2008-09-07

Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0



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.

paddle wheel

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.

life goes on

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.

Toronto Criterium 2009

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.

sad robot

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.

propeller head

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.

a whole new you

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.

sign of a fight

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.

winter, queen's royal park

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.




17 comments:

  1. I just recently purchased the 35-100. I have not had the lens off my E-3 for the last two weeks. Incredibly sharp, bright, great bokeh. The E-3 + grip + 35-100 make for an impressive/intimidating package. The DOF at F2 is so shallow that you have to be sure that you are focused correctly. I have many Olympus Zuiko lensew but this is my first 'Pro Grade - Silver Ring' lens. The 35-100 F2 and 50 F2 macro are in a different league when it comes to sharpness. This is one lens that I will never sell.

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  2. Thanks for the review. I got to play with the 35-100 for only about half an hour, but I was similarly awed by it's heft, it's sureness, and the feeling that 'everything is going to be alright.' ;-)

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  3. Justin, I'm glad you liked both the lens and the review. Sorry about that link, though, because I really should warn people before something that creepy happens. I hope you didn't have the volume on your computer set too high.

    And thank you, by the way, for being the three-thousandth visitor to this site.

    (No, there's no prize.)

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  4. Has anyone used this great lense with the Leica Digilux 3/Panasonic L1? I am really interested in purchasing this lense and would like to hear views about this combination.

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  5. I got to try out the 35-100 on a relative's setup yesterday and it is a nice lens. But I think you're comparison to the Canon 70-200 is a bit unfair. A truely comparable full-frame less would probably cost double or more of that of the Canon lens and weigh a ton. So while the comparison does cast a favorable light on the Olympus system in allowing very high quality lenses at more affordable prices, it doesn't address the advantages provided by the full-frame system.

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  6. If the advantages of a 135-format sensor need a lens that's better, bigger, and more expensive than the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS to be apparent, then perhaps those benefits aren't really worth fighting for.

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  7. Re. Vignetting: remember that PopPhoto is pretty much the only remaining oufit that measures the properties of lenses directly, on a test bench. PopPhoto's tests are *not* reflective of a particular camera-sensor combination.

    This is useful because the tests tell you what the ultimate properties of a lens are, in a sensor-independent manner, but it does not report the properties of particular sensor-lens combinations.

    Consequently, you may be seeing vignetting due to angle-of-incidence effects on the CMOS sensor (rays that enter the sensor are detected more efficiently than those entering at acute angles). Many lenses that show little or no vignetting on film show a lot more vignetting on digital sensors for precisely this reason.

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  8. I shoot Olympus and Canon, E3 and 40d. I have the 35-100 and the Canon 2.8 70-200L and I'm here to tell you I love the 35-100. I show up at a meet and greet with the 35-100 and of course the nikon users talk trash (Why do they do that, Canon user don't talk trash). But when the see the results of the 35-100 the nikon user shut up.

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  9. I have to admit and laugh at the comments of Canon and Nikon guys write. I am also a proud owner of this magnificent 35 100mm Zuiko lens. I use it with my E-3 and have super great photos. My brother and a personal friends of mine look at my photos with ahhhhh and wowww! until they found out I use Olympus equipment. lol.

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  10. I have a canon 5D with lens 70/200 f2.8 IS. How does that compare to the E-5 with 35-100 lens in quality. For low night and high ISO, canon will have its advantage, but for regular outdoor usage, will Olympus be better in speed, picture and color quality? Thanks!

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  11. Well, while you guys are talking high tech, I'm out shooting my low-tech Canon AE-1 Program camera W/ACTION grip and a 50mm f/1.8 FD LENS.
    Total cost for camera and lens; Less than $200. but takes awesum photos!

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  12. I hear you – I mostly use film cameras for my personal photography these days, including my Yashica GSN that cost all of $20. That's about the price of a couple of rolls of film, even without having the lab scan or print them. That's ridiculous.

    There's certainly no need to spend $2500 on a single lens – but it is a very nice one.

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  13. What I have immediately noticed is that nobody here talks about this lens in the context of m4/3 cameras having the absolute edge (at the moment) for video.
    I think this lens would be a smashing good choice for anybody doing pro video using a GH-2 or similar.
    From it's optical qualities, fact it is weather sealed, 77mm filter (easily adoptable to a standard matte box with a step up ring), fixed body length and a large focus ring for an easy follow focus integration.... I think this is a great piece of glass (as well as some other things I do not need like AF motor etc).
    It is bloody expensive - you could get a Zeiss CP2 at any length and faster with better IQ - but this is a 4/3 zoom at f/2.8 - it really, REALLY is an option!
    CP2 set, for example can easily be 12K for 4 lenses in a case, but a set of Canon FD primes (L only) is closer to 5K modified for matte boxes and with follow focus gears and case - (FD24mm f/1.4L,FD 50 mm f/1.2L,FD 85mm f/1.2 L.
    Now, this is a bloody good set, and this Olympus zoom at 2,5K (3K modified), makes it the best you could ever get, while being be-all end-all. This is actually how I stumbled across this site, although I think this lens will be the last piece of the aforementioned kit I will buy. Those Canon L's will have me well covered, but when you need something permanently attached to your rig.....

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  14. I rented the 35-100 using it with my E-5. I was shooting a christening of my nephews little boy. I started in the choir loft about 100 ft from the altar. Then I went down and took rest of pictures from where priest and religious activities were happening.
    The pictures taken from the loft in dim church lighting shot at 2.0 and 2.5 aperture were truly amazing--almost like having my 50mm at any distance! All the pictures that day were all fantastic somehow magical, somehow pictures you just want go back to keep looking at, somehow pictures that had bokeh that was more pleasant then I have ever shoot before.
    I should be thinking of other things during the day (like work or other not so nice things) but what am I thinking of That Stupid 35-100 lens. I better get some help soon or maybe just go buy IT!!

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  15. John, I do have to confess that I no longer own the 35-100; but since I've parted with it I've added a lot of other lenses to my collection, and in a lot of other formats. There are still some great ones that I use on a regular basis – Nikon 85/2.8 perspective control, Zeiss lenses for my rangefinder and Hasselblad, even the Olympus 50/2 macro – but none of them match the 35-100 for sheer awesomeness.

    I've done a few reviews in the three years since I wrote this one, but this remains the closest I've ever come to writing a love letter. Not only to I still stand behind everything I've said, but re-reading it makes me wistful and want to own one again.

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  16. John, thanks for putting in the comments and because of what you said, I will be purchasing my E5 and focusing on 35-100 thru the view finder very soon.

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  17. i own one and really satisfied..

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