Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not so remarkable anymore.
The Long Version: The Panasonic 7-14, aka Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4.0, is a little lens with big shoes to fill. It's the second lens with those specifications, following up on the immensely capable Olympus 7-14, which I reviewed almost eighteen months ago; I've also written up a brief head-to-head comparison. But I realize that a lot of people who are coming to micro four thirds are completely new to the format, so I've been trying to evaluate this lens on its own merits, and review it without referencing its bigger brother.
Naturally, that attempt was completely doomed.
I've been surprised to find some significant differences in how I use the Panasonic lens compared to my previous experience with the Olympus; whether this reflects a different character of the lens or my own changing tastes, I can't yet decide. So while I won't be able to write this without referencing the larger Zuiko Digital Olympus lens, I also won't just be rehashing what's already been said.
The most striking thing about the Panasonic 7-14mm is that it's tiny. Not much larger than its 14-45 sibling, its mostly-plastic construction and lens cap makes it a very manageable lens. Shooting with it is easy, and it doesn't overwhelm even the petite Olympus E-PL1, which is currently the smallest camera that it will work with. In my direct comparison, its size stood out as the biggest difference between it and the Olympus 7-14, and that carries over into using it. The Olympus is a large, intimidating thing with a bulging front; the Panasonic is just little and easy to get along with. Carrying it and bringing the camera up to shoot is a casual move that won't scare the locals, and yet the field of view is nothing short of amazing. It can see wider than a right-angle corner, create huge perspective changes, and still fit in a jacket pocket when it's not being used. Even though being this wide is no longer quite as remarkable as it once was, it's one of the very few lenses that can do that.
Optically, the Panasonic lens is stunning, with excellent central sharpness and corners that aren't far behind. The photo of Chicago's Michigan Avenue is wide open at f/4.0, and there's not much to criticize. But forget about getting blurry backgrounds with this one, unless you're working at very short distances - it's just not possible. But then, this isn't exactly a portrait lens, and if you expect to use it like a standard zoom you're either unusually gifted or unusually dense. Ultra-wide angle lenses need special handling, and they're not going to reward casual or unconsidered efforts.
A couple of feet, when seen at 7mm, looks like a couple of metres. If there's nothing there, the photo will suffer badly. Similarly, the perspective effects from tilting the camera, or being askew of the subject, will dramatically change the arrangement of lines. With care this can be used for a powerful creative effect, and can create leading lines and dynamic compositions out of mundane backgrounds. But all it takes is a moment of carelessness, of absorption in the subject and neglect of the edges, and the result is a write-off. Thankfully, Photoshop has some powerful transform tools, because the electronic viewfinders and LCDs of the micro four thirds system aren't nearly as nuanced as a good optical viewfinder.
Of course, the dramatic perspective effect is true for all wide-angle lenses, and it doesn't need to be at its widest setting to be a challenge. The photo above, looking across Chicago's East Adams street, is modestly cropped after being shot at 13mm. I happen to like the image, but I know exactly what my camera club buddies would say: the people are the subject, and they take up a tiny part of the picture space. But if it was shot with a more normal lens, like the 20/1.7 or a zoom that's been brought in tight, the photo would just be of some people in a city. I say that the subject of the photo is the vanishing point that's so alluring beckoning with its single-point perspective, and what you'll see when you get there - unless, like the people walking past, you choose to defy it. Having elaborate justifications for taking photos that most people would delete on sight becomes an important part of enjoying this lens.
One of the real strengths of the Olympus 7-14 is its extremely low barrel distortion, and the Panasonic is even better. Except at its extreme ends, the electronic correction of the m4/3 format works its magic and leaves nice straight lines. Some reports haven't been happy with chromatic aberration, but since this is something that Panasonic corrects while Olympus cameras do not, it's impossible for me to know why different reviewers are having different reactions to the lens. I tend not to shoot trees against the sky, which causes colour replacement, or bright against dark, which causes purple fringing, both of which are easily mistaken for or called chromatic aberration. Regardless, don't believe half of what you read on the internet, and trust even less than that - present company included - until you have a good reason to do otherwise.
One issue that I have with the Panasonic 7-14 is flare. It wasn't something that I was particularly aware of with the Olympus 7-14, but it's in a number of the Panasonic photos. I don't find it outright objectionable, but if it wasn't there I wouldn't be trying to add it in Photoshop. Granted, the conditions in the photo above are pretty harsh - a similar situation even made the 20/1.7 flare - but the look comes out ugly. (See also the little rainbow dots in first sample photo in the body of the review.) I've also learned to occasionally take a few moments to make certain that the front element is clean and dust-free, as little specks can cause flare spots in any sort of contra-light situation. The hood is vestigial, and there's not much that can be done to shade the front element, but I stand by my observation that the Olympus 7-14 is better.
I mentioned in my preamble that I use the Panasonic 7-14 differently than my Olympus lens. Because I know that the Panasonic only distorts - however slightly - at its two ends, I'm much more likely to use it throughout its range. With the Olympus lens, which performed very similarly throughout, it might as well have been bolted to its 7mm setting. Mouse over the photos to see their exposure information, but so far only one has been at 7mm, three are at 8mm, and the rest have been longer than that. Some of them have also been cropped, which effectively increases their focal length as well. A popular comparison will be with the Olympus 9-18mm, and the question is going to be whether the Panasonic lens is worth the extra cost for 'only' two extra millimetres on the wide end. As with any question involving the concepts of 'need' and 'cost', the answer must be a personal one, but I can say that I'm very happy with my choice.
First of all, even assuming that two 2x zoom lenses with a thousand dollar price difference will be of equal optical quality, not using the very ends of a zoom's range is just good hygiene. So even if I'm happy at 9mm, that doesn't make the Olympus 9-18 a better choice, it simply makes it acceptable. Secondly, at these extremely wide angles, a 2mm difference in focal length makes a very large difference in the field of view. The relationships between the foreground and background can completely change just by moving the camera and zooming a little to recompose. I'll admit that the 36mm-equivalent focal length of the 9-18 is very useful, but life's a barter. I want to be able to go wide, and this lens was always part of my plan when I shifted most of my 'fun' equipment from Olympus to Panasonic.
When I compared the Panasonic and Olympus 7-14 lenses - gratuitously linked again - I had to stop and consider the competition. When the Oly came out, there was nothing else like it available - except for the Sigma 12-24 DG on a full-frame camera, which was hardly anyone's ideal solution. But with the passage of just a few years, the others have nearly all caught up. The Olympus 7-14 was once an excellent reason to buy a Four-Thirds camera, but now it's not that special any more. The Panasonic 7-14 suffers a similar fate, but has the unique advantage of being far smaller than all of its rivals. So that brings us to the argument that sustains the entire Micro Four Thirds system, of being smaller and lighter, with just-as-good image quality. If that's important to you, and you want wider than the Olympus 9-18 can offer, then this is your lens. I can highly recommend it on the GH1, with its ability to change the image aspect ratio without sacrificing field-of-view, but if a squarer format is your preference, there's a lot of great cameras to choose from.
While Sony and Samsung - two companies without SLR sales to cannibalize - are making their way into the EVIL market, they're both a long way from having the horsepower to match the micro 4/3 lens lineup. If history is anything to go by, the Panasonic 7-14 may have another year or two of exclusivity. Until then it's unquestionably the best ultrawide in its weight category, even if it's not the slam-dunk recommendation that the Olympus 7-14 once was.
You may also be interested in the thewsreviews' illustrated collection of observations on a wide assortment of lenses: "Quick Thoughts on Lenses for Micro Four Thirds Cameras".