PANA­SONIC LE­ICA DG VAR­I­OEL­MARIT 8-18mm f2.8-4.0 ASPH

There are lots of yummy lenses for the Mi­cro Four Thirds mir­ror­less for­mat, in­clud­ing Pana­sonic’s Le­ica DG line-up, to which has been added a very de­sir­able com­pact ul­tra-wide zoom.

Camera - - CONTENTS -

Lens choice is the most com­pelling rea­son for adopt­ing the Mi­cro Four Thirds mir­ror­less camera for­mat, and Pana­sonic is do­ing its bit with its grow­ing line-up of Le­ica-de­signed high-end mod­els. Equiv­a­lent to 16-36mm, the new ul­tra-wide zoom is a bit pricey, but worth ev­ery cent in terms of its superlative op­ti­cal per­for­mance.

Lenses are un­doubt­edly a ma­jor at­trac­tion of the Mi­cro Four Thirds mir­ror­less camera sys­tem as not only chief pro­tag­o­nists Pana­sonic and Olym­pus, but also many in­de­pen­dents, make the most of the 1.97x fo­cal length mag­ni­fi­ca­tion fac­tor. The smaller sen­sor re­ally de­liv­ers on the key at­trac­tion of a mir­ror­less sys­tem, namely more com­pact cam­eras and lenses, es­pe­cially the tele­pho­tos. But there’s a lot hap­pen­ing with wide-an­gles too, both primes and zooms.

With no real her­itage in pho­to­graphic lenses, Pana­sonic has clev­erly hooked up with Le­ica to en­hance its op­ti­cal cred, and this re­la­tion­ship goes a lot fur­ther than merely lever­ag­ing the brand­name. There’s a grow­ing sys­tem of lenses for the Lu­mix G cam­eras which only carry the Le­ica name (un­less you look very care­fully at the small print) and are even styled to look like the fa­mous Ger­man mar­que’s own prod­ucts. While these lenses are made in Ja­pan – Le­ica could never de­liver the re­quired vol­umes – their de­signs largely orig­i­nate in Ger­many and their op­ti­cal per­for­mance has get the tick of ap­proval from Wet­zlar. It’s a com­pelling rea­son to think se­ri­ously about MFT as your mir­ror­less for­mat, es­pe­cially as the Le­ica DG line-up for Lu­mix al­ready in­cludes the su­perb 100400mm tele­zoom (equiv­a­lent to 200-800mm) and the 12-60mm (24-120mm) stan­dard zoom. Now there’s a wide-an­gle zoom which de­liv­ers the equiv­a­lent of 16-36mm in a nicely com­pact and very Le­ica-es­que pack­age.

The Le­ica DG Vario-El­marit 8-18mm f2.8-4.0 ASPH – to give it its full ti­tle – is ac­tu­ally ul­tra-wide at its short­est fo­cal length which de­liv­ers a di­ag­o­nal an­gle-of-view of 107 de­grees, yet in phys­i­cal terms, this lens is still pretty com­pact and weighs in at just over 300 grams. The size is, of course, par­tially down to the for­mat, but can also be at­trib­uted to the var­i­ous spe­cial el­e­ments used in the op­ti­cal con­struc­tion.

Out of the 15 el­e­ments em­ployed in to­tal, seven are spe­cial types – four as­pher­i­cal el­e­ments (in­clud­ing one made from ex­tra-low dis­per­sion glass), a fur­ther two made from ED glass and one which Pana­sonic calls a ‘UHR’ type. These ini­tials stand for “ul­tra-high re­frac­tive” as in the el­e­ment’s abil­ity to bend light rays via its op­ti­cal for­mu­la­tion (with the ex­tra-low dis­per­sion el­e­ments then work­ing to keep all the dif­fer­ent wave­lengths as close to­gether as pos­si­ble).

While a to­tal of 15 el­e­ments might seem like a lot, not so long ago an ul­tra-wide zoom like this would have re­quired a much more com­plex op­ti­cal con­struc­tion. The spe­cial el­e­ments also de­liver var­i­ous per­for­mance en­hance­ments, in­clud­ing the re­duc­tion of dis­tor­tion and chro­matic aber­ra­tions while in­creas­ing the uni­for­mity of both cen­tre-to-cor­ner sharp­ness and bright­ness. Pana­sonic’s ‘Nano Sur­face Coat­ing’ ul­tra­thin multi-coat­ings are used on the air sur­faces to min­imise in­ter­nal re­flec­tions, in­clud­ing ghost­ing and flare.

“VERY LEICAESQUE ARE THE HIGH CON­TRAST CHAR­AC­TER­IS­TICS OF THE OP­TICS WHICH CON­TRIB­UTE TO NICELY PUNCHYLOOKING IM­AGES.”

IN THE HAND

On the out­side, the Le­ica 8-18mm zoom has al­loy bar­rel tubes and is sealed to pre­vent the in­tru­sion of dust and mois­ture. The weather pro­tec­tion also in­cludes a lens mount gas­ket and in­su­la­tion to per­mit shoot­ing in sub­zero tem­per­a­tures down to -10 de­grees Cel­sius. This matches the all-weather ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the top-of-the-line Lu­mix G bod­ies (GX8, GH5, etc.) and also, of course, the Olym­pus OM-D E-M1 II and E-M5 II.

The styling is quite Ger­manic in its el­e­gant sim­plic­ity so there’s more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to a Le­ica M lens, in­clud­ing the type­style and colour of the fo­cal length mark­ings on the bar­rel (which has a black satin fin­ish). Of course, un­like the M lenses, the M34 mount mod­els are aut­o­fo­cus and, as with the 100-400mm, the 8-18mm em­ploys a mi­cro­mo­tor which op­er­ates at 240 fps to com­ple­ment Pana­sonic’s ‘FAST’ con­trast-de­tec­tion AF. It’s com­pletely silent – which is im­por­tant for video work – as is the elec­tro­mag­net­i­cally-con­trolled di­aphragm that gives smoother aper­ture ad­just­ments.

The zoom con­trol ring is nicely weighted – as is the man­ual fo­cus­ing col­lar – even though it’s fly-by-wire rather than me­chan­i­cal so there are no stops. There’s a sin­gle switch for AF/MF se­lec­tion, but noth­ing else, although whether this lens re­ally needs, say, op­ti­cal im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion or a fo­cus lim­iter is de­bat­able. How­ever, dis­tance mark­ings and per­haps even a depth-of-field scale might have been use­ful.

It’s a vari-fo­cal de­sign which means zoom­ing first and then fo­cus­ing, other­wise re­fo­cus­ing will be needed af­ter any fur­ther ad­just­ment to the fo­cal length. The min­i­mum fo­cus­ing dis­tance is 23 cen­time­tres so, while it’s nowhere near be­ing macro, the close-up ca­pa­bil­i­ties at 18mm (i.e. 36mm) will de­liver around a quar­ter life­size re­pro­duc­tion.

PER­FOR­MANCE

The Le­ica 8-18mm looked very much at home on the Lu­mix GX8 body we used for test­ing, cre­at­ing a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the clas­sic rangefinder camera. It feels very com­fort­able in the hand too, and there’s no ques­tion this is a very well-made lens as well. AF op­er­a­tion with the GX8 is fast and ac­cu­rate with no hes­i­ta­tion or hunt­ing.

It’s an im­pres­sively sharp lens with ex­cel­lent cen­tre-to-cor­ner uni­for­mity across the fo­cal range and from f2.8 to f11, af­ter which dif­frac­tion causes some slight soft­en­ing in the cor­ners at f16 and more so at f22. This zoom ac­tu­ally does its best work at its short­est fo­cal length and widest aper­tures which is no mean feat op­ti­cally and means sharp­ness isn’t com­pro­mised when shoot­ing in lower light lev­els when ei­ther f2.8 or f4.0 are re­ally nec­es­sary. Also Le­ica-es­que are the high con­trast char­ac­ter­is­tics of the op­tics which con­trib­ute to very punchy-look­ing im­ages. Vi­gnetting doesn’t ap­pear to be an is­sue at all, and chro­matic aber­ra­tions are very well con­trolled from 8mm to around 14mm with only very slight colour fring­ing ev­i­dent at the edges of the frame from here to 16mm (eas­ily cor­rected post-camera).

There’s also a big tick along­side the cor­rec­tion for dis­tor­tion which can of­ten be an is­sue with an ul­tra­w­ide zoom. Very slight bar­rel-type bend­ing ex­ists at the 8mm fo­cal length but it’s gone by 10mm – when the lens is al­most per­fectly cor­rected – to be re­placed by slight pin­cush­ion-type bend­ing at the long­est fo­cal lengths. In re­al­ity, nei­ther are likely to be vis­i­ble un­less there are straight lines lo­cated im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to the edges of the frame… so a lit­tle care may be needed with ar­chi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­phy or in­te­ri­ors, but it’s not go­ing to trou­ble any­body shoot­ing, for ex­am­ple, land­scapes.

Although the front el­e­ment is fairly re­cessed even with­out fit­ting the sup­plied hood, flare can be an is­sue when shoot­ing into the light at the widest fo­cal lengths. And it’s per­haps more no­tice­able here be­cause the con­trast is just so good other­wise. To min­imise light fall­ing across the front of the lens, us­ing the hood is es­sen­tial, but there may be sit­u­a­tions where it’s un­avoid­able, es­pe­cially at 8mm.

THE VER­DICT

At a shade un­der $1600, the Le­ica DG Vario-El­marit 8-18mm f2.8-4.0 zoom rep­re­sents a sub­stan­tial in­vest­ment, but there’s a lot to be had in re­turn. The fo­cal range is more ver­sa­tile than might be ini­tially sup­posed, backed by the f2.8-4.0 max­i­mum aper­ture range and the rea­son­ably use­ful close-up fo­cus­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. How­ever, it’s all topped off by the ex­cel­lent op­ti­cal per­for­mance at all fo­cal lengths; most no­tably the su­perb sharp­ness and con­trast, but also the high lev­els of cor­rec­tion for both dis­tor­tion and chro­matic aber­ra­tions.

Over­all, then, this 8-18mm zoom re­ally is wor­thy of wear­ing the Le­ica name which, of course, means it’s ac­tu­ally an ab­so­lute bar­gain. It of­fers all the most de­sir­able at­tributes of a ‘Made In Ger­many’ lens, but with­out the less de­sir­able hefty ‘Made In Ger­many’ price tag.

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