Thursday, 19 September 2013

Olympus 28mm f/2.8

Today we're going to have a look at the Olympus Zuiko 28mm f/2.8, a moderately wide angle lens for the old OM system. I remember reading that either the f/2.8 - or its budget cousin, the 28mm f/3.5 - was the best-selling "other" OM lens, after the 50mm f/1.8 that came standard with the camera, and it's quite widespread on the used market.

Checking through old issues of Popular Photography from the early 1980s it seems to have sold for just under $100 at the time, cheaper than almost all of Olympus' other lenses, on a par with 28mm f/2.8 lenses from other manufacturers except Nikon, whose own 28mm f/2.8 AIS was almost three times as expensive. Albeit that it was a very clever lens with a novel close focusing system.

I am on my side

If you ignore inflation the 28mm f/2.8 has held its numerical dollar value surprisingly well, depreciating by about a third. Over the last few years it has had a second wind, because like all the other OM lenses it can easily be adapted for most modern SLR and digital rangefinder systems - Nikon excepted - in which case it either becomes a small normal lens or a tiny wide angle, depending on the format. For this article I used an Olympus OM-2N loaded with 35mm film (mostly Fuji Superia 400). Here's what the lens looks like:

Here it is sitting next to a Nikon 50mm f/1.8D for scale:

There was a plethora of wide angle OM lenses, all of them small and cute. The 28mm f/3.5 was apparently almost exactly the same lens apart from the narrower aperture, and there was a 28mm f/2, which was one of Olympus' flagship lenses.

Polypan F 50, which makes everything look like a Bela Tarr film.

In common with all the other OM lenses the 28mm f/2.8 has the aperture ring right at the front, and a neat focus ring just behind, which is the opposite of most other SLR lenses but something you get used to. Performance-wise it's basically sharp in the middle at all apertures, fuzzy in the edges at f/2.8 but sharp at f/8, albeit never eye-wateringly sharp, and it has a bit of CA.

Here, I'll show you, with some images shot with my 5D MkII (no sharpening), f/2.8 at the top and f/8 at the bottom, 100% crops from the middle:

If there's a difference it doesn't matter. There's a little bit of CA, which is more apparent towards the edge:

Minus 15 red/cyan in Adobe Camera Raw obliterates it. Here's the extreme bottom-right corner at f/2.8 and then f/8 (with auto contrast - there's a fair amount of vignetting):

On an APS-C body it would be sharp across the frame at f/8. By all accounts the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AIS is the gold standard for manual focus 28mm lenses, but I don't have one, so I can't compare it with the Olympus equivalent - which is smaller and much cheaper on the used market. But on the other hand you might have a modern Nikon digital SLR, in which case you can use the Nikon 28mm AIS without an adapter whereas the OM range is forever out of your grasp.

EDIT: Nine million years later I got my hands on a 28mm f/2.8 AIS. It is a very good lens - almost distortion-free, with a quasi-macro close focus (especially on APS-C). Stopped down to f/11 it's essentially sharp right to the very corners, sharper than the OM 28mm f/2.8. On a physical level it felt slightly more substantial, not necessarily tougher. On the used market it sells for three, sometimes four times as much as the OM lens. It's good, but it's not three times good-er. Better.

Part of what remains of Waterloo's Eurostar terminal. The people were frozen in posed laughter at the moment the hands struck midnight. As one thing ends another begins.

After having used the OM 21mm f/3.5 and the two OM 24mms, the 28mm feels a bit redundant. Ordinarily I would go for something wider or narrower or several stops faster. To my mind 28mm is a 1970s, 1980s type of focal length, one that never had enough time in the limelight to develop a cult. News photographers opted for ever-wider lenses - I always think of the famous shot from 1982 of the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life, which seems to have been taken with a 20mm - while 28mm became simply the widest setting on consumer zooms, which nowadays strive for 24mm. On the other hand it's a neat general-purpose do-most-things type of focal length, albeit that it falls in between two stools, not wide enough to make a statement, but wide enough that your compositional choices are limited.

There are lots of compositions you can make with 28mm, but you can make more with 35mm and if you just want to get lots of stuff in the frame, 20mm is better. And of course most modern general zooms have a 28mm setting, except that (a) they're generally not as good wide open and (b) they're huge and heavy. As before the OM-2n is a joy to shoot with and its exposure system was easily good enough for print film.

I've grown to like Fuji Superia 400 - it's versatile, not very grainy, and although the colours come out of the scanner looking pretty green they process well. It tends to make green look like bright neon (viz the handbag and the snake) and red becomes slightly artificial. This shot has neither, and looks very... Japanese. Like a Japanese photo blog. Probably because of the overcast sky.
In my experience film copes better with overcast than digital capture; film retains a bit of texture, whereas digital tends to just clip it away.
I proofread and tweaked this article six months later. Of all the pictures this and the shot of Waterloo's Eurostar terminal struck me. Eurostar because I can remember when it was still open. This one because of the colours, the composition, the atmosphere. It says something about London; lots of shoddy decaying empty buildings that are nonetheless worth a fortune.