Optical Antithesis


A review of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens for m4/3

 

 

 

The Sigma 16mm f1.4 shown mounted to an Oympus OMD EM1 mk 1 which is one of the larger m4/3 cameras.

 

I’ve said many times on this blog that my favourite focal length is 35mm (35mm equivalent) which give a diagonal angle of view of 63.4º To me it is a relaxing normal view, I find 50mm a bit too tight and 28mm a bit too “loose”. So when I migrated from so-called full frame to micro four thirds in 2010 one of the first lenses I bought was the Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f2.8 pancake lens. Actually at the time there were only three lenses in the system the 17mm, a 14-42mm kit lens and the 40-150 telephoto kit zoom and I ended up getting them all.

 

Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f2.8 shown on an EP5. The lens was the first prime introduced for the Olympus’ m4/3 system.

 

The 17mm was equivalent to 34mm in in full frame terms and has a diagonal angle of view of 65º, so close enough as not to make any real difference. It wasn’t a well received lens despite being what initial advocates of the micro four thirds said they wanted – pancake lenses. It’s slow maximum aperture of f2.8, slow and noisey auto focus combined with less than stellar optical performance put many people off and they went for the much more expensive Panasonic 20mm f1.7 which had the virtues of being optically better, and having a faster maximum aperture. It still wasn’t great in the AF department though. But hey these were the early days of mirrorless technology and AF systems were not very quick and accurate then. But anyways I got the Olympus in a kit with my Olympus EP2 and I actually loved it. I could slip it mounted to the EP2 in my pocket which made it a great stealth camera combination and I used it to shoot my TransPerth-Transhumance project. I still use the lens today, mainly on my EP5. The area where I felt it was absolutely hopeless was video. The AF was too slow, too noisy (think angry wasp stuck in a jar) and I wanted a bit more subject isolation than the f2.8 aperture could give.

 

The Sigma 16mm f1.4 compared to the Olympus 17mm f2.8, 25mm f.1.8 and the 45mm f1.9.

 

The Sigma 16mm f1.4 is a physically large lens. Here it is shown with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and 75-300 f4-6.3 zoom lenses.

 

So fast forward a few years and I’m shooting more and more video and I decide to get myself a better 17mm lens. In the intervening years Olympus had produced the very favourably received 17mm f1.8 and the eye-wateringly expensive f1.2 version. Panasonic had also come to the party with their Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens. In fact I went to my local (if you can call 110Km away local) camera dealer to buy this lens and it was always out of stock which made me want it even more. But in the end I went for an outlier in the form of the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN lens. The reasons being that f1.4 is faster than f1.9, it was cheaper than the f1.2 and the difference between f1.2 and f1.4 is slight, and my dealer had it in stock. So what makes it and outlier? Well to put it bluntly it’s bloody huge. It has a 67mm ⌀ filter thread which compares to 37mm for the Olympus 17mm f2.8. It is bigger than the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 and the Panasonic Leica 8-18mm f2.8-4 while being only a little shorter than the Olympus 75-300mm f4.8-6.7. The 16mm focal length equates to 32mm on full frame with a diagonal angle of view 68.1º so is a bit wider, but when used with the Panasonic G85 for 4K video this isn’t much of a problem as the camera crops in slightly. So how come this lens is so lardy I hear you all ask. Well this lens wasn’t designed for micro four thirds, it was initially designed for the Sony 6000 series cameras with an APS sized sensor where it equates to being a 24mm in full frame terms. To get a wide angle lens that’s fast and a good optical performance means lots of glass and glass is heavy, and this lens is large and heavy for APS format cameras. To get some additional return on their investment Sigma decided to offer the lens in micro four thirds mount hence it seeming a funny focal length and being bigger than necessary.

 


Vital Statistics

Olympus 17mm f2.8

Sigma 16mm f1.4

Diagonal angle of view 65º 68.1º
Optical construction 6 elements in 4 groups 16 elements in 13 groups
Diaphragm 5 rounded blades 9 rounded blades
Minimum aperture f2.8 F1.4
Maximum aperture F22 F16
Minimum focusing distance 20cm 25cm
maximum magnification ratio 0.11x 0.07X
Filter diameter 37mm 67mm
Dimensions 57mm x 22mm (H) 72.2mm x 92.3mm (H)
Weight 71g 405g
Internal focusing No Yes

 

 

In the hand the Sigma 16mm feels very dense and substantial. The lens body is made out of what Sigma calls a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) which is substantially stronger than conventional polycarbonates while having similar thermal expansion properties to aluminium. The lens mount is made of chromium plated brass which should ensure a long life. The Sigma 16mm is advertised as being dust and splash proof but on closer reading of Sigma’s spec sheet there is only one seal and that is at the lens mount. The lens comes with a bayonet mount petal lens hood which has a ribbed grip to make attaching and detaching easier. While it is good that the lens comes with a hood it’s not the best implementation and feels quite insubstantial and can be fiddly to attach as it can foul and not lock home. There is a ribbed rubber focus ring of the fly by wire type – it feels smooth and easy to use. There are no other controls or switches which means if you want to switch between AF and manual focus you will have to use the camera controls for that.

 

 

The Sigma 16mm has an optical construction of 16 elements in 13 groups with 3 FLD (“F” Low Dispersion) glass elements, which offers performance equivalent to fluorite which exhibits less chromatic aberration than those utilising a traditional flint glass. There are 2 SLD (Special Low Dispersion) glass elements which also help to minimise chromatic aberration and 2 ASPH moulded glass aspherical elements which work to reduce optical aberrations. According to Sigma’s website the ASPH elements are polished with a tolerance of under 10 nanometers or 0.000001 millimetres which according to Sigma reduces onion ring bokeh.


Performance

100 % crops showing lens performance wide open and then at the best performing aperture.

 

In terms of autofocus the stepping motor is fast and accurate and very smooth when shooting video. I tested the lens on the OMD EM1 mk ii which has on sensor phase detect AF and on the Panasonic G85 which uses DFD technology – a variant of contrast detect auto focus that requires the lens to provide a profile to the camera to ensure fast and accurate AF. The Sigma does not have such a profile as these are limited at present to only Panasonic’s own lenses. Despite that there were no problems and I could detect no discernible difference between the Olympus and the Panasonic. The only downside in the AF department is that I can’t use the Pro Capture Low setting which gives up to 18 fps with auto exposure and AF tracking. This is no fault of Sigma’s as the option is only available with Olympus lenses.

 

 

Optically – well straight from the get go the Sigma is impressively sharp wide open corner to corner. The performance improves slightly (and it is only visible on my 4K screen at 300%) as you stop down. Diffraction sets in at f16 and this does soften the image. In terms of chromatic aberration, well wide open in high contrast situations it is apparent albeit slight and it is easy to correct in post. The lens is reasonably resistant to flare – but if you have a specular light source in the frame you will experience some veiled flare and ghosting. If you turn off the built in lens profile you can observe a slight barrel distortion, but switch on the profile and it is not visible. The bokeh balls this lens produces are more or less round when shooting wide open even at the edges of the frame and the transitions are nice and smooth. There is some onion ring bokeh which is the result of using moulded aspherical lens.Vignetting is not a problem and is very slight in the region of 1/2 stop.

 

Chromatic aberration is quite apparent on this lens. It is also quite prone to flare even when using the included lens hood.

 


Verdict

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Being designed to have an image circle much larger than micro four thirds requires means that you are using the best performing part of the lens and this really shows. Just for giggles I compared the Sigma with my old Olympus. The Olympus is noticeably soft in the corners at all apertures and just average in the centre. It suffers badly from chromatic aberration. Vignetting is very apparent, in excess of 1 stop in the corners with the lens profile switched on and getting on for 2 stops when switched off. Physically, optically and figuratively the Sigma stands head and shoulders above the little Olympus. The only area where the Olympus wins out is its small size and that is why I’ll continue to use it when I want something small and compact. For every other occasion I’m reaching for the Sigma. The knock on effect is that I’m seriously wondering about replacing my Olympus 45mm f1.8 with the Sigma 56mm f1.4.

Zoomin’ Heck

 

On 7th October 2018 I put a video up of me unwrapping the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f4-6.3 ASPH Power OIS and my initial impressions of it. Well after six months of use this is my opinion of the lens. I don’t know if it has won the title for having the longest model name, but if not it should be a contender. For brevities sake I’ll just refer to it hence forth as the PanaLeica 100-400.  At the outset I’ll say that this is my lens bought with my money and I’ve only used the one copy of it

 

First off let’s set things straight – this is a very specialist bit of kit that you either have a need for or you don’t. I’ll also say that there is a very good argument to adopt the micro four thirds system just for this lens alone. No I’ve not stopped taking my meds, this lens should be a contender for anyone who shoots wildlife, particularly birds, and travels a lot. A long time ago someone said to me, and I’m not entirely sure who it was, but I’ll attribute it to Hugh Graham who’d been a Fleet Street photographer, that you should choose your camera system on the basis of the lenses you’ll use. I think Panasonic were very smart when they designed this lens because this leverages all the benefits of the m4/3 system. It uses the two times crop factor and small size to produce a lens that is just not available in the 35mm full frame world ie a compact lightweight 200-800mm zoom lens. Recently a muppet on YouTube pronounced that micro four thirds is dead but this lens proves that the system is very viable indeed. Lets compare the PanaLeica 100-400 to some of its rivals. 

Comparing the Canon EOS6d with Sigma 150-600mm lens to the Panasonic G85 and PanaLeica 100-400 lens. Remember folks the Panasonic combination has more reach.

 

 

Lens Weight Cost
PanaLeica 100-400 0.985 Kg $1900 AUD
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens 4.5 Kg $17000 AUD
Sigma 800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens 4.9 Kg $8400 AUD
Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens 5.8 Kg $8000 AUD
Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens 4.5 Kg $23000 AUD

 

 

Or lets look at it another way. My Panasonic G85 with battery grip, two batteries, a memory card and the PanaLeica 100-400 weighs in at 1.829 Kg. A Canon EOS 550d with a Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens which has the same equivalent angle of view is 2.958 Kg and my Canon 6d with the same Sigma lens is 3.345 Kg and doesn’t have the same range. To get the same zoom range the 6d would need to be paired up with the Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens and the combination would weigh 7.1 Kg. Now if you sit in a bird hide all day with your camera on a tripod then you might be prepared to sacrifice weight, expense and portability to get high image quality. But if like me you walk around anything up to 20 Km in a day looking for birds and are willing to work around the issue of the smaller sensor and it’s inherent poorer performance at ISOs over 6400 (and coming from the days of shooting slide film at ISOs between 50 and 400 I can’t believe that I see 6400 as a problem) then you will be very happy. The argument about image quality is very spurious if you only look at your images on an iPad or phone. So you can see why I think that this lens is enough to persuade people to adopt the m4/3 system – it has enormous reach, is lightweight and is very affordable.


Tech Specs

 

Focal Length 100-400mm (200-800 35mm equivalent)
Aperture range f4-6.3 to f22
Construction 20 elements in 13 groups
Diaphragm 9 circular blades
Focus drive Ultra sonic stepper motor
Close focus distance 1.3 m
Maximum magnification x 0.25
Length collapsed 17.15 cm
Diameter 8.3 cm
Filter size 72 mm
Weight 985 g

The Leica designation denotes that Leica had input into the design but the lens is made by Panasonic at their Yamagata lens factory in Japan. The PanaLeica 100-400 retains the same design cues as Leica’s own lenses and the other Panasonic lenses in this series such as the 8-18mm f2.8-4 ie it uses the same fonts and the same ribbing for the focus and zoom rings. It features an all metal body construction and is listed as being weather proof. However, there is no rating as to the extent of the weather resistance. It is a very attractive lens to look at and has a satisfying heft to it which reinforces the fact that this a quality bit of kit. In November 2015 I blogged about the Olympus m.Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 mk ii which I bought when I first started dabbling in wildlife photography, with its plastic construction it makes the PanaLeica 100-400 look like a luxury item.

 

The PanaLeica 100-400mm mounted on Olympus OMD EM1 with lens zoomed out to 400mm.

 

With regards to the physical controls on the lens body working backwards from the built in mini lens hood (a separate full-sized one can attach to this but I have never used it) there is a narrow focus ring. As per usual with Panasonic this a fly by wire ring with no direct physical coupling to the lens heliocord. Behind the focusing ring is ring which locks and unlocks the lens mechanism to prevent zoom creep. This can be applied at any point in the focal range. The zoom ring is nice a broad enabling a good grip and is quite smooth with a little resistance to movement. It has a ninety degree throw and works very nicely when shooting video. The lens body extends outwards as you progress through the lens range. The front lens element, however, does not rotate which is good news for users of polarizing and variable neutral density filters. The tripod foot and collar is really a rather clever piece of design. There is no collar as such, the rear part of the lens rotates 90 degrees to allow users to change from horizontal to vertical orientation. The foot screws into the lens and can be completely detached. In another nice touch you don’t need the foot to attach a tripod plate as you can attach it directly to the lens body which reduces the profile of the lens considerably. Just before the lens mount there are three physical switches. The first is a focus limiter which offers two positions, full focus range and 5m to infinity. Below that is a switch for AF or manual focus, and below that a switch for the optical image stabilisation system. The lens mount is metal and there is an o ring that provides some sealing against water and dust ingress.

 

 

Without a doubt the PanaLeica 100-400 is a very complex lens with 20 elements in 13 groups, 1 ultra low dispersion element, 2 extra low dispersion elements and 1 aspheric extra low dispersion element. From this we can see that it is corrected against chromatic aberration and optimised to produce high contrast, high-resolution images whilst maintaining a compact form factor. Although each group is positioned precisely within the lens barrel it is impossible to do this perfectly so the three lens groups that are most acutely effected by tilt and centring defects and therefore impact most upon image quality are the only ones that are adjustable. This has meant that repair or adjustment of the lens is very difficult and only Panasonic’s Yamagata factory is able to do this which means warranty repairs are sent back to Japan for assessment and then are usually replaced. If your lens fails outside of the warranty period customers are offered a refurbished lens at a discount rather than a repair. To further complicate the issue Panasonic in most countries contracts out its customer service and it is very difficult to access and there have been quite a few accounts of poor service on various camera forums. So my best advice would be to buy this lens from a bricks and mortar store with a good returns policy and then thoroughly test the lens, because if you have a problem it could be quite difficult to resolve.

 

 

The image quality is very good from 100-300 and just gets a little softer towards 400. This is not unusual for zoom lenses. At all focal lengths the edges of the frame are a little softer wide open but sharpen up nicely as you stop down. Diffraction becomes apparent at f16. There is next to no chromatic aberration, and the only times that I did observe it a simple click in Lightroom fixed it. Flare is remarkably well controlled on a lens with so many glass elements. I have shot a lot of frames into the light and have found that I don’t need to use the full-sized screw on lens hood, I just use the mini sliding hood that is built into the lens. Filter users be aware that this lens is very fussy about filters as many long lenses are. I’ve had no problem with multi-coated B+W and Heliopan filters. For giggles I tried an uncoated Fotga variable neutral density filter and using a combination of the lens on both a G85 and an EM1 could not get focus. This is not a fault of the lens but shows the effect that using cheap uncoated filters can have on lenses. My Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L does exactly the same with the Fotga filter. I’ve never understood why people will spend $2K on a lens and then slap a cheap $10 filter on it. If you are going to use filters use good ones.

 

Australasian Grebe by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Australasian Grebe, Tachybaptus novaehollandiae. Lake Monger, Western Australia. Olympus OMD EM1 with PanaLeica 100-400mm. Exposure: 1/1000s, f6.3, ISO 400.

 

Rainbow Lorikeet by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Rainbow Lorikeet, Trichoglossus moluccanus. Lake Monger, Western Australia. Olympus OMD EM1 with PanaLeica 100-400mm lens. Exposure: 1/1000s, f5.1 at ISO 6400.

 

Laughing Kookaburra by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Laughing Kookaburra, Dacelo novaeguineae. Avon Walk Trail, York, Western Australia. Panasonic Lumix G85 with PanaLeica 100-400mm lens. Exposure: 1/1000s, f6.3 at ISO 250.

 

 

White Faced Herron by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
White faced heron, Egretta novaehollandiae, Wilson Inlet, Denmark, Western Australia. Olympus OMD EM1 with PanaLeica 100-400mm lens. Exposure: 1/800s, f6.3 at ISO 320.

 


In Use

 

After six months of use and a few thousand exposures I think I’ve got a good handle on this lens. The inbuilt optical stabilisation combines with Panasonic’s Dual IS bodies (at the time of writing the GH5, G9, G95, G85, GX85, and GX9) to give impressive results, around 5-6 stops. When shooting 4K video with the G85 it is very impressive being able to shoot handheld with such a long lens. The video below has footage using the lens on both the G85 and EM1 as well as more stills examples. Unfortunately the OIS does not combine with the IBIS on Olympus bodies so it’s a case of either or. I have my EM1 set up with the IBIS permanently on and have selected Lens IS Priority in the custom functions. This means that when a lens with inbuilt stabilisation is detected the camera switches IBIS off. The reason for this is with shorter lenses IBIS is more effective, but with longer telephoto lenses lens based stabilization works best. The OIS works well enough to get fairly good handheld 1080 video with the EM1, but it’s obviously not as smooth as the G85. The hybrid AF system in the EM1 (a combination of contrast detect and on sensor phase detect) is more confident than the DFD (depth from defocus) of the Panasonic. With small subjects against busy backgrounds I’ve found that the G85 and the PanaLeica just hesitates that little bit as it tries to acquire focus and with small birds that slight hesitation is difference between getting a shot or not. The EM1 is very quick to acquire focus and that is why I’ve ended up favouring it more for bird photography. Now I’m perfectly happy to accept that this just might be a shortcoming of the AF system in the G85 and having read the Lumix GH5/Gh5s/G9 AF Guide Book things might improve significantly if I were to use one of those bodies. But for now I have the quandary of superb image stabilisation versus better AF and I’d sooner have better AF and use faster shutter speeds.

 

 


Conclusion

 

Lakesided Walk - Thomsons Lake by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Good close focusing and fairly decent maximum magnification of 0.25 means that the PanaLeica 100-400 is very good when photographing larger insects such as butterflies, moths, dragon flies and damsel flies. Australian painted lady (Vanessa kershawi). Thomsons Lake, Western Australia. Olympus OMD EM1 with PanaLeica 100-400mm lens. Exposure: 1/1000s, f6.3 at ISO 640.

 

If you are already invested in the m4/3 ecosystem and are interested in photographing birds then this is a no brainer. The PanaLeica 100-400 is streets ahead of the Olympus 75-300 and I would imagine the similarly priced Panasonic 100-300mm. It’s absolutely the muts nuts for walking around in the bush photographing birds and larger insects. Now if you’re interested in wildlife and nature and either don’t have a camera or have another brand I’d really recommend giving this lens and a micro four thirds camera some serious consideration. The image quality is very good as long as you’re not a pixel peeper and are honest with your self on what you’ll do with the image. It is very liberating to walk through the bush unencumbered by heavy camera kit that cost the equivalent of the annual GDP of a small Pacific Island nation. My only wish is that there were more compatibility within the micro four thirds system so that the image stabilisation worked across brands, the zoom rings turn in the same direction and that Panasonic adopt the clutch mechanism on their lenses for manual focus with hard stops.

 

Sacred Kingfisher by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Sacred Kingfisher, Todiramphus sanctus, the Knoll, Walpole, Western Australia. Olympus OMD EM1 with PanaLeica 100-400 lens. Exposure: 1/1000s, f5.7 at ISO 800.

 

Get A Grip

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.

 

There’s no doubt about it that micro four thirds cameras offer superb performance in a compact body. My favourite cameras have been the EM10 Mki and the EP-5 equipped with one of the excellent prime lenses such as the 25mm f1.8 or the 45mm f1.8. Trouble arises when you slap a bigger lens on such as the truly excellent Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8. It’s possible to use them but it feels unwieldy and uncomfortable for long periods. So the solution was to buy a bigger bodied camera such as the EM1 Mki. I was lucky that I managed to blag a good deal and it included HLD-7 battery grip. In day-to-day usage that grip has never left the camera. When I got the Panasonic Leica 100-400 I started using it primarily on the EM1 and it felt well-balanced, but I wasn’t getting the use of the 5 axis dual image stabilisation. So I thought I’d slap it on front of the G85 that I bought for video. Problem solved for the image stabilisation, but then I felt I needed a bit more real estate for the hands. 

 

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.

 

Looking online I saw the Panasonic BGG1 Battery Grip was $362 AUD. Now I don’t know about you but lately I think the camera manufacturers have been having a lend of us with camera grips. The new Canon EOS R’s grip retails for $599 AUD and the Fuji X-H1’s is $499 AUD. This is why there is a thriving market in cheap Chinese knock offs, but these tend to be for the best-selling cameras from Canon and Nikon. A lot of people regard these as crap, but back in 2010 I’d bought a Canon 550d and wanted a grip and I ended up buying one by Aputure from eBay for a whopping $40. It is still going strong, in fact it is in better nick than the camera body which I’ve had to superglue together on a couple of occasions. So I was definitely open to the idea of an after market grip, but I was under the impression that there wouldn’t be one as Panasonic don’t command a big enough market share. The other week I was trawling the internet looking for some batteries for my G85 and I found on Amazon Australia for the grand price of $61 AUD the battery grip DMW-BGG1 Battery Grip. So I took the plunge.

 

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.

 

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.

 

Ok first impressions. It’s made of plastic, but so is the body of the G85. It seems to be a pretty faithful copy of the Panasonic version right down to the recessed area for holding the rubber cover for the electrical contacts from the camera. The buttons and dials don’t feel as nice as those on the camera but they work well. The only downsides are that the tripod mount is not under the axis of the lens and it is obviously not weather sealed. For me these weren’t a big deal. In use the grip is comfortable and fits the contours of the camera body well. It helps provide a nice comfy grip, especially in the portrait orientation and the extra battery is a welcome addition when shooting video.I’ve been using it for a couple of months and it has been great. A good buy. 

 

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.

 

The Neewer DMW-BGG1 battery grip for the Panasonic Lumix G85.