In search of the most versatile, compact, shallow depth of field short telephoto lens – will this be the new Olympus 75mm f/1.8?

Written by Gary on July 26th, 2012

For much of my photography, I have been in love with my 1.3x crop pro Canon 1D Mark III dSLR with the Canon EF 135mm f/2L lens which makes a fantastic combination for 3/4 body length fashion shots or general people shots outdoors when shot at f/2.5-3.2 to gain adequate depth of field for this subject while delivering a lovely blurred background.

In 35mm full frame terms, this then equates to 176mm shot at f/3.3-4.1.

On a 35mm full frame camera, this is easily satisfied by the traditional pro 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens ($2,699), or adding a 1.4x teleconverter ($615) to the 135mm f/2.0L lens ($1415).

However,  these lenses are expensive, big and heavy, and to upgrade my 10 megapixel Canon 1D Mark III to a Canon 5D Mark III ($3,900) or Canon 1Dx ($7,999) is a very expensive and heavy option.

It is a pity Canon has not introduced an “affordable” full frame compact system camera in the sub $2,000 price point with built-in IS – instead we have more of the same with their EOS-M APS-C format.

A compromise may be a APS-C dSLR such as the Canon 7D combined with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 ($585 = 136mm f/2.9) but this lens has too much purple fringing wide open for my liking, while the 85mm f/1.2 ($2,399)  is far too expensive and AF is too slow, while the 100mm f/2.8 IS macro ($1,299 =160mm f/4.5) does not allow as shallow a depth of field as I would like. So on a 7D, the Canon 100mm f/2.0 ($499 = 160mm f/3.2) would be the closest in filling the needs and is a great value for money lens although a touch soft towards the edges wide open on a APS-C dSLR. I suspect Canon will be producing an update of this lens soon which may account for the price drop from $750.

For similar imagery on a 6×6 120 film format (crop factor of 1/1.83) compared to 35mm full frame, the lens needed would be about 300mm lens at f/6-7.5 which would be rather an unusual focal length for traditional pro film shooters (would probably require mirror lock up to reduce vibrations and a fast grainier film if shooting in the shade), although some would have used a 250mm f/5.6 lens (= 135mm f/3.0 on a 35mm full frame). Many would do most 6×6 film portraits using 150mm f/4 (= 82mm f/2.2 in 35mm full frame terms).

On a Leica S2 0.8x crop medium format dSLR, their longest lens is a 180mm f/3.5 which equates to 144mm f/2.8 in 35mm full frame terms when looking at DOF and FOV, but this would set one back over $35,000.

The Micro Four Thirds solution:

The image quality of my Olympus OM-D E-M5 is comparable, for my needs, to full frame dSLRs, and it having the fantastic image stabiliser which becomes very handy at this focal length when having to use fill-in flash at flash-sync speeds, plus the potentially incredibly fast autofocus with ability to focus on your subject’s nearest eye,  a nice alternative is to find a lens to fit these requirements, so here is a very short list for Micro Four Thirds users that will give comparable imagery:

Samyang/Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 lens:

  • value for money, this is a brilliant lens, and on a Micro Four Thirds camera gives almost identical imagery to what I am after, including buttery smooth bokeh and minimal CA
  • in my tests, it has better optical quality than either the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 or the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D
  • at under $300 brand new, this is a bargain – BUT it is relatively heavy and it is manual focus
  • despite this, I have 2 of these lenses in different mounts, and these have been special lenses for me so far, but the manual focus is very limiting, particularly with people photography shot with shallow depth of field

Voigtlander HELIAR CLASSIC 75mm f1.8 – Leica M Mount:

  • manual focus lens which costs about $740 brand new
  • introduced in 2010
  • 52mm filter, 423g
  • nice bokeh, but straight diaphragm blades; sharp and contrasty in the centre wide open?

Canon FD 85mm f/1.2:

  • high quality manual focus lens from the 1980’s
  • very narrow DOF, nice bokeh
  • large, heavy and has straight diaphragm blades but at least it has mechanical manual focus so it can be focussed on Micro Four Thirds unlike its EF 85mm f/1.2L successor
  • $700-850 on Ebay 2nd hand

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 lens:

  • available in Canon EF, Pentax K and Nikon F mounts
  • manual focus lens with aperture ring, DOF scale and IR marker
  • 9 rounded blades, almost distortion free, 72mm filter, only a touch of vignetting at f/1.4 at 0.6EV
  • max. sharpness at f/4, a little soft wide open on full frame but you need to stop down a Nikon 85mm 1/1.4D AF Nikkor lens to f/8 to get this sharpness
  • close focus 1m
  • heavy at 570-670g depending on mount; 77x62mm;
  • Photozone test report
  • ~$1300-1600 new

Olympus OM 90mm f/2.0 macro lens:

  • this is one of the best OM lenses one can get, and many Olympus fans swear by it for the special kind of imagery it produces
  • relatively compact size, fantastic macro performance (1:2 on full frame)
  • BUT it will cost about $900 second hand for a excellent version and it is still manual focus
  • there are also many other manual focus full frame lenses in the 75-90mm f/2.0 range including the cheaper OM 85mm f/2.0 and the ultra-expensive (~$4,900) Leica 90mm f/2 APO Summicron-M – perhaps optically the best full frame lens ever made, although even this has some coma on pinpoint light sources wide open

Olympus ZD 35-100mm f/2.0 lens:

  • this superb lens designed for Four Thirds is weatherproof and image quality is top notch and only one of a couple of zoom lenses available with a f/2.0 constant aperture throughout the range
  • BUT it is very expensive, very big and heavy, and although it has AF, AF is slow on Micro Four Thirds cameras

Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 lens:

  • that brings us to this new lens by Olympus which was especially designed for Micro Four Thirds with independent lens testing confirming the superb optical design and build quality
  • at a 35mm full frame equivalent field of view of a 150mm lens, the depth of field wide open is then similar to a 150mm f/3.6 lens which will be just adequate for the above requirements
  • this lens has almost no aberrations edge-to-edge even wide open and is incredibly sharp even wide open but sharper still at f/2.8
  • when combined with the E-M5 camera, it has the fastest auto focus in a telephoto lens currently available – faster than any full frame dSLR for stationary to relatively slow moving subjects
  • many have baulked at its $900 price tag, but this is one superb lens and by all accounts, well worth the price tag – just pity it isn’t weatherproofed!
  • hopefully it will be available in the next few weeks as to me, this is the lens-camera combination which will best suit the needs stated above, and will be far cheaper and easier to carry than a full frame kit.

Now all I need is for Olympus to get their act in gear and make an adapter for the Ring flash so I can use it for fill-in flash outdoors (and perhaps create a new Ring Flash with remote TTL flash capability to fire a main flash) – in the interim, I will have to use my Canon Ring Flash in full manual mode, but then, that lets me push the shutter speed up to 1/500th sec if I need to.


Comments are closed.