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

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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.


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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Review: The Olympus ZD 60mm f2.8 Macro and FL-600R wireless flash system

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Although ‘development announced’ (i.e. officially leaked) several months ago together with the 75/1.8, Olympus’ newest macro lens – the M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 (hereafter known as the ZD60) was formerly announced at Photokina 2012, and should be available sometime in October 2012 at a price of around RM2,000. It’s also only the second macro lens available natively with a Micro Four Thirds mount (and 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 to review the ZD60 together with the new PEN Lite E-PL5 (review coming in the next week or so). The macro work I do almost always involves flash, so I had them loan me a set of their most recent flashes – the FL-600R. This review will therefore be approached from the point of view I’m most familiar with: photographing watches with speedlights, in a pretty much identical manner to how I do it with my main Nikon system. There will be comparative notes throughout, and no pictures of flowers, cats, eyes, coins, trinkets or other typical macro subjects. Let us begin.

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All images in this review were shot with an Olympus OM-D and FL-600R wireless flashes; the images are all from the ZD60, except the images of the ZD60, which were shot with the PL 45/2.8.

Let’s talk about the lens first: it offers 1:1 reproduction ratio at a minimum distance of 19cm from the sensor plane, which translates into a healthy 7-8cm of working distance at maximum magnification. This is great news for people who want tight frame coverage; by comparison, if I try to get the same subject coverage (i.e. 2:1 on full frame) with my D800E and Nikon 60 macro, I’m down to around 4 of working distance, which makes even lighting control much more difficult. The optical design has 13 elements in 10 groups, with one ED element, two HR elements and one E-HR element (I presume these are different types of optical glass).

Optical design and MTF chart. From Olympus Malaysia

Three of the groups float and perform focusing functions. This is not a simple optical design! There are traces of a double-Gauss base design in there, but it looks as though heavy modifications and extra elements were added to optimize resolution and close range performance. By comparison, the excellent Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro – which has been my mainstay lens up til now – has one less element and one less group.

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Size-wise, it’s similar to the 12-50 kit lens for the OM-D; build quality is definitely better, but still plastic and nowhere near as nice as the 12/2 and 75/1.8 lenses. The plastic used is matte, feels reasonably robust, but curiously has visible moulding lines in several places – I’ve not noticed this on any of the polycarbonate-shelled Nikon or Canon lenses before, but it may be because those tend to have a spatter-finish paint that hides the seams better. It’s also weather sealed, with ‘SPLASH PROOF’ in big letters on the bottom of the lens barrel. The lens is made in China.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300.

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100% crop of the above.

Two small points of interest on the ergonomics of the lens itself – firstly, although the (optional, shame on you, Olympus) hood is a bayonet fit, it telescopes in and out; neat, but I found it annoying after a while as if you support the lens by the hood and put too much pressure on it, the hood will easily shift or start to collapse back in. Second is the little rotary knob to control the focus range, accompanied by a pointer scale showing the subject distance and corresponding magnification level. The switch has several settings – full range, 0.4m to infinity, 0.19m to 0.4m, and a sprung detent to take the lens to 1:1. It sounds clunky but is actually very practical in use – selecting the right range keeps focusing fast and positive, and the 1:1 position is very helpful in traversing the focusing range when you don’t have a full-time mechanically coupled focusing ring. Overall, ergonomics are excellent.

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100% crop of the above.

Once in a while, (though increasingly frequently with today’s computer-designed optics) you come across a lens that is truly outstanding – the last two that come to mind were the Olympus ZD 75/1.8 and Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. I’ve used a number of competent, but imperfect, lenses in the meantime, none of which were that memorable for their optics. Fortunately, the ZD60 is another one of those lenses that falls into the ‘truly outstanding’ category – I’ve tried hard under many varied test conditions to find fault with the optics, and come up with an extremely short list. If you want the short answer, you can skip the next few paragraphs: this lens offers excellent optical performance at every aperture and focus distance.

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The lens has an even more impressive MTF chart than its highly-regarded predecessor, the ZD 50/2 macro for Four Thirds; granted, both designs only have to cover the small Four Thirds frame, and they used a lot of elements to do it, but still: it clearly outresolves the OM-D’s sensor, even wide open. On my copy, I simply didn’t see any improvement in stopping down – you get increased depth of field, and sharpness stays constant (i.e. outstanding) at every part of the frame. There’s diffraction beyond f8, and that’s about it. The plane of focus is also flat, as far as I can make out, and there’s almost zero distortion present. Let’s just say that the ZD60’s resolving power is not going to be the reason for any soft images. Like most of the extremely sharp lenses, the ZD60 also has very high microcontrast – these characteristics are related because high resolving power is required to differentiate between subtle tonal differences in the subject. In fact, it’s amongst the best lenses I’ve ever seen; deserving of the superlative classification (for lenses, at any rate) – of transparent.

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For reference, the screws on the right are about 1.5mm across.

Although overall resolution would support a much higher-density sensor, it wouldn’t be practical in use: on the OM-D’s 16MP sensor, you already have minor diffraction from f8, and visible diffraction at f11 and up (even though the lens can stop down to f22, I really wouldn’t recommend it; you might as well use a pinhole at that point). I suppose it would have been nice if it had tilt control too, but I think given the target market for Micro Four Thirds, that option might be a long time coming. I believe Novoflex has a T/S bellows system, which might be worthy of investigation at some point in the future.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude.

As for the other optical qualities of the lens – bokeh, chromatic aberration, color rendition and transmission – there are very few flaws. The only one I could find was some slight texture in the bokeh, and even then only in a couple of frames with circular out of focus highlights at a certain brightness level – one of the signatures of a moulded hybrid aspherical element somewhere in the construction. To keep things in perspective, even the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro exhibits this trait, and more obviously. Aside from that, bokeh is smooth and pleasant, with very minimal bright edges on defocused highlights. Chromatic aberration was nonexistent laterally, and more commendably, almost completely absent longitudinally, too, even wide open. I have not seen this level of CA performance in any macro lens I’ve used to date, even the Leica 120/2.5 APO-Summarit-S. Color rendition is neutral and pleasingly saturated, and taken in tandem actually quite reminiscent of the Zeiss lenses. Olympus uses their new ZERO coating on the lens, which keeps transmission high – I would estimate the lens to be around T3.0.

The ZD60 uses Olympus’ MSC system, which has the elements moving linearly on a rail; it’s not as fast as the 12/2 or 45/1.8, but with the limiter in the 0.4m-infinity position, it’s similar in speed to the 75/1.8, and definitely faster than the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8.

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FL-600R compared to the Nikon SB900. One would fit in your pocket; pocket the other and you’d probably be arrested on a public indecency charge.

Next up, we have the FL-600R flash; it has a guide number of 50m at ISO 200, or 36m at ISO 100, running off four AA batteries, with a wide panel and zoom head covering from 16 to 85mm. Full-power cycle time is claimed to be 2.0s with NiMH batteries; it didn’t feel any slower than my Nikon SB900s or SB700s, which I find to be pretty fast. In addition to the usual TTL and manual modes, the flash can also act as both wireless commander and slave using Olympus RC system. It’s also got a bright single LED in the base portion – ostensibly for video use, but I actually found it to be a useful modelling light for macro work, making focusing and composition quite a bit easier. If only it was in the head itself and even brighter…

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In use, the flashes are fairly simple to operate, though the very low number of external controls means that a lot of button presses are required, and you have to remember what does what – I much prefer the softkey and physical switches approach of the SB900 and SB700. That said, the units are physically much smaller than even the SB700 and SB600, and positively dwarfed by the SB900 – this leaves very little real estate on the back for the LCD and controls.

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Overall, I found TTL flash exposure to be mostly good; wireless TTL on the other hand, was a bit hit and miss. There were certain situations – specifically when one flash was firing at the background, and the other at the subject – where the subject exposure was a bit inconsistent. Not much of an issue, I just dialled in manual power. The limited external controls and display space also mean that adjusting settings for remote flashes with the FL-600R as master isn’t so easy, and requires far more button presses than I would like. Fortunately, even with the FL-600R on the hotshoe, the camera itself can be used to set the remotes; the hot shoe contacts then transmit the data to the flash. Coupled with the OM-D’s touchscreen, it’s a fast and easy experience – in this respect, better than the Nikon system. And you can control all three groups of flashes from the camera, regardless of which flash is attached to the hotshoe – which is one more than the Nikon system. There are also three available channels so other users’ flashes aren’t triggered by yours and vice-versa if there are a few of you. I can see this being useful if you shoot Nikon or Canon, but to be honest, I’ve never encountered an Olympus flash shooter…

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The only major issue I have with the wireless flash system is triggering – the sensor on the flash unit itself seems to be very small, aimed forwards and somewhat recessed – this makes no sense whatsoever, seeing as the flash is likely to be facing the subject, which means that the sensor will be away from the camera. Even the Nikons – with side and front mounted sensors – still have problems picking up the optical trigger signal at times. With the FL-600Rs in orientations where the sensor wasn’t almost facing the camera directly, triggering was somewhat hit and miss, especially with the small flash supplied with the OM-D. Use of one of the FL-600R units as a master improved this somewhat, but camera companies really need to start making flashes with multiple optical sensors, or better yet, built in radio triggers for both camera and flash. I know some of you might suggest external radio triggers, but has anybody tried looking for a TTL PocketWizard for Olympus lately? It just doesn’t exist.

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To date, when using the OM-D for macro work, I’ve either been using my large LED panels (and hence continuous lighting) or the SU-4 optical slave mode on my SB900s and the supplied small flash set to 1/64 power, which works well, but lacks the convenience of being able to set the power output from the flashes either via TTL metering or directly from the camera, let alone both. This can be inconvenient at the best of times – worse still if your flashes aren’t easily accessible. I’ve wanted to try the Olympus wireless flashes for some time now; my thoughts are that so long as you can spare one unit to use as a master trigger, they’re a viable alternative to the Nikon system; the problem is that I’d have to buy another five flashes to get the same flexibility as I have now, which seems somewhat silly.

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That said, the Olympus system – and Micro Four Thirds – for macro work has a lot going for it; firstly, a truly outstanding lens which is almost completely CA-free; flashes that aren’t that expensive, and very, very small – like the rest of the system. I could fit an equivalent system to what I use now in a bag half the size. Although on the face of things, the Nikon system has a huge resolution advantage – you lose something in diffraction (despite the D800E not having an AA filter), and the OM-D files are clean enough to upsize well to 25MP or so. The difference is much less than you might think. I think I’d have a very difficult time deciding what to buy if I was starting over again with the same objectives. As it is, I won’t be returning the ZD60 to Olympus; it’s unquestionably earned a place in my arsenal, edging out the 45/2.8 (it’s also nice that I no longer have a focal length overlap with the faster 45/1.8). As far as I’m concerned, this is the new reference lens for Micro Four Thirds. It’s that good. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

The FL600R flash is also available here from B&H and Amazon.

Come back again tomorrow for part two: a four way shootout between the M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 macro, Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar and Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro!


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Parting shot – another 100% crop.