Winding down the year. Kirk's pick for his favorite lens(es) of the year.

There are two lenses that have been stand out lenses for me this year. Since I am bringing these two lenses to your attention I should point out that my embrace of them, in this calendar year, does not mean they were both introduced this year. One is relatively new while the other has been around, and earning great praise, for several years now.

No reason to belabor this; the two lenses are the Olympus Pro series 12-100mm f4.0 and the Olympus Pro series 40-150mm f2.8. Both are big, heavy (for their format) zoom lenses and both share a number of attributes. The primary benefit of both is sheer image quality. It's visible (at least to me...) when compared to every day lenses in either the Panasonic or Olympus systems. Both of these gems are sharp, detailed and nuanced. They represent a high water mark, as far as image quality is concerned, for micro four thirds system zoom lenses. 

Both lenses share a mechanical clutch system that supplies real manual focusing instead of the usual, fly-by-wire system. This means that one can pre-focus with assurance, rack focus in video with repeatable results and even shift from focus point to focus point by hand with repeatable results. That's a wonderful thing and a major reason that I also have the 45mm and 17mm counterparts stuck in my head (and in my shopping cart). 

I have shot at least 10,000 images with each lens and I've found the results to be limited only by my own skill set. When I apply appropriate technique; taking time to focus with diligence and to put the camera and lens systems on tripods, I get results that I would not have imagined. This should not really come as a surprise to me as a careful reading of posts from long ago would indicate that Olympus has been making masterful lenses for smaller sensor cameras for a long time. Back in the era when Olympus made Four Thirds cameras (they had mirrors and a different lens mount than their current cameras) they made a Pro series of lenses that included stuff like a 150mm f2.0, a 35-100mm f2.0 and a 14-35mm f2.0 that were (and still are) all spectacular. Sadly, the sensors of the day were not up to showing off the sheer potential of those lenses. If anything, the current lenses are even better.

I'll start with the first Pro Olympus lens I bought this year. It was the 12-100mm f4.0. I bought it hoping to cover the range of useful optics for my work with one solution. I worried that such a wide ranging zoom might not be up to the task of making technically good images across its vast focal range but my worries were unfounded. I use this lens when doing hand held video with the Panasonic GH5, I use it when shooting product and people against white (because of its range AND it's resistance to obvious flare and veiling flare. I use it for event work combined with on camera flash; and I even use it for general street shooting. In most capacities I use it at its widest (f4.0) aperture because it's proven itself to be sharp even when used wide open and, at its widest f-stop it's the equivalent depth of field that one would get on a full frame 24-200mm lens at f8.0 for each angle of view. Perhaps not the best tool for dropping backgrounds quickly out of focus but certainly great for making sure everything that needs to be sharp in a frame stays within the system's depth of field.

When I shoot stuff that needs to be perfect (or as perfect as any photo can be) I stop down to f5.6 or 6.3 or 7.1 to achieve the absolute best of which the lens is capable. It's a dandy process and has delivered results in all kinds of conditions.

Speaking of conditions, both of the zooms I'm discussing are water/weather resistant. While I don't spend a lot of time shooting in the rain I do end up far from the car, shooting location stuff for clients, and sometimes get caught without a rain cover handy. I've been caught out in the rain with this lens (attached to a GH5) twice now and have found no ill effects from the exposure. 

From lens cap to lens hood and all the way down to the other end of the lens barrel I can testify that this is a remarkably able and handy lens and isn't really big or heavy at all when compared to lenses made for larger formats.

The second lens is the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 Pro. It's a lens about which I have nothing at all bad to say. It's sharp at every distance and every focal length at which I've employed it. But it goes beyond sharp into intricately detailed. When I put the lens on a tripod (with its integrated tripod mount) and take portraits using a large soft box and electronic flash, I get a level of detail that rivals that of any camera in and around its resolution (in the range of 18-24 megapixels). While neither lens is cheap both are well built and solid. 

I've used the 40-150mm at its wider end (40-60mm) for a number of portraits and have used the longer end (100-150mm) for much documentation of live theater productions and in each situation I've have gotten better files than I expected. The lens is satisfyingly sharp wide open. Becomes close to perfect by f5.6 and rewards me with better files than I imagine my talent should supply. 

If I could have only one lens to shoot with for all of my assignments it would be the 12-100mm for its wide range and high degree of performance. If I were unconstrained by commerce and wanted only one lens with which to do my own art it might be the 40-150mm. I say might because I also have a long love for the "normal" focal length; the 50mm for full frame or the 25mm for micro four thirds and I have not yet worked with the 25mm f1.2 Pro lens from Olympus.

Had I gone in a different direction I might have chosen to pair a different lens with the 40-150mm. I might have selected the 12-40mm Olympus Pro but it would be hard to give up the range and proven performance of the 12-100mm for the potential benefit of one additional stop of speed and the need to always carry two different lenses instead of being able to pack down to just one camera body and lens and still feel secure in knowing I have most working situations covered. 

Everyone comes to this craft with different need parameters. Many times these parameters are based on one's shooting history. The need for flexibility is ingrained in commercial shooters of a certain level, hence zooms feel like the right answer. 

If I were doing photography specifically for myself and no one else I'd love to take the bold move of packing just two lenses and making due with the 17mm f1.2 Pro and the 45mm f1.2 Pro lenses. Along with two identical bodies, those two would make a wonderful package for an artist. 

I know myself really well though. I would quickly succumb to the siren's song of the 25mm f1.2 Pro as well. Something about that focal length just makes perfect visual sense... But if I was shooting just for me I might want to pair all these optics with the Olympus OMD EM1.2. Logic insists that they are "optimized" for their own flagship camera. That being said, the GH5 is the perfect compromise for someone like me; trying to straddle two different imaging industries....

Camera and lens selection is almost always a moving target. I am thankful I've found two lenses that alleviate so much of my indecision and mental turmoil...

By the way, neither of these two images are from either of the lenses mentioned here. They are both from another lens that's one of my favorites; the 42.5mm f1.7 Panasonic lens. Amazing for its size and price. I often, irrationally, think of picking up an extra one, just because....


Unknown said...

I have been using the Olympus 12-60mm f2.8-4 with a EM-1 for several years & really liked the focal length range & the lens performance. Unfortunately the lens has started to have some problems so I have ordered the 12-100 with high hopes. I also have the 40-150mm f2.8 & really like the lens but I find it to be a little to big & too long a focal length for my shooting. I am seriously considering selling that for the Olympus 75mm f1.8 for portraits.

ODL Designs said...

Hey Kirk,
Great write up on two well respected lenses. I can't speak highly enough of the 40-150, a real gen of a lens which I have now used for product, portrait and general photography with my kids.

As a quick note, I believe they are still focus by wire but olympus worked out how to have hard stops on the ends and a focus scale. So while not fully manual, they behave like manual focus lenses.

On your comment about pairing lenses with respective bodies. I am not sure if you have seen Hurlbut's very simple camera tests for m43rds where he tested the f0.95 trio (17.5, 25, 42.5), the Panasonic trio (15, 25, 42.5) and Olympus trip (17, 25, 45). He was completely unimpressed by the olympus lenses saying they left you feeling with a plastic feeling. I have always respected cinematographers opinions on lenses "drawing" an image as I feel they have far more respect for what the glass adds to the feel of a shot. I often wondered if that had anything to do with it being shot on a Panasonic camera (and the subsequent treatment of lenses and the image pipeline) as I have found them not plastic at all when on my EM5.2 or EM1.2.

Keep well!

Peter said...

I really hope you get the 45mm 1.2 Pro. I would like to see what you do with it and what you think of it. I do no video, and work only for myself, and have been using micro 4/3 since 2008 – the system has come a long way since then. I now have the OMD EM1.2, the 12-40 2.8 Pro, and the 40-150 2.8 Pro. A year back I got the 25mm 1.2 Pro and just a few days back I added the 45mm 1.2 Pro. The zooms are as good as you say, but the primes are even better. I own a good selection of old and recent Leica glass, and these Olympus lenses leave nothing on the table – and they have AF and cost very little as well! (What do you say? "sarcasm alert") As I prefer primes, and my favourite focal lengths (in 35mm format) are 35mm and 90mm, I am certain I will add the Olympus 17mm 1.2 when it arrives. At this point I may have to stop buying lenses!
Peter Wright

Dano said...

Great, great article. Like any great writer you made me think you wrote just for me. I am debating to buy the 12 to 100 for a trip to Iceland or the 45 to improve my work effort, I write and photograph restaurant articles. The 45 would be great for head shots. My concern on the 12-100 is the size and weight on either my OMD E5 or my Pen f . On the plus size the 12-100 would replace my current 12 to 40 PRO plus a Pany f2.8 35 to 100. Unfortunately your article has me salivating for both lenses with only enough cash for one. So which is it work or pleasure. Any thoughts?

Dano said...

One other though on the subject, Mien Thein in his review of both the 45 and 12-100 seemed blown away by the 45 but on the 12 to 100 he was more cautious suggesting that maybe a less stellar 12 - 40 PRO with a good prime might be a better use of tiger juice (money). and a lighter package. Comments?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Daniel, If you go back to Ming-ville and read Robin Wong's review of the 12-100mm Ming opines in the comments that the 12-100mm might be just a tad more stellar than the 12-40mm. For someone with no standard zoom the 12-100 is a wonderful choice. That said, if I already owned the 12-40mm (which is also a great lens) I would keep it and explore some of the primes.

Karen Casebeer said...

Kirk...I'm very interested in the Oly 12-100. I'm currently a Canon 80D owner and predominantly use the 24-105L and 100-400L lenses for landscape, wildlife and bird photography. I'm aging, however, and this equipment is getting too heavy for hand-holding, which I prefer to do. I'm going to order the Panasonic G9. I prefer Panasonic bodies because, to me, they feel and work more like Canon than do the Oly bodies that I've tried. Besides the 100-400 Lumix lens, I'm considering the Oly 12-100 just because its focal range would be a perfect complement to the 100-400. I do have some concerns, however, about mixing the Oly lens with a Pany body. What are your thoughts about the wisdom of doing that? Thanks!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Karen,

I like the 12-100mm very much because of the range and the ability to quickly switch to a manual focus mode that has hard stops at infinity and the closest focusing distance. I had no hesitation buying this Olympus lens for my Panasonic bodies. They work perfectly together. While you don't get the benefit of the extra level of image stabilization provided by the combined action of the lens and body working together you do get very good image stabilization from the Panasonic G85 and GH5 bodies. This is how I am using the camera and lenses for all of my work now. The lenses are wonderful and the range/f-stops/and other features on the Oly lenses are a better match for my needs than their Panasonic counterparts. But, like you, I prefer the bodies and menus of the Panasonics. Nice when it all works out like this....

Karen Casebeer said...

Thank you so much, Kirk. It firmed up my decision to get the Oly 12-100, along with the Pany 100-400. It sounds like you turn off the IS on the lens and use the in-body Panasonic IS. Do I have that right?

I'd not found your website before and am enjoying your posts. It was recommended to me by someone on DPreview.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Karen - THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!! The camera and lens will default to using the camera image stabilization BUT, if you turn off the I.S. switch on the lens it also turns off the I.S. in the camera. Leave the switch in the ON position. The stabilizer in the camera will do its work automatically but THE SWITCH ON THE LENS MUST BE ON.

I love the 12-100mm, it's a great lens!

Karen Casebeer said...

Oh, very important!!! Thanks, Kirk.

Anonymous said...

"a tad more stellar ..." : perhaps, but it's way more than a "tad" more costly, and Ming's apparent point is that for the given cost of the longer zoom, one might do better with the shorter & cheaper but still stellar lens and add some prime.