Well, after a lot of humming and hawing, I bit the bullet and bought the Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45/2.8
. You'll probably remember that I haven't been too enthused by the lens and its high price ($899 list) before. However, I managed to snag one at retail for $799 (I still think it's overpriced. It would have been a no-brainer for $699) and I wanted a portrait lens for a family reunion this weekend. Initial impressions:
Build quality is more solid than other MFT lenses I've used. It's better than the 20/1.7 and even better than the 7-14 (itself a solidly built specimen). The Leica branding is very subtle - there is nothing printed on the front element that screams 'E-PEEEEN~!', for which I'm pretty thankful.
. It's a pretty small lens, at 2.5x2.5in
and is lighter than the SMC-Takumar 50/1.4 lens that it'll be taking duties over for (love the lens, but full-time MF can be very exhausting, and obviously the legacy lens can't pass distance information back to the camera for flash exposure metering).
The lens is as sharp at 2.8 as the 20/1.7 is wide open. While the 20/1.7 rapidly increases in sharpness on stopping down, though, the PL 45/2.8 stays at about the same sharpness as you stop down. I normally shoot the 20 at f/2, and it is noticeably sharper than the PL 45 at any aperture. That's not saying it's bad, because the 20 at 1.7 is already super sharp. But if the Leica name and the Macro label made you expect stratospheric levels of sharpness, you may be disappointed.
The focusing ring is very nice. It's still focus-by-wire (FBW), but unlike the 20/1.7, is very responsive. With the 20, FBW can be a bit sluggish, and it often feels very "stepped", but the 45 is just silky smooth and has a nice tactile feel when you're focusing. Unlike the 20/1.7, I never found myself overshooting or undershooting in MF. I still prefer physical MF or at least a distance readout, but the PL45 has the best focus by wire system I've used.
AF will hunt at macro distances. Probably no surprise there. You're better off focusing manually or using the smallest AF point. Turning on the limiter switch makes AF much more responsive at portrait distances, although the cutoff point is a little too far out for my liking - one of the advantages of the PL 45 over the legacy 50/1.4 I was using before this is that I can focus much closer on subjects.
OIS works, although I haven't used it much. Seems to be good for 3 stops, like dpr found in their review. I can get sharp handheld pics at 1/20s and acceptable ones at 1/15s (non macro distances). Of course, don't expect to get sharp portraits at those shutter speeds, unless your subject is a stone statue. Mode 1 is 'always on', Mode 2 only turns on when you press the shutter, and Mode 3 is for panning (it would have been nice if they had auto-pan detection like Canon does).
On to the good stuff. The bokeh is AMAZING. No, not 'Amazing BAD' like the Noktor, but amazingly smooth and creamy. There is no ringing in specular highlights at all up to (and including) f/4, and the blur transitions are very smooth. It's possible that during the design process, they deliberately balanced the sharpness of the lens against the bokeh, if so, GOOD JOB (sounds like they consciously undercorrected spherical aberration to minimise distracting bokeh elements). For comparison, I have a SMC-Takumar 50/1.4, a classic lens renowned for pleasing bokeh, and the PL 45/2.8 is just as good as it. It makes the 20/1.7 look busy by comparison, and a lot of people (myself included) are quite satisfied with the bokeh of the 20/1.7. Here are a couple of examples that I took at the store and on getting back home:
Taken at the store when testing out the camera. This was at f/4, and I was impressed that the highlights remained nicely round and smooth with very little ring artefacts (kinda amazed at the lack of polygon-shaped highlights at f/4). The f/2.8 shot is even smoother. Obviously not a memorable photo, just think of it as the equivalent of a brick wall test
Not a taxing test of the PL45's macro capabilities, but it does show how creamy smooth the bokeh transitions are.
Oh, and the 'Leica Look'? It's there. Shoot a scene with a lot of dynamic range, and you can get a pleasant glow to the highlights while still retaining deep blacks and midtone detail. It's been 10 years since I've owned a Leica lens, and I have to say I missed them terribly in their absence.
I bought the lens primarily as a portrait tool. Will be testing it out some more this weekend at a family reunion.
I've castigated this lens in the past, and as it turns out, unfairly. It isn't the sharpest lens in the world, but I believe that it turned out to be a better portrait and macro lens as a result - portraits and macros with bad bokeh are, well, bad. Numbers don't tell everything, I guess.
MFT users looking for a fast prime might still be better off with the Zuiko D 50/2 Macro, because it's half the price (not including adapter though), is one stop faster and is noticeably sharper. Especially for Olympus body owners, because the 50/2 will AF on a PEN body. However, I've also heard from some Zuiko 50/2 users that they find their lens to be too
sharp for portraits, although it's a lot easier to soften an image in PP than to try and add sharpness later IMO. It's also only 1:2 magnification vs the 1:1 of the PL 45, so it's more suited to flowers than bugs, especially since it doesn't AF very fast, and the front element protrudes quite a bit when focusing, meaning you have a lot less working distance than the 1:2 rating would lead you to believe.
I'm happy to admit that I was wrong in dismissing the PL45 on the basis of the quantitative numbers in testing. This may just be buyer's justification, but it's promising to be a much better portrait and macro lens than I had given it credit for. I'll see this weekend if the f/2.8 aperture proves to be too limiting for subject isolation, but so far I've been pleasantly surprised by it. However, it's definitely got drawbacks, not least the price. It's still priced too steep IMO. I may have jumped on that 50/2 lens at $400 before, but now that I have the 45/2.8, I don't see myself turning back. Please please Panny, drop the price to $699, and you will sell a metric boatload.
Thanks to anyone who bothered reading this far. This guy has been taking amazing images with the PL45/2.8
, and it's pictures like his that finally convinced me to give the lens a try rather than just technical ratings from review sites.
Wind, Sand and Stars.