Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0 (Part 1)

6/18/2012 9:30:20 AM

Olympus has introduced a high-grade, high-speed wide-angle prime for its PEN cameras. We put it to the test.

 ‘The 12mm f2.0 is an attractive lens for its low-light credentials and drawing styles.’

Arguably the most glamorous lens in Olympus’s current micro four-thirds lineup, this high-speed wide-angle lens is made to professional standards at the company’s Tatsuno plant in Japan. The facility is highly regarded for its lens grinding and production of aspherical lenses. At a whisker over $1,050, this 24mm f2.0 equivalent costs $750 more than the tiny 35mm f.28 equivalent pancake lens, so it had better be good.

Description: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0

This is the first from Olympus to feature a high-grade natural-finish aluminium barrel and focus ring. For all that, it weighs in at a reasonable 130g. It’s also a lot smaller than some of the marketing material would suggest and doesn’t look out of place on the smallest PEN, the E-PM1. In any case, it balances and handles well on that and other Olympus bodies, though it does look a little out place on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2.

As well as the metal outer it’s also the first of the range with what Olympus call a ‘snapshot focus’ mechanism, a rather fancy way of saying a manual focus ring with AF declutching. Set in its normal position the well-machined knurled focus ring provides both AF and MF using electronic adjustment, but the ring can be pulled back to reveal a distance scale while disengaging auto-focus regardless of what’s set on-camera.

Description: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0

With the addition of an engraved depth-of-field scale, the theory is that this lens allows depth-of-field scale focusing but in practice it’s not as reliable as traditional helicoids. First, when viewed using the viewfinder magnification option there are very definite steps from the focus motor and second, the lens focuses past infinity due to the inclusion of ED glass in the construction. Ironically, the standard electronic AF/MF option appears to be step-less, allowing greater manual focus accuracy, but without the convenience of scale focusing.

Auto-focus is near silent and very fast with quick and accurate acquisition though, with the contrast detection AF systems used by the Lumix and PEN, that’s helped by the large maximum aperture cameras. Focusing is internal and the front doesn’t extend or rotate so this lens is ideal for use with either circular filters or filter-holders, and is mechanically superior to both the 17mm f2.8 and Panasonic 20mm f.17 pancake lenses in that respect.

Bu what about the image quality? It is after all a highly-complex lens design with ED and High Refractive glass, not to mention the two aspherical lenses, one being dual-sided. The resolution is excellent in the centre even at maximum aperture and it hardly varies through the range to f8. But, on the sample we had for testing, the edges don’t come close to resolving the same level of fine detail, not even when the lens is stopped down to f11. At this setting as you would expect, definition has dropped across the field as diffraction set in, shown in the chart as a drop in resolution. This edge performance is disappointing but the lens still has good perceived sharpness at normal viewing distances and an attractive rendering style.

Description: Taken wih Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0

Taken wih Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f2.0

The 12mm isn’t free of other aberration, it also exhibits some lateral chromatic aberration though it isn’t bad and can be removed easily enough is post-production. If matched with a Panasonic G-series body, slight lateral chromatic aberration like this can be reduced in-camera, though that’s not a feature of current PENs. Corner shading is reduced in real-time (in the viewfinder) as is distortion on both makes but while the slight shading (a little over one stop at maximum aperture) isn’t a problem, the barrel distortion could be if you’re using a third-party converter like RAW Developer. Popular RAW converters such as Apple’s Aperture or Lightroom / Adobe Camera Raw correct both out-of-camera JPEG as well as RAW files and remove most of it, so it’s largely irrelevant if you use one of these. But given the price and complexity of this lens you might expect better optical correction.

This lens also adopts Olympus’s latest coating technology that’s said to be extremely durable while also reducing reflectance by as much as half that of rival coatings. Certainly contre-jour lighting is handled well, with only some localised veiling glare, or flare. However, if the light source is striking the convex front element at an oblique angle some ghosting can be seen. It’s not overly troublesome but the lens isn’t bundled with a hood.

While there’s not exactly a huge choice at this focal length, the 12mm f2.0 is an attractive lens for its low light credentials and drawing style. Its weak edge performance will be somewhat disappointing for landscape photographers but this lens has been designed with street photography and photojournalism in mind.

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