Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Vintage Glass - User Experience with the Olympus 135mm Prime at the Mad T Party

As I have mentioned before, I am a huge fan of micro four thirds (or m43) cameras because it is fully capable of adapting almost all types of lenses.  Today I wanted to share my thoughts on the Olympus OM 135mm f3.5 prime lens.  I would like to preface this post by saying that my benchmark for lens quality is the m43 native mount 75mm f1.8 lens.  It is arguably the sharpest lens on the market and my holy grail glass.  It is my go-to-lens for most of my  work, especially when it comes to portraiture.  I can't help but compare any medium to long telephoto lens I have to the 75mm.  

My workhorse, the Olympus OMD with the 135mm prime

Below is a bit of background on the lens are seen on the slrlensreview site:

"Olympus OM Zuiko 135mm f/3.5 is one of about half a dozen medium telephoto lenses that Olympus used to manufacture for the now defunct OM SLR platform. The 135mm prime was released in two variants - the slower f/3.5 construction and slightly faster f/2.8 option. The optical construction of the lens consists of 5 elements in 4 groups  and has a minimum aperture of f22."

The OM 135mm on the Olympus OM40 film camera.  The OMD's older brother

I obtained this lens when I bought my brother's Panasonic GF-1 several years ago.  I never really paid much attention to this lens because of it's size and focal length.  On the GF-1 it was too difficult to use, as it did not have any form of image stabilization built into the camera and caused a lot of blur due to handshake.  At 270mm (full frame equivalent), I would need a tripod to effectively use this hand held. When I bought the Olympus OMD, I thought I would give this lens another shot as the camera would stabilize any lens (either adapted or native to the camera) with no problem.  In fact, I decided to try out the lens during my first photo shoot with We're Alive.  

We're Alive Photo shoot - Scott Marvin 

I had very limited use of this lens during the aforementioned photo shoot.  I took approximately 5-10 photographs with it.  Hardly enough time to make an assessment, so I decided to take this lens with me California Adventure for some shutter therapy at the Mad T Party.  I knew at 270mm, I would be up close and personal with the entertainers - this focal length almost doubles what I normal use for my long, telephoto needs. 

I opted to shoot in A mode or Aperture Priority mode - this mode allows users to choose the Aperture and the camera determines the shutter speed.  When using adapted glass, Aperture Priority or Manual mode is recommended for optimization. I limited myself to f-stops of 3.5, 5.6 and 8, as I wanted to avoid diffraction.  Diffraction typically occurs when shooting at small apertures (the larger the number the smaller the hole), which leads to a loss in resolution and/or sharpness.  You may liken it to shooting through cloth or screens.  In fact, you can replicate this with your eyes by squinting.  

At f3.5, I noticed that my shots were quite soft even when perfectly focused - almost film-like.  The bokeh (a Japanese term meaning pleasing blur) was surprisingly good at f3.5, but I expected that at this focal length.  While usable, I can't say I would be happy publishing or giving photos shot at this aperture to a client.

The great Dan Franklin (Dormouse) and Mike Hill  (Marh Hare) - Soft and film-like

Jenny Kidd as Alice taken at f3.5 - Not the sharpest wide open, but very usable

5.6 is a mix bag.  Some of the pictures come out fairly sharp, while others somewhat soft, but not as soft as shooting at f3.5.  I would most likely keep the lens at this setting as it provides a happy balance of light gathering capabilities, while controlling the need to bump up the ISO (ISO means international standard organization and determines the sensor's sensitivity to light).  Additionally, at this f-stop, focusing is a little more forgiving because it lengthens the depth of field - remember, this glass has no automatic features like auto-focus.

Dan Franklin - This lens can be quite sharp at this aperture and look at the bokeh

Dormouse and March Hare - Example of this lens being slightly soft at f5.6

Based on my testing, f8 yielded the sharpest images.  During the day, this would be my default aperture setting.  Come nightfall, I would definitely defer to wider f-stops, as you would need to increase your ISO or slow down your shutter speed to properly expose the photograph.  The first option destroys image quality with grain and/or sensor noise, while the latter option will cause motion blur - not something I want while documenting the Mad T Party.

Towering Twins - at f8 it is definitely the sharpest  
My overall thoughts about this lens is very similar to that slrlensreview's sentiments.  For a lens that is relatively old, it performs fairly well, but nothing "eye-popping".  Like other adapted lenses, it is soft and film-like wide open - a characteristic that may be desirable under some circumstances but not most.  This vintage piece really is a niche lens that has limited utility for me due to its reach (too long).  However, because I love photographing the Mad T Party, it actually can be a useful tool when I have to shoot from the back of the crowd.

DJ Wendy Walker - Evening shot taken from the back of the crowd at f3.5  

Because this lens, including its faster variant,  can be purchased for a little under $100, I would say it's a decent investment.  You are not going to break the bank and you can easily turn around and sell this lens if it does not suit you. I hope you found this user experience helpful. Now go out and take some pictures

So say we all,

Here are some more sample shots for your viewing pleasure:

A dreamy, film-like photo 

Not really a macro lens but you can get pretty close to your subject

A great lens for portraiture

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