Olympus's catalog of small, well-built prime lenses welcomes an interesting new option.
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Building upon its family of Micro Four Thirds lenses, Olympus introduced a new 17mm f/1.8 lens this past December. It’s a small, fast prime with a 34mm equivalent focal length—essentially a modern day incarnation of one of the workhorse primes of the film era. While not a pancake, the lens still manages to be quite compact and boasts a very nice build quality. Its most direct competitor is Panasonic’s 20mm f/1.7 pancake, which is considered to be among the best Micro Four Thirds lenses around.
The all-metal 17mm f/1.8 lends a classic touch to any M43 body without sacrificing the modern features you've come to rely on. It’s a very nice size and weight, and the fit and finish feels incredibly solid. After working with this lens for a few days, I came away very impressed with its physical attributes. I almost got the impression, in fact, that it is (along with the similar 12mm f/2) Olympus’s way of apologizing for years of cheap-feeling kit lenses.
Part of the lens's considerable charm comes from the snap ring, a feature that made its first appearance on the Olympus 12mm f/2. This design element accomplishes two tasks at once: It gives the user an intuitive method for switching between manual and automatic focus—just slide the ring forward for autofocus or back for manual focus—and it provides a smoothly damped manual focus action.
Most native M43 lenses use focus-by-wire systems, where the focus ring activates the lens's built-in electronic focusing motor. Compared to the rings of film-era manual-focus lenses, the ones on M43 lenses usually feel cheap, lightweight, and imprecise. The 17mm f/1.8 bucks this trend. When in manual focus mode, the ring has just enough resistance to make you forget you're not actually moving the lens elements mechanically. We'd go so far as to say that it almost makes manual focus a viable option, which is a real rarity for M43.
Retro amenities don't stop there, either. The 17mm f/1.8 also sports a finely engraved range scale, a very handy addition for experienced users. Finally, the lens has hard stops at either end of the focusing range—something most other M43 lenses lack because, well, why would they need them? Still, their presence here contributes to the 17mm's overall premium feel.
We should mention that the snap ring doesn't have a ton of resistance when moving between focusing modes. This is both a good thing (since it's easy to switch on the fly when shooting) and a bad thing (since a lot of other things can switch it without you noticing, like the inside of your camera bag). We missed quite a few shots in our time with the lens because we wanted autofocus but the lens was set to manual.
This fast lens creates pleasing, uniformly smooth bokeh when shot wide open, provided you have a relatively clean background. If the scene just behind the focal plane is busy—tree branches, pencils, whatever—the bokeh can get a bit busy looking, though that's nothing unusual for a wide-angle lens. When stopped down, the seven-bladed diaphragm kept specular highlights fairly rounded at most aperture settings.
We did notice some chromatic aberration on high-contrast edges, which showed up as telltale color fringing when viewed at 100%. Still, it wasn't anything more than we'd expect from such a lens design, and certainly wasn't excessive. There’s also some vignetting, particularly when shooting wide open at f/1.8. Illumination falls off noticeably in the corners, and it's not until f/4 or f/5.6 that it really goes away.
Distortion wasn’t a serious issue when shooting JPEG, though professional architecture photographers will probably want to find a better-corrected optic. Of course, M43 cameras auto-correct for distortion (and chromatic aberration, for that matter) by default, so our results were heavily processed before we ever saw them. We suspect that shooting RAW would tell a very different story.
In our time in the field we never had cause to question the sharpness of the 17mm f/1.8. All of our shots, even those shot at f/1.8, came out crisp and clear. With that said, we didn't get the lens into our labs for a full battery of resolution chart tests, so we can't make any definitive claims as to its ultimate sharpness. Color reproduction was excellent, taking full advantage of the Olympus E-PL5's fantastic color accuracy. We also shot the lens on the Panasonic G5, and found it to perform just as well there.
Though the 17mm f/1.8 is beautifully built and a very competent performer, it does have a few notable quirks.
First there's the problem of color. The lens has a lot of qualities that would make it a great street shooting tool, from its compact size to its useful focal length, but it's just too darn flashy. The bright silver finish is totally gorgeous, but it's a touch too reflective—it's hard to be subtle and stealthy when you're blinding potential subjects from down the block. Olympus offers their 12mm f/2.0 in a Limited Edition black finish for $300 more than the silver version, so there might be a less shouty option in the near future—but it's really only an option if you have more money than sense.
The snap ring is a good antidote to the less-than-ideal M43 manual focus feel, but for all its improvements it still doesn't feel quite as direct as a true manual focus lens. Even with the snap ring engaged, we still noticed a little lag between when we moved our fingers and the on-screen focus changing.
That might be acceptable if Micro Four Thirds cameras were more friendly to manual focus fanatics, but sadly neither Olympus nor Panasonic have introduced focus peaking or any of the other neat trickery we've seen from other manufacturers (Fujifilm's Digital Split Image in the X100S comes to mind). All you get instead is the standard focus-assist zoom, which makes it very difficult to compose your shot and focus at the same time. With this in mind, it's hard not to feel like the 17mm f/1.8's snap ring is going to waste.
There's also the matter of price—$499.99. That’s a real investment compared to other M43 lenses in the same focal length ballpark; shoppers should keep in mind that Panasonic’s 20mm f/1.7 can be had for at least $100 less. Of course, that lens isn't nearly as beautifully built, doesn't have a snap ring, and is a slightly longer focal length. In other words, if you decide on the Olympus, you’re mostly paying for the premium feel and sharp design. There's also the issue of the older Olympus 17mm f/2.8 prime. Though never regarded as a stellar performer, we feel it's gotten a bit of a bad rap. At $299, budget-minded shoppers might give it a long look before springing for the higher-end model.
These concerns aside, the M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 is sure to make a lot of photographers very happy. It's an above-average optical design wrapped up in a gorgeously designed premium wrapper. Its price might be slightly higher than some rivals, but that's the price you pay for superb build quality and innovative ergonomics. When paired with the E-PL5 or OM-D, this lens lives up to the promise of the Micro Four Thirds system.