Olympus 12-200mm Review – One lens to rule them all?

Earlier this year Olympus released the 12-200mm superzoom lens.  You can learn more about the tech stuff and read all the specs on Olympus’ 12-200 page.  Basically it is a small, lightweight, weather sealed superzoom.  It’s a 35mm equivalent of 24-400mm.  That is pretty serious range in a lens this size.  The price was creeping very close to pro lens territory from Olympus, so I was curious as to how good this lens would really be.  I’ve always dismissed superzooms as being overly compromised.  However, I find myself on many occasions thinking how great a lens like this might be for certain occasions.  Long hiking, family trips and vacations where photography is not the primary goal, situations where I can’t change lenses but need flexibility, etc…  The 12-100 is an amazing lens…but it is big.  Would this lens be able to deliver top results or is it just another convenience superzoom?  I really wanted to find out… so I rented it and took it on vacation.  Overall I lived with this lens for about two weeks as my only lens on an E-M1.2 inside a PeakDesign 5L sling.  Here are my thoughts.

Handling

-Solid feeling for a plastic lens… but definitely not as reassuring as the pro lenses.  The zoom is smooth and doesn’t wobble.  Focus ring is decent too.

-In hand, it really doesn’t feel any bigger than the 12-40 Pro.  Body size is small, but the filter is larger.  It takes a 72mm filter, so the front element is wider than the rest of the lens by a bit.  So yes, the lens is technically longer than a 12-40…but…it honestly doesn’t feel much bigger in use.  It’s also not noticeably heavier.  If you have a 12-40…it will take the same volume in a bag roughly.  

-Much smaller and lighter in hand than 12-100.  Yeah…there is a BIG difference here.  Much lighter and smaller body diameter.  Totally different experience in use.  The 12-200 really hides the fact that it has such a range.

-The lens hood is great… twist and lock one piece!   It’s plastic…but oh well.  I wish more of Olympus’ hoods were like this.  It might be simple…but it’s reliable, quick, easy, and has NO CHANCE OF EXPLODING.  (Olympus has a track record of grossly over-engineered lens hoods that have left many of us holding piles of ball bearings and springs and the worst possible time.)  Probably one of my favorite things about this lens was the hood.  My guess however, is that it really only is effective at the wider end.  Most flower petal hoods are like that on zooms.

Olympus 12-200 lens review
12-40 Pro vs 12-200
Olympus 12-200 lens review
Lenses zoomed.
Olympus 12-200 lens review
40-150mm R vs 12-200

-I show the 40-150R lens here with the 12-200 because it is an interesting comparison.  Both lenses share the same styling and feel.  The 40-150 being a bit smaller and lighter as well.  We’ll come back to this…

Image quality

-The lens is F/3.5 at the wide end and F/6.3 at the long end.  However…it stops down very quickly.  So really… it’s more of an f/4.5 – 5.6 lens in the majority of the range.  Being variable…my numbers are not exact, but it’s just to give you an idea of what area you will be working with most of the time.

-Everything below 100mm is fine, everything past 100mm starts to to degrade a bit. Definite vignette at 200, and definitely needs to be stopped down.  Vignette at 200 is too much for me in general but it corrected fairly easily in Lightroom without noticeable degradation.

-There is some chromatic aberration… not bothersome, easily dealt with, but it is definitely present with this lens.

-Macro is not as good as the pro lenses.  Decent, but quality isn’t a strong point at minimum focus distance.  The 12-40 seemed sharper at 2.8, 40mm MFD than 12-200 at 40mm MFD wide open at f/5.3.  (5.3 by only 40mm…see what I mean?)  It’s magnification is also not as strong as the pro lenses.

Olympus 12-200 lens review
40mm MFD
Olympus 12-200 lens review
200mm MFD
Olympus 12-200 lens review
12-40mm Pro @ 40mm MFD

-Minimum focus distance at 12mm is ridiculous.  You will hit your subject in most cases with the lens.  At 200mm it is decent.  I didn’t measure, but it is not as close as the 12-40, but definitely closer than the 40-150 F/5.6 lens.

-Lots of factors work against you at 200mm like vibration, shutter speed, higher iso, your distance and the air between the subject, etc…  getting the performance I am used to was tough or not possible with this lens.  Super telephoto range is not a casual focal length.  So to make a convenience lens seems odd in general.  People love them though.  Getting top results at 150 and 200mm is tough.  Bottom line.  You will get great images…but they will not be at the level of the pro lenses.  That’s for sure.

-No room to stop down if you want to stay below f/7.1.  This lens needs to be stopped down at least a stop.  Wide open is fine…but not amazing.  I got much better results stopping down.  The problem is the slower aperture means by 200mm we are out of room to stop down.  We can stop down past F/8…sure…but then we hit diffraction.  So we take a hit this way, or that way…no real win.  However, I use F/11 and F/13 all the time on M43… depending on the subject, diffraction may not be a big issue.  So, don’t be afraid to go past F/7.1 if needed.  Just don’t expect critical micro definition.

-Quality is similar overall to the 17mm F/1.8 I felt.  It’s good… but it didn’t take my breadth away compared to the 12-40 and 40-150.  But the package is MUCH smaller that carrying those two lenses together.  The images are great.  And images viewed in general, or printed had sharpness and looked just fine.  Very usable.  The just don’t have the fine resolution and definition that the better glass has.  Especially past 100mm.  This lens seems to do better in the 12-40 range.

In use

-Indoors the lens’ small apertures force slower shutter speed or high iso or both.  Ibis can only help so much before your subjects motion is the issue.  This happened far too often.  I recommend pairing it with a small fast prime for indoors and such.

-Surprisingly…the lens struggled with focus more often than any other Olympus lens at 200mm in low light conditions, night, etc… even on bright contrasts items.  I’m not used Olympus hunting.  In bright light the lens was just fine and quick.  As soon as light levels drop though, I just couldn’t get strong focus speed on certain subjects that my other lenses would nail instantly.

-Once you focus on something, if you zoom in or out, the lens automatically refocuses to the same distance.  Never noticed this on any other lens.  Very interesting, and kind of weird to see in the viewfinder.  Definitely helps though.

-It takes more work to extract 100% quality out of this lens than faster pro lenses.  I found I got better results with less effort with my pro lenses.  If I used this lens casually, my results were a bit more casual that I like.  Then again, my standards are high.

-A tripod HELPS, especially at telephoto lengths, and especially because the lens is so light weight.  I found on a tripod I could really get much more traction with the telephoto side of this lens.  The lens is really light weight.  It is hard to stabilize in hand, even with IBIS below 1/500th at 200mm.  At least for me.  My images were far better on a tripod.  In fact, I felt it was a totally different lens.  Much better results overall.  That tells me the lens might be too light weight for its focal lengths.  That’s me.  Maybe you can dampen it better. 

Overall

-Great outdoors lens with the bonus of some reach.  Especially if you want one lens and stick below 100mm most of the time.  It’s like a tiny 12-100 with a bonus super telephoto added on.  You can hike all day and not know you have so much reach.  Great for general nature, etc…

-Excellent casual trip lens and for people that don’t demand the last percent of pixel sharpness.  Pictures at normal viewing and prints look very sharp and have excellent detail.  As a family tripper, this lens made a lot of sense.  I’m not selling 60″ prints and i’m not trying to please critical art directors on these outings… i just want to capture memories and have flexibility.  This lens is totally made for this.  Being weather sealed, light weight, and offering the reach it does meant I could just have the lens on my camera at my side and capture any thing I wanted.  No need to swap lenses, etc…  When you have kids running around…the less you need to do, the better.

-If you need super telephoto for serious work, I think a dedicated lens would be far better choice.  The Olympus 300mm, Panasonic 200mm, etc… lenses like that deliver with impact at those focal ranges.  This lens doesn’t.  That’s not a bad thing, but we need to be realistic with out expectations.

-Very enjoyable for b-roll video.  I really liked shooting video with this.  If depth of field isn’t a huge factor overall, having this range for video was great.  And the fact that the aperture is slower meant I didn’t have to worry about ND filters, etc…  Shooting video clips was a blast with this lens.

-If you are ok with a lens like the 40-150 4-5.6, then you won’t mind this lens at all.  This lens is like that lens…but with extra range.  Though…that lens is had for like $100…  

-If you need a one lens solution for casual photography, it works great.

-Very capable lens, great all-rounder… but if you don’t mind swapping lenses… and the far telephoto is not your main need, the 50-150R and the 12-40Pro weight about the same as the 12-200.  And around the same price.

Wrap Up

In conclusion, it is a fun lens.  It is very nice to use and delivers good results.  If you aren’t a pixel peeper, this lens will more than satisfy in the image quality area.  Prints will look great.  At least up until 18 inches.  Anything below 100mm might be solid even to 24″.  I haven’t printed yet, i’m just assuming based on my experience with other lenses.  I still think this lens is a little too pricey.  I think $500 – 600 range seemed more appropriate.  Olympus has it today for $824.  Down from its 899 list price.  900?  That is just tough when their pro primes and 12-40 are in that neighborhood and blow this lens away.  Then again…convenience might be king for you.  Less space, less weight, mean less to worry about when traveling.  The  Olympus 14-150 might be a good alternative option with the two extreme ends aren’t a deal breaker.  It’s also half the price.  Overall it was fun…but at the end of the day, I won’t be buying this lens myself.  I am going to stick with the 12-40 and just keep grabbing the 40-150R when I want the extra reach, but don’t want to carry an “extra lens” or a heavy pro lens.

Here are some shots  to enjoy!  Most of the shots I made are family oriented so I won’t be posting them, but here are a bunch that are fun anyways.  The majority are not cropped either.  You can also see my tendency to use the ends of a zoom.  I don’t seem to use the middles of zooms very often.  Bad habit?  Maybe that’s why shorter zooms are better for me…

Olympus 12-200 lens review
12mm
Olympus 12-200 lens review
200mm shot of the previous scene
Olympus 12-200 lens review
200mm – Surprisingly pleasant bokeh. I was several feet away.

Olympus 12-200 lens review
200mm MFD. That is about as much macro as you can get out of this lens.

Olympus 12-200 lens review
Bird in flight? 200mm and more of an accident.

Olympus 12-200 lens review
12mm
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