A couple of months ago, my beloved Leica X2 broke down. My first thought was to have it repaired, but a closer inspection revealed that it was approaching 100,000 actuations. And I had read about increasing difficulties in repairing these cameras now that Leica is no longer offering factory support. The future with the X2 no longer looked so rosy
Finally, I gave up the idea of having it mended. With my two daughters marrying this year, I looked for a small camera with interchangeable lenses to replace the Leica without breaking the bank. I have quite a large collection of Ricohs and wanted something different. So my thoughts to micro four-thirds.
I had been looking at Panasonic MFT cameras for a couple of years. Still, I had not taken the plunge, perhaps hoping that my rather ancient Leica X2 would suddenly transform, at a stroke, into the beautiful princess it once was.
Above: The LUMIX GX9 is similar in size to the Leica X2 and offers a choice of lenses. But the MFT sensor is smaller than the APS-C sensor of the Leica (Images Panasonic press office)
As a matter of fact, I was reluctant to downsize to an MFT sensor. My local camera dealer and friend advised me against buying another Leica (a CL with the 18mm lens), although he’s a Leica dealer and owns a nice collection of M cameras. Lately, he has also started using the Olympus MFT system and suggested I went for the Olympus PEN-F (knowing my attraction for small cameras). But I found the PEN’s imaging too clinical for my taste. Thus, after a great deal of pondering, I went for the Panasonic Lumix GX9.
The body is approximately the same size as the X2 with the handgrip, but unlike the X2, it has a viewfinder and a nice screen (both are tilting). As far as I am aware, the tilting viewfinder is unique as a built-in unit and offers the versatility usually seen only on accessory viewfinders such as the Leica Visoflex. The camera houses a 20MP sensor (something alien to me so far, but it’s the common resolution for MFT), five-axis in-body stabilisation and a four-page but well-organised menu.
I am not concerned with the video menu, as I’ll probably never use it. The only drawbacks are the lack of weather sealing and my ageing computer a Adobe Lightroom, which cannot support the camera’s RAW files. However, until I invest in a new computer, it has given me the opportunity to try Panasonic’s various JPEG profiles. I’m now using two of them, the standard profile for colour and the Monochrome D for B&W.
The GX9 will never beat the Leica in terms of imaging, although some YouTube influencers would have us believe otherwise.
The camera and lenses lack the Leica micro-contrast and softness, but I can live with it. Most images, apart from the usual Lightroom processing that I often applied to the Leica X2, need a five-point rise in colour temperature as the original imaging is fairly neutral.
The major drawback is the lack of a decent dynamic range. It is almost impossible to recover deep shadows without having some noise and lateral chromatic aberration (LOCA) creeping in. But the drawback can be turned into an advantage, forcing you to be extra careful when exposing the image.
I always apply a -1/3 or -2/3 EV, just as I did on the X2. Battery life is better than the CL and on par with the Leica TL2. There is a wide choice of lenses from Panasonic and Leica-branded ones Panasonics, not to mention the extended MFT family of lenses from Olympus and third-party manufacturers.
Colour-wise, the imaging of the sensor with the lenses I use is accurate.
The pancake zoom
This attractive little pancake zoom has often been supplied in-kit with the camera but is unfortunately now discontinued. It is a modest 24 mm long when closed and 50 mm when fully extended. It has three aspherical lenses plus one ED lens and weighs some 70g (2.47 oz).
There’s no weather sealing, but the zoom is stabilised and benefits from Panasonic Dual I.S. (coordinating in-body and in-lens stabilisation, which allows you to shoot one-second hand-held). Dual IS is available only when combining certain Panasonic lenses with a Lumix body; it is not enabled when using an Olympus body, for instance. Despite its small size and variable aperture, this is a lovely and pretty capable lens.
The 12-32 proves a great walk-around lens covering the full-frame equivalent field of view from 24 to 64. It is unobtrusive for street photography. Don’t expect amazing bokeh, but the background blur when shooting up close is quite pleasing. The colours are accurate and the in-body camera sharpening preset does the rest. I usually take it when I know I’ll need the zoom capability. Otherwise, I stick to my couple of primes.
The fast prime
Panasonic doesn’t have a proper 35mm lens equivalent. There’s one from Olympus with mushy corners when shooting wide open and the rather bulky Voigtländer manual focus lens with f/0.95 aperture.
The 17.5mm Voigtländer prime is rather big and more or less destroys the compactness of MFT cameras. The Panasonic Leica 15mm f/1.7 Summilux lens covers a 30mm FOV in FF terms, not exactly 35mm. The 20mm was the closest in terms of FOV to the amazing 24mm (36mm) Elmarit lens of the Leica X1 and X2 models.
I’m much indebted to Farhiz Karanjawala for his images of Delhi and Kolkata he shot with this lens, proving the deciding factor for me. Once again, it’s a pancake lens, 25.5mm long and weighing some 87g (3.06 oz), with the ability to focus down to 20cm. The lens is sharp. Focusing manually is child’s play using the camera’s focus peaking.
The only drawback is the seven-blade aperture which sometimes gives an unpleasing background blur when the light comes from the back of the subject. When shooting without a hood, the lens can also be prone to flare. My X2 lens also tended to flare when shooting directly into the sun. As Farhiz told me while we were exchanging emails, the sweet spot of this lens is around f/4-4.5. Checking my images, I’ve never shot an image with an aperture narrower than f/5.6.
The wider angle
This is the smallest and lightest lens of the three I own, with its 20.5mm length, weighing a mere 55 grams (1.94 oz) and focusing as close as 18mm. It includes three aspherical elements and has a metal bayonet like the 20mm. The lens doesn’t move as it has an internal focus system which makes it great for unobtrusive street shooting.
Closing the diaphragm, you get a huge depth of focus and sharpness from corner to corner. In fact, this lens seems as sharp as the 20mm. The ability to shoot very close to the subject and get a nice background blur is a bonus. You can focus manually, but there’s little point in doing so with a 28-equivalent optic. It is the perfect complement to the 20mm. It makes me think of the last generation of Ricoh GR cameras, the GRIII and GRIIIx, which share the same field of view of these two lenses.
The monochrome D preset
Some reviewers raved about this new preset when the camera was released (not so new, though, as the camera has now been on the market for four years). This might well be the preset I prefer.
The contrast is softer than the one you get with the Ricoh high-contrast preset, and there’s a nice graduation between the deep blacks and the lighter greys. You don’t lose as much detail as with the Ricoh, however. I hardly do any post-processing with that preset.
To a certain extent, the output resembles the B&W tones you could achieve in the darkroom with a grade 3 or 4 Ilford paper in the days of film. I tried it primarily with the zoom lens and 20mm (the 14mm is a fairly recent acquisition, and I haven’t had the time to put it through its paces).
Monochrome D with a light grain simulation
This preset is also proposed in the B&W Monochrome D preset. I thought I should give it a try, knowing that I could always capture similar scenes near home on a cloudy day and, to be frank, I don’t like it at all. To my eyes, the grain looks far too uniform and computerised, miles away from what you get with analogue film.
I suppose this preset may exist in the Panasonic S series full-frame cameras. If it does, I admit I’d be curious to see the results. The effect may come from the MFT sensor, but that’s mere conjecture. I will certainly try the “strong” grain simulation in the future.
Patterns in the sand
Not far from home in Normandy, there’s a black marlstone beach. When the tides are receding, riddles, wrinkles, and various tidal-shaped sand sculptures appear, only to disappear with the next high tide.
It’s always a pleasure to wander on the beach looking for those strange patterns, although you’re not always lucky. The 12-32mm zoom is the most appropriate lens for that style of shooting, as most images are taken vertically. The grains of sand remind me of B&W film, and your mind can wander and imagine all sorts of people, animals or objects while looking at these sea-fabricated forms. It feels like a similar experience to when one looks at clouds.
This article is in no way intended to be a comprehensive review but impressions about a system whose possibilities I’m still discovering. In association with Leica, Panasonic has produced magnificent lenses such as the Leica Summilux f/1.4 12mm or the Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2, to mention just two. But these lenses are as heavy as the body, if not more so. This doesn’t mean to say I will not be looking out for them in the future…
What do you think about micro-four-thirds? Do you think the sensor is too small to practice creative photography? Do you find the output to be of poor quality in relation to APS-C or full-frame cameras? Would you like to try the system?