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Olympus Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 Digital ED SWD Lens Review
by David Rasnake -  4/14/2008

Let's get this out of the way right from the start: this lens, the Olympus Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 Digital ED SWD, has an MSRP higher than the cost of a used compact car. Listing at $2,599.99, it's not for the financially faint of heart. Likewise, if small, light, or inconspicuous is your thing, don't even bother – this lens is none of those.

Olympus 14-35mm
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What it is, however, is a long-awaited flagship pro lens that provides a constant f/2.0 aperture across a functionally equivalent range of 28-70mm, making it arguably the most versatile heavy hitter in Olympus's Super High Grade (SHG) lens lineup. With the original product announcement for this lens coming all the way back at PMA 2005, this has quite literally been a review three years in the making. So was it worth the wait? After working and playing with Olympus's latest top glass for several weeks, I can say this much: hold on to your wallets.


ERGONOMICS

Lens Mount

The Olympus Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 is available exclusively in the open-format Four Thirds system mount, making the lens compatible (at the moment, at least) with DSLRs from Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica. With the Four Thirds system's 2x crop factor, the lens has an equivalent range of 35-70mm.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Other than being incongruously small compared to the rest of the lens body, all is as expected, with the actual mount using a metal contact plate (note that this is an all-digital lens, with no screw-drive socket or aperture control arm). Although the lens itself is dust- and water-sealed (like Olympus's professional DSLR bodies), there's no gasket sealing the connection between lens and body. (Correction: there is indeed a gasket at this connection point.)

Design and Build Quality

If it wasn't obvious thus far, the Olympus 14-35mm, with its huge aperture across the range and SWD internal focusing motor, is a sizeable lens in every respect. For the sake of comparisons, the barrel diameter is roughly equivalent to the similarly speced Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens (arguably the "gold standard" of fixed-aperture, wide to mod-tele lenses), though the Olympus is considerably longer, a bit heavier, and simply a little larger than the Canon in every dimension. Blame that extra stop of speed and the need for a wider wide-angle end to get equivalent length in the Four Thirds format.

Olympus 14-35mm
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With the hood mounted, many shooters moving up from consumer-grade zooms – even reasonably fast ones like Olympus's own 12-60mm – will find the alloy-bodied 14-35mm nothing short of enormous. While it's a close match for the Canon 24-70mm in terms of size, it dwarfs many other slightly smaller constant-aperture zooms:

Olympus 14-35mm
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Pentax's somewhat beefy DA* 16-50 f/2.8 SDM looks and feels like a toy next to the nearly two-pound Olympus. For that matter, the lens looks (and feels) a little unbalanced on an E-3 body without a battery grip, especially.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Build quality is nothing short of what's expected in a lens purpose-built for working photographers, with wide rubberized and textured zoom and focusing rings. The lens exudes quality all around and proves to be a good match for top pro glass from Nikon and Canon where attention to detail is concerned.

Both zoom and manual focus travel feel extremely well-damped and balance tightness and ease of rotation nicely. Throw from 14 to 35mm is reasonably short and quick but still offers as much precision as can be expected when moving lens elements this heavy. There's plenty of throw in the focus ring as well, making manual focusing with the 14-35mm's switchless/clutchless AF-to-MF transition easy and enjoyable. My only gripe with the focusing system's design, in fact, is the lack of hyperfocal markings on the distance scale.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Focusing is all internal, meaning the front element stays fixed in its orientation (which, in turn, facilitates the use of circular polarizers). As seen already, the manufacturer packs the latest Zuiko with a reasonably ample plastic petal-style hood; Olympus is also the latest manufacturer to get on board with offering a slide out "notch" in their hood design to facilitate polarizer user.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Optically, the 14-35mm is constructed of 18 elements in 17 groups, including an ED and a single aspherical lens. The Zuiko accepts 77mm filters in its threaded mount.

Handling

Tight optical control and a large focal length range are, for reasons that may be obvious, usually at odds with one another: a design that makes a lens perform well at wide-angle tends to be very different from the ideal arrangement for a telephoto lens. Even with these limitations clearly recognized, however, I found the new Zuiko's range to feel a bit limited compared to other optically exceptional pro-grade options from competitors. The Four Thirds system's 2x crop factor takes its toll at the wide end (though the 14-35mm's equivalent 28mm is still respectable), but more than that, I felt that the lens came up just a little short at full tele (at an equivalent 70mm) for the kinds of work – primarily photojournalism and portraiture – for which it's otherwise ideal.

Olympus 14-35mm
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The lens is also big – probably too big to be practical on Olympus's smaller bodies – with a long barrel and a 77mm front element making it difficult to shoot unnoticed in crowds and urban settings. The E-3's better than average live view system helps some in this regard, allowing the shooter to work with the camera in a way that's a little more conducive to capturing spontaneity in people shots. Likewise, with its moderate minimum focusing distance of around 14 inches as tested at wide-angle, the Zuiko won't pull double duty as a close-up/macro lens.

Olympus 14-35mm
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That said, the lens's other advantages (in this case, a fast maximum aperture and weather-proofing) will make the slightly long minimum focusing distance a non-issue for most users and uses.

Of course, the trade-off for this flexibility and speed is size, which makes the Zuiko a heavy haul for casual use. Even if you don't mind the weight, it should be noted that your pop-up flash won't do much good at wide-angle with this lens, as the lens barrel is large enough to cast a pretty considerable shadow into your shots.

Olympus 14-35mm
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PERFORMANCE

Auto Focus

Debates over the validity of Olympus's claim that the E-3 offers the "world's fastest" AF system aside, the 14-35mm is convincingly quick in its focus acquisition speed with Olympus's professional body. As noted, the lens uses Olympus's Supersonic Wave Drive (SWD) internal focusing motor, and the technology performs as promised: quickly, and silently. Tracking is nearly instantaneous, with the 14-35mm doing a great job of holding a close lock and not frequently needing to push to infinity and back for slight focus adjustments.

It was hard, though not completely impossible, to trip the focusing system up with this lens mounted. It did occasionally stumble in attempting to focus very close to its minimum focusing distance on objects with complex texturing or patterning (intricate stonework, pages of text, etc.), though a quick tweak with the manual focus ring usually leveled it out and helped it find lock.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Not surprisingly, low-light performance was among the best I've ever personally used in a zoom lens. A comparatively large aperture throughout the range unquestionably helps here, and also affords a slightly brighter/clearer field of view in the viewfinder than the more typical f/2.8 zooms in this range.

Manual Focus

With the camera body in manual-override AF mode, switching to manual focus is as easy as grabbing the focus ring and turning. No switches. No buttons. No locking clutches.

As noted, the focus ring is wide with a solid, well-connected feel. With its wide aperture across the range, the 14-35mm is a breeze to focus manually (even through comparatively small and dim modern DSLR viewfinders), and the amount of travel from minimum to maximum distance is enough to allow for precise focus adjustments.

Image Quality

For a lens with this price tag, the fact that the unit's image quality largely speaks for itself is just as it should be. The plain and simple truth is that the 14-35mm is a better lens than the E-3 is a camera. While this statement sounds controversial, it's really not meant to bash Olympus's pro body at all: the E-3 is a capable piece of professional hardware, but in hair-splitting, finite-detail quality evaluations the new Zuiko seems to be clearly able to deliver noticeably more detail than the E-3's default JPEG processing is able to render out (one RAW conversion side by side with the same shot as a JPEG will convince you of this). In terms of lens performance, this is unquestionably a good thing, as it means that the Zuiko is delivering impressive optical "headroom" – letting RAW shooters and detail freaks extract every last drop of performance from the E-3's sensor. That said, I'd love to know how the 14-35mm's glass would perform mated to a full-frame (or even an APS-C) sensor...

It doesn't take pixel peeping to notice that the 14-35mm's optical performance is impressively sharp at all apertures – basically as sharp at f/2.0 as at f/8.0 in the center of the image.

Olympus 14-35mm
Edge, f/2.0

Olympus 14-35mm
Center, f/2.0

Olympus 14-35mm
Edge, f/8.0

Olympus 14-35mm
Center, f/8.0

Olympus 14-35mm
Edge, f/16.0

Olympus 14-35mm
Center, f/16.0

An axis-controlled test shot of a page of text at wide-angle shows a bit of softness (and just a hint of color fringe) at the extreme edges at f/2.0, but impressive corner sharpness from f/3.2 on and very good center sharpness throughout the range. The 14-35mm appears to hit maximum sharpness somewhere just about f/8.0.

With a sharp center at f/2.0 and the extremely tight depth-of-field control afforded by this aperture at all focal lengths, the Zuiko is extremely versatile in accenting focus in an image, especially in close subjects.

Olympus 14-35mm
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And with bokeh (the rendering of out-of-focus areas) that falls away softly and unobtrusively, the contrast between in-focus and out-of-focus areas is almost "prime-like" at wider apertures and moderate focal lengths.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Color and contrast are both excellent across the board, with the Zuiko displaying a fairly modern image tone that tends just slightly toward the cool side of neutral. The lens's excellent baseline contrast and sharpness and (relative to the Four Thirds system) fairly wide field of capture make the 14-35mm a good solution for general architectural shooting as well.

Olympus 14-35mm
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In the same vein, the Zuiko's distortion was appropriately limited for a lens in this class, with the narrow crop factor likely helping to control barrel distortion somewhat.

Olympus 14-35mm
Wide-Angle (view large image)

Olympus 14-35mm
Telephoto
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While all of this adds up to an impressive performance, there were a few minor concerns in the image quality department, though again, the severity is relative and well within the fairly high standards set by the lens's price. While flare was well-controlled in all but direct sunlight, I was able to induce a little ghosting under just the right conditions – mostly in strongly backlit subjects.

Olympus 14-35mm
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Admittedly, this kind of shot is essentially a torture test for lenses, and I'm not sure how much we should dock the 14-35mm's performance (even with its lofty price and target market) for showing a little fuzziness here.

Similarly, vignetting is apparent at the extreme wide end of the lens at f/2.0, and isn't completely gone even at f/5.6.

Olympus 14-35mm
Wide-Angle, f/2.0 (view large image)
Olympus 14-35mm
Wide-Angle, f/5.6 (view large image)

Zoom in ever so slightly, however, and the problem disappears completely.


CONCLUSIONS

Some (very) minor griping aside, if you're a Four Thirds shooter there's really nothing not to like about the Olympus Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 Digital ED SWD, which is exactly as it should be for a high-end piece of kit. Overall, this lens, with its excellent image quality and speed, is ideal for working photojournalists, especially – a group of photographers among whom the Olympus system has already gained a reasonably strong foothold. With its wide to moderate telephoto range, it's equally well suited to shooting portraits (though it may be a little short yet for some kinds of portraiture work) or architecture. If it's not quite visually subtle enough for indoor/social shooting, the 14-35mm certainly brings the requisite performance for this kind of work from an aperture standpoint. Beyond its size and weight, then, the primary mark against the flagship Zuiko is that all of this power will likely come at a rather considerable cost, though we'll have to wait until units begin hitting store shelves in earnest to know exactly what that cost will be.

Whatever the price tag, the Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 more than adequately proves that it's expensive for a reason, and given Olympus's illustrious reputation where building great zoom lenses is concerned, I'd expect nothing less than the generally world class performance this top-of-the-line lens provides.

Pros:

Cons: