Last year’s lens surprise of the year was the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ZD 45mm f1.8 MSC – it’s a lens that was announced with the E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1, seems fairly ordinary and innocuous on spec, but yet delivers in boatloads. It’s both cheap and expensive at the same time; let me explain why. Most conventional SLR mount 50/1.8 lenses go for $100-150 or thereabouts. This lens is closer to $300, and it’s all silver-painted plastic except for the mount – to be honest, it feels kinda cheap. That’s expensive. But, it doesn’t use a conventional double-Gauss optical design:
Image from Olympus. Purple bits are E-HR lenses, whatever that means. I suspect it’s ED glass or something similar. I certainly don’t see any purple elements inside my lens 😛
Whoa, what’s this? 9 elements in 8 groups? Not so simple. I suspect the reason Olympus chose this optical design was primarily due to the very short back flange distance of Micro Four Thirds; double Gauss designs work well if the back focus distance is close to the focal length, which it is for most SLRs. Changing the optical design to keep the lens compact introduces all sorts of other issues on its own, including corrections for the various complex optical aberrations that occur once a lens design becomes asymmetric.
Secondly, it has a very fast coreless focusing motor – Olympus brands these lenses as ‘MSC’, which means you won’t hear the focusing motor working while recording videos – a nice touch. It’s also blazingly fast, at least with the current generation of Olympus M4/3 bodies. Sadly, like all of the other M4/3 lenses (except the 12/2), there’s no full time focus override; it’s fly-by-wire only and you have to put the camera into MF mode on the body before the ring does anything. Still, it’s nicely damped if a little dead-feeling.
But never mind all that, how does it perform? In a word, brilliantly. It’s one of my favorite lenses for Micro Four Thirds. If I had to describe it in a word, it would be ‘transparent’. That’s probably a good thing for an optical device; however, what I mean is that the lens itself doesn’t impose any of its own optical quirks or peccadilloes on the image; it does its job moving light from the subject to the sensor, and then gets out of the way. It delivers sharpness across the entire frame wide open at f1.8; there is some slight improvement at 2.8, but it isn’t really necessary to stop down – perhaps this may be different on the higher density 16MP sensor of the OM-D, however.
Fringing is almost entirely absent, as is longitudinal chromatic aberration; a sign that the optical designers have done their job very well indeed, and the lens is working well with the sensor. (In case you’re wondering about in-camera CA removal, I’m not shooting JPEG and the RAW files are run through ACR like the rest of my workflow – there’s no special treatment unless Olympus is doing something with the RAW files.)
The lens is contrasty, but not that contrasty; it strikes a nice balance between sufficient global contrast and maintaining the microcontrast that is so important to preserving fine detail structures. In fact, I prefer lenses with lower macro contrast for digital use as they help to maximize preservation of dynamic range; this is especially important with smaller sensors that have lower dynamic range, like those used in M4/3 cameras.
Color reproduction is on the warmish side of neutral. No yellow casts like I see with Sigma and Tamron lenses, but a pleasing warm hue shift. Bokeh is also neutral to good; there are times when separation between subject and background is a little harsh – typically when the subject is fairly close to the background – but it’s also pretty darn good under ideal conditions.
Although it ‘only’ focuses down to 0.5m, it’s worth remembering that on Micro Four Thirds, 45mm is really a 90mm FOV, and there no non-macro lenses for full frame cameras that focus this close – it’s 0.8m if you’re lucky, or 1m if you’re using a rangefinder. The lens can be used handheld at arms’ length – i.e. live view style – and that’s how I’ve been using it so far; however, you’ll need to keep your shutter speeds up, because frankly the in-body stabilization isn’t that effective. I suppose if you were using this on the OM-D it’d be a different story as the built in EVF would let you get a bit more stability by bracing the camera against your eye.
The 45/1.8 makes up part of my M4/3 ‘trinity’ – the 12/2 and 20/1.7 being the other two, though I might replace both with the new Voigtlander 17.5/0.95 (35mm equivalent, fast and versatile – though I prefer 28, and sadly there are very few fast 28mms). It forms a great lightweight travel kit which is still capable of delivering outstanding optical quality. It also works very well as a secondary camera in conjunction with something else; at the end of last year, I shot in Europe with a Leica M9-P, 28 and 50mm lenses as my primary body, with the Pen Mini and 45/1.8 in a coat pocket for those times I needed a little extra reach – made a great compliment to the rangefinder.
Even on the slightly higher density OM-D sensor, this lens is a gem; sharpness doesn’t seem to be compromised anywhere, but there is a very slight veiling flare that goes away about half a stop in. It has a lightness and transparency (lower macro contrast, but higher micro contrast perhaps?) that I don’t see with the 12/2 or 20/1.7, and it’s something that makes the way it renders very natural and appealing.
A classical portrait, second version. OM-D, 45/1.8. The first version is here
Are there any negatives? Well, yes. At the price, you can’t expect fantastic build quality. Frankly, it feels about on par with the kit lens; Olympus chose to put all of the production money into optics rather than cosmetics, which is a decision I can agree with. However, the leaves the lens feeling just a tiny bit fragile; the plastics don’t feel that thick or robust, and that little blanking ring on the front (ostensibly to cover the hood mount threads) doesn’t really stay in place securely, and isn’t that well made, either.
Still, all that aside, this is a highly recommended lens for Micro Four Thirds users. It isn’t good enough that I’d go out and buy a Micro Four Thirds camera just for this lens alone, but then again the thought of having a fast portrait 90mm equivalent in a pocket is quite appealing, and the cost of a Pen Mini plus this lens is much cheaper than many full frame lens options on their own. Of course, you do get the DOF profile of a 45mm lens, not an 85 or 90mm lens, so don’t expect crazy thin DOF. There’s adequate separation, but true bokeh enthusiasts will probably have to wait for the upcoming ZD 75/1.8 – a lens which I’m pretty excited about, actually. MT
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