Pros: Excellent macro performance, very sharp, lightweight, inexpensive.
Cons: Not weatherproofed. Maximal aperture is not extremely fast.
Continuing my review series of Olympus Zuiko Digital lenses for the Four Thirds system digital cameras, Ive chosen to review the ZD 35mm macro lens. This lens is part of the budget range of lenses, and is currently the only lens capable of 1:1 magnification in the entire lineup of Four Thirds lenses.
Those who have read my reviews of other Four Thirds lenses will be well aware of the fact that even the so-called budget lenses in the ZD lineup are exceptional lenses. The 35mm Macro is no exception, and is a terrific value at around 220$US.
Before I start getting into the details of the lens, Id like to spend a bit of time explaining a major concepts of macro photography and lens magnification. Ive found that many amateur photographers, including myself, initially tend to think that magnification is related directly to focal length. After all, long lenses bring the subject in closer, dont they? The big picture (pardon the pun!) is that magnification is related as much to minimal focusing distance as to focal length. A 300mm lens may be great at isolating a narrow field of view and making distant subjects look close, but if the minimal focusing distance is 6 feet or more, there is a limit to how close you can make the subject appear.
A shot focal length macro lens such as this 35mm Macro achieves high magnification by being able to focus up to about an inch away from the lens. The result is that you can take photos of very small subjects with incredible detail, but you need to position yourself very close (and I mean VERY) to get the highest magnification. At 1:1 magnification, the image projected on the sensor is the same size as the subject being photographed. In the case of the Four Thirds system, the imaging sensor is 17mm wide, so its possible to photograph a scene thats only 17mm (about ? inch) wide with the ZD 35mm Macro. In the world of capturing the ultra-small, no other lens beats this one.
Back to the review now. The ZD 35mm is the lightest lens available for the Four Thirds system, weighing in at about 5.8 oz. This is a result of a very compact design and plastic lens body construction. Unfortunately, like the other plastic-bodied budget line lenses, the 35mm isnt weatherproof. The lens is very well built however, and like all other ZD lenses, uses a metal mount for smooth and precise operation. A lens hood is not included, and is not required, since the front element is recessed deep within the lens body (at least 1.5 inches). Also a lens hood would hinder close-up operation and cast shadows on the subject being photographed. I would have appreciated a carrying pouch for the lens, but at that price, the accessories had to go I guess.
The lens does not have an external focusing distance scale. Instead, it indicates the magnification level that changes with focusing distance. I can understand that when operating within inches of the subject, a focusing distance scale isnt very useful, but the lens can be used as a regular 35mm lens, and for that a scale would be nice. The front of the lens does not rotate when focusing, but it foes extend outward a bit more than an inch. Ive had times when the barrel of the lens came into contact with the subject I was attempting to photograph while focusing. This is not detrimental to the lens however, since the front element is recessed in the barrel as previously mentioned.
As with all ZD lenses, the focusing ring is electronic rather than mechanical. Turning the ring controls the focusing servo in the lens rather than the lens elements directly. Being a macro lens, the focusing mechanism is very fine, and minute focus adjustments are easy to make. The downside to the fine focus operation is seen when using the lens as a regular 35mm, because it takes almost an entire rotation of the focus ring to go from infinity focus to close focus. When used at non-macro distances, autofocus is fast and precise. At very close lens-to-subject distances, autofocus is rather difficult to use unless the camera is mounted on a tripod. Any small movement of the camera will bring the subject out of focus, and the camera will tend to always be hunting for perfect focus. Granted, this is an inherent pitfall of macro photography, and the problem would manifest itself with any macro lens. Ive had more success locking the lens on manual focus close to the optimal focus point and moving the camera to get the optimal focus and quickly pressing the shutter.
With a minimal aperture of f/3.5, the lens isnt that fast for its focal length, but it does the job very well for its intended use. In fact, when composing Macro shots, greater depth of field is usually required, and I take many macro shots at f/9 or smaller. Making the lens any faster than f/3.5 would have made it larger, heavier and more importantly, costlier.
The ZD 35mm is incredibly sharp, even used wide open at f/3.5. I would expect no less, as all ZD lenses produce sharp images no matter the aperture selected.
See here for a few samples of flowers taken with the 35mm macro lens:
This lens makes a great walkabout lens for urban street photography sessions. The combination of the 35mm and E-500 is light and unobtrusive and no bigger than many Prosumer fixed lens cameras. The 70mm equivalent field of view may be a bit narrow for some; it boils down more to a matter of taste. The upcoming Leica 25mm f/1.4 will be the ultimate lens for this type of photography, but it wont be available until 2007, and will mostly cost much more (it will have the Leica name on it, after all!)
The close focusing abilities of this lens are astounding. You could practically be touching the subject and still be able to focus correctly. As a direct consequence of this, the lens can boast of having the highest magnification factor of all lenses for the Four Thirds system.
The lens is great value for the price. At around 220$US for a moderately fast, very sharp prime lens, the 35mm is a great deal. Add great macro capabilities on top of that and its a steal.
The lens is very lightweight, yet feels solidly built. This is great for users of the E-500, which is already a rather lightweight camera. When mounted to an E-1, the lens doesnt change the balance of the camera at all because the E-1 is much heavier than the lens.
Its really hard to find anything much to gripe about with this lens. Yes, Id like it to be weatherproof so I could use it in the rain with the E-1, and it would be nice to get a carrying case with it, but for that price, I cant expect to get all of that. The 50mm macro does have those features (and a maximal aperture of f/2), but costs more than twice as much as this lens.
Who should get this
If you want a lens with 1:1 magnification, this is the lens for you. No other will get you closer to your subject. If youre looking for a light prime lens for casual shooting, the 35mm is great. I thought that this would be more of a specialty lens for me, but I have used it much more that I ever thought I would.
Who should avoid this
If you need a macro lens to use in bad weather with an E-1, the only weatherproofed choice is the ZD 50mm macro, the 35mm isnt sealed and wont cut it.
If you dont need macro capabilities and are just looking for a fast 35mm lens, there are some other options that will soon be available. The Sigma 30mm f/1.4, scheduled to be in stores in August 2006 should be a great fast prime lens, but lacking macro. The same applies to the Leica 25mm f/1.4, expected in 2007. The great Zuiko Digital 14-54mm is as good as this lens at 35mm for non-macro photos, and marginally faster at 35mm, but is much larger and weighs more.
If you have an Olympus digital SLR and are interested in macro photography, this affordable lens is a great way to get started. For a reasonable price, you get a sharp lens with close focusing abilities in a compact lightweight package. Its a no-brainer.