Friday, August 30, 2013

The Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 Zoom.

The Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 on a GX1 body.
I invested in the micro 4/3 format some time back, but never got around to taking it seriously especially since I shoot with a Nikon D800, which is an amazing camera.

I have used the Panasonic GX1 with the kit lens (14-42mm f3.5-f5.6) during my Ladakh trekking trip, but the slowness of that lens never really impressed me. It is good in daylight, but gives poor results in low light situations. I tried using prime lenses, but that becomes extremely inconvenient for trekking, where you need to travel as light as possible, and changing lenses on the side of steep trails is not an option.

Since I do lot of trekking, I wanted something comparable to the results of the D800, but without the bulk. Is that even remotely possible?.  When Panasonic announced their professional grade 12-35mm f2.8 fixed aperture lens, I was immediately interested. Could this be it?

The price of the lens was a deterrent for me. At $1,299 it is priced almost similar to a professional grade FX lens. I thought if the price ever goes below $1000, I would jump at the opportunity to own this lens. Over the last few months, Amazon dropped the price by $100 to $1,199, but it still wasn't enticing enough for me.
Few days back, I happened to be browsing eBay and saw a listing by t-Dimension, a highly reputable camera seller based in Hong Kong. They had it listed for $872. A difference of $247 from Amazon's price. After doing a double-take, I did some investigation to make sure it was exactly the same lens, and quickly ordered it. 4 days later, I had the lens in my possession. It's a good thing I bought it when I did. As I am writing this review, t-Dimension has it listed for $909. Perhaps my purchase caused a spike in their inventory, and they decided to increase the price.

In terms of focal length, the 12-35mm on a m4/3 format translates into a 24-70mm in full frame format. This is the range I love for my outdoor adventures, as it gives me everything from wide angle (24mm, for landscape shots), to mid-telephoto (70mm, for portraits and close-up work). In fact, in terms of its light gathering capabilities, it is equivalent to the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 (a lens that stays on my D800 90% of the time).

Comparison of GX1 and D800 with similar lenses.
As can be seen above, the 12-35mm lens is not exactly a small lens, but when compared to its FX counterpart, it looks diminutive. The GX1 with the 12-35mm lens weighs just under 700 grams, while the D800 with the 24-70mm lens clocks in at approximately 2 Kgs. That's 1/3rd the weight. Carrying the 2Kgs weight of a Nikon D800 for a short period is fine, but when you are trekking for 8-10 hours per day, that weight feels like a block of stone, and it makes all the difference between having an enjoyable trek, and a painful trek.

Some of the salient features of the 12-35mm lens:
  1. Silent and fast focusing (great for videography).
  2. Build construction is solid
  3. It has nano coating to reduce flaring and ghosting.
  4. Weather sealed.

The last bit is important for me. The lens is weather sealed, which means it can take some rain and dust and not get affected by it. The camera body (GX1), on the other hand, is not weather sealed. So if this is going to be a really adventure combo, I would need to look for a weather sealed body (something like the Olympus OM-D EM5, or the slightly bulkier Panasonic GH3).

In terms of image quality, I decided to compare the results of both the cameras in a similar environment as they both have the same angle of view, and the same light gathering capabilities.

Left: Nikon D800, Right GX1 (both shot at ISO 400, f2.8, 1/25th)
In terms of image quality, it is almost similar. The colors on the D800 look more saturated because I just took the default JPEG files without any post processing. Similar results can be achieved from the GX1 by adjusting the saturation levels in the camera, or adjusting it in post processing.

The glaring difference in the above pictures is the 'depth of field'. On the D800, the background image and the text is blurred because of the shallow depth of field with the aperture opened at f2.8. On the GX1, the same aperture does not give the equivalent shallowness in the depth of field. The text is reasonably sharp. This is due to the smaller sensor size on the micro four third cameras. The equivalent DOF is f5.6. It is something to be kept in mind when investing in either the FX or smaller sensor cameras.

To further look at the quality of the image, I took 100% crop of each image. I had to re-size the 36 mega-pixel D800 image to be similar in size to the 16 mega-pixel file generated by the GX1.

100% crop of image. Left is D800, right is GX1.
In terms of sharpness, the D800 is obviously sharper, but the GX1 (with the new lens) is no slouch either. For the type of photography I want to do with the micro four third, the difference is immaterial to me when I consider the advantages of carrying a smaller package for outdoor activities.

I'll be using the GX1 with the 12-35mm a lot more often to make sure I am comfortable with the new combo and hopefully, this will be my gear for all those trekking trips I have in mind.

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