Olympus’ Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 Macro And Macro Flash; Versatility For Close-Up Shots

When I first heard about a 35mm focal length macro lens my mouth began to water. The $229 price tag was an immediate inducement, as were the compactness and lightweight of this glass. What threw me, though, was the focal length. Because this was in the new Four Thirds System for an Olympus digital SLR (the EVOLT E-300 was used for this test), focal length doubled to 70mm. A 70mm f/3.5 macro lens is a tad slow, compared with that trusty old 90mm f/2 I had used on my Olympus OM-1 film SLR. Yes, you could opt for the current Zuiko 50mm f/2 macro, but that lens only focuses to half life size--and costs twice as much. The new lens focuses all the way to life size without extension tubes--a decided advantage in macro work.

As the barrel on the 35mm macro lens extends, the reproduction ratios (magnification) become visible.

From the outset, I anticipated I'd need flash to augment the lens' capabilities. Macro lenses are never speed demons to begin with, but usually they top out at f/2.8. Here we have a maximum aperture of f/3.5. And close-ups deliver even less light for focusing. With the Olympus E-300, the only way to bring a focusing lamp into the picture is to use the built-in flash, or an accessory flash. Due to parallax error (from a lighting standpoint), the built-in flash and any shoe-mounted flash is not practical for macro. The Olympus ring flash and twin flash heads are the best route, with each providing a set of continuous lamps that aid immeasurably when focusing in low light, making either an ideal companion for this lens.

(Top): Photographed with the 35mm macro at half life size by a desk lamp, this commemorative stamp shows excellent detail throughout. Then I took this 35mm macro (above) to the limit for a life-size section of the stamp. I couldn't find any fault with the image. (ISO 400; exposure/half life size: f/16 at 1/13 sec; life size: f/16 at 1/2 sec.)

The Tabletop Macro Experience
There are many macro subjects to explore with such a lens. In fact, to better acquaint myself with this optic, I began with two small tabletop subjects: a commemorative postage stamp (at half life size and life size) and a commemorative pin (at half life size), each presenting its own set of challenges. I began with the stamp.

Working indoors does not provide a lot of light for close-ups, so I brought out my OTT-LITE desk lamp. Even though this lamp is touted as a daylight fluorescent, I found it necessary to use a custom white balance setting. The camera was mounted to a Benbo tripod--specifically the cantilevered centerpost for maneuverability. Even though the effective focal length is 70mm, shooting life size doesn't afford much breathing room. Lacking a remote, I used the self-timer at 12 seconds. The results? I couldn't be more pleased. I could easily read detail corner to corner and edge to edge, without any discernible loss in quality across the entire surface.

Photographed against black velvet, this commemorative pin (approx. half life size) takes on an entirely different character with each form of light used: fluorescent desk lamp (top), ring flash (middle), twin flash (bottom). While no rendition was perfect, I'd marginally opt for the ring flash version over the desk lamp shot. The twin flash proved least suitable here.

I had to limit reproduction on the pin to half life size when adding flash. The adapter ring required for macro flash extends outward considerably beyond where the lens barrel itself extends. When you add the ring flash, or especially the twin flash heads to the front at magnifications greater than half life size, space is so tight that it becomes practically unworkable in a tabletop situation. Even at half life size, the flash head gets squished into the black velvet backdrop, which was bunched up beneath the pin. Photographing flowers would prove less of a problem.

Close-Ups Of Flowers
When shooting flowers and plants I knew I'd be switching back and forth between available light and flash, and between ring flash and twin flash, so I kept the flash adapter ring on the lens. This had the unhappy effect of hiding the reproduction ratios inscribed on the lens barrel. And when focusing manually with this lens, there is no noticeable resistance as you rotate the focusing ring to life size. So, not only are you missing a visual indication of the magnification data, but you also don't have any tactile feedback from the lens, which proved frustrating.

Besides its obvious advantages, flash allowed me to block out extraneous light and focus primarily on the flower. Otherwise, with a lot of ambient light pouring in around the subject, chances are you'll also capture extraneous details. The fun began in comparing results between the ring flash and twin flash. While it varied with the flower, the twin flash did more to sculpt the subject, in part because you can adjust the lighting ratio between the two heads. What's more, each head can be independently positioned around the lens axis at varying angles. The downside is that you have to be watchful which end is up or you may find shadows running the wrong way. Bromeliads and other waxy-leaved plants do best with the twin flash, because the heads can be positioned so as not to produce glaring hot spots.

The circular tube configuration of a ring flash makes it faster to change orientation from horizontal to vertical, letting you respond to the situation with immediacy. Subjects such as mosses, tiny flowers, and especially lichens would be best served by the Olympus ring flash, but I've successfully photographed larger flowers and plants with it. (Select ring flash systems from other manufacturers split the tube, allowing you to ratio the light for better modeling. I wish Olympus had taken this route as well.)

I also took the 35mm macro out to photograph shop displays and small critters at the zoo. One thing I immediately learned when pressing the lens against the glass was not to press the lens against the glass. Because the lens barrel protrudes in a pronounced fashion as magnification increases, the lens needs its space. It's not unusual--many lenses share this feature. I would have preferred internal focusing as a quick and easy remedy. Funny thing: that annoying flash adapter ring solved the problem, since it allowed me to hold the lens flush up against the glass without worrying about lens barrel movements.

Twin Flash

Ring Flash

Twin Flash

Ring Flash

Twin Flash

Ring Flash

The 35mm macro did a beautiful job capturing this bromeliad with the twin flash (left), with good detail even at f/5.6. The ring flash, with its flat light facing parts of the plant directly, burnt out portions of the shiny, waxy leaves and otherwise produced a very lackluster picture. When it came to the fan-shaped bloom and orange blossom (at f/16), both macro lights did equally well, although I prefer the more dramatic lighting with the twin flash.
All Photos © 2006, Jack Neubart, All Rights Reserved