There are now thirty two lenses available for the micro four thirds system, with more on the way in time for Photokina next month. Plus there are hundreds of other lenses that you can use in conjunction with an adapter. That’s a lot of lenses, enough for anyone to create a collection that matches their needs, wallet and camera bag volume. Contrary to she who must be obeyed’s assertions, I don’t own the full set, and deciding which lenses to choose for my collection has been an interesting process (for me).
At the wide end of the range, there is the least choice. Wide angle lenses, as the name suggests, give you a wide view of the scene in front of you. They are good for shooting room interiors:
Outdoor scenes where you want to bring in the surrounding scenery:
Creating sky vistas:
Getting close and creating distorted effects (surely the stomach on the right is not that big?):
The problem with wide lenses is that you often don’t know what you are going to get until you look through the viewfinder. It’s hard to equate the human eye to a camera lens, but the general consensus is that our area of perception falls around 50mm focal length, so we feel comfortable shooting at that length (which is a 25mm lens on an M43 camera). Longer focal lengths are also easy, we know what we want to see, we just want it closer. But once you start going wide you need some experience and creative vision to imagine how you might utilise a wide lens; and I have as much creative vision as the guy who designed the Olympics closing ceremony. So I just stare through the viewfinder and see what is on offer, and sometimes it comes up with shots like this, which bears little relation to reality but looks pretty cool:
So, a wide angle lens might be a useful thing to have in your bag, what are the choices? These four:
From left to right:
The Panasonic 14mm F2.5. except the lens in the photo clearly is not it. I don’t have access to the 14mm, but it is a pancake lens similar to the 20mm in the photo, although slightly smaller in height.
The Olympus 12mm F2.0
The Olympus 9-18mm F4-F5.6
The Panasonic 7-14mm F4
Let’s eliminate the 14mm first of all, and not just because I don’t have one to play with. 14mm (28mm on a full frame) is not really that wide. At 14mm there are a range of kit zooms from both Panasonic and Olympus that start at 14mm (e.g. the very good Panasonic 14-45mm). The only reason it is on the list is because if you were looking for a small cheap range of lenses to take on a trip where space was at a premium, then you could do worse than the 14mm and 20mm pancakes from Panasonic, and the 45mm Olympus F1.8. But as a real wide angle contender, not wide enough.
That leaves three.
The Olympus 12mm is the only prime lens on offer. This means it should offer the best IQ, and at F2 it is offers the most light of the three. It also a beautiful construct of metal and glass. On top of all that, there is a “focus clutch” mechanism. In the standard setting….
…manual focusing of the lens is triggered electronically as you turn the focus wheel, just as with other lenses, and it feels fine.
But pull down the barrel….
…. to expose the distance ranges to aid zone focusing, and the lens switches to a more precise mechanical focusing.
All very neat; but it is a flawed implementation. With the ring in this position you can’t zoom in to assist focus; which is just stupid. Have tried this on a number of Olympus and Panasonic bodies and it just doesn’t work; you are only allowed to use zone focusing, or guesswork on an un-zoomed image. Minus many points for that.
The Olympus 9-18mm has a plastic body which extends, but only after it has been opened by moving a fiddly switch. It’s light but feels a little fragile.
The Panasonic 7-14mm is also plastic; but it feels much more substantial than the 9-18mm. It has a built-in hood, necessary to protect the protruding bulbous lens on which it is impossible to fit a filter.
This makes it look larger than the other lenses, so here they all are with hoods attached; apart from the 9-18mm which doesn’t have one, so I have extended the lens instead (and yes, the ridiculously expensive 12mm optional hood has not been put on straight):
To make a comparison, I set both the zoom lenses to approximately 12mm and all lens to F7.1; and took some shots. Here they are, with 100% crops, all straight out of the camera with no processing:
And the loser is… The Olympus 9-18mm. Just does not have the pop of the other two, and I know this not so much from this single photo, but from having lived with it for a couple of years. When I bought it, there was no 12mm available, so it was the 9-18mm or the Panny 7-14mm. The Panasonic was more expensive, bigger, and would not take a filter; a key point when the lens was to be shared with my wife who thinks a handbag is an adequate place to stick a lens when not being used.
But I have never really enjoyed it, and when she isn’t looking, it is going on eBay.
Of the remaining two, I can’t see much difference between the prime and the zoom and both would look really good after a bit of post-processing.
If the 7-14mm is not going to lose on IQ, then it wins points by having the advantage of going really wide; here it is at 7mm from the same shooting position:
Not the best use of 7mm, but very often, when you want to go wide, you want to go as wide as possible; and why limit yourself to 12mm (effective 24mm) when you could have 7mm (effective 14mm).
Ah yes Spike; but what about those F stops, F2 vs F4? Good question dear reader, which I will now attempt to answer.
If you are using longer lenses you often want to use the F stop to limit the depth of field to isolate the subject and blur the background, like this:
But when you are shooting wide, the whole frame is usually your subject and you don’t particularly want to isolate anything; which is just as well because wide lenses already have a greater depth of field than long lenses. Still, there are times when you might want to get up close with a wide angle lens and blur the background, and here is what happens with the two subject lenses:
The Olympus is the clear winner here; and of course it would also win if you needed to shoot in low light.
The Olympus 12mm is small, light and beautiful with great IQ and F2, a significant advantage if you intend shooting in low light regularly or need to maximise subject isolation.
The Panasonic 7-14mm is bigger, wins no beauty competitions and has an exposed lens surface which will need special care. It also has less light available being only F4. But the IQ is great and you have the versatility to go a little bit longer and a lot wider.
What to choose? Whatever works for you. My neighbour Nik chose the 12mm. It looks very sexy attached to his EM-5 and he likes how small it is. But the stupid focus clutch fail annoys him as much as it annoyed me when I tried to use it.
Me? After abandoning the very average 9-18mm, I am very happy with the Panasonic 7-14mm. I find use 7mm more than 50% of the time, and I think the resulting images look great. I don’t plan to shoot indoors (other than for interior shots on a tripod) or in low light, so the F4 is not a concern for me. It is of course the most expensive lens in the test, but you get what you pay for. And you don’t have to pay extra for the hood.
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