Olympus 12-100mm F/4 Pro Lens Review

Olympus seems to be on a roll with their lens releases. The 12-100mm Pro lens is another excellent design that pushes the Olympus ethos of smaller and lighter. Though…it may certainly not seem like that when you first hold this lens. The lens intrigued me from the first moment I heard of it’s release…the only thing in my mind was, “Olympus just released the nature lens that dreams are made of!” I’ve wanted to spend time with this lens for a while, and this fall I finally got the chance to. A client sent me on assignment in the mountains. I was able to spend a couple days after the shoot on my own and really put this lens to the test with my theory. More on that in a bit.

So this is metal construction with a manual focus clutch as in usual Olympus fashion. It has a pedal hood and extends when you zoom. Surprisingly I didn’t really encounter any zoom creep. The lens has image stabilization built in as well. When combined with the in-body stabilization, it is apparently 6.5 stops. That’s pretty amazing. I didn’t do much testing of that to be perfectly honest. The majority of my work is tripod based. However the switch turns off ALL image stabilization including the sensor when in the off position. You can’t choose either or. They work together as a unit. There is also a Lens Function button.

Here is an image of the 12-40, the 12-100, and the 40-150 lined up. The 12-100 is literally in the middle. It’s wider in circumference, a bit taller, and a bit heavier than the 12-40. By the same increment…that much less so than the 40-150. Kind of a goldilocks.

The 12-100 when zoomed in is no bigger than the 40-150. It would have been amazing if it was all internal zoom…but physics right? The fact that it zooms doesn’t bother me…but it is a definite handful of a lens.

For reference, a typical SLR lens, the 24-105mm Canon L F/4 is virtually identical in size. If you have ever felt one of these lenses, you know what the Olympus feels like in terms of size and heft.

So this is where people usually get all twisted in knots with m43. If lenses are are supposed to be smaller…why is this just as big as an SLR lens? True. However, that mentality misses the point completely. Look at the following image. This is the Canon 24-105 and the 70-200 L. Both have IS, and both are F/4. This used to be my typical 2-lens setup back in the day. Bag space for these two and a camera body and the lens hoods is substantial. You can fit it in smaller bags, but the weight is still there.The 12-100 replaces both of these lenses. With any of the OMD or Pen cameras and this one lens, you have F/4 light gathering, and the equivalent of these 24 – 200mm focal lengths. And much better IS. Much smaller footprint overall. So yes the lens is kind of large…but if it is the only one you need…your entire carry is reduced.

I also ran some scenarios.

12-40 + Pana 35-100 = 739g Both 2.8, 12-100 reach overall, two different filter sizes. 62 and 58mm filter.

12-100 = 561g f/4, one filter only, 72mm filter

40-150 = 760g alone, 72mm filter

12-40 + 40-150 = 1,142g – two different filters, 62mm and 72mm filter

Expensive most to least
12-40, 40-150
12-40, 35-100
12-100

So…this really is a unique positioning. The 12-100 gives up a bit of reach, and one stop of speed, to do everything else just about equally and balance out the weight, provide a one lens solution, and not need additional filters. How does someone know if this lens is the right choice or not? The alternatives above are equally as good. Let’s look at a few other items.

Close focus has always been an Olympus strength. This lens can do near macro very well. Let’s compare it to the 12-40 which has me leaving my macro lens behind more often than not.

The 12-40 doesn’t focus nearly as close at 12mm as the 12-100. Look at this comparison…but also take note of where the 12-100 is at minimum focus distance. You won’t be sneaking up on living subjects with this lens.

12-40 @ 12mm
12-100 @ 12mm
12-100 @ 12mm…wow…

Here I have both lenses zoomed in fully and at minimum focus distance again. Note the Olympus has a greater magnification it seems. Regardless, both lenses are great for near macro shooting. Especially of larger subjects like flowers, butterflies, and similar.

12-40 @ 40mm
12-100 @ 100mm
12-100 @ 100mm

Take a look at these next three images. This is the beauty of the 12-100. One lens, one camera, and this kind of flexibility. Yes you can get a superzoom camera…or other super zoom lenses…but they are slower, consumer build quality, and rarely produce files at the level of this lens. The only down side is that this lens is NOT parfocal. I wish it were. That means when you change zoom, you have to refocus your image. If this lens were parfocal, that would have been a huge benefit overall for stills and for video.

12mm
35mm
100mm

Image sharpness was great. I have nothing to really comment on. It felt just slightly behind the 12-40, but equally capable. I don’t have measurements, but I would have never thought twice. I shot several assignments with this lens and never felt that it didn’t deliver at the top level of what I expect. In fact, for documentary work, it was a sheer joy to only have one camera body and one lens. I could quickly produce images and detail shots without have to use two cameras, or switch lenses.

Take a look at the following shot. This was taken around 30mm. Look at the crop at 100% magnification. Do you need more? Maybe with a 150mp back from Phase One we could have potentially read who made each cable…but seriously… this is from a 20mp camera. Do we NEED more? Solid to me.

30mm
100% crop Even more detail is visible on screen and print. This file is sized down for my blog.

The zoom is nice and smooth. Secure with good resistance. Just plain right. Here is an example of zooming during a long exposure.

And panning the same scene.

It finally came time for me to go off into the mountains with this lens. And my theory was proven correct. There is no better single lens nature solution. In the field, it never felt heavy. I could put a polarizer on the lens and not have to worry about adapters or other filter sizes, etc… You don’t even need large size square filters. A cokin P size was plenty. And you can hand hold it. The lens and camera were comfortable to hand hold all day and make exploring a pure joy. The fact that I can get myself into streams, between rocks, or in other places where I wouldn’t want to change lenses and still make both wide and tele shots is amazing. You just fall into the lens and get creative. Only having one lens was fantastic. Usually when I shoot nature, I am almost always using F/7.1 on the Olympus system. Great amount of depth of field, and still plenty of light gathering. For getting more bokeh, shooting at F/4 and zooming in creates very pleasant out of focus rendering as you will see below. And the macro is good enough for most purposes. I honestly never missed the F/2.8, and 100mm is plenty of zoom unless you are after distant wildlife. If you are using a super telephoto lens for wildlife, you probably have a second camera and lens for wider shots. This lens would be perfect. No need to decide if you have a tele zoom, or a standard zoom… you have both. Great combo for shooting tight wildlife and then context shots wider would be the 300mm Pro and the 12-100 Pro on two bodies. Trust me, that setup would be so much smaller than any equivalent from other systems. Been there done that. So here are some shots that I just loved.

Virtually straight out of camera. Shadows brought up a little and highlights down to reveal details. No need for HDR with this one!
I loved being able to shoot large wide waterfalls and then zoom in tight for smaller sections. No need to change lenses so close to the falls.
Pictures cannot recount the sheer magnificence of this tree. It was breathtaking.

Weather sealed, excellent build quality, amazing IS, good aperture speed, excellent focal lengths, conservative filter size (72mm), comfortable weight and size, great close focus…what else does someone need? Honestly, this lens is a winner. I haven’t bought my own copy yet though. I rented this one for a while. I just love the 12-40, and usually I don’t need more than that. The size of the 12-40 is perfect in my opinion. I might have had a different opinion if this was a 12-100 F/2.8 of the same size. I also much prefer the close focus ability of the 12-40 better as well. I just felt the working distance and magnification fared better on my typical subjects.

I have to be honest. If you want the smallest, lightest package while shooting and don’t mind changing lenses go with the 12-40 and Panasonic 35-100. If you don’t want to change lenses in the field and want a solid all-around performer, the 12-100 is it. In the studio I don’t mind changing lenses and would rather use prime glass or have the option of faster apertures. It’s definitely not a street lens. It’s hefty. About as large as I would want before a tripod collar is necessary on M43. It’s also not my first pick for portraits. F/4 is more than plenty for commercial and studio portraits of certain styles, etc… But if you love 3D popped out of focus everything but the eyes portraits, this is not your lens. And thats ok.

For traveling and documentary, urban exploring, nature and landscape, and other similar areas, this lens can’t be beat. Overall, I loved this lens. I would love to own it as well. I wouldn’t use it as often in my commercial work. However, I would never go into the landscape without it. Honestly, I might be single minded here…but to me…this is a nature lens. Pure and simple. And no other lens I know does it better.

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5 responses on "Olympus 12-100mm F/4 Pro Lens Review"

  1. Great real world use review, Tony!
    This lens has been a temptation ever since it was launched and still is but as I shoot most of my landscapes (long exposures, especially) in high res mode, I have to ask if you tested it in that mode and if so, how it held up?

    Cheers,
    Stéphane

  2. Hi Stéphane! You know…I checked my files and I apparently did not make any High Res captures with it. Which is unusual since I use that feature a lot. From my overall high res experience I will offer this advice…you will get the same file at almost twice the dimensions. Therefore resolution is naturally increased, noise is better, and dynamic range is slightly improved. Whatever is good about the lens remains, and whatever it’s flaws are will be even more present. High res won’t add anything in and of itself aside from movement artifacts and alignment issues based on your subject or your tripod moving. So if you love the results from your lens…you will get the same file…but with the increased pixel dimensions. I would be more than comfortable shooting with the 12-100 in High res. In fact, I think Robin Wong has some examples of this with that lens on the E-M1X on his blog.

  3. I have this lens and for me it is the real advantage of m43. Very versatile, weather sealed, perfectly balanced with OM-D1 (MkII) body. You can get a little better output from shorter/fixed focal lenses but you will sacrifice a lot on size, weight and price. There is not a single lens for any system with combination of this optical performance and sealed metal built, not to talk size and superb IS.

    When you shoot outdoors all weather and carry it in a backpack in the wilderness for days, there is no better solution then this setup. You can also still shoot from lighter tripods like Velbon Luxi L, which is 10-15 cm shorter and 3x lighter then pro tripod necessary for bigger cameras.

    • Absolutely Agreed. Most people have never really experienced not having to change lenses and actually have a usable range of this kind. Once you spend some time with it, it really does become apparent that Olympus is on to something.

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