One of the deciding factors in my move to the Micro 4/3 system, after several slightly unsatisfactory years with Sony, was Olympus’ impending Pro range of lenses. Having bought my E-M1 with the first of the breed – the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro – and been delighted with it, I’d pre-ordered the 40-150mm f2.8 Pro plus matching 1.4x teleconverter back in September. As it arrived just as I was on the way to the airport for a trip to Vienna last week, that’s where I’ve shot most of these first-look tests. So this is the first of a two-part review of this lens, the second part, here, concentrating on its abilities when used with the E-M1’s focus tracking.
Build, Design and Handling
Unboxing the beast produces what is, by M4/3 standards, a largeish lump of black metal and plastic – it weighs in at 872g bare (including the tripod mount), and 1058g including the lens hood, filter and lens cap . It is however a good deal smaller than the old 50-200mm and simply reeks of quality in design and build. That impression was reinforced as soon as I tried the controls – the zoom ring is the smoothest I’ve ever used, like tobogganing through molten butter. This is a good thing. The smaller focus ring has the same clutch mechanism for manual focussing as have several other Olympus lenses – you just pull back the focus ring to switch into full manual mode. A small piece of design genius. There is also a programmable function button on the side of the lens, which can be very useful for limiting autofocus range at high telephoto lengths.
Attach it to the E-M1 and the ensemble feels well balanced and compact, if solidly dense in construction, akin to holding a sculpted lump of neutron star. I do recommend use of the HLD-7 battery grip with this lens, as it balances camera and lens nicely. The E-M1, HLD-7 and lens (with tripod mount, strap and lens hood, filter and lens cap) comes in at 1856g, with a zoom range equivalence of 80-300mm at a constant f2.8. For comparison, the entire outfit is only a couple of hundred grammes heavier than (for example) a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 G lens on it’s own. And that makes a big difference over a full day’s walking and shooting.
The lens hood is quite bulky (especially in diameter), but is beautifully simple to use, once you’ve worked out that a slight anticlockwise (when using the camera) pressure is needed to unlock the sliding mechanism. So much easier than fiddling with a traditional reversible hood and a real convenience feature. The only downside is that slight increase in weight and bulk.
The tripod mount ring detaches very easily and, because I no longer carry a monopod thanks to the E-M1’s excellent in-body stabilisation (IBIS), that’s just what I often do, and save another 110g.
Build quality and mechanical handling are exemplary, then. It has rained or snowed heavily pretty much continually since I got the lens and all I can say so far about the weatherproofing is that it works – no surprise there as my earlier Olympii have been through tropical downpours and sea immersion with absolutely no adverse effects.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the handling benefit of having a long zoom that doesn’t change length at all as you use it – it makes the whole thing far more wieldy, doesn’t extend under its own weight, is far less obtrusive in use and saves on any number of Mae West wisecracks…
Here then is a range of images culled from: walking around in Vienna, all handheld and mostly in decidedly dim light; interiors ditto and, finally, some tripod-mounted shots from the bottom of the garden, grabbed hastily between December snow storms. To illustrate the end result, the RAW files of these images have been lightly processed in Lightroom: levels, contrast and white balance set, a little saturation and minor sharpening. Remember too that Olympus lenses write their correction data into the RAW files, so any mainstream RAW converter automatically applies these without requiring further post-processing.
First impressions (mine, at least) are of the sort of ‘snap’ and sharpness that you’d usually expect from a high-quality prime lens, not a telephoto zoom. The images are of decent contrast but manage that without losing detail or mid-tones – a very nicely balanced result, with the out-of-camera RAW images requiring less post-processing than those from the earlier 4/3 zooms. Sharpness right across the image circle appears exemplary (something borne out by the more objective tests that are starting to appear) and this seems to be a lens that largely doesn’t care if you shoot short or long, wide open or stopped down. In summary: jaw-droppingly good. Distortion and chromatic aberration are largely noticeable by their absence and vignetting just doesn’t seem to be an issue. I’ve seen a couple of reports of contre jour flare, but whether this is worse (or indeed better) than any other zoom of its class will be tested if, as and when the sun puts in an appearance.
I haven’t had much chance to play with bokeh yet but at first glance it looks to be smooth and without glaring artefacts: just what was ordered and expected.
Power up, point at subject, press the button. Did it work? This is the point at which I did a double-take: it focussed so quickly and quietly that I didn’t realise it had done it – I was busy checking that I hadn’t inadvertently switched it to manual focus. So I tried again. And again. And, each time, focus was a no-brainer – the time it took was within the limits of my ability to check the scene before shooting, so simply not an issue.
A full macro (70cm or so)-to-infinity transition took about half a second (subjectively) in good light. In low light levels the lens was commendably free of focus hunting and this, combined with the E-M1’s 5-axis IBIS, meant that I was immediately confident shooting hand-held at improbably low shutter speeds in the dim galleries of Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum.
It’s also worth noting that, for a long-range zoom, close focus is commendably, ah, close: the shot below was of a vessel about 20cm in height, shot from about 70-80cm.
Continuous and tracking focus is a matter for another day and deserves some dedicated testing.
Having spent decades learning to shoot with zoom lenses well stopped down, my move to Olympus in 2004 taught me that 4/3 lenses could be shot wide open, with relatively small gains in quality as you stopped down – where I’d have shot on Canon at f5.6-f8 for maximum image quality, I found I was using the Olympus 4/3 zooms at f4-f5 or thereabouts for best results.
Of course you do need to shoot at a wider aperture on a smaller sensor to get an equivalently shallow depth of field, so the fact that the Olympus lenses were sharper closer to their maximum aperture made my adjustment largely painless, not to mention the manifest benefit of faster lenses in the Scottish murk. My time thereafter with Sony’s E-Mount zooms then forced me to relearn the need to stop down for best quality – their being relatively slow anyway didn’t help either, and remains one of my major frustrations with that range.
So, now it’s back to Olympus, only more so: yes, this new zoom’ s sharpness does improve slightly as you stop down, but it’s from such a high level that shooting wide open is not just possible, but rapidly becomes the default. The two images below show the same scene at f2.8 and f8.0 (clicking on the images will give you full-sized JPEGs exported at 70% quality from the RAW originals. These images are unprocessed apart from checking levels and white balance – no sharpening or noise reduction was applied.
My, haven’t things moved on? My first experience with a teleconverter was a Vivitar 2x “Matched Multipler” for their 70-150mm zoom in the late 70s: this bulky object turned an otherwise acceptable lens into something that could nearly (but not quite) outperform the bottom of a Coke bottle. Here, the 40-150’s dedicated 1.4x (losing just a single stop of light) converter is a tiny, pocketable pancake of a thing that works with this lens and the forthcoming 300mm f4 (And, yes, I’ll happily take a 840mm equivalent f5.6 supertele that doesn’t break either back or bank). Just a couple of images then from the ‘Full Monty’ combination at 420mm equivalent, the first handheld with IBIS and the second tripod-mounted.
Absolute quality appears excellent, again wide open and clicking on the image below will give you 100% crops from this combination, the basic lens and the Olympus 75mm f1.8, all normalised to f8.
Zuiko 50-200mm f2.8-f3.5
Since moving to Micro 4/3 early in 2014, I’ve been using my old Mk 1 (pre-SWD) 4/3 50-200mm f2.8-3.5 Zuiko as my long zoom option with the E-M1. A decade ago, this was one of the finest high-end general purpose zooms around (eclipsed, in my not entirely ‘umble opine, only by it’s 35-100mm f2.0 sibling). And it works very well indeed with the E-M1 but focus acquisition and tracking is notably slower and less consistent than for native Micro 4/3 lenses, something that rather restricts its usefulness for wildlife work. Also, being a 4/3 format lens, it’s a largeish blighter, at 1.2kg bare and with an extending barrel that nearly doubles the lens’s length at longer focal lengths. These pictures show the results that the older lens can deliver – out of the camera, it’s a little ‘flat’ in contrast but the files respond very well to processing and deliver excellent results – it remains a great lens but, compared to even the initial shots from the new 40-150mm, I’d say that the new lens does represent a significant step forward in overall quality: in particular, in contrast; edge-to-edge sharpness and sharpness at (even) wider apertures. Compare the image below, shot earlier with the 50-200mm at 200mm with the 210mm images above from the MC-14 combination. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a side-by-side comparison shot under identical lighting as I sold my 50-200 the week before the new toy arrived…
M.Zuiko 75mm f1.8
Here’s a challenge: this is one of my favourite ever lenses and is the sharpest I have ever owned. So if the 40-150mm gets anywhere near this, it’ll be a stunning achievement. Three images then, at 75mm (or the nearest equivalent that the zoom will display), from the 75mm, the 40-150mm and the 40-150mm+MC-14 combo, all at f8. Allowing for a little distant wind here, and looking at centre and edge detail in the vegetation, I’d make the unsurprising margin call that the 75mm has the edge, followed by the 40-150mm, with the 40-150mm+teleconverter another tad behind. The surprise is that the result is very, very close.
When I bought in to M4/3, I took a punt (largely on the strength of their previous offerings and the quality of the first Pro zoom – the 12-40mm f2.8) that I’d end up with a compact, high-quality camera system that was up to the rigours of all-weather expedition work and which produced top quality images from stellar lenses. The 40-150mm f2.8, their second offering in the Pro line-up, exceeds even that expectation. There are two reasons to use a lens: you choose it when you need a particular focal length or (and much rarer) you mount it and go forth to look for opportunities to use it, purely for the pleasure of doing so. The 40-150mm is rapidly becoming one of the latter. I now can’t wait for the release of the remaining Pro lenses – the 7-14mm f2.8 and 300mm f4 – at that point I’ll be able to finally retire my wonderful (and wonderfully overweight) 4/3 7-14mm blunderbuss and skip lithely into the sunset carrying a full Micro 4/3-based system. Bliss.