I don’t normally review ‘consumer’ grade gear for the simple reason that it’s usually built to a price, rather than built to deliver a certain grade of result (or perhaps it is, only the accountants and engineers know for sure). However, sometimes you come across a piece of equipment that fills a need much better than you imagined; this lens is one such example. The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G (what a mouthful, hereafter known as the 14-42X) is a very small – about the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed – zoom for Micro Four Thirds. It was the kit lens for the GX1 and a couple of other cameras for a while, and fortunately also available separately.
This lens is perhaps a surprising choice for me, but allow me to explain the rationale. 1. I needed something compact to pair with a fast prime on the OM-D for what I like to think of as general ‘static’ scenes, where the perspective and framing are of equal importance to the overall success of the photograph; this means that I need to have a zoom of some description. 2. It’s got to be light and small; since I do this kind of photography during the daytime when I travel, and got away with deploying a compact most of the time, it doesn’t have to have a fast aperture. 3. One of the things that frustrated me most about the zoom compacts was inevitably either the lens or the sensor – both have to be of high optical quality, obviously. You never know when you might come across something that makes for good fine art or good stock; no point in limiting the commercial viability of an image because of a quality compromise. 4. A D800E and 24-120 VR would probably be the obvious choice for this kind of thing, but I really don’t want to carry another camera just for this purpose.
I actually rather liked the optics of the collapsing 14-42/3.5-5.6 IIR kit lens that comes with the Pen Minis; however, the build left quite a lot to be desired – plastic mounts and all. Besides, I’d sold mine along with the Pen Mini some time back. The original Panasonic 14-42 has a good reputation, but they’re both large and hard to find; not ideal. At that size, I might as well carry the 12-35/2.8, and that’s significantly more expensive, but not quite fast enough to replace the primes. Enter the 14-42X.
I find the 14-42X to be both a technological tour de force and a bit frustrating. Firstly, it’s tiny – barely larger than the 20/1.7 pancake, but covering a decent 28-85 equivalent (or thereabouts). It shrinks in length by half when closed, and looks positively tiny even on an OM-D. Inside this, Panasonic have managed to pack their usual excellent optical stabilisation system*, Nano coating (more on this later) and very fast AF.
The frustration comes from a different aspect of speed: zooming is slow, and on a lever (though the camera does remember the last used zoom position when power is cycled, a neat touch); and there’s a fraction of a second of added startup delay caused by the lens having to extend. Focus is on a lever, too; I’ve not had any need to use manual focus yet, so I can’t say how effective this is in practice. It’s worth noting that both focus and zooming are completely silent; I believe this was designed with video use in mind. Finally, there’s the odd 37mm filter size and positively teeny (read: easy to lose) lens cap. I don’t even know if any of the good filters are made in this size, then again, I have no intention of using them so it probably doesn’t matter anyway. Presumably one could get closeup filters or something to further increase utility; I’m not sure it’s necessary anyway seeing as the lens focuses to a very useful 0.2m at wide, and slightly more (0.25m or so) at tele.
*It’s unclear to me whether it’s the lens or body IS system in use on Olympus cameras as unlike the larger Panasonic lenses, there’s no switch to disable OIS on the lens. I’m guessing it’s the body system.
You’re probably wondering if the added electrics in the lens have any impact on battery life; yes, they do. But it’s not as bad as you might expect – I’d say for my typical usage cycle, power consumption on my OM-D took about a 20-25% hit; I was seeing full-charge life go from ~900 shots down to 650-700. (I normally turn the camera off after each shot to extend battery life, but in this case it might have actually made things worse as the lens would have to cycle). I do wonder about the longevity of the lens, again given the heavy dependence on (presumably very small) motors to do the work. Then again, it’s cheap and useful enough – around $330 – that if it breaks out of warranty, I’d probably just buy another one.
Optically, the 14-42X is a bit of a surprise: it’s excellent, even used at maximum aperture. You don’t lose any sharpness close up, either. This is important seeing as anything much beyond f8 is severely diffraction limited on M4/3 cameras anyway due to the very small pixel pitch. Use this one wide open without issue, though stop down one stop to 5.6-8 to gain a very small improvement in the corners. There were two aspects of performance I found especially impressive – very low CA, and impressive contrast (though microcontrast could be better). I’m guessing this has something to do with Panasonic’s Nano Coating, and the relatively simple (for a collapsing zoom) 9/8 design. Color rendition is neutral and saturated. There’s no point talking about bokeh, because on a lens like this, unless you’re shooting at minimum distance and wide open, you’re going to get almost no depth of field control anyway.
I think a combination of this lens and the 20/1.7 pancake with one of the smaller M4/3 bodies and would be perfect for the traveller on a strict weight budget, or simply those who want to go fully unencumbered and with just a spare lens in one pocket. These two lenses would let you cover the majority of situations one is likely to encounter, including low light. I’d also recommend it highly as a handy zoom to throw into a bag with a more serious M4/3 kit for the times when you don’t feel like bringing the rest of your gear with you; it turns your camera into a very, very good point and shoot, if you will – no need to spend serious money on one of those large-sensor compacts just yet. Sometimes, flexibility is not a bad thing at all. Highly recommended! MT
More images shot with this lens can be seen here on my flickr stream.
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