Micro four thirds lens test

We test six micro four thirds lenses to find out how good they are

MFT Lens Group

Four-Thirds cameras promised to be smaller than their 35mm ancestors (which were themselves described as ‘miniature format' when they first appeared on the photographic scene) but it is only with the arrival of the Micro Four Thirds format that this promise has been fully realised.

That said, Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lenses are limited in size by the need for them to be usable by people who have normal-size hands. Inside, however, the smaller sensor format introduces new opportunities and it is no surprise to see that the six lenses here all incorporate aspherical profiles.

This month's sextet comprises two Olympus lenses, three Lumix lenses and one from Leica. Focal lengths range from 7mm to 45mm at prices that start just over £200 and reach almost £1,000. Clearly this cannot be a comparative test in the traditional sense but there definitely are some lenses that can be put head to head, to find the better choice of two or more options.

Impressively, there are three Gold Awards and the other lenses aren't far behind. This can be explained by the fact that the new MFT format has allowed cameras and lenses to be designed from the ground up and the lack of a mirror box has removed one of the major obstacles to lens design. Less encouragingly, they might be seen as being a little costly even when sourced online.
Despite the novelty of belonging to the smallest SLR system these are unpretentious, workmanlike lenses that do what they say on the tin. All we need is for prices to fall a bit.

See our reviews of micro four-thirds lenses:

Panasonic Lumix G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 Aspherical Mega OIS lens review

Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 Aspherical lens review

Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 lens review

Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4.0 Aspherical lens review

Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ED lens review

Olympus 17mm f/2.8 lens review

Performance

These six Micro Four Thirds lenses all return very good MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) performances. MTF is an industry-standard method for measuring the  performance of lenses. A high MTF figure indicates that the optic can resolve more fine detail.

The minimum figure for top-quality imaging is 0.25 cycles-per-pixel and the maximum theoretical figure, which will hardly ever be realised in practice, is 0.50 cycles-per-pixel. Any lens that stays above the minimum figure across all (or most) of its aperture range is doing very well.

The data for the graphs were obtained using Imatest software (www.imatest.com) and the graphs were created using the freeware program RJS Office 
(www.rjsweb.net).

Verdict

Trying to split these six lenses on the basis of objective technical testing alone is surprisingly difficult because these are all fine products. Inevitably, therefore, subjective preferences must come into play.

Both the pancake lenses work well and, if a choice had to be made, essentially the decision would come down to opting for a standard angle-of-view or a slightly wider one, like that of a 35mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. Photographers who recognise the intimate feel that comes from using a compact lens on an equally compact body - much like using a film-based Leica rangefinder - may be more likely to opt for the wider lens, but will doubtless wish they could have both the faster aperture and the shorter focal-length!

The Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm prime lens is very special. It is bitingly sharp and offers a genuine 1:1 macro facility that delivers superb images. The 45mm focal-length is also ideal for portraiture on the Micro Four Thirds format. The lens is expensive but there's a certain element of getting what you pay for.

Even more expensive is the 7-14mm f/4.0, but again it's easy to see why the price is so high. Distortion and aberrations are minimal or non-existent, and image quality is impressive. More important, this lens offers ultra-wide angles-of-view that the others don't.

The M.Zuiko 14-42mm and Lumix 14-45mm are direct competitors in terms of zoom and aperture ranges but differ in look and feel. Olympus has a cleverer design but Panasonic has added Optical Image stabilisation. Both can capture the fields-of-view of the 17mm and 20mm primes, so in that sense those are redundant. But the 45mm prime adds genuine macro photography to the mix.

If it were my money, I'd buy the G1 with its 14-45mm stabilised kit lens then add the 45mm Macro-Elmarit when funds allowed. The 7-14mm would need more regular use than I would give it to justify its cost.

The Micro Four Thirds system deserves to be taken very seriously in terms of optical quality. Using a smaller camera may not be very macho but it is looking like a smart move.