Hands-On: Lumix GH4 + Metabones Speed Booster XL + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8

When I first heard about the Metabones Speed Booster, I was still shooting with the Lumix GH3, and while the idea of using an adaptor that not only increases the speed but also reduces the crop of full frame and APS-C lenses appealed to me, there were several factors holding me back. The first was undoubtedly the cost: I didn’t own a bunch of legacy glass and the adaptor itself is priced quite high. In addition, the GH3 doesn’t offer focus peaking, so getting sharp images in low light while shooting at apertures like f/1.0 seemed like an impossibility. Moreover, without any sort of in-body stabilization, wouldn’t shots taken with a third-party lens be too shaky to be usable? Furthermore, I still clung to the belief that  any sort of adaptor would most certainly introduce distortion and reduce resolution. And most of the videos I’d watched at the time did little to persuade me otherwise.

Let’s talk about cost first: while there is no denying that Metabones charges a premium for their instruments, constant aperture zooms like the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 and the Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO aren’t exactly cheap either. When paired with something like the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 or a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, the Speed Booster will deliver one to two stops more light. Currently, neither Panasonic nor Olympus offer a truly fast zoom, but if they did, you must admit that the cost would be astronomical.

Secondly, there is the problem of shooting in low light. Owners of the GH3 clamored for focus peaking, but Panasonic responded by saying it wasn’t a possibility. But now that the GH4 is equipped with peaking, focusing in very dim light is a breeze, and using manual lenses is no longer the chore it once was.

And finally, there is the issue of stabilization. Lenses such as the Sigma and Tokina are quite large and heavy and have no built-in optical stabilization, making handheld shots with a small micro four thirds body unsteady. But I’d read that good results could be had by using a Joby GorrilaPod, a tiny flexible tripod costing no more than $50 USD.

Anyhow, when Metabones released the Speed Booster XL 0,64, I could hold back no longer and I promptly placed my order with an authorized reseller based in Hong Kong. When I received the item a week and-a-half later, I was shocked to learn the shop hadn’t bothered to package the Speed Booster properly. It was shipped without bubble wrap or any extra padding whatsoever. An electronics dealer here in Hanoi packed my LaCie Rugged Raid, which is built to withstand being run over by a one-ton truck, with greater care. So it came as little surprise that the lens assembly was loose and wouldn’t focus at infinity – in fact, it wouldn’t focus on anything farther than a couple inches from the lens. I tried adjusting it myself, but eventually gave up and ended up entrusting it to a small shop here in Saigon where the technician spent no less than 30 minutes to put things right. Quite disappointing to pay $700 and have to tinker with it to get it working – and Metabones hasn’t seen fit to provide an owners manual explaining the operation of the adaptor and how to make adjustments, if necessary. It has also been frustrating that firmware update v1.7, which was supposed to enable autofocus with Canon EF mount lenses, doesn’t appear to function in movie mode on my camera.

Apart from that, I am quite impressed with what Metabones have accomplished. Although one user had written that there was excessive play between the adaptor and the camera body, mine appears to fit snugly with no looseness at all. And the resolution of the Sigma, even when shooting at f/1.1, is nothing short of amazing. I apologize in advance for the shaky video – I’m still struggling with trying to keep the camera steady using the GorillaPod.

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Lumix GH4 + Metabones Speed Booster XL + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8

mb_spef-m43-bt3_02sI’ve been testing the Speed Booster XL 0.64 Canon mount with the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 for the past week or so and resolution is incredible. I might have purchased a Metabones focal reducer back when I had the Lumix GH3, but without focus peaking, it would have been very difficult to use in dim light, and the lack of OIS on non-Panasonic lenses was also holding me back. I’m still trying to get steady shots with the Joby Gorrilapod though – like anything, it takes some getting used to. Focus peaking on the GH4 makes focusing crazy simple (especially when set to orange). The color quality and bokeh of this combination are simply stunning. I’m not sure I’d sell my Pansonic G Vario 12-35mm just yet though: there might be times I’ll need it, like when flying it on the Nebula 4000; I can’t do that with the Sigma.

Below is a screen grab from a clip I shot at the Saigon Central Post Office this afternoon, no color correction. Settings: C4K, Natural, ISO 200, f/2, 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent). And this is far from being the crispest image I’ve gotten so far… (sharpening in the GH4 was turned all the way down). Keep in mind, I have a $16 USD Hoya UV(c) filter attached, since good filters simply aren’t available here in Vietnam. Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 2.50.19 PM

And here is another one I shot this evening. Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.54.54 PM