Are Olympus Zuiko the GOAT Vintage Lenses?

Olympus has been assigning the Zuiko name to its range of high-quality lenses since 1936. Zuiko-branded lenses were made for SLR, rangefinder, and automatic point-and-shoot cameras in medium format, 35mm, and even half-frame formats. Assessing the best of anything in photography leads to vivid debate and lots of room for subjectivity. Here are my 5 reasons why I believe Olympus knocked it out of the park with their Zuiko range, and when you look at all factors are the best film lenses ever made. Be sure to leave a comment to let me know your thoughts. 

My partner took this portrait of me on my OM-10 with the standard 50mm and Kodak Ultramax 400. While the focus is a little soft, it's a perfect example of the way this combo renders red spectacularly. 

Character 

A key reason for the resurgence in popularity of vintage lenses both for film shooters and those adapting them to digital is the individual characteristics they hold, and the Zuiko range is no exception. In my experience using the standard 50mm with a range of film stocks, reds in particular pop out whilst not bleeding or looking over-saturated. Like many lenses of the pre-digital era, the sharpness at f/1.8 isn’t on par with what can be achieved with more modern gear, but the look and feel of the image and the transitions between the in and out-of-focus zones have a creamy and progressive nature that I really love. I recently acquired the 50mm f/1.4 from a local camera company and tested it with a roll of Ilford FP4 and was impressed even further with the way the images were rendered. I can’t wait to use it again with color-negative film to see if it pops even more than the standard lens. 

While often overshadowed by more "enthusiast" offerings, the humble OM-10 gives you a small and light weight mount for the excellent Zuiko range. 

Size 

Olympus’ most famous and widely used Zuiko lenses were designed for their OM range of SLR film cameras from 1972 to 2002. Their first iteration of this design was called the M-1 but they were soon pressured by Leica into changing the name, which shows the playing field Olympus was in at the time. The OM range of Zuiko glass is extensive, but they share common design elements of a smaller size to competitors, consistency in build quality, and quirks such as the aperture dial being placed towards the front of the lens (to leave space between it and the shutter speed dial).

Compared to SLRs by Canon and Nikon, both the body and lenses made by Olympus were lighter and smaller by a significant margin. The weight of an OM-10 with the standard 50mm comes in around 645 grams, an OM-2 with the very slightly larger 50mm f/1.4 is still just 755 grams. Compared to something like a Pentax K1000 that’s over 600 grams before you select a lens, or a Spotmatic with 50mm f/1.4 over 900 grams, your neck and shoulders will love you for choosing Olympus.  

Using vintage lenses on digital cameras has boomed in popularity since mirrorless technology has evolved, but using an adapter adds bulk and weight to your rig. The compact size and low weight of Olympus lenses make them perfect for this application, and you may find they allow you to get a perfect balance point as well as crisp images. Speaking of small, the Olympus Pen half-frame film camera is so diminutive most who are uninitiated have trouble believing it’s a true SLR. The half-frame lenses are tiny and can also be adapted to some digital cameras, but if you’re planning to do this check before buying as there are variables in compatibility so do your research first. 

An Olympus OM-2 in black with the brilliant 50mm f1.4 mounted. 

Cost 

If you do a Google search you can find people who believe vintage Zuiko Lenses can hold their own in image quality and sharpness against those of Leica from the same era. That’s not a debate I’m willing to get into, but considering the disparity in cost between the two brands, the fact that it’s even a discussion point is my second reason Zuiko is the best overall film era lenses. While you may pay Leica money for a mint condition Zuiko 50mm f/1.2, the f/1.4 and even f/1.8 that came standard on many bodies are widely available, can be found for bargain prices, and will produce images that I believe any discerning photographer could be proud of.  

A picture I took of my son using the 50mm f1.4 on Ilford FP4.

Quality  

Alongside their film cameras, Olympus built its reputation making high-quality imaging equipment such as microscopes for medical and scientific purposes. This demand for precision undoubtedly trickled across to their vintage Zuiko range as you won’t find a single lens in the line-up that isn’t built to a very high standard, unlike some of the cheap plastic kit lens offerings available today.  

Notice the shutter speed adjustment near the lens mount and the aperture ring towards the filter thread on the OM-2. 

Range 

While I love the 50mm focal length in the OM system, there is an extensive range of primes available including a 28mm f/2, 350mm f/2.8, and everything you can imagine or need in between. I recently tested the 40mm f/1.4 on an Olympus Pen FT and was so blown away by the results even in half-frame format that I immediately announced to my family I wanted one for my upcoming 30th birthday.  

The depth of red color rendition even the standard 50mm zuiko lens can create has taken my breath away many times when first viewing the scans. This image was created with CineStill Film's new 400D. 

Whilst I am partial to the Pentax range of Takumar lenses with their beautiful and unique results, I just can't go past the OM system and the range of Zuiko glass to pair them with. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below on these film-era Zuiko range of Olympus lenses and share other brands you enjoy using when shooting film or adapting to digital cameras.    

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71 Comments
Deleted Account's picture

No.

All lenses are a series of compromises. These compromises are far more pronounced in vintage lenses - before the advent of computer aided design and manufacture masterpieces of clinical perfection. The consequence of this is each lens has its own character.

It's not a question of which is the "best", it's a question of which tool is the best fit for your creative vision.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

It is weird there are so many thumbs down, your simply stating well established facts. Computer aided lens design was well adopted when the OM system came out, certainly not the degree it is today, but my guess was crucial to optimizing their existing primes (as they are know today) to the smaller size. This book of 1978 has a chapter on computer design. Cool stuff.

Stephen Strangways's picture

Betteridge's law of headlines states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

Jay Maynard's picture

I will hold the Zuiko macros, especially the 50/2 and 90/2, up against any lens, macro or otherwise, from any maker for any format. They used every bit of their expertise on them, and it shows. I got the 4/3 OM adapter specifically so I could use my 50/2 macro on my E410, and when I get an OM-5, I'll put it on there, too.

Jan Steinman's picture

Macro is less likely to demand auto-focus, which makes this an easier choice to make.

Anyone with some care and publicly-available documentation can "CLA" a vintage mechanical OM lens. Not just anyone can order new circuit boards and motors for modern lenses, and once they're of a "certain age," NOBODY can get parts for them.

Like you, I suffered through the E-System years of underwhelming bodies and outstanding glass. I chose to buy the Zuiko Digital 50mm ƒ/2 Macro lens, brand new. It was fantastic optically, giving the OM 50/2 a run for the money!

But just recently, it became a fixed-focus lens. It stopped focusing. Manual *or* automatic. On two different 4/3rds bodies and two different µ4/3rds bodies. OMDS wants more to repair it than KEH or eBay prices to replace it.

I think I'll just go back to my OM Zuiko 50/2 Macro.

william sheehy's picture

I still have a set of 4 and my OM1. Recently I put them on my 5dsr and was more than surprised. The article is correct they are really better than you would expect. My Canon 35 f2 is more consistant edge to edge but not by allot. I may even use it for an incredibly small walkaround lens in the future.

Scott McDonald's picture

To each their own...I wouldn't give them the GOAT title, but they're not bad either. I have four Zuiko "Light of the Gods" lenses, the one Lucy ended up using, the 50mm 1.4, the 28mm 2.0, the 85mm 2.0, and the 100mm 2.8...I like them just fine, but they do not get the attention that I give to my Topcor, Konica, Zeiss, Takumar, and Canon FD line-ups when it comes to "vintage" glass.

John Nixon's picture

I had an Olympus OM4Ti and a couple of OM1s back in the day. The Zuiko lenses were fantastic, the 50/1.2 being one of my favourites of all time. However, in terms of sheer character, I’d say the Leitz 5cm Summicron Collapsible I had on my M3 probably pipped it to the post.
All comes down to personal preference really.

Eric Robinson's picture

What a load of delusional tosh from start to finish. People who imagine it’s all about GOAT powers lenses don’t k ow the first thing about photography. I think the snap of the person with hair in the reddish jumper proves my point. Good for the fridge but little else.

Ivor Rackham's picture

The problem with firing off insults as a response to an article is that it leaves you open to exactly the same criticism. e.g. "What a delusional load of tosh that comment is. I think your gallery proves the point that you don't know the first thing about photography." If your opinion disagrees with Lucy's - and it is just an opinion - why not construct a valid counter-argument?

Eric Robinson's picture

It’s no insult it’s called an opinion. People who believe that this or that piece of photography hardware is the answer, not sure what to, are, as I said delusional and are missing the point of what’s really important and that’s the creativity of the photographer. Drooling over how the lens ‘renders red’ is nothing short of crackers. Who cares? When all the great photographers of the last 100 years or so are examined few care about what they they held in their hands, it was all about what was going on between their ears that really mattered.

Pete Coco's picture

So much anger towards a person who is passionate about photography and exploring vintage gear. Wow.

A comment like this, as Ivor already said, also invites criticism of your own work...

Eric Robinson's picture

Anger! It’s called an opinion. If you don’t like it then too bad.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Calling someone's article "delusional tosh from start to finish" is insulting. Lucy didn't say it's "all about" GOAT lenses at all. You made that up. She is a film photographer and was just reviewing one group of lenses and extolling their virtues as she sees them.

There are hundreds of lens and camera reviews on this and other sites. The lens is one aspect of photography, and this is what the article is about. Lucy doesn't claim otherwise despite your assertion.

If your opinion differs, and think a different lens is better, then state that respectfully and your reasons why. If you have empirical evidence that the lens doesn't render red well, then state that evidence. I have the 50mm f/1.4 on my OM2-SP and I think she is absolutely right about it.

Finally, Lucy didn't invite a critique of her article. If she had, I am sure she would have asked another respected and accomplished photographer and writer. When your poorly composed, uninvited, and acidic comments are aimed at a renowned and respected photographer who has a good name in the industry, as Lucy has, it reflects badly on you. When your comments are placed alongside the other unknown old men who regularly snipe at Lucy's articles, it sounds misogynistic. The comments section isn't an invitation to be mean about people's creativity, it's an option to discuss the subject matter, in this case, the OM Zuiko lenses.

Jan Steinman's picture

Yea, the glass is great, but what made the OM System outstanding for me was the depth and breadth of technical excellence and innovation, including: first TTL metering, first TTL flash metering, first 21mm as fast as ƒ/2, the incredible macro system, including the unmatched Telescoping Extension Tube, and the still-unique radial-firing T-8 ring flash with reflectors, the only "beauty dish for bugs" that I've ever seen.

My favourite glass is the 100mm ƒ/2. One of the earliest use of ED glass, they really could have painted it off-white, as it is up there with the 180/2 and 250/2 in awesomeness.

Olympus carried this "great glass" forward into their otherwise underwhelming E System — the "SHG" line had the two world's fastest zoom lenses until quite recently, and the 150/2 never ceases to amaze me.

Like Leica glass, Olympus achieved a certain je ne sois quois with their glass, an undefinable indescribable quality.

Stephen Strangways's picture

*First TTL-OTF metering and TTL flash metering, not first TTL metering.

Jan Steinman's picture

Thank you. I've corrected my comment. (Uhm, no, I didn't. It won't let me edit that for some reason, even though I can edit <i>this</i>.)

However, there's a huge difference between cramming a photocell below the mirror and actually integrating the light coming through the lens *during exposure!*

I recall putting my OM-4T in a dark room, tripping the shutter, and waiting for my brother (who was notoriously camera-shy) to come in the room and turn on the light, at which point, the OM-4T waited until it got enough light, then closed the shutter.

Stephen Strangways's picture

Fun fact: when every manufacturer was putting the photocell in the viewfinder, looking at the focusing screen, Asahi (Pentax) had a patent on storing the exposure value in memory from when it was read with the mirror down, for the time it took to flip the mirror up and start the actual exposure. Putting the photocell below the mirror was initially just a way to avoid paying patent fees to Asahi. Minolta did it as the "final check metering system" that was advertised as a feature, but was actually a flaw as it meant the mirror had to flip up, the exposure read off the closed shutter, and then the shutter opened after a delay, leading to a noticeable delay between pressing the shutter release button and the actual shutter firing. Olympus turned it into a true feature by reading the light reflecting off the film, which not only got rid of the delay, it allowed for very accurate exposure timing that could adapt changes in lighting during the exposure, like the scenario you described.

Jan Steinman's picture

Credit where credit is due: I recall reading somewhere that Olympus actually bought the OTF metering patent from Minolta — and then executed what Minolta had not been able to do properly.

Or, perhaps they bought the patent in self-defence, not wanting anyone to be able to claim "prior art" on them once they were manufacturing.

Stephen Strangways's picture

It's never been clear to me if it was OTF metering in general that originated with a Minolta patent, or if it was OTF flash metering specifically.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Great idea, I'll sell all my Fuji x gear and buy an OM-1. Then I will surely be a great photographer. Is the red shirt part of the deal?

Douglas Goodhill's picture

In reality I sold my OM 1 and 10,, with 5 lenses for about 60.00. They had their day but it has surely passed.

Jan Steinman's picture

Must have been crappy lenses. Or you did no price research. Almost any of the OM Zuikos would get you that much for one lens alone! A few are selling for ten times what they cost brand new.

Or did you have five copies of the 75-150 zoom?

Douglas Goodhill's picture

They were sold in 2010, I imagine the prices of these has recovered. I sold cameras when the OM system was introduced, and it was the cameras that were the star, not the lenses. I believe that was to a large part because of the existing reputation of Olympus lenses, and their mediocre existing line of cameras. I instantly purchased the Olympus Pen EP1 when introduced and upgraded until they were sold off so I'm anything but an Olympus hater.

Jan Steinman's picture

"They were sold in 2010"

Ah. You didn't explain that.

The sarcasm didn't help your cause.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I was even a fan of the 35mm non interchangable super zoom Olympus cameras of the 1990s, it was our go-to family camera even though I was using 8x10 format at the time. I still think the zone focus Stylus with 35mm 2.8 was a great camera, maybe better than the Rollei 35. The only disappointment, surprisingly, was the Olympus Six, maybe bad sample. I was afraid their innovation would lose some strength when separated from the Medical division, and switched to Fuji, then to Nikon because the ability to use my lenses. I just sold it all, Nikon and Sinar 4x5, and returned to Fuji for the X100 and E series. I'm old, and travelling light!

Deleted Account's picture

Apparently my comment upset a few people.

OK, have it your way, these are the Greatest [lenses] Of All Time; truly, there has never been a lens that has even comes close to these lenses.

I can't work out whether stupid or white knighting. Although, the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Again, I reflect that a piece of gear won't make you an artist, much less a good artist. Yes, I'm judging you.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I don't see why you have such a big problem with someone stating an opinion, even if it's different from yours. It's not as if Lucy's invading a foreign country, felling a rain forest, or shooting pandas. She's just giving praise to a photography product that she likes. If your opinion disagrees with hers, then that's fine. But it is possible to disagree without being obnoxious about it. I disagree with what you say, but I would not call you stupid, that would just be rude.

Jan Steinman's picture

Perhaps Jon should write his own article, and submit it to your editorial board?

Nah, didn't think so. It's so much easier to just throw stink-bombs from the sideline.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

The article was beyond stating an opinion and was making recommendations. If it was stated from the point of "I use these cameras and lenses and this is what I do with them" it would be different. What if it was written by KEH cameras, wouldn't it be an advertisement?

Ivor Rackham's picture

Douglas, It wasn't written by KEH Cameras. Lucy wasn't selling the lenses. Furthermore, they are very difficult lenses to find. Most of the writers here produce articles about the kit they know and ignore the kit they don't because they have no expertise in using it. Lucy is almost exclusively a film photographer using equipment that is no longer available.

Fine cameras though they are, I don't write Nikon reviews because I don't use their kit. Those that do use Nikon sing their praises and point out their downsides, Canon users shout about the latest great Canon kit but don't shy away from pointing out their downsides. If you read Lucy's article again, she also mentions the shortcomings the lenses, specifically the sharpness compared with modern ones.

There were no affiliate links encouraging you to buy it. You didn't have to pay to read the article, it was free.

What's most interesting though is that yet another old man decides to be critical of this article.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

It seems you read my comment but didn't understand it. Can't help you there.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I read the article without noticing the video at the top. About half of the video IS for some vintage resale business. It might not be KEH, but I was using it as an example. What is revealed is fstopper staff defends anything no matter what trash it is. Your credibility drops to zero Ivor.

Ivor Rackham's picture

So you are trying to defend the false statement you made about the article based on a YouTube video that was embedded into it to provide extra information that you hadn't even watched when you first spouted your bile. I think it's your credibility that is called into question.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I make no claims of credibility, you are the one who writes for this website, so should have it, but despite your claim a collector bought a photograph of yours, you remain mediocre at best .

Ivor Rackham's picture

When you resort to insults because of your inability to string a coherent counter argument together, poor insults at that, it's your credibility that goes out of the window. Plus it's "collectors" with an S.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

I thought it was a compliment, sorry.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I don't remember asking for a critique, but if I had, I would have approached a talented photographer who knew what they were talking about.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Ha ha ha

Brian Criswell's picture

Mr. Goodhill is an amazing photographer. Just look at the portrait of the old lady he’s used for his profile picture!

Douglas Goodhill's picture

That is just too weird on many levels. Anyone else?

Pete Coco's picture

I find it interesting that a person who posts insulting comments and says "yes I'm judging you" is also the most offended and unable to accept criticism for what he says. Interesting, but not surprising.

Deleted Account's picture

What criticism?

Go back, re-read my original comment. You'll note I wasn't rude, just a bunch of people down voting for no reason.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Interesting article and a great read, Lucy. They are indeed superb lenses.

Eric Robinson's picture

Based on what evidence? Have you yourself compared them to the many hundreds of other vintage lenses ever produced? To say a lens is the GOAT based on no more than owning it and liking it is rather a weak argument to say the least . Calling people out for not swallowing such a silly claim and pointing out a few truths is rather unfair.

Bas Noordermeer's picture

Every camerabrand has some great, and some less great lenses. Still in my experience after testing lots of manual vintage lenses the lenses of Olympus are almost all of great quality. The cheaper 50/1.8, 28/3.5 and 135/3.5 are really giving splendid results and although less sensitive to light than the more expensive Zuikos (50/1.4, 28/2, 135/2.8 for instance), they are just as sharp, contrasty and colourfull. Actually the cheaper versions are often a tiny bit better in quality because no compromises have been made in order to produce their maximum f-stop, and they are among the smallest slr lenses that have been made. I recommend to get the most recent multicoated versions, either mentioning 'MC' on the frontring or plain 'Zuiko'.

Using 21/3.5, 24/2, 28/2, 28/3.5, 35/2.8, 35/2, 50/1.8, 50/1.4, 55/1.2, 85/2, 90/2, 135/2.8, 200/4 on OM-2n & OM-1.

As much as I like Zuiko lenses I'm also impressed by many old Minolta (mc/md rokkor) and Asahi Pentax lenses. Nikon and Canon both made inferior (built quality) lenses compared to those mentioned above.

Jan Steinman's picture

Olympus was known for continuously making small, incremental improvements, without fanfare, or even without putting a "II" or "III" on the label.

It's worth getting the highest date-code that you can. (Higher serial numbers don't always correspond to later manufacture.) The date code is generally on the rear, near the rear element, and has a crude "rubber stamp" quality (or lack of) to it.

First two characters identify the manufacturing facility. Third character is the year, starting with "1" for 1971, through "9", then "A" for 1980, etc. The last character is month, with ABC for October through December.

I agree that many second-tier makers had superior optics in those days. Nobody ever got fired for buying Nikon or Canon, so the smaller makers had to work harder for their sales!

Rick Sander's picture

Those photos look, as mentioned, very soft.

Would you use this lens again?

Ivor Rackham's picture

They are all shot on film. Film never looks as sharp as digital, and that's one of the delights of it. Similarly, all vintage lenses are softer than modern glass. That also has great appeal to those of us who use vintage lenses.

Deleted Account's picture

For some reason, I can't respond to Ivor or Jan.

I would just point out, I didn't say anything rude in my OP. I don't have a problem with someone stating an opinion, but the question was ridiculous on its face. If you don't want definitive responses to such questions, stop using clickbait headlines.

As far as I can tell, you guys are just running to the defence of a pretty young woman, for no apparent reason. But maybe you genuinely do believe a particular piece of gear will make you a better photographer, by giving your images some special secret sauce - and if you do, you'll always suck.

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