I held off for a long time on buying a portrait focal length for the Micro 4/3 system and despite the stellar reputation and modest pricing of the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, I’d found myself more or less happy with my adapted Contax 45mm.
The Contax G Zeiss 45mm f/2 lens has a pretty amazing reputation of its own. In its day, it was touted as being one of the sharpest standard lenses available, even garnering praise over some more illustrious Leica lenses in the same focal length neighborhood. While I wish I had some Leica glass with which to test and back up that claim, let’s just say that the little Zeiss lens has done okay for itself and still goes for a decent amount of money now that the weird proprietary focusing mechanism has been worked around and this lens can be adapted to most any mirrorless camera nowadays.
So, how do these two compare? Let’s see…
The ease and usefulness of auto focus is something that many of us may take for granted. It isn’t until I remove that feature that I begin to realize how differently I tend to shoot, compose and interact with subjects. I often enjoy shooting with a manual focus lens as it tends to slow me down and add an air of intentionality in my shooting that often gets overlooked when I’m out and about firing away. Add to that the new focus peaking features on many new digital mirrorless cameras, and it makes manual focusing much, much quicker, easier and more repeatably accurate. Both offer the same field of view (90mm in FF terms), the same 0.5m (19.7″) minimum focusing distance, and the Olympus lens is 1/3 stop faster while also being able to automatically focus.
This comparison is going to be far from comprehensive, but rather offer a quick look at one of, in my opinion, the best values in the proprietary Micro 4/3 system offerings versus an “old” and arguably legendary film era lens. We often hear that new coatings, aspherical elements or techie new composite materials are required to achieve the highest levels of resolution and corner to corner sharpness in this new digital reality. Can older, film era, legacy lenses hold their own? There are some great deals out there on lenses that in their day were really, really nice pieces of glass.
While the Zeiss was originally designed as a standard focal length for the 135mm format, thanks to the crop factor a 45mm lens falls into the portrait or short/mid telephoto equivalent category. The micro 4/3 system has an embarrassment of riches in this “portrait” range (another portrait lens comparison soon to come!) but what about those of us who may have some of these older lenses laying around, or are able to be found for killer deals via Ebay, Craigslist or your local camera shop?
Sharpness and out of focus rendering. For the following test, both lenses were shot on the Panasonic GX7, with files captured in RAW and processed in Aperture 3.5 at default and identical import settings. Lens aperture settings are as listed.
We’ll start with the Olympus wide open at f/1.8, and then alternate back and forth at like aperture setting. Click any to see a much larger version.
Wide open, while I think that they are comparably sharp, I do prefer the bokeh of the Oly at f/1.8 and f/2. In fact I think I’d say I prefer the smoothness of the out of focus areas throughout the range from the Oly. Sharpness wise, at the point of focus (the eyes of the bust) and the feather as the lenses are stopped down show me equal levels of resolution and overall sharpness. This, to my eye proves that even in this new digital era, the older Zeiss still holds up beautifully in that regard. The Zeiss lens is also a much more solidly built lens than the Oly, has a mechanical aperture ring, and mechanical focus which is more handy in situations when manually focusing and manually adjusting aperture may be more important, like video shooting for instance. The adapter I’ve used for the Zeiss though uses a thumb wheel to focus, which is less than great for video focus pulls, and honestly a bit awkward to get used to at first for still shot focusing as well. There are many other adapters now that have incorporated a larger, more traditional focus ring, and if I decide to hold onto this lens for much longer, I’ll probably invest in one.
Color, contrast and saturation. Another quick comparison setup. With LBWHF capable of sitting still for nearly a minute, he made his triumphant return to the blog as a test subject. I tried firing off a few shots on the GX7 with both lenses. The setup was a severely backlit, and subsequently an overexposed hi key portrait with natural light through the window behind, and a gold reflector to camera right. They were handheld, so focus distance was a variable, but both shots were taken within a few inches of each other distance wise. One thing that I now know, is I need a new nickname for Little Baby What’s His Face because this kid is old and huge.
I wasn’t going for absolute sharpness with this test, but rather looking at two things, contrast and color. With the white balance set identically for both shots, I was curious to see how skin tones looked, and how a backlit, overexposure would affect the contrast and saturation.
The shots can speak for themselves. To my eye, I prefer the look of the Zeiss lens with the Olympus lens a bit too cool, and for lack of a better descriptor, digital. Very easy to adjust the skin tone when shooting RAW, but I will say that the older glass seems to create an more vintage profile. Warmer, and more film like one might say. The Oly does look punchier, more contrasty though, and that is likely due to the newer coatings, et al. Either way, and depending on how you look at it, one could be “better” than the other depending on personal taste. To me, both are good, but different showing that different lenses at the same focal length can indeed produce two very different looking pictures.
It took me a good few years to pull the trigger on the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 lens, and by finally doing this comparison, I can see why I had been so happy with the Zeiss. The ease of automatic focus was enough to lure me to the Oly though, as was the $50 discount they had going for a little while.
So, why did I choose this Olympus lens over the already legendary Panasonic-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens? Well, frankly, I think the Oly is more worth the asking price than the Pana-Lecia is at $1500+. Is the PL42.5 the sharpest, and metrically “best” tested lens for the system? Sure, but in my own personal form of protest, until that lens comes down to compete with comparable mirrorless system lenses like the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 lens, then I’ll stay happy keeping my money in the bank account. Would I love to have that lens? Yes, of course, I just feel that this more affordable option is a far better value for me at this point in time. If I start picking up portrait gigs left and right, and decide to ditch my full frame setup, then the PanaLeica 42.5 would make a whole lot of sense. So, how about the Oly 45mm versus something like say the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 lens? Well, hold tight, I may have more to say about that very soon 😉
The micro 4/3 system offers a remarkable amount of choice for a camera system that is only about 5 or 6 years old, and this portrait range is no exception. Add to that, the numerous film era 45 or 50mm options and we have ourselves an arguably overwhelming list.
This simple comparison showed me that there is good value in some of these older film lenses. I knew that, whenever I used the Zeiss, but it didn’t stop me from buying the Oly to have access to AF. I will eventually be getting rid of the Zeiss, perhaps with the Contax G1 camera I also have. Come the new year, I may be getting rid of a bit of my gear to fund further purchases so that I may have new review fodder, so if you’re in the market for a camera or some lenses, stay tuned.
You can see the Oly 45mm lens at B&H, as well as Adorama via the links below:
The Contax G Zeiss Planar 45mm f/2 T* ( can usually be found on E-bay for between $400-600) with the Contax G to micro 4/3 adapters costing around $50+ depending on the type of focus mechanism you’re going for, it would certainly be on the high end of the various standard legacy lenses, but you do get one heck of a lens in both performance and build quality. I can just about guarantee that this little Zeiss lens will be around long after my Oly will if going by physical build on its own, but we micro 4/3 system users certainly have a quality portrait lens, for a reasonable price in the Oly 45mm, no doubt about that. It isn’t built like a tank, but it’s also priced accordingly.
Thanks as always for the read guys. I appreciate the ability to continue to do these comparisons and interact with so many of you. I hope everyone is well and that you’re having a great fall season (or spring for you southern hemisphere folks). Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to stay up to date on articles, giveaways and general photo fun, or enter your email at the top right of this page for email updates as articles are posted.
Cheers and happy shooting,