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Quick Comparison: Olympus 17mm f1.8 vs. Panasonic 20mm f1.7

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Since its introduction, people have been comparing the Olympus 17mm f1.8 to the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 as they are both very similar in terms of focal length and speed (max aperture value). While the Panasonic 20mm has been the poster child for the Micro Four Thirds (M43) format (compact, lightweight, excellent IQ), the Olympus 17mm f1.8 has received mixed reviews. The following is an informal test to that may help those M43 users that are on the fence between the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 and the Olympus 17mm f1.8.

If you are a frequent reader of the site, you know we here at The Phoblographer are not in to testing products by pixel peeping, using high tech gizmos and/or pretty charts and graphs. Instead, we go out in the field, use the items and report on the results in a way that is through but easy to digest. Yes, I will zoom in on an image when doing comparisons like this, but that is much pixel peeping as you are going to get…promise.

Build Quality

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Both of these lenses are very well made and feel solid in the hand. The Panasonic does have an all plastic build (with the exception of the mount) but it still feels like a quality item. The focus ring turns with just the right amount of weight and it attaches to both my Olympus OM-D and Panasonic GF-1 with a smooth a reassuring clunk. As nice as the Panasonic is, the Olympus does trump the Panasonic’s build with a body that is almost entirely made of metal. The Olympus 17mm is noticeably larger and heavier than the Panasonic 20mm, but it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for those looking for a compact normal prime lens.

Build Quality Winner: Olympus 17mm f1.8

Ergonomics

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There’s really not too much to say about the ergonomics of these lenses. The Panasonic is a smaller and lighter lens so if having a lightweight and compact kit is paramount to you, you should go with the Panasonic. With that being said, I would by no means call the Olympus big or heavy. Both lenses have a focus ring but I find the focus ring on the Panasonic to be superior to the Olympus as it is smoother and has just the right amount of dampening. BUT, and this is a big but, the Olympus 17mm f1.8 has quite the party trick. Pull back on the focus ring (towards the camera body) and the lens goes into manual focus. It’s really pretty slick. On top of that, there is a distance scale which is something you rarely see on lenses nowadays.

Picking a winner for the ergonomics category is tough as it really depends on your priorities. If you could care less about focusing manually or zone focusing, then the lighter, more compact Panasonic 20mm f1.7 may be a better fit for you. But, if you would prefer to have a slightly larger lens with the ability to quickly go into manual focus mode to zone focus or fine-tune your focus, you are going to be much happier with the Olympus.

Ergonomics Winner: My personal preference is the Panasonic due to it’s weight and size, but I would have to call a draw on this one.

Autofocus

There is no draw here, the Olympus 17mm simply crushes the Panasonic 20mm when it comes to autofocus speed. In terms of autofocus, I think this may be the fastest lens in the M43 lineup. If autofocus speed is critical to you, then there is no doubt that the 17mm is the way to go for you. Now, lets talk about the Panasonic’s autofocus speed for a minute. Let me start by saying it is really not that bad. I’ve had mine since I purchased my Panasonic GF-1 three years ago and I haven’t had any major complaints about the autofocus speed. Is it as fast as a DSLR? No, but it is able to capture most subjects…provided they were not moving at breakneck speeds. Let me say this, the Panasonic 20mm never really felt slow until I used newer lenses like the Panasonic 25mm f1.4, Olympus 45mm f1.8, and Olympus 12mm f2…these lenses are speed demons compared to the 20mm.

Autofocus Winner: Olympus 17mm f1.8

Image Quality

This is where the tide starts to turn in Panasonic’s favor. I performed several real world tests with both lenses and, as you can see from the results in this post, the Panasonic beats the Olympus in just about every aspect of image quality. It is sharper, it has nicer bokeh, and I find the colors more pleasing although there isn’t a major difference between the two. Both lenses have problems with Chromatic Aberrations and blooming but that is nothing surprising for the M43 format. In the end, I have to give this category to the Panasonic as it edged out the Olympus in every comparison shot that was taken.

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Panasonic 20mm shot at 1/400 sec, f1.7

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Olympus 17mm shot at 1/320sec, f1.8

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100% crops from the images above. Olympus is on the left, Panasonic is on the right.

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Olympus 17mm shot at 1/500sec, f8

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Panasonic 20mm shot at 1/500sec, f8

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100% crops from the images above. Olympus is on the left, Panasonic is on the right.

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Olympus 17mm shot at 1/1250sec, f1.8

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Panasonic 20mm shot at 1/1600sec, f1.7

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100% crops from the images above. Olympus is on the left, Panasonic is on the right.

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Olympus 17mm shot at 1/200sec, f1.8

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Panasonic 20mm shot at 1/200sec, f1.7

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100% crops from the images above. Olympus is on the left, Panasonic is on the right.

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Panasonic 20mm shot at 1/125sec, f5.6

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Olympus 17mm shot at 1/125sec, f5.6

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100% crop of the images above. Olympus is on the left, Panasonic is on the right.

The samples above show crops from the center of the frame (my wife’s eye & chili), mid frame (landscape & lamp) and the corners (brick wall). As you can see, the Panasonic is able to resolve more detail than the Olympus. I also find that the colors from the Panasonic have slightly more “pop”.

Image Quality Winner: Panasonic 20mm f1.7

Value for the Money

Based on the information above, if I were to tell you both lenses cost $350, you would probably have a hard time choosing one lens to buy, I know I would. Well, this is not the case so this decision may become easier for those looking to buy one of these lenses. The Olympus 17mm f1.8 is currently selling for $499, that is $150-$170 more (prices fluctuate on the 20mm) than the Panasonic 20mm. You can easily pick up the super compact and fantastic Panasonic 14mm f2.5 on the used market for the difference in price. For me, the size, weight and superior optics make the Panasonic 20mm one of the best bargains around. Now, for some, the insanely fast autofocus of the Olympus 17mm may be worth the premium, that’s a decision you will have to make for yourself.

Value for the Money: Panasonic 20mm f1.7

Conclusion

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After using the Olympus 17mm f1.8 for about a month now, I can see why people are torn between the Olympus 17mm f1.8 and the Panasonic 20mm f1.7. Both lenses are compact, relatively light-weight and they have good optical qualities. I would give the edge to the Panasonic 20mm in terms of image quality, but the Olympus 17mm is by no means a dud when it comes to IQ. In the end, it really comes down to price and autofocus speed. If you are on a budget and you can live with slightly slower autofocus speed, I can pretty much guarantee that you will be more than happy with the Panasonic 20mm. If autofocus speed as your top priority and you don’t mind dropping another $150-$170, then go with the Olympus.

Personal Note

I’ve had the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 for over three years now and I absolutely LOVE this lens. This is my go to lens when traveling light. I took this lens and my Panasonic GF-1 around Europe for 20+ days as my only camera/lens (I left my 5D and L glass at home) a few years ago and I was never left wanting for another camera/lens. After shooting with the Olympus 17mm f1.8, the Panasonic 20mm does show its age a bit, specifically in teams of autofocus, but I personally do not find the need to “upgrade” to the Olympus 17mm. Some may want more of a 35mm equivalent filed of view, but I find a 40mm field of view to be quite versatile. For those of you with the Panasonic 20mm, unless you find the autofocus of the Panasonic to be too limiting, I would say save your money and pick up another lens like the Olympus 75mm f1.8 (drool).

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