10.20.2018

Tiny, sparse data points. Or, why even the most technically adroit sounding camera reviewers can be full of crap.

So, there's this lens I've been interested in but it gets a range of "expert" reviews. It's the Panasonic/Leica 15mm f1.7. Most people will write some drivel about how it's blah, blah wide open but upon stopping down a stop and a half it becomes legit and usable by the professional class of photography bloggers.

I'm calling their bluff on this kind of generic lens test writing. The reviewers are writing based on what is generically traditional knowledge about the way lenses have always worked. Almost every lens on the planet is probably sharper one and half or two stops down from the maximum aperture so pretty much the reviewer isn't telling you squat that's useful about a particular lens.

I think most reviewers get a lens for a few days, take a few images of their cat and their interesting lunch, and maybe a few coffee cups, and then make a pronouncement about the quality. It might all hinge on whether or not their cat/model is having a good hairball day or not. Or if the lunch in question had hard edges or was nicely rounded and lacked a certain actinic certainty (is that related to micro or nano contrast?).

The fact is that I have to use a lens (at least one that doesn't arrive out of the box defective) for months before I really, really become conversant enough with it to know it as well as I should. And you might pity the poor lens company whose lenses routinely get tested on someone's back focusing or front focusing camera....

As the folks at LensRental.com will tell you, there are plenty of variations between different samples of the exact same lens model. That's why they run tests of ten or so units and then average the results to really understand just how well a theoretically average version of a lens will perform. But I rarely read that XXXX reviewer has scrubbed through five or six, or eight or ten, different units before making some sort of declaration of quality.

I recently read a review by Lloyd Chambers in which he described the lens I'm discussing, in so many words, as 'underwhelming'. He was evaluating it in the context of the Panasonic Leica 42.5 f1.2 experiences he'd had. But in the next paragraph he let us know that (like most Leica lenses) there is field curvature to consider (not a fault or a feature) and that if one could focus where one wanted to focus then the lens could delivery very sharp and convincing results. He more or less ended his assessment by declaring his inability to correctly focus said lens. Now we must all avoid the lens. The Oracle has spoken...

I'm hard headed so I decide to ignore Mr. Chamber's assessment and make my own. I had some extra change rattling around in the center console of the car so I tossed it all in a Baggie and headed to Precision Camera to play with the lens and see if it was worth trading money for.

I brought the lens home and opened the box. The first thing I'll say is that the lens is a little jewel and so beautifully made, designed and finished that anyone sporting the m4:3 systems around town should buy one just because it looks so good mounted on a camera. The second thing is the really cool external aperture ring, calibrated in 1/3 stops, which in use feels like one is back to using a real and authentic camera.

There is a regular lens cap and then there is a rubber "plug" cap that fits into the front end of the lens's hood. I think it's a nice touch while others think all lens hoods "must" be reversible.

But, most people don't care about aesthetics or lens hoods ( I HATE IT WHEN I SEE SOMEONE WALKING AROUND SHOOTING WITH THEIR LENS HOOD STILL REVERSED ON THEIR LENS. EITHER USE THE HOOD OR LEAVE IT AT HOME. THERE IS NO DEFENSIBLE MIDDLE GROUND. ANYTHING ELSE IS LIKE WEARING YOUR BASEBALL CAP SIDEWAYS. OR SPITTING IN PUBLIC.) What would HCB do?

So, given that people don't care about anything but mathematical performance metrics and the price what can I say about the 15mm Panasonic lens? It makes very pretty photographs. They are sharp. Even wide open they are sharp. Not "Otus" sharp but very much Nikon-Canon-Fuji-Olympus sharp.
a 3:2 crop from the full frame. 15mm f1.7 Summilux. ISO 200
G9 Raw file. 

An unchanged detail from the bottom right of the top photograph.
How sharp is the word, "left"?

I'm happy I bought it and I ended up using it on several environmental portraits last week, shooting at f2.0 (which is almost wide open) and being very satisfied with the results. Even when viewed on the 27 inch iMac. I think it's pretty much the case that all of these lenses and many, many others are very, very good. Much better than most people's command and practice of techniques lead them to believe.

I'm sure Mr. Chambers is knowledgeable and his ability to harness technique is prodigious. I can only guess two things concerning his dismissive review of this lens. Either he got a bad copy (the problem with limited data samples) or he got the idea in his mind from a glancing usage that he was unsatisfied with the lens on a day when his cat was having a bad hairball day and the idea turned into a existential reality for him that he was not able to objectively overcome.

Bottom line? My singular sample point is a very good lens with very good imaging potential and easy to use. Go test your own. Or ignore this altogether and just continuing enjoying whatever exemplary lenses you bought to go with your brand of camera.

But when you read a reviewer's description of a lens always keep in mind that they are busy trying to sell you stuff and get your fingers to click through to a merchant, or whatever, and they are generally only working with one sample, and for a very short amount of time. You can generally do better by taking your camera to a reputable dealer, putting the lens you are interested in on the front of your camera and then shooting and shooting and shooting. Camera stores sell tripods. Put your camera and the test lens on one of their tripods and shoot, shoot, shoot. Bring a model with you. Bring your kid. Bring a test chart. And then you'll really know whether or not you like the lens, want to buy the lens, and if you have  any future interest in reading lens reviews that are "subjective", and "real world." as opposed to smart guy testing such as is done on Lenstip.com and a few other sites.

Me? I read the blogs by purported experts and then, if I'm interested enough, I go and try the stuff myself. My way. In my style. And if it works for me I buy it.

WTF happened with Panasonic's pricing on the "flagship" G9?


I don't use the "WTF" very often but maybe in this instance it's called for. I bought a second G9 last week so I'd have an identical back-up camera for my first G9. I paid right around $1499 for each of those two. Catching up on my must read blogs today I came across Michael Johnston's blog only to discover that the price of the G9 (brand spanking new, USA) had dropped on Amazon.com to only $1199. That's an amazing three hundred dollar drop in price from last week. Kind of pisses me off but I have to remember than there would have been an opportunity cost associated with waiting for it to go on sale. I wouldn't have had the camera to work with for the last week and the job associated with last week could cover the cost of a number of G9s. But still....

I can make some definitive remarks about the G9 now that I've used them over the past three weeks for something like 5,000+ exposures.

It's a delightful camera. Well worth the prices I originally paid and a real bargain at around $1200.  The stabilization is pretty remarkable, and I must admit that since I spent the week making environmental portraits (all exterior) of individual subjects (no groups...) I have the camera nearly permanently set to focus in face/eye detection priority. Of the 2,700+ photographs I made with one of the bodies over the last five days the only ones I didn't use face/eye detection were landscapes and non-human detail shots (of which there were few).

There are one or two little glitches but what camera isn't afflicted with at least one annoying affectation?  In the case of the Panasonic it has to be the much to sensitive shutter release. Touch it with a feather and you are off and running, and wasting frames. Right now I'm having problems  trying to figure out what the other glitch might be... Maybe the function and control buttons are a bit too mushy. Oh, and the camera does take a few seconds to come alive in a full start up from turning on the power switch. Other than those things I have nothing grumpy to say about the cameras.

I worked a bit differently on this job that I usually do. I guess I've been internalizing everyone's feedback about two card slots, the idea of redundant original back-up and such. I decided that rather than use the card slots in the "relay" mode (shoots to the first card and when it fills up switches to the second card...) I would shoot with the camera writing raws to the #1 card and Jpegs to the #2 card. In this way I would have a set of raw files to archive and work on when I got back to the office but I would also have a set of Jpeg files that I could upload at the end of every day to create a sharable gallery of images my clients could review from multiple, remote locations.

While an end-of-day gallery isn't anything like immediate feedback for the clients it gave us a chance to review and discuss the days work so we could figure out if anything needed to be changed on the next day's shoot. Many of you will tell me that I could have been sending files to the client all day long by uploading them from the camera to my phone and then sending them to my client's e-mail but you obviously have much slower paced projects that provide lots of times between shots for casual techno-grunt-work. There were also many places from which we were working that were far enough into rural areas that we didn't have cellphone service...

I hit the airport in Tampa, FLA and got myself to a charging station in the E terminal. I pulled the Jpeg card from the one camera I used all week and found the folder with that day's files on it. I pulled the 900+ jpegs (yes, I overshoot but yes, portraits are a building process and every click can give you a slightly different relationship between subject and background; not to mention the small changes to subject expression that can make a nuanced difference between frames. A small slice of existence between the "perfect" shot and an almost perfect shot....

I opened up Lightroom on my new MacBook Pro and proceeded to use the "import" menu as an editing tool. I uncheck all the files in the folder and then sort through and check all the good ones. This usually drops the total number by as much as half. Once I've edited out the goo and identified the keepers I import them and make a series of batch corrections for color and (usually) shadow lifting. Once I've got the files in a good ballpark area of correction (remember, batches not fine tuned individual masterpieces) I export them as full size "96" quality Jpegs and put them in a separate folder on the desk top. The folders in that export folder then get uploaded to a gallery in the client folder I've created on Smugmug.com. This is a great step because it creates a great and long-lasting (as long as I can keep paying for it) back up for the images we've worked hard to create.

I'm used to pokey wi-fi at most airports and mid-tier hotels. On this trip, given the option, I always paid extra to get premium wi-fi. You don't need to do that at the airport in Tampa, Florida. They have smoking fast wi-fi. My 550 fairly big (about 10 megabytes each) files uploaded to Smugmug in less than ten minutes. Less than the eleven minutes it took me to drink my Illy Coffee and eat my pear danish. (An indulgent reward for the end of a week in which I spent a lot of time dragging around two fifty pound lighting gear and luggage cases while wearing a 20 pound backpack.

Since the wi-fi upload when so quickly I also took the time to transfer that days raw files to the 256 GB, USB3 memory stick I brought along as a back up resource. With these steps I created two levels of back up for each kind of file.

Now I'm uploading all the raw files into Lightroom where I spend more time editing (which means adding or subtracting them from the catalog) and processing them ( which means making color corrections, contrast corrections and general enhancements). Once I get all the files into a good place I'll export them and create galleries differentiated by which days we shot each set of images on.

As I looked through the files from the G9 and the three main lenses I used during the week I was very pleased with the color and tonality of the images. Most of my shooting was done either in fair light (many days had cloud cover or high clouds) or with added flash. When using good light in conjunction with the dual I.S. or even single I.S. of the camera I was able to punch into 100% and see, even in totally unadulterated or "improved" files a very high level of detail. In fact, in many cases the files seemed more detailed than those from my Nikon D800e. I'm sure most of the difference is down to the additional shutter vibration of the Nikon but it certainly doesn't hurt when your camera locks focus in precisely the right place for your intended field of focus.....every time.

Several people have asked me to describe my feelings vis-a-vis the two standard zoom lenses I packed. One is the 12-60mm Panasonic/Leica and the other is the Olympus Pro 12-100mm. The Oly is about twice as heavy as the Panasonic/Leica but many times the extra weight is worth it when working quickly with the subject matter I was covering last week. We wanted a nice, tight head and shoulders portrait of each person as well as a waist up shot (all done in landscape mode) as well as a few full length poses. The extra 40mm of the Oly gave me more opportunities to step back, zoom in and compress the scene better when shooting very tight. It's more about compositional control than anything else. On the other hand, the Panasonic/Leica handles better in that it maintains the trim package and lighting weight that many feel is the overarching raison d' ├ętre of the m4:3 systems.

I will admit that then 12-60mm balances better on the camera and doesn't feel front heavy. The Olympus lens is definitely front heavy on the G9 with no battery grip.

When it comes to actual optical performance I'm a bit underwhelmed by the difference. Both have ample detail and sharpness. If anything I think the long end of the Olympus is exemplary at maintaining detail and very tight contrast. If I could only have one of the two lenses I'd probably pick the Olympus if the only determiner was quality but that's not the case. There's more to a lens than brute resolution.

The Leica might be a better portrait lens as it doesn't seem as acutely clinical in its sharpness. It's sharp but the transitions between tones seem a bit more graceful and film like. The Olympus can be like using a straight razor to cut paper.... Both lenses far exceed what I need in terms of optical quality for almost everything I do.

I was analyzing the files and looking for issues on the 13 inch Retina screen of the MacBook but the real assessments came today on the 27 inch Retina screen. I was expecting to see the m4:3 files run out of gas when enlarged but that wasn't the case; the files had a robustness and integrity that came through even on the bigger screen.

My one wish for both the GH5 and the G9 would be for an upgrade that would provide 14 bit raw files like those from the GH5S which has the most beautiful raw files of any camera I've shot.

So, am I angry that the Panasonic G9 is on sale and I could have saved $600 if only I had a time machine and could back and wait for the sale? Naw. I'm pretty sure that a safe and fully functional time machine would cost far more than I'd save on those two transactions. It's such a good price though that I'm having a hard time restraining myself from clicking the Amazon buttons and getting ... just one more ... Yes, I have done crazier things.

But in this case I have a rationale for restraint. I'm saving my coupons, coins, couch change, Christmas funds, birthday money, tips (do we get those as professional photographers?) and pennies for the Panasonic full frame camera that should be coming in the new year. If there is a choice of models I'll always, always go for the lower resolution model. I'd rather have a few good, fat pixels that a bunch of scrawny ones no matter what the techno-boys try to sell us as a rationalization.

It is actually nice to see the market rationalize and adjust pricing to more realistic levels. No shame in owning a couple of incredibly good $1200 cameras. And they are very good cameras.

Jut my two cents worth.