Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Introduction
Ever since small mirrorless cameras first appeared on the market, manufacturers seem to have been obsessed with making their supplied standard zooms smaller and smaller. And none more so than Panasonic, which has made a whole series of 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zooms of ever-decreasing size before settling on its 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 pancake zoom to accompany its smaller bodies.
Yet while these tiny lenses play well to the portability strengths of CSCs, they tend be somewhat compromised either optically, operationally or in terms of zoom range. After a while, photographers may find themselves wanting something better.
For a long time Panasonic’s next step up has been the excellent Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 Asph OIS, but its £700 price tag is something of a sticking point for users with limited budgets. At around £360, the new Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS steps into this gap, and provides a more affordable weather-sealed option for users of cameras like the Lumix DMC-GH4, GX8 and the new G80. Indeed, it’s available as a kit with several models for a premium of around £100 over the basic 14-42mm zoom.
However, it’s not just Panasonic owners who might be interested in the 12-60mm lens, as users of Olympus’s OM-D models could well be attracted by its versatile 24-120mm equivalent zoom range, and outdoor-friendly construction. Notably, it’s both longer and faster at the telephoto end than the similar Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ, although it lacks that lens’s macro function and power zoom for video work. So is it worthy of Micro Four Thirds users’ consideration?
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Features
With an optical formula of 11 elements in nine groups, the lens uses a construction that’s more complex than basic kit zooms. It includes three aspherical elements and one made of extra-low dispersion (ED) glass, which together reduce optical aberrations such as distortion, spherical aberration and colour fringing due to chromatic aberration. As usual from Panasonic, optical image stabilisation is built in.
The lens is also designed for HD video recording, with silent autofocus and aperture mechanisms. The aperture itself is formed from seven rounded blades and features stepless adjustment, to eliminate sudden brightness jumps in movie footage. A bayonet-fitting petal-type lens hood is included in the box, and reverses snugly around the barrel for transport, while the filter thread accepts relatively petite 58mm accessories and doesn’t rotate on focusing.
One handy feature is the minimum focus distance of just 25cm at the telephoto end. This gives 0.54x equivalent magnification, meaning that the lens can fill the frame with a subject measuring 6.4×4.8cm. It can be useful for shooting close-up images of subjects such as flowers and insects.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Build and handling
At 71mm long, 66mm in diameter and weighing just 210g, Panasonic’s 12-60mm lens is very similar in size to the basic 18-55mm kit zooms commonly supplied with DSLRs. Its light weight reflects the predominantly plastic exterior, although the lens mount is metal. A rubber seal surrounds it, to help keep dust and water out of the camera.
Design-wise, the barrel is very simple. The broad zoom ring rotates 90° from wideangle to telephoto, and is smooth enough to provide precise framing. In front of it the narrow manual-focus ring provides control by wire, with no change in feel as it passes the focus group’s end stops. However, I suspect few users will disengage autofocus anyway, as there’s very little incentive to do so. Indeed, there are no physical switches on the lens barrel, with both AF and OIS are controlled solely through the camera’s menus.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Autofocus
As we’ve come to expect from Panasonic, the 12-60mm focuses quickly, decisively, silently and accurately in almost any lighting conditions. It only slows down in very low light (think low-level artificial lighting after dark), but will still find focus so long as you point the camera towards a subject with some degree of contrast. Naturally, all Panasonic’s usual features are available – for example, the lens can silently pull focus from one subject to another during video recording.
With this kind of lens it’s rare to have to call on manual focus, but if you do, it’s perfectly well behaved. Turning the focus ring will engage your preferred focusing aid on the camera – such as magnified view or peaking – and the focus-by-wire system works well enough to make it easy to bring the subject into sharp focus.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Image quality
In general, the 12-60mm gives the sort of image quality we’d expect from a mid-range zoom. So it’s better than a cheap kit lens, but no match for a premium optic like Panasonic’s 12-35mm f/2.8. Sharpness is pretty high in the centre of the image, but falls off towards the corners, with the effect being most marked at wideangle. But unless you’re examining images at the pixel level or making prints that are larger than A4, this will be of little practical consequence.
Panasonic integrates some software corrections into the design, most notably of curvilinear distortion and lateral chromatic aberration, which results in clean, natural-looking images. The process is so well integrated into Micro Four Thirds that most users will never notice it’s even happening.
One point to be aware of about this lens, though, is that while the extended zoom range is very useful, the slow maximum apertures mean that there’s very little scope for experimenting with shallow depth of field. Indeed, you’ll only really see anything resembling out-of-focus blur when shooting close-ups, or at the telephoto end with a distant background. This is simply the price you pay for the compact size of Micro Four Thirds.
Image stabilisation is competent, without necessarily being the best I’ve ever seen. When paired with the GX8, the lens tended to deliver images at marginal shutter speeds that were acceptably sharp for most purposes, without being pixel perfect. With care, I found that I was able to get usable images using shutter speeds of 1/15sec towards the long end of the zoom, equivalent to around three stops of stabilisation.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Resolution, shading and curvilinear distortion
Central sharpness is very good at all focal lengths, although the corners lag behind a bit, most markedly at 12mm. In general, best results are obtained around f/5.6-f/8. The lens can be stopped down to f/22, but personally I’d stop at f/11. Beyond this, diffraction blurring becomes excessive.
As tends to be the case on Micro Four Thirds, vignetting is practically a non-issue. It’s only worth commenting on at wideangle, and even here there’s only a relatively minor drop-off in illumination in the corners of 0.6EV at f/3.5. When you stop the lens down to f/5.6, however, this essentially disappears.
As is Panasonic’s way, distortion is corrected seamlessly in software, leaving behind very mild barrel distortion at wideangle that you’ll barely see. Go out of your way to produce uncorrected raw files and you’ll see quite considerable barrel distortion at 12mm and a little pincushion at 60mm, but this is essentially academic.
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 Asph Power OIS review: Verdict
There’s nothing very flashy about the Panasonic 12-60mm lens; it’s simply a very competent mid-range zoom with a useful focal length range, which churns out respectable image quality shot after shot. It’s a distinct improvement on Panasonic’s 12-32mm kit zoom, especially at wideangle, and I’d judge it to be superior to the Olympus 12-50mm too. As a lightweight, versatile, carry-everywhere lens for Micro Four Thirds, it can currently only really be bettered by the much more expensive f/2.8 zooms from Panasonic and Olympus.
As a kit option for cameras like the Lumix G80 and Lumix GX8, it’s easy to recommend ahead of the 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6; the extended zoom range is undeniably useful, while the extra bulk isn’t much of a problem given the size of the cameras. It’s also a good upgrade for users of older kit zooms, though it’s quite an expensive way of getting slightly extended range. The weather resistance and light weight will be attractive to landscape photographers though.