Zuiko Digital 90-250 f/2.8

A formidable lens, practically flawless within its defining parameters.

Super-telephoto lenses are some sort of a photographic holy grail, at least among the amateurs, who see them used by pros at sports events and bird sanctuaries, and fantasize about having one, someday. Of course, the big guns also cost big bucks, so it usually ends at that.

Warning 1.9 MB picture © Danijel TurinaWell, I got a chance to try one of the best – Olympus Zuiko Digital 90-250 f/2.8. In 35mm terms, it’s a 180-500 f/2.8 – certainly warranting a huge “wow!” With telephotos, you usually face a choice between speed, focal length and compact size, where you can have any two. It’s possible to make a reasonably compact long lens as long as you keep aperture in check, but if you want to combine speed with reach, you will end up with a truly massive beast. If you want zoom, be prepared for a significant increase in size and weight, which is the reason why there are only few such lenses in existence.

Having all of this in mind, I was well prepared, and when I actually got the lens I wasn’t shocked by its bulk. In fact, I was more shocked by ZD 35-100 f/2, which is a medium-range telephoto, and you expect medium range telephotos to be reasonably compact. With a 500mm f/2.8 zoom you expect cetacean dimensions, and when you handle the actual lens it suddenly doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. I was able to hand-hold it for reasonable amounts of time, and carry it around for hours without collapsing under the burden. My tripod, however, was not up to the task – when I screwed the lens on, I almost immediately took it off, because it looked like the entire thing might collapse at any moment. You would want a big Manfrotto or Gitzo with a well made gimbal head. Together with E1 it weighs somewhat less than 5kg, enough to overwhelm a lesser tripod – or a photographer, for that matter.

Warning 2.5 MB picture © Danijel TurinaAs is to be expected from a top tier Olympus lens, it is wonderfully built. Sturdy metal construction, no plasticky parts (other than focus distance selector), splash proof – all in all, it inspires confidence, and I would not hesitate to use it in difficult weather conditions or subject it to not-so-gentle handling, which are common aspects of professional use. The lens does not extend while zooming. The shade is made of metal, with a bayonet mount and a screw to hold it locked. It can also be mounted backwards to save space when not in use. Hood interior is lined with black velvet, as on 35-100 f/2, in order to prevent undesired reflections. Everything is well engineered and a tribute to fine mechanics. I don’t know how you’re supposed to use filters with it, though. There is a front screw, but there is no opening on the hood (unlike 35-100) for the polarizer, and no rear slot for gelatin filters either.

What is it good for? A good question; I never owned a similar lens, so I didn’t really have any experience with the applications that would demand it. Sports in the open (athletics, football, baseball) and wildlife photography come to mind, and I think it would be the lens of choice for a safari, because you would need as much reach as possible, and versatility of the zoom to cope with moving animals and changing motives. Also, you would need as big aperture as possible, to give you reduced DoF and to keep you in the game from early dawn till deep sunset.
Not having safari as a viable option, I decided to take it to the zoo for a field test.

It was -10° centigrade - not really a safari temperature, unless you’re shooting penguins. Fortunately, most ZOO animals didn’t really mind the cold, and I managed to get some pretty good closeups.

Warning 3.8 MB picture © Danijel TurinaAs you can expect, the lens is very sharp, even wide open. It renders an incredible amount of detail, and bokeh is excellent. Even with the 1.4x teleconverter it manages to maintain very good sharpness, but there it behaves very much like 35-100 f/2: the image becomes softer, with slightly reduced contrast and visible chromatic aberrations wide open, but nothing really alarming. Without the TC, however, the sharpness, contrast and the general impression are nothing short of spectacular. I didn’t notice any vignetting or variations in sharpness between focal lengths. It works as well as a fast prime lens, and for a super-telephoto this is quite a feat. So, not only is it fast and long, it is also tack sharp. Olympus knows how to make their glass.

Warning 1.6 MB picture © Danijel TurinaThe motor is fast, although I had an impression it is not as blazingly fast as I’d sometimes want it. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to be the weak link of the focus system. This ignoble role was left to my trusty E1. To put it simply, E1’s autofocus assembly is not up to the task, not by a long shot. It was struggling, hunting, missing and misfocusing so much, that I can only classify it as problematic and unusable for most practical purposes. Its weakest points are low light and close distance. When these two combine, you can kiss autofocus goodbye and try to do it manually, which is a daunting task with a super-telephoto.

The closest focusing distance is 2.5m, at which point it is almost impossible to get a lock. It gets better as the distance increases, but you really need a well lit contrasty static target to get a firm lock. Basically, the autofocus was by far the weakest point of the camera-lens system, and the only thing that really gave me a hard time, and here I really mean hard time. It was so bad I missed most shots, and half of the ones I got were misfocused. Fortunately, I found a really cooperative camel which kept posing for me and kept very still, and the bisons were not very active either, so I got some nice shots.

Warning 3.0 MB picture © Danijel TurinaAutofocus aside, I was really pleased with the reach of the lens, even without the TC. No, you can’t shoot from across the street and fill the frame with a sparrow, but you can compose the frame with a sparrow as a major compositional element without getting so close as to startle it, which is more-less the prime demand for a birding lens. Also, because of the huge reach I was willing to forgive it the weight, and with some practice I was able to hand-hold it most of the time, although I preferred to use fences and trees for support whenever possible.

In fact, the reach was so huge that zoom was really a significant benefit; a 250mm prime would not have been as useful, because it is simply too long for most purposes. Animals do not usually stay in one place for long, and it is utterly impractical to change your position with this behemoth; zoom, therefore, remains the only practical solution. After a day in the zoo, I already formed my conclusion. It is a formidable lens, practically flawless within its defining parameters. However, unless Olympus makes a professional body with blazingly fast autofocus, it will not live up to its full potential. But to make sure, I scheduled another test – an indoor table tennis championship.

© Danijel TurinaUnlike the ZOO, where I shot at ISO 100 and 200 at abundant daylight, the indoor tournament demanded ISO 800 and 1600, and even that gave me 1/200 at most. We all know how E1 sucks at high ISO, so you can imagine why this would not be a good thing. Furthermore, to shoot sports means to shoot people in rapid motion, and a super-telephoto only adds insult to injury, magnifying things so much that you would need at least 1/2000 to freeze the motion. Even at ISO 1600 and f/2.8, I was three full stops from the necessary speed, and at such low light autofocus did more harm than good.

© Danijel TurinaAfter repeated attempts to coerce it into submission, I finally gave up and switched to manual. This proved to be less than ideal, as prefocus doesn’t work very well in table tennis, where player movements are unpredictable, and depth of field so narrow. Also, the manual focus ring is too huge and too far from the camera to be really useful. The ring isn’t designed for speed, but for accuracy; it is tight and slow, and works really well if you have the time to get things right. Unfortunately, this is never the case when shooting sports, and so I lost many opportunities. It is fortunate that I wasn’t a pro with job at stake, because I had to settle for getting some shots, instead of getting exactly the shots I wanted or needed. Technically speaking, I cannot fault the lens, and this is a lens review. However, since a lens doesn’t exist in vacuum, and needs to coexist with a camera, one cannot help but wonder what good is a brilliant ultra-expensive professional lens without a body that can harness its potential. When the camera managed to lock focus, the results were excellent. However, I never had the feeling I could relax and focus on framing and artistic elements; most of the time I had to work against the autofocus which would miss, miss, miss and hunt, only occasionally managing to lock.

© Danijel TurinaStrangely, I didn’t miss vibration reduction (image stabilization, anti-shake, or whatever it’s usually called). At least not all that much – hand shake contributed little to overall loss of sharpness. Compared to the problems caused by the autofocus, hand vibration was negligible. Also, most of the motion blur was caused by target motion, and VR in either camera or lens can’t help you there. Image decomposition at high ISO, however, was a major pain, because it seriously degrades the usability of the end result. This left me with really mixed feelings. On one hand, this is a lens I could really contemplate on buying. Unlike 35-100, which I felt to be too short for my needs, and too heavy for the reach, 90-250 was just right and fit my telephoto needs like a glove. It’s excellent for birds and animal portraits. However, there’s no point in buying it at this point in time, as it cannot be adequately used on present 4/3 cameras. On a Nikon D2X or a Canon 1DMkII, however, it would be just what the doctor ordered. Instead of making a successor to E1, Olympus seems to make yet another consumer SLR, and I cannot help but wonder about the seriousness of their dedication to the professional end of the market. They produce high-end lenses, but no bodies to mount those lenses on. It’s a strange situation which can’t really benefit their balance sheet.

So, what are the alternatives? Within the Olympus range, 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 and 300mm f/2.8 are the only real options. With 300mm f/2.8, you get some more reach and somewhat better edge sharpness (at least according to the MTF curve on the Olympus website), but you sacrifice the zoom; the bulk and weight are very similar between the lenses. With 50-200 f/2.8-3-5, you get somewhat less speed, reach and sharpness, but the difference is very slight, and the lens is much lighter and more compact, not to mention cheaper. However, there are some uses that really demand that extra stop of light and additional reach, and each photographer must decide what is enough, and what is too much – at least for him.

© Danijel TurinaIn my opinion, this lens is Olympus’ Rubicon. They need to decide whether to cross it and take the plunge into professional waters, or cut their losses and concentrate on the amateur segment. If they make a professional body with really good autofocus and high ISO, this lens could make a very good choice for sports shooters; basically, it’s one of the best choices around, no matter what brand. Yes, it is expensive, but have in mind that you can have this lens and E1 body with money to spare for the price of Canon 1Ds MkII body alone. But until they make such a body, this lens just can’t show full potential in its intended purpose.

Danijel Turina

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Objavljeno: 30.01.2006.