47 Bucks and a Sunburn

In the maintenance of my obsession with old lenses, I always keep a weather eye out for them wherever I travel.  Many camera shops these days have discontinued carrying old lenses that don’t directly mount to anything modern.  I get it.  Why take up space with items that the average consumer isn’t interested in buying?  Every now and then I get lucky though and find in the darkest corner of some camera shop a neglected, interesting relic.  Motivated by my past good fortunes, on a recent trip to Houston, TX, I popped in to one such shop that happened to maintain a small stock of old Olympus OM Zuiko lenses.   Inside a glass cabinet, towering above a collection of nifty fifties, stood an interesting lens I hadn’t seen before: a Zuiko Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5.

Before making the decision to buy it, I took a few minutes to do some research on the web, looking for any cases for or against it.  As expected, I found only a few forums talking about it and couple of websites sharing a factory spec sheet.  When little information is available on a particular lens, I’ve learned that when it comes to Olympus and Minolta lenses it almost always pays well to gamble if the selling price is reasonable and condition is fair.  Rarely do you come across a lens from either of those brands that is truly a sad piece of work.  For the small price of $47, I threw the low-risk dice on this 85-250mm zoom.  Made in Japan back in 1980, it’s in great shape and the glass is pretty much flawless, inside and out.

On this trip, I only brought Minoltas with me so I didn’t have my Olympus OM-mount adapter for the Sony A7RII’s E-mount.  A few taps on my phone and 16 bucks later, I had Amazon shipping one to the hotel.  Once the adapter arrived, I took this old zoom lens outside to see if that 47 bucks had any real value hidden in it.

Searching for something interesting to shoot, I found some flowers alongside a drainage ditch outside the office where I was working.  This was shot at 250mm, wide-open at f/5.  I’m impressed!  Sharp, good color, and it renders a very pleasing out-of-focus background.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

The remainder of that week, I hadn’t any more opportunities to get out and shoot.  By July 4th, I finally got some free time to wander the city with this lens to further put it through its paces.

These beautiful, old trees line a path through Hermann Park in downtown Houston.  This was shot at 85mm with the aperture set to f/11.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

This cement basin of grass stood about 10 feet behind two tall bushes set to either side of it.  The focal length was set to 250mm with the aperture at f/5.  The out-of-focus bushes in the foreground and background have a very smooth, non-distracting look while the subject in focus is sharp and well-isolated.  I’d be hard pressed to ask for better.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

For this shot of a rather unfriendly looking plant, I set the lens to its minimum focus distance of about 6.5 feet and a mid-range focal length of 150mm with the aperture set to f/5.  The full-resolution image did show some minor chromatic aberrations along the highlight edges of the thorns but it was quickly remedied with a nudge of correction (+2 on blue/purple correction) in Adobe’s Camera RAW.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

I’m not one for shooting brick walls and test charts but from what I can tell in using it under walkabout conditions, this lens’ performance across its 2.9x focal range is very uniform.  One benefit of the electronic viewfinder is that I can look at a 14x magnified view while fiddling about with things like aperture, focal length and focus.  I can witness in realtime the effect as I change things, often revealing subtle issues caught by the rolling comparisons.  Not exactly sciency but it works for collecting some objective sense of the thing.  As long as any particular performance flaw doesn’t stand out too much under normal use, I’m happy.  It really comes down to a balance of flaws – which every lens has – and finesse.  For what I shoot these days, clinical perfection matters very little.  I’m not gracing the pages of some magazine or entering my work into the arena of competition so what does it really matter, right?

For this next image, I had the lens set to 250mm with the aperture at f/5.  This squirrel was doing his best to stay cool on a very hot afternoon.  He started out on the ground begging me for food and after realizing I had nothing to give, he waddled up a tree onto a big fat branch where he flattened out on it to sulk and cool off.  I’m quite pleased with how well this lens handled the scene.  That was some strong backlighting cutting through the leaves behind the squirrel.  I had no issues with flare or contrast loss.  Some lenses will have you bobbing and weaving around like a boxer, trying to get the backlighting to hit the front of the lens just the right way so as to cause the least amount of J.J. Abrams effect.  Not at all the case here: I aimed, focused, and fired without an ounce of bother.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

After sweating out 20 gallons of water, I left Hermann Park to make my way down to the Pasadena Convention Center where a car show was being held.

Yeah… it was no cooler there.  All the cars were neatly lined up in a parking lot on the surface of the sun.  I could already feel the sunburn from my time out at the park and now, without the occasional reprieve under the shade of trees, I was starting to get worried about how bad it was going to get.  Red hair, freckles, Scottish descent – none of those add up to a high tolerance to sunshine.  I never tan.  I get burned, turn red as a lobster and eventually molt like a snake, revealing fresh, pasty white skin.  This is gonna suck because I’m off to Scotland tomorrow for a week long business meeting where I’m expected to present to crowd of people.  There I’ll be with swaths of skin pulling away from my face, looking like something out of Silence of The Lambs.  That won’t be distracting at all.  At least I’ll be in good company there with my fellow gingers – “looks like someone stood out in the sun for longer than 10 minutes”.

…where was I.  Oh yeah!  New lens and a car show.  So one thing I’ve learned about shooting cars (not claiming any authority on this) is that short focal length lenses will require you to stand close to all that glossy paint and mirror-like chrome.  The trouble with that is you will inevitably capture funhouse mirror reflections of yourself in all that shiny stuff.  Using a long lens will get rid of this problem by putting you at enough distance away that you’re no longer slathering distorted versions of yourself all over the brightwork.

For this shot of a front end, I racked out the lens to 250mm and used my legs to get the frame around the relevant bits of the car.  With the aperture set to f/8, every fine detail of this beautiful car is captured.  Not bad for a $47 lens.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

This helm of an Impala land yacht made for a neat shot.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

The hubcaps on a 1920’s rat-rodded car made a great mirror to capture the reflection of an old truck set back a few spaces over.  I was really drawn to the contrast of the bright blues set against those cherry red wheels and spotless whitewall tires.  I sat on the ground a good distance away with the lens set at 250mm and f/11.  Charlie, the owner of the car whose wheel I had studied on for several minutes, must have thought I was a lunatic.  After I made this image he and I chat for a bit – a very nice guy with a similar appreciation for ‘old and rusty = cool’.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

The interior of his car was spartan, consisting of a steering wheel, a bench seat out of an old school bus, and these Texas license plates for door panels.  Love it!

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

 

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

This is the best hood ornament I’ve ever seen.  I mean come on, it’s a cigar-smoking angry duck flexing his muscles/wings.  This is way cooler than Rolls Royce’s snobbish Flying Lady of Ecstasy.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

I really wish I had an opportunity to get more shots of this car in a different location where I could get rid of the background clutter.  This car is just begging to be photographed at a special location and without a car show entry form on the dashboard.  Charlie, if you ever want some proper, free photos of your car just hit me up and I’d be all too happy to oblige the next time I’m in town.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

So I go to a car show where people display their cars which they’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours on to work it into a condition that is often better than new, and what do I spend the most time shooting?  The rusty ones.  So Wabi-sabi

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

I hesitated to include this last photo.   I’m not much into skeletons and mayhem but it was kind of tongue-in-cheek fun.  I shot the original image just because I thought those angry eyes painted onto the air scoop of this big ol’ Holley carburetor were pretty cool looking.  Then the jaw-dropped skeleton at the wheel gave me an itch to take this image a little further with some crazier post-processing, which then led to rendering in layers of flames.  I’ve never spent much time developing my skills in compositing so it’s novice at best.  I’m still not sold on it but I’ll leave it up anyway.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Olympus OM Zuiko MC Auto-Zoom 85-250mm f/5

That’s all the images I have for now from this incredibly-good-at-any-price zoom lens.  It seems that when Olympus designed and built it, they didn’t cut too many corners.  The optics are brilliant and after 37 years of existence, the all-metal body and mechanics of the lens are as slick and smooth as they were when it left the factory in 1980.  My spend of $47 on a gamble feels like a win to me.

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7 thoughts on “47 Bucks and a Sunburn

  1. Aloha Tom,

    Thank you for reviewing this lens, it was very timely for me because I was thinking of buying some more Olympus OM lenses. To my eyes, the photos show why I like Olympus lenses. I love those photos!

    The reason why I like Olympus OM lenses is, beside they feel very solid, I like them because to me they give high resolution and high contrast. All of Olympus OM lenses I have ( 50mm f3.5 Macro, 50mm f1.8, 35-70mm f3.6, 70-150mm f4 and 200mm f4) are very sharp. I can say that because when I check the focus peaking set to medium on my Sony A7ii, the viewfinder becomes full of red color!

    So, I was thinking of which one to get to complement my Olympus OM set and was considering 100mm, 135 mm, or a zoom lens that can extend over 200mm and I was looking at the 85-250mm because it is cheap enough and was wondering what kind of performance it has but, now I know and I’m definitely buying one of these.

    Thank you for writing this really fun review as always.

    Jon

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  2. Hi Jon,

    Good to hear from you bud. Talk about good timing with the release of this post and your looking into the same lens. If you can find a good copy of the lens I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with it. Some lenses I have take a little extra effort and attention when using them to be able to get them to produce satisfactory images. This 85-250mm is effortlessly good and it has with it that signature good color and contrast that you mentioned. Once I get back home, I’d like to see just how good this is lens is compared to my 200mm Minolta primes. I have a suspicion it will keep up with them. If the results turn out interesting enough, I may have to make a new post on that: Olympus 85-250mm vs. Minolta 200mm f/2.8 vs. Minolta 200mm f/3.5 vs. Minolta 200mm f/4.

    All the best to you,

    Tom

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  3. Hi Tom,

    I have a OM Zuiko 50/1.4 and a 100/2.8. The 50mm is a great lens. The 100mm is no slouch and it is tiny. The only quibble I have with them is anything less than wide open the bokeh starts showing the sharp aperture edges not very different from the Minoltas. The colors though are much more pleasing than Minoltas.

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  4. Love it! I can’t believe the goodies you find! 🙂 I love all these shots, but especially the trees and the front end of that car! That hood ornament! :snort: We need that……

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  5. Hi Rajesh,

    I’m glad to hear you’ve got a collection of your own. These old lenses can be a lot of fun to shoot with.
    I wouldn’t let that aperture shape bug you too much. Defined aperture shape is very common even in modern lenses. Pay attention to TV shows and movies and you’ll see it all the time. It’s a characteristic rather than a flaw. Where it can get annoying is when the shape in combination with poor optical design turn what should be smooth shapes into what looks like the cross-section of an onion. That, for some, is not ideal as it can be a distraction. In the end, it really is all about taste.
    I hope you continue to find good, old lenses. If you haven’t looked already, there are some great 35mm lenses from Mamiya as well and they don’t cost much money.

    All the best,

    Tom

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  6. “I’m not gracing the pages of some magazine or entering my work into the arena of competition so what does it really matter, right?”
    Well, Tom- all I can say is that your photos ARE definitely magazine worthy!!

    Like

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