Micro Four-Thirds Lenses in Focus: The makings of a lightweight travel kit
I confess am a rookie in the m4/3 camp, having decided just a few months ago to put my toe into the popular small-sensor format pool. While I love my two full-frame cameras, the Leica M-D and Leica SL (not to mention the Q, star of last year’s Leica introductions) I always have a hankering for a smaller system, primarily for travelling when I don’t want to lug the SL or need a bit more versatility than the M.
I’ve been wiggling my toes around in the water for these few months and initially became hooked on the Olympus concept, attracted by the beautiful little PEN-F. It is a lovely camera with superb performance and I really appreciate the three addictive Pro zooms that go so well with the camera: The 7-14, 12-40, 40-150. If you add the x1.4 converter to the long lens, this trio takes you from a full-frame equivalent of 14mm right up to 420mm. The three of them, including the converter, tip the scales at just 2KG. Throw in the PEN-F and you have a complete system weighing 2.47Kg in your bag.
It demonstrates the outstanding weight saving opportunities that come with the m/43 system. While it is a pointless comparison, think of the 2.2KG weight of the Leica SL and 24-90 zoom. Here you have a much more restricted capability but with nearly the same weight: Much more capable, ignoring the focal length restriction, but that's another story.
Of course, weight isn’t everything. The SL with its full-frame sensor and outstanding professional lenses is always going to outperform in terms of ultimate image quality and large-print resolution. It has that ultra-narrow depth of field capability that m4/3 owners can only dream about; that larger sensor has to count for something. But I contend that m4/3 has its place and, as a auxiliary to a full-frame set up it has many merits.
What I love about the three Olympus pro zooms is their ergonomics. Apart from the fact that they all look gorgeous, they have the ingenious clutch-ring mechanism to switch between auto and manual focus. Pull the ring back towards the camera to select manual focus and a useful depth-of-field scale appears—similar, in some respects to the transition between standard and macro focus scales on the Leica Q. Some of the newer Olympus primes, including the 17mm f/1.7, also feature this clutch ring.
This clutch, which is a substitute for the more pedestrian AF/MF switch on many Panasonic Lumix lenses, also works when the Olympus lenses are mounted on Lumix bodies such as my newly acquired GX8.
Until this week, however, I had little experience with Panasonic m4/3 lenses—just the light and capable 20mm f/1.7 and the Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 Summilux. The latter is an older design, without aperture ring and is fully compatible with Olympus, which the newer ones are not.
Leica DG lenses
My two new acquisitions, however, show Leica DG lenses in a different light. Both are more recent designs and both have an M-like aperture dial with a detent which light pressure overcomes to move to A(auto). The 42.5mm f/1.2 Nocticron and the 15mm f/1.7 Summilux both have superb ergonomics and are built to a very high standard. I would regard them as pro lenses capable of outstanding performance.
In a few short days, then, I have come to appreciate this manual aperture ring. Aperture priority is the way I like to shoot most of the time. With aperture priority selected on the GX8 mode dial, centre-point focus and the screen flipped round, out of use, the camera feels as familiar as a Leica rangefinder. The ability to select aperture on the lens is a great boon and it has proved to me that I prefer this set up. Much as I love the focus clutch ring on some Olympus lenses, I’d trade that any day for the Panasonic aperture ring and simple AF/MF switch.
There is a big snag, though. The manual focus ring on Leica DG lenses does not work on Olympus cameras. If you buy any of these lenses, including the new 12mm Summilux, to use on your PEN-F you could be disappointed. The optical quality is just the same, of course, but that enticing aperture ring will be dead. You are back to selecting aperture by control wheel. I can’t help feeling an Olympus firmware update could rectify this. But, perhaps, Olympus are reluctant because it could push owners into the Leica DG camp at the expense of native lenses.
I am mightily pleased, therefore, that I bought the GX8 as well as the Leica DG lenses. If I’d acquired just the lenses I would have been disappointed when I found the aperture ring didn’t work; I would have had a constant nagging feeling that I should buy a Lumix camera to give me the full semi-manual experience.
While this might appear to be a detail, it is actually very important to the shooting experience. I will always want to use the Leica DG lenses on the GX8 rather than the Olympus. If you are dithering between these cameras it must be an important consideration in your buying choice. Later I shall be comparing the PEN-F and the Lumix, both with new 20MP sensors and each offering a discrete set of features and a very different shooting experience.
The PEN-F is a beautiful little retro camera, if a bit fussy in its design cues—such as the front mode dial and the left-mounted on/off switch which is a cross between the switch OM film cameras and a Leica MP rewind knob.
The GX8, on the other hand, is far more businesslike and will probably suit the Leica owner better. The controls are in the right place (on/off just where Leica puts it) and, when twinned with any of the new Leica DG lenses, looks superb. I suspect you will be taken far more seriously with the Lumix in your hand. It looks like a real professional tool instead of an overgrown point and shoot. You’ll probably also feel a bit more focused and serious.
The latest recruit to the Leica DG lens lineup for m4/3 is the 12mm f/1.4 Summilux, offering a useful 24mm-equivalent field of view. This is a great focal length for street photography and landscape.
This is something which you can also appreciate on the two Olympus pro zooms, the 7-14 and 12-40, for instance. But this is a prime and is relatively small. If you are a Panasonic fan and prefer primes, then the 12mm, 17mm, 25mm and 42.5mm Leica DG lenses offer a lightweight and compelling travel kit.
Bear in mind, though, that the older 25mm Leica Summilux omits the aperture ring and, as such, is the odd one out in this lineup. It is optically excellent and a good all-round "standard" focal-length objective, but is less satisfying ergonomically than the newer entrants.
So far so good. I am learning fast and certainly appreciate the lightness of m4/3 gear. What started all this was the little Leica D-Lux (also the Panasonic Lumix LX100). Strictly speaking it is a four-thirds camera rather than micro four-thirds, but the output is very impressive. With the fast f/1.7-2.8 DC Vario-Summilux 24-75mm lens, this camera has influenced me greatly over the past two years. And, if the D-Lux can perform so well, why not try a system-based alternative?
I have also been influenced by Jonathan Slack who, in addition to his well-known professional appreciation of Leica cameras and lenses, packs an Olympus system as his lightweight travel setup.
Here at Macfilos we now have most mirrorless bases covered. I am the full-frame and (new) m4/3 fan while our associate editor, Bill Palmer, is the dyed-in-the-wool Fuji exponent. The fact that he is a convert from the Leica camp helps enormously and enables us to provide a well-rounded commentary on all three major mirrorless formats.
Note for newbies: Micro four-thirds has a sensor one quarter the size of full frame (as in the Leica M, SL and Sony A7 range) and as such has a crop factor of 1:2. Thus, a 12mm lens is really a 24mm and a 42.5mm is 85mm in full-frame terms. However, the depth of field remains the same as the wider angle marked on the lens, thus making m4/3 less versatile in effective use of wider apertures to achieve subject isolation and out-of-focus backgrounds.