This "wide normal" lens can be used for many different types of photography, but its main purpose to deliver crisp edge-to-edge sharpness for travel, photojournalism and street photography in a variety of shooting conditions. The 35mm equivalent focal length means most people won't just buy this lens as an addition to the camera bag...this lens is going to see a lot of use. As a journalist and as a father of two small children I immediately appreciated the perspective this lens offers for capturing a moment in time by leaving room for the subject to be prominent in the frame and still give some space for the surroundings so viewers get a sense of place. The 17mm lens and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 are ideal for this type of casual snapshot work and the lens doesn't disappoint in terms of maintaining detail across the entire frame.
During general shooting I found the images to be reasonably sharp and detailed with good color quality. In low light situations the lens performed well even when I cranked up the camera's ISO. High ISO images are where you can separate good lenses from bad ones because the ISO noise will destroy fine details...so if the lens isn't rendering good detail to begin with you'll just end up with a muddy mess when you start shooting above ISO 1600. I was generally pleased with the amount of detail captured by the 17mm lens regardless of the ISO setting.
I did not notice any significant chromatic aberration issues in my test images and distortion is pretty well controlled despite the fact this is natively a 17mm lens which would typically be much more prone to distortion than something like the 45mm or 75mm lenses. That being said, you will notice some "rounding" of facial features if you move your subject close to the lens.
Chromatic aberration is kept to a minimum and bokeh is relatively pleasing. While details are sharp the overall contrast doesn't appear -- at least to the naked eye -- to be as high as the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 or the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lenses. This is both a curse and a blessing: If you want fine details and edges to be "razor sharp" you will need to tweak the sharpening and local contrast using post processing software but this also means that the Olympus 17mm lens doesn't render subjects as "harshly" as the Panasonic 20mm lens and that is probably better for candid portraiture.
Ease of Use
As previously mentioned the 17mm f/1.8 works beautifully as a 35mm equivalent prime lens for general use and candids. The older Olympus 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens is physically smaller but the f/1.8 aperture on this new 17mm lens means this lens is better suited for low-light situations and does a slightly better job blurring the background to create a shallow depth of field effect.
The other major advantages of this lens are related to focusing. The Olympus Movie & Still Compatible (MSC) auto focus technology means this lens focuses quickly and quietly making it great for capturing fast-moving subjects or for recording video without noise from the AF motor. In addition, the 17mm f/1.8 lenses features the same quick-clutch manual focus ring first seen on the Olympus 12mm f/2 wide angle lens. When you pull the quick-clutch focus ring backward you disengage the AF system and have direct (mechanical) manual focus control over the lens rather than the electronic "fly-by-wire" manual focus that is common to Micro Four Thirds lenses.
Although I enjoy using the quick-clutch manual focus ring it is the source of one of my only complaints about this lens: The auto focus and the quick-clutch manual focus ring are not mechanically linked. Simply put, this means that if you use auto focus to focus your lens on the horizon for a landscape shot and then move the focus ring to manual focus so that the focus doesn't move the focus will move as soon as you pull back on the focus ring...because the auto focus system and the manual focus aren't connected. This is the same as the Olympus 12mm lens but it is different than all of the SLR and DSLR lenses I've used that have push/pull manual focus rings. Granted, this is a small complaint and it isn't the end of the world, but it can be annoying if you use AF to grab focus and then want to switch to manual focus because your focus will move. If you don't quite understand the problem I've just described we've prepared a short video to demonstrate the issue:
Additional Sample Images
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