Introduction

This blog is a user's perspective on the Micro Four Thirds camera system. Read more ...

Lens Buyer's Guide. Panasonic GH4 review.

My lens reviews: Olympus 9mm f/8 fisheye, Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6, Leica 25mm f/1.4, Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8, Lumix X 35-100mm f/2.8, Sigma 30mm f/2.8, Sigma 19mm f/2.8, Lumix X PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6, Lumix X PZ 45-175mm f/4-5.6, Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8, Panasonic Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6, Panasonic Leica Lumix DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 1:1 Macro, Panasonic Lumix G 45-200mm f/4-5.6, Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake, Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 pancake, Panasonic Lumix G HD 14-140mm f/4-5.8, Panasonic Lumix G HD 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6, Panasonic Lumix G 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, Lumix G 7-14mm f/4, Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye, Tokina 300mm f/6.3 mirror reflex tele, Lensbaby 5.8mm f/3.5 circular fisheye lens
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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:




2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this informative review. I've always loved your blogs, though infrequent in recent years. For awhile I thought the site was defunct; I'm glad your still there and producing great reviews. Keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice review. I am looking at doing some VR180 stuff with a custom m43 rig, so this helps me decide.

    ReplyDelete