Olympus 17mm f/1.8: As Good as it Gets

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8

K Madhavan Pillai finds out if the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 delivers all that Olympus promises it to be… a lens with no compromises.

With the recent addition of the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8, Olympus builds on its line-up of high-quality block lenses for Micro Four Third cameras. The only other lens with the same focal length is Olympus’ own 17mm f/2.8 pancake (launched mid-2009). Another comparable lens belongs to Panasonic, the Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH pancake (launched late 2009). However, this lens provides a full frame equivalent field of view of 40mm (as opposed to the 34mm of the 17mm f/1.8). While some may feel that the difference in focal length is small, serious street shooters will find the moderately wider 17mm a more attractive proposition.

The 17mm f/1.8 is of a fairly complex design as compared to either the 17mm f/2.8 or the 20mm f/1.7, comprising nine lens elements in six groups. These elements include three aspherical lenses, including a Dual ‘Super’ Aspherical element. The lens also includes a High Refractive index element. These are meant to reduce chromatic and spherical aberrations. The lens surfaces are coated with Olympus’ proprietary ZERO (Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical) coating, used in the manufacture of Olympus microscopes, to prevent flare and ghosting when shooting against the light.

The lens features a new, internal focusing mechanism (MSC or Movie Still Compatible) which is silent enough for shooting movies and yet quick enough for still photography.

The focus ring uses a push-pull method to actuate AF or MF. Pulling back the ring for MF operation reveals the focus distance and DOF scale, akin to old, manual SLR lenses. Olympus calls this the ‘Snapshot Focus’ mechanism. Considering that the depth-of-field produced by the lens is respectably large at smaller apertures, serious street photographers will find this feature extremely useful for quickly setting hyperfocal distances while shooting.

The f/1.8 aperture helps shoot in lower light conditions and blur out backgrounds if the subject is close enough to the lens. The closest focusing distance is 0.25m, at which, the magnification ratio of 0.08x (35mm equivalent of 0.16x)—which is good for a moderate wide angle lens. The lens features seven circular aperture blades and standard filter diameter of 46mm.

Though not as diminutive as the 17mm f/2.8 or the 20mm f/1.7, the all metal 17mm f/1.8 is solidly constructed and feels good to use. On the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the lens balances rather well.

The focus ring is nicely ridged and the Snapshot Focus mechanism makes a big difference in the overall handling. Pulled back for MF operation, the ring has just the right amount of resistance. The numbers marked on the distance and the DOF scale stand out nicely against the silver finish and are easy to read.

The front element of the lens does not rotate while focusing. There is no lens hood supplied with the lens. After everything that Olympus has done to enhance its performance, this is certainly an oversight.

In our field tests, this lens excelled. AF was wonderfully quiet and responsive, even in low light. Center to edge sharpness was superbly high from f/4 to f/16. At the widest apertures, there was a drop in sharpness especially at the corners, but it was still quite good. The difference was visible only at the lowest ISO settings of the E-M5.

Against the light, both flaring and fringing were superbly controlled. Coupled with the high level of sharpness, high-contrast picture situations turned out beautifully. There was no visible distortion. Light falloff was minimal. In short, the performance of this lens was nothing short of exemplary.

If you are an avid street photographer, the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 is the lens to buy. What differentiates it from its competitors is its fantastic optical quality and its ability to quickly switch to MF while allowing the user to easily set hyperfocal distances. In this, the 17mm f/1.8 is quite unique.

The lens is priced at Rs. 28,000. While this may not be the most inexpensive option, at this point, it remains the best combination of focal length, features, optics and handling for a Micro Four Thirds system user.

There is no visible distortion and the lens produces excellent conrast and sharpness. Exposure: 1/15sec at f/5.6 (ISO 2500). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

There is no visible distortion and the lens produces excellent conrast and sharpness. Exposure: 1/15sec at f/5.6 (ISO 2500). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Final Ratings
Excellent optics, Movie Still Compatible, f/1.8

No distortion or flare, exemplary sharpness

Build Quality
All-metal construction, inspires confidence

No lens hood, Snapshot Focus mechanism works exceptionally well, balances well

Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty

Value For Money: 4/5

Who should buy it?
Street photographers who enjoy working with a moderate wide angle prime lens.

Apart from its all-metal construction and superb optical quality, the 17mm f/1.8 also has great functionality for working quickly with MF and hyperfocal distance settings.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Lens review, january 2013, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8, olympus pancake lens