Monday, August 18, 2014

A weekend with the Sony A7 and the Olympus OM 50mm f1/.4 - Breathing new life to an old lens

  • All metal construction weighing in at 230g (per my research)
  • 49mm filter thread
  • Close focuses down to 0.45m or 1.47 feet. 
  • 180 degree focus ring throw
  • Manual aperture adjustments in full stop increments from f/1.4 to f/16
  • Optical construction of 7 elements in 6 groups
  • Cat eye bokeh wide open with hexagonal shapes closed down
  • Sharp at the center even wide open
  • Inexpensive to adapt to most mirrorless cameras
  • Light weight, all metal construction that maintains heft and appearance of quality
  • Covers a full frame sensor
  • Focus ring has just the right amount of throw from near focus to infinity
  • You can get fairly up close and personal with your subjects
  • Noticeable vignetting at f/1.4
  • Soft along the edges. Improves at around f/2.8
  • Manual focus only (I don't know if I can qualify that as a con, but I understand it may be to some)
  • Back lighting or direct sunlight into lens occasionally yield soft, washed out images. 
A very quick snap of the Olympus 50mm  f/1.4 on a battle tested Olympus OM 40 film camera. For a fast 50, it is quite a small lens. 

I have always loved old lenses. My entry into the micro four thirds realm started with the Olympus OM 50mm f/1.4. It isn't the sharpest glass in my kit, but boy did I learn a lot from it. If I had one gripe, it was the frame of view. On a m43 camera, the crop factor of the sensor changes the field of view equivalent to ~100mm on a full frame camera. This made it a very useful portrait lens, but it prevented me from making it a walk around lens so it unfortunately was left behind more often than not. 

Yet another quick snap of the A7 with the Fotasy OM to NEX E-mount adapter. Unlike the OM 40 pictured above, the A7 does not have a mirror and needs this dumb adapter to create the necessary flange distance from the back of the lens to the sensor. I can't attest if this reaches infinity focus, but it manages to focus in the range I tend to shoot. 
Enter my recent purchase of the Sony A7, my first full-frame, mirrorless camera. Besides purchasing the FE 70-200 f/4 G lens, I immediately purchased two adapters: the M-mount and OM-mount to Sony E from Fotasy. Both are very inexpensive (under $20 on Amazon) dumb adapters with good metal build quality and tight tolerances. Dumb adapters have no electronic contacts and only serve to create the appropriate distance between the sensor and the lens. Your photographs/files will not transfer your lens profile & aperture, so the only EXIF data you will have is the ISO and shutter speed used. It's a compromise I can personally live with especially since it's so cheap. Please bear with me as I make guesses as to what f-stop I used for any given photo.  

ISO 200 at f/2, 1/100 sec - Converted to B&W in Lightroom
Muggy later afternoon - ISO 500, f/2, 1/100 sec. 

One of the greatest strengths of mirrorless cameras, especially when adapting vintage glass, is focus peaking and magnify zoom. Focus peaking, which in my opinion is best implemented on Sony cameras, is a tool featured in most current mirrorless and DSLT cameras. It assists users in manual focusing by highlighting high-contrast areas that are in focus. In my opinion, this is a revolutionary feature that not only aids those with bad eyesight, but has brought greater ease of use and speed to older and newer manual only glass. Although not always reliable for primes in the f/1.8 and faster range, it is definitely a step in the right direction. I have used it on occasion with the OM 50mm, but I spent most of the day obtaining critical focus using the magnify zoom feature. another godsend in the mirrorless realm. This particular feature magnifies a particular part of the frame of your choosing to give you a better view of what you're trying to focus on. While taking portraits for example, I can digitally magnify into the eyes to make sure that my subject's eyes are the sharpest, most in focus part of the image.

Taken at f/5.6 at ISO 200 - The lens is prone to flaring and I personally welcome it

One of the most difficult things to do when writing about old legacy lenses is that each copy out in the market vary in condition due to its age and how prior owners took care of it. You will be hard pressed to find this lens new unless you go to ebay and roll the dice on a purchase from Japan. My particular copy is externally in excellent condition, however looking through the optics you will notice some dust specs and dark spots that seemingly do not have a significant adverse affect on image quality. I do, on the other hand, suspect back lighting to be a slight issue as seen below.

Took a lot of post processing to save this photo - Rocko is backlit from the window behind him and suffers from a lack of contrast and clarity
The photos above with Rocko (the white dog) exhibit the problem I had mentioned regarding back lighting or light shining into the lens. The raw file originally came out washed out and hazy, something that really surprised me because it had been optically impressive thus far. I had to do a lot of post processing to rescue the image and bring back most of it's clarity. I don't know if it's a degradation in the lens coating, dust within the lens itself or a combination of the two. Either way, I have to be more cognizant about framing under these particular conditions and might consider purchasing a lens hood to help.

Just another example of how beautifully the Olympus transitions from sharpness to Bokeh - Shot at f/1.4. Notice how the eyes are the only things in focus

Snapshot taken by Sir Richard Palin
The bokeh or the quality of the background blur is everything I expected from an Olympus product - spectacular. The way it transitions from sharpness to blur is silky smooth and not choppy to my eyes. Unlike some of my other manual only lenses, the bokehlicious parts are not "nervous" nor does it exhibit swirly shapes outside the center of the frame. Wide open, lights are cat eye (oval) in shape and become more hexagonal in shape as you close down the aperture. Given this was my first time using a fast prime on a full frame camera, I was taken aback at how shallow the depth of field can be from f/1.4 to f/2.8. Because I like to get close and personal, I have to be mindful of my aperture if I want both eyes in focus especially if your subjects' head is slightly angled.

Taken wide open at f/1.4 - Oval shaped bokeh is commonly known as cat eyes due to its shape

Taken at f/2 - The bokeh at this point is the most round, but shows it's hexagonal shape

Taken at f/4 - The bokeh is clearly octagonal with hard lines and a clear distinct shape  
I have read reviews about the Sony FE 55 f/1.8 being a sublime photographic piece of equipment. From an IQ standpoint, it just about rivals the Otus 50mm at a fraction of the cost. While the Olympus 50mm cannot touch any of the aforementioned lenses in image quality, it does render images with a lot of character. You use this lens partially for its filmic (translation to some - flawed) qualities and the mere fact that both the adapter and lens can be had for about $100. My particular copy of the lens vignettes and is very soft along the edges of the frame so if you like to compose using the rule of thirds, you run the risk of poor(er) image quality as seen above. The edges tend to sharpen up dramatically once you are at f/4, but who really wants to use a fast prime at that particular f-stop =)? The center of the frame is where the lens really shines. At the pixel peeping level, I was surprised to see so much detail and clarity even at higher ISOs. 

Cake tasting with the Maid of Honor and our Officiant. The corners are possibly the weakest point of this lens. Taken at f/2, ISO 200 at 1/100 sec.

Meet Georgia, a kindhearted pug - Shot at f/1.4, ISO 800 at 1/80th sec.

Meet Bauer, a retriever mix, shot under fluorescent lights - ISO 1600 at 1/60th sec
At the end of the day, I will give this a qualified "13th Floor Stamp of Approval". I qualify it because it will be difficult to find this lens new for under $100. But if you can find this lens in decent condition, at that price range with clear optics, then fire away. What I personally love is the rugged, all metal design of the lens - something you rarely see today. It's not heavy, but it still has heft and the semblance of quality. The focus ring spins to about 180 degrees from near focus to infinity (to me just the right amount of throw to make fine tuning focus easy), while the aperture ring has hard clicks starting from f/1.4 to f/16 in full stop increments. If you can embrace fully manual controls and its optical qualities/flaws, I really think you will have a fun time creating memories with the Olympus OM 50mm f/1.4 lens.  Thanks as always for stopping by and please feel free to leave me comments or questions below.

Another low light test. It is difficult to create this kind of back ground blur on a m43 camera
with a similar frame of view (Panasonic 25mm f/1.4). ISO 2000 at 1/40th sec

Snow Station out in Burbank, CA. This is shaved ice with the consistency of ice cream - simply delicious: Taro and Coconut shaved ice with mochi, lychee boba and condensed milk drizzle. Taken at f/2, ISO 640 at 1/60th sec.

Thai Iced Tea and Horchata flavored shaved ice with with strawberries, mochi and condensed mild drizzle. Taken at f/2, ISO 640 at 1/60th sec.

Day 2

Pool day for my father's birthday with my nephew Calum - taken at f/2 at ISO 200
My eldest nephew, Luca - shot at ISO 200 at f/2
Meet my new friend Dito - a low light example at ISO 2500

And my other friend Dash. Post processed with VSCO kodak filter. ISO 2500
11:00 pm pit stop at Block Heads, Los Angeles

A long night
And we're out

1 comment:

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