Plugged In: Keep cost in sharp focus when lens shopping

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Without further ado, or any ado at all, it’s on to telephoto zoom lenses for Micro Four-Thirds cameras.

The new gold standard for M 4/3 telephoto zoom lenses is Olympus’ recently introduced, prograde 40- to 150-mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom. This is a rather large lens by M 4/3 standards, but still smaller and lighter than comparable lenses for larger APS-C and full-frame digital SLR cameras. Construction quality is very robust and sharpness at all magnifications is excellent or better when this lens is stopped down to f/5.6 or so. It’s the lens to buy if you insist on best possible image quality regardless of cost and weight. Its $1,500 price tag is too expensive for my taste, although I admit I was tempted.

Olympus makes several consumer-grade models with similar magnification ranges. Although its 40- to 150-mm f/4-f/5.6 M. Zuiko R model is attractively priced and often tests well on websites, I’ve had difficulty finding an acceptably sharp recent copy of this lens. If carefully preprocessed with DXO Optics, this lens is decently usable at normal, 16-megapixel resolution, but not at higher resolutions. Lightroom’s normal processing seems insufficient to bring out what sharpness there is, so preprocess with Lightroom if you use this lens.

  •  I continue to get surprisingly good results with Olympus’ older, 40- to 150-mm f/4 to f/5.6 ED version, which requires an -MMF-2 adapter for fully automatic use with modern M 4/3 cameras. Preprocessed with DXO Optics Elite, it’s even usable with 64-megapixel, high-resolution modes and seems sharp at its highest telephoto magnifications, which is how a telephoto zoom should be. Unfortunately, this lens is no longer available new. It’s possible that I simply have a better-than-average copy, but you won’t find mine on the used market anytime soon.
  •  Panasonic makes three consumer-grade telephoto zoom lenses, a 45- to 150-mm, a 45- to 175-mm, and a 45- to 200-mm, all with f/4-to-f/5.6 maximum apertures. None of them are even as sharp as the newer Olympus 40- to 150-mm R zoom that I found marginal at best. DXO’s test data confirms my personal impression, so I’m comfortable concluding that none of these three are sharp enough to suit my taste.
  •  Panasonic does make two excellent telephoto zooms. The prograde Panasonic 35- to 100-mm f/2.8 sells for nearly $1,500, the same price as Olympus’ farther-reaching, 40- to 150-mm f/2.8 prograde zoom. Although robustly built, the Panasonic is smaller and lighter and includes optical image-stabilization hardware built into the lens. That makes it distinctly more useful for Panasonic owners, whose cameras generally do not include image-stabilization hardware built directly into the camera body. Although I have not used this lens personally, some nationally known professional photographers speak highly of it. I did check DXO’s tests and sharpness is not rated particularly high, at least not what I would expect from a $1,500 lens.
  •  For about one-fourth the price, Panasonic’s tiny, 35- to 100-mm f/4-to-f/5.6 seems to be excellent. It’s small, relatively inexpensive and surprisingly good at all magnifications. After hesitating for some months because of tepid reviews, I bought a copy on sale from BHphotovideo. This is a nicely built lens, although not as robustly constructed as the larger prograde Olympus and Panasonic lenses discussed above. Preprocessing with DXO Optics sharpened the image nicely. It does well enough to be quite usable with the E-M5 Mark II’s, 64-megapixel, high-resolution mode, although the center of the image is noticeably sharper than the edges, something that’s common with telephoto zoom lenses. When used with the standard, 16-megapixel resolution common to most M 4/3 cameras and preprocessed with DXO, the results are highly acceptable, even at the edges.
  • Olympus’ newer 75- to 300-mm II supertelephoto lens is actually quite good at low to medium magnifications, with gradually decreasing sharpness through its 300-mm maximum magnification. This lens was more than sharp enough through about 175 mm when used with the E-M5 Mark II’s 64-megapixel, high-resolution mode and preprocessed with DXO. It seems slightly sharper than the Panasonic 35- to 100-mm f/4 lens, but both lenses are more than adequate and neither will embarrass you. By 200 mm, the Olympus’ sharpness starts to drop off, a decrease that’s more noticeable at 250 mm and 300 mm. Although not weather-sealed, this is a very good, inexpensive and light supertelephoto lens that’s suitable for wildlife photography. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses one locally for that purpose.
  • Panasonic makes an equivalent supertelephoto zoom lens, a 100- to 300-mm model that includes optical image stabilization. I have never been able to get a single decently sharp photo with that lens. In my experience, the Olympus 75- to 300-mm II lens is definitely better.
  •  Zoom lenses with a very wide magnification range are popular among tourists and others who prefer to travel as unencumbered as possible, but I’ve avoided such lenses because they usually require too many optical compromises to be truly sharp. Several recent M 4/3 travel zooms, though, usually in the 14- to 150-mm range, seem to do better. Olympus’ newer Mark II model of its 14- to 150-mm II f/4-to-f/5.6 zoom has been positively reviewed, although I have not yet had an opportunity to try this lens myself. It sounds promising, but so do most newly introduced products until put to the test. Tamron’s similar, 14- to 150-mm Di III VC model has also received very good recent reviews, but, again, I have not yet had the opportunity to personally use this lens. Bringing up the rear is Panasonic’s older, 14- to 140-mm travel zoom, whose DXO tests are uninspiring, particularly toward the edges in the higher-magnification ranges.
  • Although there are many Micro Four-Thirds telephoto zoom choices, only a few seem attractive to me. Olympus’ new prograde 40- to 150-mm f/2.8 zoom and Panasonic’s 35- to 100-mm f/2.8 lenses are clearly the most robustly constructed lenses and the best optically, but both are too expensive to be within my comfort zone. Among affordable, currently available telephoto zooms, Panasonic’s 35- to 100-mm f/4-f/5.6 compact zoom and Olympus’ 75- to 300-mm II supertelephoto zoom seem like the best choice for most of us. Using compact, M 4/3 cameras with small, single-magnification prime lenses is a particularly beguiling combination, generally sharper and more compact than most zoom lenses. We’ll close out this series of articles next week by examining the wide variety of excellent prime lenses and some ultrawide-angle zoom lenses made specifically for M 4/3 camera systems.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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