Which wide aperture lenses for the Panasonic GH-1?

Written by Gary on June 12th, 2009

I am buying the wonderful little Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds video-enabled interchangeable lens digital camera, but due to the recent release of this new format, neither Panasonic nor Olympus have brought wide aperture lenses to the market as yet.

The supplied Lumix kit lens is a 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 image stabilised lens uniquely designed for HD video.

Panasonic have shown a 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens which would be really nice but when and if will it become available? Presumably it will be a consumer level lens and not as sharp wide open as the Leica D 25mm f/1.4, but a lot cheaper.

Given the Panasonic G1 appears to have a less aggressive anti-aliasing filter than the Four Thirds cameras to date, it is apparently able to give more detail when used with the pro lenses although presumably at risk of more moire artifacts which may require trying a different raw development software (eg. Panasonic’s Silkypix rather than Lightroom) to correct. The landscape photographers are loving the G1 with ZD 7-14mm or ZD 14-35mm f/2.0 lenses for the added detail, while the MF assist and grid lines help setting up the shot. We can assume that the GH-1 will give similar results.

The Leica D 25mm f/1.4 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds:
Leica D 25mm f/1.4 lens on the G1

The ONLY current wide aperture lens that will give AFS contrast detect AF on MFT is the relatively expensive ($US800 – twice the price of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4) and heavy (510g), Four Thirds lens, the excellent Leica D 25mm f/1.4 which has imperceptible barrel distortion (0.09% – cw Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens which as 0.78%), and excellent sharpness and contrast wide open with exceedingly smooth bokeh (see here) but a touch of corner vignetting – see here.

Depth of field and field of view (effective focal length) for the same subject magnification will be similar to a 50mm f/2.8 lens on a 35mm full frame camera, thus it is not quite as effective a portrait lens as the ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro but it will AF, and the extra stop of aperture means it can work in lower light conditions hand held.

In addition, it can be used on an Olympus Four Thirds camera with image stabiliser for even lower light conditions (ie. ignoring DOF effects, it becomes in effect, a unique image stabilised AF 50mm f/1.4 lens in 35mm terms) but the aperture ring becomes non-functional as the camera body will be the mechanism to control aperture.

So what to do in the meantime if we can’t afford $US800?

Their are Four Thirds lenses which, via the adapter, would be optimised for the sensor, provide full aperture control, but unless they are the new contrast-detect AF ones, will not AF on the GH-1, and further more, unless they are HD-capable (which none of them are yet), they will not AF during HD videos.

Fortunately, the Panasonic G1 and GH-1 both have a really nice feature that when in MF mode and there is a MFT or FT lens attached which as focus by wire (ie. the non-SWD lenses but not Sigma ones), then as soon as you turn the MF ring, the live view MF magnification is activated automatically and can be changed from 5x to 10x using the front dial – one of the best implementations of live preview MF assistance.

The obvious choice from the Four Thirds lens line up is the brilliantly sharp, but in need of AF revamp, Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro which provides 1:2 macro (or 1:1 macro with EC-20 2x teleconverter).
Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro on a G1

This lens you can be sure will give excellent image quality even at f/2.0, BUT you will need to manually focus it – not a problem for macro work as MF is best for that but it would be an issue for moving subjects.

Other current Four Thirds lenses will have the same limitations, for example, the Sigma 25mm f/1.8 macro, and the 35mm-format-designed Sigma 30mm f/1.4 .

If we are probably going to have to resort to manual focus what about using a manual focus lens?

Experience with using legacy MF lenses on the Four Thirds sensors tends to show that the wider the aperture lens (eg. f/1.2 rather than f/1.4), the more purple fringing and internal flare one gets, even stopped down.

Tests generally confirm Olympus’ advice that when using legacy MF lenses, they should generally be used stopped down 1-2 stops to improve sharpness and reduce purple fringing. Of course, the can be used wide open to get a more dreamy, less contrasty and less sharp effect with narrower depth of field, but in addition, apertures faster than f/2.0 tend to require exposure compensation as auto-exposure tends to be inaccurate and require a certain compensation for a given lens and aperture.

Thus whilst, on paper, the new Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens for Leica M mount with its 10 bladed aperture and modern design sounds like an ideal fit for the GH-1 in the absence of an AF wide aperture portrait lens, I have concerns that it may not perform as well as one would like wide open on these sensors.

HOWEVER, the reason for using legacy lenses on the GH-1 is NOT for their sharpness as it is hard to beat the ZD lenses, but for the different “look” each one can provide.

See a forum thread showing examples of different legacy 50mm lenses on the Panasonic G1 here. The bokeh on the Cooke Kinetal 50mm f1.8 looks nice to me – just like an oil painting! The Olympus Pen G.Zuiko 40mm f/1.4 also seems to be a favorite.

See this blog comparing legacy 50mm lenses on MFT. The cheap Olympus OM 50mm f/1.8 (NB. many believe this lens paradoxically is better than the OM f/1.4 on FT cameras) easily beats the Canon FD 50mm f/1.8.

Another option is a 35mm AF wide aperture lens to be used via an adapter in manual focus and manual aperture on the GH-1, but which could still be used on your 35mm cameras and thus lower your risk that the results on the GH-1 may not be to your liking.

Given that I have a Canon 1DMIII, the natural choice for me would be the Canon EOS EF lenses via an EOS to MFT adapter, BUT unfortunately, given the electronics of these lenses, you will be forced to shoot them wide open, so they had better perform well wide open if you want to use them.

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens is a cheap and nasty build quality from Canon with nasty MF control but good optics from f/2.8 onwards – this lens is NOT really going to fit the bill – you would be better off buying a Olympus OM f/1.4 lens for about the same price and you will get better optics, better build and a usable aperture control.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM lens is a much better build that the f/1.8 II, and gives better results wide open with better bokeh, but still has build issues with the potential for relatively minor knocks to damage the AF mechanism – see here, but it is a great performer for the price – see comparisons with the f/1.8 II here.

The extremely expensive, heavier, Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM lens is better built again than the Canon f/1.4, is sharper at f/1.4-2.0 but not as sharp from f/2.8-4 (see here), has much improved internal lens flare control and bokeh, and of course the f/1.2 allows shallower DOF and use in lower light conditions, although AF in low light on Canon cameras with this lens is not as good as one would like.

In general, the f/1.2 is only worth the money if you need the flare control and bokeh wide open and you really need f/1.2 – I have concerns that purple fringing and softness may be a problem on the GH-1 at f/1.2 and you won’t be able to stop it down to improve it.

Canon have also released a mark II version of their 24mm f/1.4L lens which would theoretically be usable on the GH-1 at wide open aperture only but costs ~$A2500. The Canon 24mm f/1.4L may struggle to deliver the same image performance on the GH-1 given it does not have telecentric design and is not designed for the 2x crop sensor. Having said that, it should be a beautiful lens on the Canon 1DMIII or a full frame Canon.

If you have Nikon, then as long as you don’t get a G version lens, you will still have aperture control.

Here’s hoping that Olympus and Panasonic get their act in gear and produce some nice wide aperture Four Thirds lenses compatible with MFT contrast-detect AF, and HD video.

Now wouldn’t a 17mm f/1.4 lens be nice for urban use at night?

Of course to achieve this they may need to add the extra coupling pins the MFT system has to the FT system to enable fastest AF performance – better they do it sooner rather than later unless they have something else up their sleeves.

You might be interested in these Micro Four Thirds forums:

Check out some of these combos:

Soviet Union Fed 50mm/F3.5 Collapsible (Leica Elmar look-a-like from the late fifties):
Soviet collapsible

Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 (from http://cjeastwd.blogspot.com/2009/06/manual-aperture-control.html):
Canon FD 55mm f/1.2


5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Geir says:

    I just wondered: Why so eager for the Panasonic, when Olympus will bring a new option in a few weeks time? Most people would have waited to see, I guess?

  2. admin says:

    as much as I love Olympus, they have dragged their feet for too long on this one, and I doubt their 1st MFT will have the video capability I need currently that would match the GH-1.
    I may have been excited had it been supplied with a 17mm f/1.4 lens, but a f/2.8 lens doesn’t excite me that much.
    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush 🙂
    I just wish it has image stabiliser built in.

  3. admin says:

    Many people are going to love the new Olympus E-P1 – its video will be fine for most people and should have AF, but more importantly, its build quality, pocketable size and ideal lens focal length to get the viewer to concentrate on the subject and not the technology as per the great street photographers on the 20th century, will make this a very popular camera indeed.

  4. Simon says:

    When did you start getting into video, Gaz?

  5. admin says:

    seemed like there was a gap in my cme functionality that needed filling 🙂