Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's more to a lens than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.
The Long Version: First principles: all lens designs are a compromise. Each individual will have their own priorities, and different camera systems emphasize different ones. Some people want versatility and ease of use, and can live without good image quality, which makes Superzoom compact cameras and the 18-200 zooms of the world an excellent choice. Some want fast lenses that are optically excellent, so they usually have to compromise flexibility and use prime lenses. You can't get something for nothing, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that's just the way it is.
But some people just want to be difficult. They'll insist that they want bright, excellent and versatile lenses. Fortunately, it's possible to have everything - but now the compromise is that they're huge and very `spensive. Sony, Canon and Nikon each offer some very good f/2.8 lenses in the 70-200mm standard-telephoto range to feed this market; and Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron have their offerings to tempt those who aspire to it. Indeed, many people will use a Sigma or Tamron quite happily and never know what they're missing, and to some extent I envy them. The Olympus 35-100 has ruined me.
The Olympus 35-100 f/2 is an exotic piece of glass even among the exalted fast-telephoto group. It's even more expensive and slightly heavier than its image-stabilized Nikon and Canon counterparts, and has the same 77mm filter thread on its front element. It's so big that it has practically retired my beloved canvas Domke F6 'little bit smaller' camera bag (reviewed) in favour of a Crumpler 'six million dollar home' that I don't particularly like, and it's the sole reason why I bought the Think Tank Glass Taxi backpack. It's so big that the lens hood can completely swallow my 11-22 or 14-54 zooms, or hold my Panasonic FZ18 camera in it Anne Geddes-style.
The Olympus 35-100 is a medium telephoto lens, giving moderate magnification, which is a style that's so popular with photographers that Canon makes four of them to fit its film cameras. While it's the most expensive medium telephoto on the market, it's essentially free of any and all distortion or optical flaws, and is twice as bright as the best equivalents from Nikon, Tamron, Canon, Sony, Sigma, Pentax or Tokina. The good news is that there's an excellent test-drive option for Olympus users in North America to try this lens out: Pro Photo Rental has it. I've only heard great things about them, and it's one of the very few lens rental services that support Olympus.
Like almost every Olympus lens that costs more than $400, the 35-100 f/2 is fully sealed against dust and rain, so the fact that it's dripping wet in my test photos isn't remarkable. (It's worth noting that many of Canon's L-lenses aren't sealed, including the non-IS 70-200's, and Nikon makes little to no claims on the subject.) The very deep hood and the telephoto perspective compression combine to make this my favourite foul-weather lens. The photo above with its cheeky title won a ribbon for me at my camera club, which is a rare event. Shot at f/5.0 and 1/160s, the lens is in its comfort zone and wasn't bothered by the wet snow that I had to keep wiping from the viewfinder.
Like most lenses with aspirations, it comes with a case. This one is nicely built and well designed, which is appropriate for a lens costing $2200, and it's still just as useless as most free-with-purchase cases that I've seen. As expected, the Top Pro / Super High Grade lens build quality is exceptional, and the finish shows no signs of wear after 11,000 exposures. And it's black. I'm sorry, I know the Canon 70-200/2.8L is a great lens, but when I see it on a camera—back hood, dark white barrel, back body—it makes me think of clown shoes. The recent lack of white lenses at major sporting evens is a big reason why I'm happy that Nikon has finally entered the high-end camera business.
Like all high and super-high grade Olympus lenses, the zoom ring has a checked rubber surface, giving a solid grip and making it easy to distinguish from the ribbed focusing ring. The zoom control is toward the camera body, with the focus at the front, which is where the four 'focus stop' buttons can be found arranged around the barrel. The zoom and focusing is all internal, which means that the lens doesn't change size or balance in use. I'll admit that it did take a while for me to get used to carrying it around, but it's reasonably easy to hand-hold despite weighing almost four pounds. Not that a lens of this quality should be hand-held, of course, but it's good to have the option when a quality tripod or monopod isn't available. The tripod mount is well designed and holds solidly, but it isn't as clever as the Sigma design that unclips from the lens without needing to dismount the lens from the body.
Unlike the newer 14-35 f/2, the 35-100mm f/2.nada uses a conventional focusing motor and focus-by-wire manual control. It's quite fast and fairly quiet, although it doesn't seem as swift or soft as the SWD motor in the newer 12-60mm. But autofocus, and especially continuous AF, depends on the camera body as well. Shooting a fast-moving pack of cyclists was a significant challenge, partly because it's a mass of movement with great depth, and partly because of my complete lack of skill and experience. It did make me wish that I had a lens of the 35-100's quality for my D700, and if Nikon ever makes one, I may buy it.
One of the finer points of lens design is how well it renders an out-of-focus background. From the Japanese term anglicized as boke, but more properly pronounced with a silent 'h' as bokeh, it's a valuable creative option that the 35-100mm f/2.0 excels at. But the love of out-of-focus areas sometimes gets confused with a good photograph, and the reality is that the extra depth of field of bright Olympus lenses is a good thing. It may sound harsh, but my experience has always been that the photographers who really care about getting clever with ultra-thin focus are much more likely to be found in an internet forum than out producing truly meaningful work.
I've been fortunate to be able to compare the E-3/35-100 combination to its closest equivalent, the Canon 5D mark II with the 70-200/2.8IS. The Canon might have a slight edge with focusing speed, but that may be a psychological effect of the quieter HSM making the transition from out-to-in more subtle. Otherwise there's not much to the Canon's advantage; it has noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end, and the tightening screw for the tripod mount is set at an angle that digs into my hand when I try to hold the lens by its foot. Others—Canon shooters—have also said that the Oly lens is better balanced and feels smaller than its off-white counterpart. I've heard some Canon enthusiasts quip that "once you go L, you'll never go back" and call it L-Lust - references to Canon's obscure way of indicating its high-quality lenses. Quite frankly, I haven't been particularly impressed.
Since I shoot with some of the better Olympus lenses, such as the 7-14, 50 f/2, and 50-200, I expect their optical performance to be nearly flawless. But even among a great collection, the 35-100 is remarkable. My biggest gripe about lenses is optical distortion, and this lens is perfect. A review at PopPhoto says that the 35-100 has between 0.04 to 0.08% pincushion distortion at various focal lengths, which would be considered exceptional for a prime lens. Their analysis closely matches my own observation—"none"—so I'll accept until a reputable source comes along. Unfortunately PopPhoto is more generous with their light falloff measurements than I am; in brick wall photos shot at different apertures I can see falloff all the way out to f/2.8 at all focal lengths, while they report that it's gone by f/2.5. It's very minor, but it's visible in an A/B comparison with a flat subject. In real-world photos, like when shooting a flower at f/2.nothing, it's not a factor.
For comparison, DPReview's test of the $2000 Canon 70-200/2.8IS reports a 'low' barrel distortion figure of 1.2% at 70mm, which I can see when looking through the viewfinder on a 5D. They also report that the vignetting drops off to only one stop of light loss at f/5.6, two full stops below what you've paid for. They say, "Overall this is much what we would expect from this class of lens." They also say that two of the four Olympus lenses that they've tested to date, the 50/2 macro and the 12-60, are the best they've ever tried. I can't wait until they get to the 35-100... not that it's a competition or anything.
I do have to confess that the 35-100 is the lens that I reach for when I'm in a competitive mood and looking for trouble. Some people listen to obnoxious music in their cars, some wear big boots and offensive T-shirts, I put the 35-100 on my E-3 and use its flippy screen in front of other photographers. It's the same sort of spirit that Olympus displayed in their "Bought at Canon? Sorry to hear that" billboards. But in my defense, I also have to back up my occasional `tude with the photos that I took while I was out with my club, and nobody's ever given me a hard time. It would be easy, with all of the jokes about the size of the equipment and its significance, but I've yet to hear one from people who see the results.
Obviously, there's quite a lot that can be said about this lens, but none of it compares to the experience of using it. It gives me a satisfied feeling that handling the Canon 70-200/2.8 IS doesn't match—perhaps because the Canon is borrowed, but the 35-100 is mine. Shooting with it is a powerful multi-sensory experience, a combination of the heft of the lens, the reassuring ta-dum sound of the motor, the authority of the zoom ring, the bright viewfinder, and the looks it gets from photographers and normal people alike. The photos are pretty good, too: it's the first lens that I reach for, and the last one that I'd want to give up. It gives me my highest percentage of photos that don't suck, and it's grown to be my lens of choice for almost everything that doesn't demand a macro, ultra-wide, or ultra-telephoto lens. It's my Photography Buddy: when I have it on the camera I just know that everything is going to be all right.
The short telephoto focal length is one of the most versatile and important focal lengths for 135-format cameras, and one of the tragedies of smaller 'APS-C' sensors with 70-200mm lenses is that they spoil this fantastic working range. Being willing to recreate such a classic in the form of the 35-100 is one reason why Olympus is earning a reputation as the best lens maker in the digital world. Along with the 7-14 f/4 ultrawide (reviewed), this is one of the two lenses that really sets the whole system apart and makes it worth the investment.
Just never forget how intimidating it can be to be on the wrong end of it.