One of the great things about the Micro Four Thirds system is that it's easy to find a good long lens – including the ones you used to use on your DSLR (remember those?). With its quarter-size sensor the system gives us the reach of a 400mm lens when we’ve only mounted a 200mm. The downside of course comes when we want a wide angle view, as the 2x crop factor means we need a 10mm lens to get the same view we’d achieve with a 20mm on a full-frame camera.

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Fortunately though, we now have a pretty decent array of extreme wide-angle options for the system (including quite a few zooms). For this article I’ve restricted myself to prime lenses, and have still put together a good little collection to compare. The idea is both to demonstrate what's available and to show what impact slight differences in focal length have on the angle of view of the lens. I’ve picked four lenses of about the same focal length and within a tight price range, but which have a number of characteristics that lend each a distinct identity. The lenses going head-to-head are:

  • Laowa 7.5mm F2 MFT $499/£460
  • Meike 8mm F2.8 $399/£267
  • Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 9mm F1.7 ASPH $498/£449
  • Samyang 10mm F2.8 ED AS NCS CS $430/£429

As is often the case now, those looking for ultra-wide options, especially at an affordable price, should consider the many manual focus lenses on the market. Thus only one lens in this comparison offers autofocus and comes from a mainstream Micro Four Thirds manufacturer. I’ll be looking at the physical characteristics of the lenses, their coverage, how nice they are to use as well as the quality of image they produce.

In all the following images taken with these lenses, the aperture was set to F8 to help eliminate vignetting as much as possible. All samples were made with a Panasonic Lumix G9. We're including the angle of view in the specs so you can get a better idea of how much of a scene you'll see, something not always accurately reflected by the focal length in millimeters.

Laowa 7.5mm F2 MFT

www.venuslens.net

Quick specs:

  • Angle of view: 110°
  • Formats: MFT
  • Aperture blades: 7
  • Min distance: 12cm (4.7")
  • Filter: 46mm
  • Size: 50x55mm
  • Weight: 170g

If you are looking for wide, why not go whole hog? Venus Optics claims this is the world’s widest rectilinear (non-fisheye) lens on the market for the Micro Four Thirds system. It must be one of the smallest too; at least it's the smallest of this group by far.

Its size makes it easy to carry around, but those with larger fingers might find the skinny aperture ring a bit fiddly – it also sits very close to the body of the camera and the aperture markings are really very small and difficult to read. It takes only a quarter turn of the quite smooth focus ring to take us from 12cm to infinity, so accurate focusing at wide apertures in close-up situations might be challenging. The lens is very well made though, with a solid feel, and it comes with a well-made lens hood that detaches to allow you to fit screw-in filters – the ability to use filters can’t be taken for granted on lenses as wide as this.

The version reviewed here doesn’t have body-controlled apertures, but a premium version does at additional cost. The copy seen here has a vinyl wrap on it, which is why it looks different from the version you may see online.

Optical Qualities

I suppose it might make sense that the lens with both the widest focal length and the smallest body struggles to maintain high-end optical performance. Quite heavy corner shading is a feature at all aperture settings, but it’s particularly heavy when the lens is used wide open. Barrel distortion is also very noticeable, even in straight lines well away from the edges of the frame. Those looking for the best resolution will find it at around F5.6, though the widest aperture also offers reasonable detail. If sharpness is a priority you should probably avoid closing beyond F8; resolution becomes poor by F16 due to diffraction.

Takeaways

This is a nicely made, very small lens that will suit those trying to keep their kit compact, and who like a really extreme wide angle of view. The downside is that it can be fiddly to use and its tiny dimensions seem to compromise its image quality.

For

  • Really small
  • Very lightweight

Against

  • A lot of vignetting
  • Its size can make it hard to use

Meike 8mm F2.8

www.meikeglobal.com

Quick specs:

  • Angle of view: 109°
  • Formats: MFT
  • Aperture blades: 10
  • Min distance: 25cm (9.8")
  • Filter: 77mm
  • Size: 80x82mm
  • Weight: 480g

This is a solid little lens that carries a bit more weight than its size might suggest, but it has that all-metal no-nonsense construction so often seen in lower-cost Chinese designs. Notable physical characteristics include a dramatically bulbous forward element and a dynamic broadening of the barrel at the front end where that element is housed. The metal petal-shaped lens hood is not detachable, and is fitted with a screw thread for 77mm filters – though microscopically thin filters will be needed to avoid the edges appearing in your pictures.

The focus ring is broad, metal and heavily textured to allow excellent purchase with cold fingers or gloves, and it turns nicely. Again the rotation from 25cm to infinity is a rather short 90°, but the nicely proportioned depth-of-field scale informs us that even at F2.8 everything from two and half feet to infinity will be acceptably sharp.

Potential buyers should note that the aperture ring is clickless – which filmmakers will love and some stills photographers will not. But it’s an effective ring with enough space to allow us to select the needed aperture quickly and accurately.

Optical Qualities

I’ve been surprised by the optical characteristics of this Meike lens, as it produces pretty good resolution wide open and slightly better detail closed to the middle apertures – though it drops off quite quickly towards F16. Vignetting is also okay – being worst at F2.8, better at F5.6 and about the same at F16, but never terrible. Meike has managed to control curvilinear distortion remarkably well and, while barreling is evident from the center of the frame outwards, the effect is slight and of the sort that is easy to fix in software.

Takeaways

You get a lot of lens for the money here: despite the low cost, image quality is really pretty good. A downside for some will be the impossible-to-use filter thread – I couldn’t even use a 77-82mm adapter ring without corner cut-off. Beyond this issue, though, this is an exceptionally good value piece of kit.

For

  • Low cost
  • Remarkably good image quality

Against

  • Impossible to use filters
  • Quite big at the front

Panasonic Lumix Leica DG Summilux 9mm F1.7 ASPH.

www.panasonic.com

Quick specs:

  • Angle of view: 100°
  • Formats: MFT
  • Aperture blades: 7
  • Min distance: 9.5cm (3.8")
  • Filter: 55mm
  • Size: 60.8x52mm
  • Weight: 130g

We’re used to Panasonic’s premium Leica DG lenses having a metal body, so it might be quite a surprise to some to find so much polycarbonate in this model – it is really quite different in construction to their 15mm, 25mm, 42.5mm and other small primes. However, it is extremely lightweight as a result; in fact it's the lightest of the lenses here despite not being the smallest.

Compared to the other lenses it is also quite minimalist in design, as it doesn’t have an aperture ring and has no markings other than its name, rank and number. Its great advantage over the others is that it brings autofocus; because of that, however, the rotation of the focus ring is slightly fluid. On the other hand, in many Lumix cameras you can customize the ring according to the requirements of the occasion. It has an exceptional close focusing distance of 9.5mm.

The plastic petal-shaded hood comes off, but even with it in position we can screw in 55mm filters – or remove the hood for larger filters via an adapter.

Optical Qualities

Communication between this lens and the Lumix G9 that I used to test this group creates something of an unfair advantage here, as the camera is programmed to fix some of the more obvious aberrations.

If you are only concerned with the end result, though, you’ll find that RAW and JPEG files offer only slight vignetting at F1.7, which clears up quickly to the point where there is none to speak of by F5.6. Barrel distortion is also notably absent, and even wide open at F1.7 the resolution beats, by some considerable distance, the best efforts of any of the other lenses at their optimal mid-range apertures.

Conclusion

It’s hard to ignore just how useful AF is even in an ultra-wideangle lens, plus customizable manual focus for MF users. Those advantages, as well as the close focus capability and the exceptional image quality, make the Panasonic a very difficult lens to beat despite its slight additional cost.

For

  • AF and EXIF data
  • Very good image quality

Against

  • Not quite the same build as other Panasonic Leica lenses
  • Some will miss an aperture ring/depth-of-field scale

Samyang 10mm F2.8 ED AS NCS CS

Quick spec:

  • Angle of view: 93.4°
  • Formats: MFT/APS-C
  • Aperture blades: 6
  • Min distance: 24cm (9.4")
  • Filter: NA
  • Size: 87x130.9mm
  • Weight: 620g

This is by some margin the largest of the lenses I tried, which is likely explained by its APS-C-friendly optical design intended for DSLRs – the MFT version is especially long as it needs more distance between the rear element and the mount. It is also the heaviest of the group, but that mass is distributed well so it doesn’t feel too weighty.

Since this lens was designed for DSLRs, it has a very broad rubberized focusing ring and a thicker aperture ring. Of the manual focus lenses, this is the only one to have evenly-spaced aperture settings. It also has a nicely readable depth-of-field scale, but only offers measurements for apertures of F5.6 and wider, which seems an odd choice given the needs of landscape and architectural photography.

The substantial lens hood is permanently attached to the barrel so there is no opportunity to mount filters or a filter system from the front. A six-bladed iris feels a little primitive in this field, but there are a lot of anti-reflective coatings mentioned in the name, which the manufacturer claims improve contrast and help to avoid flare.

Optical Qualities

This big lens, with its not-especially-fast maximum aperture, its relatively narrow angle-of-view and its wide covering circle, should really have all the advantages. However, barrel distortion is quite present and vignetting is really noticeable at the wider apertures – though much improved at F5.6. Its best resolution comes at the wider aperture settings – I’m not convinced we get more detail at F5.6 – and it’s obviously less sharp when closed to F16.


Takeaways

I had hoped for slightly better things from this big Samyang lens. Bigger, in this case, isn't better. Simply put, there's more vignetting and barrel distortion than there should be.

For

  • The size makes handling comfortable
  • Evenly spaced aperture markings

Against

  • It’s big
  • Image quality is pretty underwhelming

Round-up: which prime is worth your dime?

All of these lenses are quite usable and, so long as you are prepared to work on your post-capture software skills, all will offer a decent enough result if no one looks too closely. I’ve had great experiences with Laowa lenses in the past, but sadly this 7.5mm isn’t as good as I’d hoped, and I think comes last in the group. The Samyang 10mm comes in just ahead of it, and the Meike 8mm a good way ahead of that. I’ve been taken aback by how good the Meike lens is, especially considering how much less it costs. At the top I place the Lumix 9mm.

These images demonstrate the degree of vignetting and curvilinear distortion you can expect from each of the lenses. Each was tested at its respective widest aperture setting, at F5.6 and at an aperture one stop down from the smallest on offer – some go to F22 and others to F16. The shots were taken from a distance of 1m (39").

While more expensive lenses don’t always win group tests, I suppose it’s a little predictable that the Panasonic Leica 9mm F1.7 would come out on top – but it does so in quite dramatic style. It performs well ahead of the others in image quality, and offers autofocus, a very wide maximum aperture, extreme close focusing and EXIF data to boot.

I suppose the lack of the usual premium Panasonic/Leica touches like a metal barrel keep it light and also keep the price down, meaning it compares nicely even there with the rest of the group. The Leica-approved optics inside give optical characteristics well ahead of the pack and make it an exceptional lens.

1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Distortion Lumix 9mm Meike 8mm Samyang 10mm Laowa 7.5mm
Vignetting Lumix 9mm Meike 8mm Samyang 10mm Laowa 7.5mm
Resolution wide open Lumix 9mm Samyang 10mm Meike 8mm Laowa 7.5mm
Resolution at F5.6 Lumix 9mm Meike 8mm Samyang 10mm Laowa 7.5mm
Resolution one stop from minimum Lumix 9mm Meike 8mm Samyang 10mm Laowa 7.5mm