I held off for a long time on buying a portrait focal length for the Micro 4/3 system and despite the stellar reputation and modest pricing of the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, I’d found myself more or less happy with my adapted Contax 45mm.
The Contax G Zeiss 45mm f/2 lens has a pretty amazing reputation of its own. In its day, it was touted as being one of the sharpest standard lenses available, even garnering praise over some more illustrious Leica lenses in the same focal length neighborhood. While I wish I had some Leica glass with which to test and back up that claim, let’s just say that the little Zeiss lens has done okay for itself and still goes for a decent amount of money now that the weird proprietary focusing mechanism has been worked around and this lens can be adapted to most any mirrorless camera nowadays.
So, how do these two compare? Let’s see…
The ease and usefulness of auto focus is something that many of us may take for granted. It isn’t until I remove that feature that I begin to realize how differently I tend to shoot, compose and interact with subjects. I often enjoy shooting with a manual focus lens as it tends to slow me down and add an air of intentionality in my shooting that often gets overlooked when I’m out and about firing away. Add to that the new focus peaking features on many new digital mirrorless cameras, and it makes manual focusing much, much quicker, easier and more repeatably accurate. Both offer the same field of view (90mm in FF terms), the same 0.5m (19.7″) minimum focusing distance, and the Olympus lens is 1/3 stop faster while also being able to automatically focus.
This comparison is going to be far from comprehensive, but rather offer a quick look at one of, in my opinion, the best values in the proprietary Micro 4/3 system offerings versus an “old” and arguably legendary film era lens. We often hear that new coatings, aspherical elements or techie new composite materials are required to achieve the highest levels of resolution and corner to corner sharpness in this new digital reality. Can older, film era, legacy lenses hold their own? There are some great deals out there on lenses that in their day were really, really nice pieces of glass.
While the Zeiss was originally designed as a standard focal length for the 135mm format, thanks to the crop factor a 45mm lens falls into the portrait or short/mid telephoto equivalent category. The micro 4/3 system has an embarrassment of riches in this “portrait” range (another portrait lens comparison soon to come!) but what about those of us who may have some of these older lenses laying around, or are able to be found for killer deals via Ebay, Craigslist or your local camera shop?
Sharpness and out of focus rendering. For the following test, both lenses were shot on the Panasonic GX7, with files captured in RAW and processed in Aperture 3.5 at default and identical import settings. Lens aperture settings are as listed.
We’ll start with the Olympus wide open at f/1.8, and then alternate back and forth at like aperture setting. Click any to see a much larger version.
Wide open, while I think that they are comparably sharp, I do prefer the bokeh of the Oly at f/1.8 and f/2. In fact I think I’d say I prefer the smoothness of the out of focus areas throughout the range from the Oly. Sharpness wise, at the point of focus (the eyes of the bust) and the feather as the lenses are stopped down show me equal levels of resolution and overall sharpness. This, to my eye proves that even in this new digital era, the older Zeiss still holds up beautifully in that regard. The Zeiss lens is also a much more solidly built lens than the Oly, has a mechanical aperture ring, and mechanical focus which is more handy in situations when manually focusing and manually adjusting aperture may be more important, like video shooting for instance. The adapter I’ve used for the Zeiss though uses a thumb wheel to focus, which is less than great for video focus pulls, and honestly a bit awkward to get used to at first for still shot focusing as well. There are many other adapters now that have incorporated a larger, more traditional focus ring, and if I decide to hold onto this lens for much longer, I’ll probably invest in one.
Color, contrast and saturation. Another quick comparison setup. With LBWHF capable of sitting still for nearly a minute, he made his triumphant return to the blog as a test subject. I tried firing off a few shots on the GX7 with both lenses. The setup was a severely backlit, and subsequently an overexposed hi key portrait with natural light through the window behind, and a gold reflector to camera right. They were handheld, so focus distance was a variable, but both shots were taken within a few inches of each other distance wise. One thing that I now know, is I need a new nickname for Little Baby What’s His Face because this kid is old and huge.
I wasn’t going for absolute sharpness with this test, but rather looking at two things, contrast and color. With the white balance set identically for both shots, I was curious to see how skin tones looked, and how a backlit, overexposure would affect the contrast and saturation.
The shots can speak for themselves. To my eye, I prefer the look of the Zeiss lens with the Olympus lens a bit too cool, and for lack of a better descriptor, digital. Very easy to adjust the skin tone when shooting RAW, but I will say that the older glass seems to create an more vintage profile. Warmer, and more film like one might say. The Oly does look punchier, more contrasty though, and that is likely due to the newer coatings, et al. Either way, and depending on how you look at it, one could be “better” than the other depending on personal taste. To me, both are good, but different showing that different lenses at the same focal length can indeed produce two very different looking pictures.
It took me a good few years to pull the trigger on the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 lens, and by finally doing this comparison, I can see why I had been so happy with the Zeiss. The ease of automatic focus was enough to lure me to the Oly though, as was the $50 discount they had going for a little while.
So, why did I choose this Olympus lens over the already legendary Panasonic-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens? Well, frankly, I think the Oly is more worth the asking price than the Pana-Lecia is at $1500+. Is the PL42.5 the sharpest, and metrically “best” tested lens for the system? Sure, but in my own personal form of protest, until that lens comes down to compete with comparable mirrorless system lenses like the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 lens, then I’ll stay happy keeping my money in the bank account. Would I love to have that lens? Yes, of course, I just feel that this more affordable option is a far better value for me at this point in time. If I start picking up portrait gigs left and right, and decide to ditch my full frame setup, then the PanaLeica 42.5 would make a whole lot of sense. So, how about the Oly 45mm versus something like say the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 lens? Well, hold tight, I may have more to say about that very soon 😉
The micro 4/3 system offers a remarkable amount of choice for a camera system that is only about 5 or 6 years old, and this portrait range is no exception. Add to that, the numerous film era 45 or 50mm options and we have ourselves an arguably overwhelming list.
This simple comparison showed me that there is good value in some of these older film lenses. I knew that, whenever I used the Zeiss, but it didn’t stop me from buying the Oly to have access to AF. I will eventually be getting rid of the Zeiss, perhaps with the Contax G1 camera I also have. Come the new year, I may be getting rid of a bit of my gear to fund further purchases so that I may have new review fodder, so if you’re in the market for a camera or some lenses, stay tuned.
You can see the Oly 45mm lens at B&H, as well as Adorama via the links below:
Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 (Black) – at B&H here, or at Adorama here
Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 (Silver) – at B&H here, or at Adorama here
The Contax G Zeiss Planar 45mm f/2 T* ( can usually be found on E-bay for between $400-600) with the Contax G to micro 4/3 adapters costing around $50+ depending on the type of focus mechanism you’re going for, it would certainly be on the high end of the various standard legacy lenses, but you do get one heck of a lens in both performance and build quality. I can just about guarantee that this little Zeiss lens will be around long after my Oly will if going by physical build on its own, but we micro 4/3 system users certainly have a quality portrait lens, for a reasonable price in the Oly 45mm, no doubt about that. It isn’t built like a tank, but it’s also priced accordingly.
Thanks as always for the read guys. I appreciate the ability to continue to do these comparisons and interact with so many of you. I hope everyone is well and that you’re having a great fall season (or spring for you southern hemisphere folks). Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr to stay up to date on articles, giveaways and general photo fun, or enter your email at the top right of this page for email updates as articles are posted.
Cheers and happy shooting,
thanks for that interesting comparison. i’m looking forward to this voigtländer comparison, too 🙂
Thanks! I too am looking forward to comparing the Voigt with the Oly 😉
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I was in a very similar situation with Nikon Ai-P 45mm f/2.8 … the lens I loved on analog cameras and similarly gave up on it in favor of Oly 45mm on m4/3. Some time later I come across a very interesting article by R.Cicala about sensor stack thickness and its relevance when using older “analog” lenses via adapters. Basically the first picture there … already tels most of the story … due to very thick sensor stack in m 4/3 cameras there is a rapid degradation in image quality with older analog lenses (which by design were intended to image directly on film=sensor without any added layers of glass in a light path) making m4/3 possibly the least optimal choice to use adopted lenses …
On June 15, 2014 at 8:29 AM Roger Cicala said:
… Most cameras seem to have about a 1.5-2.5mm glass thickness so this problem wouldn’t be too big of a deal. It’s when you go from film (0mm) or Leica M (0.8mm) to other cameras, or from other cameras to m4/3 (4mm) you commonly notice something. Leica or film lens to m4/3 camera would be the worst combination.
I now need to find myself a good (probably wealthy), Leica gear collecting partner so that I may test this out 🙂
I have adapted various older lenses to multiple micro 4/3 camera bodies, and I would certainly say, without any scientific data to back up my findings, that they certainly do produce a “poorer” quality image, but often I have found that I’m able to either work with the files, or can live with the shortcomings. Aside from this Contax Zeiss, I have used a variety of FD, F and OM mount lenses over the years with these little cameras, and in cases, gotten some very usable results.
Now, of course, the purpose of my ramblings was to try and somehow compare these two lenses, and I’d never suggest that I’m capable of scientifically citable results as I feel that is not my strong suit, leaving that to sites like LR who actually A) know the physics and B) have the equipment to properly bench test optics. Rather, here, I aim to look at how my gear compares in situations where I, or someone like me, may find themselves shooting. This site has largely become a micro 4/3 centric site on its own. I shoot a variety of systems, but started jawing on about my experience with the micro 4/3 system after finding, and loving the GF1 about 5 years ago. From there, the articles I post about my experiences with this system seem to garner the most interest. I do love the micro 4/3 system for what it is, while interacting with folks who fall into that category with me.
If ever you see the need to exploit a self admitted nerd/non geek in any way, feel free to fire off an email. Perhaps I can provide an idiots guide to photographic idiocy or something along those lines… 🙂
Thanks Roger for taking the time to share your insight. I appreciate what you guys do over there and maybe when I grow up I’ll be capable of retaining more of the information you guys provide because, man, science!
I appreciate the link to Roger’s article, (and his subsequent reply here). I know that there are real, quantifiable IQ metrics and feel guys like Roger do a wonderful job with those. Like Lens Rentals, or DXO, I always appreciate the charts, but I also like to see examples myself (outside of charts). To me, and again, to my eye, while I feel there isn’t much of an argument against the Oly in this simple test, the difference in IQ is subjective to me. Yes, we can see the difference in out of focus areas, but to an average viewer, the differences are negligible. To be honest, at screen resolution, and not looking at 100% crops, I can see very little difference and would struggle to correctly (and intentionally) differentiate between the two sets of shots of the bust.
I’d not read Roger’s article before, and appreciate it as I do enjoy learning the science behind optics and their relationship with sensors/film, I have tried my best to keep my self from getting too carried away when judging by charts and measured analytics. Don’t get me wrong, they’re important. I feel it is one of, if not the most important collections of information when comparing apples to apples. The X factor for me though is in the final file. Sometimes I like a lens that is softer, or more muted and feel that sharpness can, in cases, be a detriment. There is a fine line with digital sensors in that I tend to shy away from some of the better performing sensors that boast far better numbers because to my eye they do look over sharpened, or too digital essentially. (I found this to be the case often with the OMD EM5/Sony sensor, again personally)
Thank you for adding to the conversation, and I appreciate you linking Roger’s article. For those who haven’t read it, I’d suggest doing so. I love reading the LR stuff whenever I come across it.
Complimenti, Ottimo lavoro. Grazie!
The Oly seems slightly sharper and the Zeiss images have a slight haze to it, but I do prefer the color and rendering of the Zeiss.
I have noticed that slight haziness working with a couple of other adapted lenses I own (Olympus OM), but NOT with my Leica mount Voigtländers.
I’ve been curious about adapting Zeiss Contax lenses, having read glowing comments about them. This confirms that.
Can’t wait to see the Voigtländer 42.5mm Oly 45mm comparison.
I have both, the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and the Voigtländer 42.5mm f0.95. I like the Oly quite a bit, it is very convenient size-wise and weight-wise, it is also quite sharp, but I absolutely love the Voigtländer. It gives such beautiful images, even wide open at f0.95. Between f2.0 and f4.0 it is extremely sharp, and in the corners at this range even better than the Pana-Leica 42.5mm f1.2. I have several MFT primes (Oly 12, 45, 60 macro, 75, Pana-Leica 25mm f1.4 and the Voigtländers 17.5 f0.95 and 42.5) my loved trio is composed by the Voigtländers and the Oly 75mm f1.8, they do 80% of my shooting. My most used lens is the Voigtländer 17.5 f0.95.
I’ve pined after the Voigt 17.5mm since its announcement. I’ve used, and been very happy with the Pana 20/1.7 and now the PL15/1.7. Having only received the Voigtländer 42.5, I can tell that I will be thinking quite a bit about the 17.5 now.
I too enjoy the Oly 45 and 75, and also have the PL25 which I still feel is one of the best lenses for the system regarding color and contrast. The field of view tends to fall into that not wide enough, not long enough range for much of what I like to shoot, but I still enjoy shooting with it, and it does come in handy in lower light when auto focus (along with the -3ev AF in the GX7) is useful.
So many choices, and so many good choices. Thanks again for the comment and insight.
I am really amazed that the change in colors is so significant in the last comparison. I am curious about which white balance setting were used? I own the Oly 45 and a G6 and would be grateful for tips on how to make the colors of my OOC jpegs more similar to the zeiss colorwise.
The easiest way to get ooc jpegs warmer would be to adjust your WB to a lower temp, or you can shift the WB via the dual axis chart (cyan/magenta and blue/yellow) to the yellow and magenta quadrant. When shooting in AWB for instance, that could warm them up across the board.
The other way would be to adjust in post but of course this is more time consuming and there is a limited amount of latitude in the jpegs regarding WB.
When I look at the detail, the Zeiss clearly outperforms the Oly, for example look at the feathers for both lenses at F2 – you see more detail in the Zeiss. Same for the foto of the kid, you can see fine hairs on the hazy Zeiss, which got almost completely lost on the Oly. For me in this review on image quality the Zeiss is the winner.
There are attributes that I think could make an argument for either, but I do feel the Zeiss is a capable lens, even up against a really good lens like this Oly.
The portrait shot is tough to judge on sharpness because it is so back lit. Perhaps better to look at the differences in flare, contrast, saturation, and then maybe how those affect the way the lenses resolve detail. I obviously manually focused the Zeiss, using the peaking to determine focus and used the AF on the oly. That could potentially create a difference as well, but again I wasn’t looking at sharpness directly for that shot.
Thanks for the comment,
Did you see that FujiFilm tried to fix the Panasonic/Leica price with a newer version of their 56mm f/1.2 for US$1499.99? It boasts an improved bokeh–for US$500 extra.
Thanks for another interesting comparison. I wonder if the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 looks warmer on an Olympus body.
Yeah, the newer version of the new lens for Fuji is a bit odd. Seems the original was just fine from what I’ve seen.
I can make the Oly warmer even on the Pana cams by manually adjusting the c/m y/b but as is, I find it interesting that the Zeiss is so much warmer by default.
Yeah! It’s all in the coatings I guess eh?
nice writeup, co-incidentially I had been considering this lens myself. After I ordered it on an online special for AUD$300 I thought I’d do a little digging while it turned up. I found you page and found it helpful. Now that I’ve put a few thoughts and imaged together I’ve written up my view and I’ve linked to your post on my blog post test too. Its here at http://cjeastwd.blogspot.com/2014/12/portrait-lenses-native-vs-legacy.html
Thanks for the mention and great writeup yourself! Yup, it’s still me 🙂
I agree, the Oly45 is a great value for the system. I have recently opted for the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 lens which I’ve had glued to the GX7 for the last couple weeks. Working it through its paces as well. It’s large and heavy comparatively of course, but I’ve grown away from the ‘need’ to keep this system small, and have been coming to terms with understanding that it can just be ‘smaller’ so to speak.
>but I’ve grown away from the ‘need’ to keep this system small
which is why I have the GH body too 😉 Actually I started with the G1 (as you probably know) and the ultra compact side is not really a high priority for me, already the GH is more compact than my 20D was …
I think that the options that Olympus and Panasonic have provided with both the bodies, and ever growing lens library enable this system to satisfy either the keep it tiny, or I just want to lose some bulk and weight approach while maintaining 90% of the IQ of a larger DSLR system very nicely. I’ve been very happy with it, and largely because it is so compact, it has me excited to bring my camera everywhere which has been wonderful.
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I am looking to take up serious photography again and have decided that micro four thirds is thr best format for me. I was really interested in your using thr Zeiss G lens as I also have a G system and always loved thr images rendered by my 35mm f2 plannar lens. The only adapters I have come across cost nearly 200 dollars and I would be grateful if you could suggest some alternatives.
I really like the system, myself. I cannot remember exactly which adapter I purchased ( I believe it was a fotodiox) and I’m not sure how much it was, but I don’t think it was that much.
The trick with the Zeiss G lenses is the focusing mechanism. The adapter I had used a small thumb wheel which was okay, but I feel that if you can find a good ring style focusing adapter, with good reviews, it might be better.
Good luck with it and enjoy!