How suitable are Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses for infrared photography? Here is an IR performance review of 14 Olympus and third-party MFT lenses.

Why this Olympus lens infrared performance review? A while ago I did own quite a few Olympus MFT lenses, so I decided to create a visual review of their infrared performance.

If you are not familiar with potential lens issues in IR photography, I suggest to quickly read the section about lens issues in my Infrared Photography Tutorial. But before we get to the lens ratings, let me quickly explain the review process so you can get the most out of the results.

The review process

Disclaimer: Please be aware that this is a totally non-scientific review. The purpose is to provide information about how certain Olympus MFT lenses perform in infrared light, in a real-life scenario. This means I did primarily focus on IR hotspots and flares. You will not see any brick walls or resolution charts, I leave that to others.

Taking the test pictures

I took the test pictures around noon on a sunny day in May 2019, in my backyard. The sun was about 90 degrees to my left. Every lens was tested with the lens hood mounted or extended, unless noted otherwise.

For the tests I used a Olympus OM-D E-M5, converted to Standard IR (720nm). Therefore, I don’t have to use IR filters in front of the lens. The camera was mounted on a tripod, and a remote release with a 2 second delay was used to minimize vibrations.

For every lens, I took pictures every full stop from f/2.8 to the minimum lens aperture. Why not lower, like 2.0 for the primes? Because I found that my E-M5 has an issue with apertures lower than f/2.8. It underexposes images so badly that I can no longer recover them. For every zoom lens, I took pictures at both ends and the approximate middle of the focal length range.

Processing and presenting the results

I used Lightroom to import all the pictures. The following steps were applied to every picture:

  1. Assign a proper infrared camera profile (see my article How to Set Proper Infrared White Balance in Lightroom).
  2. Move the Saturation slider to 0 (zero) to create a black and white version of the picture. It is easier to see the hotspot when the color is removed.
  3. Apply Auto-Tone to normalize the pictures and get rid of slight exposure differences. I tried it with Match Total Exposures, but the results were not as good.
  4. Create a square crop of the picture by cutting off the left and right edges.

Finally, I exported the pictures with a size of 768 x 768 pixels and used some batch tools to visually add lens data. Per lens and focal length, I created an animated GIF from the pictures so you can watch what happens as you stop down the lens.

Ratings explained

Every lens starts out with a full five-star rating. For optical IR deficiencies, I will lower the rating as follows:

  • Hotspot:
    • No nor barely visible hotspot up to f/5.6: no change
    • Correctable (meaning even brightness, no “donut” shape) hotspot up to f/5.6: minus one star
    • Non-correctable hotspot up to f/5.6: minus two stars
  • Flare:
    • No flare at all: no change
    • Flare at apertures beyond f/5.6: minus one star
    • Flare at apertures up to f/5.6: minus two stars
  • Minimum aperture:
    • f/2.8 and wider: no change
    • f/3.5-f/4: minus half a star
    • f/5.6 and higher: minus one star

For zoom lenses, I take the results from the focal length with the worst result.

Why the lower rating for lenses with a higher minimum aperture? Read the explanation below in the diffraction section of the conclusions. This is also the reason why I generally don’t care about hotspots beyond f/5.6.

Are my ratings subjective? Absolutely, so they may or may not be in line with your personal impressions. But this is why the animations are there: go and form your own option about your lens of interest.

Now that you have full insight into how the pictures were taken and the lenses were rated, let’s finally start with the reviews:

Olympus prime lenses

12mm F2.0 ED

Hotspot: A nice performer, although not quite among the best. No hotspot at f/2.8, barely noticeable but rather large in diameter at f/4. As of f/5.6, the hotspot gets more pronounced but the size decreases. As of f/11, you get an even more pronounced bright inner circle.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any aperture. I would use this lens up to f/8. For anything beyond f/8 the hotspot will likely be hard to correct in post-processing.

12mm F2.0 ED IR rating:

17mm F1.8

Hotspot: This is one of the better performing prime lenses. No hotspot at f/2.8, barely visible at f/8. Maximum at f/11, slightly less at f/22. But overall nothing to worry about.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No visible flares at any aperture. I would use this lens without reservations, at any aperture.

17mm F1.8 IR rating:

25mm F1.8

Hotspot: This lens does not show the slightest hotspot at any aperture. Simple as that.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: My favorite MFT prime for IR photography. No flares, no hotspot – what else can you ask for? Highly recommended.

25mm F1.8 IR rating:

45mm F1.8

Hotspot: A barely visible hotspot at f/5.6, getting more pronounced as you stop down to f/11. At f/16 and f/22, you get a small bright hotspot in the center of the picture.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any aperture. This lens is definitely usable up to f/11.

45mm F1.8 IR rating:

60mm F2.8 Macro ED

Hotspot: No visible hotspot up to f/8. A small, barely visible hotspot at f/11, getting brighter as you stop down.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: A macro lens for IR photography? Well, why not? This is a solid performer with no flares at any aperture. Use it if you own it.

60mm F2.8 Macro ED IR rating:

75mm F1.8 ED

Hotspot: No visible hotspot up to f/4. At f/5.6, you can see a barely visible but easily correctable hotspot. As you stop down further, the hotspot gets smaller but brighter.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any aperture. Personally, I would use this lens up to f/8 but not further.

75mm F1.8 ED IR rating:

300mm F4.0 IS PRO ED

Hotspot: A very nice performer. No hotspot up to f/8. Only if you look closely, you can see the image center getting brighter at f/11. A very small bright spot at f/22.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: I realize this is not your standard IR walk-around lens, but since I had it available I decided to include it in the review. This lens will not disappoint you when you use it for IR photography.

300mm F4.0 IS PRO ED IR rating:

Olympus zoom lenses

7-14mm F2.8 PRO ED

Hotspot: At 7 mm, the lens is usable only up to f/4. As of f/5.6, you get a big bright hotspot, and it gets worse from there. The same is true for 10 mm. At 14 mm, the lens is quite usable up to f/5.6 or even f/8, if you apply a slight correction. At f11, the hotspot gets too bright.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: I did not use a hood with this lens. It is known that this lens can produce flares, and you can clearly see it at 7 mm. Longer focal lengths seem to be fine. Just make sure that no direct light sources hit front element.

7-14mm F2.8 PRO ED IR rating:

9-18mm F4-5.6 ED

Hotspot: At 9 mm, there is no visible hotspot up to f/11. As you stop down further, the image center gets slightly brighter, but without a defined border. At 12 mm, there is no hotspot at all. At 18 mm, you get a tiny hotspot starting at f/16, getting smaller and more pronounced as you stop down further.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any focal length and aperture. Please note that that the bright line at the top center of the 9 mm test is a condensation trail. This lens was a pleasant surprise to me – no hotspot at any relevant apertures. Recommended if you can live with the limited choice of apertures.

9-18mm F4-5.6 ED IR rating:

12-40mm F2.8 PRO ED

Hotspot: At 12mm, you can see a barely visible hotspot at f/8, which gets smaller and more pronounced as you stop down. At 25mm and 40mm, there are no visible hotspots at any aperture.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: As there are no flares at any focal length, this is a highly recommended lens for IR photography. Together with the 40-150mm PRO zoom, it forms a perfect IR zoom kit.

12-40mm F2.8 PRO ED IR rating:

12-100mm F4.o IS PRO ED

Hotspot: At 12mm and f/4, you can see a rather large but correctable hotspot. At f/8, you also get a brighter inner circle, which gets ugly once you stop down beyond f/11. At 35mm and 100mm, the lens behaves a lot better. Only as of f/16 you can see a barely visible hotspot which does not bother me at all.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any aperture and focal length. If you can avoid using this lens stopped down at extreme wide angles, it is actually a quite decent IR performer. It is just not up to par if you compare it to the top performers in this review.

12-100mm F4.o IS PRO ED IR rating:

14-150mm F4.0-5.6 II ED

Hotspot: At 14 mm, you get a barely visible hotspot at f/11. If you stop down further, the hotspot gets smaller and more pronounced. At 45 mm and 150 mm, I cannot see a hotspot at all.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: No flares at any focal length and aperture. This lens was another pleasant surprise. If you can work around the limited available aperture range, this is definitely a recommended lens.

14-150mm F4.0-5.6 II ED IR rating:

40-150mm F2.8 PRO ED

Hotspot: This lens does not produce any hotspots at any focal length and aperture, it is a pleasure to use this lens in infrared light.

Click on the preview images to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: Since there are also no flares at any focal length and aperture, this lens is a perfect candidate for IR photography. Together with the 12-40mm PRO zoom, you have a killer combination in your IR bag.

40-150mm F2.8 PRO ED IR rating:

Third party lenses

Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 Fish-eye

Hotspot: Surprisingly, this lens is nearly hotspot-free. Only from f/11 onwards I can see a barely noticeable hotspot, but nothing that would bother me.

Click on the preview image to see the full lens IR performance animation:

Comments: I did not use a hood with this lens. Unfortunately, flare is a rather pronounced issue. Already visible at f/4, it gets worse as you stop down the lens. As with the 7-14mm PRO zoom, make sure no direct light sources hit the front element. If this is possible, this lens will make you very happy. Be aware that this lens is also being sold under different brand names (Rokinon, Bower).

Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 Fish-eye IR rating:

Conclusions

Here are my general findings of the Olympus lens infrared performance review:

  • Hotspots tend to get smaller and more pronounced as you stop down the lens
  • With zoom lenses, IR lens issues are often more pronounced at the wide end of the zoom range
  • More expensive does not always mean better IR performance

Lens recommendations

People who prefer prime lenses will be happy with any of the Olympus (non-PRO) primes. Choose your preferred focal length(s) and start shooting.

People who prefer zoom lenses can basically choose from two kits:

  • If you you already own the 12-40 and 40-150 PRO lenses, you already own the highest quality IR zoom kit. But you should definitely avoid the 7-14 mm zoom for IR photography.
  • If shooting mostly at f/5.6 doesn’t bother you, the 9-18 and 14-150 variable aperture zooms also form a nice kit. Actually, this is my IR walk-around kit, together with my converted OM-D E-M5.

Be careful when using different IR filters

For the tests, I did use a 720nm filter, called Standard IR – for a reason. It is probably the most used IR filter. Just be aware that you cannot directly apply the above results to different filters, like 590nm or 850nm:

As a general rule of thumb, lens issues usually increase in intensity when using a filter with a higher cutoff frequency (e.g. with a 850nm Deep Black and White filter). And issues usually decrease in intensity when using a filter with a lower cutoff frequency (e.g. with a 590nm Super Color filter). This is because a lower cutoff frequency filter lets more visible light pass to the sensor, which is what the lens and sensor were actually designed for.

Infrared diffraction needs to be taken serious

Looking at the test pictures taken at smaller apertures, I was shocked by the level of visible diffraction. It was far more than in pictures taken in visible light. This finding actually made me write another post: Why You Should – and How to – Avoid Diffraction in Infrared Photography. This post provides a calculator where you can test your individual combination of camera and infrared filter for diffraction impact.

Go and use the calculator to determine the technical diffraction limit for the OM-D E-M1 Mark II and a 850nm deep black infrared filter. The result is f/2.5. That means that as of f/2.8 you are already in diffraction territory. Unbelievable, isn’t it? This is the reason why I am rating MFT lenses with a smaller maximum aperture lower.

Does this mean your pictures taken with this setup are unusable? Not at all. But if you are a pixel-peeper, just be aware of the limitations and set your aperture accordingly.

If your favorite lens is not included in this Olympus lens infrared performance review, have a look at the Kolari Lens Hotspot Database, you might find it listed there.

What are your personal experiences? Do they differ from what my test have revealed? Leave a comment below and let me know!