Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2

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Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option for Micro Four Thirds users. (It was also recently re-released as a limited edition all-black version, which now includes the lens hood as part of the kit.) In fact, there’s been remarkably little competition in this arena – just a manual focus offering or two from SLR Magic, and the upcoming (and stratospherically priced) Schneider 14/2.0. Panasonic has the 7-14/4, and the 14/2.5; the latter which is perhaps the 12/2’s closest competition.

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My initial experience with this lens and its optics on the E-P3 and E-PM1 were enough to convince me that Micro Four Thirds had come of age, and would make a worthwhile compact system without major compromises for the majority of situations in which I’d want to use a compact system camera. This impression held, wavered, and changed again – to be honest, until the last Tokyo workshop, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to use the 12/2 on the OM-D (full review here) for a serious evaluation. The last time I used the lens on the OM-D was also the first time I’d taken out the camera for a serious bout of shooting, and definitely wasn’t a good way to benchmark performance of either camera or lens – simply too many variables and unknowns were in play here.

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Spiral. E-PM1, ZD 12/2

The lens is one of the Olympus Super High Grade line, impeccably built and finished with all-metal construction, and one unique feature (for a Micro Four Thirds Lens) – the focusing ring clutch. Sliding the focusing ring backwards a notch puts the lens in manual focus mode, and also reveals a focus distance scale: unlike every other lens in the system, the 12/2 has hard stops at each end of the range. Together with the depth of field scales, the lens should theoretically be the ideal tool for street photography – fast, wide, zone-focusable, and with more depth of field for a given aperture and field of view than its 35mm equivalent.

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In AF mode (left) and scale-focus MF mode (right)

Except, this isn’t quite the case. Sadly, the clutched focus system isn’t really mechanically linked to the position of the lens elements; it too is a fly-by-wire simulation – albeit a very good one, with the right amount of tactile feedback and everything. The problem is to do with the resolution of the distance scale/ mechanism: there aren’t enough divisions.

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Reflections, Tokyo. OM-D, ZD 12/2 from a moving train

It seems that there are perhaps five or six discrete distances to which the focusing group moves, instead of a continuum. The only thing that could cause this is if Olympus used a form of rheostat in the construction of the the focusing ring/ clutch. Although 12mm is a very wide actual focal length with plenty of depth of field for a given aperture, f2 is fast enough that more critical control over your focus point is required. Sadly, though the idea of the ring is a good one, the execution makes it of marginal utility for the photographer in the real world – unless you are willing to use a small aperture – f4-5.6 or smaller – to use depth of field to cover the lack of manual focus precision.

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Diagonals, Shibuya. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Curiously, this is most definitely not the case for either manual focus with the ring in the AF position (i.e. selecting manual focus on the camera body) or when using autofocus. Here, the lens is precise, moves in as many infinitesimally incremental steps as one could desire, and has no trouble finding critical focus. While on the subject of focusing, it’s probably a good time to talk about autofocus performance. Like all of Olympus’ other MSC designs, the 12/2 is an extremely snappy lens – even more so on any of the recent bodies. I haven’t experienced any gross focus misses, but it’s worth noting that some care is required at f2 – the plane of focus isn’t quite as deep as you’d think.

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Taxi rush, Shinjuku. OM-D, ZD 12/2

The lens is not weather sealed or gasketed, and once again, Olympus has decided not to include a hood – this is excusable for a $250 economy kit item, but not on a $800 premium lens. It just smells too much like penny pinching. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the optional hood is rather cumbersome; it increases the bulk and visual size of the lens hugely, requires a thumb screw to attach, can rotate freely and requires a different cap – why can’t they just use a bayonet hood? Zeiss lenses are a great example of how bayonet hood mounts should be constructed.

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Shadows, Otemachi. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Over a good year of use with this lens on the E-PM1 and OM-D, those are my only two complaints: the inaccuracy of the pseudo-manual focus clutch, and the continued minor farce of the lens hood. If you read this carefully, it means that I don’t have any major criticisms of the optics.

The 12/2 uses a rather exotic optical design with 11 elements in 8 groups; one of these is aspherical, one is made of ED glass, and another two of exotic Super HR and DSA glasses. It’s a non-symmetric, telecentric design whose optical formula honestly doesn’t look familiar to me – the closest thing I can think of are the Zeiss Distagons, insofar as they use several extremely dome convex front elements and a rear telephoto group. The lens also employs Olympus’ ZERO coating to minimize flare and maximize contrast and transmission.

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The overhang. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Let’s get the most popular question out of the way first: yes, it’s sharp. Bitingly so, at all apertures, across the entire frame in all but the most extreme corners. There appears to be a small amount of field curvature, but nothing overly serious; enough that for optimal sharpness you’ll want to move the focus point over your subject rather than using center-focus-and-recompose, though. The lens has a slightly odd MTF chart that is indicative of a significant dropoff in microcontrast about halfway to the edges; I don’t see this in practical use, which suggests that the field curvature is probably responsible – and more complex than a merely spherical surface. In the real world: sharpness will not be an issue.

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Fuji TV building, Odaiba. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Though some of you might think that a little nice bokeh might be obtainable from the 12/2, you’d be mistaken; you have to be very close indeed to throw anything significantly out of focus. Fortunately, the lens focuses down to 0.2m, so this is actually possible. If you have enough distance between subject and background, then bokeh is actually fairly pleasant; however, if there isn’t a lot of distance, and the subject is a bit farther away from the camera, nothing really gets out of focus enough to begin with – in fact, you have to be a bit careful of double images in the out of focus areas. There’s a bit of spherochromatism, too.

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Star. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Although the lens in general well corrected, you do get the feeling that it’s on the extreme edges of what was possible with the design constraints put upon the optical designers: there’s visible CA against high contrast subjects, especially in the corners where you can get up to 2 pixels’ worth; there’s also very noticeable distortion. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in nature – barrel with no sombrero/ moustache – and is easily correctable in ACR. Flare exists but the ZERO coating does a good job of keeping it to a minimum – even without the hood. Stopping down to f4 on the OM-D makes everything but the distortion go away, leaving you with an excellent optic. It doesn’t quite have the transparency of the 75/1.8 or 60/2.8 Macro, but it’s fairly close if used stopped down. It is definitely the best wide option for M4/3 users at the moment. One interesting use of the lens is for handheld long exposure photography – due to the short focal length and excellent stabilizer in the OM-D, shutter speeds of anywhere down to 1/2s (consistently) or 1s (occasionally) with critically sharp results are possible, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.

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Commuters. OM-D, 12/2

As always, I suppose the litmus test for a lens is if you’d buy it a second time – I think the answer for me would be a qualified yes. I have since had the chance to shoot with the Panasonic 14/2.5; thought I prefer the 28mm field of view over 24mm, and believe that M4/3 lenses should be a compact as possible to play to the other strengths of the system, I would still pick the 12/2 as the optics are better – they simply render in a more three-dimensional way due to better microcontrast, as well as better edge sharpness. Interestingly, the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 runs it very close at f2.8; however, the T stop of that lens is about 1/3-1/2 stop slower too, for a given physical aperture. What qualifies my opinion is the upcoming Schneider 14/2; it remains to be seen if it performs as well as its price suggests it should. In the meantime, the best way to judge the 12/2 is on its pictorial results – construction, expensive accessories and the imprecise focus clutch are just distractions. And on that basis alone, I think the lens deserves a place in a serious M4/3 shooter’s bag. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12/2 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Comments

  1. Hi. What is a T stop vs a F stop please? Thx!

  2. to quote fred: “Fantastic review and images, as always. Thanks for putting this site together (from someone who has recently taken up photography and has much to learn)!” so thank you! and… it really works well enough without buying the/a hood?
    appreciatively, –

  3. Markus Grape says:

    Nice review!

    I picked up the RX100 some weeks ago but I feel I sacrificed to much image quality to size, however I have started to consider this lens now for my m43 camera. Will this lens be a significant upgrade against the Sony RX100? yes I realise it is 24 vs 28 but still!

    Thanks!
    Markus

    • Really? I didn’t think there was that much of a compromise overall at low ISOs given the size advantage – compared to M43 at least. The 12 is a pretty good lens and yes, will be better than the RX100 especially in the corners.

      • Markus Grape says:

        Ok, just read my post and it was abit confusing:) the sensor on RX100 seems very good. However I’m not satisfied with the optics. Especially as you say in the corners. I’m used to my 20/1.7 and with that i get tack-sharp images from edge to edge and I dont see that on the RX100. Maybe I was hoping to much! however I will still use the RX100 for diving which was my primary reason to buy it:)

        I also have my old Canon 450D with tamron 17-50/2.8 which also take sharper images on 28mm. However I want to ditch that camera and fill my wide angel gap with the 12/2! My guess it that it should give the tamron a good run also?

        • Nope, I don’t see that at every focal length either – the midrange and long end is definitely stronger than the wide end. Though without testing a few more cameras, it’s hard to say if it’s my particular sample or a general issue.

          The 12/2 is sharp all over but has some CA in the corners until you stop down a bit.

  4. Fantastic review and images, as always. Thanks for putting this site together (from someone who has recently taken up photography and has much to learn)! I am tempted by this lens as I have the zuiko OM 24/2 and really enjoy using it (on an OM), however, the panasonic 12-35 is only about $100 more expensive on the web in Australia (where I live), which would seem to make it a better purchase. On a very minor matter, I think that Olympus still use the term “Super High Grade” or “Super Pro” to refer to a line of weather sealed 4/3 lenses (the micro 4/3 lenses not being divided into “grades” as such); although I could be wrong there!

    • I was told the M43 lenses are also graded, but as you say it’s just confusing. I personally didn’t like the 12-35 much – some odd bokeh at the 35 end and the 12 end wasn’t as sharp in the corners as the 12/2 due to CA – but I suppose it would be a good multipurpose choice if you’re only going to buy one lens.

  5. Ming, your use of light in “spiral,” “diagonals,” and “commuters” is really impressive! The commuters shot is my favorite, as I spent many weeks riding those Tokyo trains when my beat was Japan, and you have elegantly captured the essence and feeling perfectly. I know you spent considerable work in post-processing to enhance and tune this shot, and it shows. Thank you for sharing your insights and knowledge with us, I read your blog regularly and have learned a great deal.

  6. Add my voice to the lens hood chorus.
    I’m also sad that Olympus has decided to bring out all of their recent lenses in silver only, instead of the more traditional, inexpensive anodized black that everyone else uses. Not exactly earth shaking, but they look dopey on my black OMD (Matter of taste, of course), and I’m not sure what the point is, other than to allow wildly overpriced black paint versions later.
    I suppose it gives me an excuse to buy a second, silver OMD.

  7. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    Nicely written review, as usual. This is one of my favorite lenses. I also agree about the hoods and sending Olympus a message. I have been buying 3rd party hoods when I can find “good enough” quality. I found a nice one for my 12/2 but the plastic bayonet hood for my 45/1.8 needed some VERY careful trimming of the mount. Still, the prices make it worth risking a little quality.

  8. I’ve ordered one last week, can’t wait for Fedex man!
    Excellent review, as usual. Top.

  9. sweet shots yet again!

  10. John Prosper says:

    Very pleased to see your review of this lens. The 12/2 embraces my favorite angle of view for wide lenses. I wouldn’t mind seeing an even wider serious wide angle lens—say, a 10/2 or even a 7/2.8.

    Very nice illustrative images, indeed!

    John in Atlanta, Georgia/USA

  11. Steve Jones says:

    Thanks for putting this review up Ming, I’ve been sitting on the fence about buying this lens ( even though I really know it’s the focal length I need ) because I didn’t think the quality matched the price. I guess we’ve been spoiled with the 45, 60 and 75 lenses. Think I’ll just go ahead and get one. I don’t care about Bokeh in my wide shots. I must admit after buying the OMD and two lenses I felt cheated by Olympus when I saw what they charged me for the hoods. I’ll buy another brand next time.
    After the Michael Woodford scandal I’m wondering who will lead the investigation into the OTHER Olympus scandal. The Lens Hood pricing scandal! Is anyone complaining directly about this? The company ought to be paying attention by now if they read the mail.

    • I bring it up every time I see them, but to no avail. Just vote with your wallet and don’t buy the hood.

      • “vote with your wallet” <— very well put, and that's what i did for my other ZD lens, all wearing ebay clones, 'cause to me the lens hood are more about protecting the lens, and if i buy the original pricy hoods, i'd need to come up with another measure to protect the hood in turn~

  12. Thank You Ming! Wonderful review!

  13. I 110% agree with you about the lens hoods. Olympus needs to include them. Gouging customers who pay hundreds of dollars for their lens for another $80 for a hood is ridiculous!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 12-40 is billed as being at the top end of the lens lineup. Unlike the previous high grade primes (12/2, 17/1.8, 75/1.8, click on the links for my reviews), the 12-40 is ‘triple proof’ – fully […]

  2. […] 12-40 is billed as being at the top end of the lens lineup. Unlike the previous high grade primes (12/2, 17/1.8, 75/1.8, click on the links for my reviews), the 12-40 is ‘triple proof’ […]

  3. […] – I own all of these and rate them very highly – the Olympus 60/2.8 Macro, 75/1.8 and 12/2 (click on the lens names for my reviews). You can find them up to $100 off here. Finally, the OM-D […]

  4. [...] Olympus ZD 12/2 (<a href=”B&H” target=”_blank”>B&H | Amazon) – Still the best (and possibly only) fast wide choice for M4/3 until the Schneider 14mm shows itself. It’s competent but the corners shoe lateral CA until stopped down somewhat. I used it until I got the Coolpix A – partially because I got lazy changing lenses, partially because I prefer the optics and image quality of the Coolpix. [...]

  5. [...] set was shot with the Olympus OM-D, ZD 12/2, ZD 45/1.8 and Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (via a M-M43 adaptor). Enjoy! [...]

  6. [...] the majority of my recent workshops have been done with this setup – typically an OM-D, the 12/2 and 45/1.8 primes, and something else to fill the pocket for quick grabs. The trouble is, I’m [...]

  7. [...] should, but it wasn’t. What I later learned, by reading a review of this lens by Ming Thein, was that this particular model of lens has a ring around the barrel that you move back and forth [...]

  8. [...] Originally posted here: Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2 – Ming Thein | Photographer [...]

  9. [...] Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option fo…  [...]

  10. [...] Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option fo…  [...]

  11. [...] Source: http://blog.mingthein.com/2012/12/27/olympus-12-2/ [...]

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