Excellent image quality in a small, light and fast package. That’s the promise of the Micro Four Thirds standard in relation to other camera systems, and the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens is the perfect embodiment of those qualities. Add affordable to such an impressive list of credentials and it’s no surprise this is one of the most popular lenses in the entire Micro Four Thirds catalog.
The Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8 Micro Four Thirds lens — that’s the full name, but let’s just refer to it as the Olympus 45mm for short — is a short telephoto lens. Since the Micro Four Thirds standard has a crop factor of 2, that means the lens has roughly the same field of view as a 90mm lens in the traditional 35mm format, more commonly referred to as Full Frame these days.
The 90mm focal length is at the short end of the telephoto range, and it’s one of the most popular focal lengths for portraiture.
Typically, portrait lenses lie somewhere between 85mm and 150mm. This range ensures no distortion affects the subjects, provided you keep a safe distance from them, and also provides much easier subject separation from the background when shooting with large apertures. But the main reason this is the preferred range for portraits is what is called compression. Longer lenses tend to compress the focal plane of the image, meaning some of your subject’s facial features, like the nose and the ears, won’t stand out as much in the final image. This compression effect is usually flattering on most people and creates more natural-looking images.
While the Olympus 45mm does a great job of covering the short end of the portrait range, the longer end is occupied by another superb lens: the Olympus M. Zuiko 75mm f/1.8.
Depending on your preference as a photographer, you may feel more comfortable at one or the other end of that range. Shorter lenses require photographers to stand closer to their subjects, while the longer reach of the Olympus 75mm allows them to maintain their distance. Conversely, if you work in constrained environments, the Olympus 75mm may be more difficult to maneuver since it may require more space for framing than is physically available.
The shorter reach of the Olympus 45mm also makes it a more versatile lens. Aside from portraiture, this lens can be used for full body shots and in a pinch, even for street photography. These types of shots would be considerably more difficult to get with a longer lens.
Build quality and ergonomics
Let’s start with the bad first: the Olympus 45mm lens is mostly made out of plastic, with the exception of its metal mount. It’s also not weather sealed, so running around in a tropical storm with this lens may not be a good idea. This is a consumer lens built to consumer standards, and it should be used accordingly.
But while it’s definitely not one of the toughest Micro Four Thirds lenses, it’s so small and light that the tradeoffs are easily worth it. Measuring 2.20 x 1.81″ (56 x 46 mm) and weighing a mere 4.09 oz (116 g), this is one of the smallest and lightest portrait lenses available for any camera system. Not to mention that at $399, it’s one of the most affordable, too.
The lens is available in black and silver — as reviewed — and it features a really simple exterior. In fact, other than the lens barrel and the textured focusing ring, there’s not much going on here, except for the removable ring at the front that conceals the hood mount.
Olympus doesn’t include a hood with this lens, which is unfortunate. Given its price, it’s somewhat understandable.
Other than that, there’s the 37mm filter thread, which is rather on the small side even for a Micro Four Thirds lens. Since it’s extremely likely that you’ll end up owning other lenses with larger filter threads, we recommend you buy your filters in the largest thread size you’re likely to need, and then use step-up rings to fit them to your smaller lenses. Good filters are surprisingly expensive, and this way you’ll only need to buy them once.
The focus ring is smooth and has a nice dampen to it, but like many Micro Four Thirds lenses, it is not a real manual focus ring. Instead, it is a focus-by-wire design and as such, there are no hard stops at the ends of the focusing range and there’s no distance scale on the lens itself.
These days the lack of hard stops and a distance scale are far less annoying than before. Features like focus peaking and magnifying make manual focusing a breeze with modern cameras, and the Olympus 45mm is no exception. Still, if you’re primarily a manual focus shooter, you may want to check out other options like the impressive Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95 lens.
Finally, this is not one of the most durable lenses out there. Its plastic build and light, jewel-like heft make it quite prone to scratches and dents. Unless you keep it in a protective pouch at all times, be prepared for some battle scars to appear on the lens eventually. Don’t worry too much about them though; tools are meant to be used, and scars earned, so wear them with pride instead.
If you were slightly disappointed by the average manual focus implementation of this lens, you’ll be glad to know there’s a very good reason to never use it: autofocus performance with the Olympus 45mm is simply outstanding.
In typical Olympus fashion, the Olympus 45mm lens is incredibly fast and accurate to focus in good light, and still pretty decent in less than stellar lighting conditions. As a reference, the lens consistently achieved focus in less than 0.5 seconds indoors and with only available light. This was true for objects that were at both ends of the focusing range of the lens. Outdoors and with good light, the Olympus 45mm focuses even faster, consistently achieving focus nearly instantaneously.
That said, this is still not a lens for fast action shots or sports. As much as mirrorless technology has advanced in recent years, no mirrorless camera can quite match DSLRs yet when it comes to autofocus performance, but the gap is closing rapidly.
As a final comment, the Olympus 45mm has an MSC, or “Movie-Still-Compatible” autofocus motor. This means the lens focuses silently for better video recording, which is another nice feature of its already excellent autofocusing system.
Make no mistake: while the Olympus 45mm won’t set any standards in build quality, there’s nothing cheap about this lens when it comes to its optical performance. Sharp wide open, extremely quick and accurate to focus and with minimal distortion, it is a fantastic portrait lens for your Micro Four Thirds camera, and one of the first lenses you should consider when building your system.
The Olympus 45mm lens also offers a fast f/1.8 aperture, so it’s easy to use in poor lighting conditions.
Of course, there are other, more exotic lenses that offer even better image quality, albeit not by much. The Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 and the aforementioned Olympus M. Zuiko Digital 75mm f1.8 are two such lenses, but they both cost several times as much as this 45mm lens.
The only real competitor to this lens in the Micro Four Thirds system is the recently introduced Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7. This lens appears to be a blatant copy of the Olympus, with the only addition of Panasonic’s Power O.I.S. image stabilization technology. Lens-based image stabilization is needed on Panasonic cameras, since they usually don’t have in-body image stabilization (IBIS). Olympus cameras do have IBIS though, so that feature is largely meaningless for owners of Olympus bodies.
The fact that it took Panasonic four years to release a lens that barely matches the performance of the Olympus only goes to show what a phenomenal value the Olympus 45mm really is.
The Olympus 45mm is a pretty sharp lens. The center is definitely sharp wide open at f/1.8, and gets even sharper from f/3.2, peaking at f/5.6 like most Micro Four Thirds lenses. The corners are acceptable wide open, pretty good from f/3.2 and great at f/5.6. From f/11 and beyond, sharpness is noticeably reduced across the frame due to diffraction effects.
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 optical design of the Olympus 45mm lens has 9 elements in 8 groups, as well as seven rounded aperture blades. This gives the lens a pleasing bokeh with perfectly round out of focus light sources, or “bokeh balls”.
In some occasions the bokeh may look a bit nervous or slightly distracting, but it’s still excellent for a Micro Four Thirds lens, let alone one at this price point. Control over depth of field and the ability to throw the background of an image out of focus is one of the areas where Micro Four Thirds cameras struggle when compared with other systems with larger sensors, like APS-C and particularly Full Frame.
Indeed, despite this being a true f/1.8 lens as far as exposure parameters are concerned, the crop factor of 2 means that in terms of depth of field, the Olympus 45mm is roughly comparable to a Full Frame lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.6. Admittedly that’s nothing to write home about, but it’s still perfectly acceptable in most situations, particularly in this telephoto range. Depth of field becomes shallower the longer the focal length and in this case, the ability to isolate the subject is still very much present.
Color rendition and contrast
This is an Olympus lens through and through, and it shows in the way it depicts colors. Typically, Olympus lenses are more neutral in their color rendition, and also a tad more contrasty than Panasonic lenses. While some people prefer this look, others swear by the more painterly-like character of some of Panasonic’s offerings, particularly the Leica-branded lenses. This is of course merely a matter of personal taste.
Whatever you prefer though, keep in mind that any of these lenses will produce excellent images that are adjustable in post-processing 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. The Olympus 45mm lens has slight but noticeable vignetting at f/1.8, which is essentially gone by f/3.2.
Vignetting isn’t always an unwanted property though, and in fact many people enjoy the artistic effect it creates in some images. In any case, should you want to eliminate it completely, it’s easily corrected in post-production.
Chromatic aberration and fringing
Chromatic aberration refers to some color artifacts that appear on high-contrast areas of an image, particularly when shooting with a large aperture and against the light. These typically appear in the form of purple or green fringes around the more contrasty borders.
Like most large aperture lenses, The Olympus 45mm presents a bit of chromatic aberration at f/1.8, but it’s virtually nonexistent at smaller apertures. And even the small amounts of fringing that appear at f/1.8 are easy to correct in post production.
Distortion, or lack thereof
This is another non-issue in practice. Both Panasonic and Olympus camera bodies automatically correct distortion with Olympus and Panasonic lenses, so any distortion will be gone before you even open Lightroom.
However, even after the in-body correction, sometimes there are small amounts of residual pincushion or barrel distortion left in the final images. This is usually not a problem with the Olympus 45mm lens, but for some other lenses, enabling the automatic distortion correction feature in Lightroom usually takes care of the issue.
Real world usage and image samples
The Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens is perfect for posed work, where subjects stand relatively still and the photographer is free to work with the elements of the scene to create the final composition. Such an approach is ideally suited to portraiture, be it in a studio or outdoors with natural light.
However, this lens is far from being a one trick pony. In fact, versatility is one of the Olympus 45mm’s biggest strengths. Just like it excels at portraiture, it’s an amazing lens for product photography, creating just the right amount of background blur while maintaining enough depth of field for the product to be sufficiently in focus.
It’s also a great lens for aerial shots. Next time you find yourself on top of a high building, try taking a few pictures of the city below you. The 90mm perspective lends itself beautifully to that type of shot.
It’s great to know that this is a versatile tool but at the end of the day, portraiture is where this lens truly shines, and it’s easy to see why. With its excellent optical performance, images pop with vibrant, rich colors and the overall effect is always pleasing.
Aside from that, its small, non-threatening size, silent operation and super fast autofocus make it very easy for photographers to work with their subjects without intimidating them. This is absolutely essential in certain types of shoots where subjects may be more nervous and inexperienced, like engagement pictures and the like.
Being able to establish a comfortable relationship with your subjects is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a portrait session, and the Olympus 45mm lens definitely makes life a lot easier in that regard.
And if it’s a great lens to work with wary subjects, it’s a spectacular lens to work with more seasoned models. In those cases, the fast f/1.8 aperture gives photographers tons of creative options and puts them firmly in control of the session.
All in all, this lens is a joy to use and will deliver top-shelf optical performance at a fraction of the cost. What more is there to ask for, really?
As good as the Olympus 45mm lens is, there’s no such thing as the perfect lens. Designing a lens consists mainly of making hard choices: the conscious choice to compromise on some properties in order to excel at others. You simply can’t make a super fast lens that is small and light, sharp corner to corner and costs $100. Those are all conflicting properties and something has to give. All lenses make these compromises, and the Olympus 45mm is no exception. That said, there are several compromises on this lens that we wish Olympus hadn’t chosen to make:
Better build quality: In order to keep things small, light and affordable, Olympus compromised on the build quality, using mostly plastic in the lens’s construction and foregoing weather sealing altogether. Although the compromise makes sense, we still would have wanted this lens to have the same premium metallic bodies that several other Olympus primes have, like the 17mm f/1.8. Even if that increased the price by $100 it would still be worth it in our book.
Bigger filter thread size: 37mm filters are a pain to manage. Increasing the filter size to at least 46mm, the most commonly used filter size by Micro Four Thirds primes, would greatly reduce the need for step-up rings in our kit.
Included lens hood: This is another unfortunate cost-savings compromise that we wish Olympus hadn’t made. It’s not a great savings move, either, which makes it all the more baffling. Including a plastic lens hood wouldn’t increase the cost by more than a few dollars, and it would greatly enhance the product’s usability.
Better manual focus implementation: The lack of hard stops at the ends of the focusing range, together with the lack of a distance scale on the barrel mean the Olympus 45mm is merely adequate at manual focusing, relying completely on the assistance of the focus peaking and magnification features of modern camera bodies to achieve focus. This is understandable, but not necessary or unavoidable by any means. Olympus themselves have shown that it’s entirely possible to create modern lenses with excellent manual focus implementations. They did it with the 12mm f/2 lens and its fabulous clutch-focus mechanism, and they repeated it with the 17mm f/1.8 prime and the PRO zoom lenses.
The Olympus 45mm lens fills a very important role in the Micro Four Thirds system. It is a great, affordable portrait lens that packs incredible image quality in a ridiculously small and light package. That said, it’s not the only portrait lens available for the system, and there are indeed several others that are just as compelling, if only for different reasons:
The Panasonic Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2: If you seek the ultimate optical performance and are willing to pay the price, look no further than this superb lens. Designed in collaboration with Leica, this is an optical marvel in every way. The Nocticron is even sharper than the Olympus 45mm and produces a shallower depth of field thanks to its larger f/1.2 aperture. Its creamy bokeh is only comparable to the legendary Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 lens for the Leica M-System, and it even has image stabilization technology built right in. No matter how you look at it, this is a truly special lens. What it is not is affordable, not even remotely. Coming in at a whopping $1,460, this is the most expensive Micro Four Thirds lens. The good news is in this case, you do get what you pay for.
The Voigtlander Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95: If you require a true manual focus implementation and demand the very best build quality, this Voigtlander is your best — and currently only — option. Featuring a dedicated aperture ring and even faster than the Nocticron at f/0.95, this Voiglander prime is an optical jewel in its own right. It’s not as clinically sharp wide open or technically as perfect as the Nocticron but then again, nothing is, really. What it does offer is a very unique character in the way it renders, with an unmistakeable dreamy look wide open that is shared by the rest of the Voigtlander primes. Thanks to the dedicated aperture ring that can operate silently, these are also great lenses for video. And with their all-metal construction and incredible heft, they can double as defensive weapons if the need arises. It’s the little things.
The Olympus M. Zuiko 75mm f/1.8: If you want a longer reach in your portrait lens, the Olympus 75mm is where you’ll find it. With an equivalent focal length of 150mm, this is also one of the sharpest Micro Four Thirds lenses available. On top of that, the Olympus 75mm is nearly distortion-free and just as quick and silent to focus as the 45mm. A truly stellar lens that doesn’t come cheap but at $799, it is worth every penny.
The Panasonic Lumix G 42.5mm f/1.7: This is Panasonic’s second 42.5mm lens, and their direct response to the Olympus 45mm lens. Sharing many of its properties, the Panasonic lens is similarly plasticky, features seven circular aperture blades and has a similar maximum aperture of f/1.7. The main difference between these two is the fact that the Panasonic lens has optical image stabilization built in. Since Panasonic cameras don’t usually have IBIS, this probably makes the Panasonic lens a better choice for owners of Panasonic bodies. Other than that, there aren’t many differences between the two, and they’re even similarly priced, with the Panasonic coming in at $398.
An adapted Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens: The final alternative is an unusual one. If you only need manual focus, you can take advantage of the fact that Full Frame 50mm lenses — commonly known as “nifty-fifties” — are some of the most inexpensive lenses around, yet most are still excellent optically. For example, Canon’s venerable 50mm f/1.8 lens for the now extinct FD mount is remarkably easy to find online in pretty good condition for about $50. Couple that with an inexpensive FD to MFT adapter and you get a great combo in a very similar focal length for a mere $75. Not bad at all.
The Olympus 45mm lens is a very special lens. It packs great performance and superb image quality in an impossibly small and light package, and it manages to do so at one of the most affordable price points in the entire Micro Four thirds catalog.
This is a lens for the conscious customer, who knows that spending thousands of dollars on a lens is usually overkill, and that anything over a few hundred dollars is very likely to yield diminishing returns. It is entirely possible to capture incredible shots with the Olympus 45mm lens, and it will take a very experienced photographer to outgrow this lens.
That said, seasoned professionals may find the small improvements that other lenses provide to be worth the price of admission, although that price is particularly steep in this case. For the vast majority of people though, the Olympus 45mm will be more than enough and it will quickly grow to become one of their most used lenses.
When a tool excels in so many ways, using it soon becomes second nature. With the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, you can rest assured knowing you have a fantastic portrait lens in your bag for any occasion. It is a winner in every way.