On Olympus Lenses Part 1

This is not going to be a post about the technical pecking order of my chosen camera lenses, nor will it have the test charts or examples blown up to 200% to prove/disprove my thoughts as I have found that these things do not matter and worse, can be misleading. This is just going to be my feelings on the lenses I use and my personal recommendations. If you like my sample photos, I hope you are responding to the images and not the lens performance, but of course the lenses make the images possible.

I'm a bit over the tech heavy reviews of gear, as I have personally found that nothing beats actually using gear to really get a feel of how it works and feels. Tests also tend to overlook the designers intent. Some lenses have a performance envelope specific to their intended application so "blanket" tests can find them out in areas they are not suited for (take for example the 17 and 75mm lenses, very different on the test bench, but harmonious, if different-deliberately, in actual use). Trust me, there is nothing but discontent to be found slavishly visiting lens test sites.

All of the lenses talked about below are Olympus. This is because I have made an effort to stick with them for consistency of colour and a logical spread of focal lengths. Olympus lenses have also proven to be very consistent in lens to lens comparisons. I will talk about other lenses below as well as they arise, without bias and all due credit given.

Olympus 75mm f1.8: The Scalpel.

This one is tough. On one hand this is the most stable and technically proficient lens I own and probably will ever own (at least the equal to the Canon 135 f2, my previous favourite). Like the Canon, though, it often shows less character than other lenses, being "just" perfect. Almost too self-conscious to allow less than faultless performance, it can be unforgiving and its images tend to stand apart from those of other lenses (the focal length exaggerates this also). Images taken with it are not hard to pick in editing as they have a distinct "spotless" look, sometimes making other lenses look a bit shabby. Like the friend that turns up to any event a bit over dressed, the 75mm makes the user very aware of what it does best and it is sometimes a relief to use a "lesser" lens of a gentler and more forgiving nature. I must admit, this one makes me a bit of a pixel peeper. It's just fun to see things so well defined and editing tends to be careful coercion rather than a heavy push.

 "Coffee Shop Ride" 75 f1.8

"Coffee Shop Ride" 75 f1.8

Olympus 75-300: The Over Achiever.

This is one of the best purchases I have made in the Olympus range. So good in fact, that it has been bought, stupidly sold and bought again (doh!). Lens reviews can be tough and this lens has had plenty of mixed ones, but here are the facts: it's sharp, pleasant to use, powerful and great value (I used to carry around a much bigger, more expensive, non stabilised, non zoom Canon to get 600mm equiv.). For a slow lens, the Bokeh is very nice and it's very close in actual field sharpness to the 40-150 F2.8 in the focal lengths they share, except it's twice as long and small enough to be added to a bag with little thought. It just continues to surprise. After using the Canon 400 f5.6L with a Full Frame 16mp 1Dsmk2 for a long time, I really do not see a difference when using the Olympus EM5 and relatively cheap zoom combination. That's a big indication of how far we have come with lens and sensor tech.

 Perth Zoo 75-300 (300)

Perth Zoo 75-300 (300)

Olympus 45mm f1.8: The Little Gem. 

One of the lenses many say should be your first serious lens purchase (or second after the 20mm Panasonic) for the micro four thirds system. Often found cheap in kits as the third lens, the 45mm f1.8 is a cracker. It's so small that it literally sits in the 75's shadow, but its image quality is striking. It is smooth and "gentle" sharp, that is, it's really sharp without being too blatant and has character. It never calls attention to itself, rather it travels quietly and confidently. It is almost too small to take seriously, but do...really do. 

 "Morning Moves" Tokyo 45 f1.8

"Morning Moves" Tokyo 45 f1.8

Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro: The Easy One.

It's no surprise when a macro lens is a good stable and competent performer. They have no excuse as their role is simple: to be of scientific grade sharpness at all focussing distances, relatively fault free and accurate. This often comes at the expense of other, more glamorous or practical features such as maximum aperture, focus speed, size and weight, but macro shooters accept this as par for the course. The 60mm Olympus is one of three lenses I have parted with (75-300 and 17mm) only to come back to as either the best option or in place of the holes created by a "purge" of other brands owned (Fuji, Sony and Canon). I always felt a bit naked without a macro in my bag. Canon's 100mm was a stalwart, but big, heavy and too close to another favourite the 85 f1.8 to be harmonious in the same bag. The Fuji 60mm made a beautiful portrait lens, but focus was poor and the macro feature was really only just. The Olympus is a revelation at less than 200g and so skinny it fits in the sort of spaces only a filter or cleaning cloth usually fit. It doubles as a nice portrait lens when nothing else is at hand with lovely Bokeh and gentle contrast. The Sigma 60mm is known as a bargain in this focal length, but is classed as a close focus portrait lens and not a true macro (a bit like the Fuji).

 Back Garden Sample 60mm F2.8 macro

Back Garden Sample 60mm F2.8 macro

This completes my simple summary of the long lenses I currently use, but others worthy of mention that I have owned (sometimes more than once) are:

The Canon 70-200 F4L. If I were to buy Canon again (should I say each time...), this would be the one. Well respected and forever giving, it is the lightest and most optically reliable "cheap" Canon telephoto. On a crop frame camera, it multiplies out to a handy 100-300 equivalent which would be my preference, but either way it is a no brainer. To be honest, I always found it hard to pick the difference in images from this and the 135 F2L. In a non scientific test, hand holding it at 200mm 1/30 sec and comparing the results with the "IS" version of the same lens, I could achieve 3 out of 5 sharp images with this and only 4 out of 5 with the stabilised lens. The "IS" is almost twice as dear, a little heavier and (maybe) has more breakable moving parts (they rattle when shaken, the other one does not), but it is weather sealed.

The Fuji 60mm macro. Apart from poor AF on an ageing XE1 this lens was really spectacular, reasonably sized and priced.

 Classic Car Show Fuji 60mm f2.4

Classic Car Show Fuji 60mm f2.4

Canon 100 macro, 85 F1.8, 400 f5.6L and 200 f2.8L all found a place in my bag until the "only primes" mentality with big and heavy Canon lenses stealing the fun away. My whole Olympus kit (3 bodies and 7 lenses) weighs about the same as any two primes and a body from Canon.

Hope this helps.

Next up we look at the shorter lenses.