Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm kit lens for landscapes

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII comes with a 'kit' lens that has a useful 12-50mm (24-100mm in traditional film terms) focal length range, with a less than useful f3.5-6.3 variable aperture. I must confess to never having owned a lens as 'slow' as f6.3. In fact, the very thought would cause me to break out in a cold sweat! But this came with the camera, it is a useful focal range, and so it will probably be on my camera 80% of the time (until I can afford the 12-40mm f2.8). So it better be good - right!?

West Coast Batches. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Zuiko 12-50mm EZ lens. 1/100th @ f5.6 ISO 200
It's an interesting lens to use on the E-M5 MkII. Some have called the design of the lens ugly, but I actually quite like it visually. It has a clutch mechanism design whereby you push the central collar of the lens towards the camera body to engage manual zooming, push it out to engage the electronic zoom, and then hold the macro button and push it out once again to engage the macro function. Fortunately a small window on the lens gives you a visual reference as to what mode you are in.

I'm a manual zoom kind of guy and prefer to use it in this mode, although while turning the lens barrel to zoom it does make a slight 'gritty' noise. I presume this is 'normal', and if you shoot video a lot, then switching to the electronic zoom makes this gritty noise go away. But then, of course, the zooming is now done electronically (and therefore silently).

Zuiko 12-50mm at 20mm. 1/100th @ f5.6 ISO 200
In everyday use, the grittyness of the manual zooming doesn't bother me, and I don't even notice it anymore. The lens balances nicely on the E-M5 MkII, and I can see why Olympus has included it as its kit lens. It's quite a bit larger than the 14-42mm pancake zoom that comes with the E-M10, and it focuses internally so there is no change to the size of the lens, whether you are shooting wide or telephoto. I like this feature, so don't mind that the lens itself is a little larger because of it.

Of course the front lens element doesn't rotate either, so using a polarising filter is straight forward. The lens has a decent heft without being heavy - and uses a metal lens mount for extra strength and rigidity. The rest of the construction is plastic, although it looks (and even feels) a lot like metal. It's dust and splash proof (another reason to match it with the E-M5 MkII), and uses 2 aspherical lenses, 1 ED lens, 1 HR lens and 1 DSA lens in its construction.
Starfish. Zuiko 12-50mm. 1/80th @ f5.6 ISO 640
That's all a bit of a mouthful. But what it means in reality is that despite its modest variable aperture, the Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm is a solid performer. All that good glass on the inside is working to produce some very contrasty, clear, sharp and distortion-free images. It's not perfectly sharp wide open, but stop it down just a little and it sharpens up very nicely. Shoot at around f5.6 to f 8 and you'll get some truly gorgeous images.

Tidal Pool. Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII and Zuiko 12-50mm EZ lens shot at 15mm. 1/125th @ f5.6 ISO 200
I went out the other evening with the E-M5 MkII and 12-50mm EZ lens to capture some landscapes. At 12mm, this lens starts at a landscape friendly 24mm in traditional terms, something that I'm not all that used to, coming from the 1.6x crop factor of the Canon DSLR world. I like the 24mm focal length, and have always found it to be my 'sweet spot' for a landscape lens.  I'm not a huge 'ultra-wide' fan, so for me, 24mm is plenty wide enough. The above image was shot at 15mm - around 30mm in traditional film terms.

12-50mm shot at 13mm. 1/100th @ f5.6 ISO 200
I was hoping for a beautiful sunset, but it never happened. Of course there was one the day before and the day after I went out with my camera. Sigh. Murphy's Law strikes again.

When I got home and looked at the images on the computer, the muted colours lent themselves perfectly to a black and white conversion - which I tend to do in Photoshop rather than Lightroom. I do like Lightroom (having previously been an Aperture user), but have used Photoshop since version 2, and am just more 'at home' using it for most tasks.

I also tend to prefer a dark and moody black and white treatment for my landscapes, although this will depend on the image. But from my darkroom film days, I had it beaten in to me (not literally) by several teachers that a black and white image must have a full range from white whites to black blacks. Too many black and white image conversions I see on the interweb are very flat and lack any contrast. The DNG RAW files that I'm getting out of the E-M5 MkII have bucket loads of data and detail in them, and are manipulating in Photoshop beautifully. I'm very pleased with the RAW output from the E-M5 MkII, and for me, 16MP is more than enough data.

Low tide. Olympus E-M5 MkII and Zuiko 12-50mm EZ shot at 12mm. 1/125th @ f5.6 ISO 200
Anyway, I digress (a little). Back to the lens itself. Focus is very snappy and silent - as quick as any DLSR I've ever used on single shot autofocus. It did start to hunt just a little towards the end of my session, but by then the light was very low, and again it was similar to what I would expect a DLSR to handle.

Another feature I really like about the 12-50mm EZ is its extra function button placed on the lens. This can be programmed to do almost anything you want (of course it can), and I've got it set up to initiate the autofocus selection screen. I've also got the function button next to the shutter release programmed to re-set the autofocus point to the centre, so with the click of two very conveniently placed buttons I have complete finger-tip control over autofocus selection. Brilliant. And it's little touches like this that ender you to the Olympus system and make you realise that it was designed by photographers, for photographers.

Rockface. 1/13th @ f6.3 ISO 1600
One of the last images I took was actually of this terra-cotta mask set into the concrete wall of a batch (cottage). Not exactly a landscape, but it caught my eye as I was walking back to the car and it was the perfect opportunity to test out the 5 axis image stabilisation of the E-M5 MkII. Does it work? You bet you're bottom dollar it works! It's crazy, insane juju magic and really opens up new possibilities for low-light hand-held shooting.

This image (and a series of others), is perfectly sharp, but was shot at just 1/13th of a second, while I was balancing precariously on a rock, zoomed right out at 50mm, at f6.3. Generally not a recipe for successful image making. But the 5-axis stabilisation nailed it!

So am I happy with the Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 lens as my walk-around and serious landscape lens? Absolutely.

The f6.3 aperture at 50mm may have put me off initially, but when I'm shooting landscapes around the 12-15mm range, then an aperture of f5.6 (which is opened up two stops) is where I want to be anyway, and is giving me good sharpness and great files. Micro four thirds sensors have more depth-of-field due to their smaller size, so f5.6 is about f11 in DSLR terms. That's perfect landscape territory, so I'm very happy with the 12-50mm for my landscape work. Maybe if I was printing 40" prints I'd find that I was reaching the limit of the lens/sensor combination? Maybe. But I'm not. So for the blog, the web, and for 8x12" prints, I'm a happy camper and the 12-50mm will remain on my camera for 80% of what I shoot.

Of course, if you can afford the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens, then by all means, get that instead. It will be a 'better' (eg. sharper and faster) lens in all respects. BUT, it will also be a heavier (much heavier) lens to carry around, and then you really will have to consider the body that you pair it up with.

For the well healed/pro photographer the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro is a must. For everyone else (us mere mortals), the Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm EZ f3.5/6.3 is a perfect image making tool. Can't ask for anything more - especially in a 'kit' lens.

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