Words and images by David Clapp
The Sigma 10-20mm 4/3s lens, literally the same size as the SLR version.
My recent trip to the Canadian Rockies to shoot snow and ice started with the usual pre-flight head scratch. What to take and what not to take..... With a pathetic 5kg hand luggage to get in a stress about, I was left hoping that someday all camera gear would be as portable, light and robust as the GF-1 has clearly proven to be. Heading into temperatures as low as -40C was somewhat ominous, but with the Four Thirds Sigma 10-20mm and the 14-45mm lenses now essential kit for the trip, it was a case of juggling the SLR gear on and off the bathroom scales for a spot of light exercise.
If you have read my last article about this remarkable camera, you may have also looked into the options for a super wide angle system. There are a few options on the market at differing price ranges - The Panasonic 7-14mm (£950), the Olympus 7-14 f/4 (£1400), the Olympus 9-18 f/4-5.6 (£450) and the Olympus 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5 (£730). The Sigma 10-20mm is the cheapest of the bunch at £400, but I want to think about the Panasonic 7-14mm in particular when reviewing the Sigma 10-20mm as it's a Micro Four Thirds lens and made to fit the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds range specifically.
Panasonic DMW-MA1 Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds adapter.
If you were not aware, the Sigma is a Four Thirds lens, the Panasonic GF-1 is a Micro Four Thirds camera. The necessary adapter to fit the Four Thirds lenses to the GF-1 is not just some expensive plastic ring, it's actually a rather complicated affair. Not only is it well built, but it also carries vital electonic communication from lens to camera body. When fixed to the Sigma, all clicks into place smoothly and securely, just as it does at the camera end, which is satisfying. The lens doesn't wobble, creak or turn, making it feel like a native pairing.
Now the 'not so good' adapter bit.
Here's a heart sinker - If you were hoping that AF would work, I am sadly reporting that it doesn't. Panasonic have a list of lenses that work on-line and this isn't one of them. Despite an hour of considerate counselling, this marriage has communication issues that can't be resolved. Never the less, I am pleased to report that they are on speaking terms to a certain extent, with aperture working perfectly along with all the focal length and aperture EXIF data, but AF will not work I am afraid.
Is this a big issue? Not at all. I spend most of my life hyper focally focusing lenses whilst lying in the dirt, so after one quick session playing with a laptop to pinpoint the HD settings, the GF-1 and Sigma were back on track. I also ascertained the best shooting apertures, discovering where diffraction kicks in (around f/8) and also just how consistent image sharpness can be across the frame.
Geometrical Fun - These cracks and fissures became great fun to frame and play with, but check out the clarity of the ice itself, despite diffraction - Panasonic GF-1 and Sigma 10-20 at f/16, 18mm (36mm in 35mm terms) 1/3sec, tripod mounted, 2sec timer.
The Sigma 10-20 and GF-1 in the hand...
Another questions that most users of the GF-1 will be thinking is 'what is the lens weighting like?'. It's a fair question and it's here that the system will start to divide users. The Sigma is certainly no lightweight. At over 500g with the adapter attached, the G-F1 is starting to feel cumbersome and extremely front heavy. Gone is the feather-light reactionary feel of the 14-45mm, as you hold the system by the lens and not the camera. The Sigma turns the GF-1 reluctantly into a pseudo DSLR, which questions the point of this pairing from the start. Handling is unsteady, but it is important to remember one killer point as you glance back to your DSLR - cost compromise.
Comparison - The size of the 10-20mm is considerably larger than the 14-45mm. It's also far heavier, but there are some benefits.
Also consider this, the Sigma has an agreeable 77mm filter size. For those who own a DLSR, this makes life very simple. I was able to use the GF-1 Sigma 10-20mm with all my regular filters and it was a total joy. The threads are nice and smooth, they don't stick or jam like other lenses I have attached them onto. The Panasonic 7-14mm on the other hand has no filters option, just like the Nikon 14-24mm, due to the petalled hood. That's surely got to be a huge advantage for some shooters.
Crack Addict - Snow filled cracks with plenty of granular texture, ideal for testing lens detail - Panasonic GF-1 and Sigma 10-20mm at f/16, 17mm (34mm in 35mm terms) 1/6sec, tripod mounted, 2sec timer.
Quality Crack - A great location for depth of field and diffraction testing. Panasonic GF-1 and Sigma 10-20 at f/16, 13mm (26mm in 35mm terms) 1/20th sec, tripod mounted, 2sec timer.
Well I have to say it, I give the 10-20mm and GF-1 a big thumbs up and I hope you agree with me from these examples above that the lens is a worthy companion to 14-45mm. Even at 10mm, the 20mm equivalent focal length is consistently sharp right across the frame. Diffraction does tend to soften and reduce contrast at f/11-f/16, (considering that f/11 is often the sweet spot for a DSLR wide angle lens), but it's a small price to pay for the versatility. Depth of field is bigger even at smaller apertures due to the sensor size (again when comparing it again to DSLR), so shooting at f/8 or no more than f/11 is a good rule of thumb.
The Sigma also controls distortion well. Shooting super wide at 10mm, there is that mild yet noticeable stretching to the edges, but barrelling and pin cushioning is controlled. I must admit I have stared long and hard over this image below. Although the point of the image was to explore depth of field, the horizon looks far from straight doesn't it. Yet the one above (Quality Crack) is shot at 13mm and looks very controlled so I can't comment to strongly about this.
Some Final Thoughts.
Those craving even wider focal lengths should carefully consider the problems with size and cost. The Panasonic 7-14mm is allegedly a superb optic. Looking confidently like a mini version of my beloved Nikon 14-24mm certainly made me smile. With the Sigma 10-20mm system sitting a little close to a somewhat questionable border line, the choice becomes a matter of cost, weighting and convenience.
With far heavier optics than the 7-14mm, an expensive adapter and the front weighting issue, the 10-20mm starts to lean uncomfortably into the realms of the small DSLR territory. You won't be carrying it on a strap around your neck. I started to question the benefits of including this lens alongside the super light and balanced GF-1 / 14-45mm system. Is it easier just to use the 14-45mm alone? After all, the 14mm end is 28mm equivalent, that's still fairly wide and very usable in the landscape. Ask yourself can you cope with just one lens?
Then there's the price factor again - it's also £500 with the adapter, that buys a second hand 17-40mm f/4L or a 70-200mm f/4L for instance. Add in the Sigma's loss of AF (which I don't mind personally) and the whole set-up starts to look even less attractive. This is where the 7-14mm, despite the cost, may well be worth that extra money if you can afford it. The system stays super compact, extremely lightweight and it also adds an extra 6mm (in SLR terms) to your wide angle work, which can make a huge difference to your image dynamics. The 7-14mm is super wide, light and balanced, but it can't take regular filters and it's stupid money. The choice was always going to be tough.
Personally, as a gear lugger, I can't see the problem in having the Sigma 10-20mm and 14-45mm together. It is still compact enough. I carried it all week in my bag, alongside a Canon 1Ds Mk III and seven lenses for this review. After looking at the files back at the lodge, I grew very confident in this duo. If I was packing for a hypothetical compact and lightweight camping trip, then I would stare long and hard at my kit bag. The Canon 5D Mk II, 17-40mm, Contax 35-70mm and 70-200 f/4L IS would be my high-end system of choice, but equally I would stare at the 12mp GF-1, Sigma 10-20mm and 14-45mm. The focal lengths work perfectly well for me. I know the results can be magical thanks to the GF-1's brilliant sensor, the impeccable 14-45mm and the Sigma's quality optics. This camera and lens system has made professional compact photography a reality for me.
It is relieving to conclude that these decisions are certainly nothing to do with image quality. Just like the GF-1, the Sigma 10-20mm certainly delivers. As I box up and send the whole system back to Park Cameras this week, I know I will be sorry to see it go (or taking stock of one very soon).
Super Wide As wide as it gets yet still performing admirably, Panasonic GF-1 and Sigma 10-20mm at f/14, 10mm (20mm in 35mm terms) 1/80th sec, tripod mounted, 2sec timer.
Highly Recommended, but with a few head scratching issues.
Park Cameras - Panasonic GF-1 with 14-45mm
Words and images by David Clapp.