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Olympus Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 Lens Review
by Howard Creech -  2/22/2008

When Olympus recently introduced their updated flagship E-3 DSLR, they also offered up three new zooms designed especially for that camera. The most interesting and certainly the most versatile of these lenses is the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom.

Olympus Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0

Olympus is clearly hungry for a larger slice of the lucrative DSLR market, as evidenced by the impressive capabilities and generous feature set of the new E-3, and providing a high-performance kit lens like the 12-60 for this pro-level DSLR is a very gutsy move. Will it pay off for Olympus? Only time (and sales) will tell.

 


ERGONOMICS

Lens Mount

The Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom is offered only in the four-thirds system lens mount. With a crop factor of 2x on four-thirds system cameras, the lens has a 35mm equivalent range of 24-120mm.

Design, Build Quality, and Construction

The Zuiko 12-60mm zoom is a fast variable aperture internal focus (IF) zoom, designed to cover the moderate wide-angle to short telephoto segment of the focal length range while consistently delivering dependably professional quality results in a wide variety of lighting situations.

This is a substantial lens, somewhat heavier than expected. Fit and finish are first rate. The broad ridged-surface rubber like zoom ring is perfectly placed close to the camera and the large differently textured rubber like focus ring has a nice, easy-grip tactile feel. Markings (distance scale in both feet and meters) are clear and easy to read, but there is no depth of field scale. I didn't notice any zoom creep when the camera was held with the lens pointing downward.

Zooming from the 12mm setting to the 60mm setting requires about a third of a turn and manual focusing requires about a half a turn from infinity to the closest focusing setting. The lens extends substantially from the wide-angle end of the range to the telephoto end of the range, but the front element does not rotate – meaning polarizing filters and graduated ND filters will maintain their original orientation during zooming and focusing.

Olympus Zuiko Lens Review
The Zuiko 12-60mm's closest focus distance is 9.8 inches/25 centimeters at all focal lengths (view large image)

Construction is a mix of metal alloy and polycarbonate, and the all-glass optics consist of 14 elements in 10 groups with one Super ED element, three ED elements (one of them aspherical), and two aspherical elements.

Handling

As noted, four-thirds format cameras have a 2x crop factor, so this 12-60mm zoom performs like a 24-120mm unit. The wide-angle to short telephoto focal length range make this zoom almost perfect for confined metropolitan venues – wide enough to include lots of real estate (architectural studies, shops and markets, city parks/small green spaces, and narrow congested streets) when there is no room to back off and long enough (at the telephoto end) to allow some stand-off room for close-up images, candid street shots, and tightly framed informal/environmental portraits.

Because of that impressive capability this optic is an almost perfect walk around lens, making it possible for those who shoot primarily in urban environments to get by with just one lens. Wide-angle to short telephoto walk around zooms are also useful for general photography, for shooting grand vistas (out in the country), and capturing dramatically composed landscapes.


PERFORMANCE

Optics

The Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom exhibits some minor barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but no visible pincushion distortion at telephoto end of the range. Flare and internal reflections are very well controlled. Chromatic aberration is also remarkably well controlled; I didn't notice any significant color fringing even in high contrast edge demarcation areas.

Olympus Zuiko Lens Review
There is some very minor barrel distortion visible in this architectural detail shot (view large image)

Olympus Zuiko Lens Review
No chromatic aberration (color fringing) visible in this shot of a leafless sycamore against a bright blue sky (view large image)

Vignetting (dark corners) was negligible to non-existent at all apertures and at all focal lengths. The Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom's seven bladed diaphragm renders nice bokeh, but genuine out-of-focus backgrounds will be seen only in close-ups and at the longer focal length settings because of the greater depth of field of shorter (than 35mm) four-thirds format digital optics.

Auto Focus

The Zuiko 12-60mm zoom is driven by Olympus's new high speed, ultra precise, and whisper-quiet Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) technology. Autofocus is impressively quick and smooth as silk – the lens finds the subject and locks focus in what is essentially real time, even in low light.

According to Olympus, focus on the Zuiko 12-60mm is accurate to within 5/1000ths of a millimeter. With this zoom mounted, Olympus also claims the E-3 has the fastest AF system in the world (Olympus says 170 ms/0.17 seconds), and I have no reason, after using the E-3 and this zoom heavily for a month, to doubt that claim. The E-3 with the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom is faster than any DSLR that I've used to date, and even with low contrast subjects the camera and lens combo shows little tendency to hunt for focus.

Manual Focus

Focusing manually with the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom is a snap. There is no MF/AF switch on the zoom barrel (or camera body) because this lens features full time AF override: just point the camera and turn the MF ring until the subject pops into focus. The manual focusing ring is nicely damped – it's really nice to note a little resistance when turning the MF ring, rather than the loose and unconnected feel of manual focus rings on many currently available AF zooms.

Image Quality

The E-3's default image quality is a tiny bit soft at the standard/normal sharpening setting, but this is more the camera than the zoom and it is easily corrected by boosting the camera's sharpness or via post-exposure processing. For DSLR shootersm quality glass equates to sharp, hue accurate images, since image quality is often more dependent on the quality of the glass in front of the sensor than it is on the camera's sensor, processor, and exposure system.

At the maximum aperture some minor corner softness is visible, but corners at smaller apertures are almost as sharp as the center. The Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom produces colors that are bright and dependably hue accurate. Resolution is reliably sharp, edge demarcation is distinct, and tonal gradations are crisp. Contrast is nicely balanced with impressive shadow/highlight detail rendition. The Zuiko f2.8-f4.0/12mm-60mm SWD ESP zoom's optimum aperture appears to be f/5.6.

Olympus Zuiko Lens Review
This window detail from the Farmington Historic House nicely showcases the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom's image quality – it is sharply focused and hue (color) accurate (view large image)


CONCLUSIONS

A large percentage of all photographs are shot between the equivalent settings of 20mm and 150mm, and the Zuiko ED 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 SWD ESP zoom nicely covers the most important part of that iconic focal length range. Savvy shooters can capture a broad variety of popular subjects (travel, interiors, urban streets, portraits, architectural studies, shops and markets, city parks/green spaces, and landscapes) with one relatively compact high performance zoom.

Lenses, like cameras are only tools and it is important to remember that the creativity of the eye behind the camera is, in the end, far more important than the device in front of that eye. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau captured unforgettable images with equipment that is considered archaic by today's standards. In the hands of a good photographer, the new Zuiko's focusing speed, all-around sharpness, superior color rendition, anti-reflection/anti-glare coatings, and few optical faults provide at least the same level of truly awesome creative potential afforded by the equipment of these past masters.