If you are a micro four thirds user and want a portrait lens, the best choice is probably the Panasonic/Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 that lens is absolutely fantastic. But Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 is not cheap at all and at 425g, it’s really quite heavy and big (in micro four thirds standard). There is also the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 but it is a manual focus lens so not really for everyone.
So the most popular portrait lens is actually the Olympus 45mm f/1.8. It may not have the super fast aperture or the fantastic build quality as the two lenses I mentioned above, but it is a lot more affordable and really quite compact in size. The image quality is actually really damn good and it provides excellent value for money so its one of those no brainer must buy lens for micro four third shooters.
That is until now as there is now another choice for the micro four thirds users, Panasonic has just released a new Panasonic LUMIX G 42.5mm f/1.7 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. lens, which is quite similar to the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, but with some extra selling points that the Olympus doesn’t offer.
The first time I saw the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 lens was at a Panasonic trade event a few months ago. The 42.5mm f/1.7 lens was sitting next to a 42.5mm f/1.2 lens. While the 42.5mm f/1.2 is without a doubt a beautiful lens, it’s really quite large, almost as large as a DSLR lenses. It feels really weird and quite unbalance when mounted on a smaller micro four thirds camera like the GF7. The new 42.5mm f/1.7 on the other hand is significantly smaller and is a much better fit in the micro four thirds family. The lens design is quite clean and simple and it is quite similar to the other Panasonic prime lenses like the 20mm f/1.7. Construction is a little bit more plastic than its bigger brother the 42.5mm f/1.2 but the good thing is that the lens is really light. At only 130g, it feels like nothing when you put it in your pocket. It has a metal lens mount but no weather seal, overall the build quality is pretty good. And just like most of the Panasonic lenses, the 42.5mm f/1.7 also comes standard with a lens hood and pouch. This is something Olympus really should do. I still need to pay $100 to buy the lens hood for my NZD$1000 Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens.
The autofocus is very fast and quiet, even when used with my Olympus OM-D EM-1 camera. The autofocus performance should be even better when used with a Panasonic body, especially with the new body like the GH4 with the DFD autofocus technology.
The lens is optically stabilised. While Panasonic hasn’t state how effective the stabiliser, I can still get sharp images when shooting as slow as 1/10s, which makes it around 3 stop effective compare to without any image stabliser (1/80s). This makes the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 a much more practical choice than the slightly cheaper Olympus 45mm f/1.8 if you camera doesn’t have in body image stabilser.
Barrel distortion is almost non existent as expected. And while there is a small amount of vignetting at wide open it shouldn’t affect your image in real life.
As a fast portrait lens, the quality of bokeh is really important. The Panasonic 42.5 f/1.7 doesn’t disappoint me in this area. The rounded 7-Blade diaphragm gives us very round and beautiful bokeh especially at maximum aperture. I don’t see much distracting halo around the edges of the bokeh.
The lens has one aspherical element to help reduce chromatic aberrations, but I can still see a bit of colour fringing when I’m shooting high contrast scenes. If you are shooting with a Panasonic body, the body may to able to apply some chromatic aberration reduction to the output image but I don’t have a Panasonic body to verify that. Chromatic aberration can also be reduced dramatically if you stopping down to around f/2.8.
In terms of sharpness, the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 is sharp, very sharp. Even at f/1.7 the center sharpness is excellent and the edges aren’t too bad as well. Stopping down to f/2.8 to f/4 and you have one of the sharpest micro four third lens available on the market.
When Panasonic/Leica made the 42.5mm f/1.2, they showed us what they can offer us if price, size aren’t an issue. And they have created a beautiful lens. But in my opinion, the new 42.5mm f/1.7 lens is really why the micro four thirds system was created in the first place.
The micro four thirds system was never really about the ultimate image quality, ground breaking low light performance, or super shallow depth of field. It is all about a camera that has the best balance between portability, usability, image quality and price. And this is exactly what the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 is.
The 42.5mm f/1.7 delivers excellent image quality and it’s price is very reasonable. Unlike some other mirrorless systems where you can have a compact camera body but you are still stuck with large and heavy lenses, the small 42.5mm f/1.7 allows you to have a camera with a fast prime lens but is still compact and light. You can even just drop this lens into your pocket if you want to leave your heavy DSLR and camera bags at home and still able to capture photos with fantastic image quality.
I guess one question a lot of people would ask is, how does it perform compare to the excellent Olympus 45mm f/1.8?
I don’t have an Olympus 45mm with me when doing this review so I can’t really shoot any comparison photos and give you detailed analysis. But I would say the image quality from these two lenses are very similar. There might be some minor difference if we have some side by side comparison photos, but I can’t really tell any difference from the real world photos I took using both lenses. The size of both lenses are similar (small) and both can autofocus very fast. Panasonic is slightly heavier (14g) and a little bit more expensive (10-20%) than the Olympus. But it does have optical stabiliser and also comes with a lens hood while the Olympus has none.
Apart from that, there is another noticeable difference between the two lenses. The Panasonic’s closest focusing distance is 31cm while the Olympus is 50cm. So while neither of them are macro lenses, the Panasonic’s maximum magnification ratio is almost double that of the Olympus.
So which is the better lens? I would say it largely comes down to what camera body are you using? If you have an Olympus body, which already has a built-in body stabiliser, and don’t shoot close up photos much, then both lenses would work just as great. So maybe you could just buy the slightly cheaper Olympus 45mm f/1.7 and save some money. But beware that the Olympus doesn’t come with a lens hood so if you do plan to buy the optional lens hood then the total price would be almost the same.
Now if you are using a Panasonic camera body (apart from GX7) that doesn’t have the in body image stabiliser, or you think you might switch from Olympus to Panasonic in the future, or if you do like to shoot objects at close distance, then the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 with the optical stabiliser would be more practical option. Its slightly more expensive than the Olympus but value wise it is probably just as good if not better.
I’m pretty sure the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 will be a very popular lens among the micro four thirds users as it is definitely one of the best value for money lens out there