Panasonic Leica 42.5/1.2

Another new lens. How did I get here?

When I bought into the Fujifilm X series with the X-E2 and XF56/1.2, the intention was to replace my E-M5 and Olympus 45/1.8 combination for gig photography. This didn’t work out as the Fujifilm combination completely failed to autofocus. I was going to stick with it as a manual focus setup, but over Christmas the X-E2 also struggled to focus with the 18-55 zoom in borderline indoor light and I just lost patience with it and sent the lot to eBay.

I did some fresh research on the what was available for my requirements. The short version is that it came down to a Nikon D750, either with a F2.8 zoom or 85mm prime, or stick with M43 and buy the Panasonic Leica 42.5/1.2 Nocticron.

Of those two options the Panasonic Leica was the safer choice as, based on some anecdotal reports, I wasn’t convinced of the ability of the Nikon D750 to focus in marginal light. However, choosing the Panasonic would not upgrade the sensor in E-M5, which I consider a weak spot, and the price is high for a lens of its basic specification.

Usability

From my, throughly unscientific, testing the focus speed versus the Olympus 45 is roughly a wash. It seems as though the Panasonic focus mechanism is slower, but the camera requires fewer movements to achieve focus so it balances out. Against a pathological target, a blank wall, the Olympus was faster. The Panasonic focus motor is slightly louder than the Olympus, not to a point it matters for photography, but it might for video.

Burst mode speed seemed about the same for both.

Flare

Flare resistance is important for gig photography as they’ll often be stage lights in-frame, or just outside. When Lenstip tested the Panasonic 42.5 they found it to have good flare resistance, but they said the same about the Panasonic 20/1.7 which I found to have serious problems with high intensity glare from subjects in frame.

To test the Panasonic 42.5 I carried out a comparison with the Olympus 45 using, approximately, the same test as before. The test is shooting a flash at a white doorframe with a wall a few meters behind. With the Lumix 20 the reflection from the white frame caused a semi-oval of haze.

Neither lens showed an issue as clearly as the Lumix 20. On one picture, the Panasonic 42.5 at F5.6 showed a very small amount of localised glare. If you can see it the below picture, congratulations on having a good monitor.

In general, the Panasonic 42.5 rendered a darker background than the Olympus 45. Compare these two pictures at F1.8:

As the test isn’t sufficiently controlled, I can’t compare these pictures to the Panasonic 20 or Olympus 17 versions. But whether it’s the same issues at work or not, the Panasonic 42.5 has coped better than the Olympus 45. As well as the darker background on the Leica, the shadow on the light switch is more pronounced.

These shots also show the relatively high vignetting of the Panasonic, but this goes away once you turn on the optical corrections in DxO Optics. The dark line at the bottom of the picture isn’t vignetting, but the radiator in the next room.

Posed shots

Even with the relatively small M43 sensor F1.2 gives shallow depth of field, if you like that kind of thing.

I’ve no complaints about the sharpness wide open. There’s lots of clarity around the individual hairs and if you look in the eye you can see me crouching to take the photo. The white spot is the control flash from the E-M5 which triggered the main illumination for the scene, a remote Metz AF-1 set to bounce. Note that the frame maps at DxOMark suggest the lens is actually sharper at F1.2 than at F1.8 or F2.0. F2.8 is a slight improvement on wide open, and peak sharpness is F4.

If I was being picky (and at this price, why not?), some of the places the light has caught have coloured halos with dark centres:

I also attempted what I believe the kids are calling a “selfie”. Lacking a way to attach the Olympus to broom handle I was forced to use a tripod and radio trigger. Lighting is two off-camera Metz AF-1 flashes, one pointing to the ceiling providing general light and one bouncing off a side wall for shape.

Gig usage

Attempt 1

My first gig outing was to see The Galleons, plus support, at The Troubadour in London. The full set is available. I’m not very happy with the results because of the colours. The stage had a combination of red-ish lights and one really bright yellow light. Anyone caught in the yellow light was much brighter than their surroundings and washed out. Attempting to correcting for the yellow knocked the rest of the scene out. I could do more with the close-up photos but then they’d be incongruous with the rest of the set.

The Panasonic 42.5 didn’t do anything wrong in terms of flare etc. Detail is OK, but clearly not as good as the posed photos even at the same aperture and with relatively low ISO values. I’m starting to suspect some of the performance issues I’m seeing in these situations is due to the behaviour of the sensor with (nearly) monochromatic light.

Attempt 2

The second gig with the lens was to see Felix Hagan and The Family play The Monarch in Camden. Felix & co. are a fantastic live act anyway, but at gigs like this when it’s full of their fans and friends it is really special.

The light on stage was heavily red biased and I had to turn the exposure compensation down to -1.3EV to avoid blowing the red channel. For some photos I then brought back the exposure in post-processing, but mostly it was within 0.3EV of correct straight out of the camera. The Monarch is a pub venue with a low stage. I took up position early near the front and ended up right against the stage as the floor filled up. This left me only a metre away from some of the performers which made the Panasonic was very long. Also, once the dancing started I was getting significantly bumped around.

These factors all combined to produce some really scrappy photography. The relatively low lighting, short distances and the dynamic performance meant that the autofocus on both the E-M5 and X100S struggled to keep up. Only about half of the photos were acceptably in-focus on the desired target.

Having said all of that, I did come away with a reasonable set. These pictures won’t survive any kind of pixel-peeping but at screen resolutions they look good enough. Again, no signs of really negative behaviours from the lens.

I was lucky to be in the right place to catch the stage diving, although most exposures were out of focus as the camera preferred the better illuminated background or chose no-particular focus point. Note that for this picture the red-protecting exposure compensation setting wasn’t needed and I ended up boosting a lot in post-processing. You can see some sensor striping in the shadows.

I’ve referred to focus issues several times, but for clarity this is nothing like the issue I had with the X-E2. This gig had less light, less even-colour light, and rapidly moving targets at close quarters. Within a split-second the subject could have moved a significant proportion of the focus range[1]. What was shocking about the X-E2 was how badly it did against relatively easy, static targets. This gig also made me glad I didn’t stick with the idea of using the X-E2 & 56/1.2 as a manual focus combination. Trying to keep up with the performers would have been an utterly miserable experience.

Yeah, but the price

The prosecution

Whatever merits the Panasonic 42.5 has, it’s emotionally hard to get over the price. This lens is the most expensive I own, overtaking the Canon 400/5.6. At least with the Canon 400 you would expect to pay more for a super-telephoto and there are no cheaper options, whilst for the Panasonic 42.5 it’s hard to forget the Olympus 45 exists and is only a sixth of the price.

And although there’s more to lens value than the weight of the glass, this is priced like a premium fullframe lens when it only covers a quarter of the sensor area. You could hardly call the Canon 50/1.2L a bad lens, or say the manufacturer is known for under-pricing, yet it’s a little cheaper and has fullframe coverage.

The Panasonic is a better lens than the Olympus 45, but the overall impact in quality on the system is not dramatic. For example, moving from smartphone to M43 is a massive improvement, while this upgrade is more incremental.

The defence

This is a focal length I use a lot, and if I am going to spend more on lenses it should be on the focal lengths I use as oppose to options which may be good value, but have little purpose. That Canon 400/5.6 is a great tool but is only used rarely. Even against a less specialised lens like the Olympus 75, although the Panasonic 42.5 is twice the price I’ll use it ten times as often.

And perhaps, rather than obsessing about value in terms of amount of glass we should look instead of what it achieves. When looking at my options I eliminated Fujifilm for the poor AF, Canon for poor sensors (for their size) and Sony for lack of suitable lenses.

This leaves the only direct alternative as the Nikon D750 with 85/1.4G. The Nikon setup will almost certainly be the best in terms of raw quality, the sensor is almost two stops better than the one in Olympus E-M5 and the lens is well reviewed. DxOMark rate that combination as delivering a staggering 22MP of detail, versus 11MP for the E-M5 and Panasonic 42.5. But, the focus ability in low light is up for debate, and it’s big, heavy and 50% more expensive.

If you want to best gig photography option that’s smaller than a fullframe DSLR, that means the Panasonic 42.5.

What chaos comes next?

Hopefully I’m done now, having exhausted almost all possibilities. Along with the Panasonic 42.5 I bought a Panasonic 12-35[2] as a standard zoom to replace the Fujifilm 18-55, and sold off some little used lenses.

That leaves my M43 setup as:

  • Panasonic 12-35
  • Panasonic 42.5
  • Olympus 75

It’s hard to argue with that as an all-killer, no-filler three lens set. The Olympus 45 is still around for the time being, but its future is unclear.

No other M43 lenses that are very tempting at the moment. No prime shorter than the Panasonic 42.5 is really good enough to be compelling over the zoom. If Schneider ever release their 30/1.4 that would be interesting, particularly for those nights I find myself closer to the stage than I was expecting. I would love to see a really amazing 35mm equivalent so I have a pure M43 setup. As much as I enjoy using the X100s, the post-processing is a pain, and having matching cameras for the two lengths would make it much easier to have a consistent look within a photo set[3].

Lengths longer than the Olympus 75 brings us into the domain of the Canon 7D with the 70-200/4 and ultimately that 400/5.6.

M43 camera wise I’m now waiting for the next generation of sensors. The E-M5II has the same sensor so that’s no good. Haven’t seen anything solid about the ‘E-M1II’ as yet.

Last words

Is it a good lens? Yes. Is it worth the money? Very hard to say.

  1. The amount of movement of the focus mechanism is non-linear across distances. Focusing from 1m to 2m is a greater movement than from 10m to 11m [Back]
  2. Selected over the Olympus 12-40 as it’s better at the long end at all apertures and similar at the wide end stopped down a little. The in-lens IS may be useful for non-Olympus bodies [Back]
  3. Even if I use Capture One for all processing, setting the same white balance temperature etc. across the E-M5 and X100S images doesn’t result in a consistent look [Back]