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  • Who's It For?

  • Look and Feel

  • Image Quality

  • Samples

  • Conclusion

  • Sharpness

  • Distortion

  • Chromatic Aberration

  • Bokeh

That's why the Lumix GH4 remains incredibly popular with filmmakers, video journalists, and video hobbyists who also enjoy shooting stills. It's just about the best hybrid shooting experience that money can buy.

But to get the most out of an excellent hybrid body, you need great lenses. The Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 (MSRP $999.99) is an ideal place to start. This pro-grade lens is sharp enough for great HD and 4K, while compact and fast enough to use as a flexible walk-around stills lens. So what's the bad news? Well, you might have a hard time choosing between this lens and the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO.

Either way, it's a great time to be a Micro Four Thirds shooter.

Who's It For?

This is a lens that was designed for the rigors of professional shooting—the Micro Four Thirds version of a classic full-frame 24-70mm f/2.8, a staple in the bags of photojournalists and wedding photographers the world over. And since it going to cost you just shy of a grand, you’ve got to be serious about image quality to want to take the plunge.

The wide f/2.8 constant aperture creates lovely shallow depth of field effects and improves low-light results.
Credit: Reviewed.com / Chris Thomas

The wide f/2.8 constant aperture creates lovely shallow depth of field effects and improves low-light results.

But because it's a Micro Four Thirds lens, it's also a whole lot smaller and more portable than those lenses, making it a great go-everywhere option even for hobbyists. If you’re looking for a single lens that can do it all with minimal compromise, this is a great choice; its range goes wide enough for landscape photos, but it can also be used for portraits and everything in between.

So what don't you want to use it for? Most sports and wildlife photography will be beyond its capabilities. For those purposes you'll want something like the complementary 35-100mm f/2.8 or Olympus's 40-150mm f/2.8, or perhaps the new Olympus 300mm f/4. It also can't go super wide for dramatic interior or landscape shots, where you'll want the Panasonic or Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 lenses.

Basically, it's a nice jack of all trades that will complement any Micro Four Thirds bodies—from Panasonic or Olympus—beautifully. And because it's dust and moisture sealed, it will even do well on new higher-end bodies designed to handle inclement weather.

Look and Feel

Let's start with the good: The 12-35mm f/2.8 is fully weather- and dust-sealed, and while we didn’t get a chance to spray it down with a hose, we are confident in saying that it could easily handle a walk in the rain without issue. Of course, you’ll only get the benefit with a weather-sealed camera body like the GH4.

Unfortunately, the Lumix lens falls a little short of its all-metal Olympus rival when it comes to build quality. For a grand, you get a plasticky lens that feels like it's worth about $500. A lot of that feeling is probably psychosomatic—some say plastic is actually more resilient than metal—and Panasonic was likely trying to make this lens a small and light as possible. Still, it's not a great first impression.

Optical image stabilization is the best argument for buying the 12-35mm f/2.8 instead of its Olympus rival.
Credit: Reviewed.com / Chris Thomas

Optical image stabilization is the best argument for buying the 12-35mm f/2.8 instead of its Olympus rival.

The zoom action is fine, but the manual focusing action feels a little rough. Contrast that with Olympus’s "Snapshot" focusing ring, which lets you slide the ring back to reveal a focusing scale, enhanced focusing feel, and hard stops on each end of the focus range. Panasonic definitely comes up holding the short end of the stick.

But if you have a Panasonic body, the Lumix 12-35mm offers one very important feature: Power O.I.S. (optical image stabilization). Since Panasonic cameras don't include in-body image stabilization (IBIS), you need a stabilized lens for better results in dim light. You can of course use an Olympus lens on your Panasonic body, but it won't include stabilization, since all Olympus cameras use IBIS.

On the plus side, your $1,000 gets you some goodies, including a storage pouch, a plastic lens hood (reversible for storage), and front/back caps.

Image Quality

Whenever we test zoom lenses, we expect to find performance that is stronger at one end of the zoom range than the other. It's the nature of lens design; zooms are often the product of compromise, and there's increased focus placed on producing the best quality images where the lens will be used most.

In the case of the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8, however, we found strong performance pretty much everywhere. The lens is very sharp in the center at all focal lengths from f/2.8 all the way up to the diffraction limit at f/11. Away from the center it's also quite good at most focal lengths and apertures, though it's a little soft in the corners at f/2.8.

There's some minor pincushion distortion to contend with, but it actually can work in this lens's favor, especially in landscape shots that have a vanishing point. The sample below is a good example of this. In the sample above you can see another of the lens's strong suits in action: pleasing bokeh.

While this isn't the best bokeh that we've seen, for a zoom lens that only opens up to f/2.8, it's quite good. It especially does a good job with high-frequency backgrounds, which on most lenses can look very busy and distracting. With this lens they stay relatively smooth and don't draw your eye away from your subject.

Below you can see sample photos taken with the Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 mounted on a Panasonic Lumix GH4. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.

Conclusion

If it seems like we’ve been tough on the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8, it’s only because it's up against such stiff competition. Optically, it’s an excellent design capable of photos nearly as sharp as world-class 24-70mm lenses from Canon and Nikon. Unfortunately, it feels and handles like a much cheaper lens. It’s got the specs and optical performance to compete, but not the build quality.

Worse, the Olympus PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 offers more reach, superior build quality, and uniquely excellent manual focusing controls. Since both lenses sell for around the same price, most users looking for an ideal stills-first lens will likely want to go for the Olympus.

The useful range, fast and silent autofocus, and optical image stabilization make the Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8 a great choice for stills and video alike.
Credit: Reviewed.com / Chris Thomas

The useful range, fast and silent autofocus, and optical image stabilization make the Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8 a great choice for stills and video alike.

But there are a few reasons why you might ignore the Olympus's features and build and opt for the Panasonic anyway. The most obvious would be if you own a Panasonic body, since this lens brings its own image stabilization to the party. The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 does not, and that's crucial with the kind of documentary video work that many GH4 shooters are into. Another would be if you want the smallest, most lightweight kit possible. The 12-35mm weighs just three ounces less, but it's much smaller in every dimension.

But if you’re toting an OM-D or PEN camera, the tougher-feeling, more feature-rich M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 is probably the better buy. It’s a little heavier and a little bigger, but it has the build quality you’d expect from a $1,000 lens and gives you a way better manual focusing experience. That extra 5mm doesn't hurt, either.

Truth be told, you can't go wrong either way. These are both stunning examples of the performance ceiling of Micro Four Thirds and a testament to the design chops of both companies. These aren't quite on par with heavy hitters like the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM, but they're close, and that's a major feather in the cap of Micro Four Thirds shooters.
When evaluating any lens, we focus on four key areas: sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration, and bokeh. A perfect lens would render the finest details accurately, wouldn’t distort straight lines or produce ugly fringing around high-contrast subjects, and would create smooth out-of-focus areas.

The Panasonic G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 is designed to approximate what you'd get from a standard pro zoom, similar to the 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses you'd see on Canon or Nikon. While this lens is obviously more compact and not designed to compete directly with those (bigger, heavier, more expensive) lenses, it does have similar goals: chiefly, provide a lens that covers all standard focal lengths, a little bit of wide, a little bit of telephoto, and provide a constant fast aperture.

Sharpness

A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.

While all zoom lenses strive to be as sharp as possible, the necessities of optical design often mean that zoom lenses are better in one area than others. Even pro-level lenses generally have to compromise somewhere. While the Panasonic 12-35mm has a little of this, it's actually surprisingly consistent through the zoom range.

A heatmap of the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH's lens sharpness at every focal length.
Credit: Reviewed.com

Lens sharpness is great at any focal length.

At 12mm, 24mm, and 35mm we found a lens that was very sharp in the center from f/2.8 through f/8. At all three focal lengths we tested the center resolved over 2,000 lines at f/2.8, peaked at 2,100 to 2,200 lines from f/4 to f/5.6, and slowed to just under 2,000 lines at f/8. That's a remarkable performance given the limited resolving power of the 16-megapixel Olympus OM-D E-M1 sensor that we were testing with.

Off-center things are fine, but not nearly as rosy, but it depends on what focal length you're at. At 12mm the corner and midway regions both start around 1,200 lines, but sharpen up to about 1,500 and 1,600 lines respectively from f/4 to f/8. If you zoom in to around 24mm the corners never get above 1,250 lines, but the partway regions hover between 1,600 and 1,800 lines—not a bad result at all.

At full telephoto the whole frame is quite sharp from f/4 to f/8, with the center and partway regions rendering over 2,000 lines at their best while the corners top out at 1,550 lines. The only issue here is at f/2.8, where the corners are stuck at around 1,200 lines.

Distortion

We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.

There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.

Most zoom lenses that cover wide and telephoto focal lengths tend to have barrel distortion at one end that gives way to pincushion distortion. The Panasonic 12-35mm does suffer from distortion throughout the zoom range, but it's all pincushion distortion.

At all three focal lengths we tested we found 1% to 1.3% pincushion distortion in our test shots. This isn't ideal, but it's less than we expected and it's relatively easy to correct. Given that most similar zoom lenses exhibit as much as 3% barrel distortion on the wide end, this is a good effort from Panasonic.

Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.

In general, there aren't any major chromatic aberration issues with the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8. It's visible in many scenes, but you do have to go looking for it and it's only truly visible in high contrast scenes near the edges. It's worst at the wide end than it is as you zoom in, but it's never worse than "minor" by our reckoning.

Bokeh

Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.

While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).

While the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 doesn't produce the best bokeh that we've seen, it does well for itself. Backgrounds have a pleasing, smooth quality and these areas of the scene aren't marred by any notable flaws. Circular shapes remain so across the frame, though the lens doesn't render out of focus points of light with the crisp clarity that you'd get with the best portrait lenses.

You can see this in the samples above, where smooth backgrounds complement the crisp detail in the subject. In the first sample the lens takes a high-frequency scene with lots of contrast and specular highlights and keeps things relatively smooth. The second sample shows a few more jitters as the lens struggles to smooth out the black text and the straight lines of the copper pipes, but it's not offensive—especially for a zoom lens.

Meet the tester

Brendan Nystedt

Brendan Nystedt

Contributor

@bnystedt

Brendan is originally from California. Prior to writing for Reviewed.com, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz and did IT support and wrote for a technology blog in the mythical Silicon Valley. Brendan enjoys history, Marx Brothers films, Vietnamese food, cars, and laughing loudly.

See all of Brendan Nystedt's reviews

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