It’s a welcome addition to the Olympus line-up as the only alternative prior to it’s release was the pricy, and frankly cumbersome Super High Grade 7-14mm that, while sporting excellent optical performance, is heavy and at $1,900 not exactly a lens of the people.
Architectural photography is another area where this type of lens is commonly used and the water filtration plant in my neighbourhood provides just the opportunity to try it out.
The Waterworks, as it is known locally, is a perfect example of what the modern castle would have looked like had castle building continued right up to the Art Deco period.
As I have clients who require this type of large exterior imagery, it’s a good chance to see how this lens at its widest focal length will fare doing architectural images.
The 9-18mm does a surprisingly good job here at it’s widest setting. What distortion there is could easily be handled in post-production. Shot without a tripod or bubble level, the verticals stay vertical with little bowing or distortion (the tower tapers towards the top as part of the design of the building).
While the building leans over backwards slightly, in my experience correcting all distortion out of exterior shots leads to a very artificial and undesirable result.
A great performance for this lens at 9mm.
Also I need to do panoramas of buildings and surroundings, so here are two photos merged for a nearly 180 degree panorama of the grounds. Again, the width of the lens allows for lots of foreground detail to lead the eye to the main subject.
Also in an architectural vein.
At the media op for the Royal Ontario Museum’s new Diamond exhibit, The Nature Of Diamonds, this lens made it a breeze to frame the exhibit cases by riffing off the sloping architecture of the Michael Lee Chin Crystal’s walls and the angular nature of cut diamonds.
With the E510’s in-body image stabilisation I was able to add motion with the blurred figure in the background to the composition without the use of a tripod.
Here, Toronto FC scores and over in the stands rapturous fans are celebrating. Shooting from just a few feet away, you’ll notice the lack of flare or loss of contrast on the main subject area even though the sun is in the top right part of the frame.
There is a nice clarity to this image under lighting conditions that are very challenging for a lens this wide.
However, it would have been good if the lens had been designed to be a little more beer-proof for such photos as fans have been known to hurl the occasional drink skywards like a liquid space bullet when Toronto FC finds the back of the net.
A photo of Captain Jim Brennan as the team does a lap around the field at the end of the game to acknowledge the fans support throughout the season.
This is the presence I was talking about that this lens can give you. There's no way this was shot from a distance with a Tele. You can clearly see the person took the photo from right there on the field. In fact I'm shooting about 3 feet in front of him, he's looking over my right shoulder because, well, basically I'm right up there in his face, at a full 9mm of width.
The fellow with the yellow media vest in the background to the left is also using an Olympus camera but with a 40-150mm lens that will give a more flattened perspective and thus a more stand off look.
I think there's remarkably little distortion of the facial features for being so close with such a wide lens. And notice the background stadium light poles are all vertical, no leaning over or bending in towards each other. I’ve used my Sigma 10-20mm on a Canon in the this stadium to do the same type of on-field player photo. It never came close to this kind of performance.
Although a portion of the sky has been cropped slightly in this photo there is very little vignetting with the 9-18mm. Certainly much, much less than I was seeing with the Sigma 10-20mm which some days looks like it's got one of those freakish wedding masking filters on it.
People who do landscapes are drawn to waterfalls, and having come across a small but interesting little mini cascade on my walks with the dog in The Brickworks, I brought along the E3 one day to see what I could get.
Starting tentatively down the muddy slope leading to the stream I ended up doing a perfect pratfall, like a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel, sliding right down the embankment on my side, E3 with 9-18mm held aloft in one hand, leash with Cocker Spaniel attached in the other.
I finally came to a halt just short of the stream the dog jumping on me, tail wagging, wanting to do it all over again.
I tied her up to tree and told her to keep an eye on a suspiciously large opening in the ground that looked like some large animal's burrow then went about setting up for the photo.
This image was done with the Olympus E3 in live view mode, rear LCD screen extended out to the side and angled up, strap wrapped around my wrist, while I hung right out over the water anchored to shore by a tight grip on a small tree trunk.
That tree goes and I'm in water up to my waist, so I didn't take too many shots of this scene. Lens at the 18mm setting.
Another example of how adaptable the 9-18mm is for people shots, this photo is an out-take from a session at the Stephen Bulger Art Gallery that was done as part of L’Oreal Fashion Week here in Toronto.
Canadian label Karamea integrated nature images from renowned American photographer Judith McMillan - who uses an X-Ray machine to create images of plants and wildlife - into the designs for this season’s collection.
The shoot was at the gallery where Ms. McMillan’s photos were being shown (although the pictures in the background of this particular frame are not hers)
The reason I include it here is, again, the impressive control of distortion by this lens.
As with the TFC photos, this image was done very close to her, perhaps as close as 18 inches away, at the widest setting of 9mm, and wide-open aperture. I purposely shot from very close for the dozen or so frames with the 9-18mm to see how the lens behaved in that circumstance, but never mind the lens, it was interesting to see how the proximity of the camera seemed to throw the model off. They are not used to being photographed from such distances ordinarily and I‘m sure she thought I was doing some kind of demented headshot, not realizing her body was in the frame as well.
And again, the background holds together well for a lens this wide. Sharpness is excellent even at f4.
And lastly, the 'Spot the Eccentric' photo.
This wonderfully wacky year-round front yard display is a favourite of mine for testing super wides. The house has been featured many times in local magazines and newspapers.
Note the lack of obvious purple or blue fringing on the branches silhouetted against the bright white of the overcast sky. There’s a bit there, but it’s nicely under control.
What I liked
The Olympus 9-18mm lens is a very sharp lens - think almost 12-60mm SWD sharp - that has above average flare suppression for it’s focal range, excellent distortion traits for interior or exterior architectural shots, yet is so light weight that paired with an E520 you'll swear it's made of helium.
The 9-18mm has low to no vignetting and CA is only occasionally visible when pixel peeping (mainly near the extreme outer edges), but not obviously so at normal viewing sizes.
Focussing is quick and nearly SWD silent.
In curves if you drag the point about one third of the way up the centre line downwards just a touch, add a smidgen of extra contrast and saturation, results from the 9-18mm are virtually indistinguishable from the High Grade Olympus 7-14mm. It's that good... and it's one-third the cost.
What I didn't like
Seriously, nothing. Yes the build quality could be better, the max aperture faster, but then it wouldn't be an insanely great superwide at an unbelievably low price, it would weigh a ton, and what fun would that be!
The High Grade Olympus 7-14mm has slightly (very slightly) better contrast and saturation, and slightly longer tonal range out of the camera. But as I said, a few tweaks in PhotoShop and the minor differences between the two almost completely disappear.
I actually much prefer the 9-18mm because the hugely bulbous front element on the 7-14mm is one honkin' optical repair just waiting to happen. That thing just screams ‘scratch me, chip me’. For the kind of work I do, with multiple cameras swinging around and shooting in close proximity to others, the 7-14mm makes me very nervous.
I also think the focal length range of the 9-18mm suits the kind of subjects I shoot better as I often have people in the frame and distortion at the widest setting is very well controlled with this lens. When you place the 7-14mm at it’s widest too close to objects there’s a smearing effect towards the lens that just doesn’t happen with it’s lower priced cousin.
The 9-18mm has probably 90 percent of the performance of the 7-14mm.
The advantage of the 7-14mm is that it is fully weatherproofed, and on the equally weatherproofed E3 you can shoot all day in a downpour (or sandstorm). And it is a full 2mm wider, although not as long, ending as a 28mm equiv.
The Sigma 10-20mm has only build quality, and having subjected mine to a terrific amount of abuse over the years I can say it is really quite well built, over the Olympus 9-18mm. In every other way the Olympus lens wins. Sharpness, distortion, CA, all are worse with the Sigma.
Focusing speed, a tie between the two.
Who should buy this lens
If you are into nature/landscape photography, photojournalism and street photography, shoot interior and exterior architectural photos, need a light weight option for travel pictures, or are an Olympus user who just happens to have an extra $649 lying around in the bank, you should get one.
It is a surprisingly good lens covering a very useful spectrum of commonly used wide focal lengths (35mm equivalent of 18mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm).
Coupled with the image-stabilised E520 you’ll be getting near E3 performance from the camera, and near High Grade 7-14mm performance from the optics, at a fraction of the price but with very substantial weight savings.
Actually, this could be the ultimate hikers landscape combo (If you find this combo too heavy you must be using oxygen just to get out of bed and make toast in the morning).
It’s such a good lens, offering such a compelling set of focal lengths and compositional possibilities at such a competitive price point, one wonders what took Olympus so long.
Now that it’s here Olympus users have a whole new view on the world to explore.
Douglas Brown has been shooting commercial editorial, advertising, and architectural photography for over 25 years and is the Head Photographer / Editor at Torontowide.com.
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