Sunday, 30 August 2020

Meike 3.5mm f/2.8 circular fisheye lens

With Olympus' recent announcement, there has been some concern about the future of the Micro Four Thirds format: Is Panasonic still committed to developing new products? Considering the two circular fisheye lenses launched within one year, though, the format seems very much alive.

I recently reviewed the Laowa 4mm f/2.8 circular fisheye (Venus Optics), and also compared it with two other circular fisheye lenses. I think it is a good and fun lens. But now that Meike have released the Meike 3.5mm f/2.8 circular fisheye lens as well, I'll compare them directly.

Meike 3.5mm f/2.8 (left) and Laowa 4mm f/2.8 (right) circular fisheye lenses

Both of these lenses were designed specifically for the Micro Four Thirds format. Yes, I know that Laowa have also released their lens with a Sony E mount. However, that lens is suboptimal in the sense that the whole image circle only covers a smaller part of the APS-C format, given the smaller size of the Four Thirds sensor it was designed for in the first place.

Since this is a circular fisheye lens with an image circle fully enclosed inside both the M43 and APS-C image sensors, you will get exactly the same image on both systems, only with a bigger black area around it on the larger sensor. Crop factor is just not relevant for these lenses.

Lens
Format
Micro Four Thirds
Micro Four Thirds
Field of view
220°
210°
Weight
190g
135g
Diameter
61mm
45mm
Length
48mm
26mm
Minimum focus distance
0.095m
0.080m

Circular fisheye lenses are exotic enough on their own, but the real standout features of these two lenses is the field of view. A value above 180° means that the lens not only covers everything in front of it, but also details behind it. This can be illustrated with this diagram of the Laowa lens:

The Meike lens, being even more extreme in this regard, covers a whopping 220°. Most circular fisheye lenses only cover a maximum of 180°, which is already quite impressive.

Note already now that the Meike lens is quite a bit longer than the Laowa lens. Perhaps surprisingly, this is a huge advantage. The extra length means that the field of view more easily clears the camera grip, although you should still try to keep your fingers behind the camera as much as possible to avoid photographing them. More about that later.

Design and operation

Both lenses have a similar design, being traditional mechanical lenses made out of metal, without any electronics at all. The Meike lens, at a larger size, has a more traditional focus ring and aperture ring. Moving the rings feels somewhat more "cheap" than the Laowa lens, but it is quite usable for sure. The aperture ring is clickless and smooth all around, but it is easy to stop at a full aperture given the generous scale.

The Laowa lens, at a smaller size, has a somewhat more awkward operation, with a thin aperture ring, and a knob to push around for focus operation. The aperture ring has light click stops at full apertures. The focus ring is well dampened and feels nice.

Meike 3.5mm f/2.8 (left) and Laowa 4mm f/2.8 (right)

On my Meike lens, the focus ring was not exactly calibrated, meaning that the true infinity focus was off by one millimeter or so on the focus scale. I guess this is quite common, and not really any problem at all. On my Laowa lens, the focus scale seems accurate, but there is probably lens to lens variation here as well.

Both lenses come with a bespoke cap that slips over the front of lens and attaches by friction. You should hold on to these, since a replacement can only be sourced from the manufacturers. The Laowa hood completely covers the focus and aperture rings, and in that way probably keep dust off.

The Meike cap, while it looks ok in the picture below, is in fact quite annoying since it doesn't easily sit straight on the lens. With a slight push, it wobbles around. It doesn't fall off, but it easily seats skewed, which seems like a silly design flaw.

From the rear, both lenses are seen to have small exit pupils:

This is natural, since the lenses only illuminate a small image circle diameter, compared with a traditional lens. However, the Meike lens has a significantly larger exit pupil. This is often associated with higher quality optics, although there is of course no guaranteed correlation. Both lenses have metal bayonet mounts, not just chromed plastic.

Optical quality

These are quite cheap lenses. So are they any good? Let's look into that. To test the image quality, I have photographed the same subject with both. I focued on infinify, and used a tripod.



Here are 100% crops from the centre, and from the corner, at f/2.8, f/4 and f/5.6 (click for larger images):

Centre:

Right edge:

We can see that in the centre, both lenses are very sharp already wide open. This is quite common nowadays: Lens design has improved a lot becuase of their use in digital cameras where sharpness can be easily examined.

In the corner, though, we see a quite big difference. The Meike 3.5mm f/2.8 lens is not very sharp wide open at f/2.8, but sharpens up some when closing down to f/5.6. On the other hand, the Laowa lens is impressively sharp already wide open. Certainly a good feat!

When having such a massive field of view, more than half the visible sphere around you, it is inevitable that you catch some bright light inside your image frame, e.g., the sun. Hence, how the lens handles high contrast is important. You don't want a bight light source to fill the frame with flare and loss of contrast.

To see how the lenses fare, I have photographed a night scene with strong light sources. Click for larger images:

The lenses have different characteristics. The Laowa lens has some ghosting, but less pronounced flare than the Meike lens. The Meike lens seems to retain better contrast and colours, on the other hand. So neither is perfect, but overall I think I would go for the Laowa lens. The flares generated by the Meike lens are just a bit too much.

With these lenses, it is best to use a camera without a grip, and keep your hands as much as possible behind the camera when taking pictures. Otherwise, you will photograph your own fingers, due to the extraordinary wide field of view. I used the Lumix GH5 here:



You can also see that the Laowa lens has a larger image circle, which means that there is some risk that the circular image is slightly cropped on the top and bottom.

Video

As both lenses cover the entire height of the Four Thirds image sensor, you'll need a camera that can record video off the whole sensor to get the circular fisheye effect. This is often called anamorphic mode. The Lumix GH5 can do this, but not many other cameras.

In 16:9 mode, which is mostly used, you will experience that the top and bottom of the image circles are cropped. Here is an example video comparison:

Conclusion

Both these lenses are fun, good quality extreme wide angle fisheyes. While the Meike is slightly wider, both are thoroughly extreme anyway, so they are not significantly different in that respect.

The mechanical construction of both lenses seems to be good, and the lenses should appeal to those who like classic manual focus lenses. The lack of autofocus shouldn't be a big problem. Mostly, you can just set the aperture to f/5.6 and the focus scale to around 1 meter, and virtually all will be in focus.

I wanted to like the Meike lens, with the even wider field of view and nice price point. However, the Laowa lens just seems to have the edge in most ways: Better sharpness, less flares at night, slightly better feel to the mechanical functions, and at a fantastically compact size.

But at the end of the day, if you want an extremely wide lens for the occational novelty picture, you cannot go wrong with either.

Lens
Pros
Very impressive field of view, easy to use and operate. Seems to have good contrast with strong light sources in the image.
Incredibly compact and light, very good sharpness. Nice lens cap.
Cons
Sharpness along the edges of the image circle could have been better. The lens cap is annoying. Flares during high contrast scenes.
Some ghosting with high contrast scenes. With the shorter length, you more easily photograph your fingers or even the camera grip. Slightly larger image circle than the sensor means that the circle may be slightly cut top and bottom.

Example images

A unique feature of extreme fisheye lenses is the ability to combine close foreground and background in the same shot. Stopping down to f/5.6 is enough to achieve this depth of field:



Using the free software Hugin, the image can be defished:




Thursday, 2 January 2020

Laowa 4mm f/2.8 fisheye: Fun and nice novelty lens

We have been blessed with some small, good and inexpensive fisheye lenses for the Micro Four Thirds format. The Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 (my review) especially comes to my mind, being a personal favourite for a almost a decade. Another interesting lens has popped up, the Laowa 4mm f/2.8 210° circular fisheye from Venus Optics.

Compared to the Samyang, it is less expensive, smaller in size, wider, faster and in general more exotic. So is it any good? Let's take a look.


The lens is totally mechanical, with no electronic connections at all. You set the aperture and focus manually, just like with all other traditional pre-autofocus lenses. And this works fine! The aperture ring has light clicks on full aperture stops, and has an adequate level of friction so that it doesn't slip when you set it. Despite the clicks, it can still be set easily to intermediate apertures, especially since there is a generous distance between the stops for the largest apertures.

The focus ring is near the mount, and is so narrow that you have to use the finger index piece provided to operate it. The focus ring is nicely dampened, and feels like it is high quality.

The lens has a metal construction, and would appeal to those who like classic mechanical lenses.

It comes with a metal cap, which is held in place with friction. This functions fine, just slip it over the lens, and it is well protected. Be sure not to lose the cap, since sourcing a new one will be somewhat expensive.

The lens is very small. The diameter is smaller than the rear lens cap, as you can see from the picture above. To see just how small it is, compare it with similar circular fisheye lenses:


From left to right: Laowa 4mm f/2.8 on Lumix GX850, Meike 6.5mm f/2 on Sony a5100 and Samyang 8mm f/3.5 on Nikon Z 7.

Lens
Format
Micro Four Thirds
APS-C
Full Format
Field of view
210°
190°
180°
Weight
135g
300g
443g
Diameter
45mm
61mm
75mm
Length
26mm
52mm
77mm
Minimum focus distance
0.08m
0.19m
0.30m




While the size dimensions themselves are impressive for the Laowa 4mm lens, what is especially impressive is the field of view at 210°. In this context, 180° means that the lens pictures everything in front of it, including straight up, down, and to the sides.

210° means that in addition, it also sees backwards, behind you. Lenses that could do this used to be extremely exotic and expensive, like the near mythical Nikon 6mm f/2.8 circular fisheye lens with a 220° field of view from 1972. Not only is it gigantic in size, but also very, very expensive.

The field of view can be illustrated with the green segment in the image below:


To achieve this wideness, an extreme lens design is used:


A side effect is, as you can probably guess already, the lens will also pick up the grip on any camera which has a handle protruding from the body, and, of course, your fingers. That is why the lens is pictured with the handle-less Lumix GX850 above.

Here is what an image looks like when you use the Lumix GH5, notice the grip and fingers on the right hand side of the image:


Also, with the wide field of view, it takes some practice avoiding the inclusion of your feet or head inside the image as well. Generally, you have to hold the camera out in front of you when using the lens.

And as the lens covers more than half of the sphere around you, you should expect to have the sun, or some other bright light, inside the image quite often. Hence, it is important to see how the lens handles strong contrast. Let's compare it with the two others pictured initially (click to see larger versions of the pictures). The sun is in the centre right part of the images, which is a challenging situation for a wide angle lens. All the images were taken at f/5.6:

Laowa 4mm f/2.8 on Lumix GX850:



Meike 6.5mm f/2 on Sony a5100



Samyang 8mm f/3.5 on Nikon Z 7



The first thing to note is the wider field of view of the first two images, compared with the traditional 180° specification of the Samyang lens.

Second, you'll note that there is the most sun flare in the first image taken with the Laowa lens. This is a sign that the optical design is weaker.

We can also compare the sharpness from the centre of the images. I have scaled them so that they have the same resolution:



And from the right hand side:



Now, it is difficult to compare these. Of course, the cameras have quite different resolutions: 16MP (Lumix GX850), 24MP (Sony a5100), and 45MP (Nikon Z 7). So when scaled to the same resolution, the two latter benefit from having more usable pixels.

The Lumix image is also somewhat less exposed. Still, it is apparent that the usable sharpness is lower on the Laowa 4mm f/2.8. But this is not a deal breaker: With some sharpening applied in post it would look quite good, and notice that the lens retains quite good sharpness off-centre, compared with the peer lenses. So the Laowa fares quite good in this test.

Video


As for the use in video, the lens is somewhat challenging. Only a few Micro Four Thirds cameras can record video from the whole sensor in 4:3 mode, which is required to catch the whole circular fisheye image. The Lumix GH5 can do this.

Other cameras can only record video in 16:9 mode, which will strip the top and bottom ends off the circular image, which is not very useful. Hence, there is currently no M4/3 camera which can record clean video off the whole image circle, without also showing the camera grip in the video.

Here is what it looks like with the Lumix GH5 in 4:3 mode. Note the camera grip is visible on the right hand side:



Compared with the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye


Regular readers will know that the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 (my review) is one of my favourite lenses. It is one of the Micro Four Thirds lenses I have used the most for the last decade. So how does it compare with the Laowa 4mm circular fisheye lens?



Laowa 4mm f/2.8 210° circular fisheye (left), Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fullframe fisheye (right)

First off, what properties do they share? Both are fully manual lenses, requiring you to set the focus and aperture manually. Also, both are third party lenses, designed by others than those who own the format, trying to capitalize on the popularity of Micro Four Thirds.

And both are fisheye lenses, but in different ways. The Laowa is a circular fisheye lens, meaning that it projects everything within the 210° field of view into a circle in the middle of the sensor plane. Everything outside of this circle is black.

The Samyang, on the other hand, is a full frame fisheye lens. It covers an equally impressive 180° field of view, but only diagonally across the full sensor frame. Horizontally and vertically, it covers a smaller angle of view. So the disadvantage is that it doesn't cover as much of the field of view, but the advantage is that it uses the sensor more efficiently: All of the sensor frame is used. The two types are illustrated here. While most fisheye lenses have a 180° coverage, keep in mind that for the Laowa lens it is 210°:



This makes images coming from the Samyang lens more easy to use: People are more used to seeing rectangular images, as opposed to circular images. Also, video will look good, both in 4:3 and the more common 16:9 format.

The differences can be illustrated with some example images, all taken at f/5.6. Click to enlarge them:






Optically, I would rate the Samyang lens somewhat better. But the Laowa lens performs quite well here, and you'll see that there isn't a lot of flare issues in the high contrast night shots. So both lenses should give you good results.

Regarding the different approaches (circular vs full frame fisheye): I think that if you want one fisheye lens to cover your extreme wide angle needs, the easy choice is the Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5. This lens will give you images straight out of the camera which are interesting and useful, even without any post process defishing, e.g., using the free software Hugin.

On the other hand, the Laowa 4mm f/2.8 is more extreme and has a higher novelty factor, for better and for worse. This lens can give you truly unique images, but to make them useful, you may need to work a bit harder both taking the images in the first place, and on post processing.

Conclusion


The Laowa 4mm f/2.8 210° circular fisheye lens is inexpensive, small, well made, and optically competent, but not perfect. If you would like to have a fun novelty lens for some occasional extremely wide images, then this is a good choice: There is hardly any lens available which is wider, and it is a good quality lens to boot.

Don't be intimidated by the manual focus. If you are taking a scenery shot in good light, just set the aperture to f/5.6, and the focus ring near infinity, and everything is well in focus. If you want to take a closeup picture, to focus correctly can be a bit more tricky, but with some practice this should just take some extra seconds with the nice focus peaking tools that most cameras have.



Example images


Click to enlarge:







By using the Hugin software to defish the images, you can get images like these:






Tuesday, 12 September 2017

GH5 and G85 Dual IS compared

The Lumix GH5 is the first GH series camera to have IBIS, in body image stabilization. This means that even prime lenses without any OIS feature can be stabilized, in both photos and videos. But how does it compare with the Lumix G85, which offers the same function at a much lower price?

In this article, I put them head to head. I have compared them using the Lumix G 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens, which is capable of Dual IS.

Both cameras are mounted to a Desmond stereo bracket here. They are both recording in 1080p resolution, with 60FPS framerate. I have both set to max aperture, 180 degrees shutter, and using continuous autofocus. Here is the comparison:




A note about the autofocus speed of the Lumix GH5. In this video, I set both the AF sliders to max, "AF Speed" and "AF Sensitivity" on both cameras.


I think the effectiveness of the Lumix GH5 image stabilization is better. The G85 exhibits some jerkiness while panning, and the GH5 generally achieves a more smooth motion.

But this was a rather extreme test, and you are likely to move your camera more carefully than what I have done here for real life use.

The autofocus performance is quite similar. The GH5 aims to avoid misfocusing, and does not change the focus as quickly, even with the AF sliders set to the max. This can be an issue for people who are using the camera for youtube blogging (vlogging), where they want to show and object in front of the camera and expect the focus to change instantly. But for most other real life use, it is mostly a good thing.

Here is another example video using a pair of Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lenses:




This was done in very low lights, f/1.7, 1/120s, 60FPS, ISO 1600-3200.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Better focus with Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II

The original Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6 was an affordable and basic long tele zoom lens, from the early days of Micro Four Thirds. It was generally considered a good value lens, albeit not optimally sharp in the long end, and with newer cameras, the continuous drive mode became slower in AF-C, due to a slow aperture mechanism.

Unexpectedly, since there is already the high end long tele zoom lens Leica 100-400mm, the 100-300mm lens has been upgraded to a Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II. The optical design, and, indeed, the lens body, is exactly the same, however, it gets a newer focus motor, aperture mechanism, and compatibility with newer IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization).


Lumix G 100-300mm Mk I (left) and Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II (right)

Also, it gains weather protection, with one consequence being the rubber gasket around the bayonet mount, seen to the right below:


Lumix G 100-300mm Mk I (left) and Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II (right)

I have put the lenses to the test, to see if there is any real reason to get the newer one.

Focus speed


First, the focus speed. This is a static test, with both lenses on the same camera (Lumix GX7), to see which focuses faster (Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II on the right hand side):


I triggered both cameras simultaneously using a Pixel RW-211 remote control. The video below shows the outcome of the test. First, I test them at 100mm f/4.5:




The focus delay is 0.57s for the Mk I version, and 0.55s using the Mk II version. This difference is barely worth noting, I would say they are equally fast in this test. It was done in somewhat dim indoor lightning.

In the second test at 100mm and 300mm, I test both lenses on a more modern Lumix GH5 camera:




At 100mm, the newer lens is clearly faster, with a focus delay of 0.20s (Mk II) vs 0.25s (Mk I).

At 300mm, though, I repeated the test twice with different lightning, and consistently got about about 30% slower focus with the Mk II version of the lens. This was an unexpected result. I could guess that the newer lens still has a less mature firmware, and that future firmware tweaks may improve this.

Real life use, birds in flight


One typical and challenging way to use a long tele lens, is to photograph birds in flight. This is demanding for the camera and lens, as you will typically leave the focus mode in AF-C, and trust that it gets you the bird in focus when you press the shutter fully to take the pictures.

I had the continuous drive mode enabled with the Lumix GH5 camera, and took the series of pictures under the same conditions.

I used 300mm, f/5.6, 1/640s. Note that when photographing birds in flight, you would normally use a somewhat faster shutter speed, typically around 1/1000s or more. Click for larger images:

Mk I version
(focus is generally not good)
Mk II version
(barring some motion blur, most are well in focus)

The first thing to note is that I get a faster framerate with the newer lens. This is due to the faster focus and aperture mechanisms. With the older lens, I'd say that the framerate drops to about half.

This is visible in the pictures above, in the sense that I get a longer stream of pictures to choose from with the newer lens. While this is certainly good, please note that the new lens still slows down the camera, meaning that the aperture mechanism of the newer lens is faster, but still not instantaneous.

As for the focus, the bird is much more consistently and accurately sharp with the newer lens. So with the same camera, and the same continuous focus mode, using the newer lens appears to nail the focus better. Again, this means a higher keeper rate.

Even if I was able to photograph birds in flight (BIF) using this combo, I'd say this is still a lot easier to achieve using a traditional DSLR system, at the same price point. So while the Lumix GH5 has taken continuous autofocus to a new level, it is still not nearly as good as a similarly priced DSLR camera, e.g., the Nikon D500.

Here are two more series:

Mk I version (1/4 in focus)
Mk II version (3/4 in focus)

Image quality


About the image quality, I have taken the same pictures using the Lumix GH5 camera at 300mm, f/5.6 and f/7.1. The full picture looks like this:


Here are 100% crops from the centre:


And 100% crops from a corner area:


I think this shows a somewhat better optical performance with Lumix G 100-300mm Mk II.

I only tested the lens at maximum extension, 300mm, since this tends to be the most challenging position for the lens, and it is also the way many will use it: At least I tend to use the lens almost exclusively at 300mm.

Conclusion


The Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6 II is a nice upgrade from the first version. It adds weather protection, and the zoom ring is stiffer, meaning less zoom creep.

When using continuous autofocus on a Lumix GH5, the newer lens gives you a higher framerate, and, in my experience, better focus performance. Both are quite important for sports, birds and wildlife, which I think are key uses for a lens like this.

So, should you upgrade from your Mk I lens? If you are serious about long tele lenses, perhaps you'd rather look into the premium Leica 100-400mm.

On the other hand, the Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6 II does give a real performance improvement compared with the original, and it is still smaller and lighter than the Leica 100-400mm.

While I personally wouldn't trust the weather proofing enough to take the lens outside in rain, the lens is good to bring along while travelling, as it is more likely to survive the dust, sand, and moisture issues you might encounter.