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Oct 12

Quick Test: Olympus 60mm Macro vs Olympus 12-50mm Kit Zoom

Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 and Olympus 60mm f/2.8 Macro

I’ve had several requests over the past few weeks to compare the new Olympus 60mm macro to the relatively versatile Olympus 12-50mm kit zoom that’s available as a bundle with the OM-D.  The 12-50mm is an interesting lens. It’s got a wonderful range, from super wide to medium telephoto, plus has a macro mode that comes awfully close to 1:2 magnification.  As a result, many people are interested, especially if they are casual macro shooters, if it’s worth it to plunk down an extra $500 for the 60mm.

Well, assuming you don’t need the f/2.8 aperture of the 60mm for things like portrait use, it becomes a very good question.  Most macro work is done stopped down and with flash, so the slow speed of the 12-50mm isn’t that big of a detriment.  Of course the 60mm has over two stops of aperture advantage, making hand held work easier and enabling shallower depth of field, but this might not matter at all for macro shooters.  Also, since 1:2 magnification is similar to 1:1 on full frame, the magnification of the 12-50mm might be enough for many shooters.  As an aside, I know the 12-50mm doesn’t truly do 1:2, but in actual field use, it captures an image roughly 36mm across, which is the same image width as 1:1 on full frame, and very close to 1:2 actual magnification.

The full image frame of the test target

When Macro mode is engaged on the 12-50mm, the lens becomes a fixed focal length 43mm f/6.0 lens.  To test, I put the 12-50 in macro mode and focused to fill the frame with an old Compact Flash card.  If you look at the image to the right, which is the full frame, it’ll give you an idea of the real world maximum magnification capable with the 12-50mm. This is very close to the 12-50′s minimum focus distance in macro mode, at just outside maximum magnification for the lens.  I shot handheld, but braced in position and using flash, so there should be no issues with image shake whatsoever here.  I then compiles some 100% unsharpened crops to take a look at.  In all of these crop comparisons, the 12-50mm is on the left and the 60mm macro is on the right.

First up, a comparison near wide open on the 12-50.  This is at f/5.6 on the 60mm and f/6.0 on the 12-50.  See the 100% crops below (click to view full size).  As expected, the 60mm macro is significantly sharper here.  The 12-50 is wide open and the 60mm is stopped down a bit, but also, you’re talking a kit zoom vs a dedicated macro lens.  Still, the 12-50 produces results that are more than usable:

100% Center crops @ f/6 and f/5.6 – 12-50mm on left, 60mm macro on right – Click to Enlarge

I then tested the lenses both at f/8.  At this point, the 60mm is slightly past its peak performance (which occurs in the f/4 to f/5.6 range), while the 12-50mm is at its sharpest point.  Beyond f/8, both have some softening due to diffraction.  At f/8, the lenses are much closer to each other. The 12-50 sharpens up nicely and competes pretty well, though it can’t quite keep up with the 60mm in absolute sharpness.

100% Center crops @ f/8 – 12-50mm on left, 60mm macro on right – Click to Enlarge

Finally, let’s take a look at both lenses at their sharpest apertures (f/5.6 on the 60mm and f/8 on the 12-50).  Here you can see the real ultimate advantage of the 60mm. The lens is sharper and has much higher contrast as well.  Still, the 12-50mm puts in a respectable performance, and for many people, this will be good enough for their purposes.  If you want to get serious about macro, however, the closer magnification and higher optical quality of the 60mm will be worth the extra money.

100% Center crops @ sharpest aperture – 12-50mm @ f/8 on left, 60mm macro @ f/5.6 on right – Click to Enlarge

About the author

Jordan Steele

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Admiring Light; Photographer; Electrical Engineer and Dad

2 comments

1 ping

  1. Wolfgang Lonien

    Thanks for that comparison Jordan. I was thinking about getting that 12-50mm kit lens of the OM-D if I’d buy one, just because my wife wants a macro. Should more than suffice for some flower shots IMHO. And as a bundle with the camera it’s only around 200€ – a steal.

  2. Greg Rook

    Thanks for this informal but very informative review. It is amazing how well the MZ 12-50 does against a device designed mostly for macro use. However, I find your final test and evaluation a bit misleading. Given that most macro photographers will compromise a little image quality to get greater DOF, it would be likely that users of the 43mm would choose F8 or F11, and likewise, given the more limiting DOF of the much longer FL of the 60mm, in order to get the same DOF, they would need to choose even smaller stops F11 and F16. Please understand, I do respect the reason why macro-photographers sometimes choose a longer focal length, say for skittish/uncooperative bugs, but I also know they understand the trade-off, a reduced DOF that requires more adept focusing skills and an extra F stop (or two). For this reason it might have been more appropriate to do your comparisons at F8/F11 for the 43mm and F11/F16 for the 60mm. Under these test conditions I would be willing to bet the 43mm would show to be at-least equivalent to the 60mm (maybe better, something Olympus may not want to tout). BTW, I have an MA in photography (1984) and am no stranger to macro-photography, embarrassingly owning too many associated legacy lenses, bellows, double cable releases, alignment devices, stages, lighting, etc. With the OMD I only recently got into digital and am loving it. I recently bought the Lumix 12-35 f2.8 because I was disappointed (slightly) with the MZ 12-50 image quality. However, simply because of what has been revealed in reviews like yours about the macro qualities (maybe video too) the MZ 12-50 will likely be staying in my bag! THANKS!

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