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A few weeks back I wrote a short piece about how I was having a serious bout of GAS after discovering a new Panasonic Leica 8-18mm lens sitting in a local electronics store. At the time I managed to resist the overwhelming urge to purchase the lens because they didn’t have pricing for it. And I also didn’t really have the kind of money lying around that I could justify such a purchase with. It’s not a cheap lens. So it stayed in the store.
It turns out that the lens was a demo unit on consignment to the retailer from Panasonic South Africa and not a stock item (Panasonic stuff is like hen’s teeth here in SA). I wrote to the local agents and asked if I could borrow it for a couple of weeks to write a review. They agreed and the result is this review.
Who's It For?
Where can I begin? If you are interested in this lens I am sure that you have already gone through all the typical reviews that you will find from the usual suspects on the internet. You know, the guys who’s job it is to review lenses and tell you all about the specs, how sharp it is, what they think is wrong with it, even though hardly any of them have ever worked a day in their lives as actual photographers using these tools. Then, at the end of the review they ask you to buy the lens using their links so that they can get commission on the sale. That’s their job, I guess, but I’m not one of them. I’m reviewing this lens based on what it can do for my photography business. Nothing else. If it’s rubbish I will say it’s rubbish. If I bought it myself then you’ll know it’s worth having.
Those of you who follow me here on Fotozones will know that I work full time as a professional photographer doing various types of work and over the past 5 months that work has included a lot of real estate photography. This is a genre of work that I really enjoy. I have been using an Olympus E-M1 body and Olympus 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 lens.
My methods for shooting RE are a little different to your typical RE photographer in that I don’t use flash and I simply refuse to work in the abortion of logic that is called Photoshop. Everything I do is processed in Lightroom using a 3 frame HDR bracket, a bunch of presets and an eyes-on visual inspection of each shot I present to my client. The only batch work I do comes at export time. My images are used on the internet and not for print.
Yes, I could spend a lot more time getting a better result by following the methods of those who use multiple ambient and flash exposures and then spend an inordinate amount of time in Photoshop painting in masks and a myriad of other tricky things. But if I followed that sort of workflow I would not be able to do the same volume of work I am doing for the kind of money I am getting paid per property. It just wouldn’t work out.
So, I have created a workflow that sees me in and out of a moderately sized 3-4 bedroomed home in under 30 minutes. I know what compositions are typically needed for RE photography, so the thing that takes me the most time on location is leveling my camera (assuming the client has prepared their home for the shoot and I don’t have to move much of their stuff around). The leveling is done using the built-in levels on the Olympus E-M1 and the bracketing is done automatically, requiring a single shutter press - a great feature of the E-M1 cameras I use. On average I deliver about 25 edited images per property and I shoot sometimes up to 5 properties a day.
On the editing side of things I probably spend as much time per property as I do on shooting, so I have been on a quest to reduce this time overhead as much as I can.
My RE editing process comprises selecting the three frames I need to blend in the Lr HDR program, running through a few presets, such as correcting converging verticals and with the Olympus 9-18mm fixing the somewhat noticeable barrel distortion seen when shooting at 9mm. I have also found that while the 9-18mm lens is plenty sharp enough, when I am shooting towards bright light sources such as windows, I get quite a bit of blooming around the window frames using my shooting method. If I was using flash and Ps masks to blend in layers this wouldn’t be an issue, but the time that would take isn’t an option for me on these jobs. I need to reduce the amount of time I spend doing the editing, which is, I suppose, really all about fixing up these 9-18mm lens “issues”.
All the wide angle zoom lenses that I have ever owned and used (and there have been quite a few of them) have had their own little idiosyncrasies. When I first started shooting property I had the Nikon D200 and Sigma 15-30mm, which was a pretty good lens, but you needed to work on the warm colour that the lens had. Later I used the Nikon D700 with that same lens, which was eventually replaced with the Sigma 12-24mm FX frame lens, an insanely wide beast but one that required a great deal of care when composing. It wasn’t really good for interiors at 12mm because of the amount of crazy distortion on the edges you could make a tiny room look like an auditorium, so I would have to zoom in to about 16mm to make things look normal(ish).
When I moved to micro four thirds there were only 2 options for wide angle lenses offering more than a 100˚ angle of view. There was the impossible (for me) to find Panasonic 7-14mm f/4, which had a lot of bad reviews and didn’t do well with light sources at all, or there was the lens I have been using, the Olympus 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6. For a time I did have the Olympus 7-14mm f/4.0 in 4/3 mount used via the MMF adapter, but that thing was just as big as a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, so not really practical as an RE lens (if, like me, you moved to MFT to get away from the bulk).
When Olympus brought out their 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO I thought my prayers had been answered, but as you would have read on my review of that lens, it just can’t handle the type of work I wanted to use it for. The flare caused by that massive front element is a major problem and would drive any RE photographer insane. Also, there is something about the way it compresses scene edges that just looks very unnatural to me, so I passed on it.
That has left me with the diminutive Olympus 9-18mm as my only interior lens and to be honest, apart from the window bloom and barrel distortion which can be fixed it’s perfectly fine. And small.
Enter the Panasonic Leica 8-18mm f/2.8-4.0 Vario-Elmarit lens.
As I mentioned in my previous article, this is one really nicely designed and constructed wide angle lens. It is significantly bigger than the 9-18mm Oly though, especially when the hood is attached, so that’s not a plus in my book. When I am working on these RE jobs I carry all my camera gear in the smallish ThinkTank TurnStyle 10. The size of my gear for work purposes is very important to me.
I put both the lenses on my product table to show you the difference in size.
This is the 8-18mm on my E-M1 without the grip
And here's the 9-18mm on the same body.
In that bag I have one Olympus E-M1 body (sans grip) with an L-plate, the Panasonic GM1 and its 12-32mm lens, plus my Samyang 7.5mm fisheye, which I use when I find myself in really tiny bathrooms (I straighten the fisheye in Lr using the profile provided). My back-up body is the Olympus Pen E-PL5 and also in the bag are my spare batteries and a small power bank for my iPhone (running google Maps for most of the day does tend to run your device’s power down).
When I first mounted the 8-18mm to the E-M1 it didn’t fit in the bag, so I had to re-configure it a little, resulting in the removal of the GM1. Once I did that it has become an easy fit and I also have the 9-18mm now on the Pen body, just in case.
In the 2 weeks that I have been using the 8-18mm I have photographed over 20 properties with it. The first one I did I was very interested to notice that the metering on the E-M1 coupled with this lens was definitely giving me darker images than I get with the 9-18mm using the same bracketing sequence. I’d say it was about a stop darker and especially noticeable where I had bright windows in my compositions. Not a biggie, but interesting nonetheless.
What was more immediately noticeable though was that the blooming around the windows was nowhere near as dramatic as is the case with the Olympus 9-18mm. With the Oly I tend to use a negative clarity to try and make it look a bit more flattering, but with the Leica that isn’t needed at all. There is still some blooming, but it doesn’t require anywhere near the same kind of attention my Olympus lens needs. In fact, the 8-18mm makes mincemeat of the 9-18mm where that is concerned. And there, already, is more than enough of a reason for me to upgrade to it. Not having to deal with the windows in post on my RE shoots saves me a ton of processing time and headaches.
A typical scene I am faced with in my job as an RE photographer. This one was a 3 frame bracket, each a stop apart, blended in Lightroom, no flash at all. I'll take this result all day!
Some exteriors of the higher end homes I shot in August/September 2018.
But what about other applications?
I’ve had the 9-18mm for a long time. It was one of the first lenses I bought after I made the switch from Nikon and I have made some of my most memorable landscape images with that lens, particularly in Namibia when we were on safari there in 2013. I have the LEE Seven5 filter set and an adapter ring so that I can use it on the 9-18mm. This is another problem with the Olympus 7-14mm 2.8 PRO. If you want to use it to make landscapes with any kind of filter system you have to buy some ridiculous after market apparatus to put any kind of filters on the lens, since it has no filter thread. Not the case with the Panny 8-18mm. You can take off the hood and the lens body acts as a kind of shroud for the front element (which does move in and out, but never beyond the tip of the body). This means that all I have to do to use my LEE Filters is buy a 67mm adapter for the holder. Presto. I will have a better landscape lens, designed by Leica. Unfortunately I didn’t get enough time with the lens to be able to do any meaningful landscape photography, but I did take it down to the beach one overcast day. Below are a few samples of that outing.
As a walk-around lens for street photography I think the Olympus 9-18mm is much better. It’s a lot smaller and as such is much less conspicuous, not to mention easier to carry in a small bag along with a normal perspective lens.
How much of a difference does that extra 1mm make on a MFT frame? If you’re an outdoor shooter you won’t notice it, but if you’re like me and you’re shooting interiors then the extra 7˚ on the wide end can make your life a little easier, especially if you don’t have a fisheye lens for those really tiny bathrooms. Or kitchens.
Shot at 8mm
Shot at 9mm
As far as sharpness is concerned I don’t really see a big difference between the two. Obviously the Leica designed optics of the 8-18mm will be better at micro-contrast and as mentioned before the coatings are more flare resistant than the 9-18mm, which does mean that you have to do less work in editing.
You should be able to get the same results from either lens in most applications, the notable exception being my primary need of real estate photography. I’m sure that the propellor heads at the main techie sites will have done some kind of measuring that will allow you to compare the differences. I have no interest in that stuff, so it plays no part in my review process. Honestly, I don’t think anybody even makes an unsharp lens anymore, so why bother with such banality.
The main consideration for a person who is considering buying a wide angle lens for their MFT system is usually cost versus benefit. Looking at the price difference between these two items the Panasonic is nearly double the price of the Olympus, so it should offer a lot more. Does it?
Yes, it is much better made and it has the Leica pedigree, so that can, to a degree justify the $450 extra you’ll have to fork over to own this lens. In my case the savings in editing time totally justify the not insignificant outlay. And I really like the look and feel of this lens enough to say, screw it, I will have it, one way or another. However, if you’re traveling to somewhere distant and size / weight is a factor, you should think about the Olympus 9-18mm instead.
You won’t be disappointed with the 8-18mm. Unless you’re a propellor head looking for something to nit pick over. Or you have size constraints. I give this lens full marks.
Two Monday’s ago a fortnight of digital agony began as I set about upgrading the Fotozones software. Usually the software upgrades run smoothly, but in this instance it was anything but smooth. More like a ride on one of those amusement park gravity modifying apparatuses. I am told it is because I didn’t upgrade for such a long time that I ran into problems. Because of previous issues with early upgrades I guess I am averse to major changes, so upgrading software isn’t something I rush into these days. My bad.
Anyway, that episode of digital nausea has passed so today I thought I would take some time out for myself to go and play with a new, old camera I got recently, but because of all the software dramas of the past fortnight, has sat on my desk looking expectantly at me like a rescue puppy might. The camera in question is the late 2013 Panasonic GM1 and 12-32mm kit lens. This is a Micro Four Thirds camera.
As those of you who follow my writings and videos will already know, I recently sold the Canon 200D I got last year. I don’t have any pressing need to make more videos, but browsing through the classifieds on a local forum I saw an Olympus E-PL5 up for sale at a really keen price. I decided to get it because I actually like the Pen cameras and that model has a flip up selfie screen that would come in quite handy if I wanted to make more videos. So I got it. The cost was less than $100, but it didn’t come with a lens, so I was on the lookout for something I could use for it. I had my eyes open for the Olympus 14-42mm EZ kit lens, which isn’t found used that often. In casual conversation about my lens quest my buddy Peter mentioned to me that he was selling his Panasonic GM1 with the Panasonic 12-32mm kit lens. I wanted the lens only, but Peter made me a really good price on the body too, so I couldn’t pass it up. There went another $180 or so. I should mention that I was still up from the sale of the 200D though.
What follows isn’t a review, so don’t expect any in-depth analysis, just some thoughts on cameras in general and how I got along with this particular one on my first outing with it.
The GM1 is a really small camera. I mean, it’s ridiculously tiny. If I am out and about on a less than balmy day it will go into a jacket pocket without any issue. Today wasn’t exactly jacket weather, as you will see from the photos, so I put it into a larger bag (the ThinkTank Turn style 10) with some other camera stuff, just in case a Pulitzer Prize winning news moment presented itself to me, you know.
I’m of the firm opinion that almost all cameras made since 2013 are good cameras. If you can’t get a great result out of a camera made after that year there can only be one (or more) of 3 factors at play. One, you have a terrible lens; two, you have terrible technique; three, somewhere along the line the camera you bought was dropped and the innards are not operating as they should.
The sensors we have been getting in most cameras made after 2013 are brilliant capturing devices. You just need to know what you’re doing with them to get a good result. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the future for camera testing outfits like Dpreview and various others who play in measurement based camera appraisal systems are probably superfluous to all but perhaps a handful of very discerning photographers these days. The attractiveness of cameras is, I think, going to come down to just how well you can integrate yourself with the way they work, not whether or not they have 18 stops of dynamic range or can blast off 100 frames in a second, or shoot at ISO values that exceed the bank balances of the average Monte Carlo resident.
So, getting a good result out of your post 2013 camera is highly dependent on coming to know that camera and working with it on a regular basis. Like in my case I have been using the Olympus E-M1’s since I got my first one in late 2013 (about the time the GM1 got announced) and after nearly 5 years of professional and personal use I don’t even have to think much about it’s operation. I switch it on and if I need to make changes I know instantly where to make them. The once confusing Olympus menu system is second nature to me now. The only things I have to think about, settings-wise, are the advanced features that I have used maybe once or twice, such as the Live Time long exposure thing, or anything to do with JPG settings (which I never use).
I’ve only ever owned one other Panasonic camera, the GF1, which I liked, but ended up selling because at the time I had 2 Olympus Pen cameras that I thought were just a bit easier for me to work with. Whilst Panasonic and Olympus share the same Micro Four Thirds lens mount, their approach to operating the camera itself is very different. Kind of like the differences you’d find between Windows and macOS. They both do the same thing, just differently.
The Panasonic interface is, I think, very intuitive and easy to learn unlike the Olympus, which admittedly took me a while to get used to coming from Nikon. That said, I do find some things on the GM1 a bit of a fiddle. Like this morning I was trying to change the aperture (in A mode), but kept changing the exposure compensation instead. Turns out that you need to press the command dial button for compensation again to toggle it off (there is only one dial on this tiny little camera). On the Olympus Pens it’s a similar process, just slightly different. You have to press the same button, but you can program the camera to move either the aperture value or the exposure compensation when turning the dial after that button is pressed. The GM1 doesn’t have that level of customisability so if you have burned a neural pathway into your brain from using your Olympus MFT camera a certain way, getting used to a Panasonic like the GM1 might test you a little. Fortunately it’s not an insurmountable hurdle. A bit of practice will make new neural pathways.
Without an EVF I found using the rear LCD in this morning’s bright conditions not too difficult. The one thing I do struggle with is the amount of icons that Panasonic show on this LCD screen. Unlike the Olympus method of putting them along the side of the LCD screen, Panasonic have most of them along the top, which together with the row on the bottom can make the screen seem very crowded. It is easy to turn the top row off though by toggling the Info button, which leaves you with the bare bones of exposure settings on the bottom.
I think I will be getitng along quite nicely with the world's littlest MFT camera, in spite of the differences between it and my Olympus stable. That they use the same lenses makes it a perfect black sheep cousin. Different, but lovable all the same.
Here’s some of the shots from this morning's outing. All with the 12-32mm lens, processed in Lr 7.2.
I'm usually showing you photos of my city from the piers we have, so today here's a shot from the North looking towards a couple of the many we have.
This is the designated fisherman's pier. It's usually inhabited by subsistence fishermen who spend most of the day (and night) with their lines in the water.
There is a space between the sand and the promenade that the city is trying to keep healthy with indigenous dune vegetation we get around these parts.
The beachcombers are always out there, scouring the sand for buried treasure.
The promenade is modeled on Rio's famous Copacabana beach. You are allowed to ride anything on wheels along there (except for motorcycles and cars). There is an outfit that offers Segway tours. Lazy!
This is one of many outdoor gyms that have sprung up around the city in the past few years. I don't know how effective those machines are, but they certainly do seem to keep the users happy.
After the beachfront I took a slow drive back home, stopping off at the marina. It was low tide, so I walked out a bit. Shooting almost into the sun here, so not the best result.
These tug boats appear to be chasing this Greek tanker out of the bay!
Four shot panorama of what was once a vibrant watering hole, but is now sadly neglected by the city's denizens. This was where my younger son played at the Durban Blues Festival.