Sunday, March 24, 2013

Panasonic's micro Four-Thirds (premium) lenses

I'm a bit uncomfortable since I bought my Panasonic GH3 body and Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 and 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 lenses.  I expect a certain level of image quality but the image quality of the set is uneven.

While the GH3 is great, the lenses are not all that great.  If you've seen my previous blog entries, the image of my Four-Thirds and micro Four-Thirds equipment together should be familiar.  You'll notice right away how the 35-100mm lenses differ greatly.

This is the problem.  The Olympus ZD 35-100mm f/2.0 (US$2499.99) has a graduated housing and optical elements with a filter size of 77mm.  The Panasonic X 35-100mm f/2.8 (US$1499.99) has a completely cylindrical housing that only differs in the exterior materials for the zoom and focus grips with a filter size of 58mm.  While one has (probably) no compromise, the other is all about compromise.  What else would you expect from a company that makes small electrical appliances and electronics equipment, plus broadcast video equipment for the professional market?  If I remember correctly, they got an Academy Award for their firmware tricks in fixing optical problems before post production.

GH3 with 35-100mm f/2.8, E-5 with 35-100mm f/2.0

After reading this link about the X 12-35mm lens, I searched Lens Tip for the X 35-100mm lens. I can't say that I was shocked but I was more disappointed after I read about the problems they encountered, such as visible flare even though the bright light source was not in the frame.  (I have been assured by Panasonic's repair facility that this is normal behaviour, along with a salesperson from the company who sold it to me.)  I expected it to take after the behaviour of the Canon and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses since Panasonic are targeting Canon.  I expected to have to stop down the aperture to f/5.6 to get maximum sharpness, unlike the ZD which is sharp wide open.  Considering that my GH3 has a top shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, stopping down in bright light would be required anyway.  (Thinking back to my early film days, 1/1000th of a second was the premium shutter speed.)

Panasonic 35-100mm flare creeping into the frame
Panasonic 35-100mm flare well into frame, lens hood used

Panasonic 35-100mm angle adjusted to avoid flare
Olympus 12-40mm minimal flare

Olympus 12-40mm direct sun, minimal flare
Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 and Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8

In my experience, it's performed well enough for what it is, but it doesn't deserve the price (US$750 seems appropriate) they're demanding.  I guess that's why I got it US$100 cheaper.  I was considering the 12-35mm f/2.8 simply because I don't have a native wide angle lens and I have nothing below 14mm (effective 28mm in 135 format) at all.  Being that micro Four-Thirds, like Four-Thirds effectively doubles the focal length for compatible 135 format numbers, it's great when photographing things at a distance with an easy, effective 600mm with 300mm equipment, but getting wide angles is a problem.

There are 7-14mm f/4.0 lenses for Four-Thirds and micro Four-Thirds.  The Panasonic version is about half the price of the ZD SHG (Super High Grade) version but lacks the weather resistance although the build quality is good.  The Panasonic 7-14mm possibly has less distortion than the 12-35mm at 12mm.  That's unfortunate for the 12-35mm.  Panasonic had a clear choice in the design and chose a huge compromise with a premium lens.  Mind, the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 is quite good but at US$799.99 is quite expensive for a single focal length that isn't weather resistant.  (Update: the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 is US$999.99 and performs quite well.)

I think my choices are good with my current selection of lenses.  When image quality is critical, I mount a Four-Thirds lens on the adapter on the GH3 and focus carefully.  When I'm indoors and need auto focus and image quality is going to be compromised by low light anyway, I can use the Panasonic lens.  It works well enough. Oh, and the 45-200mm?  I'm glad I only paid about US$100 for it.

Update 2014.04.20: I didn't update this after sending the 35-100mm f/2.8 for repair.  Panasonic returned it to me with a note from the technician that there was no problem.  That the lens flare was typical.  I'm not sure he saw the photo I included.  A Lumix Luminary thought that it looked awful and suggested that I send it for repair.  Besides that, the repair facility does not seem to answer calls and I only got a response to an e-mail as the lens was being packed for its return to me.  I heard from the people behind the sales and information part of the web site that the repair facility's computer system was being upgraded, so they might not be able to respond.  However, reviews on Yelp would lead me to believe that the computer system and phone system upgrade was happening for more than 1 year.

Update 2015.01.23: Panasonic has finally updated the 35-100mm f/2.8 Power OIS' ability to improve stability during video, which is apparently a longstanding problem.  While I think they have made so much money on the lens that they should be improving it constantly, apparently that is not their thinking.  I seriously doubt that they've been working on the fix for over two years.

Update 2015.09.14: In the last week, I got the Panasonic GX8 with the 12-35mm f/2.8 lens in a US$300 off deal.  That's the best way to buy premium equipment, isn't it?

Given my history with the 35-100mm f/2.8 lens, you might wonder why I would buy the 12-35mm f/2.8.  I recall everyone mentioning what a wonderful lens the 12-35mm has been.  I even remember Zacuto asking why the 35-100mm lens seemed so cheap, which confirmed my feeling about it.

With the discount, the 12-35mm f/2.8 lens was roughly US$600 off the original price of $1299.99.  That's a good discount for a premium lens.

Also, with the GX8's new Dual I.S. functionality, it might be good to have another O.I.S. laden lens.

The 12-35mm does seem to have a better quality of build than the 35-100mm.  It feels too small, but then, Panasonic was designing these to be used with the GX1 and later bodies, as well as the GH3 and later bodies.

Optically, I don't really care for it.  It's not horrible and at the price I paid, I don't feel cheated again, as I feel about the 35-100mm f/2.8.  It just isn't up to the level of Olympus' 12-40mm f/2.8 lens.

Since December, I've done a lot of video, mostly with the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens, but also with the Panasonic/Leica 15mm f/1.7, and the Olympus 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lens.

I used the 35-100mm f/2.8 to get video clips of a skate park competition back in March and it seemed to stutter a lot--after applying the firmware fix that was supposed to fix that problem.  I also used it about a week ago, and it worked better for me, but If I'd had the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens, I probably wouldn't have considered using the Panasonic lens.

The 12-35mm with the GX8 has been good.  I'm not sure the Dual I.S. functionality helped much because there was a lot of visible shake at times.  Since the camera body's firmware version is 1.0.0, I expect fixes of all sorts.

On the other hand, the Panasonic/Leica 15mm f/1.7 is both surprisingly good and charming.  Strange, that last part.  The lens is quite good, despite the very tiny opening in a much bigger lens casing.  It would be easy to guess that the quick AF motor is taking up the extra room.

The only problem with it is all the fiddly parts.  The rubbery lens cap for the lens hood has been lost for ages.  The original lens cap and the little ring that holds it there are in storage, probably never to be used again.

Panasonic knows how to make great camera bodies.  I wish that they would do the same for their lenses.

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