25 Aug 2014

New lens, old grounds: Review of Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f1.7

We all treasure a secret shelter, buried beneath the responsibilities that life piles on top of us as we go along with our adult lives, hidden within the most intimate and sacred part of ourselves; we all have a refuge that our mind and soul seek whenever things turn a bit too dark, a bit too unbearable, a bit too stale. Rooted somewhere in the depths of childhood, we all possess a sanctuary with the power to calm us down and make us feel safe, far from harm, at peace. For some it might be a memento from yesteryears, for others it could be a beloved person, a faded photograph, a book, a place. Last June, and after a 2 year-hiatus, I could finally take a long vacation, I booked a 10.000 km flight and  returned to my hometown, somewhere in the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. I wanted to travel as light as possible, so in my bag there was only space for 1 little camera, the tiny GM1, and 1 small lens, my newly purchased Panasonic Leica 15mm. This would be a great opportunity for me to see the magical landscapes of my childhood through a new glass. I was anxious to arrive, and to see how the long awaited reencounter felt.

Golden lights of memory, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Cloudy remembrances, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Blending with nature, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
My hometown, Boltaña, perched atop a gentle hill, is a beautiful example of Pyrenean architecture that, luckily, hasn't been spoiled by the modern urbanization the country experienced in the last decades, so it retains proudly its original, medieval flavor all throughout its narrow streets and slopes. Built entirely of stones and wood, both materials that were once abundant in these mountainous lands, the houses crowd together, side by side, along winding, tight alleys that spread in random directions, following the natural slant of the hill they occupy. These alleyways, where cars barely have enough space to pass, used to be the playground of my childhood: free, labyrinthine passages of never-ending discoveries where all of us grew up. It was no coincidence that I decided to bring the Panasonic Leica 15mm lens with me: knowing how cramped the spaces in my village are, I needed a wide angle coverage to be able to fit enough in the frame, and this field of view turned out to be a perfect match for it. 

Calle Goya, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Eras Altas I, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Eras Altas II, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Calle San Pedro, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
But there is much more than just narrow alleyways in Boltaña, since the village is surrounded by hills and forests, and the biggest pleasure is to simply walk aimlessly along the multiple paths that traverse the fields in all directions, letting our whim decide where to go. The wide angle field of view of the Panasonic Leica 15mm proved once more to be the perfect choice for this kind of environment, as it let me frame large objects at relatively close distances, such as trees or small bridges, where there was no possibility to step back. There is some distortion in the edges, but I took that as a challenge to be more thoughtful with my technique and composition, in order to minimize it, so I carefully leveled my camera every time and that reduced the distortion to a minimum. In those cases were there is no choice but to point the camera up, the distortion becomes a bit more apparent, but a quick correction will fix that later on with a minimal cropping. With that in mind, I framed a bit more generously in those situations, and all was fine.

His Majesty in his kingdom I, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
His Majesty in his kingdom II, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Moscarales I, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Peña Montañesa, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
I would lie if I said I don't care about sharpness in my images, because I do; not to the point of losing sleep, but obviously I want to achieve images that are as sharp as I can possible get. This is where the purchase of the Panasonic Leica 15mm comes into play, among other factors. So far I had been using the GM1 with the kit lens, the pancake Lumix G Vario 12-32mm, and I had been very happy with the outcome that little beast provides. However, there were cases, specially in very elaborate scenes, when the lens showed its limitations, and its rendering of micro contrast and small patterns (also skin) was not the best. Obviously this was only visible when checking the image at full size, but since I'm starting to consider printing some of my captures, I decided to invest in a new lens. And I could not be happier about the results that the Panasonic Leica 15mm delivers in this regard: the crispness and sharpness of the captures is noticeably higher, and even small textures are rendered precise and beautifully. Since I enjoy extended depth of field for landscape and street photography, I stopped down the lens to around f5.6 for most of my outdoor captures (the sweet spot of the lens, in terms of sharpness, is between f2.8 - f5.6).

Moss & stones, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Study on textures and shadows, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Different shades of ochre, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Moscarales II, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Geometries from the past, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Fade to black, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Yes, I walked and walked some more during my one month stay back at home. I had missed those paths and views so much during the previous 2 years in Bangkok, that I went out to walk every evening without fail, sometimes with my parents, mostly on my own. The main purpose was purely enjoying the scenery, breathing the pure air of the mountains, recalling past battles, but I wanted to capture those same sights with my camera, as well, and for that purpose portability was a must. The camera should be always with me, unnoticed and discreet, never taking anything away from my enjoyment of the leisure stroll. And here comes the Panasonic Leica 15mm again, for it is really light and small, and combined with the GM1 they make an unbeatable pair. Despite the small size (I carry the camera + lens inside a diminutive Lowepro spectrum 50 case attached to my belt), the lens is nicely built and both the aperture and the manual focus rings are responsive and accurate. The lens is beautifully designed and using it is a pleasure for the hands and makes the whole shooting process smooth and enjoyable.

An evening walk, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Two primary colors, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Islands of light, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Halves, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Ripe land, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
It was July, and that is the hottest month of the year in Spain. I knew it would be sunny, sometimes extremely so, and I was curious to see how the lens would perform in those situations. Normally I waited for the sun to start dipping before leaving home for my daily walk, but even in the early evening the light was still strong and bright, and the shadows were richly dark, creating scenes of high, dense contrast. Even though the dynamic range of a capture is dictated primarily by the sensor of a camera, the lens is also a key player in that same game. The Panasonic Leica 15mm surprised me again for its ability to retain lots of detail in both bright and dark areas simultaneously, and its rendering was very contrasty, vivid and with punchy colors. I always shoot in RAW and process all my images in Lightroom, but it's very important to get the exposure right in camera, for it will grant you an image with the widest latitude for post-processing, should you need it. As for vignetting, shooting at a moderate aperture as I do most of the times it is a non issue, since it's barely noticeable; only when shooting at wide apertures it can be more visible.

The bell tower, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The sentinel of the path, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The mountain's skeleton, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Oblivion, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm

The lens comes with a bag, a plastic hood and a rubber cap for it, but it is not reversible, therefore you need to leave it always on or remove it in order to store it separately. Since portability is very important for me, as I already mentioned, and the lens with the hood attached doesn't fit in my camera case (the similarly sized Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm fits with the hood reversed, so I always carry and use it), I left the hood in the box the first day and there it has stayed ever since. But this raised a question: how will the lens handle straight sources of light without the protecting hood? Will flare be an issue in these circumstances? I took many pictures facing the sun directly, sometimes including it inside the frame, and my conclusions are very reassuring: yes, there is some magenta and blue flare, specially when the sun is unobstructed inside the frame, but with a bit of careful recomposition, trying to partially block it behind leaves or branches, the flare diminishes dramatically, sometimes disappearing completely. Even in the instances when flare is still there, I don't bother too much, since I'm aware of it from the moment of capture and it's my conscious decision to have it there.

The sights of childhood, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Blinding sunset, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Sunbathing, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Signaling stones, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
There is no doubt that the fast aperture of the lens (f1.7) was another factor that influenced heavily my decision to purchase it. I only had another fast prime lens up to that point, the aforementioned Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm f1.8, so that was the lens I always carried whenever I was out shooting at night or in dimly lit spaces, but sometimes the field of view of that lens was limiting due to it short telephoto nature, specially indoors, so the idea of having a bright, wide angle lens had been taking root in me for the past months, and the release of this new lens came just at the proper time. Even though I said I shoot mostly deep depth of field photography, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy shallow depth of field images, and I like experimenting with it when I find it suitable. So, for those interested in bokeh, rest assured that the out of focus rendering of this lens, both in the background and in the foreground, is pleasing and beautiful and, despite the wide angle of view, the wide aperture, together with the close focus capabilities of the lens (down to 20cm), provide decent levels of subject isolation, and all of that without losing sharpness or contrast, which is probably the most welcome news to me.

Teamwork, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Snail in a moss bed, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Swallowed by nature, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
My days of freedom were reaching its end, and it would probably pass another year until I could return again, so I tried to revisit all the meaningful places from my early youth, that still haunt me today, to see how they (or me) had changed throughout the years. It's curious how our memory works, softening certain chapters of our past lives to the point of almost extinction when we used to consider them crucial, while other episodes that were apparently irrelevant back then remain sharp and full of detail today, so many years later.

Moscarales III, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
The lost path, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Veins, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
Pebbly road, GM1 + Panasonic Leica 15mm
These have surely been lonely, quiet walks, for the conversation between the photographer, the camera and the world around is a silent one, but I remedy that in the following post (which you can see here), where I show another face of my hometown; lots of faces, actually, and lots of stoned-wall, charming indoor patios, as well, to see how the lens responds in the situations that I originally purchased it for: indoor low light scenes.

14 Aug 2014

Koh Mak: the tranquil island

We had a long weekend ahead and we needed a break from busy Bangkok; the plan was to find a quiet, relaxing place where we could chill out for a couple of days, far from the noise and pollution of the big city, but we didn't want to travel very far either, so flying was out of the question. After discarding a few options, we settled on Koh Mak, since we had been in the neighbor Koh Kood previously and we had only good memories from it, so this seemed like a safe bet. We booked a nice resort for a reasonable price, took an early van in Victory Monument and, 4 hours and a ferry ride later, we were in the island. The resort's owner was waiting for us at the pier with his pickup, and 10 minutes later we finally reached the hotel. After leaving the bag on the bed, we sat at a deckchair in the balcony and just let the time pass by while contemplating the scene around us.

View from the toilet, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
A peaceful retreat, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Tickling, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The rainy season was almost there, so some resorts were already closed while others, such as ours, were about to do so after this weekend. We were, therefore, the last guests of the season and, wheter for this reason or not, the resort had a specially peaceful and lonely feel to it. The whole island, actually, felt numb and half asleep. I ignore if it is always like this or if during the high season the flow of tourists is more intense, but my experience during those three days there was that of a tranquil, silent and cozy island. After a while, we stood up from our deckchairs, left the shoes behind and walked slowly through the beach that extended just meters from our bungalow.

Previous stroll, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Textures and reflections, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Unfinished bridge, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Progression I, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Progression II, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Koh Mak is a small island, but not small enough to walk all around it (as is Koh Lipe), so renting a motorbike is the best way to explore every corner of it. So that's what we did, and a short 15 minutes ride later we were at the North side of the island. We parked the bike by the beach, behind the trees, since we had left the small, paved road to venture into a narrow, muddy path following our intuition, and then we walked towards a jetty that could be seen in the distance. But an ominous storm was drawing closer so we had to leave earlier than we would have liked to, promising to come back later when the weather was more generous.

The return, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Sea calligraphy I, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Sea calligraphy II, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Vagrant boats, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The fading jetty, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Unfortunately that took quite a bit of time, since the monsoon rain lasted for the most part of that morning and afternoon, so we had to postpone our new visit for the following morning. We rose with the sun and, after a conspicuous breakfast, we returned to the jetty to explore the area around it at ease, which included a stranded ship that nobody seemed to care about, since it laid abandoned and unattended, just meters from the empty beach.

Balance required, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The end of the walk, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Stranded chimney I, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Stranded chimney II, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
In our last afternoon we rode our motorcycle to the Western side of the island and indulged ourselves in another leisure walk along the empty beach, and as soon as I spotted from the distance a small, floating jetty where some kids seemed to be playing and swimming, we headed our steps quickly in that direction, before they would leave the place. It turned out they were a few young immigrant workers enjoying their free time, probably after their work at the resort was done. I exchanged a few words with them and discovered they were all from Myanmar (particularly from the Mon ethnicity, the most abundant in Thailand). Once the sun started to dip, they left the pier, going back to their chores, and we slowly made our way back to our shelter under the beautiful sunset light.

Sea leisure, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Floating dreams, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Floating solitude, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Sunset arrives so we sit down, order a drink, and chill out.

Warm breeze, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The way back, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Growing darkness, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
It was a relaxing weekend indeed, full of fresh air and clear water, both from the sea and from the sky. Koh Mak is an island I will surely come back to whenever I feel I need a break from duties and city life. It remains quiet and modest, though the scenery is not as it originally used to be, as the forests have been mostly replaced by palm tree plantations due to the flat profile of the island, and that introduces the associated problems known. After all, I left the island refreshed, but also with a bittersweet taste in my mouth, a taste of red puddles and monochrome, devastated trunks.

Dead and alive, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Memories, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The crawling trunk, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Desolation, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm