Olympus E-3 DSLR and 35-100 f/2 first impressions

In March 2010, I rented the Olympus 35–100mm f/2 lens and an Olympus E-3 DSLR for a long weekend. It was an interesting experience that, I think, told me a lot about the kind of photography that I want to do, and it's taken me this long to write anything approaching a review.

First, some background

For my Olympus DSLR, I already owned two bright lenses that covered a wide-to-normal field of view (the 11–22/2.8–3.5) and short telephoto (the 50/2 macro). While that covers most general photography needs, I started lusting after a nice longer telephoto. When I used Sony and Minolta gear, I had owned the Sony 70–300mm G lens, which was very nice; the Olympus 50–200mm covered almost exactly the same effective range as the 70–300 and was over a stop brighter at all focal lengths – well played, Olympus. Obvious choice, right?

Well, during my research, I had read a review about another high quality telephoto lens for Olympus cameras that also sounded interesting: the 35–100mm f/2.

The 'Thew's Reviews experiential take on that lens – witty, honest, smart, and convincing – remains one of the best lens reviews I've ever read. Permit me to quote its conclusion at length:

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.

An unfortunate character flaw: I can be easily swayed by any good argument. Never mind that I would consider myself a middling-to-below-average learning photographer with no earthly use for a four-figure, pro-grade lens; after reading that review, I just had to try it.

Another tidbit I gleaned from the review: you can rent it.

Enter Pro Photo Rental

A $2200 anything, no matter how good, is not something you should buy without trying it, and, thankfully, Pro Photo Rental carries Olympus gear for the curious. I rented the lens for a long weekend.

Because the lens is weather-proof, I rented an E-3 to go along with it. While I wasn't necessarily interested in the E-3, the weather sealing would let me use the lens in the rain, which I couldn't say about my E-520. Cheap insurance for unpredictable weather.

By the way, my experience with Pro Photo Rental was very pleasant. All the terms of the rental are explained very well, and everyone I worked with was very nice. I would rent equipment from them again.

First impressions

The camera and lens arrived Friday morning in a padded case. I'm not sure whose policy this was, but I didn't have to sign for the package; as much as I hate planning my day around UPS deliveries, I really wouldn't have wanted them leaving the gear on my front porch.

Another world of lens design

Because I am both nervous and clumsy, I had paid for the optional insurance against damage for the lens. As soon as I picked it up, I laughed and regretted wasting the money: I couldn't damage this lens if I fired it out of a Howitzer.

Guaranteed weather-proof (one photographer spilled wine on it and cleaned it under a tap), it's tight, solid, and heavy. Other than the focus and zoom rings, nothing on the outside moves. It feels expensive. It's probably invincible.

About that "heavy" part: it weighs over four pounds. It's not unwieldy, but you definitely feel it. Attached to my E-520, the camera hardly registers in the total weight, and it's not much different on the E-3.

It's an entirely different beast than the very nice but merely mortal High Grade series of lenses that Olympus makes for less than a thousand bucks. For the most extreme comparison I could put together with the gear on hand, here's an awful snapshot of it attached to the E-3 with the FL-50 flash, in front of the E-520 with the 50mm macro and FL-36 flash.

E-3 and 35-100mm lens next to E-520 with 50mm lens
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What I rented next to what I own

Here's another snap of the 35–100mm next to the Olympus 11–22mm, which at the time was the largest lens I owned.

Olympus 35-100mm lens next to Olympus 11-22mm lens
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My lens is bigger than yours

I laughed again when I attached the hood. Put it this way: if you're into putting some form of cheap plastic on the front of your lens investments, the hood is so big that it makes a strong argument for slapping a UV filter on the front of the glass while you leave the hood at home. The hood almost doubles the length of the lens! I'm sure it's an effective contraption, especially in inclement weather, but, I mean, yikes.

The camera was pretty nice too

It could be that I was still reeling from the weight of the the lens, but the E-3 didn't seem all that big to me, despite being heavier and larger in every direction than my E-520. All the controls seemed laid out nicely, but it took me a minute to figure out that you needed to do a push-and-turn thing to change shooting modes (there's no P-S-A-M dial). The rear LCD is small by today's standards, but it was more than clear enough, and the swivel screen looks like a handy thing to have around.

The viewfinder was a revelation; large, bright, and clear. I sometimes wish I hadn't experienced it, because going back to the small, sad tunnel on the E-520 was kind of crushing.

With a couple of clean memory cards, some charged batteries, and a sense of adventure (combined with a sense of horror that I was suddenly shooting with gear that was roughly four times as expensive as my usual gear), I headed out.

I made one promise: no pictures of ducks or squirrels. You're welcome.

Wandering around UNC Chapel Hill

Wandering around UNC's campus, I felt really conspicuous with the camera and lens out, so they stayed in my bag most of the time until I found something interesting to shoot.

Two statues
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100mm, f/4, 1/500 @ ISO 100

Maybe because it was a novelty to me, I spent most of the time shooting at 100mm. Even stopped down, the bokeh is superb – smooth and soft.

No ducks or squirrels here, but too many flowers

Red flower on gravel
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100mm, f/2.8, 1/800 @ ISO 100
Single flower
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100mm, f/4, 1/200 @ ISO 320

While shooting flowers around the Coker Aboretum, I appreciated the large, magnified view through the E-3's viewfinder when I had to switch to manual focus, which I had to do a few times. Because I couldn't find a menu setting that lets you use the directional pad to select a different focus point (I'm assuming this exists, as it does on the E-30), I found it a little cumbersome to dig up the button-dial combination that let me change AF points. However, keep in mind that I had been using the camera for only an hour or two.

Also, it might be my greasy fingers or maybe some texture had worn off, but I had some trouble working the focus limiter on the 35–100 with one finger. My finger just kept slipping off. A nit, for sure, but the pinch-and-twist dial on the 150/2 looks easier to use, especially with gloves.

Father and son
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53mm, f/4, 1/125 @ ISO 160

The 70–200mm equivalent zoom range is often considered indispensable, and the above photo might help explain why: when this father and son duo walked by, I asked if I could snap a quick picture. When I raised the camera to my eye, the lens was at 100mm, which gave me a close-up of the toddler's cheek. A quick twist of the zoom ring and I had this nicer composition in a half second.

Holi Moli!

Let's call it luck that I rented a fancy camera and lens on the same day that students at UNC were celebrating their own version of Holi, the Indian festival of color, also known as photographer catnip.

I saw a large crowd of students gathering along with a smaller crowd of photographers, and I thought one thing: jackpot.

Before it all started
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100mm, f/2.8, 1/400 @ ISO 100

Let's be clear: shooting an event like this was a new experience for me. It was late in a spring afternoon; I had enough light that I didn't have to worry too much about getting a fast enough shutter speed. Not wanting to fiddle with settings too much while the action unfolded, I stuck the E-3 in Aperture priority, RAW, Auto-ISO, and hoped for the best.

Here. We. Go.

Students, paint, and dye.
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100mm, f/5.6, 1/250 @ ISO 100
A student at UNC's Holi Moli
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100mm, f/5.6, 1/640 @ ISO 100

A lot of these are cropped down quite a bit. I found myself wishing for a little more reach; the counterpoint is that I should have been getting much closer, but I was a little timid about taking rented gear around clouds of water and colored dye.

Students at UNC's Holi Moli
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100mm, f/4, 1/800 @ ISO 100

When I looked at the files in Lightroom later, the E-3 appeared to nail the correct exposure almost every time. Phew. Good to know that it's reliable.

A student at UNC's Holi Moli
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100mm, f/4, 1/200 @ ISO 160

While circling the crowd and shooting under pressure, the autofocus of the E-3 and 35-100 combination seemed fast enough. I basically just pointed and shot, and that seemed to work well enough.

Students at UNC's Holi Moli
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100mm, f/2.8, 1/2000 @ ISO 100

I was shooting handheld, so I really can't make definitive judgments on the optical properties of the lens, but it looks like no matter what aperture or focal length, if it's in focus it's sharp. Really sharp.

A girl at UNC's Holi Moli
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100mm, f/4, 1/200 @ ISO 125

This is not a lens for inconspicuous shooting. People notice, and some do react…

A guy taking a smoke break
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100mm, f/4, 1/800 @ ISO 100

… Some happier than others.

Aside: I can't help but feel a little pervy pointing this thing at college girls. (I anticipate that last sentence being used out of context for years to come.)

I feel a little silly posting all of these and pretending it's a review. These are all shot at f/2.8–5.6, so the lens was barely breaking a sweat. But, man, that was a lot of fun.

I took over 325 pictures that afternoon, all on the same 4GB memory card. The E-3 only told me I could fit 230 pictures on the empty card, so I guess it's more than a little conservative.

After all of that, I was spent. Time to head home and relax.

A guy in a lawn chair
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Saw this guy on the walk home. 100mm, f/4, 1/250 @ ISO 160

At Duke Gardens

The next day, I went to Duke Gardens, hoping to catch some of the early spring flowers blooming. Admittedly, I felt a bit insane clomping around the trails of pretty flowers with this monster.

A flower at Duke Gardens
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100mm, f/2.8, 1/500 @ ISO 200

Yeah, so it's sharp. Pixel-peeping at that shot above, I can count the pollen. But if you're into taking pictures like this, you really want a macro lens.

It really bums me out that Olympus has (unofficially, I guess) cancelled the 100mm macro lens that was on their roadmap. Over 80% of the shots I took with the 35-100mm were at 100mm, and the long telephoto perspective and the ability to isolate subjects at that focal length are very pleasant. If any rogue engineers at Olympus are listening: 1:2 magnification would be OK, put the focus limiter that you forgot in the 50mm macro on there, and f/2 would be nice but isn't necessary as long as it's sharp wide open.

I know, I'm greedy. And I know that these days you're probably chained down working on consumer-grade Micro Four Thirds zooms.

A bench, chained down
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100mm, f/4, 1/200 @ ISO 320
A chain near a building at Duke Gardens
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100mm, f/2.8, 1/200 @ ISO 400

So what now?

Let's start with the camera.

Soon after this little adventure, I did sell my E-520 and purchased an E-30. I decided that I didn't need the weather sealing of the E-3, but I wanted a better viewfinder. The E-30's isn't as good as the E-3's, but it's pretty close and it's cheaper. Sold.

And the lens?

So, grains of salt: I only had the lens for a few days. I'm not a professional photographer. Here's what Kirk Tuck, who is a professional, said about it (and its 14–35/2 companion):

The lenses are obviously better than any of the other zooms out on the market and as soon as Olympus and Panasonic roll out better sensors they will match Canon and Nikon APS-C offerings pretty closely. They are already there in most performance parameters. If you do buy one or both of these lenses you need to be clear that it’s a counter-intuitive choice. The whole rationale behind the original 4/3 systems was meant to be high performance in a smaller and lighter package. These lenses are tour de force optics but made with no compromises. They weigh what they weigh and you either get used to it or you move on to another systems.

Well, I think that about sums it up. I would argue that there might not be a better lens for shooting events or people. It's sharp always at every aperture, it has what has proven to be a useful range, and at constant f/2 it's a full stop brighter than any of its competitors. (I won't get into a fight about "equivalence" of depth of field compared to full-frame systems, except to say that a faster lens is a faster lens and not everyone is interested in having only narrow slices of the frame in focus.)

It's also spiritually and economically satisfying: you read a lot about fast lenses that people spend a lot of money on, but then prefer to use stopped down because they're not sharp enough wide open. This Olympus lens (actually, just about all of their lenses) are totally over that: go ahead and use it wide open. Don't worry. You're getting everything that you paid for.

But, I have a day job. I'm not an event photographer, nor will I be one any time soon. Even if I was and I was looking for a general-purpose two lens system, I might look real hard at using the 12–60/2.8–4 instead of the 14–35/2, and the 50–200/2.8–3.5 instead of the 35–100/2. Those mid-tier lenses are so good that you could probably pull it off, and you could put the cash you just saved into other lenses or lighting equipment. Photography is all about compromises, and that sounds like a mighty nice one.

For general photography, the 35–100/2 is a difficult sell with the 50–200/2.8–3.5 around. Compared to the 35–100, the 50–200 is half the price, half the weight, smaller, nearly as good optically, and probably just as useful 97% of the time. Canon, Sony, and Nikon have no comparable lens in terms of speed, price, size, or weather sealing. In deference to the 35-100, f/2 is obviously nice to have, and I'm sure the image quality is ever-so-slightly better, but most people probably won't need it. Especially if you don't make money from your photographs.

Despite the somewhat pedestrian focal length range, the 35–100 is an extreme lens for people with extreme needs, and it's priced accordingly. For the rare breed of professional journalists, sports photographers, portrait shooters, and wedding photographers who use Four Thirds gear and whose incomes depend on that 3% bleeding edge, I think you'll love it. It might even be a no-brainer.

Though I also think most other people would rather leave it at home.

But more about me

I think I learned two important things about my photography from this little adventure.

First, after covering the Holi Moli event, I think that I really enjoy taking pictures of people. Or, well, things with a face. While it can be fun to work with color, perspective, and composition, any picture of a person is totally engaging in a very special way. I want to explore that further.

Two students at UNC's Holi Moli event
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52mm, f/4, 1/125 @ ISO 100

The other thing I learned is that not all the compromises in lens design are equal. The 35–100/2 felt like a million bucks, and it's capable of taking images to match. The price doesn't bother me, because you really can get your money's worth here. If I thought I might be willing to carry it around all the time, I would happily pay up. But that's a pretty substantial if.

Am I doing it wrong?

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