Thursday, August 25, 2011

Panasonic's New X-Series Lenses Might Be A Great Idea (UPDATED)

I have seemingly been doing nothing but lampooning Panasonic and Olympus recently, and with good reason. They are completely misunderstanding their global market. They are doing quite well indeed in Japan, but nowhere else. That said, Panasonic will be releasing something that I can actually kinda'-sorta' get behind.

Panasonic will be announcing their new X-Series line of lenses shortly, and the whole deal with these lenses is incredible sharpness in a super-compact body. They are achieving this primarily by removing physical controls on the lens. Zoom and focus will be controlled by two little pressure switches on the side of the lens.

Panasonic's strategy is easy to see: they're trying to make a pro-level compact camera. They are doing this by applying high-end lens designs and manufacturing to a super-compact size, much like Olympus did with the stellar lens in the XZ-1. Many-a-pro that I know or whose website I read yearns for a super-compact pro-level camera, and m4/3 might be able to manage that.

I have doubts, though. Optics are a cruel mistress, and there are certain limitations to any design. The 4/3 sensor is small, but not that small. For example, the XZ-1 has a maximum aperture of 1.8-2.5, with a focal length range of 28-112mm. Panasonic's X lens cannot possibly match that, and shocker, it doesn't. Still, these lenses will certainly cater to their home market in Japan and might lure in pros and enthusiasts in other countries. It all depends on how many pros out there are actually wanting a high-end super-compact.

I don't have any data about this market, only anecdotal evidence. I also have myself. I have the 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 which is an excellent lens. Cheap too! It's larger than the 20mm f1.7, but that's not what stops me from taking it out; it's the slow aperture.

M4/3 sensors really start to lose saturation at ISO400, which means that the faster the lens, the better. APS-C and FF cameras have much more leeway, but not m4/3. You do NOT want your ISO exceeding 800. And even in sunlight, I have that 20mm attached. Because no matter how bright you think that your environment is going to be, you always, ALWAYS, end up in some shadow that is magically pitch-black and requires ISO1600.

So from the pro perspective, I think that Panny is off-target. They shouldn't be concerned with size, but aperture. The 20mm lens almost never leaves my GF1 simply because the aperture is so large. Once I get the Leica f1.4, that lens will likely never leave my camera. If the Voigtlander f0.95 had autofocus, it would never leave my camera. Basically, if the size combo of the 20mm and the GF3 isn't enough to attract pros looking for small size, nothing will. And with the loss of manual control over focus and zoom, the new lenses will probably not lure anyone from the cheaper 14-45mm and 45-200mm.

All that said, these lenses are certainly unique. If they are significantly sharper than current lenses, I might buy them. Lord knows, the 45-200mm isn't terribly sharp. The small size is likewise somewhat attractive, but I'd have to wait and try the new control scheme. But what's important is that Panasonic is producing something interesting and widely useful! The only two interesting lenses that they have made are the 7-14mm and 20mm. The 7-14mm is very much a special-use lens, and the 20mm is one of the most amazing general use lenses ever made and, no surprise, has been a runaway sales blockbuster.

In conclusion, don't do drugs.


Panasonic has announced the lenses along with two more leaked to the press for release in 2012. Obviously, supplied MTF charts are totally useless, but if we assume that they are somewhat useful in comparing lenses from the same company, we can glean at least a small bit of data.

Both the 14-42mm and 45-175mm are sharper than the lenses that they are ostensibly replacing. The 45-175mm nets the biggest boost with a significant increase in contrast at 175mm in comparison to the 45-200mm at 175-200mm. This is great, because the old lens was very, um, mellow, at 200mm. Stopping down to F8 would draw out some more detail, but at apertures like that, one needed to bump up the ISO... which 4/3 cameras don't like.

If the prices for these lenses are correct, namely less than $500 each, they will be good values. I will probably buy them.

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