An Optical Epiphany in Havana with the new Olympus 25 1.2 Pro Lens

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AN OPTICAL EPIPHANY IN HAVANA with the new Olympus 25 1.2 Pro Lens

By Neil Buchan Grant

At the start of August Olympus asked me to try out two new lenses which have just been anounced, the 25mm f1.2 PRO and the 12-100mm f4 PRO.

Months before, I had arranged a two-week trip to Cuba for the end of August where I intended to make a lot of portraits, not only of the locals on the street, I was bringing a model with me from London. Having visited Cuba 10 years before, I knew it was a visual goldmine, not only for street portraiture but for some of the most atmospheric travel images the Caribbean has to offer. I knew this trip held great potential, amazing light, a historic backdrop, charismatic people on every street corner and a Colombian model chosen partly because she could easily pass for a Cuban. But would these two new lenses be up to the task, would they do justice to the magic of Havana?

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The Gear….

As an Olympus Ambassador I had of course been intending to shoot mostly with my OMD and PEN F cameras, using 2 of the earlier PRO zooms and a couple of primes. My portrait setup of choice recently, had been the Leica M 35mm f1.4 ASPH Summilux which equates to a 35mm format FOV of 70mm on the Olympus OMD EM1 body. Prior to that it had been the well-regarded Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4 lens. But for me, both options had always played second fiddle, bokeh-wise, to my full frame Leica M 50mm Summilux f1.4 when used on a full frame Leica body, (currently the SL). So I decided to take both Leica M lenses with the SL, the OMD and PEN F, the two new Oly lenses and my trusty 40-150mm 2.8 PRO zoom.

YOU MUST CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO SEE THEM IN THEIR BEST QUALITY!

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Havana…

Cuba capital was hot, very hot! 35 degrees in the shade hot, with humidity which fogged your lenses up for the first half hour of each morning, having come from my air-conditioned bedroom, which I kept so cold the staff soon nicknamed it ‘the icebox’. We had rented a large colonial villa in the Vedado district of Havana, a plush, relatively upmarket area not far from the old town which hosts many embassies and fine buildings. The villa’s spacious terrace and garden filled with tropical foliage was even better than the website suggested. I had brought my Elinchrom ELB400 and a 5ft Octabox for shooting the model around the house and I would shoot with the ample available light on the streets.

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Shooting….

After a first day of getting reacquainted with the wonderful city of Havana, we set about shooting some location portraits in the back streets of the old town. Wherever we worked, we attracted a fair bit of attention from locals and often they would prove to be just as demanding of my interest as the model. After a week of shooting the model, street portraits and travel images, I decided to focus solely on the real Havana. I found the open air boxing club which featured in the original promotional shots for the Leica M9.

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It proved to offer a wealth of interesting images of the training boxers, many of whom were women and one who had even flown from Manchester to train there. Further on, away from the main squares, I discovered a mission providing support for the elderly and the poor. To be fair, most of Havana’s residents seemed to be just barely scraping by but I was treated with good humour and kindness wherever I shot. Only once or twice were my requests for pictures refused and always politely. Often people would ask for a peso and I always gave 10 or 20 local pesos in return (about 40p-80p in UK money) but often they would not ask, so it then seemed wrong to offer, and a handshake was given instead. One day we heard bongo drums and singing coming from a 1st floor window. I asked resident where the sound was coming from and he led me up a staircase. His neighbour was holding a birthday party and they welcomed us in, allowed us to take pictures and even offered us some cake. At first there seemed to be pictures everywhere in the old town, around every corner regardless of which direction was chosen. After a week or so I started to be a bit more selective. We had a good few days of monumental thunderstorms and flooding, unusual for August, but when the sun did come out, the light was magical.

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Lens performance…

I was in Cuba primarily to get some great shots for myself, but I was also there to put these new Olympus lenses through their paces. So I shot for the first week only with these 2 lenses……and I ended up shooting all of the second week with just them too. My 40-150 didn’t get a look in and I used the Leica only for a few comparison shots at the villa. I took my laptop to select and edit images on the go and as I examined the results at the end of each day, I was seriously blown away by what I was seeing. Mostly, I shot portraits on the 25mm and travel shots on the zoom but occasionally they would both be used for either. Both lenses were giving me amazing levels of contrast and sharpness and as I zoomed in on the files, the level of detail both lenses were resolving was nothing short of astonishing. Both lenses seemed to focus as quickly as any I have used on the Olympus system. The 25mm gave me no issues with focussing at the lowest of light levels.

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The zoom in particular was a big surprise for me. I would not have expected it to be on a par with a more moderate zoom, given its wide equivalent focal length range of 24mm – 200mm. Rarely do such lenses perform as well as standard zooms. This zoom was giving me results I would put on a par with a very good prime lens. I constantly used it in situations where most lenses falter, shooting directly into the sun and with high contrast subjects like the chrome bumpers of those wonderful 1950’s American cars. Normally you would expect to see some dodgy flare or some purple fringing but this zoom is incredibly good at handling both. I did some portraits with the zoom also, just to see how it handled them, I was amazed at the detail it produced and I shot with both lenses at their widest aperture on most occasions.

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25mm f/1.2 Pro 

The 25mm f1.2 is built like a tank, similar in stature to the 75mm but feels a bit lighter. Its a solid lens though and came with a fairly chunky lens hood which did a great job keeping rays off that front element. Both hoods lock in place and are reversible which I thought was a nice touch. I used the 25mm for most of my street portraits and headshots and it was the lens I used most after the sun went down. Again, the results just blew me away. The images, even in the most stressful of conditions were rock solid! I shot so many street lamps at night and never had any issues with fringing or flare. The contrast levels, day or night from this lens were better than anything I’ve seen. The sharpness and resolution was phenomenal, but the reason the title of this article uses the word ‘epiphany’ is the bokeh this lens offers, its nothing short of sublime. Let me try to put into perspective how nice it is.

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Its so good, I’m selling my Leica SL and all of my Leica lenses the second I can get one of these 25mm’s to keep! Of course, its bokeh is not quite as diffuse as the 50mm Summilux on a full frame sensor, you can’t change the laws of physics. I know this lens is optically the equivalent of a 50mm f2.4 lens on a full frame sensor. But I can tell you now, from my perspective the results are just as beautiful and expressive and they ooze quality in the same way the 50mm summilux does. When you further combine the fact that this is an autofocus lens which makes use of the Olympus eye recognition system and their in-body stabilisation system, you have a lens that is so much more useable, quick and accurate. I did some headshots at the house in dusky but decent light with My SL/50mm and my OMD/25mm to see how they compared. Over half of the SL shots had a slight shake apparent or were slightly off focus. All of my Olympus images were perfectly in focus and sharp. From then on every headshot and street portrait I took was made with the confidence it was probably going to be bang on. That gives you a sense of liberation to shoot intuitively and quickly when needed. The lens and the system also allowed me to make some impossible images at night shooting handheld as low as 1/4 of a second and getting sharp results. Almost any whisper of light would be sufficient to make a decent picture using this f1.2 lens with the IBIS system.

EASY DETAILS. SEE WHICH LENS SHOT WHAT IMAGE AT WHAT APERTURE:

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My verdict…

I’ve chased the ‘Bokeh Dragon’ for many years, long before I used Leica glass. That journey started with the Canon 50mm 1.4, then the 85mm 1.8, the 50mm 1.2 followed by the legendary Canon 85mm 1.2. These lenses offered increasing quantities of diffusion and subject isolation with a pleasing bokeh. It wasn’t until I used the Leica 50mm Summilux that I realised it wasn’t about the level of subject isolation for me, it was about the unique signature of a special lens. After using the Summilux, even the Leica Noctilux held no allure for me. In the same way, I think the new 25mm 1.2 PRO from Olympus has a unique rendering which combined with the system benefits of weight, size, speed and accuracy, gives me beautiful images and the fluency to capture special moments. I think this lens will become a classic for Olympus users in the years to come, especially as new sensors are developed. The zoom lens was a pleasant surprise. Its one thing having such a useful range of focal lengths easily at hand but when you know it packs such a punch in terms of sharpness and contrast, it makes a lens like this an essential tool.

From the perspective of a travel photographer who loves to shoot street portraits, these two lenses make my perfect travel kit. I would happily travel anywhere in the world to shoot for myself or on a commission, carrying just these two lenses. For me, the introduction of these new lenses, more than any other, represents the realisation of the micro four thirds ethos, namely, they give me all I need to make great pictures in one tiny little bag!

As a result of my highly enjoyable shoot in Cuba, I will be announcing a very special 5/6 day masterclass in Cuba for April 2017 with myself and the talented photographer Steve Gosling. Spaces will be extremely limited as the group size will be much smaller than normal (2-6 people) you can read more about it here – http://buchangrant.format.com/cu I will also be running a solo photo tour in Vietnam and Cambodia (for KUONI) in November 2017 and another joint 4 day workshop with Steve Gosling in Budapest in June 2017, checkout my workshop page for details to be published soon at http://buchangrant.format.com/workshops

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PRE ORDER LINKS FOR THE NEW OLYMPUS LENSES:

THE 25 1.2 IS GOING TO BE HUGE! The price is $1199, and you can see more or pre order here at B&H Photo. 

You can order the new 12-100 as well, HERE. 

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56 thoughts on “An Optical Epiphany in Havana with the new Olympus 25 1.2 Pro Lens

  1. Olympus has finally done it! With the 25mm f1.2 paired with the EM1 mark II, they have made it heavier than the FF equivalent setup.

  2. Incredible photos!

    I’m not sure if I really get the value of the 12-100 f4, especially at that price. If it were $500 instead of $1200, that would be a completely different story.

    If I’m a serious photographer shooting between 12 and 40mm (24 and 80mm equivalent), I’m either using prime lenses or I’m using the 12-40mm f2.8 that Olympus also offers. And if I wanted to shoot telephoto, I’d grab either the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 or the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. That extra stop of light (and, in the case of the Olympus lens, that extra focal length flexibility) becomes REALLY important for the things that you normally really need telephoto for: sports and wildlife. You need FAST shutter speeds to capture those things properly…and they’re usually farther away than what you can get at 100mm (200mm equivalent).

  3. All I have to say is this: I knew that 25mm was rumoured back when I still had my E-M5 II, and if I’d been able to get my hands on it I don’t think I would have sold all my M4/3 gear to invest in the Fuji system. Not that I’m not happy with my X-Pro 2. 😉 But wow … that 25mm looks disgustingly good.

  4. Curious to see a comparison vs Panasonics time-tested 25/1.4. I dont think the half stop will be the worth the premium in weight, bulk and price at 25mm. Great bokeh in MFT is in the tele lenses where it easily rivals full frame, not in the wider focal lengths.

    1. Hi Bill, I’ve been using the 1.4 since it came out, its been a great lens for me. All I can say is from my perspective the sharpness and contrast of this 1.2 is considerably better and more consistent in different lighting condistions. The bokeh and subject isolation is sufficiently improved to cause me to sell my full frame Leica gear. This is as much about the character of the rendering as it is about the amount of isolation or diffusion.

      1. so.. did you really do it, selling your leica gear?
        I mean this photo series you shot is simply amazing…

        But when i´m holding my E-M1 it´s still THE Camera for me – when i take a look at the pictures taken.. I´m good.
        this lense really makes me feel like sticking with mFT/ Olympus is quite a good idea.
        There´s so much hype around those fuji and whatever gear.

    2. F1.2 lens as classics Minolta 58mm F1.2 are manufactured differently from F1.4
      F1.2 lens draw differently from F1.4 even when stopped down to F1.4
      Its those large glass, special mojo put into F1.2

      Still let’s see PanaLeica 25mm F1.4 vs Olympus F1.2

      If Olympus makes a 50mm F1.2 and 75mmF1.2 similar size as their 25mm F1.2 it is game over.

      1. f/1.2 lenses aren’t magically manufactured in a different way. Olympus may have designed this lens to have a different look than Panasonic did the 25/1.4, but there’s no magic or mojo involved. The elements are larger, but there’s no reason the glass would necessarily be any different.

        The only way to really know is to shoot them side by side, various scenes in different lighting. There’s nothing you can inherently read into about a lens’s rendering because it’s an f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.7, f/1.8, or f/2 lens.

        Bille is right – the difference between f/1.2 and f/1.4 is miniscule in terms of DOF/subject isolation. The rendering can make a significant difference, but the half stop will not.

  5. Long time Oly user, never strayed since my OM1, and now quite delighted with my OMD-5 Mk2.
    Now saving up for some new glass, just cannot make up my mind which one.

    One question only. Somewhere I saw a rumour suggesting that there is a planned revamp of the OMD menu system. Anyone heard anything substantial?

  6. Impressive stuff as always Neil. I think this system really sings in your creative hands! It’s clear that you’ve gelled with the Oly, the lenses and M4/3, I share that feeling having owned and loved the EM-5.

    Love the images from Cuba, definitely a place on my bucket list! I look forward to seeing more from you in future.

  7. Really lovely stuff, Neil. I almost don’t want to comment on the gear because it’s obvious that your ability and the empathy you have with the subjects are the main reason for the outstanding imagery.

    However, your work makes a nonsense of claims that MFT sensors are too small to produce decent pjotographs. I defy anybody to tell the difference in the real world quality between MFT, APS-C, Full Frame these days. Having said that, since I shoot mainly football (the proper English kind) in dimly lit stadiums, for now I’m stuck with big Nikon DSLRs and big aperture zooms. Until Olympus sorts out tracking AF and low light performance that is…!

  8. Neil, thanks for sharing your photos and your findings. Really nice stuff. 🙂

    I think not only are DSLRs becoming more and more redundant, but larger sensors are becoming less necessary. The last great DSLR will probably be the Sony A99II (and maybe the D5). If I had a choice between the Olympus and the Sony (DSLR), I’d take the Olympus. The SL is better than people think it is, and yet… I still gravitate towards smaller sensors (the M is a special camera which does not compare to any of these).

    Funny, isn’t it, how film is having its resurgence just when digital sensors are hitting their stride? That is a big discussion all of its own. 😉

    I will bet you that in a few years, more press photographers will be using some kind of mirrorless system instead of a DSLR system. I bet some already are using their iPhones for some photos.

    I personally don’t care for wider apertures but it is good to know that the 25/1.2 is sharp wide-open.

  9. One thing I should mention, I thought this 25mm 1.2 was about the same size but possibly lighter than the 75mm, its actually about 25% heavier and a bit bigger than the 75mm, not that it bothers me, just didn’t want to mislead anyone….

    1. “Its so good, I’m selling my Leica SL and all of my Leica lenses the second I can get one of these 25mm’s to keep! Of course, its bokeh is not quite as diffuse as the 50mm Summilux on a full frame sensor, you can’t change the laws of physics. I know this lens is optically the equivalent of a 50mm f2.4 lens on a full frame sensor. But I can tell you now, from my perspective the results are just as beautiful and expressive and they ooze quality in the same way the 50mm summilux does.”

      This is quite something.
      Summilux like at 1/3 price.

      Should Olympus make a 75mm F1.2 similar size as 75mm F1.8 it will be game over.

      1. If they made a 75mm 1.2, it’ll be substantial larger than the 1.8. No way they can make it the same size. Look at the jump in size from the 1.8 to the 1.2 on the 25. A 75 1.2 would be huge.

  10. Neil have you played with the Em1ii yet and if not I’m guessing that your SL will probably go up for sale when the EM1ii hits the market. An Oly 25 1.2, Nocticron 42.5 1.2 and Oly 75 would make for a killer travel setup.
    Stunning image as usual. I started following your blog a while back after your last few posts here. Please can you keep it more up to date, really enjoy your writing style too.
    Keep up your great work.

    1. Keep it up to date, Hmmm I have been doing that for 8 years! Lol. I post every day about the cameras, gear or accessories I enjoy 😉 Also, many others post here as well with their experiences. As far as breaking news or rumors, that is usually never posted here. I am more about the substance than the volume, and I do not review cameras I do not like (for example, if a camera is sent to me, and I use it and do not care for it, I do not write a review). Bad for $$ but I can not write or spend my time writing negative reviews). But Thank you for being here and checking out what I DO post! Steve

    2. Thanks Tom,
      I have not seen an EM1 mkII yet but it looks amazing! I will be flogging the Leica gear the second I can procure a 25mm PRO lens, I’m happy using it on my EM1 for now, but I want a Mk2 for sure! I can only imagine how well the eye recognition will work when you factor in all of those crosshair focussing points!..:)

  11. I’ve been waiting for an amazing 25 lens for my EM1. It’s my favorite focal length and the current Oly 25 works, but I’ve been waiting for a PRO version. It sounds like my wait is almost over. Now I just need to come up with the cash.

  12. These look pretty great – including the zoom though it’s resized down shots. But what’s also amazing is that you could get a Fuji XE2s or Fuji XT10 with the F1.4 XF35 and get a bit better DOF control, great bokeh and in some ways, better output overall (some situations, though you could play the IBIS of Olympus in some situations to its advantage).

    I mention this because the Olympus lens is pretty big, bigger than the Fuji XF35, making the size at this focal length a moot point. And yes, the Fuji XF35 F1.4 is also outstanding.

    1. Hi Ricardo
      Thanks for your comments, to a large degree I agree with you. I’ve never got on ergonomically with the Fuji X system but they make amazing sensors and great lenses and I have a lot of respect for the brand, the new GFX thing looks very exciting too!

      I once did a size by side test of an aps body and an m43 body both with eqv 50mm 1.4 lenses. The difference in depth of field and subject isolation at headshot distance is actually almost imperceptible.

      The vertical dimension differential (the relevant dimension in this regard) is a lot less between m43 and APS than it is between either format and 35mm

      1. Hi Neil, thanks for your reply.

        “I once did a size by side test of an aps body and an m43 body both with eqv 50mm 1.4 lenses.”

        Well, thing is a Fuji XF35 at F1.4 is roughly a m43rds at F1.0/F1.1. A m43rds at F1.4 is a Fuji at F1.8-F2.0 lens. So in the case of this particular lens (which is what I was referring to), the Fuji XF35 F1.4 is both smaller, much cheaper (price wise) and can yields very good results with slightly better bokeh control. The Fuji XF35 F1.4 is not weather sealed though.

        We may talk about how m43rds sensors are close to APS-C Fuji but the truth is, Fuji APS-C is ahead by at least 1 stop in iso and on the DR scale by more than 1. (I am not even counting the latest Fuji Xpro 2 APSC with copper wiring). Oh and we still don’t have 14-bit raw in any m43rds.

        Now as far as general system size- if you get to say, Fuji zooms high end, then m43rds has many other options that are smaller. And maybe it could be said the Fuji could afford to run an Fstop smaller (or 2/3rds of an Fstop) to be equivalent but the smaller lens options in those zooms simply don’t exist. Neither something like the 75mm Olympus- and in those cases, m43rds does present a significant size advantage.

        You also have the other primes like the smaller Panny’s/Olympuses that while many of them aren’t as good as what Fuji has lens wise, they are still pretty decent *and small*.

        But for this F1.2 as great as it is (and it sure looks great- I checked out some raws from dpreview), a Fuji XF35F1.4 can put a fight and has those characteristics I mentioned.

        Disclosure: I am shooting m43rds / GM5/ OMD EM5 MKII nowadays because of the overall system size, but like you, I respect what Fuji’s doing.

        Thank you for taking the time to review the lens. I really like many of your portraits and it shows how the bokeh can work to create these kind of “dreamy” portraits.

        1. One area where the Olympis 25 1.2 will certainly win is AF speed. I’ve yet to shoot with the Olympus, but the Fuji is both slower to focus and a lot noisier. You won’t hear the racking back and forth with the Olympus. Also the focus isn’t internal and you’ll definitely hear it. Also the Fuji isn’t sealed. But it is smaller and cheaper.

          1. Then you can get the even cheaper Fuji 35mm f2…which is quicker to focus, smaller, weather sealed and is half the size of the bigger 35mm 1.4….oh and 1/3 of the price maybe even 1/4 of the price of the oly

  13. Amazing set of images! This is one of the best collection I have seen this year for sure!
    Together with the new OMD-EM1 II this will be a fantastic set!
    Looking forward to the review of the camera!
    John

  14. Hey Steve, could you possibly please post a photo of the new OLY 1.2 on the Pen F? I’m trying to get a reference to scale for how it will look on the Pen. Hoping it’s not too large and unwieldy for the small body. Thanks!

    1. Luke, Mirrorlessons and Robin Wong have pictures of the lens mounted on the new E-M1 II and PEN-F respectively. You can also can get an impression at four-thirds.org and of course at Camera Size Comparison as soon as they will add it to their collection. The lens is bigger than the 75mm and also looks bigger than the Panasonic 42,5/1.2. But the only way to judge it will be to try it out. I thought about the 75mm that it was too big to having an enjoyable life with it, but in reality it appears to be a very sexy thing.

  15. I’m impressed by the seemingly perfectly smooth focus fall off. Bokeh seems pretty creamy, too. Steve, if you review the lens, could you stress it in front of a really busy background, please.

  16. I really like your images and they have a rich color, (very) sharp focused plane and smooth bokeh.
    However I do feel (see) the transition between sharp and background and also dynamic range shows there is still a difference between m43 and larger sensors.
    You say you sell the SL – I would be interested to see a comparison of same subject with 50/1.4 vs em1 with 25/1.2.
    (I also own both systems)

    1. Hi Tom, Yes indeed there is of course still a difference and you can see that comparison at my blog post here: http://buchangrant.format.com/Blog/the

      For me the slight increase in subject isolation of the 35mm sensor SL/50 kit is heavily outweighed by the speed, accuracy and usability of the Olympus system. This is the best 50mm eqv I have used in overall terms and I think the look is very similar to the SL/50 setup.

      Of course I could spend £3800 on the new AF 50mm for the SL but its unlikely to be much better than the M version and its a pretty big package to carry around just for this little optical edge…:)

      I think if I decide to ever look for a bigger sensor option, one of the MF solutions with a fast 50mm eqv would be the more sensible option. That jump in subject isolation could be worth the weight and money…for me

      1. Hi Neil,
        thank you for this detailed answer. Like you I use different sensor formats and I agree with your statement about the MF solutions. I use m43 mainly for underwater, other than that Leica T, SL+M and S. Now the S images show a really special rendering. The Sl sits somewhere in between. The reason I have the SL is its so fast and nice to move focus point and have flexibility of the Zooms.
        However the decisions often goes either T (small and easy to carry) or S (smooth quality and color). M43 + MF sounds like a very good combination as well.

  17. I use Fuji & Sony cameras, but there is nothing i love more than my Olympus system. Great photos. This lens produces rich and saturated colors while still producing accurate and realistic images. I love it 😉

  18. Stunning photographs. Something to aspire to. I will be buying both lenses when they come out (together with the EM1 MkII. Mahalo for sharing these amazing shots and your insight into these drool worthy lenses.

  19. OMG the 25 1.2 is stunning!!!! Colors, contrast, sharpness and the BOKEH…what a creamy and fantastic BOKEH, in one word….. WOOW!!!!! Steve review this lens immediately please 🙂

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