When it comes to street photography or candid photojournalism photographers have relied on 35mm lenses for decades. The 35mm focal length provides a wide perspective that captures your subject and its surroundings but it isn't so wide that it distorts the image. Think of 35mm as a "Goldilocks" lens -- not too wide and not too long, just right. Unfortunately, modern crop sensor cameras transform traditional 35mm into more of a telephoto lens and that's not ideal for street shooting. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 MSC lens is the ideal solution to this problem. Now photographers who use Micro Four Thirds cameras like the OM-D E-M5 have a 35mm equivalent lens with a fast aperture ready to capture any situation. Is this the best lens for Micro Four Thirds? Here's a hint: I might leave this lens permanently attached to my OM-D.
If you're a photographer who is new to the Micro Four Thirds system of cameras and lenses then you might not be aware that all Micro Four Thirds cameras have a sensor that is essentially half the size of traditional 35mm film. As a result, any lens that is mounted to a Micro Four Thirds camera has a "crop factor" of 2.0x - meaning a 17mm lens becomes the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a "full frame" DSLR or 35mm film camera. Olympus makes this a little more confusing since they market the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 lens as a "Wide Prime" lens. Granted, the 35mm focal length is considered wider than a traditional "normal" lens like a 50mm prime, but most photographers don't consider 35mm to be quite wide enough to capture large groups of people indoors. In short, this 17mm lens and its 35mm equivalent field of view is great for candid photography and spontaneous situations where you want some background in your frame, but you probably won't use this lens if you want to capture grand sweeping vistas of mountain ranges.
Overview of Lens
The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens weighs 120g and its diameter measures 57.5x35.5mm making it much smaller than most 35mm equivalent lenses on the market but not quite as compact as "pancake" lenses such as the older Olympus 17mm f/2.8 or the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lenses. As a prime lens it has a set focal length of 17mm and no ability to zoom in or out (you "zoom with your feet" by walking closer or away from your subject when using a prime lens). The 17mm f/1.8 lens has seven circular diaphragm blades that help to render round, specular highlights in the background and create a more pleasing "bokeh" effect in the defocused areas of the image. The all-metal lens is also equipped with MSC auto focus drive technology which assures fast and quiet autofocusing. The 17mm is one of the newest lenses to feature Olympus' proprietary ZERO multicoating technology which Olympus claims produces pictures better contrast than previous lens coatings. Currently, this lens retails for $599.99.
Build and Design
As previously mentioned, the 17mm f/1.8 prime lens has an all-metal lens barrel that makes this lens feel quite durable in your hands. The lens lacks any weather sealing to make it dust-proof or splash-proof but it should survive abuse that would destroy cheaper lenses with plastic construction. This lens incorporates 9 elements in 6 groups and uses Dual Super Aspherical (DSA), Aspherical, and High Refractive index (HR) glass elements. In layman's terms all that special glass is designed to eliminate chromatic aberrations and reduce optical distortion. The overall build of the lens is pretty lightweight considering it feels like a chunk of metal in your hand. All that metal construction means the lens is heavier than the partially plastic Olympus 45mm f/1.8 but much lighter than the all-metal Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens. Those users wanting the smallest and lightest 35mm equivalent lens are probably better off with the older Olympus 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens, but the new 17mm f/1.8 lens does have several key advantages.
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
The M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 MSC lens is on my short list of "must have" lenses for the Micro Four Thirds mount. I am a big fan of the 35mm equivalent lens perspective and this lens fits perfectly between the Olympus 12mm f/2 and the 45mm f/1.8 if you're looking to build the ideal kit of Olympus prime lenses with fast-and-silent MSC focusing. In real-world use I cannot say the image quality of the new 17mm lens is dramatically better than the old 17mm f/2.8 pancake. The new lens has better edge-to-edge sharpness and a brighter f/1.8 aperture with faster and quieter autofocus. However, the color quality and center sharpness of both the old and new 17mm lenses are largely the same.
I found the image quality to be quite good for this price range but if you already have the old 17mm f/2.8 pancake you might not want to spend the extra cash to upgrade unless the f/1.8 aperture and the new MSC auto focus are important to you. The quick-clutch manual focus ring is pretty great for quick and smooth manual focus control but the fact that the manual focus ring isn't mechanically coupled to the AF means you might find it frustrating to use if you want to quickly switch back and forth between auto focus and manual focus. For me, that little quirk of the quick-clutch manual focus ring isn't a deal breaker for what amounts to an otherwise great lens. The 17mm f/1.8 lens is the kind of lens I want to use almost all the time. I won't butcher the fabulous Olympus OM-D E-M5 by gluing this lens to it, but Olympus is going to have to send some very tough repo men to wrestle this lens back from me. If you value a great "wide normal" lens like I do, you'll want to buy this lens for your Micro Four Thirds camera.
The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 prime lens is available for $599.99.