Which Micro 4/3 Lens for Landscapes

This Blea Watern tarn below High Street in the English Lake District. Captured using an Olympus 9-18mm lens on a GX1 body with a 0.6 ND graduated filter. Post processing in Lightroom and Nik SilverEfex Pro.

Something I find really valuable is the Statistics module of my blog. Not only does this show me how my readership is growing but also how people have found my blog. One of the most interesting aspects of this is the section on search terms used as often these are people looking for answers to questions about Light Weight Photography. The title of this blog is one such question I have seen appear a few times.

Firstly I will qualify my answer by saying I have not done extensive testing with all lenses and neither will I present lots of evidence to support my findings. I also won’t try to find the absolute best lens for sharpness or resolution. What I will present will be some practical thinking from the perspective of a Landscape Photographer using a Micro 4/3 camera that I think people might find valuable. Life’s too short to look at details that won’t show up in the final print. I would rather be taking pictures.

The majority of Landscape images are created using wide angle and ultra wide angle lenses. It’s true that there are exceptions but I think 80% of shots are probably taken with a 28mm or wider lens (in full frame 35mm terms). In the Micro 4/3 world this translates into using a lens that’s 14mm or wider.

For my own work I tend to use a 14-45mm Panasonic lens a lot especially when walking (possibly more so than I would have thought before I checked my archives). I think this is down to the way I use the smaller camera (GX1) as I tend to get down lower and move in closer to my subject than I do when I have a DSLR mounted on a tripod. This helps me make the most of the wide angle, emphasising the foreground and I often find 14mm is wide enough.

This is a good lens in terms of contrast levels, sharpness and ability to resolve detail in subjects, even at distance. It therefore meets my criteria for a good quality lens that can be used for Landscapes. If you buy a reasonable example of this lens on the second hand market it will be a good investment. I know there are later examples of this lens when it was changed to a 14-42mm and also a Powerzoom variant but I have yet to see RAW files shot with these that measure up to the 14-45mm.

The problem with the 14-45mm is that it’s not really wide enough for some subjects and most Landscape photographers want something that is at least 20mm (in 35mm full frame terms). The options for wider lenses are however quite limited with only two current choices:

  1. Panasonic 7-14mm (equivalent to 14mm – 28mm) for which you can expect to pay around £700
  2. Olympus 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) costing around £400

The lens I went for was the Olympus 9-18mm but not because of the cheaper price. It was because it is not possible to attach screw in filters to the front of the Panasonic lens as the glass element extends beyond the end of the lens.

Do I think I have compromised by buying the cheaper lens? Not at all.

The Olympus is perfect, light and very small. It has a neat trick of collapsing down when not in use. This is also a brilliant lens for capturing sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion. It lacks the image stabiliser but that’s not really a problem for the sort of use it will be put to.

So if I had to recommend one lens to use when shooting landscapes with a micro 4/3 camera, it would be the Olympus 9-18mm.

Are we being lead in the wrong direction

Shot on a GX1 with Olympus 9-18 lens as part of my Cloud Structures project

I don’t ordinarily like to pass comment over what’s happening in the photography industry but I actually think things are getting a little “interesting” at the moment. In recent months the idea of Lightweight Photography has really grabbed people’s imagination and camera manufacturers have responded with a glut of new offers. We have seen multiple camera releases from the likes of Sony and Fuji and even Canon has joined in on the game with the new M series compact. Innovation is rife with most manufacturers trying to squeeze more megapixels into the sensors and even larger sensors into the cameras. Just the other day Sony launched the first full frame compact camera which is indeed a great achievement.

Is there a downside? YES – Have you seen the price of these things? I suspect companies are trying to recover their entire R&D bill with the first model they release and that smacks of short term profiteering to me. The pace of change has accelerated and the lifespan of cameras is getting shorter. With it the risk for the camera manufacturers has increased and I don’t think they like that so they pass the risk and cost on to us the consumer. I think this will result in lots of new gimmicks being released regularly as well as an increase in prices as manufacturers ask us to buy more often and pay more for our cameras whilst trying to recover R&D costs more quickly.

My suspicion (and I think we are seeing some of this) is that we will be told (brainwashed if you like) that all the existing cameras/sensors are no good and we need to upgrade to the latest, newest fastest, highest quality camera. I don’t know about you but I have limited funds to spend on replacing my equipment and I like to get good value from it. I do hope some of the manufacturers read this and realise we the consumer are passionate about photography. They can just keep thinking about making money for shareholders; they need to give something back to the enthusiast also.

To prove the point, I have recently been answering some questions for one of our readers who was considering buying a new GX1. I found myself playing down the quality of the images from the GX1 as it didn’t quite measure up to the quality from the 5D MkII which is a full frame, 21Mpixels DSLR with L series lenses. I then printed the image above and realised I was being drawn in by the marketing machine.

The image was shot on a GX1 with an Olympus 9-18mm lens. I printed it at A3+ and even pressing my nose right up to the print it looks good. No, I will rephrase that, it looks amazing; even in the areas that I thought were a little suspect on the screen (at 100%). I now know I could print this image much larger if I wanted to and still get a fantastic print. Why then would I need to upgrade my camera to an “even better” model?

What I have come to realise is the old advice of investing in the highest quality lenses in preference to buying a better camera is now true again. At the start of the digital revolution this wasn’t the case as cameras and sensors needed to catch up with film. Now we can produce super quality huge prints from tiny cameras the old adage has kicked in again. I for one would like to see the manufacturers put as much development into their lenses so that we can have tiny lenses that resolve huge amounts of detail, have fast constant apertures and are super sharp for a reasonable price. Unfortunately I can’t see this happening any time soon as that’s not where the money is to be made. As always I am interested in any other thoughts on this subject.

New Tutorial Live

My latest Lightroom Tutorial is live and available for free download from my Lenscraft website. It’s published in PDF format and goes live ahead of publication on ePHOTOzine. The last tutorial proved very popular and I am always open to suggestions for future articles.

Membership of Lenscraft is free and you will gain access to past tutorials and newsletters. I also promise you won’t receive loads of spam and unsolicited offers. I do this because I enjoy sharing my experience with like minded photographers.

Why I Changed my Camera

Haweswater in the English Lake District. Shot on a GX1 with 14-45mm kit lens from a GF1.

In the past I have received quite a bit of correspondence from people wondering why I changed my camera from the Sony NEX-5 to a GX1. There is also a fairly regular flow of people wondering what I think of the GX1 or the Panasonic system in general and is it worth investing in. Since I started publishing the Light Weight Photography blog in addition to my Lenscraft website the volume of enquiries has accelerated. It seems many people are considering going light weight but just have some doubts. I thought therefore I would take a little time to outline how my journey has brought me to the Panasonic GX1 in the hope that it will help anyone facing this decision. If this raises any questions, add them to this blog posting below and I will do my best to answer.

Firstly I would like to say that I won’t recommend anyone reading this make a decision based on what I like and what suites me. Selecting a camera is a very personal choice and one that each photographer has to make for themselves. I will however outline why I have made the choices I have.

My first serious “light weight” camera was a Sony R1. This had a 10Mpixel sensor and a fixed Zeiss lens which was the equivalent of 24mm-120mm. The camera produced good images that I was very pleased with but the resolution really became too small for what I wanted to do with my work (mainly stock and fine art). The sensor was starting to show its age with poor low light performance (due to noise) and the entire camera was still the size of a small DSLR. (By the way I still miss this camera.)

It was these limitations together with the launch of the NEX-5 that convinced me to sell the R1 and buy the NEX-5. My hope was that the NEX-5 would perform similarly to the R1 with a higher pixel resolution (14Mpixels), better low light performance, all in a smaller package with a more complete coverage of focal lengths. To go with the NEX-5 body I purchased the pancake wide angle prime 16mm lens, the kit lens which I think was an 18-55mm and the very large 18-200mm super zoom. At the time this was the entire range of lenses although there were regular rumours of new lenses.

The Matterhorn, Switzerland
The Matterhorn, Switzerland. Shot with a Sony NEX-5 and 18-55mm kit lens.

Initially I was happy with the camera and impressed with some aspects such as the excellent sensor and small size. I soon became aware however of new limitations and that my decision to purchase the Sony had been heavily influenced by the performance of the R1. I had reasoned that Sony had produced such a great camera in the R1 that the NEX-5 had to be better – but for me it wasn’t.

The body and kit lens together were still too bulky and the 18-200 lens was simply huge. The prime 16mm and kit lens whilst tiny suffered from diffraction and left my pictures a little soft (not a lot but enough to frustrate me). Corner focus on all lenses ranged from acceptable to dreadful and I was having my images regularly rejected by Stock libraries as a result. Worst of all for a landscape photographer was that the widest lens equated to 24mm on a full frame camera and I needed at least a 20mm.

For a while I considered a lens adapter with the NEX-5 but I still couldn’t get the lens quality and focus length I wanted in a compact, lightweight package. It was this that caused me to switch to a Panasonic GF1 which was starting to show its age at that time. This was a 12Mpixel camera and I purchased a 14-45mm lens, a wide angle 9-18mm (equivalent to 18-36mm) and 45-200 lens. This was a great outfit with quality lenses in the focus lengths I wanted, all in a small package. The image quality was good and I never had an image rejected from this camera.

Dovestone
Dovestone on the edge of the Peak District (near to my home). Shot on a GF1 with 14-45mm kit lens.

I have to admit that I loved this camera due to its design, build and size (my daughter now has it). The limitation was that the sensor wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked. I could see a little too much noise and at 12Mpixel it was still a little too small. It was these limitations that encouraged me to purchase the GX1 body with its 16Mpixel sensor. The lenses I have kept because I think they are excellent in terms of image quality, build, size and weight. The 9-18mm in particular is amazing.

I think the GX1 produces great pictures but it’s probably not the end of my journey. Ideally I want a 20Mpixel sensor with better low light capabilities. I also find the GX1 sensor still has a little too much noise for my taste (you may think otherwise) so I often apply light noise reduction even at ISO100. I should mention to put this in perspective that I can often see noise patterns in my 5D MKII even at ISO100. The size and lenses are however spot on and I can only see myself adding to these. In fact I have also added the Panasonic 20mm prime and Olympus 45mm prime which are both first rate.

I think my view has now shifted to make lenses my most important factor when choosing a camera system (providing its small and light) and I accept that I will upgrade my camera body from time to time. I hope from this explanation that you can see my journey and reasoning and that it will help you. As I mentioned above, if anyone has any questions post them here and I will do my best to answer.

Is this the biggest compact camera advantage

View from the Summit of Kidsty Pike

Some years back I made a startling discovery. I was finding that when presented with the same location, photographers with compact cameras often produced better photographs than those with expensive SLR’s. At first I dismissed this as a fluke but then I started to notice this scenario again and again at all sorts of locations.

Now when I say better, it would be easy to dismiss this as being personal preference. Yes there might have been some of this at work but others also seemed to agree. It’s also worth me pointing out that when I say better photographs I am not referring to qualitative such as sharpness of image or colour rendition or noise free images. What I am really talking about is composition which after all is the cornerstone of photography. People with compact cameras were regularly finding better compositions than photographers with more expensive equipment and quite often years of experience.

There are a couple of factors that I think might have been at work here:

  1. Experienced photographers who often have “superior” equipment can restrict their creativity by thinking the image that would be produced will be of an inferior quality so they don’t try the shot. The less experienced photographer just takes the shot because they like the image and quality is a secondary (if that) consideration. They just want to take a nice photograph.
  2. The way you use a small compact camera is very different to the way you use a DSLR. With the compact camera you hold it away from you and view the image on the LCD. This gives you great freedom of movement and you tend to move in towards the subject so that it fills the frame. You also tend to twist and turn the camera easily until you find the most appealing composition. With the DSLR you hold this to your eye which is often held at eye level and further away from the subject. Holding the camera to your eye also steadies it but tends to restrict the movement because it requires you move your head and entire body. I believe this limits the compositions you will try and chances are, prevent you from finding the best one.

Back in the “olden days” of film we often used cards with windows cut into them to explore composition but I haven’t seen anyone do this for a long time. If you are a hardened DSLR user you might want to consider using a compact camera as a compositional aid.

As for the image here, it was shot on my GX1 with an Olympus 9-18 lens and shows the view from the summit of Kidsty Pike in the Lake District. Had I been using a DSLR I doubt I would have moved in quite so close to the foreground rocks and I doubt the image would have had quite so dynamic a composition.

I should also have said to click on the image and zoom in. I have posted a slightly larger file than usual. When you view it a full size it gives a greater feeling of depth.

New Tutoral Published

Image

I have just uploaded a new Lightroom tutorial to the members area of my Lenscraft website. It covers the key controls in the Develop module and is one of a few that I am currently working on.

 The article will probably go live on ePHOTOzine in the next could of weeks but members have the opportunity to read it first and also download it as a pdf file for offline viewing.

 Enjoy

 Oh yes, and if you are wondering about the image it’s a shot from a few years back which I have reprocessed with my new Nik software. It was shot on a Canon 400D which isn’t really lightweight but my processing was. The conversion only took a couple of minutes work.

Color Passport Update

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In past blogs I have discussed how useful I find the Color Passport from Xrite. Initially I used this to set my white balance in the GX1 so that the AWB setting I tend to use almost 100% of the time is more accurate. Previously this was setting the colour temperature to 4,700K and the tint adjustment in Lightroom to 0. Having created a custom white balance the colour temperature has increased to 5,400K and the tint to +8. These are significant corrections and ones that I probably wouldn’t have landed on myself.

The other thing I have used the Color Passport for is to create a custom calibration profile for the GX1. Again this is having a dramatic effect as the contrast increases, pinks have become more vibrant, orange less saturated and blues and greens look more natural. I now use this profile as the starting point for all my conversions for the GX1.

The other night I was adjusting images before sending them to my stock library. My workflow for this uses a separate package for keywording and Lightroom for the RAW file conversion. What I happened to notice when doing this was that the thumbnails in the keywording application appeared more natural than the image in Lightroom, despite having used my custom camera calibration. After a little adjustment to the calibration slider I found setting the Green Hue to -33 and the Green saturation to -11 gave me much more natural Landscape greens.

Now I don’t know if this setting will work for all images so I decided to apply it to other shots in the batch. I created a custom Lightroom Preset and applied it to a few others. Yes they improved but there was also an interesting side effect with some. Applying the preset seemed to change the histogram substantially. Histograms that lacked contrast and that were gathered in the mid tones now extended across a greater tonal range and in some instances filled the histogram. Looking more closely at these images I found the details appeared crisper (which might be expected from improved contrast) but the luminance noise appeared reduced even though I hadn’t applied any noise reduction. Whilst you might struggle to see what I am talking about at this reduced resolution, here is a comparison from the above image (click the image to enlarge).

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I will keep a close eye on this in the future, but it seems to have given a promising improvement to quality, which is all important with stock images.

Making Mirrorless Work

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