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

mb_spef-m43-bt3_05sWhen 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 on micro 4/3 cameras 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 (USD $650). 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 a virtual 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 than the original equipment manufacturers’ optics. To fully realize the implications of fast lenses on crop sensor cameras like the GH4, it is important to recall that the depth of field of an f/2.8 micro 4/3 lens is equivalent to f/5.6 on full frame. 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 are quite large and heavy and have no built-in optical stabilization, making handheld shots with a small micro 4/3 body unwieldy. But I’d read that good results could be had by using a Joby GorrilaPod, a tiny flexible tripod costing no more than USD $50. As a matter of fact, even optically stabilized lenses like the superb Panasonic G Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 can exhibit jitters, so additional support is advisable anyway.

Anyhow, when Metabones released the Speed Booster XL 0.64x, 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. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the lens focuses at infinity when I purchase the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 this week. 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 – though I seldom use autofocus for video anymore.

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 should add that when I contacted Metabones regarding the loose lens barrel, they responded promptly and offered to adjust it for me, but they didn’t seem prepared to pay for shipping. I haven’t had an experience like this before, so I can’t say whether that is standard industry practice or not. I apologize in advance for the shaky video – I’m still struggling with trying to keep the camera steady using the GorillaPod.

Camera settings: C4K 24 fps, ISO 200/400, highlight/shadow +2 shadow, Profile: Natural, Contrast -4, Sharpening -4, NR 0, Saturation -2.

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[Update 4th Aug. 2015] I just purchased the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens this evening and it balances perfectly with the Lumix GH4 body. Preliminary tests also show that the lens focuses at infinity with the Metabones adaptor, but I will have to do some shooting over the weekend to verify this.