Pocket manual focus supertele: Olympus OM Zuiko 200/4 MC on the E-M5

Another new arrival at my place: An Olympus OM Zuiko 200/4 MC. Just like the smaller 135/2.8, these old Olympus lenses have just something very special about them, regarding their design and feel in your hand. They are somewhat “delicate” but in a positive way. They are not heavy tanks like old manual focus Nikkors. On the E-M5, OM Zuikos feel perfectly balanced and their finish and design matches the camera body perfectly. You can’t help but dream of an Olympus OM digital camera with 24x36mm sensor that would surely be a blast. But as we all know, Olympus makes 13x17mm sensors, so let’s concentrate on the advantages of that when using the nice legacy glass – macro and telephoto!

OM Zuiko 135/2.8 and 200/4.
OM Zuiko 135/2.8 and 200/4.

A series of test shots with the 200/4

lensesIt’s grey and not very clear outside and snowing today, which we in Cologne actually think of to be a really cool and rather special event…. but it means that today, there’s nothing outside to be photographed with that long a lens. I did try a shot out of the window but it was so mediocre, with blurred detail because of the snow flakes between the lens and subject, that it just makes no sense to judge anything from that. So, out came my 1938 Contax as subject for a series of indoor tests. These all were taken at about 2.5m distance which is the near focus limit of this lens. Here’s a series from f/4 through f/8, available as full-size downloads as well, as usual converted from Lightroom:

Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/4)
Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/4)

Click for full-size image

Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/5.6)
Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/5.6)

Click for full-size image

Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/8)
Contax. (OM Zuiko 200/4 at f/8)

Click for full-size image

As you can see, sharpness is good from maximum aperture on. (Focus was on the Contax engraving on the camera body. Other parts of the subject might be very much out of focus, especially on the f/4 shot.) There are no individual contrast or vignetting corrections for all the images shown here, so apart from some very slight vignetting, images taken at any aperture look very similar overall. There is one gotcha, though: Colour fringes at harsh contrast detail are very clearly visible at f/4, to a much lesser extent still at f/5.6, totally gone only at f/8. Of course, the indirect flash lighting in these shots probably provokes this but, hey, you’re rather likely to shoot in situations prone to color fringes with a long telephoto lens.

Sadly, affordable OM Zuikos never come with apochromatic or low-dispersion lens elements. (In contrast, there are, in fact, a few somewhat affordable older Nikkor lenses with that feature.) When you use lenses that were designed for 35mm film cameras on any Micro Four Thirds body, you’re really pushing them to their limits because of the sensor’s high pixel density. All the colour fringes and other lens design faults are visible big and clear. So I figured that, with only conventional glass, a 200/4 is probably the limit that really will perform satisfactory, and anything longer wouldn’t really do. I don’t know if my theory is right but I can confirm that the longer 200/4 seems more prone to color faults than the 135/2.8. You’d have to stop down them both to get rid of it, but with this non-apochromatic 200 this means stopping down to at least f/5.6 while on the 135/2.8, f/4 basically just does the trick. If you’d now buy a non-apochromatic 300mm lens, I reckon it must be closed down even further than the 200 to get rid of all color fringes, and we all know that you should not really get past f/5.6, probably f/8, on a Micro Four Thirds sensor, because at smaller apertures you’ll get smeared details due to diffraction effects.

Oh, before I forget: I tried to do a 1:1 comparison with my Panasonic 45-200 – but the latter one’s internal focusing meant that the subject was way smaller on the image frame. So I figured it’s probably better to do that comparison with a more distant object, outside in good weather conditions.

OM Zuiko 135/2.8 and 200/4.
OM Zuiko 135/2.8 and 200/4.

My verdict for now

So while I would not give this lens an overall excellent rating (within the scope of using it on an E-M5) due to the colour fringe issue, it seems to be more than adequate for the job, and then you also have to consider today’s low prices (read: below €100) for lenses like this. Think the other way ’round: With a 24x36mm sensor, you’d need a 400mm lens to match this one on Micro Four Thirds, and there are not much low-budget 400mm lenses that would give you as-good results.

The thing that you must never forget is that you need to treat this lens like a super telephoto – even with image stabilisation, results are going to be much better with a tripod, and the manual focussing takes time and needs to be done with 100% accuracy. It’s tempting to use such a lightweight setup in a more occasional manner than you would use a 24x36mm sensor camera with a true 400mm lens, but you’d surely never get the best results, then.

Caveat – a word on different sensor sizes

Please note that classic lenses behave entirely different when used on a camera with 24x36mm sensor. A 200/4 is just a medium telephoto on such a camera. You’d much more look for things like bokeh and portrait stuff there. But on the E-M5, it’s more a pocket super telephoto lens. I intend to shoot closeups of  very distant – or very small objects – with it, to get them “as close as possible”. So, bokeh is really not that much of an issue here, but sharpness is. Just take the camera and it’s sensor size into account when reading any statements about classic glass.

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