From M43 to NEX: A Story of Lenses

I have recently switched from the micro four thirds (M43) system to the Sony NEX system. One reason was the bigger NEX sensor (APS-C), another one the sheer beauty of the NEX-7 which is such a bold step away from traditional cameras. The only drawback: the NEX lens line-up is rather poor. NEX shooters, if they are like me, are constantly browsing the web for images/impressions/recommendations of possible manual focus lenses and for checking on the availability of the regular Sony NEX lenses. Not only are there few native NEX lenses but those few are actually hard to acquire due to permanent Sony delivery problems.

So I thought I would post my experiences with getting my NEX lenses together, with some comparisons with my previous GF-1 setup.

(Of course, I am also aware of the currently ongoing battle between the three top mirrorless cameras which includes the NEX-7 but also the Fuji X-Pro1 (big but excellent IQ and very retro) and Olympus OMD E-M5 (small and also quite retro). However, there are many comparison reviews out there, e.g. at the Phoblographer.)

Here’s a “lens parade” photo:

In the front row (closest to you) are the NEX lenses: Sigma 30mm/2.8, Voigtländer 40mm/1.4 (with Novoflex adapter attached) and Sony E 50mm/1.8 OSS (left to right).

The middle row shows three popular M43 lenses: Panasonic 14mm/2.5, Panasonic 20mm/1.7 and the Olympus 45mm/1.8.

In the back row, just for the fun of it, some DSLR lenses, all Minolta A mount: 24mm/2.8, 85mm/1.4 and 135mm/2.8.

As you can see, the NEX lenses are significantly bigger (and also heavier) than the M43 lineup. For some reason, Panasonic mastered the art of miniaturization in the lens arena. What’s missing is the Sony E 16mm/2.8 pancake lens but I sent that one back because the optical quality was simply too bad. The Sony kit lens (18-55mm) I kept for shooting video but, again, for photography the optical quality is insufficient.

Sony E 50mm/1.8

What’s interesting is to compare the camera-lens combinations. For instance, the NEX-7 with 50mm lens (= 75mm fullframe equivalent) with the GF-1 and 45mm lens (= 90mm equivalent). Both perfect for portraits. This is how the cameras look like:

Well, to be honest, the Sony E 50mm lens is simply dead ugly. It looks too big, it is heavy and it is silver (so cheesy) – why? OK, the GF-1 with Olympus 45mm isn’t a beauty either but at least you can put it in a (jacket) pocket, whereas the NEX combo makes the slim NEX-7 almost as big as a DSLR. However, the optical quality of the Sony 50mm is marvelous. The pixel peepers of the web agree on excellent sharpness even wide open and the bokeh (out of focus regions) is very smooth. And all this for a surprisinly low price (around 280€). Here are some samples (no postprocessing, raw files converted in LR4):

(NEX-7 + Sony E 50mm/1.8 @ 1/4000, f1.8, ISO 100)

(NEX-7 + Sony E 50mm/1.8 @ 1/80, f2.0, ISO 250)

(NEX-7 + Sony E 50mm/1.8 @ 1/200, f1.8, ISO 100)

(two pics with NEX-7 + Sony E 50mm/1.8 @ ISO 100)

Voigtländer 40mm/1.4

While the 50mm is a perfect portrait lens it is not such a great allrounder. Therefore, I added another (size) comparison. For me, the Voigtländer 40mm/1.4 (= 60mm equiv.) has become an excellent walkaround lens, just slightly more “tele” than a standard 50mm lens. But I like to frame my subjects tightly anyway. Although the Voigtländer feels rather heavy (175g), the overall combo feels nicely compact. Here’s a comparison with my favorite M43 walkaround lens, the Panasonic 20mm (= 40mm equiv.). It seems to be the most popular lens ever for the M43 system, incredibly small, yet with superb optical quality:

So the Voigtländer 40mm is definitely less compact than the GF-1 plus 20mm. But it is quite sharp and simply a joy to use, partly because of the famous Sony “focus peaking” feature for manual focusing and partly because of the nice built quality and haptics of the lens. The bokeh of the Voigtländer can be a bit busy though:

(NEX-7 + Voigtländer 40mm/1.4 @ 1/100, f1.4, ISO 100)

Otherwise nice and sharp, once you get the hang of manual focusing:

(NEX-7 + Voigtländer 40mm/1.4 @ 1/2500, f unknown, ISO 100)

(NEX-7 + Voigtländer 40mm/1.4 @ 1/1600, f unknown, ISO 100)

And a 100% crop near the center:

Sigma 30mm/2.8

One could argue that the Sigma 30mm/2.8 lens (= 45mm equiv.) is a better comparison to the Panny 20mm (= 40mm). Here’s how it looks:

The NEX-7 plus Sigma is almost pocketable. However, the lens is not very fast (f2.8). It also takes the lens surprisingly long to “wake up” (when power is switched on) which may make you miss one or the other spontaneous shot. Others have also noted the rattling when the camera is in a switched-off state which makes it feel a little cheap (you have the same phenomenon with the Panasonic-Leica 45mm/2.8 lens which I found irritating in a 600€ lens with Leica branding). Well, cheap it is indeed at only 200€. And as long as you are not indoors (i.e. in low light) the Sigma also qualifies for a nice walkaround companion.

Here are some samples with the Sigma lens:

(NEX-7 + Sigma 30mm/2.8 @ 1/60, f 2.8, ISO 800)

(NEX-7 + Sigma 30mm/2.8 @ 1/200, f 2.8, ISO 100)

(NEX-7 + Sigma 30mm/2.8 @ 1/60, f 2.8, ISO 160)

Overall, I am getting used to the NEX system quickly and the lens situation is, by now, alright. Only wide angle lenses are rare, with the notable exception of the Zeiss 24mm/1.8 which, however, is as big and heavy as the 50mm lens and also expensive (900€).

In the end, I’m happy to have traded the smaller size of M43 with the incredible image quality of Sony’s NEX line. As a former GF-1 user (12 megapix) this is step up (24 megapix) was the most important goal and, in passing, I got myself the one most beautiful mirrorless camera on the market (even in light of the new Olympus E-M5 and Fujifilm X-Pro1 cameras).


8 thoughts on “From M43 to NEX: A Story of Lenses

  1. Hi Michael,
    Great blog with excellent photos; I especially like the photo with kids watching a building being demolished.

    Your quest for primes that would be good enough to exploit the potential of the NEX-7 sensor seems similar to what I’m going through. Instead of the Voigtlaner 40/1.4 I decided on the Zeiss Biogon 35/2.0. Unfortunately, the Biogon produces a heavy color shift, especially at wider apertures. Is this an issue with the Voigtlander as well? Are the images reasonably sharp at F1.4?

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the Voigtlander’s image quality. Maybe I could replace my Zeiss Biogon with one.

    • Hi Bjorn,

      thanks for your comment. I haven’t seen much color shift, although there seems to be something on the picture with the sky+carousal in the posting. 99% of my photos have my kids on them and hardly any sky… so I wouldn’t swear there’s not color shift. In terms of sharpness I’m quite certain that at f2.0 the lens is tack sharp. At f1.4 it is softer but I *think* reasonably sharp. I guess I should make a more systematic test (tripod and all). Maybe I will.

      I actually thought your Zeiss 35mm was quite sharp as well. Have you thought about the Voigtländer Ultron 28mm? Even Ken Rockwell likes it but there are also rumors on color shift.

      The quest goes on…

  2. Others have also noted the rattling when the camera is in a switched-off state which makes it feel a little cheap (you have the same phenomenon with the Panasonic-Leica 45mm/2.8 lens which I found irritating in a 600€ lens with Leica branding)

    You do realize that the difference between the rattle in the Sigma 30mm and the PL45 Macro is that the former rattles because its cheap and the latter rattles because it has OIS–that’s what happens when you have in lens stabilization. What you call “cheap” is a useful macro feature.

  3. Hi Mike,
    yes I was aware of the image stabilization feature. It still made the lens feel cheap (together with the plasticy housing). Also, I bought the lens because I wanted a portrait lens, not for macro, and the Oly 45mm wasn’t around at the time. I soon found that F2.8 did not provide a shallow enough depth of field (for me). For macro, the lens may be the perfect choice!
    Cheers, Mike

  4. I understand your logic about switching, but if higher image quality is what you’re after why not just go clear to full-frame or better what; a Phase One Medium Format option!? I mean, I think Micro Four Thirds is better because of the open standard and all the choices that are available! I like Sony NEX but it’s a closed system and the only reason I would want one is to take advantage of existing 35mm legacy lenses which I have plenty. I will get an NEX camera as an accessory to my regular gear but I don’t think it’s hardly any differences in sensor sizes to make all that much difference. In fact, like I said, I would just go the whole nine yards if I was after the ultimate image quality and get a Medium Format system… It would blow NEX, M43, and Full-Frame clean out of the water… lol

    • You’re right: image quality is not the right argument. The difference between NEX and M43 is small, especially with all the new high-end M43 cameras like the E-M1.

      One major factor for me is portability because, as the saying goes: the best camera is the one that is with you. And the lighter your gear the higher the chances it is with you.

      The post is a bit outdated. Nowadays (05/2014) the best quality/compactness compromise is something like the Sony A7 or the RX1 (fixed lens). I also like the current M43 models like the Olympus E-M10 or the Panasonic GX7. But you can’t really buy a new camera every month, can you…

  5. Thanks for the post
    I am looking for a compact system for portraits of family , kids and some nature photography. I am considering the Sony and the OMD EM10.
    I naturally became interested in your post here.

    I am finding that lens selection is a big plus for M43.
    Can you please post about your experience manually focusing with NEX.
    I am reading focus peaking is not great when using lenses wide open.


    • I think at the moment I would go with M43 because the lens line-up is much better and the quality difference to NEX is not big.

      I also like the ultra-compact Panasonic GM1. Together with the Panasonic 20mm it makes a perfect little high-quality camera.

      Manual focusing on the NEX is alright. You get a magnification so you can even focus more precisely than the autofocus. The problem is that often you don’t have the time to focus properly – but it’s not the technology that’s in the way.

      However, other cameras have caught up and offer focus peaking as well.

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