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Review: Olympus 17mm f/1.8 M.ZUIKO (Micro Four Thirds)

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Since its inception, the Micro Four Thirds format has only had one option for a 35mm equivalent, the Olympus 17mm f2.8. While its performance greatly lacks behind Panasonic’s 20mm f1.7, this lens has been the budget friendly prime that many buyers opt to purchase in place of a kit zoom. Thankfully, Olympus has introduced a newer, more high performance 17mm to the mix, the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 M.ZUIKO lens.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Very good image quality
  • Focus ring with full-time manual focus override and distance scale
  • Super fast autofocus

Cons

  • A bit pricey
  • No lens hood included
  • Chromatic aberrations are visible in most high contrast situations

Gear Used

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For this review, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 was mated to my Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Tech Specs:

Specs via B&H Photo:

Performance
Focal Length 17 mm
Comparable 35mm Focal Length: 34 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.8
Minimum: f/22
Camera Mount Type Micro Four Thirds
Format Compatibility Micro Four Thirds
Minimum Focus Distance 9.84″ (25 cm)
Magnification 0.08x
Groups/Elements 6/9
Diaphragm Blades 7
Features
Image Stabilization No
Autofocus Yes
Tripod Collar No
Physical
Filter Thread Front: 46 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 2.26 x 1.40″ (57.5 x 35.5 mm)
Weight 4.23 oz (120 g)

Ergonomics

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Like most Micro Four Thirds primes, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 is compact and lightweight; it feels great attached to my Olympus OM-D or my Panasonic GF-1. The focus ring is smooth and turns with ease. I would actually prefer to have slightly more resistance on the focus ring, but I doubt many people will manually focus this lens when the autofocus is so blazingly fast.

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In addition to giving the user focus-by-wire capabilities like every other Micro Four Thirds lens, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 has a trick up its sleeve. Like the Olympus 12mm f2, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 has a “Snapshot” focus ring. What this means is, if you pull back (towards the camera body) on the focus ring, the lens automatically switches to manual focus mode and a distance sale appears. This is a pretty slick feature and the distance scale will make street photographers happy. I used the distance scale a few times on the street (especially when panning) and I found it to be quite useful.

Unfortunately, when you slide the focus ring into Snapshot mode, the buttery smoothness of the focus ring changes to a less refined feel. It’s not terrible, but the difference is notable. On the positive note, the focus ring does have more resistance when moved into the Snapshot mode.

Build Quality

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In terms of price and build quality, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 fits nicely between the Olympus 12mm f2 and the Olympus 45mm f1.8. It is comprised of metal and has an overall solid feel. It doesn’t feel as premium as the Olympus 12mm but it doesn’t feel as cheap as the mostly plastic Olympus 45mm. While it is by no means a heavy lens, the all metal body does mean that this lens will weigh a bit more than some of the other primes lenses in the Micro Four Thirds arsenal.

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One small complaint/concern with it comes to build quality is the focus ring. When shooting in Snapshot mode, the focus ring on my copy has a bit of play in it. For example, if I move the ring to the right and then I go to move it to the left, it will move a few degrees to the left without moving the lens elements. This may be a non issue for some, but it does make manual focusing on fine objects a bit difficult. More concerning to me is the possibility of dust, dirt and other grime making its way into that gap at some point.

Autofocus

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Besides the image quality, which we will get to in a bit, the number one reason to buy this lens is the autofocus speed–it’s insane. When mated to my OM-D in good to decent light, it really is instantaneous. Pick an autofocus point and it feels like autofocus confirmation is made before your finger even makes it to the bottom of your half-shutter-press. I found myself using the OM-D’s touchscreen quite a bit when on the street. Just tap the screen and BOOM, autofocus locked, shutter fired and picture taken all in what feels like a fraction of a second. It almost feels like cheating.

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But, like with any other lens mated to a camera with contrast autofocus, when the light goes down, your autofocus time goes up. Even so, the autofocus works well in low light and I rarely received an autofocus error or missed focus.

If having the fastest autofocus speed possible is paramount to you, you should seriously take a look at this lens and maybe a few others like the Olympus 12mm f2 and the Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4.

Ease of Use

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This lens is pretty darn easy to use. Slap it onto one of your Micro Four Thirds bodies and start shooting. As I said before, the autofocus accuracy is very good and the autofocus is so fast that you will be capturing almost any subject excluding only extremely fast moving objects/subjects.

Image Quality

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I found overall image quality to be very good. Colors are natural and pleasing but I found them to be lacking the same punch that I get from other lenses like the Panasonic 25mm f1.4. Blooming was not a major issue (it never really bothers me anyway) and I had no trouble with flare, even when shooting without a hood. Again, a hood is not included. Hey Olympus, Panasonic includes hoods with their $500 primes…just sayin’.

Bokeh

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Even shooting wide open at f1.8, this lens is not going to provide you with much in terms of bokeh. With that being said, out of focus areas are pleasing to the eye and “bokeh balls” are fairly round.

Sharpness

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Sharpness is very good wide open and excellent above f2.8. With that being said, I find my Panasonic 20mm f1/.7 is sharper wide open in the center and when compared to the Olympus 17mm at f1.8. I’ll be doing a separate post comparing these lenses in the near future.

Color Fringing

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Ah yes, the dreaded color fringing, this seems to be a common issue within the Micro Four Thirds format and photos taken with the Olympus 17mm f1.8 do show clear signs of color fringing. Like with most color fringing, it is most evident along areas of strong contrast. Thankfully, most color fringing can be easily removed in post.

Distortion

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Yes, this lens does exhibit a fair amount of distortion. It’s a 17mm lens, what did you expect? Thankfully, the OM-D (and several other Olympus bodies) do their best to correct for distortion within .jpegs. I still find a bit of distortion, even within .jpegs, but I don’t find it to be an annoyance or distraction. I wouldn’t plan on shooting close-up head shots with this lens; you’d be much better off with the Olympus 45mm f1.8.

Additional Images

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Conclusions

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Overall, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 is a solid lens that performed well throughout this test. The autofocus speed is incredible and the overall image quality is very good. It is a bit on the pricey side when compared to the Olympus 17mm f2.8 and the Panasonic 20mm f1.7, but its construction and autofocus speed may be worth the premium for some. This lens will be very appealing to many Micro Four Thirds users as it, along with its slower/cheaper 17mm sibling, is your only option for a 35mm equivalent prime in this format. It was great out on the street and it is a very useful focal length when going out with only one lens.

So what about the competition? There are other lenses in the Micro Four Thirds range that offer a similar focal length, see below:

All of these lenses are cheaper than the Olympus 17mm f1.8, but they are also slower in terms of speed (max aperture, with the exception of the 20mm) and autofocus speed. The Panasonic 14mm may be close when it comes to autofocus speed, but it is also quite a bit wider (the difference is easily noticeable) and slower (f2.5 vs f1.8). I think the Panasonic 20mm is the only real threat as it is roughly the same size and slightly faster (max aperture), but its autofocus speed can’t match the Olympus 17mm f1.8.

So, should you buy it? Here are my thoughts:

  • If you are new to the format, you do not already have a “normal” prime and you are used to or want a 35mm point of view, it would be a great lens to add to your kit. Go for it.
  • If you already have a normal prime that is close to this range i.e. the Panasonic 20mm or 25mm, I would say think long and hard about spending the extra cash on this lens. Would I trade my Panasonic-Leica 25mm f1.4 for this lens? No way in hell. Would I trade my Panasonic 20mm f1.7 for this lens? No, BUT it may be a worthwhile swap for some (notice I didn’t call it an upgrade). Based on a few quick tests, I personally think the Panasonic 20mm is more pleasing in terms of optics BUT the Olympus 17mm f1.8 crushes the Panasonic 20mm when it comes to autofocus speed. So, if you have the 20mm and you find the autofocus to be too slow for you, I would say take a look at the Olympus 17mm f1.8.

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