Olympus E-M1 Journal: Entry #7: 12-40mm v. 14-54ii

I have owned the 14-54ii longer than any other digital lens.  I think it was 2008 when I bought my first digital SLR, an Olympus E-520.  Along with it I purchased the 14-54, and have been using it faithfully since then.  It has found itself on the E-520, the E-620, the Panasonic G2 and the Panasonic GH2, the E-M5 and now the E-M1, the timeline sort of in that order.  Of this group, I currently own only the E-M5 and E-M1.  As far as I am concerned the E-M1 is the best of the bunch.

As for lenses, I have always been happy with the 14-54, as far as sharpness is concerned.  It's a bit large on the E-M5 but balances reasonably well on the E-M1 with an accessory base plate from RRS (Really Right Stuff).  This base plate adds about 10mm to the height of the camera and snaps onto an Arca Swiss compatible tripod head. The required FT-to-mFT adapter adds some length and weight (adapter and lens total is 18.4 ounces with lens cap and hood).

But one thing about the 14-54 that has become annoying is the slow focus and focus noise.  Yes, the phase detection pixels on the E-M1 sensor have improved the autofocus of the FT lenses I own, and I presume they are now focusing as fast as they did on the E-520; but my FT lenses are still slow to focus (and noisy) compared with all the slick new native mFT lenses.  After experiencing the speed and quiet operation of several mFT primes and even the "lowly" kit 40-150, it's difficult to go back.

Enter: the 12-40.

The newly minted 12-40mm constant F2.8 zoom arrived last week (see prior post) and in time for some Christmas day antics.

The 12-40 is one sexy lens.  It's metal and without rubber zoom and focus rings.  I am thinking this is good, as the lens should hold its value better.  The rubber always makes a lens appear to be more "used" than it really is.

The 12mm wide angle is something that I have been missing on the 14-54.  On the other hand, I really enjoy that 54mm long end.  I'm thinking the trade off is about equal.  A bonus for owning the 12-40 will likely be that I can sell the oldie but goodie FT 11-22.  We'll see about that.  I did take a couple of 12mm shots indoors with the 12-40 and there seemed to be significant distortion.  I'll have to do some controlled comparisons with the 11-22.  Distortion at that wide an angle may just be the nature of the beast.  See image below:

Flash, 1/60th, F4, ISO 1600, OOC jpg, 12mm wide
Seems like a lot of distortion on the right side but perhaps this is
the nature of the beast.  Regardless, edges are very sharp!
Which lens is better: the new 12-40 or the old 14-54?

Well, I already reported above about the operation of these two lenses.  The 12-40 definitely has the advantage here.  Plus it is smaller and lighter.  Plus it has a nicer manual focus feature.  Plus it has a customizable function button.  Plus it is weatherproof.  And, like my 14-54, it came with a pouch and lens hood.

14-54ii on left with adapter weighs 18.4 ounces if hood is used
12-40mm on right weighs 14.8 ounces if hood is used.

To check out lens sharpness, I took both lenses outdoors to do some brief comparisons.  Nothing too complicated.  Just aiming toward a forest.  I shot both lenses at F4 and F8 at four common focal lengths, 14, 18, 25, 35.  There was a little breeze but I shot at very high shutter speeds.  The old 14-54 definitely held its own.  Using the X:Y comparison tool in Lightroom at 1:1 (100%), I could not tell the difference between these two lenses, both in the center and in the corners.  No difference in CA, either.  I need to find a brick wall somewhere; but regardless of the results of a brick wall test, I doubt there is any real world difference in the image quality coming from these two lenses.

This tentative conclusion on my part is supported by the data on slrgear.com.  Lenses are rated for sharpness from 0 to 12 with "1" being "tack sharp", and anything above "4" being "soft".  Personally, I have found that anything between "0" and "2" represents differences in sharpness that I can not detect with my eye, at least not in normal viewing situations.  Both of these lenses score between "0" and "2" at essentially all focal lengths that I tested, and from center to edges.

One potential difference might be wide open.  It appears from slrgear that the 12-40 is sharper wide open at F2.8 than it is at F4; while the 14-54 is softer wide open than at F4.  Wide open on the 14-54 starts at F2.8 and reaches F3.5 at 54mm.  I feel another test coming along soon!

One nice feature I appreciated with the 14-54 is its closeup feature.  When you don't have a macro with you, it works nicely in a pinch.  The 12-40 does even better.  Both of the images below were shot fully zoomed in.  The working distance doesn't leave much room for light or stinging insects, as it is just an inch or two between the front lens element and the subject.

Close up capability: 14-54 @ 54mm
about 2 1/8" across

Close up capability: 12-40 @ 40mm
about 1 5/8" across

The close up capability of the 14-54 came in handy here.


Clint Douthitt said...

Did you ever directly compare the 11-22 and the 12-40? I currently own the 12-40 and used to own the SHG 7-14. I have an opportunity to pick an 11-22 up for about $200 and I'm seriously considering it for strictly landscape/architecture photography. It would be used on my em1.

Peter F. said...

Hi Clint. Yes, I did. I owned the 11-22 for a while. I bought it used and sold it used. The 12-40 was always sharper as I recall. The only reason to keep,the 11-22 was therefore for the 11mm. Every other focal length was better done with the 12-40. Not only that but the 12-40 focused faster. $200 seems like a good price, however. I assume you already own an adapter. They're about (or were when I bought mine) $100.