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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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
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