What the what? Why did Panasonic replace a seemingly near perfect lens with one that from initial reports didn’t remedy the AF speed which was really the only major gripe about the first version? Well, let’s see…
I’ll start off by saying that I’m not bothered by the speed at which the original lens auto focuses. I’ve never been. Sure, it’s not going to capture a cheetah chasing a gazelle, but neither will any other lens for the system because the CDAF isn’t great at tracking subjects, or achieving focus where there is no contrast. Yes, it tends to hunt more in low contrast situations when on Olympus bodies, and has had issues on those same Oly bodies with banding when shooting at or above ISO6400. Okay, so perhaps not a “near perfect” lens, but the 20mm has always been lauded for being very sharp, even wide open and the fact that it is tiny allows for a very compact, yet fast and quality package for the system. That said, the 20mm is often called out for having slow AF. Depending on your criteria for AF speed, we can agree that this isn’t a lightning fast lens in the mechanical sense, but for most any subjects in decent light, it will be more than useable, and always has been for me.
This lens is as close to a true standard lens for the format available if you go by the scientific definition of what a “standard” lens is. If you’re wondering what “standard” is defined as, in terms of focal length, “standard” is based on the diagonal measurement (normally in mm) of the capture medium (film or sensor) which when translating that measurement into an equal focal length measurement produces a similar view to the perception of the human eye in regards to subject and environmental compression in relation to the angle from which these subjects are viewed. The (technically wrong) default is usually said to be a “50mm equivalent” which even for full frame or 35mm film standards is incorrect if taking the diagonal measurement, which on micro 4/3 is just about 22mm, APS-C (depending on which APS-C sensor) ranges between about 28-30mm, and for full frame it is 43mm. That said, this lens seems to have always been developed as a slightly wider than standard lens for the system as it weighs in at an equivalent field of view (in full frame terms) at 40mm.
Regardless of it’s classification, the original (version 1) was seen by many as the single, must have lens for the system for years, and to be honest, is the main reason I chose to buy into the micro 4/3 system to begin with, and why I chose to buy the GF1 w/20mm kit over the EP1 or EP2 with the 17mm pancake (because the Oly 17mm f/2.8 lens just isn’t up to this level and is a stop and a half slower while being almost the exact same size). The Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake is sharp, it is fast, and it is discreetly small. In my opinion, it is exactly what the micro 4/3 system should be shouting from the rooftops and showing off.
So, why would Panasonic update a lens that was in most every other way, a great lens and not address the AF “speed” issue? Well, on first glance, there is little to differentiate the lenses. The newer, version 2 is shinier and adopts the “Leica” numerical nomenclature, it moves the print on the front of the lens to the outer barrel and is offered in both black and silver. The front barrel of the lens is also more squared when viewing the lens from the side where the original has a bit more of a softer bevel to it so to speak, so, it’s not entirely the same, but let’s see how they compare.
For the below tests, I will be using the Panasonic GX7 unless otherwise noted. I’ve captured all images in RAW and processed via Aperture 3.5.1
I haven’t noticed a huge difference in AF speed between the two versions on the GX7, but again, I don’t find it to be slow at all. I think that much of the problem people have had with this lens is down more to the inability, or hindered ability of the contrast detection AF to accurately track subjects and when trying to lock onto a moving subject this lens, and many others for the system seem to become stumped, and to be fair, perhaps this lens may struggle a bit more than average, and admittedly, it’s AF motor operates slightly slower than the average modern lens I’d say. It’s an unfortunate reality, but it isn’t a problem solely limited with either of these 20mm lenses. Yes, the 20mm lens isn’t as fast as the Lumix 14mm or the Oly 45mm but like I’ve mentioned, in most situations, and certainly in decent light, this lens is as quick as I personally need it to be. Just as a comparison, I’ve found the 20mm (both) to be faster than the Oly 75mm f/1.8 lens in lower light when achieving focus automatically, especially on the GX7 (which does have wonderful AF capabilities in very low light compared to all other m4/3 bodies I’ve yet used) where the 75mm tends to struggle in lower light shooting when attempting to find contrast. While not the best example of modern AF, I feel they have gotten harshly branded as slow AF’ers. Have a look at the video below to see what I mean.
Okay, so I will say that while not hugely different, the newer version 2 does seem to do slightly better in the AF speed department. Not as huge a difference as many of us may have been hoping for, but like I mention in the video, I don’t think either of these lenses is horribly slow, and they have always done well enough for me. If you want slow, try most any compact fixed lens point and shoot camera ever created. Either of these 20mm are capable of blowing most any high end fixed lens compact I’ve ever used, out of the water (I’m remembering the AF speed in the very good LX3, various G and S models from Canon as well as some Pentax and Olympus compacts I’ve owned over the years) so much of this speed issue is subjective and relative.
Starting off using the original 20mm on a GF1 back in the day, I was amazed at what the combo was capable of. This was roughly 4 years ago, and at that time, while in its infancy, the micro 4/3 system was already holding its own. The system promised the ability to lose weight, and in good light could produce image quality comparable to any DSLR on the market. The 20mm lens might have been the first lens for the system that realized this capability of size reduction and overall image quality.
Below, I’ve pitted the two versions against each other to see the corner and center sharpness at varying apertures. The sharpness comparison below is shot on the GX7 at ISO 200 and converted as noted above. Click any to see a larger version.
Wide Open @ f/1.7:
Well, in the center both are equally sharp to my eye at each aperture setting with the slight edge going to the newer Version 2 by the slightest of margins from what I see, mostly at wider apertures. By f/2.8 the comparison at 200% magnification is almost imperceptible. Both wide open are nearly as sharp as they are stopped down essentially with perhaps, very minuscule increases at each stop which more or less tops out at about f/4 where from there through f/8 are equally as sharp.
In the corners, the original version 1 is sharper from f/1.7 through f/4 at which point the version 2 catches up and they more or less equal out. This is disappointing to me as I’d have hoped that the newer lens would have performed at least as well as the older original. That said, we’re talking pixel peeping here and I had to magnify the images to 200% to really tell much of a difference, and honestly, in print or ANY normal web/screen viewing even up to 100%, the differences in the corners will be tough to differentiate. Still, seems weird that they reinvented the wheel with this one and made it worse in any way.
In regards to vignetting, I found that the newer version II does better at eliminating the vignetting by about f/4, where with the original version I, needs to be stopped down to almost f/5.6 to see the same correction. Personally, I like a little natural optical vignetting for much of what I like to shoot, and when shooting wide open, or near, I’m not shooting landscapes, or scenery where I need the corner brightness to match that of the center necessarily, so it didn’t bother me with the original, and won’t with the newer version either.
When I first bought the OM-D E-M5, I was thrilled to mate it with the 20mm, which at the time was the fastest m4/3 lens I owned. I brought it out to shoot rock shows and the like, and immediately found the banding issue when using these two together when shooting at ISO6400 and up. There is a more in depth comparison with the banding, showing the 20mm and an adapted FD55mm f/1.2 lens, both shot at ISO6400 toward the end of this post HERE if you’re interested in rehashing this issue.
Here are two setups, the first from the same scene as shot above and to compare, I shot both lenses on both the Olympus EM5 and Panasonic GX7. Click any to see larger.
First, the EM5 @ ISO6400:
Next the GX7 @ ISO 6400:
The EM5 @ ISO 12,800:
The GX7 @ ISO 12,800:
The EM5 @ ISO 25,600:
And finally, the GX7 @ ISO 25,600:
The second setup is with the EM5 only to see how it does in very low light when using both of the 20mm lenses at like settings.
First, at ISO 6400:
Next @ ISO 12,800:
Finally, @ ISO 25,600:
Now, I don’t know if this banding issue has continued with the newer Oly cameras that employ the same 15.9mp Sony sensor, but it was weird that the 20mm lens would only band consistently on the EM5 when shot at 6400 or above when no other lenses would do so, consistently anyway. The EM5’s sensor still shows worse banding than the GX7’s, but the GX7 isn’t entirely free from banding with the 20mm which really only shows up at ISO 25,600 where with the EM5, it is still around at and above ISO 6400.
The funny thing here is that when doing the two tests, I found the newer version to not only exhibit banding as well, but seemingly more egregiously than the older version in the indoor, low light test. This may be down to an EM5 firmware update having addressed this for the first version of the lens at some point (which as far as I’m aware didn’t happen, or at least not officially announced as such), but it still does band, just seemingly not as badly as the newer version of the 20mm lens does when on the OMD EM5.
CHROMATIC ABERRATION & FLARE
Most any lens wide open will exhibit some CA, and when shot into a direct source of light will have some flare and loss of contrast. CA tends to be most prevalent in areas of extreme contrast (think dark subjects with substantially imbalanced back light) creating color fringing. I’ve yet to find a lens that doesn’t show some CA to some extent. There are however, some that are worse than others, and as a rule of thumb, the faster/larger the maximum aperture of the lens, as well as the more budget friendly the cost of the lens is, the more subject to CA a lens design can be. There are many optical coatings and such that go a long way to combat the color fringing in high contrast situations or are incorporated to help minimize the contrast stealing effects of light flare, but really CA is pretty easy to correct in post for most lenses and of course there are those that are less prone to this aberration, while with flare, in many cases a simple bump in contrast can balance that out (albeit at the cost of the highlight detail in some cases).
I’ve never found the 20mm Lumix lenses to be overly prone to CA, nor did I ever find the original version to be overly subject to flare but that didn’t stop me from taking a look, and through this comparison, I learned a bit about these two and feel there is a difference between these two in regards to flare at least. Here are a couple of shots to compare the two.
In this first shot, the handle, and left edge of the coffee mug shows a tiny bit of CA in both shots, but really it isn’t too bad as any lens at this exposure would show the highlight on that edge, and in many would probably be far more purple, even stopped down a stop and a half. More interesting is that both of these shots were taken on the GX7 at identical exposure settings…
At first, I’d thought that I messed up and under exposed the shot with the v.2 lens. That is not the case, and the version 2 lens is FAR more contrasty. This is largely because it seems far more impervious to flare which is very apparent in the first, version 1 shot. While more contrasty, it has crushed the shadows making the image potentially trickier to balance the overall exposure. Interesting at least, eh?
Next, a simple 100% crop from shots wide open at f/1.7 where both versions show a bit of purple fringing and some green fringing in the out of focus edges, again, nothing that I wouldn’t expect any lens at this setting to show, but take a look at the difference in contrast and saturation.
In these types of exposure situations, the highlights are entirely clipped and lost, but the contrast and saturation are vastly different between these two lenses. This is probably the biggest improvement in the newer version and while the contrast and flare control may rob us of that dreamy, hipstamatic-like washed out look, I am impressed.
In conclusion, I feel that while there are noticeable differences in certain situations, both of the 20mm f/1.7 iterations are great and I wouldn’t be rushing out to grab the update if I already owned the original. If I didn’t own the original and were interested in this lens, assuming you could get your hands on one of the original versions, I think the version 2 has done a great job at carrying the torch.
Where the newer version has improved from the first version in my observation:
- Flare control, contrast and color saturation (yes you could bump the contrast on the older version, but still impressive)
- Center sharpness (very slight, but still should be noted)
- AF speed (again, it is a minimal increment, but still worthy of noting)
Really, the only area I feel the first version to best the newer is in corner sharpness at wider apertures. This shouldn’t be ignored, but to me is more excusable in regards to the newer version because for anything that I’d be intentionally shooting with corner sharpness in mind (landscape, interior, etc) I’d be shooting the lens stopped down more than likely and at f/5.6 on, the corners sharpen up to equal levels more or less.
On the surface, there seems to be very little that has been changed with the second version’s release, but when seeing the flare control, and the (very) slight bump in center sharpness added to what I feel is another slight improvement in AF speed, there’s enough there to call it an improvement overall. Like I’d said, I wouldn’t go out and buy a new version if I already owned the older lens (even though I ended up doing just that by way of my GX7 kit), but I’d also traded away the original 20 a while back and was pinning for this little gem to be coupled with the GF1, GX1 or GX7 again.
It is still, in my opinion, one of the three or four best overall lenses for the system. When taking into consideration image quality, speed and size, it might be THE best lens as far as quality per gram goes. It is unique in that it is the fastest pancake available for the system and at a 40mm equivalent field of view, can work as a remarkably versatile focal length for daily shooting.
You can find the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 II lens on B&H through my affiliate link here.
For those of you that perhaps haven’t connected via other social media channels, you can find me on Facebook here, Twitter here and of course our growing family on Flickr here. For the new year, I will be holding a giveaway on a new, handmade product I’ve been making and will do so based on those who’ve signed up via email (at the top of the page), on Facebook, Twitter and perhaps even the Flickr Group with your name being added once for each, and might just double the drawing entries for those who have been signed up via those channels previous to the announcement, so have at it 😉 See, reading all the way to the end can be advantageous!
Thank you as always for the read. I’ve really enjoyed maintaining this blog over the last 4 years and enjoy and appreciate the continuing conversations many of us have had over that time. I wish everyone a healthy and peaceful holiday season as we finish off this year. I will be traveling a little bit over the next few weeks, so blog posts and comment response may be pretty sparse. If I don’t get the opportunity to send out wishes before hand, have a safe and happy new year.
Happy shooting and all the best,