Macro shootout on Micro Four Thirds: four lenses, one winner

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Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s review of the new Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 Macro; aimed at answering two questions: what is the best macro lens for Micro Four Thirds, and just how much better are the system-specific lens designs? Firstly, a bit of background logic. I’ve selected lenses around the same focal length range – 50mm+/- – in mounts that can easily be adapted to fit M4/3; this pretty much means native lenses and Nikon; Canon and Sony do not have mechanical aperture control, and thus no way of stopping down; besides, Zeiss makes the same lens in multiple mounts. I haven’t used conventional lenses with extension tubes* as these are not real macro lenses; their optics have not been designed with optimization for close range performance in mind. Exotic optics and things that aren’t easily available such as the Coastal Optics 60/4 APO-UV-VIS-IR were also excluded for obvious reasons.

*With one exception, explained later

This 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 Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro (ZD60). Some are going to cry foul at not having the older Zuiko Digital 50/2 Macro present, but there’s a good reason for that – I didn’t have one handy, and the newer lens has a much higher MTF. Basically, we have here the best short focal length macros available for the respective systems - I might have missed one, but the test would be meaningless unless repeated with all lenses at the same time.

These tests would be useless without consistent methodology – so a quick note on that is necessary to provide some background context to the tests. The camera used was an Olympus OM-D, the highest resolution camera available for Micro Four Thirds, and with a pixel pitch equivalent to a 64MP full-frame sensor; this was shot RAW, converted in ACR with identical settings and zero sharpening. I used a Manfrotto 468MGRCO Hydrostat head and Gitzo GT 5562 GTS legs with no center column; this combination is rock-solid and rated to far higher loads than I can even physically carry. To completely rule out camera shake, the test subjects were illuminated with flash – in this case, a pair of Olympus FL-600Rs, triggered wirelessly using the supplied flash for the OM-D. The lens was defocused serveral times for each shot and the best image selected.

Focusing was performed with either AF and checked with 10x live view, or manually with 10x live view, at the intended point of comparison. A G-compatible adaptor was used to mount the Nikon and Zeiss lenses; the aperture on the 60mm was set to the same approximate size (as viewed from the front, object side) as the Zeiss when stopped down. The magnification of each scene was matched between the different lenses by moving the tripod.

The test scenes were artificial constructs to investigate specific properties: resolution at center, border and corner wide open; bokeh, longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberrations and distortion. The lenses were tested in the range they would be typically used – moderately close distances down to the 1:1-1:2 magnification range. All use floating elements, and infinity performance is excellent across the board – it isn’t difficult to design a normal lens that performs well at infinity.

With regards to the commentary, please go off what I say and not what you see: even though these are low-compression jpegs of screen shots of 100% crops, there will inevitably be some differences in color and resolution compared to the actual files which I’ve viewed on a calibrated monitor, at full resolution. Clicking on the ‘full resolution’ links takes you to the original screen shot file.

1. Center resolution at mid distance, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison center mid distance
Click here for the full resolution 100% screen crop.

Wide open, the ZD60 has both the best resolution and microcontrast here, taking the crown from the PL45 by a hair; there seems to be just a tiny bit of CA or bleed on the edge of the lettering of the PL45 that’s robbing the lens of crispness. You can also see that the lens doesn’t seem to be resolving on as fine a level as the ZD60  – note the fiber in the right hand center edge black portion. Neither the Nikon nor the Zeiss are anywhere near in the running here; both have internal veiling flare that clearly lower contrast and resolution, especially in the texture of the label. The Zeiss is a bit better than the Nikon, but then again it should be; it’s the only lens in this group that’s been stopped down by a stop. The legacy lenses are a little disappointing but not entirely surprising; even on the larger pixel pitch D800E they require some stopping down to reach optimum resolution.

2. Bokeh and longitudinal CA, f2.8

ZD60 comparison loca-bokeh
Full resolution. From the previous frame. A set of keys was lit directly with another flash to provide a bright, contrasty and reflective background subject.

Bokeh is pretty good in all of these, but not perfect in any of them. If I had to choose one, I’d say my vote is betweens the Nikon and the Olympus; the Nikon appears the smoothest of the bunch, but also suffers from significant longitudinal chromatic aberration. The Olympus has almost no longitudinal CA, but it does have some texture in the OOF highlight area, as well as a bright edge to the same area. The PL45 is clearly the worst of the bunch, with uneven highlights, bright edges, and longitudinal CA to top things off; it seems that it might also be prone to double imaging with certain out of focus subjects. The Zeiss falls somewhere in the middle for smoothness, but has the worst longitudinal CA. Remember that the relative merits of bokeh are very subjective – what might be to my taste may not be to yours. CA, however, is CA, and can require significant postprocessing work to fix if present in the OOF areas.

3. Corner resolution at approx. 1:3 magnification, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison corner
Full resolution

As with the initial center crop, it’s a very close race between the PL45 and the ZD60; both appear to have contrast, but the ZD60 has slightly higher resolving power and microcontrast. I see a small amount of CA on the PL45 image too; the top edge of the white line has a slight green fringe. The Nikon lags behind both for resolution, and has some visible CA; note the top edge of the white line. The Zeiss is the worst here – there’s visible CA, a tiny bit of coma, low contrast, some flare, and markedly lower resolution than the others. It also has the warmest rendition of the lot (WB was manually set to the same Kelvin temperature for all images).

4. Center resolution at 1:2 magnification, f2.8

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Full frame

ZD60 comparison center 1-2mag
Full resolution

Things haven’t changed much in the center and at closer distances; the two legacy lenses are closer in resolving power to the native M4/3 lenses, but both still lack microcontrast. In overall resolution, there’s little to choose between the Nikon and Zeiss, the PL45 is only a bit better. It’s actually surprising how much crisper the ZD60 appears here.

5. Border resolution at 1:1.2 magnification and distortion, f5.6

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Full frame; a 20mm extension tube was required for the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 MP to achieve this magnification as it’s normally limited to 1:2.

ZD60 comparison edge 1-1
Full resolution

A more practical application – for me, at any rate. None of the lenses had any noticeably distortion, so I didn’t bother to include full crops from them. For all intents and purposes, it’s a non-issue. The focus point of this image was the center pinion of the second hand of the watch (the round thing), not the 60 text. Note that the hand is very dark blue, and the left-edge blue highlight is the color of the hand. The color fringing visible on the high contrast edge of the steel pinion itself, on the other hand, is chromatic aberration. On stopping down a little, the Zeiss has caught up with the PL45 and ZD60 in both resolution and microcontrast; there’s very, very little to choose between the three. The PL45 appears to have the most contrast overall, followed by the Zeiss; the ZD60 still seems to be resolving slightly more than the other two (note micro-machining marks in the highlights of the silver guilloche pattern) but with lower contrast; perhaps its coatings cannot deal with the reflections from the silvered pattern as well as the Zeiss T* or Leica coatings. The Nikon is clearly struggling to deliver the same macro- and microcontrast, though resolution appears to be only a hair behind the other three. I think the PL45 looks the best here, with the Zeiss and Olympus tied for second, but it is very, very close indeed.

Conclusions

Given that you’ll have to shoot all of these lenses at relatively large apertures (for a macro lens) to avoid diffraction, wide open performance and close to it are both very important. Although both the Zeiss and Nikon are relatively modern designs, it’s clear that the legacy mount lenses simply don’t do as well as the dedicated designs, which isn’t surprising. As a practical option, although image quality is more than acceptable – we are very much into the realm of pixel peeping here – the dedicated M4/3 lenses are simply much easier to use thanks to autofocus; it’s nearly impossible to nail critical manual focus wide open and handheld, though quite doable on a tripod. If resolution is your priority, then your choice should be either the ZD60 or PL45; however, if it’s bokeh, you might want to think about an adaptor. Bottom line: if you have these lenses around, and work in a controlled environment, you could quite happily make do with an adaptor.

All of these lenses are capable of producing stellar images technically; the artistic content is of course very much down to the photographer. I don’t think it’s difficult to pick a winner here; although the PL45 and ZD60 are both excellent lenses, the ZD60 simply has far fewer optical shortcomings than the PL45, and a transparency about it that makes it look as though the other lenses have a veil or film or something pulled over them. I own all of these lenses, and have extensive experience with them. The Nikon has been my mainstay lens for watch photography since its release several years ago; the Zeiss I use for food, and the PL45 has increasingly been my lens for both product and food shoots because of the extended depth of field available with an 45mm real focal length and the M4/3 system. I’ve generally avoided shooting wide open with the Nikon and Zeiss at close distances, though. However, this test (and the preceding review of the Olympus ZD60) is seriously making me reconsider the position of the former two lenses; the Olympus is so much better on M4/3 than the other two even on the Nikons, let alone adapted to M4/3.

I think you don’t need me to tell which lens is the clear winner here…MT

The various lenses tested are available here from Amazon: Olympus ZD 60/2.8 Macro, Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar.

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

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