Announced and available together with the new OM-D E-M1 (reviewed here), the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital PRO (24-80mm equivalent) is the first in a new line of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses. Development of an equivalent-grade f2.8 fast telephoto zoom was also announced, with a 2014 release. Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to use this lens together with the new camera for some time now. Read on for my review.
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The 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 environmentally sealed to match the E-M1, and dust-, splash- and freeze-proof. It has a very nicely made machined aluminium barrel and zoom/ focusing rings, all of which are textured and grippy for use with gloves; overall finishing quality is on par with the primes; unfortunately all of this metal and robustness comes at a price – 382g of weight and bulk (70x84mm, 62mm filter). The lens is larger and heavier than the Panasonic 12-35/2.8, and slightly larger than the 75/1.8 (without hood). The lens also adds a programmable L-FN button for use with your thumb when cradling the combination with your left hand. At the asking price – I’m told in the region of US$1,000 – Olympus have finally included a hood and center-pinch lens cap; both of which are high quality items. The hood is reversible for storage, has a bayonet lock and metal rim; the lens cap appears to be mostly metal and rather nice looking, though I suspect also easily dented.
Accessories aside, the most useful feature that’s made the transition from the primes to this zoom is the manual focus clutch – like the 12 and 17mm lenses, pull backwards on the manual focus ring, and you get both a distance scale and hard stops at either end. This is great for a few things: firstly, taking control of the camera; secondly, pulling focus for video, and finally, if you’re good at estimating distances and depth of field scales, run-and-gun hyperfocal street photography. It’s actually the second item that has me interested. Now that I’m shooting more video, focus pulling becomes an issue; it’s tough with fly-by-wire lenses that lack feel and hard end stops; it’s harder when the speed of the focus pull is oddly proportional to the speed at which you turn the ring, but not the displacement of the ring. The 12-40 (and 12, and 17 lenses) has a neat trick: if you put the ring in the MF position, set your distance, then push it back to AF and focus, it remembers the MF position. This means you can pull focus instantly between any two distances simply by pulling the ring backwards! Better still, the distance is held regardless of the zoom setting. Neat, and very useful in practice. Needless to say, both zoom and focus rings are well damped and have the right amount of resistance for precise setting, but the focus ring is especially commendable.
Autofocus speed is the same as the other recent MSC lenses in the Olympus M4/3 lineup: very, very fast and completely silent. The lens performs pretty well in C-AF mode together with the new PDAF sensor, too. No complaints here at all. What is noteworthy though is that larger physical size of the lens has enabled the designers to include more helicoid; the upshot of which is that the lens focuses down to 20cm from the sensor plane at all focal lengths: in reality, this means about 4cm of working distance from the front element at telephoto, and ~5.5cm at wide. Maximum frame coverage is 48x36mm, meaning slightly better than 1:3 magnification. You’d need a dedicated macro lens on full frame to achieve this. Better still, as we’ll see later, there’s no compromise in optical quality even at this distance.
The lens has a rather exotic optical formula – 14/9 construction but with one aspherical ED element, two regular aspherical elements, one DSA element, two normal ED elements, one HD element and two HR elements – there’s virtually no ‘normal’ glass in there at all. It also benefits from Olympus ZERO coating (previously seen on the 60/2.8 Macro), whose aim is to reduce flare and increase microcontrast. It works. I did encounter occasional flare in very high contrast situations – visible as a bit of ‘spillage’ around the edges – but the shadowed portions of the frame retained detail, contrast and saturation well. Color rendition was neutral to slightly warm, and richly saturated.
Corner crop from E-M1 SOOC JPEG, processed through new TruePic VII engine. 100% crops are here.
There’s some minor longitudinal CA on very high contrast subjects, but very little lateral CA in the plane of focus – the worst I saw was about half a pixel at 12mm and f2.8; an excellent performance indeed for any lens, let alone a zoom. You’ll notice in the JPEG sample posted from the E-M1 below that CA is completely absent, thanks to the camera’s new image processor. Regardless of which camera you use, distortion is very, very well controlled indeed – there’s none visible at the long end, and just a tiny hint of pincushion at wide – it actually fares better than many primes in this respect.
Center, 100% crops are here.
Corner, 100% crops are here.
Sharpness and microcontrast (related properties) are excellent anywhere in the frame, at all apertures. This is a lens which does not appear to improve much when stopped down; partially because performance is already excellent wide open (it causes the E-M5 to display moire), partially because it seems that we hit diffraction at f5.6, and partially because we have some strange field curvature effects going on. At the 12mm end, center resolution improves by a hair on stopping down, but the edges actually degrade a fraction. The opposite happens at the 40mm end – the center gets a bit softer, but the edges improve. (I repeated this test a few times just to be sure; it could of course be down to my individual sample.) In either case, we’re nitpicking because the difference really isn’t that much; just decide how much depth of field you need and pick your aperture accordingly.
Center, 100% crops are here.
Corner, 100% crops are here.
A quick note on close range performance: expectedly, the edges drop in resolution, but the center remains excellent – I was surprised at just how good this lens was as a makeshift macro tool. It obviously doesn’t have the same magnification, microcontrast/ resolution or working distance as the 60/2.8 – but then again it wasn’t optimized for use in this range to begin with. If you don’t plan to do very high magnification work, this may well be all the lens you need.
Note: Given that I was unable to run the E-M1’s raw files through ACR for the time being, optical testing was done with the E-M5 instead.
The lens has a 7-bladed diaphragm with curved edges; it forms a near-perfect circle at most settings, and delivers pleasingly smooth bokeh. The rendering style feels more like Olympus’ primes than what you’d expect of a zoom. And I certainly didn’t see any of the nervous double-imaged backgrounds frequently generated by the Panasonic 12-35, either – and believe me, I was looking for it. (The foliage I was shooting would be the first place this would show up). It separates your image nicely into planes, with a sharp transition between in focus and out of focus elements.
In a stroke, I think this lens becomes the defining do-it-all-and-anywhere for M4/3; yes, it’s a bit large, but the useful range, reasonably large aperture, solid build, outstanding optics, very close minimum focusing distance more than outweigh that. It’s not a cheap lens; but then again, I can’t think of any others with the same spec that are. Optically, this is one of the best zoom lenses I’ve ever used. It can replace a couple of primes in your kit quite easily; paired with the 75/1.8, I suspect this will make an outstandingly flexible travel combination. And yes, I’ve ordered one to go with my E-M1. MT
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