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Field review: The Olympus M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS Pro goes to Oz

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The Olympus 12-100mm F4 IS Pro is a rugged, professional-level zoom lens with a focal length range that can cover almost any everyday situation. It also focuses impressively close, only adding to its versatility. It’s the kind of one-lens solution that might tempt you for travel photography in particular, but these types of lenses often trade convenience for outright image quality – so is that the case here? Let’s find out.


Key specifications:

  • Focal length range: 12-100mm (24-200mm, 35mm equiv.)
  • Stabilization: Up to seven stops with Olympus bodies
  • Filter thread: 72mm
  • Close focus: 1.5cm (0.6″) at 12mm; 27cm (10.6″ at 100mm)
  • Maximum magnification: 0.3x at wide end of zoom (0.6x 35mm equiv.); 0.21x (0.42x 35mm equiv.) at tele end
  • Diaphragm blades: seven
  • Hood: LH-76B (included)
  • Weight: 561g (1.24 lb)
  • Optical construction: 17 elements in 11 groups
The Olympus 12-100mm F4 is pretty much up for anything. Like a good Port Douglas sunrise.
ISO 200 | 1/6400 sec | F4 | 47mm

Back in 2018, which feels more like two decades ago instead of two years, I took the Olympus 12-100mm F4 on a vacation to Australia for three weeks as my main lens alongside a single bright prime. Mounted on an OM-D E-M1 Mark II, it seemed to me to fit the bill of a reasonably sized solution for just about everything I’d want to photograph. Plus, I knew from prior experience that the Olympus kit would stand up to just about anything mother nature could throw at me.

Full disclosure: I organized and paid for this personal trip on my own, and the choice to bring Olympus gear was my own as well.

All images edited in Adobe Camera Raw 13 with adjustments limited to white balance, exposure, highlights, shadows, white and black levels. Sharpening at ACR defaults; noise reduction at 25 luminance, 25 chroma.


Handling and design

The M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 joins Olympus’ Pro lineup of prime and zoom lenses, offering top-notch build quality, with claims of dust-proof, splash-proof and freeze-proof construction. It has a manual focus clutch mechanism, giving the feel and very nearly the response of a mechanical focus ring, even though it’s technically a focus-by-wire system. The large, metal-ribbed zoom ring has just the right amount of resistance to it.

The manual focus clutch mechanism in its pulled-back position The stabilization switch and customizable L-Fn button

There’s no denying it, hold this lens in your hand and it just oozes quality. Nearly everything is metal, though even the plastic IS switch on the side of the lens doesn’t so much ‘snap’ into place as ‘thunk’.

What you get in exchange for this feeling of solidity, though, is some heft. At 561g (1.24 lb), it’s very nearly the weight of an Olympus E-M1 Mark III, and significantly weightier than the E-M5 Mark III and E-M10 Mark IV. That said, the larger grips of the E-M1 Mark III and E-M1X mean it actually balances quite well on those bodies.


Autofocus and stabilization

Autofocus on the Olympus 12-100mm F4 is extremely quick, whether you’re shooting close-up or far away. The bokeh isn’t half-bad either, considering that’s fencing in the background. A more in-depth look at bokeh is coming up later in the review.
ISO 200 | 1/250 sec | F4 | 100mm

The Olympus 12-100mm F4 racks through the entirety of its focus range really quickly. It’s perhaps not quite as quick as some Panasonic lenses designed to take advantage of those cameras’ Depth-from-Defocus technology, but it’s more than fast enough for any wildlife I encountered, both inside and outside the Australia zoo.

The rapid AF speeds also make it easy to use the lens when you’re near minimum focus distance, allowing for easy capture of close-ups without necessarily needing to resort to manual focus.

Great stabilization with slower shutter speeds helped to keep my ISO values low a lot of the time, even when working around the F4 max aperture.
ISO 250 | 1/3 sec | F4.5 | 12mm

The stabilization promised by the combination of the 12-100mm F4 and the E-M1 Mark II was part of the reason I could see past this lens’ F4 maximum aperture for general use. It wouldn’t be great for shooting fast action in failing light, but it was perfect for images like this travel snap of a crazy-colored hostel under warm sunset light.

And really, the nice thing about the M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 is that unless you need to stop down for depth of field or another reason, the lens is more than sharp enough to just shoot wide-open all the time.


Image quality

Olympus’ line of Pro lenses has a history of being renowned for their great image quality, and the M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 is a strong performer in most respects.

Sharpness

The lens maintains a great level of sharpness throughout the zoom range, and it doesn’t get hazy or fall apart if you’re close to your subjects. So while there were times on this trip where I stopped the lens down, it was usually to get more depth of field, not to increase sharpness.

Things stay nice and sharp even at 200mm (equiv.), and with a relatively close distance to the subject.
ISO 200 | 1/200 sec | F4 | 100mm

On the wider end of things, the 12-100mm is more than a match for the 20MP sensor in the E-M1 Mark II even at F4. This is great news for users that might be leery of a Micro Four Thirds lens that ‘only’ opens up to F4, as well as those users that want to take advantage of the high-res shot mode.

Wide open, the Olympus 12-100mm is plenty sharp across the frame for the 20MP sensor. Click-or-tap-through for the full-size image.
ISO 200 | 1/2500 sec | F4 | 12mm

Vignetting and distortion

As is the case with most lenses designed for mirrorless systems, the M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 Pro has some non-optional software corrections built into its design. These are applied automatically to the Raw files. So while characteristics like vignetting and distortion appear really well-controlled, it’s likely that software is partly responsible. You can see in the image above that there’s still some vignetting in the extreme corners, but it clears up somewhat as you zoom in.

There’s a bit of vignetting at the wide end of the zoom, but it’s not too objectionable.
ISO 200 | 1/5 sec | F4.5 | 12mm

Again, likely due to built-in software corrections, there’s not much to complain about with regards to distortion either. There looks to be a small amount of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, and without much in the way of pincushion distortion at the longer end of the zoom. Check out the vertical lines present in the two images below to get a sense of how the lens’ distortion will (or won’t) impact your images.

At longer focal lengths, there’s not much in the way of distortion at all.
ISO 200 | 1/500 sec | F5.6 | 80mm
Click through to see a small amount of barrel distortion in this image at wide-angle.
ISO 1250 | 1/10 sec | F4 | 12mm

Bokeh

While this lens was never going to be a bokeh machine owing to its F4 maximum aperture, you can absolutely get some subject isolation depending on your distance to subject and focal length.

For snapshot portraiture, you can get some subject isolation even in the middle of the zoom range.
ISO 200 | 1/250 sec | F4 | 54mm

In most cases, the bokeh is nice and smooth. You’ll struggle to really blur the background fully away unless you’re real close to your subject and at near maximum zoom. Unfortunately, if your background is full of lots of out-of-focus highlights, you may sometimes notice it looks a bit ‘busy’, with rings around the outsides of the ‘bokeh balls’ and in some cases some ‘onion ring’ effects.

I found the bokeh in this image to be a bit ‘busy’ for my taste.
ISO 200 | 1/800 sec | F4 | 100mm
For smaller subjects, you can get close and zoom in for nice isolation.
ISO 640 | 1/60 sec | F4 | 70mm

Flare and sunstars

Flare and loss of contrast aren’t serious issues on the 12-100mm F4, even with the sun in the frame. What I was never really sold on, though, were the sunstars. They just didn’t ‘sharpen up’ even as I stopped down further, which then softened up the rest of the image due to diffraction.

After all, F11 on Micro Four Thirds is F22 equivalent for full-frame systems, so if you’re stopping down to the same aperture you would on 35mm to get better sunstars, your sharpness will drop off a cliff. Admittedly, I did put up with some diffraction to get some fantastic sunstars with the M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 on this trip, so it seems like this is just a slight weak point of the 12-100’s design.

Flare is pretty well controlled, but I’m not super sold on the sunstars; stopping down might help more, but on Micro Four Thirds, that’s guaranteed to soften the image. (And apologies for those couple specks of dust, as well).
ISO 200 | 1/800 sec | F8 | 13mm

Lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberration

The M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 does a pretty good job keeping chromatic aberrations at bay. If you look closely, though, you will see some fringing in challenging situations. The bottom-left corner of the below image shows some residual fringing around the leaves; the built-in corrections look to have taken care of much other fringing, but left the purple behind. At least this type of CA (lateral) is easy to remove.

Less easy to deal with is the bit of fringing around the slightly out-of-focus sticks just to the right of the center of the frame; this is longitudinal CA, and you can see a bit of it in as green/cyan fringing in the reptile image earlier in the review. So it’s there, but we’ve definitely seen worse.

Bats. So. Many. Bats.
ISO 200 | 1/200 sec | F4 | 100mm

But jumping back to bokeh for a moment, I think the biggest issue with this image (other than the subjects, if you’re not a fan of bats) is the severe onion-ring bokeh in the highlights behind the flying mammals.


Conclusion

What we like What we don’t
  • Sharp across the zoom range
  • Built like a tank
  • Resistant to flare
  • Incredibly versatile range
  • Very good stabilization
  • Low distortion
  • Bokeh can be busy
  • Sunstars aren’t the best
  • Some CA present, even with built-in corrections
  • Heavy
  • Expensive

And so, as happens occasionally on this site, I will be forced to eat some of my previously published words. I’ve said before that I don’t need a zoom on vacation. And I said I like cameras that are small and light, maybe even pocketable. Well, it turns out that I may have become a convert to zooms, depending on the destination.

If I myself was in the Olympus ecosystem, this is a lens I’d strongly consider. Also, this is the beach on which I got sunburned through my shirt. That Australian sun is no joke.
ISO 200 | F9 | 1/320 sec | 20mm

The M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 provides such a versatile range in such a well-built package that I really did feel ready for anything. From dimly lit church interiors and landscapes to portraits and wildlife, the 12-100mm can handle pretty much anything. No, it won’t blur backgrounds to oblivion most of the time, and when you do get some subject isolation, the backgrounds will occasionally look a bit busy. Sunstars aren’t the best (nor the worst), and some people will have trouble accepting an F4 zoom on a Micro Four Thirds body.

On the other hand, the stabilization offered by this lens (when mounted to a compatible body) is pretty insane, which allowed me to keep my ISO values lower much of the time. I also love being able to hand-hold images at 1/10th of a second to get some motion into a scene while the surrounding environment stays tack sharp.

ISO 200 | 1/160 sec | F4 | 28mm

I think the biggest knock against this lens is the price; with an MSRP of $1299, it’s a costly proposition. There are a few Olympus options that fall within this focal range that are less expensive and built similarly well, but that’s just the nature of this particular offering.

If you want solid image quality and don’t want to be fumbling around and changing lenses on a beach next to a sweltering Australian rainforest, the M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS Pro is well worth considering.


Scoring


Sample gallery

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