A review of the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 - Yet another beautifully made, optically superb, m4/3 lens.

Micro Four Thirds is the best system you can take photographs with for the sheer quantity of lenses that you can use with it. Its probably true that of all the interchangeable camera lenses made over the years, what you can't use successfully on a m4/3 camera is probably in the minority. For example with adapters virtually the entire Nikon and Canon ranges can be used with manual focus, and m-mount lenses don't vignette and produce colour casts. People have stuck all kinds of strange optics in front of one of these cameras and this versatility never ceases to amaze me. With the newly introduced Metabones Speed Booster, you can get remarkably fast lenses and 'equivalent' optics that either don't exist or would cost £1000's. Often using second hand lenses bought on ebay that nobody wants anymore.

But the real 'jewels in the crown' are the native lenses from Olympus and Panasonic. Without m4/3 we would have no NEX, no RX1, no A7r and probably no Fuji X either. Olympus and Panasonic have shown that quality and (large) size don't have be linked, and that superb lenses can be small and light and yet still designed and constructed to a very high standard. In addition to a wide range of zooms we have a series of top class primes. From Panasonic we have the 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4 and 45mm f/2.8 Macro. Soon to be added to by a remarkable 42.5mm f/1.2. From Olympus we have the 12mm f/2, 45mm f/1.8 and perhaps the best of them all, the absolutely superb 75mm f/1.8. These have now been joined by the 17mm f/1.8 from Olympus. As the title at the top of the page says yet another beautifully made, optically superb m4/3 lens.

First thing I noticed when I got it out of the box was that in addition to it being small and light, how incredibly well made it is. It is a thing of beauty, particularly fitted with its metal lens cap or metal hood. Unfortunately you have to pay extra for these, as this is the Olympus way, and after stating my opinion that they should be included with the lens and / or a lot cheaper, they are like the lens, beautifully engineered. The lens has the same push / pull option to give a manual focus depth of field scale for hyperfocal distance shooting as with the 12mm f/2. Again unfortunately there is no cap for the lens hood, so that has to be removed to protect the lens when not being used. Olympus could learn a thing or two from what Voitlander do with their fast MF primes here.

Now I may do some tests in the future, but I'm not including any in this post. I'm much more concerned about how the lens works in practice. I've already been out with it a couple of times and am very impressed, but not actually surprised, by its performance. Its very good indeed, even wide open, like the other Olympus fast primes. It doesn't have that extraordinary quality that the 75mm f/1.8 has, but then few lenses do. Its very similar to the 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8 lenses in terms of sharpness, which is of course saying that its very sharp indeed. Below are some examples at f/1.8.

None of that faddy gnats hair depth of field here, so beloved by some hobbyists trying to be 'arty'. Even at f/1.8 there is a nice context to the pictures. What I've often described as a large format type look, as when with 10 x 8' plate cameras you don't get deep focus unless you stop down to f/32 and above. I love this look. A wide(ish) angle lens with focus on the foreground and a defocused background without that syrupy bokeh, creates images I really like. I've always thought it looks really classy. You get the advantage of a narrow aperture and therefore high shutter speeds and / or low ISO's, which is one the things m4/3 fans take for granted. Much of the photographic internet gestapo think this is a bad thing, but that's their loss.

Like many m4/3 lenses its not great at f/11 > and below is a shot taken with the lens depth of field scale exposed and the hyperfocal distance set to f/11. Its OK, but not as crisp as the lower apertures.

I should mention the AF with this lens is lightning fast. Whether its as fast as on an Olympus I can't say, but comparing the two is really splitting hairs. I can't think of any situation where the AF on my Panasonics with this lens would ever be a problem for me. Several times I had the image captured before I'd really had time to think about it. There's no IS on either lens or body of course. Makes you wonder how on earth we ever took pictures without it!!! I was working outdoors on a windy day, so this didn't matter anyway. Plus, I've never been entirely convinced by in body IS, and I've had some strange results from it on Olympus cameras. Needless to say I'm not bothered by the absence and I doubt any other photographers who know what they are doing are either.

There is no CA or fringing, even wide open that I can see, however I have got the removal button checked in Adobe Camera Raw. Looking at some images with it turned off, there is no problem there as far as I can see anyway. Distortion is OK, but it is a 17mm lens so you'll get the effects of that. The manual focusing ring is nicely weighted if you want to use that and it focuses down to .25 metre or .82 feet which isn't bad. 

A while ago I published a post - http://soundimageplus.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/panasonic-new-leica.html - based on an article by Steve Huff - http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2013/10/03/crazy-comparison-leica-m-240-fuji-x-m1-and-panasonic-gx7-part-1/ - about how m4/3 can be seen as the heir apparent to the early Leica systems. Unlike APS-C mirrorless systems, m4/3 allows small, light lenses as well as small light bodies. These days the system has competition from 1" sensors, but is still, as far as I'm concerned the best compromise between size advantages, image quality and high ISO performance. My two trips out with the lens were firstly with my GH3 and yesterday with my G6. Now this is an incredibly light combination. If you add in a 45mm f/1.8 then you have a seriously light, high quality two lens kit, capable of letting you shoot in all but the dimmest conditions. I can almost enclose the G6 and the 17mm in my hand which shows just how small it is and the comparisons with what an APS-C sensor system offers are obvious. Just look at the size of the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 for example. (Incidentally just to confirm my anti-Zeiss (AF lenses I should point out) credentials, I think the Olympus is sharper.)

And this is what m4/3 offers us, and has since the days of the G1. Despite both Panasonic and Olympus now offering cameras that look more like DSLR's, you can still get the small, light G series from Panasonic and the Pens from Olympus, with lenses to match, for long distance and / or unobtrusive shooting. These combinations won't make your back ache or require the need for large camera bags and yet can still deliver images capable of the most demanding of uses. A3 double page spreads, glossy magazine covers, 48-sheet posters and A2 prints are no problem whatsoever for 16MP m4/3 cameras, and anyone who says can't reproduce for these uses doesn't know what they are talking about. I've been providing m4/3 images for uses like this for years, via libraries and for clients, so I know exactly what m4/3 is capable of.

The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 fills a gap in the m4/3 lens range. One of the first lenses Olympus brought out was the 17mm f/2.8, and while it wasn't as bad as some people made out, the f/1.8 is better, both in terms of performance and lack of CA which the f/2.8 model was prone to. It slots in nicely with the other Panasonic and Olympus fast primes and whether by accident or design they do seem not to release duplicate lenses, which is good to see. The nearest comparison would obviously be the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 and which you choose is up to you. I do like the focal length of the 20mm but have to admit that the slightly wider 17mm is probably more useful for my landscape work and I'm though its small its not pancake small, and I do find it easier to work with. 

I'll be posting images taken with this lens in the future and will add to my comments then, but I can already say that the lens is a nice addition to what I have already. Its useful to have a fast prime in addition to my zooms, and I don't always want to be using adapted manual focus lenses. It's a really high quality lens, but then I guess I knew that already. I'm not surprised by how good it is. In fact I virtually took that for granted even before it arrived. And that surely speaks volumes for the m4/3 system in general and the lens system in particular.

N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) below.

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