Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ballin' on a budget - Olympus 12-50mm kit lens review

The Olympus OMD with the 12-50mm kit lens

I don't know about you, but I am super excited about Olympus' announcement of the OMD em-1 and their future zoom line up.  If their new zoom is anything like the 75mm, then Olympus has a real winner (I know I sound like a fanboy and I am totally unapologetic about it).  However, the biggest problem they may encounter is their price.  Many could argue that their lens/body pricing scheme matches that of other high-end cropped-sensor DSLR cameras. Most do not understand that bigger is not necessarily better, especially when it comes to sensor size (more on this in another post).  The beauty with the m43 system is that one can produce fantastic quality images from models other than their flagship cameras.  The Olympus epl-5 is a fantastic alternative to the OMD, as it has the same sensor with a fewer bells & whistles and a less sophisticated in-body image stabilization system (currently listed at $549 on amazon).  Although I have never used the camera, many have reported getting OMD level photographs.  The same can be said about glass.  When I purchased the OMD, it came with a kit lens that I quickly dismissed and stored away as a loaner.  I quickly realized how amazing this lens could be when I started doing product photography.

Another view of the 12-50mm.  Taken with the Sony a58 with the Tamron 28-75mm
I will be the first to admit that I limit my usage of this lens for controlled situations and areas with great lighting, as it is rather slow - the smallest aperture at the widest end is f3.5 and f6.3 on the long end.  For my day to day shooting, I rely on shooting at higher ISOs or longer shutter speeds.  I tend to rely on the former when I go out to my favorite shooting spots: Disneyland or Mad T. Additionally, this lens has pretty severe barrel distortion on the extreme wide end, but I rather like the look of it - in fact, I welcome it.  Whether or not you consider this a problem, I think the biggest drawback to this lens is that it is relatively soft wide open (mind you, this is relative to the primes I have).  The images below may appear perfectly fine, but as soon as I pixel peep, I can see the lack of detail and sharpness I tend to get with primes at the same aperture/shutter speed/ISO.  I know, I know, all I have to do is stop down the lens and I gain that detail I want, but I lose the creamy bokehlicious background I love oh so much and I require bumping up my ISO to get a usable shutter speed to freeze action. Increasing the sensor's sensitivity to light unfortunately introduces noise.  

12-50mm at 42mm f5.9 (wide open), ISO 400
12-50mm at 50mm f6.3 (wide open) at ISO 200
12-50mm at 43mm f6.0 at ISO 1250
So with all of these "flaws", you may wonder where this lens really shines.  In my opinion, I would say this lens truly shines on a tripod, stopped down and at the base ISO.  I know I rave about the 75mm left and right, but some of the most memorable/favorite shots I have ever taken were with this lens and my table top tripod =).

Not too long ago, I decided to use this lens for some product photography for a local coffee shop and bakery.  I wasn't at all afraid of "missing" the shot or sacrificing image quality   In fact, the client ended up using these files for some store front clings and snail mail flyers.  I wasn't surprised at how sharp, clean and vibrant the files looked.  

The above shots were all taken at f8 or slightly above at no shorter than 25mm (diffraction becomes an issue above f12 and barrel distortion reared it's head below 25mm ).  I originally wanted to use my primes, particularly the 45mm, but I knew my client needed photos with a deeper depth of field to show texture in the drinks.  Plus I was working with a finite amount of time.  Not only did the client impose a time cap, the drinks itself limited the number of shots I could take.  The overall look and freshness of the drink tend to deteriorate as time elapsed. The cold drinks in particular gave me the hardest time, but I was lucky enough to get the shot I needed since the zoom offered me the most flexibility.  I didn't need to physically move my tripod or my mini studio light box.   

The beauty with this lens is that it also offers some Macro capabilities, though limited in my opinion.  If you really wanted to use a macro lens, the Olympus 60mm is your best bet, as it offers a true 1:1 magnification factor, while the 12-50mm does 1:2.  Unfortunately, I can't share most of my macro work due to a NDA I signed with an existing client.  But the following shot is a hand held example of the lens in macro mode.  Please note that this lens is locked at 43mm while in this mode. 

ISO 5000 - Wide open at 43mm - Love the shallow depth of field in macro mode

When I first started shooting, my teacher/brother advocated the power of primes and how I would learn far more shooting with it than a zoom.  I still agree with him to this day and recommend all beginners to start with a good prime (particularly the nifty fifty). However, kit lenses should not be completely overlooked, since they can be great flexible tools for certain jobs.  Although I may not use it all the time, I do believe it offers great utility.  The Olympus 12-50mm would be something I classify as a jack-of-all trades lens that really specializes in nothing.  It's not a particularly fast lens and is fairly soft wide open.  I wouldn't even say it would be the best walk-around lens, but being so light weight and fantastic on a tripod, I wouldn't hesitate keeping this in my gear bag.  

Long Exposure at 12mm f6 at ISO 640

B&W HDR with the 12-50mm 

Most of the new Olympus bodies can be purchased with this lens for an additional $200 (retailed at $499 when purchased separately).  I would not hesitate recommending this lens to any new photographer because it offers a great introduction to both zoom and macro-ish photography.  The beauty is this lens can be easily sold for $150-$200, so you would only realize a $50 loss on "investment".  So if you need to photograph on a budget, the 12-50mm lens is the way to go.

So say we all,

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