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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.