Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fast 50mm Shoot Out: MFT vs FF (or why I bought the Sony A7II and a single FE lens)

You might remember from my previous posts about the Canon 35mm f/2, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 and the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 lenses how much I appreciate and love the 50mm focal length. To the extent that I previously mentioned that if I found a fixed lens FF camera with a fast 50mm (think Sony RX1 with a 50mm lens instead), I would sell all my gear and only use that camera and a single TTL flash. Unfortunately, that camera doesn't exist yet. So I bought something a bit different. Did it work? Hit the jump to find out.

Thanks to Sony, we now have relatively compact FF camera bodies (more true for the A7/R/S, since the A7II is considerably larger and heavier), and we have access to the Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 (often called a mini-Otus) and almost all of the 50mm (55mm and 58mm included) lenses ever produced via adapters. I can finally fulfill my fast 50mm/FF dream.

Allow me first to go back in time for a couple of paragraphs (maybe a bit more, we'll see). When I originally tried out the Canon 35mm f/2 on a crop sensor body (equivalent to 56mm on full frame), I found that focal length very easy for me to get around and use for almost any situation. I can make it look like a wide-angle, use it to take group shots, use it for full-length portraits, and I can use it to get tight headshots. I can use it to shoot portraits of someone sitting across the table without having to move back, and without including too much clutter and background. All with one lens. It was the first lens I picked up when I was going out on a family outing.

Next came the Canon 5D Mark II, and with it I bought the even faster Canon 50mm f/1.4. It still held the same place as my all-purpose lens, and I was astonished at how much shallow DOF you could get with a full frame sensor at f/1.4. Almost one year later, I sold all my Canon gear and jumped with both feet in the MFT world; starting with a simple kit consisting of the 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to 50mm. MFT crop factor is 2x), the 45mm f/1.8, the 12-50mm and the 40-150R.

The 25mm was my go-to lens out of habit, just like I was used to with my Canons. And it delivered very pretty images. It had a special way of rendering an image that was just beautiful. But it lacked something. I wasn't sure what it was. I wasn't pleased with it as my all-purpose lens as much as the Canon 50 f/1.4 for example. I found myself leaning more towards the 45mm f/1.8; and later the 75mm f/1.8 to take family photos since they gave me more background separation, and shallower DOF. The majority of my favorite family photos started becoming tight headshots instead of the usual full body shots that I used to take previously. In an attempt to find out, I sifted through all of my Canon 50mm f/1.4 images (only used with a FF body), and found that the images had a special smoothness and softness compared to the Panaleica 25mm f/1.4 images, especially for indoor shots where the background is close to the subject. The FF images ooze of smooth, soft and calm backgrounds, and very soft transitions between the out-of-focus areas and the areas in-focus. Have a look at those images to get a sense of what I am talking about.

The Panaleica 25mm f/1.4 can easily render smooth and soft backgrounds when they are reasonably far away from the subject (just have a look at my earlier review). But put the background close to the subject (at home, inside a restaurant, a family gathering, etc...); which covers 70% of my shooting scenarios, and the images are just not as pleasing as the equivalent full frame rendering. That's when I decided I want to get an A7 camera and a fast 50mm lens.

I searched a lot for a good price on a used A7 or A7R, but didn't find a good enough price. Additionally, the forums scared me away from the plastic-mount issues on both cameras. So when the A7II came available with a metal mount, IBIS, better video codec, better shutter sound, better focusing, etc... I decided I would get one. I found a new one sold in Malaysia for an exceptionally good price including an extra Sony bag and a fast memory card, so I got that.

As for the fast 50 lens choice, I was hesitant. During that period, I had already acquired a couple of legacy lenses for my Olympus system (Canon 55mm f/1.2 and Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro), and I was having great fun slowing down and using careful manual focus. I was almost set to buy a used Voigtlander 50mm f/1.4 lens for the Sony (costing around $500 on eBay. New = $900) because I liked the images I saw. But then I decided I already had the Canon 55 f/1.2, and that I'd better get the Zeiss FE f/1.8 (after hearing nothing about it but good praise) since it had auto-focus which would be useful. Thus, I bought the Zeiss for $730 from Amazon (new; without warranty), and I got three adapters (Canon FD/FL, Tamron Adaptall, Canon EF) to use the legacy lenses I have, and the brilliant 200L that I borrowed back from my friend. Since then, I have been enjoying the A7II quite a lot, either with the Zeiss 55 f/1.8 or the Canon 55 f/1.2 (which surprisingly, didn't act as quirky wide-open as it did with MFT. Really weird).

After buying the A7II, I wanted to prove to myself that the difference is really there by doing a side-by-side comparison. I finally had a quick opportunity to do it (a tiny 10 minutes time window before leaving home), and I will show you a few comparison side-by-side shots between the Panasonic Lecia 25mm (at f/1.4 and f/1.8), the Zeiss 55mm (at f/1.8) and the Canon 55mm (at f/1.2 and f/1.4). As I said before, the real test would need to have a background close to the subject, and the shot has to be an almost full body shot, typical for the images I take for my family. So that's what I did. I placed my daughter on a chair, and chose a slighlty crowded background. In order to keep things simple and quick, lighting was a single flash bounced from the wall to the camera left. I will let the photos do the talking.

What do you think? Please let me hear your opinions.

You might be thinking that I'd be getting rid of the Panaleica 25 f/1.4 and limiting my 50mm usage on the Sony A7II. And that would be a valid thought. I thought about that a lot, but I cannot come to a concrete conclusion. On one hand, yes; I would hardly choose the Panaleica 25 f/1.4 for my all-purpose shooting, and I would choose either the Zeiss or Canon 55 lenses on the Sony A7II instead. On the other hand, I would hate to make a hole in my MFT lens line-up which I use for most of my shooting anyway, especially that the Panaleica is my fastest MFT lens, and the only prime I have shorter than 90mm equivalent focal length. It is also quite small. Getting rid of it would force me to use the Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 instead. That, and I still love the images that come out of this lens; just not so much when I am shooting indoors. You might remember from this post that I only packed a tiny MFT kit for my trip to UAE. The Panaleica gave me very nice images which I shall be sharing with you soon.

So there you go. I am still undecided and I love them both. What shall I do?


Canon EF 35mm f/2 Review
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Review
Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 Summilux Review
Canon FL 55mm f/1.2 + Sony A7II
Review: MFT Adapted Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
From Canon to MFT: “The Truth Behind The Migration”
First outing with the Sony A7 II and the Zeiss 55 f/1.8
Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8 Mini Review
Long Term Review: Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8
Review Part 1: Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro (on MFT)
Packing A Small Do-It-All Kit For Travel