We’re back with another lens review, and this time we’re taking a look at a sleeper lens from Olympus. The OM-System Zuiko Auto-W 28mm F/2.8 doesn’t look like much on paper, but its fun-factor, price, and versatility set it apart from many higher-spec lenses. This lens, when shot within its limits, is capable of creating some really incredible images. It’s sharp, well-corrected in normal shooting situations, and offers a nearly unbeatable value for the money. Equally at home on a mirror-less camera, DSLR, or classic film machine, it’s a lens that any shooter can enjoy.
To find out if this little lens packs enough punch to earn a spot in your camera bag, read on.
The pursuit of the OM system has always been the realization of big performance in a small package, and the Zuiko 28/2.8 certainly comes in a tiny package. At a length of only 32mm and weighing just 170 grams, you’d be hard pressed to find a more portable wide angle lens.
Capable of fitting into a pant pocket with ease, this lens requires none of the arthritis-inducing pincering that bagless shooters often go through when stowing away larger lenses, and the low-profile helps to guard against awkward, denim-covered bulges.
Olympus is a brand that’s historically cared deeply about designing not only highly functional products, but products that look great as well. More so than many other Japanese camera makers, they often hit their mark on the aesthetics front and it’s no different with this lens. Time was clearly taken to create a lens that’s visually striking, and a joy to touch.
The barrel’s satin black-chrome finish is dripping with class, and the contrasting satin silver mount ring and focus scale add visual contrast without looking garish. The engraved and painted lettering displays clearly, allowing easy acquisition of information. The diamond knurling of the rubberized focus ring and the linear knurling of the aluminum aperture ring are clinically precise. For those who appreciate clear and purposeful design, this lens is simply perfect.
Looking quite handsome when mounted to a classic OM body, the Zuiko looks just as comfortable when perched upon a machine from the modern era. While the adapters required to mount this lens to today’s DSLR or mirror-less cameras will make the lens appear larger, it’s still reasonably compact when mounted to a modern machine. An OM-system lens on a Sony a7 is about as classy a rig as one will find in the world of photo gear.
So the lens is small and looks amazing. That’s great, if all you’re going to do is stare at it. But what if we actually want to use the 28/2.8? How’s it handle, and what kind of images can it make? Let’s take a look.
The first thing that most shooters will likely notice when grabbing hold of the 28/2.8 is the somewhat uncommon placement of the aperture ring. Counter to what many photogeeks are used to, the aperture ring is mounted closer to the front element than is the focus ring (most lenses have the aperture ring closer to the lens mount). What does this mean for usability? A couple of things.
There may be an adjustment period for those not used to Olympus’ design, and the positioning of the ring further from the camera body may make checking the aperture with a quick glance a bit easier. But aside from these points, in practice there’s very little difference between using a lens with a front- or rear-mounted aperture ring.
The next thing one will likely notice is the excellence with which this lens focuses. The focus ring feels just fantastic, with the pre-mentioned diamond knurling offering exceptional grip. As the focus ring spins there’s a deliberate weightiness; a thoughtfully fluid motion that exudes quality. The focus throw is remarkably short, spanning from the minimum focus distance of 0.3 meters (11.5 inches) up to infinity in approximately 75º of rotation. The included focus scale allows quick zone-focusing, useful in times of hurried shooting or when looking through the viewfinder may be impractical.
All of these assets come together in a lens that can give the shooter quicker and more accurate focusing than even some of today’s auto-focus lenses. To put it simply, the Zuiko 28/2.8 is one of the greatest joys in the world of manual focus photography. Those who love spinning rings and mechanical movements will love this lens.
Optically, things are pretty sound. Construction is made up of six air-spaced elements (six elements in six groups), which do a fantastic job of resolving detail and reproducing color. Contrast and tonality are beautifully balanced, resulting in vibrant, rich photos with exceptional depth. The lens is a real performer, but a closer look at each reviewable parameter shows that it’s not without its flaws.
In a lens of this focal length, where compositions will often contain a vast amount of visual information, it’s important that a lens be able to produce sharp images. While the 28/2.8 is capable of greatness in this regard, it’s not perfect.
When shooting at it’s maximum aperture of F/2.8 the center of the frame is respectably sharp, though there’s pronounced softness in the corners of the frame. As the aperture closes things begin to sharpen up, but perhaps not fast enough for some shooters, and perhaps not as quickly as other wide legacy lenses available. At F/4, the center sharpness is expanding outward, but the corners are still a bit soft. It’s not until F/8 that the lens provides consistent sharpness throughout the frame. And while it’s noteworthy that this is one of the only Zuiko wide-angle lenses to offer a minimum aperture of F/22, diffraction can mean that this tiny aperture offers little (in terms of sharpness) over F/16.
But is it fair to lambast this lens because it’s a bit soft in the corners? Certainly, if you’re obsessed with sharpness and are constantly shooting wide-open this may not be the best lens for you. But if you’re okay with a little latitude in your compositions, the edge softness that does exist can help to add an organic appeal and a visual depth to the frame. And while it’s clearly not as sharp as many of today’s clinically sharp lenses, at F/8 and smaller it’ll be sharp enough for even the most rigidly detail-oriented shooter. Viewing images like a normal person (not 100% crop) the lens performs beautifully.
Bokeh is something of a non-issue with wide-angle lenses, and it’s a subjective assessment in any case. Everyone loves the blurry stuff differently, so instead of prattling on about it I’ll just post some sample shots and let you decide. I can say with certainty that the lens shows angular bokeh highlights when shooting stopped down, and the surprisingly close minimum focus distance does allow things in the background to get pretty fuzzy when shooting a super-close subject wide open. It’s not the best bokeh in the world, but no one buys a wide-angle lens for bokeh.
Which brings us to what may be the lens’ most glaring issue. When shooting wide open it vignettes like mad. This light fall-off results in dark edges that creep in from the corners and edges of the frame. While this is a common malady among wide-angle lenses, the Zuiko 28/2.8 shot at F/2.8 shows some of the heaviest vignetting I’ve seen from any legacy lens.
With the aperture stopped down to F/4 things get better, but the vignetting is still pretty heavy. By F/5.6 the light fall-off is about as mitigated as it’s going to get, but if I’m being honest there’s still a fair amount of darkness in the corners from F/5.6 and on. Yep, pretty bad vignetting.
But is this a deal-breaker? I don’t think so, and here’s why. In today’s environment of digital photography it’s extremely easy to correct for vignetting in post-processing. While this is an additional (and possibly annoying) step in the process of editing your photos, it’s a relatively easy one that typically involves simple movement of an adjustment slider in Lightroom, Aperture, or whatever your preferred edit software happens to be. For all the good that this lens affords mirror-less and DSLR shooters, an extra step in post-processing is a small price to pay.
It’s also possible to use the vignetting to your advantage. With a wide-angle lens it’s common for the viewer to get lost in the sheer amount of stuff in any given composition. In situations where the photographer wishes to direct the viewers attention to a certain aspect of the shot, the vignetting can be used to do so. In this way, vignetting becomes just another tool for the photographer to use or not use. And as in the instance of lens sharpness, when light fall-off is unwanted, “F/8 and be there” is a great way to render the point moot.
The lens is prone to minor flaring and more severe ghosting when shooting in bright sunlight. A lens hood (or your hand) will instantly fix the problem, but shooting with the front element basking in the sun will inevitably yield unwanted bursts of color and drastically lowered contrast. The multi-coated version (marked “MC”) goes a long way toward solving the problem, but the unwelcome aberrations are never totally eliminated.
When shooting wide open the Zuiko 28/2.8 suffers mild chromatic aberration, though it’s among the less egregious offenders in this regard. CA presents as color-fringing in the high-contrast areas of a photo. One of the most displeasing aberrations, chromatic aberration can be corrected by stopping the aperture down, adjusted away in post-processing, or avoided entirely by shooting black and white photos.
The lens can distort up-close subjects, which can be an asset or a liability dependent on the shooter’s preference. For people who can’t abide distortion, shooting subjects up-close will be an issue. At this range, things will just look weird, especially when the subject is framed toward the edges of the shot. Expect to see stretched limbs, bulbous noses, etc.
The distortion problem isn’t helped by Olympus’ decision to withhold from the lens their close focus optical correction system. This wide-angle lens distortion correction system is used in their 28mm ƒ/2 lens. Employing a system of floating optics, this system corrects for the distortion commonly found when close-focusing with a wide angle lens. It works great, but it’s expensive, and given the 28/2.8’s affordable price point I can understand Olympus’ decision even if I don’t like it.
Photo geeks can nitpick sharpness, vignetting, and all the rest as much as we want, but in my time shooting the Zuiko 28/2.8 I’ve found that it seems to defy these kinds of traditional measurement. While it’s a bit cliché, this lens may truthfully be more than the sum of its parts. Its versatility and the way in which it keeps photography fun and interesting are more valuable than a spec sheet, and it’s this fun-factor that makes the Zuiko 28mm F/2.8 one of the most engaging legacy lenses I’ve used.
Through mindful application of the lens’ natural strengths and avoidance of its weaknesses, a cognizant photographer should be able to make interesting and engaging shots not normally possible with a standard or telephoto lens. If you’re looking to get the most out of this wide-angle Zuiko, there are some things to remember when shooting.
Try framing your shot with leading lines that stretch away from the corners of the frame, drawing the viewer’s attention to a point of focus in the distance. Center close-up subjects to exaggerate a sense of scale, and watch the background fall away toward a distant vanishing point. Use the lens in cramped spaces to make environments look bigger. Play with proportions in extreme close-ups, and use the natural distortion of wide-angle lenses to present your subject in a way that no one has ever seen before. Embrace open spaces.
These wide-angle lenses are totally different from the standard lenses that many shooters are accustomed to using, and shooting them in the same way one might shoot a 50mm, for example, just isn’t going to work. Use the opportunity to stretch yourself, step out of your comfort zone and experience something different. Mount a 28mm and see the world from a different perspective. You’ll thank us if you do.
And one final thought on the Zuiko 28/2.8; this thing is cheap. Super-cheap, in fact. For photographers using Olympus’ OM system there’s no reason to pass on this lens, unless the 28mm F/2 is already owned. And for shooters using today’s mirror-less and DSLR cameras, buying this lens and a suitable adapter will still cost less than $100. This is pretty incredible bang for your buck.
The Olympus Zuiko 28mm F/2.8 reminds us once again that there’s nothing better than vintage glass. It handles its flaws with grace, it’s affordable and incredibly compact, and most importantly, it takes great pictures. Perfect for travelers, street photographers, landscape shooters, and anyone looking to get a unique perspective on the world, it’s a versatile and consistently powerful photographic tool. If you’re looking for a truly high-quality wide-angle lens at a euphoria-inducing price, this Zuiko is certainly worth consideration.
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