Panasonic Lumix GH2 with 7-14mm f/4 Lens
Over the next few days, this blog entry is going to be updated with a review of the GH2 and a variety of different lenses, including the 7-14mm, the 14mm f/2.5 and 20mm f/1.7 "pancake" lenses, the 14-140mm f/4-5.8 Mega O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization), the 45-200mm f/4-5.6 Mega O.I.S. and the 100-300mm f/4-5.6 Mega O.I.S.
While I have no intention of generally replacing my Canon EOS-7D system with a Panasonic system, because I was looking for a smaller and lighter kit with some lens versatility (and good image quality) for my upcoming trip to Germany later in the summer, I indeed did go and buy a GH2 and a variety of lenses for myself.
I am also planning to take my Fuji X100 to Germany of course since it is small, light and has superb image quality. It still has better colour, better dynamic range and is much cleaner in low-light/high-ISO/time-exposure situations when compared to the GH2. However, while I feel Fuji made an ideal choice for a fixed focal length camera (35mm equivalent), I definitely wanted an ultra-wide and a longer telephoto for some shooting situations and just couldn't bring myself to cover those focal lengths with one or more P&S cameras, which is what I had originally planned on doing.
Make no mistake, the GH2 has excellent image quality, but it simply is not quite up to the X100 with its substantially larger sensor, or the top end APS-C digital SLRs, like the Canon EOS-7D or Nikon D7000. That said, under normal to moderately low lighting conditions, the GH2 image quality can easily be on par with the likes of the X100 and EOS-7D, just not under really difficult (high) contrast or really dim lighting.
Anyway, my review will cover my impressions of the camera and lenses - please don't expect a super detailed review with menu screenshots and the like. As a teaser, here is a link to a gallery of images I recently shot with the GH2 and a Lensbaby Tilt-Transformer...
Review Part 1 - Suitability and Lenses continues after the link...
Panasonic GH2 Review: Part 1 - Suitability and Lenses
Lensbaby Tilt Transformer with Nikkor 35mm f/2D - f/4
- 1) Fast action sports photography: expecting a relative newcomer to the photography world, like Panasonic, to perform well in the challenging pro-body auto-focus arena after only a few years of experience is not realistic. Many years of tweaking AF algorithms through many different models of camera have given Canon and Nikon a whole lot of experience in this respect, and even they don’t always get it right out of the gate on brand-new pro camera models at times. In addition, the GH2’s raw buffer is small, so at 3 fps shooting (the fastest where you are still seeing a proper live view in the EVF) with a Class 10 133x SDHC card, you get 8 frames raw, 7 frames raw+jpeg and around 10 frames HQ jpeg before shooting slows down or pauses. When shooting at the GH2’s full 5fps speed, you only see a brief view of the captured image, making it extremely hard to track anything, especially if it is moving erratically.
- 2) High-speed focus tracking, birds-in-flight etc.: similar to number 1 above, this is not an easy task and while Panasonic has a focus tracking function that actually works quite well in some situations, especially for video use, it does not seem quite up to situation when contrast between the subject and background is poor, and one can see the focus lock rectangle wander about and even leave the subject entirely. More on this in the main camera review.
- 3) Time-exposures at night and ultra-low-light photography: generally speaking, unlike most other earlier M4/3 cameras, the GH2 is actually quite impressive at higher ISOs (despite its 18 megapixel sensor), coming within spitting distance of my EOS-7D on exposures requiring only minimal tweaking. However, if you are forced to underexpose to preserve some important highlight detail, and then go digging into the shadows, GH2 images get noisy quickly, more so than the better APS-C digital SLRs and definitely far more than the full-frame cameras. Also, the camera is limited to a maximum of around 2 minutes on a bulb exposure... and man is it noisy on time exposures! This makes it mandatory to switch on the long time-exposure NR where the camera exposes a second dark frame of the same duration as the exposure, in order to map out sensor noise.
- 4) Architectural photography requiring wide-angle tilt-shift lenses: that is pretty specific, but apart from the Lensbaby Tilt Transformer (which I really like), there is as yet no native M4/3 wide-angle tilt-shift lens. However, Panasonic does make an excellent 7-14mm f/4 zoom, and this translates to a 14-28mm zoom in 35mm equivalent terms, so ultra-wide in itself is certainly not a problem. Some perspective corrections can be done on raw files in the latest Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom with very little loss of image quality, but major corrections should be avoided from an image quality standpoint.
- 5) Super-telephoto photography requiring fast lenses: while Panasonic has some excellent long lenses (their 100-300mm f/4-5.6 for example), there is certainly nothing with the speed, subject isolation capabilities or absolute sharpness of, say, a 400mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4.
Finally, further to item four above, since M4/3 cameras use a smaller sensor with a 2x crop factor compared to a full-frame camera, rarely does one feel the need to use a tilt-lens to actually increase the DOF (depth-of-field) in, for example, a landscape photo situation. So that is pretty much it as far as system limitations. If you look through the above list and are not looking for a camera that can do those things, then read on!
This might be a good time to mention that all my image quality assessments are from processing raw files in Adobe Lightroom v3.4. In brief, I have found the out-of-camera jpeg files to be of relatively poor quality for professional use, with general artifacting and relatively crude sharpening. This goes for all the automated image quality tweaking as well, including the GH2’s “intelligent” resolution enhancing features and its “intelligent” contrast (dynamic range) enhancements. While these may be very useful for a consumer looking to make 4x6 prints, maybe even 8x10s from out-of-camera jpegs, for the very best image quality, shooting raw with all these automated features turned off is best in my opinion. And when you do shoot raw, you can definitely be rewarded with superb, sharp, clean, vibrant images that will rival most any DSLR.
The main appeal of a M4/3 camera system has got to be its relatively high image quality coupled with its small size and weight, and coming in at a close second, its relatively low cost with respect to its lens system. In this first part, I’ll start by going through the lenses I have tested extensively and briefly mention how I found them in use. After all, with a crappy lens, it doesn’t matter how good the camera is but thankfully, most Panasonic lenses are very good indeed. I think the reluctance that some dyed-in-the-wool photographers might have towards a M4/3 system is the question mark on lens performance. Can you actually get a sharp, professionally useable shot with the Panasonic system, or is it only adequate as a hobby camera, where getting superb results are not that critical? In my opinion, the answer is clearly yes - a well captured shot from a GH2 and most of the Panasonic lenses is most certainly up to the most critical examination and could easily be used on a professional assignment.
Please note the upcoming lens comments are mostly derived from testing a single sample of each lens, so if anyone has experience that is dramatically different than mine, please comment!
A couple of things to mention before going into the lenses in detail. Firstly, is that many of them have a fair bit of residual barrel distortion although generally, you’ll never see it. This distortion is auto-corrected in the camera for jpeg files and, for example, is also auto-corrected in Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Lightroom and Capture One Pro v6 with raw files. The latest crop of raw converters seem to do a very good job of correcting this barrel distortion and rarely can one see any of the telltale blurring in the corners, for example, that one would have expected from older, less sophisticated software based solutions. If anything, not having to correct for every last bit of barrel distortion frees up Panasonic’s lens designers to create smaller, lighter and less expensive lenses, not to mention that there may even be benefits in allowing better correction of chromatic aberration or better resolving power with a simpler design if they can ignore some of the barrel distortion. In fact, I have seen many wide-angle “pro” lenses that have more corner softness and chromatic aberration than, for example, Panasonic’s excellent 7-14mm ultra-wide zoom.
The second thing is diffraction limits. Whenever I test a new camera system or new lenses, I generally run through all the f-stops on a shot with distant detail to see where each lens’ sweet spot is. Well, during these tests I have noticed that on the best lenses, overall sharpness loss due to diffraction starts to kick in at about f/8 already in a M4/3s system. If you do not need to compensate for a soft lens or increase your DOF by stopping down further, you would be advised to stay at f/8 or below. For example, the 7-14mm lens is already optimal at around f/6.3 (very sharp across most of the frame even wide-open at f/4) and gives tons of DOF at that f-stop, so unless you have a very good reason, keep it below f/8 as a general rule. Now on to the lenses...
Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 Zoom
7-14mm @ 7mm - f/7.1
The 7-14mm looks a lot like a baby Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G and indeed, its focal length range is very similar, just a little longer but equally wide. The 7-14mm is a fixed f/4 lens and has a built-in petal-shaped lens hood and a wide, friction-fit lens cap. The zoom action feels very well damped and solid, exuding an air of quality. The bulbous front element moves when zooming but stays recessed behind the fixed lens hood, again similar to the Nikon 14-24mm and similarly as well, you cannot mount any filters to front either.
Overall its sharpness is very impressive, with the center being razor sharp even wide-open at f/4. The edges are generally excellent even stopped down only slightly and the extreme corners are mostly superb by the time you hit f/6.3. I say “generally” and “mostly” since there seems some variance to my experience. Part of it might be that the lens has a slightly curved focal plane (not sure about that) or perhaps it is related to the mult-aspect ratio sensor in the GH2. Let me explain that multi-aspect comment...
If you imagine exactly fitting a rectangle inside a circle, the skinnier the rectangle is, the wider it will be along its long edge. This is how the GH2 works. You can choose between four different aspect ratios when shooting, 4:3 (the standard crop giving the biggest file size), 3:2 (standard DSLR aspect ratio), 16:9 (wide-screen, almost panoramic - the standard HD video aspect ratio) and even 1:1 square. With the GH2, the wider the aspect ratio, the wider the actual image is at any given focal length. If you look at a scene in standard 4:3 mode, then switch to 16:9, you will easily see that the image encompasses more horizontal field-of-view, since as mentioned, a skinnier rectangle height-wise, can be a little wider and still fit within the lens’ projected image circle. This is stark contrast to most other cameras, where multiple aspect ratios are created by simply cropping the sensor, and you don;t gain any field of view.
7-14mm @ 14mm - f/7.1
Getting back to why that might affect edge sharpness, the longer 16:9 aspect ratio has relatively more of its image at the extreme edge of the image circle, so where a 4:3 image might only have its extreme corners “poking” into the last little bit of image area where quality may be a little dodgy, the 16:9 image has most of its short edges in this possibly “dodgy zone”. I am not 100% sure if this explanation is correct, but statistically I think I see more slight issues with edge sharpness in 16:9 mode (and I use that aspect ratio a lot) than in the less rectangular formats. In any case, I still feel the lens to be a very strong performer for an ultra-wide, and is generally sharper and has less residual chromatic aberration than the majority of ultra-wide zooms (or primes) that I have used on different camera systems over the years.
One weak spot of this lens might be ghosting with strong light sources in the frame (like the sun) although overall contrast remains reasonably good even in those situations for that type of lens. Any ghost images are generally quite small and localized and so are easy to retouch if need be but be aware of major purple streaking when the sun is just outside the field-of-view. That is one of the good things about an electronic viewfinder (EVF) camera - you are seeing the exact flare and loss of contrast that you will get on the final shot. With a DSLR or especially a rangefinder, sometime you can get additional flare due to the viewfinder optics, or the flare might actually be less obvious than on the final shot due to how your eye/brain compensate when seeing a direct view through the optics.
Autofocus is fast and silent and close focus is fairly impressive, allowing you to get within about 6 inches of your subject. This lens is not image stabilized and generally I feel this is a good thing. I have seen far too many wide-angle lenses suffer dramatic corner softness issues if they are stabilized, since if you happen to take a shot while the stabilized lens-group is well off-center from its neutral position, you will also be well into the “dodgy” part of the lens’ image circle and poor corner or edge sharpness can be a result, much worse than anything I have seen with this 7-14mm even wide open.
Lastly, this is one of the most expensive lenses for the GH2, running at just under $1,300, but when its performance is considered compared to other ultra-wide professional lenses, it is not at all overpriced in my opinion.
Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 “pancake” Prime
14mm - f/7.1
This is the smallest and lightest lens in Panasonic’s lineup currently and relatively inexpensive as well, at around $439 although it does not come with a lens hood, nor does Panasonic seem to make one as an accessory. While it contributes to a super small package on the smaller M4/3 bodies, like the GF2 or the latest G3, I don’t feel that its performance is quite up to some of the other lenses. When you have a good lens and you critically look at shots you have taken, sometimes they just strike one as “effortless”, like the lens is still capable of resolving at a much greater level than the camera you are using demands. Through most of its zoom range and most of its image area save for the extreme corners, the 7-14mm zoom feels like this. On the other hand this 14mm pancake prime does not.
It’s not that images it produces are particularly soft, and on anything other than the very largest prints, you will be happy with its resolving power, but it just feels as though it is right on the edge already. Throw it on a newer, higher resolution camera, and it’ll fall apart - that is how I feel when I look at shots I’ve taken with it. On the other hand, it is more than a stop faster than the 7-14mm and if you are not an ultra-wide aficionado and feel that a 28mm equivalent is wide enough, then it is way smaller, lighter and less expensive as well and may indeed come recommended.
On the flare and ghosting front, it actually does remarkably well, likely due in part to the simplicity of its optics. For example, it is substantially better behaved in that regard, with the sun off-centre in the frame, than the 7-14mm is at 14mm zoom, although the 7-14mm is certainly quite a bit sharper in my experience.
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 “pancake” Prime
Infrared photo taken with a Hoya R72 filter at ISO 4000
20mm - f/2.0
Infrared photo taken with a Hoya R72 filter at ISO 4000
20mm - f/2.0
Just a longer version of the 14mm pancake? Most definitely not! While it is the second smallest and lightest lens Panasonic currently makes, it is sharp. Really sharp. And I do mean really really sharp. Even more or less wide open. Did I already mention it was sharp?! Maybe that's why it is so hard to get currently! We have been backordered for some time on the 20mm...
20mm - f/1.7
From an optical standpoint, this lens is heaps better than the 14mm in my tests, and gives a totally effortless feel to its resolving power. It just seems to be begging for a higher resolution camera to show off what it can do. In fact it is so bitingly sharp, that it is essentially up to the level of the lens in the Fuji X100 and that’s saying a lot since the Fuji is also exceptional. However while its center performance may even exceed the X100 lens’ resolving power, its corners are not quite as consistent and one does need to close down the aperture several stops before the corners are close to the center of the frame as far as resolution goes. However this lens is begging to be shot with a large f-stop, where one will usually get lots of DOF falloff away from the main subject, as in the above photo of my friend Carlos, so I would characterize this as not really being an issue.
From a ghosting standpoint, it is quite well controlled for off-axis light sources once you hit f/5 and from a contrast standpoint, it is actually very well behaved overall, again likely due to its simple optical design. It is very well priced at $479 and is in the same situation as the 14mm, as far as a factory lens hood - none included and none available from Panasonic.
Panasonic 14-140mm f/4-5.8 Mega O.I.S. Zoom
14-140mm @ 140mm - f/5.8
This is the kit lens for the GH2, and is video optimized as far as silent AF and silent image stabilization. Performance wise, I would judge it a mixed bag. Generally I found it very good from 14mm to about 50mm, but after that I found it to get soft-ish overall. Not an issue at all when you are shooting full HD, since the lens only has to resolve 1920 pixels along the width of the image, but when you are shooting stills the camera has up to 4750 pixels of horizontal resolution, 2.5 times the linear resolution amounting to over 7 times as many pixels in total and that is where its deficiencies become more noticeable.
Since I bought the GH2 body without this kit lens, I have not done that much testing with it, but it does seem very well controlled as far as flare and ghosting, despite its relatively more complex optical design. In any case, that is what rentals are for at Beau Photo! If you want to do some of your own testing to see if a lens meets your requirements, just rent it...
Lastly, the lens does ship with a hood and feels very well made, with a solid yet smooth zoom action. It is certainly no lightweight... there is a lot of glass there and you feel the weight.
Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Mega O.I.S.
I only briefly tested this lens out (no shots worth displaying and we do not rent it either) but for a cheap kit lens with a plastic mount, it actually performed quite well! I would actually judge it to be the optical equal of the 14-140mm in the range that it covers and it would be my choice as an inexpensive all-purpose walk-around lens. Smaller, lighter, much less expensive than the 14-140mm and decent optically. If you are buying the GH2 do do a lot of video, then by all means get the 14-140mm kit zoom though. Due to my very brief testing, I have no opinion on flare or ghosting. It sells for under $300.
Panasonic 45-200mm f/4-5.6 Mega O.I.S. Zoom
45-200mm @ 45mm - f/6.3
Okay, let’s get this out of the way. As good as this 90-400mm equivalent zoom lens is, it won’t perform on par with a Nikkor AF-S 200-400mm f/4 VR, or a Canon 500mm f/4L. But... it actually holds up quite nicely when compared to the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L, and is less than a third third the weight and less than a quarter the price. This excellent little tele-zoom sells for under $400!
Between 45mm and 150mm, it is pretty much tack sharp wide open. No, certainly not as sharp as the 20mm prime (which is spectacular), but excellent for an inexpensive zoom and better than most inexpensive tele-zoom lenses I have tested on full size DSLRs. You can definitely get some excellent results and stopped down 1/3 to 2/3 stops are you are sharp all the way through the focal length range.
45-200mm @ 200mm - f/6.3
The image stabilizer is effective, although sometimes a little “jumpy”, making it hard to nail the focus point precisely where you want it if your target is small. You definitely need to wait a couple of seconds after half-pressing the shutter before the stabilizer truly seems to lock in.
As far as flare and ghosting, being that it is a tele lens with a deep lens hood (yes, for that price it actually does come with a full bayonet mount hood), there isn’t much opportunity for flare. Put the sun right near the centre of the frame and yes, you will see some loss of contrast and ghosting, but ghosting is substantially reduced when the sun is positioned near the edge of the frame. I might even venture to say that it has better flare control than one of my Canon ‘L’ telephoto zooms.
Lastly, it can do macros! Imagine a 400mm lens than can focus down to a mere three feet from the front element! In comparison, my otherwise excellent Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L only focuses down to a frustrating 12 feet. I frequently run into that limitation when trying to photograph closer subjects such as birds and so on.
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 Mega O.I.S. Zoom
100-300mm @ 100mm - f/5.6
Stepping up the telephoto game even more is the awesome 100-300mm. At $669, it is not quite as inexpensive as the 45-200mm, but when you think that you’ve got a compact 200-600mm zoom that is a very respectable f/5.6 at its 600mm equivalent long end, well that’s not too shabby! And its sharp, very sharp if you nail the focus which is actually not easy at times, especially when handholding a shot.
When you are dealing with focal lengths that long, the increased M4/3 DOF is no longer very noticeable and shooting wide open, you have to be bang on with your focus or you’ll see that it’s out. It has the same O.I.S twitchiness as the 45-200, only worse because of its increased magnification. If you are going to shoot handheld at any shutter speeds below 1/1000, you’d better give the lens a moment for its stabilizer to lock on before squeezing off a shot. This lens really demands a tripod, but since it is still so lightweight, there is no tripod ring needed.
I have not shot with this lens all that much and it is not part of my own personal kit just yet, but similarly to the 45-200mm, it did seem rather well controlled from a flare and ghosting standpoint when I pointed it at the sun.
With regards to using these longer lenses wide open and trying to achieve a precise point of focus, I’ll mention that the GH2 body can sometimes be frustrating in its seeming insistence in focusing on things that are clearly outside of the displayed AF rectangle in the viewfinder. This is very “DSLR like” in some respects and unnecessary since there is no reason why the AF rectangle couldn’t exactly match the actual focus area that is used. More on auto-focus performance, and some of its quirks, especially with long lenses, in my upcoming GH2 body review, which will appear in a new blog entry as “Part 2” of my Panasonic review.
The last comment I will make in Part 1 of this review, is that I think you can tell that I am overall quite impressed with Panasonic's lenses, despite some of them being extremely affordable to buy. As with any lens lineup, there are some weaker ones and some definite strong points, but it is a convincing set. There is also an 8mm full-frame fisheye and a Leica branded 45mm f/2.8 Macro that I have not had a chance to use at all. In addition, soon I will hopefully be able to test the recently announced Leica branded DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4. This promises to be a very nice lens, and at under $620, it will be quite affordable as well.
Look for the next in this review series, "Panasonic GH2: Part 2 - Body Performance & Ergonomics" within a week or so...