Updated January 6th, 2017. Added the Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH
Now that I have my Olympus OM-D E-M1 I’ve decided to buy mostly primes because M4/3 primes are so small and lightweight. When compared to the f/2.8 zooms of my D700 kit, with these primes I basically lose nothing in terms of low-light performance or shallow DOF.
Currently I’m looking at buying a Panasonic Leica 15mm f/1.7, M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8 (bought it in 7/2016) and M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8. This whole kit weighs less than 0.8 lbs (370 grams) and costs less than $1000. This will give me a moderate wide-angle, a normal lens and a short-tele/portrait lens. I will also add the fantastic Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 macro as I like to do a lot of macro and product photography. This would be my normal kit that would all fit in a small shoulder bag and weigh less than 5lbs.
However, for travelling I like to have an all purpose zoom mounted on the camera so I can walk around and photograph everything from a flower to the Taj Mahal without having to change lens. For me the important characteristics for such a travel zoom lens are that it be relatively inexpensive (so I don’t have to worry about losing or damaging it), light-weight, small, weather resistant, close-focussing and have a wide angle of at least 12mm (that would be 24mm equivalent on Full Frame).
Price No Object:
Olympus has released a very interesting looking zoom for travel photographers. The M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Lens is a very well built and very high performance Pro level lens with a constant f/4.0 aperture, weather-sealing and built-in Image Stabilisation. This zoom has an equivalent focal length of 24 to 200mm so it would replace both the traditional 24-70mm and 70-200mm. This lens also has excellent close-focussing capabilities (0.3 x) making it great for smaller objects like flowers and butterflies. It is on the large and expensive ($1299) side of things but given that it replaces two zoom lenses, that’s a compromise I might be willing to make. When combined with the new Olympus E-M1 MkII and its Sync IS this lens will give you a whopping 6.5 stops of stabilization. Early hands-on reviews are calling this lens outstanding and a game changer. Here is what Neil Buchan Grant had to say:
The zoom in particular was a big surprise for me. I would not have expected it to be on a par with a more moderate zoom, given its wide equivalent focal length range of 24–200mm. Rarely do such lenses perform as well as standard zooms. This zoom was giving me results I would put on a par with a very good prime lens. I constantly used it in situations where most lenses falter, shooting directly into the sun and with high contrast subjects like the chrome bumpers of those wonderful 1950’s American cars. Normally you would expect to see some dodgy flare or some purple fringing but this zoom is incredibly good at handling both. I did some portraits with the zoom also, just to see how it handled them, I was amazed at the detail it produced and I shot with both lenses at their widest aperture on most occasions.
There is now a new contender for Top Travel Zoom in the Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4 ASPH. POWER O.I.S. The first review is out and it looks like this lens lives up to the usual PanaLeica build and image quality. It is just over half the size and weight of the M.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4.0 PRO, in fact it is almost identical in size to the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO. It has the same close focussing capability as the 12-100mm f/4.0 at .3x, it has image stabilization (only works on Lumix bodies though), it is weatherproof and it retails at $300 less than the 12-100.
To me size, weight and costs are pretty important for a travel zoom, so this makes it a pretty compelling choice. So right now I think it is pretty safe to say that if you own a Lumix body, this should be your lens of choice. If you own an Olympus body capable of using Sync IS (currently only the E-M1 Mk II), then the 12-100mm f/4.0 may be a better choice for you. For any other Olympus body I think the Leica will be the better choice. Now if you do a lot of video, the variable aperture of this lens will be a drawback and you are probably better off with the 12-100mm f/4, the 12-40mm f/2.8 or the Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8.
Panasonic recently released a new lens that fits the affordable travel zoom bill perfectly: the Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH Power O.I.S. This lens weighs a mere 210 grams (7.4 ounces), is weather-sealed and focuses down to 20cm for a .27X magnification ratio which is great for relatively small things like flowers and butterflies. It has a reasonable 5X zoom ratio with 24-120mm FF equivalent angle of view. Early reviews indicate very good build and image quality for the price. Panasonic says they are positioning it as a premium but not pro level lens. The maximum aperture is a bit slow but for outdoor use that’s not really a problem. Here’s a review of this lens:
Olympus also has a lens that competes with this one, the Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-50mm F3.5-6.3 EZ. This lens is $100 cheaper than the Panasonic but it is 10mm shorter at the tele end (50mm vs 60mm). It is also slower, with a maximum aperture of only f/6.3 at 50mm. This lens is also weather-sealed and it is smaller than the Panasonic. The stand-out feature of this lens though is that it is geared towards the video shooter. The EZ in the name doesn’t mean ‘easy’ but rather “Electronic Zoom”. This lens allows you to do some smooth zoom and focus pulls when filming video. This lens also has excellent close-focussing capabilities with 0.36x to 0.72x magnification ratio, more than enough for a travel zoom and probably good enough to leave your macro lens at home. According to reviews the optical performance of this lens is excellent at 12mm, good at 50mm. This is a unique lens with unique capabilities and it can now be found with deep discounts, making it a bargain.
Panasonic already offers another popular travel zoom with the Lumix G Vario 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 Power O.I.S. ASPH lens that is surprisingly only 1mm wider and 4mm longer and weighs only 2 ounces more than the 12-60mm. However, that lens is not weatherproof and costs about $200 more than the 12-60mm. Olympus also has a very well rated and very popular M.Zuiko 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 that is weather-sealed and sells for around $599.
However, for me the 24mm wide-end is a lot more important and useful on a travel zoom than the long end.
Many would say it would be worth it for the extra reach as it has a 28-300mm FF equivalent. However, for me the 24mm wide-end is a lot more important and useful on a travel zoom than the long end. So I value the 24mm wide-angle of the 12-60mm more than I value the 300mm tele end of the 14-150mm. When I’m traveling I end-up taking a lot of pictures of landscapes, buildings and monuments so the wider the better. Also a 24mm wide-angle offers more creative possibilities than a 28mm. The longer tele may be useful for wildlife photography but that’s really not something I do much of while traveling. In any case, 300mm is really not that long so if I do go on a wildlife trip then I would probably rent a high-quality tele lens like the Olympus 300mm f/4 (600mm eq.) or the Leica 100-400mm zoom (200-800mm eq.).
Panasonic also offers the pro-quality Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 (equivalent to the much vaunted 24-70mm f/2.8 pro zooms) which is nearly identical in size to the 14-140. However that lens is a fair bit heavier and nearly twice the price of the 12-60mm. The 70mm long end while acceptable is not as flexible as the 120mm of the 12-60mm. Still, this is a great lens but I think the 12-60mm focal range and weight is more flexible for a travel lens. Olympus offers a superb M.Zuiko 12-40mm ED f/2.8 PRO zoom that offers slightly more reach and better build and image quality than the Lumix 12-35mm but it is heavier and more expensive than the Panasonic. However, if you do a lot of video this is a better choice for its smooth and silent focussing. For a bit more money I think the new 12-100mm f/4.0 is more flexible.
The f/2.8 max aperture of these pro zooms would be nice to have but I intend to also travel with the 15mm f/1.7 for indoor shots in low-light (like museums and restaurants) and the 45mm f/1.8 for portraits and those occasions where I need shallow DOF.
What about you, what’s your ideal travel lens?