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.
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.
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.
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.