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Lens of the week: Zuiko Digital 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5

The original Four Thirds standard zoom lens has become a firm favourite

The first public showing of the new Olympus E-System was in March 2003 at the PMA show in Las Vegas at private preview to UK press. FTU's sibling site, Digital Photography Now, had the scoop on the day. Here you can see the new 14-54 fitted to the E-1; notice the E-1 brand is absent and the Zuiko Digital legend on the lens is covered up. The preview took place at the Las Vegas heliport, prior to a hospitality trip for UK press to the Grand Canyon. The official public launch was not for another 2 months.

When Olympus launched the E-System and Four Thirds back in June 2003, yes - nine years ago, the first E-System camera was the five megapixel E-1 and its standard zoom was the Zuiko Digital 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5. Although Olympus frequently reminded us that the Four Thirds system format meant smaller and lighter lenses than equivalent rival lenses, the 14-54 wasn't particularly small or light. This was because it was bright thanks to its f/2.8-3.5 maximum aperture range and featured good quality glass. The lens was also sealed for dust and splash-proofing. I was a little disappointed at the time that Olympus had not gone for a rival to Canon's USM ultrasonic focusing motors. It was also notable for not using any extra low dispersion (ED) glass elements, although some aspherical elements were used.

The pre-production E-1 and 14-54 held in a gloved hand by an Olympus engineer at the private PMA preview in March 2003

And here is the same camera and lens viewed from the side. Again, the product markings on the barrel have been covered up.

Performance

One thing that Olympus has deservedly earned a high reputation for has been for the high standard of optics you can find in most of its lenses, even the more affordable ones and the 14-54 was one of the original lenses to set that trend. It was particularly good in terms of distortion and chromatic aberration control.

Zuiko Digital 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 DXO Analyzer distortion measurement @ 14mm:

As can be seen above with an un-amplified schematic of the 14-54's distortion characteristic (factor 1) the lens has a good reputation for low distortion at wide angle. Amplifying the distortion by 5 shows the characteristic bow-shaped distortion curve that is a symptom of the use of aspherical elements.

By the time you get to the middle of the zoom focal length range distortion is practically absent and at the longest focal length it remains very low. Only at the widest angle setting will you notice a moderate amount of chromatic aberration, which is easily fixed with today's sophisticated post processing software tools.

If there is a weakness in the 14-54's repertoire, it is full aperture resolution especially at longer focal lengths. I noticed this when lining up am mtf target using this lens and the later 12-60 ED zoom. I couldn't very easily set focus manually using the 14-54 at 54mm because it just wasn't very sharp. The 12-60 was a breeze to focus at 60mm. My conclusion is that the lack of ED glass compromises the 14-54's sharpness at full aperture. But just to be pedantic, the 14-54 shows less distortion at the wide end of the zoom range so you can't, it seems, have everything!

The 14-54 II

The E-30 back November 2008, complete with its new kit zoom lens, the blue-banded 14-54 f/2.8-3.5mm II

When the Olympus E-30 was introduced at the end of 2008 it was accompanied by a Mark II version of the trusty 14-54. Optically the design was unchanged, although the AF motor was modified to work better with Imager AF (AF using contrast detect in live view mode) and the aperture iris provided a more rounded circumference to improve bokeh. Unfortunately, the new lens also came with a less robust new style lens hood and was no longer compatible with the FR-1 ring flash adapter.

Although at full aperture there is no difference in the shape of defocused highlight between the Mark1 and Mark 2 versions of the 14-54, once you stop down a little the more rounded result from the Mark II becomes evident.

A testament to the 14-54 is that even after nine years the basic design lives on in the Mark II version. It's an affordable, ruggedised, alternative to the larger and heavier ZD 12-60 f/2.8-4, although there is no denying that the 12-60 focuses faster and is sharper, certainly at longer focal lengths at larger aperture settings. Because the 14-54 II works quite well with contrast detect AF it's also a popular choice for people using Micro Four Thirds camera bodies.

I know I will always have a soft spot for the 14-54 and I have taken many of my most memorable shots using this lens.

Lens of the week is intended to discover what you, the reader, think about this lens for you to share your experiences shooting with it. Why not post your views and images on the forum thread linked to this article (below:)?

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