lengthy and unnecessary back and forth, the article is broken down to show the center sharpness (whisky bottles), the corner sharpness between different sensors (wall painting) and then what I’d consider to be these lenses strength, Portraiture all laid out below. Feel free to skip ahead if you get bored. I just tried to read through it and did so myself, so no offense taken :)
The Olympus 75mm has been touted as the sharpest lens for the Micro 4/3 system yet. The EF 135mm is no slouch in it’s own right. Below there are a series of shots from a tripod with the lenses focused manually on the “OF” in “Product of …” at the top of the square Lagavulin label, for each shot with the shots switching back and forth between the Oly 75mm on the OMD EM5 and the EF 135mm on the Canon 5DmkII with the aperture used being listed below each shot. First, the full shot from each lens wide open.
Here are 100% crops from images framed as above at varying aperture and equivalent exposure settings, noted below each crop. Click any to see the cropped area from the full sized image.
While it may appear, at like aperture setting, that the 75mm is “sharper” from these crops due to the full frame exhibiting a shallower depth of field, looking at the point of focus (the “of” just above the “V” in Lagavulin) both are very sharp, even wide open you can see the fine texture in the paper label. Here is a closer equivalent for comparison as far as equivalent DOF with the 135mm at f/8 and the 75mm at f/4:
If wanting to achieve a shallower DOF at the same working distance, the smaller sensor will require a larger aperture, and conversely, if needing to keep more of a subject in focus, the larger sensor will need to stop down further (requiring an adjustment in higher ISO and/or slower shutter speed) to achieve the same DOF. Feel free to squint at the above crops, but to me, having looked long and hard at each of these in full screen mode at 300%+, I can say that either of these lenses is plenty sharp, I’d say equally as sharp as the other, for any realistic application and it kinda makes me wonder why I even included all these crops, so, sorry :) Long experiment short, neither of these lenses is noticeably sharper than the other as both are sharp wide open and when looking at equal f-stops, or (nearly) equaling the DOF by looking at a two stop difference shows the same thing, sharp as Stephen Hawking. Both lenses are deadly sharp when in focus, period.
As for sharpness at the corners, I’m finding it has more to do with the sensor than it does the lens. I did a setup with four cameras; the Original 5D and the 5DII with the 135L, and the GX1 and OM-D E-M5 using the Oly 75. We saw that both lenses are very sharp near the center, now here are a couple shots with subsequent crops to show the lenses wide open, and at f/5.6 for comparison in the corner.
First, all cameras are set to capture the image in RAW, without any sharpening applied in camera or in post. Exposure settings were set to ISO200, aperture was shot wide open, and stopped down to f/5.6 on both lenses, and all cameras with white balance set to incandescent and shutter speed matched from one to the next to duplicate exposure. the 10 or 12 second self timer was employed and multiple shots were taken at each setting to find the cleanest, sharpest image with the aforementioned combinations while on a tripod 8 feet away from the painting.
Here are 100% crops wide open, click on any to see the full res, full sized 100% cropped portion of the images:
Wide open, it is obvious that the EM-5 and 5D mark 2 best their counterparts with the Old 5D looking pretty horrible by comparison. I thought that the EM-5 + 75/1.8 might just beat out the 5D2 + 135L in the corners, but I can see no real difference. Both are wonderfully sharp wide open. The GX1, while fine, shows the difference (of course without any sharpening) between the last generation Panasonic sensor and the newer Sony sensor. Not a huge gap, but the Pana sensor’s RAW capture is slightly softer to my eye.
Now, stopped down to f/5.6:
When stopped down, just about all difference is more or less erased. The EM-5 and 5D2 are still better than their counterparts, but the gap has largely been covered. Head to head, again, both lenses at their best look comparable to my eye. Long article short, these lenses are more affected by the sensor and depending on which camera you’re shooting one of these camera + lens combinations can prove to be sharper or duller than a different combination offering varying results.
Verdict: Both of these lenses are equally as sharp, or hindered, in my eyes in real world testing. I will focus on taking pictures with both of these beautiful lenses and stop paying complete attention to charts and graphs, or at least making declarations that lens X is sharper than lens Y because a chart says so. While I see the value in using a chart to determine the sharpness of a lens, I do not shoot charts. Perhaps two lenses from the same manufacturer, shot on the same exact camera body can tell us how one performs vs another, but as I’ve found here, the sensor is a large variable in and of its own, even two of the same sensor can vary (this is my second 5D classic, and I don’t remember the older one behaving this way with the 135L).
What about my poor ol’ 5D? I love the old guy, but this has shown it’s age. In the 5D’s defense, there is no way for me to calibrate the lens to the body myself, and it could be an issue that if I were to send the lens and camera to Canon, they could calibrate it so that it would be sharper in the corners wide open. I never had any complaints when using the lens on the 5D wide open, so I doubt I’d ever take the time and pay the money to do that, unless I start getting paid to shoot resolution charts I guess.
Now, with my busy schedule, and Mrs Squeeze refusing to sit for me (I don’t blame her, I would be absolutely fed up with my photo requests too) I decided to sit in. With my finely tuned self portrait techniques and zen like facial expression re-creation, I fired off two frames. Here are the two shots with a 100% crop of my mug following each, with the same setup, lighting, exposure settings and shot from the same location. One is with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 on the OMD EM5, the other from the EF 135mm f/2 L on a 5DmkII. Captured in RAW, converted in Aperture 3.4 and absolutely nothing but cropping the 5DII image to 3:4 (and exporting the full images in modified dimensions, the 100%crops are just that) has been done to either of these images. As close to straight out of the camera as the limited upload space on wordpress will allow. Fun fact, by cropping into the full frame images from the 5DII using the full height at 3:4, it just about equals the framing, and viewing angle from the micro 4/3 sensors with that 150mm EFOV. To keep it as close as I could, both cameras were set up at ISO200, 1/125sec at f/8, a custom WB of 5400k lit by a single Alien Bee B800 fired at 1/4 power, camera left through an Apollo softbox via a Pocket Wizard. See if your pixel peeping is up to snuff and distinguish which is which.
Can you tell which is which? Obviously there is a difference in the way the sensors capture color, and for the tell tale, there is a visible difference in the depth of field which is a dead giveaway. If we want to nitpick, there is a slight difference in tonal range, but again this is down to the files bit depths, not the lenses. As for sharpness, I see very, very little difference and any preference I would have comes down to the differences in the sensors, with both lenses being more than capable, nay, amazing in my opinion (purely in rendering optical quality, subject matter entirely debatable). The first was the 5DII w/135 f/2 and the second was the EM5 w/75 f/1.8 for those interested.
Speaking of the difference in sensors, even shooting RAW, different sensors show a noticeable shift in recording the different color channels (as one would assume, not all RAW files are created equal). Over the last few weeks for this unscientific test, I’ve been shooting the EF 135L on an old (original) 5D and a 5DmarkII. The Oly 75mm has been switched between the OMD EM5 with the Sony sensor and the Panasonic G3 and GX1 with the Panasonic sensor (you can read my comparison between the Sony and Panasonic sensors HERE). Much of the differences can be adjusted and neutralized in post processing, but I’ve been finding that the Canon sensor’s CR2 files are far more muted and neutral with more requirement for post sharpening through default conversion, the G3/GX1 seems to take a similar tack while the Sony sensor comes through over saturated (to me), especially in the red channel, and over sharpened (again to my eye) through neutral, default conversion settings. I’m of the opinion that I can always add sharpening, saturation, et al after the fact, but it is harder to remove it. That said, I took the two images from above and ran them through Photoshop CS6 to look at how they’d do with my normal enhancement and sharpening workflow. I didn’t color correct, mostly just to avoid potentially altering the pixels when I really wanted to look at sharpening and just eyeballing resolution (pun entirely intended).
After sharpening both files with my default final sharpening action, the above 200% crops are what come out on the other side. Both are noticeably and acceptably sharp as far as I’m concerned. The 135mm on the 5DII sensor shows me a little more resolution (as determined by the fine detail in the eyebrows) but this is something that to notice, you’ll have to really magnify a file to truly tell any difference. It also exhibits a bit of noticeable CA in the two small catch lights in my eye (the purple fringing) which is from a reflection off of a mercury lamp to my left (cam right). That said, this does show me that from this test, the 135 on the 5DII is capable of providing a sharper final image vs the 75mm on the OMD EM5. I know it may conflict with some of the charts out there, but I don’t shoot charts, and hope you don’t spend your time doing so either. If I measured a lens solely on how it resolved when shooting charts, I’d probably come to the conclusion that I have not been spending enough time with and photo documenting my family and probably should reassess my passion. I’m sure I’ll get flamed by people citing DXO this, or Lenstest that, but to me, a comparative image under controlled conditions will show me how a lens and camera work for real pictures with the cameras and lenses that I have and use. I, and anyone I’d be getting paid by would be happy with the sharpness and resolution from either of these images, although I’d probably need to neutralize quite a bit of the red from the OMD file.
Is there an advantage to using either one of these lenses over the other? Simply put, no. Both are amazing and are going to be more affected by the sensor they’re recording light onto than the optics involved. As far as optical performance, really, the difference to my eye is negligible. I think the fact that the 135L is designed to be used on larger sensors would benefit from those larger sensor’s advantages in resolution as well as benefit someone needing a lens to be a faster focuser (again due to the superior AF systems in the EOS DSLRs). In real life? See my above sentiment toward basing my whole opinion on a lens from lab/chart test shots, and unless I’m shooting pro sports, I don’t think the AF speed difference is going to be a major hindrance (honestly in higher contrast situations, the 75mm is just about on par AF speed wise). For overall size and weight savings? The Oly 75mm wins and provides quality with half the weight. Shallower DOF for subject isolation? The 135L wins. A quality image file? You can’t go wrong and I feel both of these lenses are fully capable, only really limited by those of us who decide to stand behind them and point them at stuff. As the micro 4/3 system continues to progress, and we see the sensors continue to get better, the Olympus Zuiko 75mm lens will continue to get better as well I feel, and I’m excited to see that.
Being that these two lenses are comparably priced for their respective systems with the current prices shading on the 135L being about 10% more expensive, the only real “advantage” I’d say would be the desire, or need for a particular camera body and more importantly, the sensor that these two optical juggernauts would be placed in front of.
Here are a few more hand held shots with altering combinations to show that either lens on various cameras will be plenty capable and, in my opinion, good investments.
This is why Olympus can get away with what it charges for this lens, it provides quality on par with lenses providing a similar field of view on larger sensors with equal quality. This is our reality, and as much as it may piss me off, the micro 4/3 system knows that they can play to the “equivalent” field of view as opposed to explaining how less material, less exotic glass or lens coatings by area, etc can command in cases, much more than an actual equivalent for a different format. If we micro 4/3 system users want this type of quality, at this focal length, the price has been set. Now, to Olympus and Panasonic, please do what you can to employ a 14 (or 16!) bit RAW file. +/- 16 megapixels are plenty, but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing better tonal gradation and depth along with a broader dynamic range with future sensors…please? To Canon, well, I feel the writing is on the wall, and while I still vastly prefer the functionality of a traditional DSLR when working, the pricing for these bodies is going to need to keep coming down to stay competitive. If the micro 4/3 system starts providing more practical functionality along the lines of the GH3, with all the function and external control that a larger, bulkier system camera does, and continues to make leaps in sensor technology, optical offerings and IQ, DSLR’s, as much as I love ’em, are going to be hanging on to a shrinking piece of the pie. Maybe not next year, or the year after, but the gauntlet has been thrown down and while I don’t think we’ll see the DSLR’s become extinct anytime soon, I think you are going to continue to see fewer and fewer around when you can squeeze as much quality out of a $1000 body (or even $250 Camera Body in the case of the GX1 or G3 right now) and $900 lens (vs a $2700 body and $900 lens in this particular scenario). Is a full frame camera with comparable lens really $1700 better? Not for the average shot in my personal opinion. I’m not going to say that a full frame camera doesn’t produce better files or have benefits over a micro 4/3 camera, but for the daily photographic tasks, I’d rather save the weight (and money) knowing I’ve got comparable quality in the bag. Times, they are a changin’.
Here are links to the lenses (from B&H), and guess what? I’ve finally, after three years, decided to incorporate an affiliate link! If you purchase through these links, I get a small commission which will be put back into the blog to help me keep this going (aka justifying the time spent to the lovely Mrs.), so, thank you for the consideration.
I’m now (finally) on facebook as well HERE, so if you’re into that type of thing, I’d love to connect with you guys there as well.
Thanks everyone for the continued support and for reading through. Any questions? Fire them off and I’ll get back to you.