Review: The Olympus ZD 75/1.8 for Micro Four Thirds

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One of the more eagerly awaited lenses for compact system users, the Olympus Zuiko Digital 75/1.8 ED MSC (hereafter just referred to as the 75) is one of the final confirmations that Micro Four Thirds has finally come of age. We now have all of the popular lenses we need – including a fast 24-70/2.8 equivalent, fast primes at 24, 35, 50 (multiple choices) and 90mm equivalents; the very fast portrait tele like a 150/1.8 (for example, the subject of this review) or 200/2 is now here to round out the lineup. Curious, there’s no fast 50 from Olympus, and no fast AF 35 from any of the manufacturers; that Schneider-Kruzenach 14/2 looks extremely interesting indeed.

But we’re not here to talk about that.

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Compared to the 12/2.

I picked up a final production sample 75 from Olympus Malaysia a couple of weeks ago, having handled a much earlier prototype; honestly, the only thing that seems to have changed is the lens’ finish color (a light champagne color over bare metal) now matches that of the 12/2 perfectly. Unfortunately, during my free days, the weather has not been as conducive for shooting as I would have liked; I look forward to updating the review again once I’ve had a chance to use the lens for a longer period of time.

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The 75 is a superbly well built lens; it’s solid, but not unexpectedly heavy, say in the same way as a brass Leica lens. However, the only plastic to be found anywhere on the lens is the cap – I’m guessing the rest of it is aluminum, including the optional hood. It sits at the top of Olympus’ lens pyramid for M4/3, together with the 12/2 – and presumably other lenses too, at some point. Curiously, for a lens of this build quality and price (RRP around RM3,200 give or take; availability at retail end-July or early August) there is no weather sealing – unlike the much cheaper (and honestly, cheap feeling too) 12-50 EZ. So, don’t get this one wet – even if your OM-D can take it. The focusing ring is well damped and smooth to rotate, with about the right amount of resistance. Sadly though, it’s once again a fly-by-wire design, like every other M4/3 lens except the 12/2. A nice touch is that all markings on the lens are engraved deeply and painted in relief – including ‘Made in Japan’ on the bottom.

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With hood.

I was also given the (optional) hood; it nearly doubles the perceived size of the lens, and is thoroughly enormous. It secures with a thumb screw (why no bayonet, Olympus?) and provides good shading of the front element. I’m told that it will ship with another cap that clips on to the end of the hood; this is absolutely required as there’s no way you can get your fingers in to remove the originally supplied cap once the hood is in place. It also reverses for storage. Again, given the price of the lens…not including a hood seems a little, well, cheap.

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A Bollywood still. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8
All images in this review may be clicked on for larger versions (and click through the Flickr landing page again).

That’s about all of the improvement points i’ve got, though. There’s a lot to like about the 75, and I’ll start with focusing speed. The 75 is a fast, silent, and most importantly, accurately focusing lens. Unless there are huge changes in subject distance, the lens snaps into focus with the same speed as the 45/1.8. I’m told this is due to the design philosophy employed; there’s only one element that moves to achieve focus, and it runs along a track/ rail. The first part of this means that a) the focusing assembly is light and therefore requires little energy to move quickly or change direction; b) the focusing action can be entirely internal. The latter portion contributes to speed – most lenses contain focusing elements that are attached to a rotating helicoid assembly; a linear motor rotates this entire assembly in either direction to move it back and forth by means of a static cam and follower. However, using a linear motor or magnets (I haven’t been able to find out which), movement of the focusing element along a track/ rail can be accomplished much, much more quickly – and without the grinding sound of rotating parts. Bottom line: don’t question it too much, it just works.

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Two old men. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

On the subject of focusing, the 75 gets much closer than most 150/200mm equivalent lenses: the near focus limit is just 0.8m, which is even a little shorter than most standard 85mms. This makes for some impressively tight frames; just remember that your depth of field is also very shallow (though of course not as shallow as a true 150/1.8), and slight movement in either the camera or the subject will result in front or back focus.

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Delivery man. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

You’ll notice that up til this point, I haven’t said much about the optics of the lens. We are now fortunate enough to live in a time when there are very few truly bad lenses, plenty of excellent ones, and a few really exceptional ones -but the difference between excellent and really exceptional is so small, that it takes near perfect conditions to see it. I think the 75 is one of those that manages to cross the excellent threshold into exceptional – at least in my mind. It delivers absolutely stunning resolution and sharpness across the frame, even from maximum aperture at f1.8; stopping it down increases your depth of field, but doesn’t really make much difference to sharpness. In fact, it’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used for Micro 4/3. There is a tiny improvement in microcontrast visible between f1.8 and around f2.8; things are pretty static from there on down, until you hit the diffraction limit somewhere between f8 and f11 (on the OM-D).

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Mirrored thought. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

Resolution isn’t everything, of course – if the lens had an ugly bokeh signature, a horrible transition zone, odd color transmission, or worse, massive lateral/ longitudinal CA – then we might well write it off completely for any one of those flaws alone. Except…the 75 doesn’t suffer from any of those maladies; it’s one of those very rare things: a transparent lens. It delivers a neutral, accurate rendition of the subject with very little of its own ‘personality’ (read: charmingly artistic optical flaws) impinging on your vision. The only flaw I could find was a trace of spherochromatism (color fringes on bokeh) on very strongly backlit subjects; regular lateral chromatic aberration is completely absent, and there are no odd corner gremlins to be wary of, either. Place your subject wherever you wish, with confidence.

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Searching for value. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

I think resisting the temptation to go to f1.4 or faster has paid off here – slower lenses of course being easier to make optically perfect than fast ones. Compared to the already excellent 45/1.8, there’s no contest – the 75 outperforms it in every way; it’s just that bit crisper, that bit clearer, that bit more vivd, and that bit more transparent. (Sadly, it’s also more than just a bit more expensive).

Overall, there are very few lenses I would place in the company of the 75 – the Nikon 85/2.8 PCE, perhaps; the Nikon 200/2 VR, definitely; the Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE; and I would go so far as to say it has that same level of clarity I’ve seen only so far in the Leica 50/2 APO ASPH. (Who knows if the 75’s ultimate resolution is as high as the 50/2 AA; it doesn’t matter, because it wasn’t designed to cover more than 17x13mm anyway.)

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Yet another stop. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

The question is, though, what would you use this lens for? I think it’s actually a bit long to serve as the second lens in a two-lens kit; I’d still pick the 12 and 45mms for versatility, perhaps adding the 75mm if I feel I’m going to be shooting in a larger space. I suppose it would be good for portraiture if you have enough space to make it work – remember, we’re talking 150mm FOV equivalent here; alternatively there’s indoor sport (once we have a CSC that has decent continuous AF capabilities) or perhaps landscape work (though I’d go with the 100-300 and a tripod for more flexibility, since speed isn’t required).

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Suspicious lunch. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

It’s good for generating very cinematic images; this is a lens that will only deliver one type of look, and you must both like and know how to use it – it’s not a flaw of the lens, but more a consequence of the angle of view. No doubt street photographers will find it extremely handy to get closer to or isolate their subjects, because its relatively small and unintimidating physical size is out of proportion to its magnification. Put the 75 on an OM-D body without hood or grip, and you’ve got a package that’s still smaller than the entry-level DSLR and kit lens most people are toting around these days. After a week with it, I feel that the lens is one which you will just find a use for – solely because the way it renders images is rather addictive. It was a sad day when I had to hand mine back (even sadder, because one normally doesn’t give things away on their birthday.)

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Rainy traffic jam. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

I can’t help but think that to round out the lineup, Olympus needs a lens like this in 17/1.4, 25/1.4 and 300/4 flavors. MT

You can order the 75/1.8 here from B&H or Amazon.


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

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Lego city. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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A hand in an inappropriate place. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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Diner and watcher. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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Between destinations. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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The older you are, the less you care about the rules. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8

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Veiled (but empty) garden of pleasures. Olympus OM-D, 75/1.8