In September I went to Japan for a week. I took my E-M5 with the Panasonic 7-14mm, Panasonic Leica 25mm, Olympus 45mm and Olympus 75mm. Took a load of photos; but there was a lot of lens changes involved. If only I had one zoom to rule them all….
Then came the E-M1 and the 12-40mm. Could this lens provide an alternative to lens swapping?
The first things I noticed about the lens was that it was larger than my existing walk-about lens, the Panasonic 25mm:
It’s also heavier, but it feels much more substantial; metal instead of whatever it is they make Panasonic lens bodies out of; and with zoom and focus rings that have a smooth, precise action. It oozes quality.
Stick it on the E-M1 and it looks and feels like it was designed to be on the camera, which it probably was.
Although still easier on the shoulders than a DSLR, this is not a lightweight combination. I compared it to my set-up when I first started with M43, the GF1 and the 14-45mm; the E-M1 with the 12-40mm is twice the weight.
There are a couple of features on this lens which are unusual. The first is the provision of a function button which can be programmed to do your bidding, just in case the numerous programmable buttons on the E-M1 are not enough for you. The second is the focus ring collar which can be slid down to initiate a more precise, and manual focus:
By switching on manual focus, the camera will also initiate whatever manual focusing aid you wish to utilise. Personally, I find focus peaking to be misleading and unpleasant on the eye, so I use magnification. Slide back the focus collar and the image zooms in for extremely fine manual focus; lovely. The only downside of this is that, if you have previously acquired focus automatically and are just zooming in to fine tune, the lens forgets about your previous auto-focus and you have to start again. Apart from that; great feature.
I suppose I should also mention that the lens comes with a hood; which of course it bloody well should do for the price; but that has not stopped Olympus ripping us off an additional cost for a hood on their expensive lenses (e.g. 75mm). It’s an adequate hood, which is locked in place and you have to press two buttons to release it; something I managed to do by mistake on several occasions when holding the lens by the little buttons….
The other aspect of this lens worth highlighting is its ability to close focus. You are not going to become frustrated because you can’t get close to your subjects; with this lens you can be almost touching them.
E-M1 with 12-40mm lens at 40mm, F4.5
So there we are, a solid piece of kit that looked like it would do the job; but before committing it to my next Japan trip, I decided to see how it performed against some other lenses, specifically:
Olympus 12mm F2. If you want to shoot only primes, this would be a contender and it should easily match the zoom. I don’t have it, but a friend lent me his copy.
Panasonic 7-14mm – When you can avoid the purple flaring on the E-M1, this is a cracking lens. How would it compare with the Olympus zoom at the same focal length?
Panasonic 14-45mm. The original kit zoom with the GF1 and still the best of the kit lenses. Not as fast as the 12-40mmm; but how would the IQ compare.
Panasonic 25mm. A beast at F1.4; but how much better would it be than the 12-40mm for general shooting?
Olympus 45mm. A little outside the range of the 12-40mm, but I wanted to compare IQ.
I better state up front that this was a quick and dirty comparison, carried out for my own amusement; and if you are expecting downloads of RAW files which can then peruse at 400% magnification; you are going to be very disappointed and need to head off to wewankoverlensedetails.com immediately. Neither am I going to include every comparison shot, but hopefully the following will give you an idea of the relative competence of this lens against some of its competition.
I shot two targets, both selected with no particular thought, and both shot from the same location on a tripod; so the view changed as focal lengths increased. But this was the view at 12mm:
For each lens, I made a comparison shot at F5.6, plus a comparison shot as wide open as possible for each of the lenses (e.g. with the 25mm I shot at F2.8 to match the 12-40mm). All shots were in RAW, exported as JPEG from Lightroom with no processing other than cropping. The images below are 100% crops.
Comparison with Olympus 12mm.
At F2.8, there is not much to choose between the two lenses; at F5.6 the 12mm prime seems to have the edge. But talking of edges, the 12-40mm is much sharper at the edge of the frame:
Other than the slightly faster aperture, the 12mm did not score the big win over the zoom that I expected, and it lost out on the edge to edge sharpness of the 12-40mm. I am glad the 12mm did not belong to me or else I would be having to sell it.
Comparison with Panasonic 7-14mm at 12mm
Similar results to the 12mm, nothing to choose between them in the centre crop; but the 12-40mm does much better on the edge. Of course, you might get a different result if you put the lenses on a Panasonic body.
That doesn’t make the 7-14mm redundant of course, sometimes that 7mm can be really useful; but how often would I bother to use it if the 12-40mm was mounted on my camera?
Comparison with Panasonic 14-45mm at 25mm
Unsurprisingly, good as the 14-45mm is, it can’t compare to the 12-40mm. Even so, it would still serve as a lighter, smaller and cheaper alternative in a similar zoom range; provided you had plenty of light to play with.
Comparison with Panasonic 25mm
The Panasonic 25mm has been my walk-around lens, and the 12-40mm would effectively replace it in this role, whilst of course offering flexibility of focal length but without the F1.4 possibilities. How much worse would the IQ be on the 12-40Mmm?
The 25mm is a very special lens and I was not expecting the same quality from a zoom; but to my eyes there is little to choose between them at the centre, with the 12-40mm maybe winning out slightly (again) at the edges. A very surprising (and pleasing) result. This meant that I could use the 12-40mm as my “standard” lens without feeling I was losing out in IQ.
Comparison with Olympus 45mm
Serious tests of the 12-40mm, with charts and other important evidence, indicate that it is very strong at the wide end, but weaker at the telephoto end; and this comparison seemed to support that; with the 45mm providing better IQ. Does this mean I would swap out the 12-40mm for the 45mm for longer shots? Probably not; unless ultimate IQ was the aim; and for me it rarely is.
In summary, the 12-40mm performed as well as the 7-14mm and 20mm (better at the edges); was better than the 14-45mm, kept pace with the 24mm and was beaten by the 45mm. Overall I thought this was an impressive result and headed out to Japan confident it would serve me well.
First to fail in the “lenses I used in Japan” contest was the 45mm. I really didn’t think I would use it much with 40mm available with the zoom, even if the IQ of the 45mm was better. So I left it at home.
Next up was the 7-14mm which I left in the hotel room, on the understanding that if I found I was missing it I would take it with me on subsequent days. I think there were two occasions in the week I was there that I thought I might have used it; so it had a nice relaxing week in my suitcase.
I took the 25mm for low light shots, at night and at markets and I took a total of 105 shots with this lens.
I took the 75mm for longer shots and because I love it dearly. I took a total of 146 shots with this lens.
And then there was the 12-40mm which spend most of the trip welded to the front of the E-M1. I took 1064 shots with this lens.
It was such a pleasure to use, and so refreshing not to be constantly switching lenses as I was the last time. It was this shot which really brought home how I love the combination the E-M1 and the 12-40mm:
E-M1 with 12-40mm at 26mm and F2.8
I had to get low in order to have the autumn colours in the background, and I had to lean over a fence at the same time. So I folded out the rear screen on the E-M1 and stretched over the fence. Not an ideal position to keep the camera steady; but IBIS was protecting me. I wanted to make sure the sun didn’t blow out the colours in the berries; so dialed in exposure compensation till I could see the highlights weren’t blown. Finally, I wanted to make sure that the front berries were completely in focus; so I pulled back on the focus collar and manually focused. Camera and lens working together to give me the shot I wanted.
Here are some more shots taken with the 12-40mm during the trip (more can be seen here):
E-M1 with 12-40mm at 29mm and F2.8
Conclusion: The 12-40mm is very competent lens and the perfect companion to the E-M1. The pair are not as light an M43 set-up can be; but you won’t find a better pairing for travel and general photography.