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Pro-caliber lens for street, documentary shooters
Olympus is targeting street photographers with the simultaneous release of the fast-working E-P3 Micro Four Thirds compact camera and a posh prime lens, the Zuiko 12mm f/2.0. Did they get the lens right? Here's what one street shooting thinks after taking it for a walk around NYC.
With the Four Thirds sensor's 2X 35mm equivalent factor, the Olympus Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 covers the equivalent of a 24mm lens on a 35mm camera. The lens promises high-end optical performance and the feel of a classic street lens. Does it deliver? Let's find out.
In the hands, the lens is solid. Its all metal barrel is reminiscent of classic rangefinder lenses. Inside, the lens consists of 11 elements in 8 groups, and includes a pair of apsherical lens and an ED lens element. Olympus claims this material and construction eliminates chromatic aberration, ghosting and flare. High-recision alignment and improved communication between the lens and camera is said to result in nearly instant focus in most light.
First, a rant
But what really got my attention was the manual focus. Before I describe it, I must take a moment to rant: I believe that camera designers producing prime lenses for compact interchangeable-lens cameras have lost their way. Most primes for MILCs force users to switch to manual focus using a mode buried in the menus, then make photographers turn the lens while checking focus in an enlarged detail area on the LCD monitor. On a bright sunny day, you might as well give up trying.
I've had too many shots ruined because I couldn't tell if I was in focus because the sun was hitting my monitor at the decisive moment, and there are no markings on the lens barrel to tell you what distance you are focused at. Yes, you might have a digital focusing scale on the LCD monitor. Again, hard to see in sunlight. As proof of my argument, on the same day that I tested this lens, I also tested a "pancake" lens (different camera brand) that only focuses digitally and has no focus scale. Most of my shots turned out blurry and unuseable, which was frustrating because the camera boasted a larger sensor with better image quality.
A classic lens feel
Olympus designed this lens to mimic the experience of rangefinder or even some prime DSLR lenses. To start focusing manually, pull the focus ring towards the camera. It snaps into place revealing a good old-fashioned depth-of-field scale. This disengages the Autofocus. Turn the lens no more than about 50 degrees to cover the entire focus range. Although it feels like the lens is turning mechanically, the focus is actually done electronically.
Good Bokeh! Shooting at f/7.1 from about 2 feet away you can see the smooth transition from in-focus to out-of-focus.
For street photographers, as well as for news and documentary shooters, the addition of the focusing scale is big news. If you practice the “zone focus” shooting method, which relies on the widest hyperfocal range you can get, the 12mm optics mean that if you're shooting at f/11, everything from around two feet to infinity will be in focus if you focus at a point five feet away. How do I know? It says it right there on the lens barrel. No guesswork, apps, or fancy calculations necessary.
In the zone: While the lens covers the field of view of a 24mm lens on a 35mm sensor camera, its hyperfocal distance is that of a 12mm lens. This image is shot at f/8 with the lens focused at 5 feet, which keeps things in this shot in focus from around 2 feet to infinity.
True to Olympus's claims, the lens showed remarkably low linear distortion and flare was very well controlled throughout the aperture range. Focus? Tack-sharp. When I enlarged the images 100%, I noticed very slight red-purple fringing on some shots towards the edges of the frame in my informal tests. Hopefully DxOMark's tests will tell us more, and I will update this review with that data as soon as it's available. In the meantime, I was impressed with the results overall.
In the street
The 12mm is not a portrait lens—unless you want to show some serious distortion. For portraits, the 45mm f/1.8, which was introduced simultaneously with the 12mm f/2.0, would be the lens of choice. But for street photography, this lens was a pleasure to use. Shooting in aperture priority or manual and relying heavily on hyperfocal range I was able to shoot without worrying about focus. Since there's no focus acquisition time, this meant the E-P1 test model was able to capture images almost instantly.
How did the AF do ? It was quick and decisive, and matched (and possibly beat) the the speed of my prosumer-level DSLR with a 28mm AF prime lens. One could actually do good documentary work with AF on. It's quick and virtually silent.
24mm equivalent angle of view takes in a lot; perhaps too much for some, but in this case it captures the hustle and bustle of a hot summer day in Manhattan.
Complaints? Very few
The only issue I have with the lens is that there is no matching optical viewfinder. If you wish to have an eye-level view, you need to use the Olympus electronic viewfider, which adds $250 to the cost. Consider shopping around online for an optical finder. Panasonic makes a 24mm optical viewfinder, the DMW-VF1 that's originally meant for the LX3, but will certainly work on any Olympus Pen camera and costs under $140. While it's not absolutely necessary, I'd also love to see some kind of focus tab, like Leica has. Perhaps Olympus (or a third-party supplier) could fabricate something to fit around the focus ring. This way I wouldn't even have to look at the focus scale, as my fingers will get to know which distance relates to the tab's position. This is how many street photographers work.
Conclusion and recommendation
The Olympus Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 is a no-compromise lens that hearkens back to the days of classic rangefinder cameras. It produces excellent images from a technical perspective, but also is easy to master. Unlike many of its prime contemporaries, this lens does not let technological work-arounds for bad design get in the way of getting well-focused, high-quality images. It handles like a traditional rangefinder type lens. If you've been hesitating jumping into Micro Four Thirds due to funky focus operation, this may change your mind.
The lens's $800 pricetag may be a stumbling block, and we can't talk about the lens without putting it in context with the camera system. With an E-P3 (and a required kit lens) and an eye-level viewfinder, the camera/lens combo would come close to the cost of the Leica X1 and easily surpass the price of the Fujifilm X100, but both of those cameras have focus and shutter lag issues. The E-P3 has DSLR focus speed and no virtually no lag time, making the lens/camera combo a powerful one.
Yes, I know: It's a Micro Four Thirds system, and image quality won't match that of an APS sensor camera. However, the new E-P3's new 12MP sensor delivered surprisingly good results, even at ISO 800 and respectable quality at ISO 1600 (more about that in an upcoming full test of the E-P3). As I do most of my street shooting at ISO 800, that's good enough for me.
So, this roundabout discussion finally comes down to this question. Would I consider buying the 12mm f/2, along with an E-P3, as my digital street camera/lens setup? Definitely!