Here we are. The fourth, lengthiest, and most technical post in a topic that, originally, I’d intended to be only a few paragraphs in length. But deeming both a dSLR and an advanced point-and-shoot camera “unacceptable street-photography tools” warranted justification, so that subject became a dedicated post (Part 1). Discussing why a rangefinder is the ultimate street camera helped explain why, in the digital age, a street photographer might consider reverting to film-based photography, so Part 2 was born. Finally, I needed to tender the factors influencing my decision to choose a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera, so Part 3 became another stand-alone entry. At the end of Part 3, I asked whether a Panasonic DMC-G1 would be enough like a Leica to make me forget how much I’d like a Leica. The short answer is, “No, not quite.”

But, if you’ve waded through all this minutia for this long, you certainly want more than a flippant, 3-word answer to that question. You want details. You want some hard questions and the hard answers. So, inspired by the recent interest in 1977’s Frost/Nixon interview series, I’ll play the parts of both Frost and Nixon, and get to the bottom of the real meaning behind the answer, “No, not quite.”

Questions and Answers about the Panasonic DMC-G1 w/Novoflex Leica M-Mount Adapter

EGOR: The G1 looks a little large. Is it compact enough to use as a street camera?

EGOR: Because the G1 is styled to resemble an SLR, it seems deceptively large when viewed out of context. But, if you look at the photo at left, you can compare the size of the G1 (shown in the middle) to both the larger 5DmkII dSLR and the smaller LX3. In this shot, the G1 doesn’t appear much larger than the LX3, which is a “coat pocket” camera. In actuality, the standard LX3 is somewhat smaller than what’s shown here. This photo shows the camera decked out in its “street” wear, which includes a 24mm external viewfinder and a lens adapter around the lens barrel. Note that I don’t actually adapt anything to the LX3’s lens, I just use it to protect the lens from damage. So, what you see in this shot is an apples-to-apples size comparison: The G1 is outfitted exactly the way I take it onto the street, as are the LX3 and dSLR. Keep in mind that my personal Holy Grail — the rangefinder — isn’t a “coat pocket” camera either. In fact, the G1 and the Leica M8.2 are nearly identical in size, though obviously different in shape. If you add up the total width+height+depth of the M8.2 and compare it to the G1, they’re only 3 mm apart. So, no, I don’t find that the G1 is too large for street use. I think it’s just right — small enough to be discreet, but large enough to actually handle.

EGOR: What’s it like using an electronic viewfinder, rather than an optical one?

EGOR: Well, I thought it would be like looking through a video camera, but it’s much more pleasant than that. The G1 has a very high resolution display and a fairly fast refresh rate. In good light, it’s almost as satisfying as the optical viewfinder in a consumer-grade dSLR. For me, using the G1’s electronic viewfinder is a thousand times better than using its rear-panel LCD, since the viewfinder has a diopter adjustment. That means I can actually see the darn thing. The viewfinder does tend to get progressively worse in dim light, though that doesn’t mean it gets darker. Instead, Panasonic applies gain to the viewfinder, so you can still see your subject in a fairly dark environment. This is a good solution, but it’s not without side effects. For one, to get enough light in a darkened environment, the viewfinder frame rate decreases substantially, and it takes on a “strobe-like” appearance. This is fine for static subjects, but makes it difficult to focus on moving objects. That said, I didn’t purchase the G1 to be a low-light camera. I have the 5DmkII for that, and it’s without peer. Since the G1 is for street use and I’m usually taking street photos during daylight hours, the low-light performance of the electronic viewfinder is not an issue for me. What is an issue, however, is the camera’s battery life. Unlike an optical viewfinder, an electronic one takes power — apparently, a lot of power, since I’ve twice drained the G1’s battery in a single day. Also, as a side note, when you attach a faster M-mount lens to the G1, then more light reaches the sensor, meaning the viewfinder’s low light performance improves dramatically.

EGOR: We’ll get into using M-mount lenses shortly. But before we do, tell us a little about the kit lens. You actually proclaim to like the kit lens that comes with the camera. Seeing as most discerning photographers look at kit lenses with great disdain, aren’t you sacrificing your reputation here?

EGOR: Most kit lenses deserve to be looked at with disdain, but this 14-45mm version is a different animal, and I wouldn’t balk at using it — even if my reputation were at stake. The lack of any chromatic aberration within the kit lens is amazing. I don’t know whether they’re eliminating the aberrations in software, or if it’s somehow a part of the lens design, but it’s impressive. Of course, no knowledgeable photographer would, in a side-by-side comparison, ever mistake an image taken with the kit lens for one taken with an M-mount. But that said, there’s nothing shameful about the images captured with this lens. I have absolutely no reservations about using it. In fact, if the ambient light level is good and I’m not concerned with creating a shallow depth of field, I’ll use it instead of the adapted M-mount lens. That way, I can use the G1’s auto-focus and capture a greater percentage of in-focus images.

EGOR: You’re just itching to talk about the adapted lenses, aren’t you? OK, but first (since you mentioned it), tell us a little more about the G1’s contrast-detect auto-focus. Is it really usable?

EGOR: Not only is it usable, but it’s actually fast enough for street photography! I wouldn’t shoot a sporting event with this camera but, when people are moving about at normal street speeds, the G1’s auto-focus quickly and accurately focuses on my subject without any waffling. This really surprised me, because this is definitely not the case with contrast-detect focusing on a point-and-shoot camera. I think the G1’s sensor size, which is so much larger than a point-and-shoot’s, really helps with the focus speed. I’m less enamored with some of the camera’s gee-whiz auto-focus features. Face detection, for example, is something I thought would be useful for street photography but, in testing it, the software really can’t identify a face unless it’s staring right at the camera. The camera needs to see two eyes, a nose, and a mouth before it says “that’s a face!” I ran some experiments by pointing the camera at myself in the mirror. If I covered one eye with my hand, the G1 would cease to recognize my face as a “face.” The same thing happened if I covered my mouth, or my nose. It also happened when I turned in profile. It’s like the camera is counting holes in your head. If it doesn’t see two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth, it’s not going to call it a “face.”

EGOR: OK. Let’s get into it now. One of the main reasons you chose the MFT format was its ability to use M-mount lenses. I gather you’ve done this and you’re dying to talk about it.

EGOR: Yep. I got the Novoflex adapter and a Voigtländer Nokton 35mm f/1.4 M-mount lens. This was a perfect way to hedge my bets on the MFT format. That Voigtländer lens is about 10 times cheaper than the Leica equivalent, but would give me a much different look than the kit lens, and infinitely better images than anything a point-and-shoot could produce. Essentially, it was the “safe” way to give myself an escape route — if the G1 experiment failed, I’d have one less barrier standing between me and either an analog rangefinder or, perhaps, the Holy Grail… a Leica M8.2.

EGOR: Also, since you’re the eternal optimist, I must assume you’re still hopeful that someone will someday come out with an affordable M-mount digital rangefinder?

EGOR: That’s right, and it’s the reason I chose the 35mm focal length. On the G1, it functions as a 70mm telephoto, which is quite usable. But on a full-frame rangefinder, it’ll display an actual 35mm focal length, which is my favorite length for street photography. And on an M8.2-type cropped-sensor, it’ll still function as a very practical 47mm “workhorse” lens. I just can’t believe I’m the only guy on earth who wants a digital rangefinder, but who doesn’t have $6000 to drop on one. One of these manufacturers is going to get smart one day and, when they do, that Voigtländer Nokton will segue nicely from the G1 to the rangefinder.

EGOR: So, how does the Nokton perform?

EGOR: That’s a question with a hundred different answers. Can you be more specific?

EGOR: OK. What do you like best about the Nokton?

EGOR: The image quality is supurb. Under ideal conditions, it draws every bit as nicely as some of my Canon L lenses. You’re not going to get this kind of look from any other small digital camera in existence (except for the M8.2, of course). The fact I get all this out of a lens that’s less than 1/4 the size of its L-equivalent is wonderful news to both my back and shoulders. With this lens on the G1, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m sacrificing image quality for portability. And, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the G1 is magically transformed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan when the Nokton is mounted. It’s just a handsome lens, and it makes the camera body handsome simply through contact.

EGOR: Since all M-Mount lenses need to be manually focused, is this a difficult process on the G1?

EGOR: In many ways, it’s not as easy as a rangefinder. But, in other ways, it’s actually easier.

EGOR: Can you explain?

EGOR: As I mentioned earlier, the electronic viewfinder is quite useful thanks to its high resolution and rapid refresh rate. But without a split prism to guide you, manual focusing can be somewhat hit-and-miss. Panasonic provides an MF-assist feature, which zooms in on the center of the frame, so you can see to focus on details. This actually enables you to focus quite accurately, but it does present a problem with immediacy. To enable the MF-assist feature, you have to press not one, but two buttons in succession. Complicating matters is the fact that these buttons are so poorly located that you have to lift you right hand off the camera and rotate your wrist in order to press them. This is an ergonomic nightmare. If your photo opportunity is fleeting, then you won’t have enough time to activate the zoomed-in focus screen and you’re forced to manually focus without it. If you’re using a fairly fast aperture with its limited depth of field, then manually focusing without the MF-assist will, more often than not, result in focusing errors. So, for focusing on fast moving or fleeting subjects, the rangefinder is much better. But for focusing on static subjects, the G1 is actually better.

Of course, my whole purpose for having a G1 is ’street’ photography so, for me, it pales when compared to a rangefinder. What’s really annoying is that Panasonic could definitely fix the problem with a firmware update. There are a lot of unused buttons when the camera’s equipped with an adapted lens. Panasonic should give the customer the ability to assign the MF-assist function to a more ergonomically positioned button, and they should allow that function to be enabled with a single button press, and not a pair of button presses. If Panasonic were to do this, I’d probably double or triple my manual focus success rate on the street.

AMENDMENT: The following two questions (indented below) discuss a situation in which M-mount lenses, mounted to the Novoflex adapter, focussed well beyond infinity. This caused numerous focusing issues that limited the usefulness of adapted lenses. Subsequent to my publication of this report, Novoflex confirmed a manufacturing error with their entire first batch of M-mount to Micro Four Thirds adapters. I have received my replacement adapter, and have now posted an addendum to this article.

EGOR: At least the Voigtländer Nokton has those big beautiful focus markings on the barrel, so you can finally realize your dream of being able to zone-focus and shoot from the hip!

EGOR: I wish that were true. This is one issue in which the adapted lens concept fails miserably on the G1… at least with my 35mm Nokton. The lens focuses substantially beyond infinity. In fact, the lens is pretty much focused at infinity when its distance scale is at 3 meters. If this lens were mounted on an actual rangefinder, it would have about 90 degrees of rotation between its minimum focus distance and infinity. Unfortunately, on the Novoflex adapted G1, the bulk of its focus range is achieved within about 15 degrees of rotation. This creates two detrimental side effects. First, of course, is the fact that the distance markings on the lens are completely useless, which makes zone-focusing for “blind” shooting impossible. Second, since such a large focal distance is covered by only about 15 degrees of rotation, it’s much more difficult to achieve accurate focus. Even the slightest nudge on the focus ring can throw the whole scene out of focus. Think about it. On a real rangefinder, that full 90 degrees of rotation means you have plenty of room to twist the lens into perfect focus. But, when mounted on the G1, everything between 2M and infinity is focused within about a 15 degree turning radius. With wide open apertures, accurate focus is difficult to achieve — even with the zoomed-in MF-assist feature.

EGOR: Are all adapted lenses like this?

EGOR: I can’t give a definitive answer, since the 35mm Nokton is the only one I own. But I did go to my local camera store and test this phenomenon with several other M-mount lenses on the G1 body. In general, the longer the focal length, the less severe the problem. Although both a 75mm and a 90mm focused well beyond infinity, the problem wasn’t as extreme as on the 35mm. This meant I could use a greater percentage of the longer lens’ rotational range for focusing. Sadly, their distance markings were still completely inaccurate. I tried a 21mm lens and it was, like the 35mm, considerably off. But since I was able to get more depth-of-field from the 21mm, it was actually easier to focus than the 35mm. All in all, the 35mm was, by far, the hardest lens to focus manually on a G1 body. Mind you, the Voigtländer is the only 35mm I tried. I have no idea if the same would be true for a Leica 35mm.

EGOR: So you still can’t shoot from the hip?

EGOR: Well, that’s not entirely true, either. The G1 has an articulated, fold-out LCD screen. With that, I’m able to keep the camera at waist level, then fold out and rotate the LCD. In this way, I can peer down at the camera, like one would do with an old Twin Lens Reflex or Hasselblad except, of course, the image isn’t inverted. Since the camera’s at my waist, rather than eye-level, I can actually see the LCD well enough to select a focus point when I use the kit lens. Manual focusing with the adapted M-mount is tougher, though. Granted, this method isn’t as discreet as hip-level rangefinder photography since everyone can see I’m looking at my camera’s video display, but it’s better than a dSLR or a point-and-shoot — neither of which have any hip-shot shooting ability.

EGOR: Getting back to adapted lenses, is the G1’s 2x lens-conversion factor a hindrance?

EGOR: Yes and no. “No” because it gives you telephoto capabilities previously missing from street cameras. “Yes” because it takes away the wide angle capabilities normally associated with street cameras. Because of the way rangefinders are designed, telephoto lenses aren’t really practical. So the ability to use standard lenses in a whole new way is a novel experience. Suddenly, thanks to the G1, your fast M-mount lenses all become “portrait” lenses. Since rangefinders don’t have optically scaling viewfinders, it’s difficult to get a good feel for how a telephoto image will actually look through a rangefinder’s viewer and, because of this, it can also be difficult to focus. The 2x factor of the G1 effectively converts all your rangefinder lenses into telephoto lenses but, unlike a rangefinder, the G1’s electronic viewfinder scales with the focal length. Thanks to the G1, you can shoot, frame, and focus at focal lengths that would be impossible on a rangefinder. But this is also why, at the same time, the 2x factor is a hindrance — you can’t shoot wide with M-mount lenses. Getting true wide-angle capabilities with the G1 means waiting for MFT system lenses to appear — your rangefinder lenses won’t help you here.

EGOR: Anything else you can comment on regarding the use of M-mount lenses on a MFT body?

EGOR: Since the 35mm Voigtländer is the only M-mount lens I own, my experiences are rather specific to that lens. Although it’s a newly manufactured lens, it’s based on a very old optical design, which Voigtländer markets as “classic.” In this case, “classic” means “no aspherical lens elements,” which sometimes translates into “spectacularly horrific chromatic aberration.” At wider apertures, this lens/body combination produces a thick blue halo around every highlight it sees. And it’s not the kind of halo that can be easily removed with Adobe Camera Raw or some other software. It’s a dark blue halo, several pixels thick, that completely encircles any highlight. It’s a real shot ruining artifact when it happens, and it happens frequently.

EGOR: Do you just have a bad lens?

EGOR: I don’t think so… but I do think it might be a bad lens for adapted use on a G1. I took the lens and body to my dealer, popped off a shot of the fluorescent light fixture in his store, and we both saw the thick blue halo. He then mounted the lens on a Leica M8 and photographed the light fixture — there was no chromatic aberration. That said, I don’t know what aperture setting he used. Perhaps he inadvertently changed the aperture when he mounted it on the Leica? I don’t know. But I do know I didn’t see any chromatic aberration on the Leica. We then proceeded to try several other M-mount lenses on the G1. In general, the longer the lens, the less the aberration. The 40mm Nokton was slightly better than the 35mm, and the 75mm better still. But focal length isn’t the only factor. We tried a 21mm Zeiss lens and it exhibited absolutely no aberration on the G1. Of course, that lens is much more expensive than the Voigtländer and it also has a narrower maximum aperture. So just like the focus range problems I discussed earlier, the 35mm Nokton was, by a wide margin, the worst offender on the G1. Interestingly, my dealer suggested I try a UV filter to see if it would reduce the chromatic aberrations. I normally abhor the use of UV filters but, to my surprise, it actually helped. In fact, the UV filter completely eliminated the aberrations on the longer focal length lenses though, on the 35mm, the benefits were less pronounced. I still have more tests to run with the B+W UV filter before I can determine how useful it is at controlling chromatic aberration on this lens. One problem, though, is that the UV filter sometimes creates very pronounced reflective aberrations. This, of course, is the main reason I’m loathe to use filters. I can foresee a day when I might have to choose which “evil” is less offensive: the chromatic aberration seen under contrasy lighting, or the reflective aberrations seen under those very same conditions. I have a lot more testing to do in this area, so I’ll likely post an update sometime in the future.

EGOR: Since the G1 expects to see MFT system lenses mounted on the body, does it “freak out” or do anything “weird” when an M-mount lens is on it?

EGOR: Fortunately, when Panasonic designed this camera, they chose to make it backward compatible with all their older standard Four-Thirds lenses. So, by specification, the camera had to be compatible with adapted lenses — some of which, because of MFT’s contrast-detect focus method, would need to be manually focused. This is the “back door” that allowed these enterprising companies to start developing rangefinder lens adapters for the G1 — the fact that Panasonic was forced to consider the possibility of mounting a non-system lens on the camera meant they designed software that didn’t “freak out” when an unknown lens was mounted. That said, there are still some design choices I’d like to see changed — in particular, I’d really like to see some changes to the way shutter speeds are handled in Aperture Priority mode.

EGOR: How so?

EGOR: Panasonic has apparently assumed that any adapted lens will contain image stabilization. As a result, when you use auto ISO and shoot in lower-light situations, the camera will always set the shutter to 1/30th of a second. Obviously, this is far too slow for a non-stabilized adapted M-mount lens. My 35mm acts like a 70mm on the G1, so I’d prefer that the camera choose 1/60 as its minimum default shutter speed, and bump up the ISO to compensate. If I were using a 40 or a 50 then, obviously, I’d rather see the camera set 1/90 as the minimum shutter speed. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t offer any way for the user to program this minimum value. It simply gives you 1/30. I’d like to see Panasonic implement a feature that would let the photographer define the minimum shutter speed in Aperture Priority mode. Even if Panasonic doesn’t do that, there’s something else they could do to improve the situation — they could offer a “program shift” feature in Aperture Priority mode. That way, when the camera gives you 1/30s at ISO 100, you could simply turn the front dial one click, and the camera would bump the shutter speed to 1/60 and the ISO to 200. Bump it again, and the shutter would go to 1/120 and the ISO to 400. If you activated the feature that lets you change ISO in 1/3 stop increments, then you’ve had even finer control over the shutter/ISO. But, the way it is now, one of two things happens: either the camera sets a shutter speed that’s too slow (resulting in blur), or I miss the shot because I’m trying to manually reset both the shutter speed and the ISO to compensate. Again, a simple firmware update could make this camera much more usable for anyone shooting M-mount lenses. I really hope Panasonic recognizes this market and releases a software update or two that address the specific needs of M-mount lens shooters.

Eyes getting tired? Take a break and, when you come back, head on over to Part 5 and the exciting conclusion!

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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