Perhaps my favorite part about the Micro Four Thirds system is the freedom to cast aside all the technical jargon and focus on the output. You know, your photographs.
I shoot with a Sony a7II and corresponding full-frame lenses for the majority of my photography work, and it’s easy to get sucked into specification talk. “Micro contrast”, “razor sharp in the corners”, “cat’s eye shaped bokeh balls” — I’m particularly bad for the last one. Sony pushes specs more than they push feel — all you need to do is read photography forums to find the truth in this.
But when someone says “Olympus”, my mind immediately jumps to the less tangible qualities of photography. Olympus cameras themselves are inspirational — they’re small, light, portable, well designed. They punch well above their specification weight and they imbue a sense of passion in a photograph.
So does the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens.
When I made the switch-over to the Sony system, I began selling off the majority of my Micro Four Thirds kit. I said goodbye to the Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 lens (an extraordinary lens with a magical aesthetic to it), the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 lens (an equally impressive lens with a little slower magic), and all the prior Olympus PRO zoom lenses. I even sold the OM-D E-M10 — my very first better-than-iPhone camera.
Through thick and thin, the OM-D E-M5 Mark II and the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 have endured.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the lens was permanently glued to the mount.
I’ve owned and shot the Pana Leica 15mm for almost two years now, so I feel confident in my understanding of this lens. That said, this lens excels in the intangibles, bearing a credence to the “Leica” in its name. It’s small, light, expensive, and has a ton of character, but may not fit on the list of most spec-aware lenses in the Micro Four Thirds system.
This review is a long time coming.
The Pana Leica 15mm continues the build quality trend of the Panasonic/Leica partnership. From the front lens element through to the mount, everything feels solid.
But it’s not weather-sealed.
Why this line of lenses isn’t weather-sealed is beyond me. Weather-sealing could make them larger, or slightly more expensive, but I don’t know anyone who would say the lenses can’t be slightly larger or slightly more expensive. If weather-sealing was available, it would give that peace of mind no matter the circumstances outside.
Construction & Size
Putting weather-sealing aside, the Pana Leica 15mm’s construction leaves nothing to be desired. The lens feels dense with its metal and high quality plastic build and metal lens hood. This is especially noticeable in the cold — the lens can be slightly cool to touch with bare hands in the winter.
The only lens I’ve tried which is smaller, lighter, and more portable than the Pana Leica 15mm is the Panasonic 20mm pancake lens. To me though, the Pana Leica 15mm more epitomizes the smaller Micro Four Thirds system. As we’ll see, there is more performance and a greater number of features packed into a lens just slightly larger than the 20mm pancake lens.
The lens mount is metal, ensuring you can pick up the camera/lens combo without worry of the mount snapping in two. To be fair, the size of the lens would deter you from picking it up lens-first, anyhow.
The Pana Leica’s lens hood is made entirely of metal, making it one of the highest quality lens hoods I’ve ever tried. I love this lens hood — it’s not too big to deter you from keeping it on the lens, yet it still helps bring down flaring and improves contrast and color saturation.
To attach the lens hood, there is a decorative ring that needs to be removed from the front edge of the lens. I purchased the lens off of eBay and didn’t receive the front decorative ring in the purchase, so I can’t show the decorative ring here. It seems to me the decorative ring would be easily lost, especially considering the utility of the lens hood and the well-designed lens cap that pushes into the lens hood.
When looking at the lens the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking it hails from the Leica M line. There is an evident inspiration from Leica’s M lenses here, from the size, to the metal exterior, to the yellow focal length markings. It’s all very Leica-y, which may help give it that luxurious appeal.
The Pana Leica’s aperture ring is wonderful… if it worked on Olympus cameras.
The ring clicks between “A” (auto) and f/16 at 1/3 stop increments with as satisfying a click as I’ve ever felt. As I write this, I find myself reaching over to the lens and spinning the aperture ring, just like someone who doodles as they think.
Unlike some of the highest-end lenses you’ll find today, the aperture ring has no switch to allow for smooth aperture changing. I don’t use the Olympus/Pana Leica combo for video — I don’t do video period, really — but the clicking aperture ring would be a big blow for videographers.
The aperture ring itself feels like it’s metal, but it may just be a high quality plastic instead. The ring has prominent indents to help turn the ring with sweaty or wet hands. In fact, I’d say the ring is a bit too toothy. It doesn’t hurt to turn the ring or anything, but the toothiness feels a bit overdone.
Of course, all this is for naught: The aperture ring doesn’t work with Olympus cameras. Why Olympus has yet to launch a software update allowing for aperture ring functionality is incredibly frustrating. And in all honesty, it’s a bit insulting. Olympus neglects to put aperture rings on PRO lenses, even though the rest of the market has gone in that direction. Just like the larger Pana Leica Nocticron, this is the biggest shortcoming of an otherwise superb lens.
Much like the aperture ring, the focus ring feels like metal while still being made of a hard plastic.
Due to the size of the Pana Leica 15mm lens body, the focus ring is particularly small. Although the aperture ring is raised further above the lens body than the focus ring, the small focus ring can be hard to find at times when you’re wanting to shoot with manual focus.
Plus, you’ll have to use your index finger and thumb to spin the focus ring. You may be able to rest your thumb on the aperture ring and your middle finger on the focus ring with your hand underneath the lens, but this isn’t as comfortable as it could be if the manual focus ring was a little larger.
Spinning the focus ring is easy enough, with the ring being properly dampened. This is a focus-by-wire focus system, meaning the camera reads the spinning of the focus ring and changes the focus electronically (as opposed to an actual mechanical change). It’s a little touchy, but not too bad.
Lastly, the focus ring is free spinning. Unlike Olympus’ PRO lenses — which have hard stops at the closest focusing distance and infinity — the Pana Leica 15mm’s focus ring will spin endlessly. An endlessly spinning focus ring perhaps provides better control, but it’s easier to know where your focus point is with hard stops when you switch into manual focus.
There is one switch on the body of the Pana Leica 15mm, allowing you to switch from autofocus to manual focus. The switch clicks perfectly and won’t be easily switched on its own.
I have a function button on the camera dedicated to switching to manual focus, making this switch redundant. Overall, I prefer Olympus’ PRO lens method of switching to manual focus (pulling back the manual focus ring), but that might result in a larger Pana Leica 15mm lens size.
Ergonomics & Handling
The lens’ size makes ergonomics a slight misnomer. I believe handling this lens is as good as it can be without making the lens larger and heavier.
As I alluded to earlier, I find two handed shooting with this lens to be a little less comfortable than a larger lens. With your eye at the viewfinder and your left hand underneath the lens and camera body, you can put your middle finger on the focus ring and your thumb on the aperture ring to make adjustments. Overall, this works. But if you have larger hands, it won’t take long before you find your hand cramping and switching over to the camera body to make aperture adjustments. Again, this is a small hit, but it does work in favor of larger lenses with larger focus ring footprints.
Nearly all lenses in the Micro Four Thirds system focus impressively fast and quietly, so I don’t know if there is anything poor to compare against the Pana Leica 15mm. It’s not the fastest focusing lens I’ve tried (that award would be taken by the Olympus 75mm f/1.8), but it’s far from being slow. With the small glass elements inside the lens, there isn’t much the motor needs to push around to get to the focus point you need.
But to be clear, you likely won’t be using this lens to shoot situations where you need lightning fast autofocus. This isn’t a sports or wildlife lens by any extent. For landscapes, street photography, and general shooting, the Pana Leica 15mm’s autofocus speed and accuracy won’t let you down.
Finally, the meat and potatoes.
The Pana Leica’s lack of weather-sealing, slightly cramped ergonomics, small size, and relatively large price tag don’t play a part in the lens’ image quality department. Never once have I been disappointed with the lens’ output.
At 15mm, the Panasonic Leica’s main uses will be in street and semi-wide angle photography. As such, sharpness is fundamental to catch as much detail as possible.
While I’ve never been disappointed with the 15mm, I can’t say it measures up to the incredible Pana Leica 42.5mm Nocticron. Close inspection and pixel peeping will reveal some slight edge softness for the 15mm, with the center of the image resolving well enough to bring out the details you need. I’ve never needed to bring out a sharpening tool for any photos shot with the 15mm, but just know the edges can be less sharp if you’re shooting in the street or if you’re shooting a landscape.
Bokeh & Depth of Field
At a 30mm full-frame equivalent focal length, it’s unlikely you’d use this lens for much portraiture. However, street portraits are wildly fun to take, so blurred backgrounds are going to be required every now and then.
The smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor means focus fall-off isn’t overly dramatic with the 15mm, so you’ll be able to discern the majority of the scene behind your subject. However, there’s nothing distracting or subjectively poor about the 15mm’s bokeh. Bokeh balls are impressively round (take a look at Jordan Steele’s bokeh image sample for a better idea of the lens’ bokeh balls) for a lens with seven aperture blades. However, the bokeh balls do appear to have some outlining on occasion. Again though, the 15mm leaves next to nothing to fret over — when needed, it can produce some pleasing background blur.
Weird metadata note: I’m unsure why this is called a “Summilux” lens when its maximum aperture is f/1.7. Any Leica shooter will giggle when they see the lens’ name. Leica glass ranges from f/0.95, f/1, and f/1.2 (known as “Noctilux”) to the f/1.4 lenses (known as “Summilux”) to f/2 (known as “Summicron”) and beyond. Therefore, there’s a small predicament with the “Summilux” labelling of this lens. And to be honest, I’m surprised Leica would allow Panasonic to move forward with a Summilux rating.
Color Rendition & Contrast
Like every other Panasonic Leica lens I’ve tried, the 15mm f/1.7 soars in the color and contrast department. I adore the color coming out of the camera with this lens. While this may be as much a product of Olympus’ JPEG rendering, I’m convinced it has more to do with the lens than anything else.
Back in the day, I shot with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8. That lens is a gem, producing tremendous focal lengths and compressions for shooting portraits. However, the 75mm lens produced an almost clinical color rendering — colors were more drawn out, cool, and less punchy.
Not so with any of the Panasonic/Leica lenses. Just like the longer 42.5mm Nocticron and the 25mm Summilux, the 15mm Summilux produces vivid colors, rich contrast, and a punch you’d have to see to understand. Although it’s not directly the “Leica look”, there’s a lot of the same character transferred from Leica’s M glass aesthetic to the Panasonic Leica 15mm f/1.7.
Chromatic Aberration, Fringing, Vignetting, Distortion, and Flare
I’ve grouped all these photograph shortcomings into one section of its own, if only because most of them can be quickly nerfed in Adobe Lightroom with the touch of a button. Aside from the occasional flaring problem, chromatic aberrations, fringing, vignetting, and distortion can all be corrected inside your software of choice.
In all honesty though, you may be hard pressed to find any of these shortcomings in your photos. I struggle to find any major examples of chromatic aberration or fringing in my images, and the odd flaring I can find is extremely well handled. In fact, as I scroll through my Lightroom library, I’m quite impressed with how straight out-of-camera photos hold up.
The Pana Leica 15mm does produce some vignetting at larger apertures, but nothing too pronounced to ruin your photo. Usually darkening at the edges is an artistic taste that many prefer — for the photo above, I appreciated how the small amount of vignetting brought focus to the architecture in the middle of the frame.
It’s been noted in a few other reviews that the Panasonic Leica 15mm has some major barrel distortion correcting going on in-camera. You can discover the lens’ true output by importing in a RAW importer that doesn’t support the lens’ built-in correction. In short though, you have to go looking for the Pana Leica’s distortion issues — in the real world, the distortion correction system works impressively well.
Real World Usage
Off the top, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going for the Panasonic Leica 15mm f/1.7 lens. It’s not the fastest Pana Leica lens available. It’s not the sharpest. It’s not the smallest Panasonic lens. It has an odd focal length. And one of its major physical features doesn’t even work on an Olympus camera.
But in the beginning, I said this lens executed well in terms of the intangibles. And I stand by that — there is a level of character in this lens that has instilled it as the only Micro Four Thirds lens I kept.
For one, it handles well as a prime travel lens. I generally like standard zooms for travel, like the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO zoom. But the Panasonic Leica 15mm is a little wider than the standard 35mm street lens, allowing it to step in as a landscape lens on occasion. During our trip to Europe last year, the 15mm excelled as a standard lens that could capture nearly everything we could throw at it.
This one-size-fits-all approach can be transferred to just about any shooting, except perhaps macro-style photography. Occasionally, my wife will want to shoot some food photography of her latest concoction, and while the 15mm can shoot a photo, she’d prefer something more specific. I share this sentiment — I never use the 15mm as a still life or product photography lens.
Panasonic and Leica have teamed up to provide a premium-branded lineup of prime lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras, all of which have an element of that Leica character. Between the new 12mm Summilux f/1.4, the 15mm Summilux f/1.7, the 25mm Summilux f/1.4, and the 42.5mm Nocticron f/1.2, Micro Four Thirds photographers can stay within the Panasonic Leica realm and rarely find themselves wanting for more.
Need some proof of that Leica character? It’s not as abundant as the stunning imagery coming out of the $10,000 Leica Noctilux, but there’s a lot to like in a lens that’s about 1/20th of the price.
Whether the materials and the glass are truly more expensive, or whether Panasonic leverages the Leica brand, the Panasonic Leica 15mm DG Summilux f/1.7 is a bit more expensive than you might expect. At $550, it would be on the higher end of the normal Micro Four Thirds lens spectrum. If all we do is consider a lens that isn’t weather-sealed and comes in at f/1.7, I can’t say this lens is fairly priced.
But, for a lens that offers this kind of character, I think it’s a steal of a deal. You get a lens that can do nearly everything in one of the smallest packages available. And since the 42.5mm Nocticron is widely known as one of the most expensive — and, probably, most over-priced — lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras, the 15mm’s pricing won’t come as a shock to you. If you can get past the lack of weather-sealing, I think this lens is perfectly priced.
Truthfully, I don’t see the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens as the only lens in anyone’s kit. It covers a fair number of bases, but can’t cover them all.
I don’t necessarily see this as the first lens most people will purchase when they buy their first Micro Four Thirds camera. Most buyers will compare the Panasonic 20mm pancake lens with the Pana Leica 15mm and opt to save money. There’s nothing wrong with this thought process whatsoever — it’s what I did, and I’d consider recommending this process to specific people.
But therein lies the rub: I’ve worked my way through the Panasonic 20mm (and a wide assortment of other lenses) and I believe the Pana Leica 15mm is not only worth the higher cost, it’s also the lens I wish I had bought right at the start. It covers everything I needed when I first started shooting, provides faster autofocus than the Panasonic 20mm pancake and the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4, and it provides a better build quality than both those competing lenses. Looking back, if I could re-choose my first lens, I would choose the Pana Leica 15mm.
I mean, I shot this photo with that lens:
This is my favorite photograph I’ve ever shot. Full stop.
Whether or not that photograph is your cup of tea, it is my cup of tea, and it comes out of the Pana Leica 15mm lens. I haven’t achieved this type of photo out of any of my Sony kit or my iPhone.
So while the lens has a few of its own shortcomings, I don’t think you can put a price on the character or joy flowing through this lens. The Panasonic Leica partnership has produced some of the Micro Four Thirds system’s best lenses to date, and the Summilux 15mm f/1.7 is no different. It’s the lens I’d start with. It’s the lens I’m going to finish with. And it’s the lens with the most mileage along the way.
Not sure I can heap on the praise any more clear than that.