Review: the Panasonic Leica 12mm f1.4 ASPH for Micro Four Thirds

Here’s another one to add to the glut of high grade, fast aperture, Micro Four Thirds, prime lens reviews: the Panasonic Leica Summilux 12mm F1.4 ASPH lens. At first, I decided not to review this lens mostly because I prefer to work with longer focal lengths. Also, the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 lens has been around since 2016 and there are already several reviews available. The lens has been sitting in my camera bag for a while now, as I went along shooting on the streets. I’ve used it for certain shots – out of curiosity or when I needed a wide angle lens. Eventually, I’d used it enough that it made sense to review it – if for nothing else, but the sake of completeness.

It isn’t crucial to have wide apertures for very wide angle lenses since we generally want as much depth of field as possible. Even atn F1.4, it doesn’t yield that much subject isolation via shallow depth of field on a Micro Four Thirds camera. The only real advantage I can think of is in very dark conditions, when the wide aperture will help keep the ISO numbers down.  Having F1.4 gives you a lot of headroom to work with, compared to a typical F2.8 on standard zoom lenses such as Panasonic 12-35mm, or 12-60mm.

The Panasonic 12mm F1.4 lens and Lumix GH4 body were on loan from Panasonic Malaysia for review purposes only. Both the GH4 and the 12mm F1.4 lens have been returned to Panasonic at the time of writing. Neither myself nor Ming Thein are associated with Panasonic in any way, and this is an independent review. This is a user-experience based review and my approach and opinion in this article may be subjective.

Currently, the Panasonic Leica 12mm F1.4 lens is the only extra wide angle, large aperture prime lens available for Micro Four Thirds. The closest competition is the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 which lags behind by one full stop. This places the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 in a very unique position.

It is incredible how Panasonic has managed to control the size and weight (335g) of the lens. Hand-holding it on the Panasonic GH4 was comfortable and balanced. The lens construction consists of 15 elements in 12 groups, featuring 2 aspherical lenses, 1 ED lens and 2 UED lenses. The lens is weather-sealed against water splashes and dust, and the minimum focusing distance is 20cm, allowig magnification of 0.1x. The lens has dedicated aperture ring control but does not include image stabilization. For a full specification list, you can visit the official product page here. 

I used the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 mainly on the Panasonic GH4 body, but some images in this review were also shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. All images were post-processed with Capture One Pro. You may view the images at larger size in the online gallery here. 

Panasonic GH4, F5.6, 1/500, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F5.6, 1/3200, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F4, 1/2000, ISO200

When I first used the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 lens, I wasn’t consciously shooting for a review. Therefore, I usually shot with it stopped down to F4 or F5.6 in order to get everything in focus. I was pleased with the output from the lens but I did eventually shoot with it wide open at F1.4 to test the image quality. After all, if you are getting an F1.4 lens, you would expect to be able to use it at F1.4.

The Panasonic 12mm F1.4 is very sharp at the center of the frame, even when shooting wide open. At F1.4, the lens renders images with high level of detail and good contrast. I was repeatedly pleased by the output of the lens – both for shooting subjects up close (a few meters away from the lens) and far away.

However, sharpness is not even across the frame. Sharpness is gradually lost toward the edges. Consequently, at extreme corners of the lens, it is visibly very soft. In order to get even sharpness, you may need to stop down as far as F4 or further. Some may argue that when shooting at F1.4 (in low light conditions, or to achieve subject isolation), corner sharpness is not a priority. While I do agree to a certain extent, I had hoped that the corner performance was better, especially with the premium you pay for such a lens.

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/1300, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/800, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F5.6, 1/640, ISO100

Extreme corner crop at F1.4

Extreme corner crop at F5.6

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/500, ISO200

Barrel distortion is corrected automatically when shooting JPEG, and the lens profile is embedded in the RAW files and can be extracted for auto-correction (if your post-processing software allows for that). The lens and the software correction combination do a fantastic job at eliminating all traces of barrel distortion and leave only straight lines in their wake.

Chromatic aberration is an interesting topic to discuss with this lens. Obviously software correction is involved, but most of the time, the chromatic aberration is well controlled. In certain extremely complex scenes, the software correction may not successfully reduce purple fringing. For example, in very high-contrast images, the out of focus areas may exhibit severe purple fringing which are a pain to correct in post-processing.

There was this one particular image where the lens suffered purple haze at the center of the frame. I am not entirely sure why this or how this happened, but I haven’t been able to replicate it since. I reshot that particular image 5 times, and the purple haze showed up in all 5 frames. I moved away from that spot and shot the same subject from a different angle and the purple haze was gone.

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/500, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/1000, ISO200 – Severe purple fringing

Panasonic GH4, F16, 1/320, ISO200 – Flare

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/4000, ISO200 – Purple haze at centre of frame

Center crop from previous image to verify the subject was in focus

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/3200, ISO200 – shooting at a different angle, the purple haze was gone.

Stopping down the lens to F4 or more eliminates flaws almost completely. In fact, compared to standard zoom lenses such as the Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 lens, or the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8, images from the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 have more contrast and punch in them, resulting in a livelier and more pleasing look. There is a “3-D pop” to how the lens renders images.

Flare is not a big issue with this lens, which was a surprise to me. Shooting the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 directly against strong source of light, the image appears clean of haze or ghosting. The few instances where flare occurs can be avoided by changing the angle of the shot slightly.

Autofocus is flawless on both the Panasonic and Olympus camera bodies. I managed to capture some quick action shots, which is important for me when dealing with fast moving subjects on the street. Much to my delight, I managed to capture some of my favourite shots from my recent street shooting sessions with this lens.

Olympus E-M1 Mark II, F6.3, 1/2000, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/8000, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F4, 1/160, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F4, 1/320, ISO200

Olympus E-M1 Mark II, F5.6, 1/1600, ISO200

The Panasonic 12mm F1.4 allows close up shooting with a 20cm minimum focusing distance. The maximum magnification of 0.1x is nothing to write home about, but if used creatively you can get interesting results shooting close up with a wide angle.

The bokeh (out of focus quality) is excellent with this lens. Scrutinizing the images at various aperture openings (F1.4 to F5.6) the background blur roll-off is very smooth and soft to look at. When shooting very close to the subject, isolation can be easily achieved, and the background just melts beautifully into creaminess. The bokeh balls remain round even when the lens is stopped down.

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/200, ISO200

Bokeh comparison, F1.4, F2, F2.8, F4 – To view individual full images (no crop), kindly visit the gallery here. 

Olympus E-M1 Mark II, F4.5, 1/50, ISO200

Olympus E-M1 Mark II, F5, I/100, ISO200

Panasonic GH4, F1.4, 1/800, ISO200

What started out as a lens I was reluctant to review, became one that I actually enjoyed using tremendously.

Besides being a sharp wide angle lens, there is a pleasing quality to the way this lens renders the images. There is good amount of contrast and pop, creating a 3-D look which I normally do not see from wide angle lenses. Bokeh quality is excellent and autofocus works flawlessly. Nonetheless, the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 is not without flaws – the corner softness and chromatic aberration can pose serious problems. The corner sharpness is so bad that you need to stop down to F4 for decent results. Purple fringing is noticeable in high contrast areas, and software correction cannot account for this very well.

Despite these flaws there is currently no other alternative to a wide angle F1.4 lens. There really is no benchmark to compare to. Perhaps, it is a huge challenge to create a 12mm lens with such a large aperture opening.

If you absolutely need wide angle coverage and a F1.4 aperture, then this Panasonic Leica 12mm F1.4 lens is the only option you have currently. If F1.4 is not a priority, and you can get away with F2 or F2.8, there are more budget friendly alternatives, such as Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 or the vareity of standard zoom lenses that Panasonic and Olympus offer, many of which start at 12mm for the wide end of the focal range.

The Panasonic Leica 12mm F1.4 Lens is available from B&H

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Comments

  1. An alternative and probably cheaper lens is the PanaLeica 15 1.7 which produces excellent results overall.

    • Robin Wong says:

      15mm is barely wide enough. It cannot provide you with the same coverage as the 12mm. There is a huge difference in terms of field of view.

  2. Étienne says:

    How does it compare to the voigkänder 12mm .95? I personally have the 35mm and while being soft at .95 (no free lunch) it is great at 1.4 and above. For the 12mm focal length, I prefer the Olympus one. Small light and sharp.

  3. Hi, let’s face it: I believe such an expensive lens with such purple fringing shouldn’t really be sold.

  4. Oh, good that you did this review, thanks a lot: I rented that lens last october for a week, just to see what working with a good 12mm is like (see https://flic.kr/s/aHskrBF5Yv, photos with that lens starting from second third of the set). I enjoyed working with it but didn’t do any pixel peeping (or I had a better sample than you, don’t know). Of course this lens is outside of my investment scope so I never started drooling about it. And so it is good to know that I would probably better off with the cheaper Olympus 2.0 option (which has the added advantage of being lighter, the Panasonic one gave me some neck pain…)

  5. It would help a lot if were kind enough to compare it with Olympus 12/2. How is it at f2 centre and edges? Is it worth paying for one stop and so on.

    • Robin Wong says:

      no more comparisons from me. Did it once, had to deal with bloodshed. People will only want to hear what they want to, no matter how fair and neutral I make the comparisons. No point to do anymore, and I sure have no time for such drama.

  6. Great review. Not a lens that I’d have a use for, but interesting all the same.
    Extra points for linking to the product specs instead of pasting them into the article.
    .
    Have you done a review on the Olympus 12mm?

    • Oh, you did.
      Never mind.
      Just my opinion, but mingthein.com does the most useful equipment reviews on the web. I’m much more interested in “What does this feel like?” and “How do the pictures look?” than in MTF charts and such.

  7. I sold my copy because of the overall softness of the lens. I did a shootout been it and the Olympus 12-40 and the Olympus was clearly sharper. Disappointing that a Leica branded prime lost to a zoom, albeit a very good zoom. My findings were the same however regarding color and “pop” but I can make that happen in post. I can’t make sharpness happen.

    • I don’t find it to be sharper than the 12-40mm (center sharpness, corners the 12-40mm is clearly better even wide open), but I never did a side by side comparison. Did you use the Panasonic 12mm F1.4 on an Olympus body? Maybe the image was not optimized for Panasonic lenses, at least not as well as on a Panasonic camera.

      • Robin, I’ve found a lot of sample variance with the 12-40mm. The better ones are astoundingly sharp. Mine is like that, it puts many primes in shame, for example the 25mm f/1.8 couldn’t keep up no matter the aperture. Some 12-40mm I’ve seen have been noticeably less sharp. So it’s possible that sample variance can swing the comparison either way.

        • Robin Wong says:

          Having worked with Olympus, I have inside information on how the 12-40mm was designed and made. It was a marvel. Sample variation wise, it happens in all lenses, but then again, are we talking about people who use the 12-40mm on just Olympus bodies, or those who used it on Panasonic bodies complained that the lens being not as sharp?

  8. At last I know what “3-D pop” means. The little seeds in the fruit bowl photo seem to be floating just slightly above the rest of the bowl’s content. An illusion, certainly. But fascinating.
    And, in a world awash in cat photos you’ve come up with one that really stands out. Possibly a Panasonic fancat. Can’t think of any other way to explain that level of cooperation at such a close range.

    • One of my superpowers is the ability to attract stray cats and make them pose for me. Trust me, my friends who followed me shooting on the streets were all stunned by what I can do.

  9. Jimi Hendrix had a hit with Purple Haze! But here it is a weird phenomenon. Maybe this is part of the Panasonic in-camera color processing and has nothing to do with the lens.

    • Actually, if it’s uniform on both left and right sides of a highlight, it’s usually an interaction between the optics of the lens and either the microlens array or cover glass on the sensor; M4/3 has a very thick cover glass which often causes unexpected effects with some lenses…

  10. Have you checked if the corner softeness is intrinsic or caused by the distortion correction? (Looking at uncorrected raws). I have seen it happens, although mainly in zooms…

    • Robin Wong says:

      It was soft in both RAW and JPEG, as I have inspected both with and without correction profiles. GH4 is not a new camera so I have full RAW support.

  11. Don Moraes says:

    Hey…great review. I do agree that if you are paying that much for a lens you would expect it to be sharp in the corners wide open as well.
    Btw…your article is about the Panasonic Leica 12mm f/1.4 ASPH but your link at the end of the article is for the Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO.

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