Ultra wide angle options for every system, tend to be expensive and/or compromised. It can be difficult to optically correct and transfer light onto these digital sensors which are far less forgiving than film ever was, especially outside of the center frame. Add to that, with various “crop” formats, the physical focal length needed to achieve these angles of view has to be remarkably short which provides other engineering challenges. Panasonic saw the need for an ultra wide angle zoom lens from the very early stages of the Micro 4/3 format, and has offered a very solid 7-14mm f/4 lens for years, but many system shooters wanted both a faster option, along with one that was environmentally sealed for outdoor work. Olympus answered that call with the m.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO lens. A substantial, weather sealed, tank like 14-28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens (in light gathering you FF fanatic naysayers, you) that costs a pretty penny, especially considering the Panasonic Lumix option at close to half the price, it’s not necessarily one for the budget minded shooter. It is however, a pretty damn stellar performer. I have had this lens for the better part of the year, and I’ve just returned from a trip to Portugal and Holland where I used this lens on the GX8 for my travel documentation needs. I have some other shots sprinkled in, but I want to give a bit of perspective when using this lens as a travel companion. C’mon in for some shots and thoughts…
Before we get into the touchy feely bits, I want to share what I see as the pitfalls of this ultra wide lens (and to be fair all ultra wides). Ultra wide angle shooting provides certain challenges from a photographer’s perspective, largely compounded by optical limitations. I feel that it is one of the hardest types of shooting to really excel at, mostly because you have so much more to pay attention to regarding composition and subject matter. On top of that, even if you level your camera perfectly, your frame edges are often subject to varying degrees of distortion which can really affect your frame. This is where we can become challenged, and even frustrated by composing and shooting at such wide angles of view.
Let’s look at the main culprit, and how to minimize and work within the limits of optical distortion.
Every lens suffers from some form of optical distortion. Telephoto focal lengths traditionally exhibit some level of pincushion distortion (think lines being pulled in toward the center of the image) while wider angles often suffer from what is called “barrel distortion” which would be akin to the lines in an image appearing as if there were almost a bubble pushing from the center of the image, toward the viewer, producing bowed out lines. Many lenses will show some level of both, along with various other forms of optical aberration. Some wide angle lenses (more common and often pronounced in lower cost, budget friendly optics) show something called mustache distortion, where if you took a picture of a straight line across your frame, the optics would distort it so that it would appear as a wavy line from one edge to the opposite as opposed to straight and square. Most high quality wide angle lenses will minimize barrel and mustache distortion, but you can’t escape physics in regard to physical proximity, and by this I mean subject distance, when captured around the edges or in corners of your frame. The same lens, set to the same settings may not show the same levels of distortion (or may not be as noticeably pronounced) if, for instance, your subject is physically further away. I’ll call this, proximity distortion moving forward.
When shooting any wide angle lens, one way to minimize optical distortion is to keep the lens level, especially in regard to your forward or backward roll (tilting the nose of your lens upward or downward).
Below are a couple shots visually explaining what I’ve mentioned above. Note in the first shot, I did angle the camera upward slightly to capture more of the ceiling which didn’t do much to the center of my frame, my horizon line, nor the ladies wandering down the aisle, but the horribly stretched man and walking woman in the corner, and then those vertical lines…
Here is a version after reasonably correcting for the vertical distortion in software, which has obviously cropped quite a bit of the image edges out, but has more normally rendered the view and gone some ways in helping bring our poor, stretched out corner dwellers back into some level of realistic proportion.
Software can allow you to cheat a bit in compensating for this type of distortion, which can be very handy situationally, but this type of optical distortion is very difficult to avoid when your camera is not leveled.
What I’m impressed with, in regard to the Oly 7-14mm here is, while my corners and vertical lines were a mess due to me pointing the camera upward, the horizontal lines and center frame, were nearly perfect, or at least free from distortion, which is where this optical formulation will begin to show us the justification on its asking price. With a cheaper ultra wide angle lens, I feel we’d see much more barrel distortion, and probably some mustache distortion as the light travelled through less than stellar optics before hitting our sensor. In this regard, I’m very impressed with this lens.
When you are able to keep your camera level (I’ve never used the on screen levels as regularly with any other lens as I have with this guy) this lens does pretty well to keep vertical lines vertical, and horizontal lines horizontal, but at 7mm, you’re always going to struggle with anything remotely close to you in your corners, enter another example of my ‘proximity distortion’. See below:
When working in tight quarters at such wide angles, there is just simply no way to physically adjust for this proximity distortion. We can use software to help pull and push pixels into place so that the stair banister spindles were square, but we’d lose a huge amount of pixels in our frame as a result. Keep in mind though, if you will, this type of distortion, especially in this immediate case above, lends itself to actual physical depth in the scene. We can tell, aided by this distortion to an extent, that the stairs on the edges go up, and the stairs directly in front center, go down. Some visual (not necessarily optical) distortion is naturally occurring, and amplified by way of this proximity distortion, our brains are able to account for this in the real world (and in three dimensions), but it may appear more pronounced when capturing it in a two dimensional image file.
One last example on proximity distortion and I promise to be done. Below are two entirely unscientific shots, but visual examples nonetheless. The first is a shot with Pantso very close to me, the lens shot at 11mm, and the camera relatively level (it was hand held) but this is where using ultra wide angle lenses for environmental portraiture can go off the rails very quickly if you’re not able to take the time to pose and position the subjects and yourself.
His leading leg is probably a mere couple of feet from the camera, but even the small difference between it and his trailing leg shows how much a difference a foot or two can make (I can confirm that both of his legs are relatively equal in length).
This next shot, while not remotely the same composition, shows Pansto occupying a similar area on the sensor, with LBWHF and their cousins positioned more center frame, allowing the corners and edges to be largely ignored. This shot was as wide as the lens would go at 7mm. This is the best way I can describe ‘proximity distortion’ in that keeping your subjects further away, even when positioned in the same area of the frame, will give you a better chance at keeping them looking the way they should.
This brings me to the lens’ best uses, in my opinion. An ultra wide angle lens, for me, is not a portrait lens, nor an optimal landscape lens, but can be used as a story telling lens when wanting to have it around with the family, or for travel. You can get a lot of real estate in a single frame. Obviously, more traditional landscape type applications will be a siren song, but I’ve never been a huge fan of using ultra wides, but rather semi wides to near standard focal lengths for more traditional landscape stuff, just because while you can get a sweeping view, you tend to sacrifice detail and realistic perspective in my opinion when using ultra wides.
Yes, we can get more of the scene in the image, but we lose detail when each element in the scene occupies so many fewer pixels in relation. This is what I’d mean by “storytelling” in that we’re in ways sacrificing detail for quantity. Ultra wides can be employed to do many things, but may not be the best tool for some of those tasks, or at least aren’t for me. One beauty of a wide zoom, is that you have the ability to alter the focal length. While I’d wished that the rain hadn’t been pissing down on us from the vantage above (total props to the weather sealing on the lens and GX8 here), it would have been nice to do a side by side with my preferred method for landscape shooting, by using a longer focal length, and stitching vertical frames together to gain a wider angle of view, such as this:
(click to see full size)
This stitched pano is a combination of 6 vertical frames captured hand held at 14mm f/4, ISO-400, 1/1600. It provides a wider angle while maintaining resolution and providing a slightly more realistic perspective as opposed to an ultra wide angle of view captured with a wider focal length.
To continue on the story telling theme, composition comes into play in a very fundamental way in my opinion, when shooting really wide. Leading lines, ratios and intersecting points of dynamic symmetry and third lines are more visually necessary I’d say, largely because there is so much more going on in a wider frame. You may have to work a little harder to direct your viewer’s eye through your scene to get it to where you want it to end up.
All in, I think that shooting ultra wide angles can be a lot of fun, but pose unique compositional challenges.
Alright, here’s a look at corner and center sharpness from base ISO and on a tripod. E-shutter engaged along with self timer for those interested. It’s an unscientific test because I don’t shoot scientific pictures and I want to see how this lens may do for something simple like interiors (which is one of the reasons I bought this lens). Have a look at these two series, first at 7mm and then at 14mm, with 100% crops in the corners and centers of each frame, with my thoughts following…
click to see full size
Well, at 7mm I can say that when shooting at the distance I was shooting at (roughly 6′ from the wall) the corners are pretty much garbage. Call it field curvature, call it whatever you will, but it doesn’t change the fact that if I’m using this lens to gain wide access to cramped space for shooting interiors, these corners won’t cut it at 7mm, at any aperture. The center is great wide open, and as sharp as we’d ever need at f/5.6, but beyond f/8 at f/11-f/22, diffraction renders this lens (and this system’s higher resolution sensors essentially) useless if sharpness is in any way necessary.
At 14mm now, the corners sharpen up nicely and as we’d hope to expect, they are entirely serviceable with the same caveat of staying at or wider than f/8 because from f/11 onward, diffraction makes a mess of these files, everywhere.
When shooting subjects at further distances, the corner softness is far less pronounced, due to both total focus distance and overall resolution of distant objects/subjects, but the diffraction still remains. I will hesitate to use this lens for interiors unless the final use is solely web viewing. Any print and I’d at the very least need to crop into the image to get a usable file, so while not entirely useless, it probably won’t see a ton of work for me. If sharpness is paramount, set this lens to f/5.6 and forget about it. I’d only suggest using f/8 for squeezing a tiny smidgen more DOF out of it, or if absolutely needing to eat another stop of light. Shooting at f/2.8 and f/4 are serviceably sharp, but with closer proximity, you’ll be working with a shallower DOF, so that will need to be a game time decision on that front. Overall, this lens should live between f/2.8-f/5.6 depending on the shutter speed you need, balanced with the overall sharpness you desire, and I’d certainly keep an eye on composition and corner subjects either framing to crop, or living with some corner softness which to be fair, isn’t an unreasonable ask for any ultra wide angle lens.
I like this lens, and would say it has its uses. While it doesn’t perform the way I’d hoped in corner sharpness for work like tight interiors with images needing to be print ready at even the most extreme angles of capture, it is a good lens that will be able to ignore this shortcoming in most cases.
As a travel lens, I think it suits a storytelling style and could greatly compliment a standard or longer focal length for event shooting.
It could be great for close proximity follow filming (I’m thinking skating or snow sport) when framing happens at speed and can benefit from the movement dampening that comes from wider angles, although your subject can get away from you quickly as distance will more rapidly be evident.
I’d hold off on suggesting this lens as an interior performer for my use, and while the linear distortion is well corrected for, I’d just make sure whomever I discussed this lens with understood to compose with cropping in mind. For PFRE stuff, I’d imagine it should do well as most all images will be viewed on screen, or in smaller print via flyers or the like. The optical distortion correction this lens is capable of would lend itself well for this, and total corner sharpness can be largely overlooked, just keep an eye on that proximity distortion!
The weather sealing makes this a great field lens, and if you’re into ultra wide, sweeping landscape or architectural shooting, I think this lens could be a good fit.
It’s not cheap, and considering that Panasonic has the 7-14mm f/4 lens at about 60% of the Oly’s price, it’s worth considering how much a stop and weather sealing is worth. There are documented issues with purple fringing/CA on the Pana lens when used with the Sony sensors, but seems well corrected on the Panasonic sensors by comparison. CA can in many cases be easily corrected for after the fact though too. To me, it makes sense to pay the premium for the better built, faster lens, but I could easily convince myself of the opposite for what I shoot, too.
As always, I appreciate the read. Thanks for taking the time, and please feel free to fire off questions in the comments. I’d be happy to try and lend any more insight I’m able to.
You can find the Olympus m.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro lens via my affiliate links below.
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