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What's All the Angst About: The Olympus 17mm f/1.8 Review

"Expectations are premeditated resentments." -- Self Improvement Wisdom

Olympus 17mm f/1.8 Test: Late Afternoon Orchid
Late Afternoon Orchid
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/4000)

Originally published February, 2013.

Angst? What angst?

Maybe it's agita.  If you haven't been considering this lens, then you might have missed the endless speculation about whether this lens is good enough.  Those who compare metrics and pixel peep at 200% have generally said "No".  Those who just go out and shoot generally say "Yes".

As my opening quote suggests, I think so many thought this was going to be more like the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 than like the 12mm f/2.0.  In my experience, the 12mm is nowhere near as sharp as the 75mm but I like them both.  For $500 USD, some expected this lens to be sharper than it is and have trashed it -- unfairly in my opinion.

The "old 17mm" -- the f/2.8 version -- I also owned but I did not like it at all I'm afraid.  I sold it on one of my early PEN bodies to get rid of it.  This lens is a different animal altogether.  Some have tried to compare it favorably to this latest 17mm,  but I'm not buying it.

All the shots in this mini review are taken with the Olympus E-M5 and the M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens.  They are all hand held shots and flash was never used.

Spoiler: Summing up First

If you don't want to read the entire review and commentary I'll make it easy.  This is a great lens.  Now you can just go look at the pictures, lol.

There's more to a lens than absolute sharpness and I will say this is not the sharpest lens I own.  Usability factors like autofocus speed, handing, size and weight, durability of construction, etc. are also important.  Furthermore, there are many other factors about how the lens "paints" or "renders" that make an image pleasing or not.

This lens is fast, focuses as fast or faster than anything I've ever put on my E-M5 or E-PL5 and handles great.  I like the way the images look.  Now what else, really, matters?

The Review

Now, most of January has been a waste for me.  I spent much of it sick -- it's one of the sickest winters I've ever experienced and not just me.  It seems everyone is sicker this year.   Hence the title of the following shot -- even the birds have been sick...

Olympus 17mm f/1.8 Test: Norovirus
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/80)

So, I bought this lens a while back but haven't had a chance to use it.  I took it to Longwood Gardens to try it out on the type of material I shoot there.

Everything is hand-held shots, and I avoided people photography because those folks paid to get in and I don't feel they are "fair game" for street photography.

The shot above begins to make one of the points about this lens: out of focus rendering.  I think the bokeh is very nice.  I shoot a lot of shots with small DOF so that's a big consideration for me personally.

Olympus 17mm f/1.8 Test: Greenhouse Gateway
Greenhouse Gateway
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/2.2 @ 1/500)

The shot above could have perhaps benefited from greater DOF, but it does make a point about how this lens renders color, light and shadow.  I like the way this shot looks.
Jay Leno in a Turban
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/320)

Another example above of two things: my sad excuse for a sense of humor, and that once again out of focus rendering is very nice with this lens.  Sharp enough where it's sharp for my needs as well.


One of the things about sharpness: a couple of reviewers have made a statement about how nicely this lens "takes" to sharpening.  I thought that an odd comment but I find it true -- though I have no idea why the detail captured by this lens sharpens well.  The default renderings do not suggest the sharpness you can get in the final image -- weird.  I pretty much shoot everything RAW so detail recovery is possible if it's there at all.

As expected, corners and edges are not as sharp as the center -- which is actually quite sharp when judged from the standpoint of image making and not pixel peeping.

Let me ask you something that may confront you a bit: do you print large?  If you don't, you probably shouldn't be too concerned with sharpness at all.  Showing people  stuff on the internet (like here) compresses out detail, noise and may make things look artificially sharp.  

Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/10 @ 1/60)

The shot above is moving into the diffraction limited range for this lens and still looks fine, even in the original.

Most of the prints I sell are in the 16x20 inch range, but I've printed at 20x24 inches and larger as well, though not frequently.  I currently have a print of 24x36 inches hanging over my fireplace that I took with the E-M5 and the 9-18mm f/4-5.6 zoom.  The 9-18mm is a fine lens, but not super-sharp and the print looks great.

What I'm saying is: get over "absolute sharpness" and concentrate on what your images really looks like AS A WHOLE -- particularly when printed.  

Of course, it does what you'd expect when you stop down: edge to edge it becomes more consistent and it sharpens up.
Evil Idol in a Green Wig
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/3.2 @ 1/40)

The above is an uncropped shot stopped down about 1.5 stops.  The lens still has that delicate rendering that my wife describes as "soft" and I describe as "subtle".  These are not sharpness terms but reflect the ability to capture subtleties in the image shading without harshness.  I'm not being scientific -- this is an extremely subjective thing -- but I find I really tend to like how the Olympus primes "draw" the image.

Autofocus Speed

There really aren't any significant examples of places where that benefited me except maybe the following image.
Backlit Lily
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/3.2 @ 1/2000)

There was a press of photographers -- mostly with point and shoot cameras -- around this area, all jockeying to capture these beautiful backlit flowers in the very late afternoon light.  So, I guessed a good aperture setting, hunkered down, fired off a shot or two, and moved on without "chimping" (peeking at my results).  The key here is rapidly getting the correct focal point and this was not too bad.  I would have liked to refine the focus and depth of field more but I'll take this one.  I got out of the way quickly.  I hope the others like their shots.

Focus with this lens feels instantaneous in a surprising range of lighting situations and it almost never hunts (unless you pick a point to focus on that has no detail).  It feels FAST.

The following scene illustrates this a bit.
The Orchid in the Library
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/40, ISO 640)

This scene looks bright and contrasty but it was quite dim.  The lens locked instantaneously onto the flowers when asked to focus.  Really, the E-M5 and this lens are a treat to use.

The scene is from a special display in a room at the end of the Exhibition Gallery that celebrates Longwood Gardens' history of Orchid development.  This represents a scene in the DuPont household back when they were first learning about orchids.

Pros and Cons

So, let's sum up my feelings about this lens.

  • As sharp as you are likely to need with good edge to edge distribution
  • One of the fastest focusing MFT lenses ever (IMO)
  • Bullet-proof construction
  • Superb manual focusing options with the "snapshot" ring (like the 12mm f/2.0)
  • Wonderful out of focus rendering
  • Beautiful and subtle rendering of image details and color
  • "Feels" right on both the E-M5 and the E-PL5
  • Inspires confidence the more you use it
  • Takes a "common" (for micro four thirds) 46mm filter.
  • Not the sharpest prime ever made.  Leica is safe...
  • Not inexpensive, but not priced unreasonably for what it does
  • Not tiny.  But not huge like the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 either
  • No hood -- typical for Olympus and we've all gotten used to their stinginess
I already summed up that I like this lens and it will be a "go to" option.

Here's a couple of more shots I took with it that I haven't used yet.
Chapel for Two
Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/160)

Olympus OM-D E-M5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/2.8 @ 1/400)

Self Portrait in the Workshop
Self Portrait in the Workshop
Olympus E-PL5 and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens (f/1.8 @ 1/20)

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