Olympus M. Zuiko Digital 12-50 mm 1:3.5-6.3

Introduction

Before I begin, I want to stress that this is neither an exhaustive, nor a scientific review; there are multiple parties who are better positioned to perform those, and have done so. This is simply a rough overview of the lens, along with my thoughts based on the past two-and-a-bit years of ownership and use.

The Olympus M. Zuiko 12-50 mm f/3.5-6.3, fitted with an aftermarket lens hood.
The Olympus M. Zuiko 12-50 mm f/3.5-6.3, fitted with an aftermarket lens hood.

The 12-50/3.5-6.3 was the first weather-sealed zoom lens launched by Olympus, or any manufacturer, for the Micro Four Thirds system. I purchased mine as a kit lens with the OM-D E-M5 in mid-2012, and up until the arrival of the Olympus 12-40/2.8 PRO, this was the lens which lived on the front of my E-M5. In the following sections of this post, I will touch on the design, handling, and image quality of the lens. I will also provide a brief summary of these aspects, along with my personal recommendations.

Design

Besides the bayonet mount and the optical elements, the lens is entirely plastic, which contributes towards its meager 211 g mass. Also aiding this is the relatively slow maximum aperture, especially at the telephoto end. Personally, I would have accepted a little more mass in exchange for a faster maximum aperture.

Second Beach, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 52.72 s, f/8, ISO100, 10-stop ND, tripod.
Rocks at Second Beach, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 52.72 s, f/8, ISO 100, 10-stop ND filter, tripod.

The lens offers three different modes on the zoom ring: manual zoom, electric zoom, and “macro” mode. Switching between these modes is achieved by sliding the zoom ring fore and aft, though a lock button must be depressed to allow engagement of the “macro” mode. The electronic zoom feature is intended for video shooters, but I feel this is an area that Panasonic are more capable in. Ahead of the zoom ring is the focus ring. The focus is operated electronically, so there is no focus scale present. In low light, this is annoying, as the viewfinder (thanks in part to the slow maximum aperture) often can’t show me a single thing to focus on.

Stones on the shore of the South Mavora Lake, Southland, New Zealand.  Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/50 s, f/6, ISO 200
Stones on the shore of the South Mavora Lake, Southland, New Zealand. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/50 s, f/6, ISO 200

A lens hood, though not included, is available. I went with an aftermarket one from eBay, as it’s about the same quality as OEM, at a fraction of the price. The squarer shape of the hood does look nice, and blends in with the overall design well. However, the narrow lens barrel necessitated a shallow lens hood, which is poor at protecting the front element from rain and dust, especially in windy conditions.

Handling

The lens has quite a slender barrel for its length, but still falls to hand nicely. In my hands, the 12-40 PRO is better proportioned, being shorter and fatter. The 12-40 also feels nicer much nicer, thanks to the metal cladding. However, for a plastic lens, the 12-50 doesn’t feel bad; I have experienced far worse in the past. The weight is manageable, though as mentioned above, a little more heft wouldn’t be a cause for complaint. The control rings have a nicely damped action on the 12-50, and put some of the mechanical lenses in my collection to shame. However, like the feel of the lens in the hand, the control rings of the 12-40 just feel that much nicer (as do all of the Olympus M.Zuiko Premium- and Pro-designated lenses). On the whole, its not an uncomfortable package to tote around on any camera body I have tried it on.

Image Quality

Images are reasonably sharp, and display good contrast under a plethora of lighting conditions, which I attribute to the Olympus ZERO coating. From what I’ve seen, the ZERO coating seems to result in significant image quality improvement, assuming all other factors are equal. However, I noticed that sharpness lagged slightly, though perceptibly, behind the 14-42 II R, and far short of the levels of sharpness achieved by the 12-40 PRO. Contrast was visibly improved with the use of a lens hood, although this could be said of virtually any lens.

Snow in front of the registry building, University of Otago Dunedin Campus. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 100
Snow in front of the registry building, University of Otago Dunedin Campus. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/125 s, f/5.6, ISO 400

The thing which I feel holds the lens back is its slow maximum aperture, which limits depth-of-field control, forces you to shoot near the diffraction limits of the format, and can often result in having to increase the ISO to maintain a comfortably hand-hold-able shutter speed in low light conditions.

The molars, Portsmouth Drive, Dunedin. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200
The molars, Portsmouth Drive, Dunedin. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200

At the wider end of the 12-50 zoom range, I find f/5.6 to be the best performing aperture (which seems common to a number of Micro Four Thirds lenses), and at the longer end, I find f/8 gives the best results. At f/8, some details can appear soft, especially foliage in landscapes. At the same distances, the 12-40 renders foliage much better, and edge-to-edge sharpness is also noticeably improved in photos taken with the 12-40 when compared to those taken with the 12-40. The loss of fine detail at high ISO, due to noise reduction, is more noticeable in images taken with the 12-50 than those taken with the 12-40. However, when used on a tripod, the 12-50 acquits itself well, if not quite as well as the 12-40 does.

Conclusions and recommendations

In summary…

…the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-50 is a decent lens, endowed with agreeable handling and reasonable image quality. However, compared to the Olympus M. Zuiko PRO 12-40, it doesn’t feel the nicest, and image quality, though good, could be better.

Looking across the bay from the clifftop at Tunnel Beach, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/640 s, f/8, ISO 200
Looking across the bay from the clifftop at Tunnel Beach, Dunedin. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 12-50 mm. 1/640 s, f/8, ISO 200

Recommendations

Ever since getting the 12-40, the 12-50 has lived on the shelf. The message in that is, if you can stretch to the 12-40, you absolutely won’t regret it. It has the best image quality of the Micro Four Thirds standard zooms from Olympus, and I believe from Panasonic, too. However, the 12-40 does cost almost 2.5x what the 12-50 costs. Therein lies part of the reason I haven’t sold the 12-50: it’s relatively more expendable. If I’m going into a situation in which the lens may suffer fatal damage, I’ll stick the 12-50 on the front, because if it is written off, it represents less of a financial loss than the 12-40. The second reason I haven’t sold it is that I haven’t saved up enough to source optical filters for the 12-40 yet, so the 12-50 is currently the only Micro Four Thirds zoom lens I can use with filters. The 12-40 is also relatively heavy, tipping the scales at 382 g, as opposed to the 12-50’s 211 g. So, the 12-50 is a sound option for a backup lens, or a backpacking lens.

For people who do a lot of travelling, or don’t want to change lenses often, I’d look into the recently released Olympus 14-150/4-5.6 II. For a 50-60% premium over the 12-50, this weather-sealed zoom offers a much wider zoom range, and more amenable maximum aperture range. Provided the image quality from the 14-150 II is as good as promised, it looks to be a decent superzoom option, especially when you factor in the weather sealing and relatively small increase in mass (284 g for the 14-150 II, as opposed to 211 g for the 12-50).

To cover the widest zoom range possible on Micro Four Thirds, one option I have seen is to pair the 12-50 with the 75-300 II. The person I know who has done this finds it to be a very flexible setup, and the image quality is good, though again, not up to the level achieved by the 12-40. The gap between the 12-50 and 75-300 mm focal length ranges is easily filled by a 60 mm lens, either the phenomenal Olympus 60 mm macro, or one of the well regarded options from Sigma.

Recommendations in short

  • If money is no object, the Olympus M. Zuiko Pro 12-40 is better than the 12-50 in almost every way
  • The 12-50 makes a good backup lens for hazardous tasks, travelling light, or saving money on filters
  • For frequent travellers, or those who don’t like to change lenses, the M.Zuiko 14-150 II looks promising
  • The 12-50 pairs well with the 75-300 II and a 60 mm lens, giving good image quality over the widest zoom range possible
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