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A Cuban Epiphany - the new Olympus lenses

After many years of searching for the Holy Grail of headshot lenses to use with the micro four thirds system, I’ve finally found it! Olympus asked me to take 2 newly announced lenses to Havana in August, the 25mm 1.2 PRO and the 12-100mm f4 PRO. This post tells the story of that trip and my gradual realisation that this new 25mm lens, a standard 50mm in old money, is the lens I’ve been waiting for!

Olympus OMD EM1 25mm 1.2 PRO

My 2 weeks in Cuba was based around a large villa in Vedado, a relatively upscale district of Havana where many of the Cuban embassies are situated. With me, on this trip, were my friend and keen photographer, Karl and a London based Columbian model chosen for her ‘could pass for Cuban’ looks and her language skills.

Olympus PEN F 12-100mm f4 PRO

After spending day 1 getting reacquainted with Cuba’s atmospheric capital city, (I had visited 15 years prior for 3 days), we set about on day 2 shooting our model in the backstreets of the old town. The shoot went well, we found locals willing to let the model change her clothes in their houses and we were even ‘given’ a free 30 minutes with a beautiful American car which was just passing by.

Olympus PEN F 12-100mm f4 PRO

Olympus OMD EM1 25mm 1.2 PRO

Olympus PEN F 12-100mm f4 PRO

Before during and after our shoots with the model, my attentions were constantly diverted by the curious and magical faces of the locals we came across. By the end of our first week I realised these faces, along with the charismatic, sun-drenched backstreets of Havana, became by far the greatest draw… so I chose to focus on the streets and Karl continued to shoot with the model. Here are a few favourites from her shoots, click any to enlarge.

Havana offers the travel photographer a wealth of opportunities from its colourful, ornate architecture to its long, dusty backstreets which light up during the golden hours, but its the people who make this city truly unforgettable. Everywhere you go in Havana you will see people of character or beauty standing, sitting, walking, working and playing, many set amidst impossibly romantic backdrops of architectural decay or tropical richness. The light was so strong on most days that even at the sun’s highest point, it bounced off the streets and walls throwing a perfect soft light into the face of anyone you found or placed in a doorway or an alley. Here are some images which were all shot with the new Olympus 25mm 1.2 PRO lens in just these kind of situations.

Olympus OMD EM1 25mm 1.2 PRO

In using this 25mm lens each day for 2 weeks, I came to appreciate its unique qualities. When used in conjunction with the camera’s eye recognition system, it focuses quickly and accurately in almost any light. These seconds and fractions of seconds you save when shooting street portraits, make all the difference. They allow you to capture subjects quickly and intuitively and obtain more natural expressions before people start giving you their ‘photo-face’. Its combination of extreme sharpness, contrast and creamy bokeh means that you end up with consistently beautiful results. Using it, I certainly felt I could do justice to my subjects better than with any other lens I’ve previously used. In fact its so good, I can’t see any reason now to hold onto my Leica M lenses and my Leica SL body and as soon as I can get one of these babies to keep, I’m selling the lot!

Boy on the Malecon - shot with the new 25mm 1.2 PRO on an EM1 @ f1.4

25mm 1.2 PRO

25mm 1.2 PRO

25mm 1.2 PRO

25mm 1.2 PRO

The new 25mm PRO lens also offers a massive boost to night photography, and I’m not talking about going out with a tripod and shooting the stars. When used with the Olympus in body stabilisation system this thing is lethal. I found I could shoot decent pictures in the most ridiculously low light situations. As long as you ensure your subject actually has some illumination, you can get amazing results. I’ve enjoyed shooting people at night since the days of my Panasonic GF1 with its 20mm lens. It seems like its taken a long time for technology to get to this stage but now with this 1.2 lens (and IBIS and a decent sensor) I think its finally there! The sense of liberation you feel knowing you can almost turn night into day and get great shots anytime is fantastic! I had so much fun with this lens in Havana long after the sun went down, (partially fuelled by the consumption of Havana Club Special Reserve). Most lenses find it troublesome to render streetlights without nasty flare, ghosting or fringing in a variety of colours. The 25mm handled it all with ease making me think Olympus really have pulled out all the stops on the design front. I’ve never used a lens that feels as clean as this does with night shots by any manufacturer including Leica. I’ve never used the legendary Ziess Otus but I would be surprised if it could render a night scene any better than this new 25mm. And of course, I’m using it wide open for all of my night work (and most of my day work) using auto ISO which often resulted in surprisingly low ISO readings. Here are a few images shot with the 25mm 1.2 PRO at night, all handheld.

For years my benchmark standard lens has always been the Leica M 50mm Summilux. I took my Leica SL to Cuba thinking I would use it a fair bit. But the results I was getting with this new Olympus 25mm meant the Leica rarely got used. I did do a quick comparison shoot using the Leica SL/50mm against the EM1/25mm around the villa and I was blown away by the rendering and bokeh of the Olympus lens. It is the first standard lens from ANY system I’ve used wide open that can compete with the Leica in relation to the sharpness, micro contrast and creamy bokeh.  But when you factor in the speed and accuracy of its AF using eye recognition and IBIS, you have a system that is so much more useable than anything on the market. Instead of continually concentrating on achieving a sharp image, I can now just concentrate on the light and the subject, capturing any nuances of expression, focussing on the emotional rather than the technical. That’s why I’m selling my Leica equipment. Below you can see the Leica shot on the left and the Olympus image on the right

The 12-100mm zoom lens was quite a surprise to me. I would never normally consider using a lens with such a wide range of focal lengths. I’m a tad anal when it comes to optical performance (although not quite as anal as a Nikon D800 user) and my automatic assumption would be that there was a substantial compromise in image quality to pay for all that shooting flexibility. I wasn’t even aware that this lens was being produced until I got the email from Olympus asking me to take it to Cuba. However, after 2 weeks of shooting every day with it, I would now consider it indispensable on any travel shoot. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that if I could only take one lens on any shoot, it would be the 12-100mm and my perfect 2 lens kit is exactly what I had in Cuba, the 25mm for people and night shots and the 12-100mm for  everything else. 

This 12-100 is, I suspect, the sharpest and most contrasty zoom lens Olympus have brought out to date. My impression just from working with the files is that its sharpness and resolving power has to be up there with the best Olympus’s best primes. It also features a lens based stabilisation which works in conjunction with the IBIS of the Olympus cameras to give you a reported 6.5 ev boost. I’m afraid I didn’t really get the chance to use it in low light, so transfixed was I with the 25mm’s night-time performance. But I did use it a lot and I quickly became very confident that whatever I used it for, it would bring home the visual bacon! Like the 25mm this zoom handles flare and aberrations like a true PRO. shooting into the sun posed no problem. Shooting high contrast images of shiny chrome bumpers caused no issues. This is a VERY competent lens which should not leave anyone thinking, “I wish I’d used the prime!” unless you need an extremely narrow depth of field. I even found it to be a great portrait lens when I didn’t have the 25mm close at hand or had to shoot from further away. Here are a few images shot with the 12-100mm f4 PRO zoom 

One of the highlights of the shoot was visiting Havana’s outdoor boxing academy. There were a good number of boxers training there including quite a few women. One of the women had come from Manchester to train there. The club had received a visit from actor Idris Elba only a few weeks before where he trained there for a few days whilst shooting a documentary about the launch of his kickboxing career.

Below are a few images shot on the Malecon at night with the 25mm. The Malecon is an 8km stretch of road, path and seawall which hugs the city’s coastline. This was a quiet night with only a few hundred people there when I visited after midnight. Most weekends there are thousands of revellers lit only by the street lamps and set against the black of the night sea. The last two images in this set show a fisherman using a hand line who proudly informed me that his float was fashioned from 4 condoms. Even on this Sunday evening after midnight there were lots of friendly people, musicians and fishermen to chat to and photograph.

A few more shots taken with the 25mm that did not fit into any of the above scenarios..

VERDICT…..

I called this post a Cuban epiphany but it was really a double epiphany. Not only have I found my Holy Grail of portrait lenses in the 25mm, I have found the ideal travel lens. I would happily travel anywhere in the world with just these 2 lenses and I could be confident of bringing back a sackful of great pictures. When you consider how small a bag needs to be to carry these, even with 2 bodies, the release of these 2 new lenses has really justified my move to the micro four thirds system. 

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