People who have been long enough in the Four Thirds system might remember that back in 2006 there was a little pink dot in the Olympus Four Thirds lens roadmap which translates to a High Grade 100mm macro. Even shortly after the birth of the Micro Four Thirds systems, the pink dot was still there until one fine day, it silently vanished, creating a global unrest for those who live their days waiting for a medium telephoto macro with the majestic ZD emblem. I can understand their frustration very well as I was one of those who vocally blasted Olympus for shattering the dream which we patiently nurtured even after series of delays. So probably to as a form of atonement or simply to shut me up, I received a call a few weeks back from Olympus Malaysia asking if I am interested to try the M.Zuiko Digital 60mm f/2.8 macro.
Whether this is an incarnation of the mythical 100mm macro is uncertain. Probably not quite the case since the lens incorporates some hard-to-pronounce elements which are supposedly even more exotic than the ED glasses. It also has the ZERO coating which should reduce ghosting effects, a bane which the excellent Zuiko Digital 50mm f/2 suffers whenever I use it in some weird lighting conditions. This lens focuses internally, weathersealed, has focus limiter (about time!!!) and weighs almost to nothing. Try to swap it with the non-weathersealed M.Zuiko Digital 75mm f/1.8 and the difference is pronounce.
Sounds like a perfect macro lens I suppose? Of couse I would be interested to try it out but unfortunately since I am a hardcore, old school Four Thirds user, they had to loan out to me an OM-D E-M5 (yeahhh!) unit with the FL-600R. These are the gears which I have used throughout the testing period of this lens.
Even before I touch the 60mm macro, the biggest question that came into my mind was whether this lens can outperform the magnificent ZD 50/2 in terms of image quality. The ZD 50/2 is a rough beast to tame, so wild that I only became really comfortable shooting macro with it after about a year. Most of the time, I used it for portrait shots which often ended up with the talents giving me sour faces for exposing their cracked make-up layers and those tiny facial hairs. But once we got to know each other well, the ZD 50/2 relegated my trusted workhorse, the ZD 35/3.5 down to the drybox for a nice semi-retirement. To imagine such a small lens as the M.ZD 60mm to outperform the ZD 50/2 is rather laughable no matter how much jargons you put into the lens catalog. In terms of ease of usage maybe, infact very likely. Image quality wise, honestly I am skeptical. So let’s make Olympus pay back the pain they inflicted on us earlier by scrutinizing this little guy down to the bone.
It weights 185g and 82mm long.
It would be interesting to talk more about the technology behind this lens but I don’t think it is a good idea for someone who scored a ‘C’ in optics back in engineering school, and that was way over a decade ago. Ever since I left the engineering field, I picked up digital photography and have spent a great deal of time doing nature macro. The approach of this review will be on a user’s perspective – on how the lens can be used by me and hopefully by you as well. I am sure there are other people who have been selected by Olympus to test this lens on different perspectives and you can check out their reviews too – from Robin Wong and Ming Thein for example.
I foresee that this review will be a lengthy one and I don’t have the time to write everything overnight. So I will break it up into several episodes which roughly are going to be something like these:
- A brief information and some macro shots in controlled condition.
- Outdoor macro
- Video test
- Using it with the kit flash and available light.
- Non-macro subjects.
- Summary and other things I might have forgotten, or just popped into my mind. More sample images with less words.
Episode 1: Macro under controlled conditions.
For the first type of test subject, I have used a combination of 2-3 flash guns surrounding my DIY light tent. The white paper will be good enough for background and the cheap white side cloth can give adequate diffusion to the flash.
To make the review sensible, all images featured here were shown with only brightness adjustment to make up for my occassional poor exposure judgement. The E-M5 setting was on Natural mode; sharpness=0; saturation=0; contrast=0; Flash white balance. All images were captured in JPEG fine quality.
f/11 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
My handsome model today is the elephant mosquito Toxorhyncites splendens who finds my left index finger a nice place to hang out. It doesn’t suck blood but feeds on nectar instead. Opsss… did I say left finger? This was shot with only my right hand holding the camera and on was autofocus. Simply said it was remarkably easy to handle this lens which is akin to using the ZD 35/3.5.
I used Adobe Photoshop CS3 to get a 100% crop.
This is the pupa before the final metamorphosis where an adult mosquito emerges, leaving behind its aquatic life.
f/14 | ISO 200 | 1/160s |
The pupa was kept in a glass container which was not entirely transparent like our UV filters so please mind the slight image degradation. But for people who fancy the idea of photographing their pet fish or venomous reptiles, the clarity provided by this lens, even when the image is behind a glass, is perfectly acceptable. At 100% you can peek at the metamorphosis process.
One of the things which makes macro photography fun is it allows us to capture moments which are not commonly witnessed. In this little glass pot I have some pupae of Aedes togoii, a vector of filariasis which causes abnormal thickening of the human skin where in severe cases the victim’s leg becomes like that of an elephant. Bad stuff. For many days and night I waited for the mosquito to emerge, a process which lasts in less than a minute, shorter if I realize it late such as what we have below.
f/14 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
Probably not a spectacular photograph when judged by the standards of image quality but to obtain this shot I had to work quickly. Every second is precious and a missed shot means a few more seconds being depleted while waiting for the flash system to recharge. The autofocus system of the 60mm worked smoothly and locked well. The shutter was released and I can destroy the adult mosquito before its wings harden and start flying off to bite me.
Since it was medically unhealthy to put the relatively striking Aedes on a human skin, I used the rather dull looking Toxorhyncites for this shot. Beside being harmless, it was also a tame mosquito.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
To be fair let’s look at the Aedes togoii again, this one is basking to get its wings harden just after emerging into adulthood.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
No Toxorhyncites was harmed during this test. Can’t say the same about those Aedes.
Episode 2: Outdoor macro
Now, this is the reason people buy macro lenses. The inspiration we get from watching the breathtaking macro photos can be so intoxicating that some people I know lied to their wives about family expenses just to finance a macro lens. To some people, macro photography comes naturally, while others have to struggle with bad exposure, missed focus and lousy composition. While the macro lens is not the only way to do macro photography, it is certainly makes things easy as you can retain a lot of automated control such as autofocus and metering. Not all macro lenses gives you the same freedom though as you can remember how I struggled with the ZD 50mm f/2 for quite a while.
Quite a number of people I have met prefer to use manual focus when doing macro. There are those who insist on using a tripod. Most of the time I use autofocus and have it handheld. This gives me a lot of freedom to position the camera even in the most awkward angle. The ZD 35/3.5 does this without cracking a sweat. The ZD 50/2 fought back with its endless sulking mood when being forced on AF under low light (except in the E-5 where it mysteriously well behaved).
Being a DSLR shooter who is bestowed with precise AF points, I tend to be skeptical at the box style focusing area in mirrorless cameras. The E-M5 allows the box to become smaller hence increases its precision but still not quite like the traditional dots in DSLRs. This is what I experienced when plugging the 60mm and shoot with autofocus.
- Sometimes it hunts when contrast is low but nothing worse than the ZD 50/2 on E-30.
- With the AF limiter switched, it locks focus very well with enough light. When it’s dim such as when the AF assist has to kick in, it sometimes miss but not a big deal.
Overall I am pleased with the AF performance although when compared side by side, the ZD 35/3.5 is more reliable – except on days it chooses to wander to infinity. The AF speed is remarkable fast for a macro lens, perhaps the fastest compared to the other two in their respective native system.
The lighting used for the field testing was a single FL-600R mounted on a side bracket and diffused with a white photocopy paper. In some instances a small white card was attached to the side of the flash head to serve as a bouncer.
OK, I understand photographers read better in images than words. This is a photo of a juvenile giant orb weaver Nephila pilipes. A full grown female can weave a web so huge and strong that even a small bird can get entagled. But this one is a small little girl, not even an inch long.
f/5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/60s
At f/5.6 I have to be selective in choosing where I want the depth of field to be and naturally it would be more interesting to see the fangs than anything else. The E-M5’s image stabilizer helped me to get this shot handheld at such a ridiculously slow shutter speed, at least that’s what I thought. In the tropical rainforest where the tree canopy shelters everything away from direct sunlight, we have to compromise the depth-of-field to obtain some ambient light as background. That means using a shutter as slow as possible and unless you are using a tripod, the weight of your gear definitely takes its toll. In this case it is just a penny.
Weighing 185 grams, the 60mm is easy to use in the field. I don’t need to use a cumbersome tripod and this allows me such liberty to compose the image the way I want it to be. I love to shoot something rarely seen such as an insect’s behavior in its natural habitat. To do this we have to employ a non-intrusive approach such that our subject will continue doing its private stuffs without the feeling of being stare by a stranger. A combination of lightweight gear, image stablizier, realiable autofocus and camera ergonomics help to life most of the stress away when the photographer is closing in on a subject in stealth mode.
Now let’s see how good the E-M5 + M.ZD 60mm tagteam does.
I found this wolf spider crawling on the ground with her egg sac.Tricky lighting indeed as the egg sac was white and made of fine silk while the spider is rather brownish. I flipped the LCD and put the camera on live view mode and lowered it to the ground with my palm cushioning it from the soil. It would be risky if I were to employ manual focus and move the camera back and forth as the spider would then sense the tremor on the ground. The reliable autofocus system made this much easier.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
On a leaf I found two weaver ants trying their luck to dismember a dead beetle. I had my flash on a side bracket diffused using a sheet of photocopy paper. Getting to a good distance to the subject at such a narrow depth-of-field is troublesome especially when there was a lot of undergrowth to prevent me from enjoying a stable stance. With 3 main subjects in the frame, it is important to play close attention to have them is the same plane so they all will be in focus.
f/10 | ISO 250 | 1/125s
This is a rare lynx spider. Part of my daytime job is to work with spiders and I have seen quite a variety of this. During the lens testing session, I encountered this fella for the first time and that made me very excited. My heart beat became faster and my fingers were trembling at the excitement of finding a species so unique. Photographers feel the same way when they stumble upon something so mesmerizing and this might disrupt their concentration resulting in sloppy photographs. If you have done macro using a heavy and cumbersome equipment then you might understand what I am talking about.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/160s
The daddy long legs spiders from family Pholcidae hold the eggs with their jaws even after hatching. Only when the spiderling molt for the first time that the mother is relieved from babysitting duty. You will only spot a mother with eggs underneath a leave, often 2-3 feet from ground. To be non-intrusive I had to bend sideways and approach her slowly from below with all my limbs involuntarily shaking. I took 16 shots and 9 had the focus locked precisely.
f/13 | ISO 250 | 1/200s
Sometimes a great subject appears at not such a great place. This wasp was eating its meal on a leaf way higher than I am. Solution- put on AF and live view mode.
f/10 | ISO 200 | 1/160s | Flash WB
f/5.6 | ISO 640 | 1/40s | Auto WB
This is just how it looks like at 100%. The kinda stuff horror movies were made of.
A short video on how the shot above was achieved, or rather how the combination of AF response, live view and a flip LCD makes life easy. Even with E-5, there was a significant lag when using live view which renders handheld macro not practical. The fast and fairly accurate AF of the 60mm pairs well with the AF system in E-M5.
Another great challenge when doing macro in the field is that when we found a very interesting subject but it just can’t stay still. Take for example this little wasp with its spider meal. Unless I insist on having a specific magnification ratio, I would use S-AF. If the movement is very erratic I would use C-AF which normally gives better hit rate albeit slightly less precision.
f/7.1 | ISO 400 | 1/50s
I brought the lens for a night trip while working on a research related to malaria infection. While my colleagues laboured all night, I sneaked out to capture the nocturnal fauna in the surrounding area. Armed with a cheap torchlight to aid AF illumination I managed to capture several nice images with this lens on an EM-5.
Perhaps most people do not know that some mosquitoes feed on reptiles and amphibians. This striking Uranotaenia trilineata mosquito was helping herself with toad blood while he was busy calling for a mate. It was a difficult shot to take as I had to poise the camera just slightly above a muddy river bank. I was also afraid that either the mosquito or the toad might get startled and ran off. There was some video footage of the foraging activity which I will post in the upcoming episode.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s | Cropped to some 50%
As for the more commonly seen mosquito I have this image of Armigeres subalbatus which is known to transmit filariasis. My colleague got bitten by this hungry female and I seized the chance for a quick shot.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
Between the green shrubs I noticed a male lynx spider. This is a nice photographic subject as they have an attractive shape with long spikes at the limbs. You can tell it’s a male by the swollen palps which, when sexually matured, is used as the copulatory organ.
f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/200s
You can judge the image quality yourself by looking at the photos here or elsewhere. That is rather straight forward. In my opinion the quality is amazing. The images are sharp and full with details. It’s a winner in that department hands down. In terms of practicality I was even more impressed. Most lenses which give high resolution output are heavy and difficult to handle. The handling of this lense however is as easy as using the ZD 35/3.5. I could not believe how it responds so well that taking macro photography now demands less stress than ever. The AF works fine, the weight is just right and it works in tandem with everything the E-M5 has. Whether this was due to great engineering or some auspicious divine blessing might not be a big issue. The big question is – can this gear make it easier for you to take the kind of photographs you want?
It was a fun lens to use in the field for macro photography. At this point I would say that you would not go wrong with this lens when doing macro. The thing I was rather disappointed was the filter size being so small that I could not attached the Raynox DCR-250 with the standard adapter.
In the next episode I will talk about the video output of this lens with footages recorded in the forest. That would probably be tomorrow. Now I’m going to give my little toddler his overdue bath.
I hope you enjoyed reading this and comments are cordially welcomed.
Update (September 24th): A clip of video shots using this lens has been posted.