The benefits (or otherwise) of legacy and adapted lenses. Part 1 (of 3) m4/3.

I'm currently in possession of three different format sensor camera systems and a selection of Nikon and Voigtlander lenses plus three Metabones 'passive' adapters and two Speed Boosters. As ever I'm looking to 'rationalise' what I have, to avoid duplication and to decide exactly what fits with how I work and the best quality / price / ease of use equation I can manage to get from the least amount of kit.

That isn't to say that I don't enjoy using it all and if I had endless funds I would of course keep everything, but unfortunately my relatives neglected to leave me a fortune and while I have no complaints about what I earn and my standard of living, I do have to come to some decisions as what to keep and what to send to new homes via ebay to avoid unwanted appointments with my Bank Manager!

So, 'taking advantage' of what promises to be a dull weekend, I've decided the have a look at what lenses work best with each format - m4/3, APS-c (Fuji X) and 35mm / 'Full Frame' (Sony A7r) I'm also looking to see which lenses give the most options and which are the most useful. At the same time I'll be sharing some thoughts about how the native system lenses compare with the legacy / adapted lenses I have and what advantage each would have over the other. I'll also be writing about how I see the lenses I have owned but have sold fit into this.

So first m4/3. The pictures below show what I'm looking at.

Firstly some Wide-Angle to Widish Standard lens options.

Above is my Panasonic GH3, fitted with an Olympus 17mm f/1.8. To the left are the two m4/3 zooms I currently have, the new 14-140mm (my lens of the year) and the Panasonic 7-14mm. To the right are two Nikon fit lenses, a Nikkor 28mm f1/.8G and Voigtlander 20mm f/3.5 plus the two Metabones adapters.

So, how do some of these combinations compare to each other?

Obviously the 7-14mm gives a super-wide option and there is really nothing comparable as a legacy / adapted alternative. At the 14mm ends of the two zooms there aren't that many adapted options either and they tend to be big and / or expensive!. But now we have Metabones Speed Boosters, so that my Voigtlander 20mm is able to offer more than it's usual adapted option - A 40mm 'Full-Frame' equivalent' which since it then comes up against the redoubtable Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, I would always choose the native lens over the adapted Voigtlander. However with the Speed Booster I now have a 30mm f/2.5 'Full-frame' approximation, and since it's faster than both my zooms and the couple of Panasonic 14mm f/2.5's that I've owned haven't exactly impressed me, does this have something to offer? Below is a comparison between the two Panasonic zooms and the Voigtlander 20mm plus Speed Booster. The comparison is at the widest aperture for each lens.

Wide open there's very little to choose between all the lenses. If I had to choose I would say the 7-14mm is very marginally the sharpest, but whether you'll see that with Google+ reproduction is open to question. This was again what happened when I looked at the lenses at f/7.1. Again the 7-14mm performed marginally better.

So, in terms of this focal length, there isn't really anything significant that would make me choose the Voigtlander over either of the Panasonic zooms, other than if I was desperate for a stop more light. The 20mm + Speed Booster is of course still f/3.5 wide open, the Speed Booster however amplifies the light and allows a 1 stop benefit for the shutter speed. It also uses more of the 35mm lens's area and focuses it onto the m4/3, meaning that it's performing in a similar fashion to how the lens would on an APS-C sensor camera.

I am however impressed with how the 7-14mm performs at this focal length and I did a comparison with the Olympus 17mm and again when I adjusted for the different focal lengths the wide zoom was again marginally sharper. 

Running up the focal lengths to a wide standard and standard focal lengths, again any legacy / adapted lens has to compete with some very good m4/3 native lenses. The previously mentioned 20mm f1/8, and the Panasonic / Leica 25mm f/1.4 being obvious examples. Having owned both lenses I know that both are very good and the 25mm is superb. There is little advantage that I could see in coming with an legacy / adapted alternative, particularly when that has to be manually focused. For example below is a comparison between the 14-140mm zoom at 21mm and my Nikon 28mm f/1.8G with the speed booster, which gives much the same field of view at f/7.1 and there's little difference there.

Certainly the Nikon is way faster with the Speed Booster (f/1.2 in light gathering terms) but would I prefer it to the slightly slower Panasonic 20mm or 25mm? I doubt it. Particularly since it's a big heavy lens on a m4/3 camera. 

Above is a picture showing some telephoto options. Again the 14-140mm zoom, plus the two adapters and three Nikons. 50mm f/1.4G (*75mm f/1 and 100mm f/1.4 via the adapters) 100mm f/2.8 Series E (*150mm f/2 and 200mm f/2.8 via the adapters) and 85mm f/1.8G (*127 f/1.2 and 170mm f/1.8 via adapters) *Approximate 35mm / 'Full-Frame' equivalents. 

Now we start getting some interesting lens specs. And it's here we start to see an advantage for the legacy / adapted lenses. And the advantage is speed and low light capability, which is certainly helpful with the m4/3 sensors. But again there are some pretty special m4/3 lenses. I've owned the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 and 75mm f/1.8 lenses and they are top class. The 75mm particularly is a spectacular lens. But 75mm f/1, 127mm f/1.2 and 170mm f/1.8 equivalents are the stuff of dreams (and very large wallets)

So, you get some real low-light monsters, but with the obvious proviso, just how good are you at manually focusing with virtually no depth-of-field in low light? I've been doing it for a while and I'm not bad, but I'm not sure I'd want to rely on my skills in a pressure situation. I think I'd probably go for one of the Olympus options, bite the bullet and crank up the ISO rather than risk using these adapted lenses. 

However, for video with the camera and lens tripod mounted and the ability to organise what I'm shooting, that's a different matter. Then these combinations really start to get the pulse racing. 

I've always been somewhat ambivalent about adapted lenses on m4/3, which is surprising since it was one of the reasons I got so heavily into it in the first place. I even started a group on flickr which now has an unbelievable 2636 members and 60764 photos, which shows that I'm not alone in this fiddling about with old and alternative lenses and adapters. Now whether this makes sense for others is a decision that only they can make. Certainly you do get some pretty dramatic alternatives to the native lenses, but it's important to remember that m4/3 has some very good fast lenses in it's lens range. Plus, old lenses designed for film and even modern DSLR lenses won't necessarily perform as well as they do in their 'native habitat'. There's an article from a few years ago by Michael Reichmann at Luminous landscape that has this in it -

'The bottom line is that I definately wouldn't go out and buy Leica M lenses to put on a Panasonic G1. But anyone that already owns some of these optics should definitely consider picking up a G1 or one of the new Micro Four Thirds cameras coming later this year, along with a CameraQuest Leica M mount to Micro 4/3 lens adaptor. It's fun, and an inexpensive way to explore using these optical gems on a sort-of DSLR. '

And that's pretty much what I still think now. I used to buy alternative lenses for my m4/3 cameras, but that was when the lens range was severely limited and I certainly wouldn't do that again. I have the lenses I've been testing already as I've been using them with my Fuji X cameras and more recently with my Sony A7r, but I actually use them very rarely on my GH3 and when I do it's usually for video. I have of course talked exclusively about Nikon fit DSLR lenses, because that's what I have and because unlike m-mount Leica etc. lenses, I can use them with a Metabones Speed Booster which widens them and 'speeds them up'. And certainly the Speed Boosters have opened up all sorts of possibilities for the smaller sensor mirrorless cameras. And I'm certainly not immune to contemplating some pretty mouth watering options as far as lens specs. go. But it is worth repeating again that these are not that easy to use, particularly if you are considering taking advantage of the speed boost in low light. I have also pointed out in some recent posts that manually focusing metal lenses in cold weather has it's downside also.

I'm sure that legacy and adapted lenses will continue to be used by m4/3 shooters, though maybe not quite as much as in the past and there are many benefits. I'm sure I will continue using them as well, though certainly not as my first option and also only when I've got the time to do them justice. And if I shoot more video I would certainly use them a lot more. But for my primary outdoors stock work the quality of current m4/3 lenses is such that I would need a pretty good reason to use a legacy / adapted lens over what the format provides in terms of native lenses, enjoyable as it certainly is. 

As ever if you have thoughts and experiences to share feel free to post on the Google+ Soundimageplus Blog Readers Group.

In the following two posts I'll discuss using these lenses on my Fuji APS-C cameras and the Sony A7r.

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