It’s a hard thing to admit to myself really. Being that I’ve been in love with the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens for so long, I never really thought about acquiring a lens for the Micro 4/3 format that provided such a similar angle of view. Now that I have, I must make a decision, which do I keep…
If you know anything about my feelings on the Micro 4/3 system, you know I’ve tended to prize size first. If you know anything about my photographic style, you may know that I prize lens speed over most other factors. Is the Leica branded 25mm f/1.4 lens that much better that it can justify the cost over the killer Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake? Well, I needed to figure that out for myself.
- First, speed. I use this term two fold. Firstly, the aperture or lens speed. The 25mm is a half stop faster. This provides a faster shutter speed in the same light as well as the ability to decrease the depth of field at the same focus distance (albeit at a tighter framing angle). This is what it is. Secondly, the 25mm is a faster focuser, much faster. I’ve never really had a problem with the focus speed of the 20mm f/1.7, but after shooting with the Panaleica lens, the pancake is noticeably slower.
- Second, optical qualities. The 20mm pancake is wonderfully sharp wide open assuming you can get your technique to compliment the desired outcome when working with such shallow depth of field at close focusing distances. It’s a great lens period, and for the price, I still feel it is a must have lens for anyone looking to the system, unless of course they feel the 25mm will provide enough of an argument to dethrone it. While, even in controlled situations, wide open the Panaleica 25 isn’t quite as tack sharp as the 20mm pancake is wide open, it is a half stop faster and certainly has more of a signature look to it’s rendering of images. I feel it is capable of being as sharp as any practical purpose would require, the only real challenge is again in the photographer’s technique or ability to work within a shallow DOF. (I’d guess more often than not, someone saying “this lens is soft” isn’t down to the lens itself…)
- Third, size and weight. The pancake makes a small micro 4/3 body nearly pocketable, and certainly discrete (see the size comparisons above and below). It is light weight and low profile. Two wonderful attributes, especially when you factor in the IQ it produces. The 25mm lens pushes any of the compatible bodies outside of this “pocketable” designation, although I can still fit the OM-D E-M5 into a larger coat pocket with the 25mm lens attached, so it still remains relatively small. While heavier than the 20mm pancake, it is, to me, still feather weight by comparison to an APS-C or Full Frame equivalent lens. The focus ring on the Panaleica 25mm is buttery smooth and lens body feels every inch a quality build. While not a heavy duty metal lens body, it feels solid.
- Okay, finally, and potentially the largest deciding factor for many when weighing all the pros and cons is the price. The 20mm pancake (ranges between $340-400usd) is normally about $140-200usd cheaper than the current going rate for the 25mm lens ($540usd). That is a chunk of change, and one I feel isn’t entirely justified in the price of the 25mm. The pancake is a wonderful lens period. It’s worth every penny and really the only major criticism I feel could justifiably miff someone is the below average auto focus speed. Again, it has never been a huge issue for me, but I could see it being for someone else. The 25mm’s cost may have something to do with the other “L” word printed on the lens. While not a “Leica” lens, it is a Leica designed Panasonic Lumix lens, and whichever name they choose to print on this lens, it is a beautiful optical tool. Whether it is worth the extra coin is up for any perspective buyer to decide. If one can live with the slower AF, and half a stop slower aperture, all while enjoying a slightly wider angle of view should be more than happy with the 20mm pancake. Speed isn’t cheap, and to get faster, one will end up paying a bit more for that, and while larger and slightly heavier, the 25mm lens is faster (as well as a faster focuser). Did I mention that Panasonic includes a lens hood with the 25mm f/1.4 Summilux? They do, and it’s great. It’s a molded nylon (plastic) which I vastly prefer as it won’t dent but is very durable, nor is it anywhere near as heavy as even aluminum. Olympus could learn a thing or two.
Okay, brass tacks. To me, the 20mm pancake provides a wonderful, reportage style lens. Because of the focal length, and subsequent angle of view, it provides a slightly wider than normal angle which I love. You don’t need to be on top of your subject to become intimate, but it allows a versatile approach in that you can if you want to with its minuscule minimum focus distance. It is wonderful for daily documentation whether that be of family, street, or just general shooting and its low profile makes for a wonderfully compact, high quality package. The 25mm f/1.4 has a different panache. It may be the tighter angle, or slightly larger max aperture, but I’d guess the optical formulation is the real hero here. It has a different look to my eye, and one that I have to admit, I prefer. Here are a few shots using the 25mm f/1.4 Summilux.
Comparing the two lenses side by side, here are some examples of angle of view while shooting from the same location, as well as shooting at either of the lenses minimum focusing distance (approx 8″ and 12″ for the 20mm f/1.7 and the 25mm f/1.4 respectively) to show both how they’d frame at min focusing distance as well as how the DOF is affected. All of these shots were taken with the lenses wide open to see both sharpness as well as provide a bit of bokeh for comparison sake.
First, from the same location, both lenses shot wide open.
Now a couple shot at each of the lenses respective minimum focusing distances, both focused on the near corner of the block. Notice here that the 20mm actually produces a higher magnification and shallower DOF, albeit with more distortion.
The 20mm, shot wide open at f/1.7 and focused at its minimum focusing distance (8″) is capable of a shallower DOF than the 25mm shot wide open at f/1.4 and focused to its minimum focusing distance (12″) with the area in acceptable focus being .18″ for the 20mm and .23″ for the 25mm all while more or less equaling the framing, but altering the perspective. For extreme close ups, using a razor thin DOF, the 20mm will provide one with the ability to further narrow the area in focus creating a more defocused fore and background, in this particular situation anyway, but not by much.
While I am normally a fan of the angle of view through a 35mm lens (the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 lens exhibits about a 40mm angle of view, which technically is closer to “standard” for the format believe it or not) as opposed to a more traditionally “standard” 50mm lens’ angle of view, I must admit, this Panaleica lens has won me over. In summation, if I may say, the Panaleica 25mm f/1.4 lens isn’t “better” than the 20mm f/1.7 pancake, or at least not in all ways, it is just different and produces a different signature. Whether that signature is better or worse will come down to a personal decision as well as a balancing of size, speed, price and performance as well as the difference in angle of view for any given person.
I’m not sure how long it will take me to become comfortable with selling off the 20mm f/1.7 pancake, but I feel it is time that I said goodbye to this wonderful little legend of a lens. Thank you old friend, you’ve helped me watch my kids grow, you have travelled to half a dozen countries and you’ve been on most every walk with me over the last few years, you’ve been wonderful and I will most certainly miss you.
Thanks for the read and happy shooting,