Review: The Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit for Micro Four Thirds

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One of the earliest lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system, the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit (hereafter known as just the 45 for the rest of the article) is also perhaps one of the most underrated. It acquired a reputation of being a slow focuser; that might have been as much due to the bodies available at the time as the lens mechanics. (The lens actually has a range limiter switch).

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Square hoods are a very typically Leica thing – just look at the S lenses. Oddly, the hood for the 25/1.4 is much deeper than this one.

Something I’ve always wondered was whether this was a Panasonic design, a Leica design, or a mix of both. Turns out that the answer is that the optics are designed by Leica in Germany; they’re assembled at Panasonic’s factories in Japan, and QC’d by a Leica rep who’s based there. Regardless, the optics are pretty darn superb. The lens is very useable even wide open at f2.8; unsurprisingly, for a macro lens, every focus distance is sharp. Performance is slightly worse in the corners than the center, but even this slight degree of blurring is removed by stopping down to f4 or smaller.

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The midsize lens balances well on the Olympus OM-D.

Don’t go any smaller than f11 though, because after this point there is clear diffraction softening visible on the OM-D’s sensor; fortunately due to the short real focal length, you’re unlikely to need to do so even if you require extended depth of field. f2.8-f8 is a good practical working range.

I’m pleased to report that the lens is also very low in chromatic aberrations of any kind; lateral CA is almost completely absent, and longitudinal CA (spherochromatism or ‘bokeh fringing’) is mild, and completely gone by f5.6. This suggests that the lens’ design is almost entirely tele centric, and definitely optimized for the M4/3 mount as we don’t see any evidence of purple fringing.

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Study of a pepper, 1. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

Bokeh is a slightly different story. Whilst bokeh is superbly smooth and uniform with no ghosting or double images if you have enough distance between subject and out of focus area, there is a very odd transition zone immediately on either side of the focal plane that is both slightly nervous and displays bright edges on highlights. It’s worse at larger apertures and complex/ busy subjects. If you stop down to f5.6 or so, this property goes away.

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Hublot Big Bang Ferrari Chronograph Magic Gold. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

Outside of macro work, in truth, a 45/2.8 as a multipurpose lens just isn’t that exciting because it’s a bit in no mans’ land. You have the equivalent FOV of 90mm, but none of the bokeh separation; it isn’t a sufficiently compressed perspective to be exciting or let you do something compositionally different with all-in-focus telephoto shots. In fact, it feels more like shooting with a 60-75mm lens in that regard. Yet you can’t be lazy with your shooting discipline, because it really needs about 1/100s for a consistently sharp image – providing you’ve got either one of the stabilizers off.

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Maitres du Temps Chapter Two Tonneau. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

As with all of the Panasonic lenses on Olympus bodies, you have a choice of which stabilization system to use – either the moving-lens based system, controlled by a switch on the side of the lens, or the sensor-shift type built into the body. I did quite a lot of testing comparing the two systems – unfortunately there’s no real quantifiable way of doing this – and didn’t see any significant benefit of one over the other. As with all IS systems, you need to turn it off if the shutter speed is high enough otherwise you will actually land up with double images. The threshold is probably around 1/500s. I think this is because it can’t react fast enough to the high-frequency vibration caused by the shutter, but I’m sure there are others far more knowledgeable on this subject.

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Doctor Zoidberg. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

There’s a second switch on the side of the barrel, and that’s to control the focus limiter. Like all M 4/3 lenses, manual focus is entirely fly-by-wire; I personally don’t like these systems because they don’t give you enough tactile feedback and lack hard infinity or near limit stops. Although I prefer to use manual focus when shooting close focus so I can set my magnification before focusing, this is one of the few lenses where I have no choice but to rely on autofocus.

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Street scene in Geneva. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

It will hunt a bit if you have the lens set to full range and aren’t focusing on a close subject; but for the most part, focusing is actually pretty swift if only small changes in focus distance are required. Switching on the limiter – near focus of 45cm – makes things much faster. (The full limit is 25cm, which gives 1:1 magnification and about 10cm or so of working distance from the front of the lens). I haven’t actually tried it on the E-PM1, but I don’t expect focusing performance to be much worse.

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Hublot Ultra Thin. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro, ambient light on location.

The 45 works much better as a dedicated macro lens, and will serve handily as a portrait lens in a pinch; however, my general purpose pick would be the Olympus 45/1.8. Image quality is superb; there’s a biting sharpness and fine microcontrast structure you’d expect from a lens with this price tag and implied heritage. It definitely renders in a very different way to the Olympus 45/1.8; I suppose the best way to describe it would be tight and controlled.

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Geometry. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

It’s a midsize (for M 4/3, but about the same size as a 50/1.8 for any SLR mount) lens which balances well on an OM-D, with or without the optional grip. Sadly, the only metal parts in this lens appear to be the lens mount and screws; whilst the plastics are of high quality and the build quality and tolerances are tight, it just doesn’t have the feel of a precision instrument in the same way that say the Leica M or Zeiss ZF lenses do.

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Study of a pepper, 2. The full size shot shows some nervousness of bokeh around the focus transition zone near the stem. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

I would personally prefer a bit more control over my depth of field in a macro lens. Having said that, the extended depth of field offered here can be useful for certain applications where you need to get a large amount of the subject in focus. Perhaps the forthcoming Olympus 60/2.8 macro will better suit my requirements. However, it does offer some advantages over my normal setup – at maximum magnification, it covers a 17x13mm frame, against 36x24mm for full frame, and without the need for any extension tubes and the accompanying degradation in quality*. I can also see some uses for it for macro video, though the fly-by-wire focus ring may prove to be a bit of a problem.

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Grilled wagyu done right. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

*Extension tubes add another set of mount interfaces into the optical system; any slight deviations in planarity, or looseness, or give, will result in the optics being slightly off-axis. This is visible as softening, coma or astigmatism.

For now, though, the Panasonic Leica 45 retains a place in my bag, especially for use as part of my backup system on watch shoots. Don’t let the plastic exterior fool you: optically, this is a serious lens, and in the grand scheme of things it actually represents fairly good value for money despite being one of the more expensive lenses in the M 4/3 system. MT

The Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 is available from B&H and Amazon.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Hublot Diver’s Chronograph. OM-D and 45/2.8 Macro

Comments

  1. I too own this lens and think it is a gem!

  2. Jorge Ledesma says:

    When I shot M43 I always wondered about this lens and its slow AF reputation but in your work, it truly shines Ming, it looks like a keeper, I’d love to see how different Macros compare from your various systems.

    • Yes, the AF is slow but tolerable if you turn the limiter on. Doesn’t make a difference when your objects don’t move, of course.

      Differences between macro lenses are more about rendition and color rather than outright resolution – they tend to be amongst the best from any maker’s system, so pick your poison. The biggest differentiator tends to be CA and microcontrast (which are of course somewhat related anyway – plenty of one means little of the other.)

  3. Hi Ming, been an avid reader of yours for some time now. My interest lies in Macro Photography and Horology specifically. Your macro work is truly inspirational, and something I hope to achieve eventually. Right now I am exploring focus stacking and getting more.

    Some of the humble photos I took with the said lens.

    http://www.network54.com/Forum/353391/message/1343149791/Panerai+In+a+Mood

  4. You should try the 4/3rd Oly 50mm f2 zuiko macro, it’s even better and weather sealed, useless AF though.

    Scroll to the GMT Pepsi pics:

    http://www.asthewatchturns.com/?p=694

  5. Henry Dinardo says:

    Ming I have been following your blog now for quite some time and must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I was wondering if you could post how you have your Nikon D800 configured. I have been having a horrible time with the WB coming from a D3s. I do shoot raw but my images just seem to lack the pop in color that my D3s had.

    • Thanks Henry. I shoot lossless compressed 14-bit RAW, with either AWB or manual WB off a gray card (if the lighting is tricky). I’ll then fine tune color in ACR using the eyedropper, and do a final grading before exporting. I’ve also got custom profiles for all of my cameras.

  6. Willi Kampmann says:

    “As with all IS systems, you need to turn it off if the shutter speed is high enough otherwise you will actually land up with double images. The threshold is probably around 1/500s.”

    Could you show an example of those double images? I’ve heard of problems with tripods before, but only with older IS systems. I’ve never heard or read anything like that about the OMD ever, and I’ve never experienced it myself – even at 1/4000s my shots are sharp, and I always leave IS1 on. I wouldn’t want to miss the stabilized view finder anyway. Still I’m wondering why this phenomenon would appear at all, especially on in-camera based IS systems. I mean the camera should know best, right? If it feels it can’t keep up moving the sensor with the fast shutter, it should be able to just leave it be. I imagine it could be different with systems where the lens does all of that stuff itself and doesn’t communicate enough with the camera. At least that’s how I imagine things; again, I’ve never experienced problems with the OMD’s IBIS at all.

    • I usually delete them! Next time it happens I’ll save the image and post it.

      The IS system relies on a moving element somewhere – either the sensor holder or a lens element – and the minor shake that might caused by say a 1/1000s shutter motion is simply too fast for the system to compensate for; the system usually overcompensates instead and that gives you the ghost image. I’ve seen it on my Nikon VR lenses, too.

      • Willi Kampmann says:

        That’s the theory, yes. And I can understand why this would happen with lens-based IS – the lens simply doesn’t know how fast the shutter will open. But the OMD uses in-camera IS; so why doesn’t the processor just say “nah, I need a shutter speed here that’s too fast for me to hold the sensor still, I’ll just sit that one out”? I mean, the IS is controlled by the very same component that’s responsible for taking the picture! So technically there is no reason why the camera wouldn’t be able to turn off the IS when it might be counterproductive, is there? Even more, I just read on the Olympus website that the IBIS is automatically turned off with exposure times over 2 seconds! I believe the camera knows best and turns it off at fast shutter times, too! I haven’t read anything definitive on that, though. Actually, I haven’t read anything about that at all so far.

        It’d be great if you could clarify whether you’ve encountered these “IS artifacts” on the OMD in particular or if your advice was just in general. Technology advances and so I don’t think this problem has to exist forever.

        • Honestly, I don’t know – I suppose it should, but I’ve definitely seen the effect on my E-PM1 and Nikon VR lenses, and sometimes on the OM-D. It’s not as bad, though.

          So far, it’s advice in general. I’ve seen it once or twice on the OM-D, but it seems to be better than most in that regard. Further testing is required, I think.

  7. An excellent review. Thanks for saving me a bunch of money, I have long lusted after this lens but will let it pass now.

  8. Yoshihiro Yamazaki says:

    Hi Ming. Great review! I am wondering how you compare this 45mm macro to Nikon 105mm macro f2.8 in full-frame system? I saw a lot of images of macro as well as tabletop and portrait using 105mm. Do you think I can use this 45mm macro in a similar way that many people shoot with Nikon 105mm? The idea is having a nice macro lens you can also shoot a close-up tabletop image as well as portrait. I know smaller sensor size in micro 4/3 would be negative in image quality, but the focal length of 45mm lens in m4/3, 90mm in 35mm equivalent, is close to 105mm. I am using panasonic 14-150mm for tabletop photos now, but sometimes I like to get closer to the object. I bought extension tube for macro shooting, but it is not so fun to use it. Do you have any comments about this?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 3 Here is a new review of the Leica 45mm/f2.8 Macro. Not underwater but interesting nonetheless. Review: The Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit for Micro Four Thirds [...]

  2. [...] Back to the primes we go with a new photographer-priority review of the Panasonic Leica 45mm f2.8 micro four thirds lens at Ming Thein. [...]

  3. [...] autofocus), the other one being the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, which I reviewed earlier here. Being an OM-D shooter, and heavily product-photography oriented, I was invited by Olympus Malaysia [...]

  4. [...] left us with four practical contenders: the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit (PL45), the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, the Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, and of course the [...]

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