In search of shallow depth of field normal “50mm” lens performance – the new Olympus 25mm f/1.2 lens

Written by Gary on October 30th, 2016

Once upon a time, in a different photography universe, before digital cameras, and before there were computers to design good zoom lenses, in the 1970s, nearly every camera user with a reasonably good 35mm camera bought, as a base kit, the full frame 35mm film SLR with a “standard” 50mm lens – if one was on a budget, it would be f/1.8, if one had a significant more cash flow, it would be f/1.4 and if one was rich, then a f/1.2 lens.

They then added to this kit with a wide angle lens (usually a 28mm f/2.8 or f/3.5, or if they had the money, a 24mm f/2.8) and a prime telephoto lens (usually 135mm f/3.5 or if they had the extra money, f/2.8).

All of these were manual focus only lenses, and some of the SLRs such as the Olympus OM-1 actually worked without batteries (although the meter would not work).

So common was the 50mm f/1.8 lens that experienced photographers often shunned using it because everyone had that look and so they migrated to other focal lengths such as 21mm, 35mm, 40mm, and 85mm.

But what these entry level cameras gave their owners was shallow depth of field at 50mm (albeit with rather soft images wide open) which Micro Four Thirds users find impossible to achieve with AF lenses even with the new expensive and awesome Olympus mZD 25mm f/1.2 lens – as this lens gives depth of field similar to a 50mm f/2.4 lens on a 35mm film camera, but it does so far better than any legacy lens could ever do, it is so well engineered optically.

Should you buy the new Olympus mZD 25mm f/1.2 lens?

In short, if you use Micro Four Thirds, have the money and the use for it then by all means BUY it – it is such a brilliant weathersealed fast, silent, fast and accurate AF lens and will give beautiful portraits especially of kids and environmental portraits, scenery, strong backlit performance, great low light performance and seems great for some astrophotography with its f/1.2 aperture and almost zero aberrations!

Note for some reason, Olympus Australia, is selling it at $A1899 which is substantially higher than the $US1199 RRP even taking into account the exchange rate.

BUT, if you are just searching for shallow depth of field at around this field of view and image quality is not a high priority – are there better less expensive options?

Option 1: buy a film SLR and 50mm f/1.4 lens

  • this will be cheap – get a second hand kit for around $200-$300 camera and lens
  • it will give you 1.5 stops shallower depth of field
  • BUT you will have to deal with film, you will get far less image quality – optically as well as the sensor vs film issues, you will not get image stabilisation, nor the many features of digital such as face detection AF, incredibly fast and accurate AF, etc.

Option 2: buy a 2012 model full frame digital camera preferably under $A2000 to use specifically for this purpose

Examples:

  • Sony RX1 fixed lens camera
    • the original version released in 2012 now sells at $A2700 and doesn’t have IS or an EVF, and you can’t change lenses and its fixed lens is a 35mm f/2 lens BUT it does have a leaf shutter with flash sync to 1/2000th sec so this may make outdoor fill in flash or flash to overpower the sun so much easier, but it won’t give shallower DOF as it is a substantially wider field of view lens.
  • Sony a7 Mark II mirrorless with 50mm lens
    • 2014 model 24mp full frame mirrorless with image stabilisation and hybrid AF, 1/8000th sec shutter, flash sync 1/250th sec will cost you $A2000 then you need to add in a 50mm lens such as entry level budget Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 for $A440 or the superb Sony FE Carl Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens at $A1200
  • Canon 6D with a 50mm lens
    • the 2012 entry level Canon 20mp full frame dSLR can be bought now at $A1800 then you just need to choose which 50mm lens to buy of which there are many and you can even pay around $A1900 for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 but it is not a great lens optically wide open
    • this will give you around 1 stop better high ISO than the Olympus, radio TTL remote flash and shallower DOF BUT you lose out on image stabilisation, edge-to-edge sharpness, the wonderful optical capabilities of the Olympus lens, the fast, accurate AF and the eye detection AF, far better weathersealing,  faster flash sync, far greater spread of AF points, faster burst rate, etc which comes with the Olympus cameras, and even with the Canon lenses used at f/2.4 for same DOF, the Olympus will still give better edge-to-edge image quality at ISO 200 which you are most likely be shooting at unless it is very low light such as astrophotography, so the noise difference is inconsequential.

Option 3: Buy an AF 25mm f/1.4 lens instead:

  • OK you are not going to get quite as shallow a DOF as the Olympus 25mm f/1.2 lens and it won’t be as good optically, and certainly won’t be as fast to focus, but if you can live with these, the money saved may be worth it, or it could be false economy
  • The original Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 in Four Thirds mount initially cost as much as the Olympus lens, but second hand the price should be lower – a great lens, but heavy, AF is much noisier and slower, even though it is CDAF compatible, AF is often a stuttering experience
  • The Micro Four Thirds version – the Panasonic Leica-DG 25mm f/1.4 lens but optically not as good and operation is noiser and AF not as fast.

Option 4: Buy a really fast 25mm f/0.95 manual focus lens:

  • this will give you full frame level of shallow depth of field, but also full frame level of soft, ghostly imagery wide open and you will need to shoot in manual focus

In the end, you will have to decide which compromise you prefer.

As you can see, every option is a compromise – and that should not surprise any photographer as usually every camera-lens combination does have a compromise – you have to decide which compromise you will accept.

In this case, forego a touch of shallow depth of field and money for an awesome lens, or go for more shallow depth of field but worse overall image quality, or decide against shooting shallow depth of field at the focal length and stick with your f/2.8 zoom lens or perhaps the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens or, perhaps resort to the 45mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8 which make more shallow DOF shots with less busy, more compressed backgrounds.

 

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