Adding Lenses to Your E-System Setup

This is one of the most common questions I've been asked: "What lenses do I need to add to my Olympus SLR system?". More often than not it is asked by people who just bought a new camera and would like to extend its capabilities. I've touched the subject in my recent column, but some Readers asked for more.

Every photographer has different needs (real or perceived) and preferences, therefore the right answer depends on who is asking. Still, here is some general. common-sense advice, as biased and personal as it may be.

Step One: the kit lens(es)

More often than not, Olympus sells SLRs together with one or two "kit" lenses bundled in. In case of the budget models (E-xx0 series), this will be the lightweight and compact 14-42 mm F/3.5-5.6 ZD; sometimes also the 14-150 mm F/4.0-5.6 ZD ED. These two are perhaps the most under-appreciated lenses I've ever met.

First of all, the 14-42 mm ZD covers some of the most useful focal length range (on a 35-mm camera this image angle corresponds to 28-84 mm, the so-called Equivalent Focal Length or EFL). In the old, film days one of the first things an aspiring photographer used to learn were the basic rules of perspective, and everybody knew that the focal length of 45-55 mm was the right one to provide a "normal" perspective, most pleasing for majority of straight shots. And yes, the 14-42 mm ZD provides that "normal perspective" with a generous margin on both ends, ranging from 28 mm to 84 mm EFL. The former is perhaps the most useful wide angle; the latter being suitable for portrait photography. This makes the 14-42 mm range suitable for 80% or more of general photography; anything outside that is occasionally useful, but more often misused than used.

Then, the 40-150 mm ZD, the second "kit" lens.At the long end it offers a 300 mm EFL, more than most photographers can really handle. If a friend using an 18× zoom EVF camera with EFL up to 500 mm shows surprise that your lens goes "only": to 300 mm, ask him/her to show you some pictures shot at the longest focal length, and the bragging will stop right away. Been there, done that.

These two lenses are amazingly small and lightweight, also being quite inexpensive (in the States, each increases the kit price by only $100 or so). More importantly, this has been achieved without significant sacrifices in optical quality, which is surprisingly decent — clearly better than what other manufacturers offer in the same price range. When I was checking these "new" kit lenses against their older counterparts, expecting them to perform not quite as well, the result was quite unexpected: optically they are not worse at all, perhaps a tad better (especially the shorter one).

This is why my usual advice to people who are not sure what lenses they need is: start from the kit lenses, wait with anything else for a few months, maybe a year, until you really know what you need. And then, proceed with caution.

Step Two: reinforce the center

For many photographers, the first lens upgrade they think of is to extend the focal length range at their disposal. There is nothing wrong with that, but only if you really, really know what you are doing and why. It is too easy to end up with an extreme wide-angle or a super-telephoto which you will be using twice a year, if at all. Remember that most of the pictures you will be taking are likely to use the 14-50 mm focal length (28-100 mm EFL). Perhaps that's where you should start improving your lens gear from?

Olympus has two more offerings in this most useful range: the 14-54 mm F/2.8-4.5 ZD and 12-60 mm F/2.8-4.0 ZD ED SWD. The former is the original lens sold with the E-1 since 2003, highly (and deservedly) praised by many users. In addition to being about one F-stop brighter than the 14-42, it is also optically better, even if the difference may not be clear in many situations, especially when stepped down. Last but not least, the lens is still quite inexpensive ($400 in the U.S.).

In 2008 this lens was replaced with a model designated as ZD II. The optical design and specifications remain unchanged; the ZD II has curved aperture blades (more pleasing out-of-focus rendering) and its AF system allow it to be focused in the Imager AF Live View mode. For most uses these are secondary differences, so the remaining stock of the "old" version, priced down, sold fast. The updated lens is about $200 more expensive than the original.

The second of the two (12-60 mm) costs wise as much but it may be (and I'm not alone in this) the best "standard" zoom on the market, regardless of brand and price. In addition to wider aperture (as compared to the "kit" zoom), it provides a visibly wider angle at the short end (yes, 2 mm do make a difference!), and optically it is just superb. I've used this one for just five weeks on the E-3 and E-510, and this was enough to fall in love with it. The new, mechanically-coupled manual focus system is just an extra bonus (which I like very much, but do not consider a necessity). If you are thinking of living with just one lens (even for a while), this one will certainly not disappoint you.

Shortly after having written this article I bought the 12-60 mm; since then, I've been using it heavily on the E-30 and E-620. My enthusiastic endorsement still stands; about 80% of my pictures are shot with this lens (unless I want to travel really light and use the 14-42 mm on the E-620).

I will not go into the third "standard" zoom option, the 14-35 mm F/2.0, as at the moment it is not yet available, at least not on the States. It is expected to sell here at about $2200,mand there are rumors that this price may be well-justified; however, I yet have to see by myself.

The lens became available shortly after this was written, and some people are thrilled with the results it provides. Still, the price and weight (915 g) will deter most camera users, except for some perfectionists, most probably professionals, willing to pay the price.

Step Three: satisfy your macro urge

While the 14-54 mm and 12-60 mm ZD lenses have quite nice close-up capabilities (closest field of view 65 and 60 mm wide, respectively), if you need a real macro, you may be tempted with other options. Olympus provides two such lenses of fixed focal length: the 50 mm F/2 Macro ZD and the 35 mm F/3.5 Macro ZD.

The latter is very competitively priced (about $200) and delivers solid results, especially stepped down to F/5.6 or so. (Disclaimer: this statement is based on image samples by others, as I haven't used this lens by myself.) It focuses down to a magnification of 1:1 (this is 2:1 in terms of 35-mm film), with the field of view about 18 mm wide. If you are interested in macro shots, especially on a budget, this is a safe bet.

The 50 mm Macro ZD is not just a macro lens: with the maximum aperture of F/2 and EFL of 100 mm it may be also used, with excellent results, for portraits. Optically it is top-notch, even fully open, and at $400 (in the U.S.) I consider it a bargain. The maximum magnification it provides is just 1:2 (field of view about 35 mm across), but the working distance is then a comfortable 10 cm from the front rim, a definite plus. In my book, this is one of the two most desirable Four Thirds lenses, right next to the 12-60 mm ZD.

A dedicated extension ring allows this little gem to get as close as 1:1, or 17 mm across the FOV, but I have used it just a few times, not having much need for it.

Step Four: extend your focal range

Now it may be time to get into shorter or longer focal lengths, depending on your needs.

On the short end, the noteworthy option is the 7-14 mm F/4.0 ZD. AT $1500 or so it is quite expensive, but not in the exotic range; an option deserving serious consideration.

First of all, short of full-frame (i.e., 24×36 mm) cameras, this is the widest zoom available — at any price, from any manufacturer. I know two photographers (both long-time Nikon users) who bought Olympus bodies just to be able to use this lens. Secondly, its optical performance (resolution, distortion) is exemplary, in the same league as that of the 12-60 mm ZD. Having used this lens for a few weeks last year I was most impressed with it; only the price kept me from getting one for myself. If you need a rectilinear extreme wide angle (and if you can afford it), look no further, unless weight is a concern.

(A slight disadvantage of this lens is that its protruding front element excludes the option of using filters, take it or leave it. It is also quite big and heavy at 980 g.)

In a welcome development, Olympus just recently announced a wide-angle option for the rest of us: the rectilinear 9-18 mm F/4-5.6 ZD. True, 9 mm is not as wide as 7 mm, and the optical quality remains to be seen, but the price is less than half of that of the 7-17 mm ZD. Add to that the weight of just 280 g, and the 9-18 mm ZD becomes a viable alternative for many users, including myself. (And, yes, it takes filters!) In any case, it is nice to have the ultra-wides available in both price tiers.

While the 9-18 mm has been actually released after this was written, I still have to try it out. It is not very often that I must get below 12 mm, and when I predict such need, I borrow a 7-14 mm ZD from a friend; this makes me delay the inevitable purchase of the 9-18 mm. People who are using this lens are reporting, as I would expect, a respectable performance

Last but not least, the long end. Really, I think this segment gets more attention than it deserves, especially from beginners, easily impressed by numbers ("my lens is longer than yours!"), or believing that a longer lens will make finding the right angle for the picture easier. Still, there are legitimate uses for these lenses, and in proper hands they can deliver pleasing results, so here is my take.

The first Four Thirds telephoto zoom, released almost simultaneously with the E-1, was the 50-200 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD. I have used it only occasionally, but I may say I like it (in spite of the 1.2 kg weight), and the results are first class. Olympus recently replaced it with a new version (carrying the ED SWD moniker), optically identical, but offering a new AF motor. At $1200 it is not cheap, but the wide aperture and optical quality seem to justify the price. Some users will, however, complain that the extra 50 mm at the long end over the 40-150 mm "kit" lens is just not worth the price. On this I disagree: a 400 mm EFL at F/3.5 is a very attractive option. Still, you may consider this lens as an upgrade to the 40-150 mm ZD rather than a significant extension of the focal range.

so, what if you need a longer telephoto, though? There are two offerings here in the exotic price category: the 90-250 mm F/2.8 ZD and 300 mm F/2.8 ZD. Each tips the scales, not surprisingly, at more than 3 kg, priced well above $5000; definitely not something for most of us.

A reasonable option may be to use the 50-200 mm ZD (either version) with the TC-14 teleconverter. This combination becomes effectively a 70-280 mm F/4.0-5.0, and I've never used it, the optical quality is better than I've expected, judging from the samples sent is by some users. (The TC-20, while doubling the focal length, will bring the aperture down to F/5.6-7.0.) Still, this arrangement will set you back by about $1500, and the combined weight of 1.4 kg may seem too much to many of us. Oh, well.

Those looking for a less costly and more lightweight solution will be interested in another recent option from Olympus: the 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 ZD ED. This lens, based on a SIgma design (and possibly made by Sigma to Olympus specifications) is compact and lightweight (for these specs, that is), and also very affordable: below $400 in the U.S. I bought it after having seen some pictures shot with it by a fellow photographer, and the lens turned out being much better than I ever expected, especially (but not only) when stepped down to F/8. At 0.6 kg it is a great walk-around birding companion.

After another year with this lens I can only make my praise of it stronger. It really is a good lens, regardless of price tag; I'm getting consistently pleasing results from it, and I would recommend it even at double the price.

Have a look at two promotional pictures by Olympus; the first included in the original Quest article (2008), and the second from the Web version (2008); both show some of Olympus lenses available at the time, in addition to the bodies current at that time, and both "R" flashes.

2008: The cameras are E-510, E-410, and E-3, while the lenses, left to right, are:

  • 50 mm F/2.0 Macro ZD
  • 8 mm F/3.5 ZD Fisheye
  • 150 mm F/2.0 ZD ED
  • 11-22 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD
  • 90-250 mm F/2.8 ZD ED
  • 50-200 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD ED SWD
  • 35-100 mm F/2.0 ZD ED
  • 7-14 mm F/4.0 ZD
  • 14-42 mm F/3.5-5.6 ZD ED (E-410, E-510)
  • 12-60 mm F/2.8-4.0 ZD ED SWD (E-3)

2009: The cameras are E-620, E-520, E-420, E-3, and E-30, and the lens list shows just a few changes:

  • 50 mm F/2.0 Macro ZD
  • 8 mm F/3.5 ZD Fisheye
  • 150 mm F/2.0 ZD ED
  • 12-60 mm F/2.8-4.0 ZD ED SWD (E-3)
  • 90-250 mm F/2.8 ZD ED
  • 50-200 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD ED SWD
  • 35-100 mm F/2.0 ZD ED
  • 7-14 mm F/4.0 ZD
  • 14-54 mm F/2.8-3.5 ZD ED SWD (also E-30)
  • 14-42 mm F/3.5-5.6 ZD ED (E-620, E-420)
  • 70-300 mm F/4.0-5.6 ZD ED (E-520)
  • 14-35 mm F/2.0 ZD ED SWD (E-3)

Preempting your question: the U.S. prices of lenses shown in the second picture, with duplicates removed, add up to about $19,000. Obviously, you have to make some tough choices.

Third-party alternatives

I am not really familiar with most of the Four Thirds lenses by other manufacturers: Sigma and Leica/Panasonic, so I haven't covered those here. The 14-150 mm F/3.5-5.6 Vario-Elmarit (Leica) seems to be a practical all-in-one (or almost) lens, but I have yet to see meaningful image samples from it — the lens is just about to become available in the States.

Eighteen moths later: I still have no opinion, pro or con, about this lens. Obviously, a 10× zoom cannot come close in image quality to a 4× one at third the price, but are the results "good enough" for casual travel applications? Don't ask me.

I haven't used the Sigma 105 mm or 150 mm F/2.8 DG Macro, the 30 mm F/1.4, or the Leica Summilux 25 mm F/1.4), so I cannot voice my opinions on these. On the other hand, for the last few weeks I've been using the Bigma: 50-500 mm F/4.0-6.3 DG by Sigma, and I have mixed feelings about it. While the 1000 mm EFL is most impressive (try that on your 35-mm SLR!), the lens is, obviously, quite heavy at 1.8 kg, and barely handholdable; frankly, I'm feeling more confident with the 70-300 mm ZD. Still, some of my birding sessions with the Bigma brought quite enjoyable results (some others were quite disappointing; most probably my fault).

You have to keep in mind that Sigma lenses with the "DG" designation (as opposed to "DC") were really designed to provide a full 24×36 mm (film frame) coverage. In many, possibly most, such designs, the resolution near the center (within the 13—17 mm Four Thirds frame) may be compromised a bit in order to provide better sharpness away from the axis — a common solution. More, a "full-frame" kens needs only half of the absolute resolution of a Four Thirds one to provide the same quality of the final result (printed image); what is "good enough" for the former may be not good enough for the latter. (The same can be said about, say, Canon legacy lenses working "just fine" on their APS-C cameras.) This is why I prefer lenses specifically designed for the digital format. End of digression.

Anyway, while it is nice to see other brands joining the Four Thirds bandwagon, 60% of lenses available for this standard are made by Olympus, who for the predictable future will, understandably, remain the leading force behind Four Thirds lens development. That's why I am glad that this year Olympus succeeded in rounding up their budget lens line with the 9-18 mm and 70-300 mm ZD. (The top-tier line became quite complete with the release of the 7-14 mm ZD in 2005.) Interestingly, some photographers switch to Olympus SLRs just because of that" a wider choice of well-performing (and often attractively priced) glass. How ironic, after all those years of complaining about "limited ;lens availability"!

What next? Better user manuals? Just kidding...

This article was originally published in the Olympus Circle Quest newsletter of June, 2008; it is being re-posted at my Web site in December of 2009. Any additions, updates, and annotations are marked in the text with an indented style.

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Posted 2009/12/13 Copyright © 2009 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak