35mm is perhaps the most versatile focal length in photography. In what seems like a perfect compromise, it is wide enough to include plenty of the environment in your pictures along with your subject, while remaining long enough for distortion to not become a serious problem. It is also a very “natural” focal distance to shoot with for most people. For those reasons, it is a frequent favorite for street photography, environmental portraiture, photo-journalism, and so on. It could very well be the perfect walk-around focal length.
In the Micro Four Thirds system, the 35mm focal length translates to 17.5mm due to its crop factor of 2. And while the admittedly superb Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 lens does a wonderful job of covering that precise focal length, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a manual focus-only lens. If you need autofocus — and, let’s face it, most people do — then the Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 is the next best thing.
After the Olympus, though, there’s a surprising shortage of 35mm-equivalent lenses in the MFT system. Sure, there’s Olympus’s own 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens, but its optical performance is noticeably worse, not to mention the fact that it is over a stop slower. This pancake was one of the first MFT lenses available, but it is now little more than a footnote in the system’s history.
As for Panasonic, while they don’t have a proper 35mm-equivalent lens, they do offer two excellent alternatives at both sides of the focal length spectrum: the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 at the wider end, and the widely-acclaimed Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens at the longer end. These are two amazing lenses, but they are noticeably different from the 35mm-equivalent focal length, particularly the Leica. A 2mm difference may not look like much, but once we get into wide-angle territory, every millimeter counts.
At the end of the day, if you require a fast aperture and autofocus — two very reasonable and common requirements these days — the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 is your only serious choice. Which is unfortunate because, while this is a perfectly decent lens, it is not quite as stellar as some other pieces of glass for the system.
Let’s take a look at it in a bit more detail.
The Olympus 17mm is really compact, even for a MFT lens. It weighs only 4.23 oz (120 g), meaning it’s incredibly light, but despite this, it still sports an all-metal body and a metal mount.
This combination of solid construction and light weight is what makes people refer to Olympus lenses as small jewels. They certainly feel like quality objects in the hand, not like some other, more plasticky lenses out there.
The lens comes with both front and rear plastic caps but, sadly, Olympus didn’t include a lens hood. This is a typical omission from Olympus, which is kind of a bummer. Olympus does make a metal lens hood for this lens, which is sold separately for a whopping $59. Considering this lens debuted at $500, there’s a very good case to be made that the hood should have been included.
Another unfortunate omission is weather sealing. While the Olympus 17mm has a decidedly premium feel, it’s not part of the Olympus PRO line of weather-sealed lenses, meaning this small prime was not designed to withstand rain, dust, or low temperatures. This is odd because, had Olympus decided to include weather sealing, it would’ve been a really great photo-journalism prime and a perfect companion for the professional-grade Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera.
Despite these two omissions, it’s hard to fault the Olympus 17mm’s build quality, which remains excellent, and far above the majority of MFT lenses available today. As the system matures, though, it would be nice to see manufacturers up their game significantly and make weather-sealing a standard feature across the board.
Ergonomics and manual focus
The ergonomics of the Olympus 17mm are fantastic.
The lens features a 46mm filter thread, a very common size for MFT lenses that makes it easy to share filters across several lenses. Collecting filters in different sizes is a surprisingly expensive endeavor, so this is definitely a much-welcome detail.
The base of the lens features several indentations on the metal, which makes it a breeze to mount and unmount the lens, even in cold conditions when your fingers are lacking dexterity, or when wearing gloves.
Other than that, the main feature of the lens is Olympus’s excellent clutch-focus mechanism, which allows users to instantly switch from AF to MF mode by simply pulling on the focus ring towards the camera body. Doing so reveals a depth of field scale, and increases the resistance of the focus ring. There are also hard stops at both ends of the focusing range to provide a better and more consistent MF experience.
However, the combination of the lens’s short focal length and the MFT crop factor means depth of field grows significantly as you stop down the aperture, making the depth of field scale largely irrelevant in actual use. It is usually much better to use the camera’s focus peaking and magnification features when available in order to achieve focus quickly and consistently.
And as for the actual focusing, like most MFT lenses, the Olympus 17mm uses a “focus by wire” system, which means the focusing ring is not mechanically linked to the focusing motor, and therefore the actual motor is electronically operated. As such, the resistance you feel when turning the ring is always the same. This resistance is just right, and the focus throw is enough to get accurate focus every time, but not so great that switching from close focus to infinity takes forever.
All in all, the lens offers a solid MF experience, but one that, as we’ll see in following chapters, is not without its quirks.
In typical Olympus fashion, the Olympus 17mm lens is pretty quick to focus in good light, consistently achieving focus in well under a second. It may hunt a bit in lower light, though.
Focusing is also silent, thanks to the MSC (Movie & Still Compatible) focusing motor also found in many other Olympus lenses. This makes the lens just as well suited for video recording as it is for taking pictures.
When it comes to accuracy, though, things are not so great. The Olympus 17mm has a tendency to miss focus in all but the best lighting conditions, which can be pretty frustrating sometimes and cause you to miss shots more often than you’d think.
Granted, AF performance is determined by a combination of lens-based and camera-based factors, but considering AF is the main reason to buy this lens over the Voigtlander 17.5mm, its lackluster AF accuracy is still quite disappointing.
The Olympus 17mm lens offers great image quality, although it is not quite as good as some other MFT lenses we’ve seen, particularly in the past year or so. While it certainly won’t disappoint most users, professionals may find it falls a bit short of their needs.
One of the most frequent lens comparisons in the MFT system is when this lens is compared with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, especially when it comes to their sharpness wide open.
In that case, there’s no doubt the Panasonic lens is noticeably sharper, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Olympus is a soft lens. Indeed, sharpness in the Olympus is excellent across the frame when stopped down, and even wide open it is perfectly usable, certainly sharp enough to satisfy most users in the real world.
That being said, if you’re a professional demanding clinical sharpness right from f/1.8, and/or enjoy pixel-peeping rather than looking at the actual picture, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
Usually, that wouldn’t be a huge problem but, as mentioned before, the 35mm-equivalent focal length is rather poorly covered in the MFT system. In this case, your only real alternative is the Voigtlander, which should be significantly sharper when stopped down to f/1.8, but also significantly more expensive, not to mention a different beast entirely.
Bokeh and depth of field
Bokeh is a term that refers to the aesthetic quality of the out of focus areas in an image, not the extent to which they’re out of focus. Some factors that typically affect the bokeh of a lens are the number and grouping of its optical elements, the number of aperture blades it has, and whether those blades are rounded.
The Olympus 17mm lens features 9 elements in six groups, including 3 aspherical elements a High Refractive index element to correct high spherical aberrations. It also features 7 rounded diaphragm blades.
All this contributes to the Olympus 17mm’s pleasing bokeh, particularly for a wide angle lens. Of course, the relatively short focal distance means subject isolation is harder to achieve than with longer lenses. By focusing close and shooting wide open, though, you can still get pretty decent results.
Thanks to its seven rounded diaphragm blades, out of focus light sources render as circles near the center of the frame, but take a bit of a cat’s eye shape towards the corners.
Color rendition and contrast
In the era of Instagram, VSCO film and in-camera film emulation filters, most people are perfectly happy with applying a preset or selecting a filter and not doing much in the way of post-processing beyond that. As a result, native color rendition, contrast and rendering have become slightly less important than they used to be.
Rendering-wise, this is an Olympus lens, through and through. Images have great color balance and tonality straight out of camera, and contrast is pleasing as well, but the overall effect is a bit more muted than with Panasonic lenses.
All this is of course entirely subjective, as different people will prefer different looks.
Whatever you prefer though, keep in mind that any of today’s MFT lenses will produce excellent images that are adjustable in post production to achieve your desired look. So, while color rendition and contrast are technically properties of the lens, they probably shouldn’t be a deciding factor when making a purchase.
Vignetting is light falloff that occurs in the corners of an image, particularly at large apertures.
As with most fast lenses, vignetting is noticeable wide open, but quickly improves as we stop the lens down. By f/2.8 most of the vignetting is gone.
Vignetting isn’t always an unwanted property though, and in fact many people enjoy the artistic effect it creates in some images. That said, should you want to eliminate it completely, it’s easily corrected in post production.
Chromatic aberration and fringing
Chromatic aberration and color fringing refer to the lens’s ability to capture a full range of colors of visible light at the same point. Heavy chromatic aberration typically appears in the form of purple or green fringing around the more contrasty borders of an image.
Most fast lenses will show traces of chromatic aberration when shot wide open, and the Olympus 17mm is no different, although it does do an outstanding job of correcting it. Still, some residual purple and green fringes can be found in high-contrast areas, especially when shooting against the light. These are not so obvious as to be a problem, though, and can always be corrected in post production.
Ghosting and flare
Lens flare may occur when a bright light source is caught in the angle of view of the lens, in such a way that its light rays hit the front element of the lens directly. Those rays may then bounce off other elements or even the sensor itself, producing several artifacts along their path. Lens flare usually presents itself in the form of severe haze and a pronounced loss of contrast across the entire frame.
The Olympus 17mm features Olympus’s ZERO (ZUIKO Extra-low Reflection Optical) coating, which supposedly minimizes ghosting and flare. This could explain why Olympus chose not to include a hood with the lens. Then again, one could also say that if they were really convinced about the coating’s ability to prevent flaring, they wouldn’t sell the hood separately to begin with. So which is it?
In the real world, flaring isn’t usually a problem with this lens, although in some situations you can definitely suffer a loss of contrast and get some purple flaring across the frame. As great as the ZERO coating may be, it’s still not enough to render lens hoods obsolete.
Both Panasonic and Olympus camera bodies automatically correct distortion with Olympus and Panasonic lenses, so any distortion will be gone before you even open your photo-editing application of choice. Even then, some residual distortion may appear on occasion in the final images with poorly corrected lenses.
In the case of the Olympus 17mm, some barrel distortion is still present, but it is so well controlled that it’s basically unnoticeable most of the time. It is only when dealing with pure straight lines that the distortion may become visible, and even then, it is easy to correct it in post-production.
Real world usage and image samples
Using the Olympus 17mm lens in the real world is a bit of a mixed bag. While the build quality and the ergonomics are top-notch, there are several quirks that make it slightly uncomfortable to use at times.
Using it in good light is almost always a pleasant experience, with the AF remaining responsive at all times and nailing focus consistently. And since the lens is tiny, you won’t attract any unwanted attention, which makes it very well suited for street photography or photo-journalism, where you often want to remain unnoticed by your subjects.
Thanks to its relatively wide angle of view and well controlled distortion, it is also a very usable lens for architecture or even the occasional landscape picture. If these types of shots are something you need to take often, you’ll be better off going with an even wider lens, but in a pinch, the Olympus 17mm will do an excellent job.
However, as good as the lens performs in broad daylight, AF performance starts to degrade significantly as the light fades out. It’s not that it becomes too slow — even at its worst, it still smokes the Panasonic 20mm pancake, for example — but that it becomes less reliable. Unless there are very well defined edges and high-contrast lines in the scene, getting it to focus exactly where you want it to is a hit-and-miss kind of experience.
It’s still not terrible, by any means, with the lens hitting focus maybe 60% of the time, but the other 40% means you cannot rely on it in critical situations, which is definitely frustrating.
That’s when manual focusing comes in.
If there’s not enough light for the AF to work reliably, you will be much better served by focusing manually with this lens. The Olympus 17mm has one of the best MF implementations in the MFT system, with its clutch-focus mechanism enabling you to quickly switch from AF to MF in order to fine-tune focus without having to take your eyes off the viewfinder.
Besides, most modern MFT cameras have MF aids like focus peaking and magnification built in, which make it super easy to nail focus every time. If you need the utmost reliability, nothing beats manual focusing.
However, even this excellent MF implementation is not without its faults. One of the most useful features in Olympus OM-D bodies is the ability to engage MF aids automatically as soon as you turn the focusing ring when in MF mode. You can set it to use peaking, magnification, or both. This is super convenient in real-world shooting, because it frees you from fiddling with menus or buttons and lets you concentrate on taking pictures instead.
The problem is, due to a bug in the Olympus 17mm lens, this feature doesn’t work. Even if you configure the camera to use MF aids automatically, if you enter MF mode by using the clutch-focus mechanism, peaking and magnification will not engage when you turn the focusing ring. To make things even weirder, if you leave the lens barrel in AF position and enter MF mode by using the camera’s dials instead, then the features will work, but you won’t have access to the distance scale, since it will be covered by the focusing ring. Plus, you won’t get the nicer level of resistance from the focusing ring, either.
This bug has been fixed in more recent Olympus lenses, like the PRO line of zooms, but it continues to affect the Olympus 17mm lens. Even worse, it doesn’t appear to be fixable via a firmware update, otherwise Olympus would’ve probably taken care of it by now.
That is perhaps the single most annoying thing about the lens, because it cripples one of its most distinct and unique features. At the end of the day, the only workaround is to assign the peaking and magnification features to two of the camera’s customizable function buttons. This will allow you to use peaking and magnification when in MF mode, but only when the focusing ring is in the AF position and you enter MF mode using the camera’s settings. On top of that, you will have to give up two buttons in the process and remember to press them every time you need to use the features, which is hardly ideal.
Other than that, though, using this lens is certainly an overall positive experience. It remains a solid performer in good light, and it does a decent job in poorer lighting conditions, if you don’t mind the above quirks. However, at this point in the MFT system’s life, we’ve certainly come to expect more from our lenses.
Room for improvement
No lens is perfect, and the Olympus 17mm certainly isn’t the first one to buck the trend. If Olympus wants to take this lens to the same level of excellence we’ve seen in some of their other offerings, they have their work cut out for them. Here are a few areas where they really ought to do better:
Weather sealing: Its omission is understandable, especially considering this lens is a few years old by now. Whenever a new system arises, manufacturers typically focus on covering the most used focal lengths first, usually with fast primes that offer really good IQ but that remain accessible for most users. It is only when a system reaches maturity that we start seeing more high-end features and exotic pieces of glass. By now, however, the MFT system is plenty mature, so it’s time for Olympus to start extending features like weather sealing across their lineup.
Better sharpness wide open: This is probably the one thing that will keep most people from buying this lens, even if it really shouldn’t. There’s a bit of an obsession with sharpness these days, and ever since it became widely known that the Panasonic 20mm lens is sharper — not to mention smaller and cheaper — people seem to not even look at the Olympus anymore. That’s a big mistake because, even if the Olympus lens has a few quirks of its own, sharpness isn’t really one of the more important ones. Still, it’s clear at this point that people expect clinical sharpness from their MFT primes, so Olympus should really improve the performance of this lens if they don’t want to keep missing out on sales.
Better AF accuracy: Another important thing to consider. It’s one thing for AF speed to decrease in poor light, but once it locks, AF should always remain accurate. That’s not the case with this lens, and it’s something Olympus should seriously look into.
MF magnification and peaking bug: This bug appears to have been fixed in newer Olympus lenses, so any future redesigns of this lens will probably be fine, too. It’s still worth keeping an eye out for, though.
Actually useful depth of field scale: If you’re going to put a depth of field scale and hard stops on your lens, at least make sure the scale is actually useful and not just a marketing gimmick. As it is, the current scale features so few aperture values and they’re so crammed together that it’s essentially impossible to rely solely on it in the real world.
Included lens hood: When you’re charging $500 at launch for a lens, you can afford to include a lens hood. Period. It doesn’t have to be a fancy metal one, but it needs to be there.
If you think the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 may not be the best choice for you, here are some other alternatives you can consider:
The Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 manual lens: A low light beast, this lens is built like a tank. If you want a real 35mm-equivalent prime lens, this is in fact your only option, and it’s a superb one. Unlike other lenses that favor technical perfection above all else, Voigtlander lenses have a unique character that stems from their flaws. You should expect chromatic aberration to be significant wide open, and distortion to be noticeable, but to shoot with a Voigtlander lens is to embrace said flaws, along with the full manual experience. Shooting wide open you get a soft, dreamy look that pushes the MFT sensor to its limits when it comes to depth of field control. Stop it down and everything becomes razor sharp while retaining Voigtlander’s unmistakeable character. It’s also worth noting that there are no electrical contacts in the lens, meaning you won’t get aperture information in your files. Also, since aperture is only controlled via the built-in aperture ring, shutter priority mode won’t work. That said, if you can live with manual focus only, this is a unique lens well worth the asking price in our book.
The Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens: This was one of the first prime lenses available for the MFT system, and it’s been rendered obsolete by the f/1.8 version. It’s still available for sale, though, so if you’re merely looking for a cheap, compact lens for your MFT camera, it’s worth checking out. However, if you can afford it, both the f/1.8 version or the Panasonic 20mm pancake are much better buys.
The Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7: This more modern lens from Panasonic, designed as part of their collaboration with Leica, is another interesting option. With an equivalent focal length of 30mm, this is significantly wider than the Olympus, making it better suited for landscape and architectural shots. Its build quality is just as good as the Olympus, with an all-metal design that feels great in the hand. Image-quality wise, this is a top performer, edging the Olympus in sharpness wide open and matching it or beating it in everything else, too. It also has a more organic and vivid rendering, just like the other Leica lenses in the MFT system. There’s an aperture ring on the lens, but it only works with Panasonic cameras. Finally, at $549, it’s only about $100 more than the Olympus. All in all, a truly fantastic choice for those wanting something a bit wider.
The Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II ASPH pancake lens: One of the most popular lenses of the MFT system, and with good reason. The Panasonic 20mm is a spectacular lens, one so good that it probably shouldn’t exist. Packing exceptional image quality in a small, light, and affordable package, this lens is a must-have for any MFT shooter, regardless of experience. Its only flaws are its slow AF and its tendency to show banding at high ISO settings when mounted on some cameras. This lens is a Tools & Toys favorite, and you can read our full review of it here.
- The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO zoom: If you can’t quite make primes work for you, you’ll be pleased to know Olympus also offers the outstanding series of PRO zooms. With a maximum aperture of f/2.8, they clearly won’t break any speed records, but that’s about the only bad thing one could say about them. Everything else about the PRO lenses screams quality: the all-metal build, the clutch-focus mechanism with hard stops for manual focus, the solid heft. These are optical tools built to perform well under the most demanding conditions. Check out our own review of the 12-40mm PRO zoom for more information.
The Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 lens is clearly not for everyone.
It’s certainly not a bad lens, but it’s not up to the levels of excellence we’ve seen in other MFT lenses, particularly in recent years. No matter how you look at it, the joy and wow-factor that some of those more exotic pieces of glass inspire just isn’t there in this lens.
Those in need of maximum sharpness will likely prefer to go with the Leica 15mm or the Panasonic 20mm instead. Similarly, those wanting fast and reliable AF in poor light will need to look elsewhere, probably into the 12-40mm PRO zoom’s general direction. And those wanting a real manual focus experience will be much better served by the Voigtlander. Unfortunately, if you need a 35mm-equivalent fast prime with AF, this is as good as it gets for now in the MFT system.
For a system that prides itself on having the best lens selection of any mirrorless system, the lack of a truly outstanding 35mm-equivalent lens is becoming harder and harder to ignore with each passing year.
At the end of the day, though, if its quirks are not deal breakers to you, the Olympus remains a good lens, and one perfectly capable of meeting and exceeding the expectations of many, maybe even most, people. Its image quality is excellent, and it’s an enjoyable lens to use about 80% of the time. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see this quality crippled by the lens’s finicky performance under more demanding conditions.
It’s not that it isn’t good, but that it really should have been better.