Updated January 30th, 2018.
What’s the best M4/3 travel zoom? The answer to that question of course is: it depends. Depends on your photography style, your priorities, your budget, etc. We now have lots of excellent choices in the M4/3 world, so let’s dissect them and see which ones are more interesting.
My main reason for buying my Olympus OM-D E-M1 was to have a fully functional “DSLR” style camera but at a much smaller size and weight compared to my old Nikon D700 FF kit. Because of this, I decided to stick mostly with primes because M4/3 primes are so small and lightweight (except for the latest Olympus Pro f/1.2 line, big!) Also, when compared to the f/2.8 zooms in my D700 kit, with these primes I basically lose nothing in terms of low-light performance and shallow DOF.
Currently, I own a Panasonic Leica 15mm f/1.7, M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8 and M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8. This whole kit weighs less than 0.8 lbs (370 grams) and costs less than $1000. This gives me a moderate wide-angle/street-shooting lens, a normal lens and a short-tele/portrait lens. This is my normal kit and it all fits in a small Tenba DNA-8 messenger bag and weighs less than 3.2 lbs with batteries and memory cards, including the bag!
However, for travelling, I like to have an all-purpose zoom mounted on my camera so I can walk around and photograph everything from a flower to the Taj Mahal without having to change lens. For me, the most 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, relatively close-focusing and it must have a wide angle of at least 12mm (24mm equivalent on Full Frame).
Your priorities might be different, you might not care as much about the size and weight as I do for example. Or maybe you don’t mind having a lens that is less wide in exchange for a longer tele (that’s a common desire for beginners, but in my experience, as a travel photographer the wide-end is far more important and useful than the long end, and that’s why I want at least a 12mm wide angle.) The point is that your mileage may vary and my favourite lenses may be different than yours, and that’s perfectly OK.
Following are my thoughts on the various options we currently have.
Price No Object:
In late 2016 Olympus released an outstanding all-purpose zoom. 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. In terms of zoom range and performance, this may seem to be the ideal travel lens, but its size, weight and cost are causing me to have second thoughts. I want my travel zoom to be small and light enough that I can carry it all day without even thinking about it. Food for thought…
Online reviews are calling this lens outstanding and a game changer. Here is what Neil Buchan Grant had to say:
The zoom 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 reviews are 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 focusing 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 really important for a travel zoom, so this makes it a compelling choice. So right now I think it is pretty safe to say that if you own a Lumix body, this should be your travel lens of choice. If you own an Olympus body capable of using Sync IS (like 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 videos, the variable aperture of this lens will be a drawback and you may prefer the 12-100mm f/4 (or just leave the Leica at f/4.0?), the 12-40mm f/2.8 or the Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8. Personally, I do very little video so the variable aperture doesn’t bother me much. Keep in mind though that f/2.8 is ONLY AVAILABLE AT 12mm. As soon as you get off the wide-angle stop, the aperture starts going down rapidly.
Panasonic also has a 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 angles of view. 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. It can now be purchased as a kit lens with deep discounts. 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 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 shooting 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.
Zoom lenses that have a bigger than 5x zoom ratio are considered superzooms. I generally do not favour these lenses because they entail more optical compromises (the Olympus 12-100 being an exception). Panasonic offers a 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 Lumix 12-60mm. However, this 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.
Many would say that it is worth the compromises 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 travelling, 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 a lot of while travelling. 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.).
The Old Pros:
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 FF 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 Lumix 12-60mm. The 70mm equivalent 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 are 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 shooting this is a better choice for its smooth and silent focusing. For a bit more money I think the new 12-100mm f/4.0 is more flexible as a travel lens.
The constant f/2.8 max aperture of these pro zooms would be nice to have but I always travel with the 15mm f/1.7 in my pocket for indoor shots in low-light (like museums, churches and restaurants) and the 45mm f/1.8 for portraits and those occasions where I need shallow DOF.
So to summarise, if you don’t mind the weight, size and price of the Olympus 12-100mm, it is surely the best travel zoom in terms of performance, flexibility and durability. For me, I prefer the smaller size and weight of the PanaLeica 12-60mm. What about you, what’s your ideal travel lens?