Few systems can boast multiple, high quality portrait prime lenses. Here I’m looking at three, very good lenses all in their own, respective rights. Each, have their upside and for a given shooter, a very justifiable argument in favor of, over the others.
While there are two more proprietary portrait prime, focal length lenses with a micro 4/3 badge printed on them (the Leica 45mm f/2.8 macro and the new Lumix 42.5mm f/1.7) I have been able to justify buying all three of these for one reason or another over the last few years. I must cull my quiver to make room (and provide budget) for new, fun things to review, so I need to decide which I’m going to hold onto.
C’mon in for some shots, and my thoughts…
From left to right, we have the Voigtländer Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 micro 4/3, manual focus light vacuum, the Panasonic-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 and the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8. Three different skill sets, three vastly different price points. Before digging into the performance side of it, let’s have a quick look at where these lenses fall, relative to each other in the price, feature and build quality spectrum.
Light Transmission: t/2
Dims: 2.2″ x 1.8″ (55.9 x 45.7mm) W x L
Weight: 0.26lbs (116g)
Min Focus Distance: 50cm/20″
Filter Diameter: 37mm
Optical Construction: 9 elements in 8 groups, two extra-high refractive lenses.
The Oly 45mm is by far the cheapest, smallest and lightest of the three I’m looking at here. If your goal is to keep your kit as small and light as possible, this is the lens for you (or look at the new Panasonic Lumix 42.5mm f/1.7 OIS Lens). Its body is built from plastic, and while it doesn’t feel as if it would handle near the abuse as the other two, it doesn’t feel cheap, but certainly built to a lesser spec comparitively. If f/1.8 is fast enough for you, and you’re okay with the plastic build, you’d be hard pressed to find anything wrong with this little gem.
Light Transmission: t/1.1
Dims: 2.53″ x 2.94″ (64.3 x 74.6 mm) W x L
Weight: 1.26lbs (570g)
Min Focus Distance: 23cm/9″
Filter Diameter: 58mm
Optical Construction: 11 elements in 8 groups, one Super High Refractive element and one aspherical element.
The Voigtländer is a tank. The Leica lens isn’t a lightweight lens in build quality or girth by any means, but this Voigty is as solidly built a lens as any I’ve ever used. It is the heaviest of the three, heavier than the Leica by about a quarter pound and an even pound heavier than the Oly! With speed comes weight, and this lens is faster than most any current lens on the market for any system. The catch, it’s a manual focus lens.
This, along with the other offerings from Voigtländer/Cosina are top notch lenses at very reasonable prices considering anything else close in offering and aside from the manual operation potentially being seen as a hinderance, it is every ounce a professionally capable optic. With the ability to switch to a clickless aperture, and a long, smooth focus throw, this lens is great for those that shoot video as well. The 9″ minimum focusing distance starts getting you into the suburbs of Macroville too. Very versatile.
The lens comes with a metal hood and hood mounting ring which screws onto the front filter threads.
Light Transmission: t/1.6
Dims: 2.91 x 3.03″ (74 x 77 mm) W x L
Weight: 0.94lbs (425g)
Min Focus Distance: 50cm/20″
Filter Diameter: 67mm
Optical Construction: 14 elements in 11 groups, two aspherical elements, an Extra-low Dispersion element, and an Ultra High Refractive Index element.
What is there to say, really. This is the best tested lens for the micro 4/3 system, and I’ve not found that claim to be anywhere near incorrect. It is expensive, and it’s big. Two things that do seem to work against the mantra of many micro 4/3 system shooters, but if you want the best quality image the system is capable of providing, this lens is route one to get there.
The only of these three that offer optical image stabilization, it provides about 3 stops of handholdability, and operates to steady the optics in video.
I struggled with the price of this lens, and still hope to see the actual retail price come down permanently by about $200, there really isn’t much that one can use to argue against it. Yes, as we will shortly see, you can get close to the same quality for less in this space, but there is a lot going for this juggernaut as well.
The Nocti comes with a metal hood and lens bag.
Alright, let’s get right into it, shall we?
Below are shots from all three lenses wide open, as well as stopped down to f/4. I’ve also included a shot of the Leica stopped down to f/1.8 to see how it does vs the Oly at that aperture. Instead of doing this for every available aperture, and to save us all some time, I’ve taken it upon myself to keep it at f/4 as all of these lenses are near if not at their sharpest between here and f/5.6. The point of focus on all shots is the small sailboat center frame which physically measures about 7x9mm in width and height for reference. All shots were captured and converted as RAW files in Aperture and exported as JPEGS. Click to see larger:
Wide open, 100% crops:
There are three different images if looking at the intricacies from these lenses wide open. The obvious speed difference here shows with the Voigtländer exhibiting the shallowest DOF and less discernible detail in the background. The focus falloff parallels this difference in DOF, and the bokeh is smoother and creamier, the faster the lens we’re looking at.
Sharpness wise wide open, The Olympus, to my eye, edges the other two out, but does so by way of at least a stop slower aperture compared to either of the others. Wide open, I feel that the Oly @ f/1.8 is slightly sharper than the Leica at f/1.2, but not by a whole lot. Good showing for both. The Leica is still very sharp, and considering the large, maximum aperture, I find it impressive. The Voigtländer, however is noticeably softer at f/0.95 which isn’t a shocker, and acceptable when considering the aperture measures larger in diameter than the focal length. In my original review of the Voigt (find link to that at the end of this article), I found that at closer focusing distances wide open, the lens suffered a bit more than when focused a bit further away while shooting at the max aperture. I have some 200% crops a little later to show you more closely.
First though, as the Voigt isn’t able to natively adjust to f/1.8 as it stops down in half stops, I’ve omitted it for this next side by side, to see how the Leica does compared to the Oly when it’s stopped down to f/1.8:
I’d say it’s at the very least, caught up to the Oly at the point of focus. where the sailboat and wording directly underneath have sharpened up.
And, here are the lenses stopped down to f/4, click to see larger:
Stopped down to f/4, 100% crops:
The Leica is sharp wide open, and gets even sharper stopped down. The Oly, is also very sharp wide open, but doesn’t gain quite as much of a bump when stopping down comparatively. Due to its longer, physical focal length though, it exhibits a shallower depth of field at f/4 compared to the other two when focused at the exact same distance from the subject. Not by much, but noticeably so when focused at about 3′ as they were here. The other interesting thing to note is that the Leica seems to crop a little more into the image circle making me think it either is physically longer than the 42.5mm measurement, or the Voigty is slightly shorter.
Here is a screen shot of 200% center crops with the lenses wide open, click to see larger:
All of these shots were metered and exposed, using the GX7’s spot meter off of a midtone/grey card, so it is somewhat interesting to see how each differs in overall contrast and saturation here. The larger the apertures, it seems, the less contrast. Not surprising necessarily, but interesting to see nonetheless.
Stopped down, the Leica for me is easily the sharpest, with the Voigtländer outclassing the Oly, but again, not by a whole lot. All three lenses when stopped down to f/4 are very close considering these are at a 200% magnification, and the contrast has seemed to catch up as well.
So to me, this shows that the Oly certainly holds it’s own, and when shot at like aperture, while not quite as sharp, does okay for itself. I’d even go so far to say that the Oly is nearly as sharp wide open as it is stopped down in the center which is certainly impressive. While the Oly at f/1.8 is slightly sharper that the Leica at f/1.2, that nearly equal sharpness gets leapfrogged by both other lenses when stopped down. The larger apertured lenses have one huge advantage in the speed category, and while we may need to realistically give up a little center sharpness, that is where the budget busting prices come in. While it isn’t shown necessarily in the shots above, the Leica lens also does very, very well in the corners at all apertures from my experience, but that is not hugely important to me for a portrait lens if I’m being honest. I’ll trade center sharpness for corner sharpness when shooting people any day.
Alright, so knowing a little about how these three lenses perform when shooting a static, controlled subject, I was curious to see how they handled people. Sharpness isn’t the only metric when looking at a portrait lens, and when accompanied by larger apertures, these lenses are able to further provide a shooter with tools.
I’ve been shooting people (cameras, not guns) with these lenses over the last couple months to try and get a good feel for their respective signatures. All the shots below were captured as RAW files and converted in Aperture, with identical settings for shutter speed, aperture (where noted), ISO setting and white balance. These are entirely un-retouched, and aside from converting to JPEG during export for space, nothing has been done to them at all.
For the first series, I used a 3 stop ND filter on both the Leica and the Voigtländer to see how these lenses did when shooting opened up a bit. The first shots are taken at f/1.4 with the 3 stop ND filter fitted to both keep exposure identical to the second round being shot with all three lenses at f/4, but also to eat as much light as I could to enable these exposures with shallower depth of field.
Thank you to my friends Savannah and Rose, who are now both represented through the SLU Modeling agency here in Portland, for kindly sitting patiently as I made stupid jokes, and did my best to explain what I was doing, and why I was doing it. You can find both of these lovely ladies on Instagram via their respective links above.
Shots using the 3 stop ND filter to open up to f/1.4 on the Leica first, click to see larger:
And now the Voigtländer with the 3 stop ND filter opened up to f/1.4 as well:
At f/1.4, both of these lenses do beautifully to provide a softening falloff due to the shallower depth of field. That they’re also being shot on a micro 4/3 camera, we gain a little bit of working DOF to keep both eyes, the mouth and nose sharp while quickly and easily blending the background and non facial elements out of focus. Some would surely like to point this “equivalent of an 85mm f/2.8 lens out here, and in this case, it can be beneficial in my opinion. Generally, I think the focal lengths do well to flatten features, providing a nice, flattering, very normal perspective. The ‘in focus’ areas are sharp and with a little retouching, I can easily take care of any skin softening or eye sharpening tasks I may need to do.
Here are all three lenses stopped down to f/4, click to see larger:
I’ve always preferred the color profile of the Leica lenses for normal, everyday shooting having always felt the Olympus lenses were too cool, and lacked a bit of the depth and micro contrast that the Pana-Leica optics do. In this case, I think the warmer, punchier profile of the Leica is a little bit of a detriment, straight out of the camera as I do like the skintones from the Oly better than the Leica, but I prefer the Voigtländer best of the three for tonality and contrast at these consistent apertures.
That all said, I’ve had very good results from the Leica when working files in post. It is an extra step, but one that can pretty quickly be adjusted for.
So, what has this shown me? Well, I am a bit of a sucker for fast optics, as I tend to do much of my shooting in lower light while out and about. There are always going to be good arguments for slower lenses when so often, they’ll match the faster lenses when stopped down to equivalent apertures. One shooting the micro 4/3 system has quite a few options in the 42.5-45mm portrait prime range, and there is not a stinker in the bunch. If you’re shooting with strobes, in a studio, I see very little advantage to doling out the extra money for either the Leica or the Voigtländer, but if you shoot natural light, and enjoy the exposure latitude and DOF shallowing control of a faster lens, I don’ think you’d find anyone who has shot extensively with either of these lenses that would say it was a waste of money. I certainly wouldn’t.
The Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (see it at Adorama, and B&H), and I’m sure the new Panasonic Lumix 42.5mm f/1.7 are wonderful lenses which are so small and light, you barely notice them in the bag. They’ll fit in a pocket, and they’re plenty sharp. Really good, inexpensive (comparably anyway) lenses. I’ve always felt this lens is a no brainer for any system shooter who likes a portrait/shorter tele focal length. It’s fast enough for most things, and the size reduction is truly a beautiful attribute.
The Voigtländer Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 (see it at Adorama, and B&H) is not only the fastest, but also most solidly built and boasts the ability to switch to a de-clicked aperture for smooth pulls in video. It has a more cinematic color profile in my opinion, and is a joy to shoot. For the purist, it is an inspirational tool, and one that is so much fun to shoot with. That said, at larger apertures, even when aided by focus peaking, I’ve found my eyes to be untrustworthy in cases which is why I chose to buy the Leica after a couple shoots with the Voigty that I ended up with a few soft, slightly out of focus frames. Any lens, regardless of the format that shoots at apertures this large can be challenging to properly focus, but when it hits, it’s a thing of beauty.
The Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 OIS (see it at Adorama, and B&H) is a beast. Not quite as fast as the Voigty, but it has very quick auto focus. It’ doesn’t quite feel as solidly built, but it is very quality feeling in the hand and has very good OIS (Optical Image Stabilization). It has a more punchy, contrasty and bold color profile compared to the others, which is nice for most things, but for skin tones, can bring out more of the reds. It has been lauded by test sites as the sharpest lens for the system, hands down, and my results would not provide an argument to the contrary. While expensive, it is as good a lens as the system has for overall performance.
Finally, here are a few shots, after working on them to varying degrees using these three lenses in a not so attemptedly scientific manor.
Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8:
Voigtländer Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95:
Panasonic-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 OIS:
There you go. I’d love to hear your thoughts and perceptions on these three, fine lenses. What situations, to you, might justify the added cost of the more expensive options, or how any experiences have gone when shooting any or all of these lenses.
Thanks for the read. If you shop for your gear online, and don’t mind helping lowly photography reviewers like myself out, doing so through my links throughout the article at Adorama and B&H are through my affiliate account, meaning that if you do purchase after clicking on one of these links, the gear you buy costs no more than it normally would, but I get a small referenced commission, so thank you for the consideration! You can see the lenses here:
- The Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 – via Adorama and B&H
- The Voigtländer Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 – via Adorama and B&H
- The Pana-Lecia Nocticron DG Summilux 42.5mm f/1.2 Power OIS – via Adorama and B&H
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If you’d like to read more on each of these lenses individually, I’ve reviewed each of them more extensively. Click these links to see my user reviews:
Thanks for the read and happy shooting,