Review: The Olympus ZD 60mm f2.8 Macro and FL-600R wireless flash system

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Although ‘development announced’ (i.e. officially leaked) several months ago together with the 75/1.8, Olympus’ newest macro lens – the M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f2.8 (hereafter known as the ZD60) was formerly announced at Photokina 2012, and should be available sometime in October 2012 at a price of around RM2,000. It’s also only the second macro lens available natively with a Micro Four Thirds mount (and autofocus), the other one being the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, which I reviewed earlier here. Being an OM-D shooter, and heavily product-photography oriented, I was invited by Olympus Malaysia to review the ZD60 together with the new PEN Lite E-PL5 (review coming in the next week or so). The macro work I do almost always involves flash, so I had them loan me a set of their most recent flashes – the FL-600R. This review will therefore be approached from the point of view I’m most familiar with: photographing watches with speedlights, in a pretty much identical manner to how I do it with my main Nikon system. There will be comparative notes throughout, and no pictures of flowers, cats, eyes, coins, trinkets or other typical macro subjects. Let us begin.

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All images in this review were shot with an Olympus OM-D and FL-600R wireless flashes; the images are all from the ZD60, except the images of the ZD60, which were shot with the PL 45/2.8.

Let’s talk about the lens first: it offers 1:1 reproduction ratio at a minimum distance of 19cm from the sensor plane, which translates into a healthy 7-8cm of working distance at maximum magnification. This is great news for people who want tight frame coverage; by comparison, if I try to get the same subject coverage (i.e. 2:1 on full frame) with my D800E and Nikon 60 macro, I’m down to around 4 of working distance, which makes even lighting control much more difficult. The optical design has 13 elements in 10 groups, with one ED element, two HR elements and one E-HR element (I presume these are different types of optical glass).

Optical design and MTF chart. From Olympus Malaysia

Three of the groups float and perform focusing functions. This is not a simple optical design! There are traces of a double-Gauss base design in there, but it looks as though heavy modifications and extra elements were added to optimize resolution and close range performance. By comparison, the excellent Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro – which has been my mainstay lens up til now – has one less element and one less group.

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Size-wise, it’s similar to the 12-50 kit lens for the OM-D; build quality is definitely better, but still plastic and nowhere near as nice as the 12/2 and 75/1.8 lenses. The plastic used is matte, feels reasonably robust, but curiously has visible moulding lines in several places – I’ve not noticed this on any of the polycarbonate-shelled Nikon or Canon lenses before, but it may be because those tend to have a spatter-finish paint that hides the seams better. It’s also weather sealed, with ‘SPLASH PROOF’ in big letters on the bottom of the lens barrel. The lens is made in China.

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Omega Speedmaster 9300.

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100% crop of the above.

Two small points of interest on the ergonomics of the lens itself – firstly, although the (optional, shame on you, Olympus) hood is a bayonet fit, it telescopes in and out; neat, but I found it annoying after a while as if you support the lens by the hood and put too much pressure on it, the hood will easily shift or start to collapse back in. Second is the little rotary knob to control the focus range, accompanied by a pointer scale showing the subject distance and corresponding magnification level. The switch has several settings – full range, 0.4m to infinity, 0.19m to 0.4m, and a sprung detent to take the lens to 1:1. It sounds clunky but is actually very practical in use – selecting the right range keeps focusing fast and positive, and the 1:1 position is very helpful in traversing the focusing range when you don’t have a full-time mechanically coupled focusing ring. Overall, ergonomics are excellent.

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100% crop of the above.

Once in a while, (though increasingly frequently with today’s computer-designed optics) you come across a lens that is truly outstanding – the last two that come to mind were the Olympus ZD 75/1.8 and Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH. I’ve used a number of competent, but imperfect, lenses in the meantime, none of which were that memorable for their optics. Fortunately, the ZD60 is another one of those lenses that falls into the ‘truly outstanding’ category – I’ve tried hard under many varied test conditions to find fault with the optics, and come up with an extremely short list. If you want the short answer, you can skip the next few paragraphs: this lens offers excellent optical performance at every aperture and focus distance.

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The lens has an even more impressive MTF chart than its highly-regarded predecessor, the ZD 50/2 macro for Four Thirds; granted, both designs only have to cover the small Four Thirds frame, and they used a lot of elements to do it, but still: it clearly outresolves the OM-D’s sensor, even wide open. On my copy, I simply didn’t see any improvement in stopping down – you get increased depth of field, and sharpness stays constant (i.e. outstanding) at every part of the frame. There’s diffraction beyond f8, and that’s about it. The plane of focus is also flat, as far as I can make out, and there’s almost zero distortion present. Let’s just say that the ZD60′s resolving power is not going to be the reason for any soft images. Like most of the extremely sharp lenses, the ZD60 also has very high microcontrast – these characteristics are related because high resolving power is required to differentiate between subtle tonal differences in the subject. In fact, it’s amongst the best lenses I’ve ever seen; deserving of the superlative classification (for lenses, at any rate) – of transparent.

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For reference, the screws on the right are about 1.5mm across.

Although overall resolution would support a much higher-density sensor, it wouldn’t be practical in use: on the OM-D’s 16MP sensor, you already have minor diffraction from f8, and visible diffraction at f11 and up (even though the lens can stop down to f22, I really wouldn’t recommend it; you might as well use a pinhole at that point). I suppose it would have been nice if it had tilt control too, but I think given the target market for Micro Four Thirds, that option might be a long time coming. I believe Novoflex has a T/S bellows system, which might be worthy of investigation at some point in the future.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Latitude.

As for the other optical qualities of the lens – bokeh, chromatic aberration, color rendition and transmission – there are very few flaws. The only one I could find was some slight texture in the bokeh, and even then only in a couple of frames with circular out of focus highlights at a certain brightness level – one of the signatures of a moulded hybrid aspherical element somewhere in the construction. To keep things in perspective, even the Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro exhibits this trait, and more obviously. Aside from that, bokeh is smooth and pleasant, with very minimal bright edges on defocused highlights. Chromatic aberration was nonexistent laterally, and more commendably, almost completely absent longitudinally, too, even wide open. I have not seen this level of CA performance in any macro lens I’ve used to date, even the Leica 120/2.5 APO-Summarit-S. Color rendition is neutral and pleasingly saturated, and taken in tandem actually quite reminiscent of the Zeiss lenses. Olympus uses their new ZERO coating on the lens, which keeps transmission high – I would estimate the lens to be around T3.0.

The ZD60 uses Olympus’ MSC system, which has the elements moving linearly on a rail; it’s not as fast as the 12/2 or 45/1.8, but with the limiter in the 0.4m-infinity position, it’s similar in speed to the 75/1.8, and definitely faster than the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8.

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FL-600R compared to the Nikon SB900. One would fit in your pocket; pocket the other and you’d probably be arrested on a public indecency charge.

Next up, we have the FL-600R flash; it has a guide number of 50m at ISO 200, or 36m at ISO 100, running off four AA batteries, with a wide panel and zoom head covering from 16 to 85mm. Full-power cycle time is claimed to be 2.0s with NiMH batteries; it didn’t feel any slower than my Nikon SB900s or SB700s, which I find to be pretty fast. In addition to the usual TTL and manual modes, the flash can also act as both wireless commander and slave using Olympus RC system. It’s also got a bright single LED in the base portion – ostensibly for video use, but I actually found it to be a useful modelling light for macro work, making focusing and composition quite a bit easier. If only it was in the head itself and even brighter…

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In use, the flashes are fairly simple to operate, though the very low number of external controls means that a lot of button presses are required, and you have to remember what does what – I much prefer the softkey and physical switches approach of the SB900 and SB700. That said, the units are physically much smaller than even the SB700 and SB600, and positively dwarfed by the SB900 – this leaves very little real estate on the back for the LCD and controls.

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Overall, I found TTL flash exposure to be mostly good; wireless TTL on the other hand, was a bit hit and miss. There were certain situations – specifically when one flash was firing at the background, and the other at the subject – where the subject exposure was a bit inconsistent. Not much of an issue, I just dialled in manual power. The limited external controls and display space also mean that adjusting settings for remote flashes with the FL-600R as master isn’t so easy, and requires far more button presses than I would like. Fortunately, even with the FL-600R on the hotshoe, the camera itself can be used to set the remotes; the hot shoe contacts then transmit the data to the flash. Coupled with the OM-D’s touchscreen, it’s a fast and easy experience – in this respect, better than the Nikon system. And you can control all three groups of flashes from the camera, regardless of which flash is attached to the hotshoe – which is one more than the Nikon system. There are also three available channels so other users’ flashes aren’t triggered by yours and vice-versa if there are a few of you. I can see this being useful if you shoot Nikon or Canon, but to be honest, I’ve never encountered an Olympus flash shooter…

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The only major issue I have with the wireless flash system is triggering – the sensor on the flash unit itself seems to be very small, aimed forwards and somewhat recessed – this makes no sense whatsoever, seeing as the flash is likely to be facing the subject, which means that the sensor will be away from the camera. Even the Nikons – with side and front mounted sensors – still have problems picking up the optical trigger signal at times. With the FL-600Rs in orientations where the sensor wasn’t almost facing the camera directly, triggering was somewhat hit and miss, especially with the small flash supplied with the OM-D. Use of one of the FL-600R units as a master improved this somewhat, but camera companies really need to start making flashes with multiple optical sensors, or better yet, built in radio triggers for both camera and flash. I know some of you might suggest external radio triggers, but has anybody tried looking for a TTL PocketWizard for Olympus lately? It just doesn’t exist.

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To date, when using the OM-D for macro work, I’ve either been using my large LED panels (and hence continuous lighting) or the SU-4 optical slave mode on my SB900s and the supplied small flash set to 1/64 power, which works well, but lacks the convenience of being able to set the power output from the flashes either via TTL metering or directly from the camera, let alone both. This can be inconvenient at the best of times – worse still if your flashes aren’t easily accessible. I’ve wanted to try the Olympus wireless flashes for some time now; my thoughts are that so long as you can spare one unit to use as a master trigger, they’re a viable alternative to the Nikon system; the problem is that I’d have to buy another five flashes to get the same flexibility as I have now, which seems somewhat silly.

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That said, the Olympus system – and Micro Four Thirds – for macro work has a lot going for it; firstly, a truly outstanding lens which is almost completely CA-free; flashes that aren’t that expensive, and very, very small – like the rest of the system. I could fit an equivalent system to what I use now in a bag half the size. Although on the face of things, the Nikon system has a huge resolution advantage – you lose something in diffraction (despite the D800E not having an AA filter), and the OM-D files are clean enough to upsize well to 25MP or so. The difference is much less than you might think. I think I’d have a very difficult time deciding what to buy if I was starting over again with the same objectives. As it is, I won’t be returning the ZD60 to Olympus; it’s unquestionably earned a place in my arsenal, edging out the 45/2.8 (it’s also nice that I no longer have a focal length overlap with the faster 45/1.8). As far as I’m concerned, this is the new reference lens for Micro Four Thirds. It’s that good. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

The FL600R flash is also available here from B&H and Amazon.

Come back again tomorrow for part two: a four way shootout between the M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 macro, Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro-Elmarit, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar and Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Parting shot – another 100% crop.

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