Losing faith in the Lumix 20

I think it’s fair to say the Panasonic Lumix 20/1.7 lens has been a success for Panasonic. First released in 2009 it’s often cited as one of key primes to own, often as part of a "holy trinity" with the Olympus 12 and Olympus 45. I’ve previous described it as OK, mechanically clunky but functional. But the results from a recent gig were very disappointing.

Firstly I had visible banding in the images. It’s hard to appreciate in a small crop, but when you have an entire image affected you get the impression of a translucent layer of stripes.

Banding example

It’s irritating and it shouldn’t happen, but truthfully it doesn’t affect the output too much in most cases. I should also say that it’s possible to see banding in other lenses. The below is from the Olympus 45/1.8. The picture was taken in portrait orientation, hence vertical stripes. However, the key difference is that the Panasonic shows banding at ISO 3200 whilst the Olympus picture is from ISO 25,600 which is almost useless anyway.

At least it’s slimming

Much more of a practical issue with the Panasonic was a significant glow around high contrast subjects. For example:

Glare example

That’s just very poor. I’d expect that kind of nonsense from a compact camera or a smartphone, but this is supposed to be a decent prime. The Olympus 45 didn’t have any problems in the same light, but it’s hard to draw conclusions in case focal length was a factor.

A challenger approaches

Since I bought the Panasonic 20/1.7 a competitor has been released, the Olympus 17/1.8. It hasn’t created a huge buzz. Partly, because it was launched into a saturated market. Partly, because it’s more expensive. Partly, because the reviews have been OK but not spectacular.

But I decided to give the Olympus a try as I couldn’t see myself wanting to use the Panasonic in these situations again unless I wanted to recreate the cover of Thriller.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, the Olympus is mechanically in a different league. It’s better made, it focuses quicker and quieter and it has the manual focus clutch system. I suspect you knew that already.

Burst speed

I mentioned in primes overview that the Panasonic 20 feels slower in burst mode than other lenses. Well, here’s an actual comparison. The below are sound files recording the OMD in high speed burst mode. Each file represents a full buffer of images. The camera was set to 1/1000s, manual focus.

First, each lens wide open:

Olympus 17 burst - F1.8

Panasonic 20 burst - F1.7

OK, a difference in pitch but not in speed. But what about at F11?

Olympus 17 burst - F11
Panasonic 20 burst - F11

And there you go, the Olympus runs at the same speed as before whilst the Panasonic is clunking along.

Glare

To compare the resistance to high-contrast glare I setup a little test. A remote flash pointed at a white door frame with a wall about 2m further behind. The camera was setup on a tripod about 1.5m back. Manual mode, 1/250s, manually focussed. First I did a test at F1.8 (so slightly stopped down for the Panasonic) with the flash set to 1/32 power. The photos were taken in RAW but no corrections were made in software, other than a consistent crop.

Glare test F1.8 - Uncorrected

I few things are immediately obvious. The field of view is different as expected and there’s a different colour cast to the images. The Panasonic tending to green and the Olympus to red. In terms of the glare the Olympus is clearly better. You can make your own conclusions but to my eyes the area visually affected by glare is several times greater on the Panasonic lens.

And now the same test at F5.6 with the flash set to 1/4 power.

Glare test - F5.6 - Uncorrected

Again, similar results at F5.6. At some point I’d clearly knocked the tripod as you see my Rottie calender on the far wall in both shots. Incidentally, ever considered giving a home to a Rottweiler? You should, they’re great dogs. Why not stop reading this and find your local rescue? After all, it’s only lenses and none of this really matters while dogs really improve your quality of life.

No? OK, then. Finally, the F1.8 versions again, but this time with lens correction in DxO and a bundle of Smart Lighting correction:

Glare test - F1.8 - Corrected

With the extra processing the Olympus glare is reduced a relatively thin strip whilst the Panasonic still has a good area of glare effect.

Conclusions

The simple conclusion for me is I’ve sold the Panasonic and I’ve kept the Olympus. I’ve been enjoying the gig photography I’ve been doing recently and the Panasonic just isn’t suitable for it if it can’t handle high contrast. I’ve read the Panasonic has a resolution advantage but that doesn’t really bother me as once you put the OMD up to ISO 5000 the effective resolution is pretty crummy anyway.

One other minor point, the Olympus 17 has very little banding even at ISO 25,600. Perhaps being a post-Sony-sensor lens it was taken into account in the design.