By Kirk Tuck
You’ve got to hand it to Olympus: they get the optics right. Very few people will disagree that, almost across the board, from kit lenses to the high-priced choices, they produce lenses that make users smile. But there are several that Olympus fans believe to be legendary. I’m a pretty vanilla photographer in terms of the focal lengths I like to use on my cameras and I’m nearly always drawn to what has always been the "holy trinity" of lenses that has reigned since the 1950s: 28mm, 50mm, and 90mm. If you are strictly traditional you might favor the even more constricted 35mm, 50mm, and 100mm or 105mm trio. I’m rarely ever searching through a catalog for esoteric wide angles like 14mms, and I’ve never owned anything longer than a 400mm equivalent. So, when I bought into the Olympus Zuiko Digital system last summer I went looking for two things: 1) a conservative, two-zoom system that would handle the bulk of my event and portrait shooting assignments, and 2) extremely high quality optics that were fast and able to be shot wide open.
I quickly found two lenses that fit the parameters. The first one I bought is the Zuiko Digital 35–100mm ƒ/2 zoom (above right). It’s dust- and moisture-resistant (I’ve spilled red wine on it and washed it off under the tap). It uses four pieces of ED glass and one element described as Super ED glass. It weighs a ton and is solid as a rock. While deliberating the good sense of buying a $2600 lens, I was able to use a loaner and test it. What I saw when I shot wide open on a tripod made me open my wallet. Wide open. Optically, it's great.
As soon as I verified the performance of the 35–100mm to my satisfaction I became interested in the acquiring its Zuiko Digital 14–35mm ƒ/2 sister. But I hesitated for two reasons: I'd heard the focusing was slow and I’d heard (in many places) that the focusing accuracy with Olympus E-3 bodies was hit and miss. Some people used the combination with nary a problem while others played tag with Olympus, sending bodies and lenses back and forth for fine-tuning. I’m a risk taker, so when the opportunity arose to get one cheap, I jumped on the chance.
How did that turn out? More below.
Why was I intent on sharp and fast? I came from the Nikon D700s and I knew that the high ISO performance of the Olympus bodies wasn't in the same ballpark. But I also knew that, given the same equivalent angle of view, I'd get about two stops more depth of field from my lenses at any given f-stop. While my Nikon lenses were good, the 70–200mm needed to be stopped down to ƒ/4 in order to be biting sharp. If I could use an Olympus lens at ƒ/2, get the same degree of sharpness and clarity, and the same depth of field I felt like the playing field would be pretty well leveled. And I really liked the colors and the tonal quality I got from the Olympus files. Especially with the the latest cameras bodies like the E-30. Finally, I’m a bit of a contrarian, and I wanted to try a system that would give me different results, visually, than what every other photographer and enthusiast in town gets.
So, how did it all work out? Let’s take the lenses one at a time. I’ll start with the ZD 35–100mm. The optical quality of the lens is wonderful. I’ll call it perfect. Unlike many competitor’s lenses it doesn’t have a sour spot in the focal length range. Rack it out to 100mm and it’s just as sharp as it is at 35mm. I’ve compared it at 50mm with my Olympus 50mm Macro lens, which many reviewers rave about, and I can’t see a difference in sharpness or contrast.
This lens comes into its own when shooting actors or musicians on stage or low light scenes. I constantly shoot it wide open. The out of focus areas are nice and soft. The aperture diaphragm uses nine blades to ensure better bokeh at all f-stops. I feel it’s probably wise not to stop down further than ƒ/8 because diffraction may start limiting overall sharpness.
Are there downsides to the lens? Of course. Right off the bat I would mention the incredible weight. This lens weighs 1800 grams. I’m not so good at conversions but the way I calculate it using Texas math it weighs in at nearly 4 pounds! When I come home from an evening shooting dress rehearsals at Zachary Scott Theater, my left arm is sore from bicep to forearm. I would say that this is the price you pay for putting 21 heavy glass elements in an incredibly rigid and stable tube, but you probably already know that. The second bit of post cognitive dissonance arrives when you come to understand that no matter what focal length you set, your minimum focusing distance will be 1.4 meters. Fine and dandy for most telephoto applications but not so great for the more moderate focal lengths. The lens is not equipped with SWC focusing which is similar to Canon’s ultra-sonic focusing so it’s a little slower and make some noise as it focuses. Not an issue for me but I felt like I should mention it for anyone thinking about using it for fast-moving sports photography.
My last caveat is a bit silly...the lens hood is so big there’s no way to incorporate it into my Domke f2 camera bag other than to dedicate a camera-sized area to it. That generally means that I can either take two cameras and no hood, or one hood and only one camera. Hmm.
The lens works equally well on every camera I’ve tried it on, including the E-3, E-30, E-520, E-620 and the two newest Pen Micro 4/3 cameras. Thank goodness it has a stout, rotatable tripod mount, especially when the four-pound lens is used with tiny cameras like the Pens or the E-620.
Now, on to the 14–35mm ƒ/2. While people seem to be less enthused about this lens, it's probably my all-time favorite—with one caveat, which I’ll cover in a moment. I use the heck out of this lens in the 25–35mm range (35mm equivalent of 50mm–70mm) for just about every event I cover, as well as using it for my professional "walking around" lens. The thing that causes people to be initially unimpressed is the "curbside" or in-store appeal of the small finders in the Olympus cameras, coupled with fairly low magnification. Translated, there isn’t as much "pop" when you look through the eyepiece as there might be with bigger, full frame cameras. It then takes a leap of faith as you are shooting to get your head around the idea that the images will look fabulous on screen. Most people pick up the camera, take a look through the lens, think, "nothing special," and move on to the next camera.
But they miss a lens that is crisp wide open in a way that Canon’s primes in that range and most of the Nikons in that range can't really emulate until they are stopped down two or three stops. I’ll get all mystical on you. This lens gives me the kind of look and feel I used to get with my Leica M glass. But it only becomes absolutely apparent if you are using it with one of the latest Olympus cameras with the thinnest of anti-aliasing filters. I first used the lens with an E-30 and it was great but lacked tiny detail as you blow it up (the nemesis of nearly all Olympus cameras). In the enlargement range served by its actual resolution (without interpolation) it was as good as anything you'd find, but the minute you stepped over into the world of enlarged files the fine detail tanked. I was crestfallen until I slapped the lens onto the Olympus EPL-1 with an adapter. While the focusing was slow the image quality in the final files was amazing.
The lens design incorporates 18 elements in 17 groups and includes two ED elements, an Aspherical ED element and a "regular" ground Aspherical lens element. It uses floating elements (that shift as the lens is focused or zoomed) along with internal focusing. It's an SWD lens which means that, for all intents and purposes, it focuses silently and, on the right body, very quickly. Bonus: it focuses down to about a foot at all focal length settings. Also on the plus side is its weight of "only" a pound and a third.
Do I love this lens? Yes. Do I have any reservations? Yes. I too was bitten by the focus issue that bit many other users. The lens focused perfectly on every Olympus camera I owned, with the exception of my brand new, latest software-loaded E-3. On the E-3 it always back-focused by just enough to ruin every image. By ƒ/5.6 the depth of field covered the back focus, but no one spends $2,000 for an ƒ/2 lens that can only be used three stops down from maximum aperture. And this was on a body that worked with every other lens in the camera bag, including the big, fat 35–100mm.
I weighed my options. Given what I’d read on the web there was no certainty that Olympus would be able to correct the mismatch. I loved the lens so much that I got rid of the body and replaced it with the E-30. It was something I’d thought about for a while, since the E-30 has superior IQ, but it’s amazingly weird that a lens from the company’s flagship line of optics has so many difficulties playing nice with their flagship professional camera!
So that brings us to the ultimate question: are these lenses so good that you should change horses and buy into the system? If you are an optimist I’d say "go for it" and here’s why: The lenses are obviously better than any of the other zooms out on the market and as soon as Olympus and Panasonic roll out better sensors they will match Canon and Nikon APS-C offerings pretty closely. They are already there in most performance parameters. If you do buy one or both of these lenses you need to be clear that it’s a counter-intuitive choice. The whole rationale behind the original 4/3 systems was meant to be high performance in a smaller and lighter package. These lenses are tour de force optics but made with no compromises. They weigh what they weigh and you either get used to it or you move on to another systems.Disclosures
Would I do it again? Yes. There’s a lot I like about the smaller format and the smaller files sizes in this system. I’m also using both of the lenses to do video projects. The fast, sharp apertures are perfect for low light filming and the DOF is perfect for the kind of interviews I’ve been shooting.
In the interests of full disclosure I must say that I am now, for all intents and purposes, a two-and-a-half system guy. I have the E-30s and the 14-35mm and 35–100mm as well as the 50mm macro lens in the Olympus system. I have a Canon 5D Mark II with assorted lenses for projects that must be big and highly detailed and then I have (I count it as half a system...) the Olympus Pen system with a motley selection of Olympus, Panasonic and miscellaneous adapted lenses. It’s the system I shoot the most video with and it’s also the system with which I feel most comfortable shooting my personal work.
I’ve come to see cameras and lenses like I do the tools in my tool box. Every job comes with its own set of parameters and unique requirements. In my photography it might be the need to fit in and work with a modicum of stealth; it might be great out-of-camera JPEGs and lots of throughput; and it might be studio work with the requirement of big files. I reach in and find the tool that works best for me. I also like to mix things up from time to time. I think it keeps my creative brain fresh and on the prowl.
Bottom line? I wish all camera companies had one uniform lens mount and lens coverage specification and that we could mix and match lenses with abandon. I’d have both of these optics superglued to either a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3x, and I’d have a big smile on my face. But that’s not the way it works. Since I do own the lenses, I can hardly wait to see what Olympus and Panasonic do next. Whatever they bring to market I sure hope it’s loaded with HD video....
Kirk Tuck is a working professional photographer in Austin, Texas. His fourth book, Photographic Lighting Equipment: A Comprehensive Guide for Digital Photographers just hit the market this month. On the surface it's a survey of the various kinds of lighting instruments that are out on the market and how to use them, but it’s really an excuse for Kirk to share 25 years of lighting experience as both a photographer and a DP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "I likewise own both of these lenses and insofar as what he wrote, I agree with Kirk almost word for word (except I haven't used them on an E-3 body, so I can't comment upon the focusing issue he experienced).
"The only thing I would add is that through the end of this month, Olympus is offering rebates on both of these lenses, so if you act quickly, you can save a total of $500 ($200 on one, $300 on the other) if you buy the pair of them before then."