The Olympus 17mm f2.8 lens was the first prime lens from Olympus for its new Micro Four Thirds System and was launched in 2009 with the Olympus Pen EP-1 their first camera. I didn’t buy the EP-1 when came out, I was deeply tempted but I wanted a camera with a viewfinder. Less than a year later the EP-2 was launched and it had provision for accepting an auxiliary EVF and I promptly bought one and the 17mm f2.8 came as part of the kit and I’ve used it ever since.
The Olympus 17mm f2.8 wasn’t well received – a lot of people felt that its minimum aperture of f2.8 was somewhat underwhelming especially compared to the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 which was launched in the same year. The Panasonic while sharper in the centre of the frame and having a faster minimum aperture (1.7 compared to 2.8) was larger, heavier, more expensive had slow noisy AF, marked chromatic aberration and didn’t behave very well with the sensor stack of Olympus cameras. There was a strange banding effect when it was used on the EM5 at higher ISO. In 2012 Olympus introduced the 17mm f1.8 which addressed all the short comings of the older f2.8 lens which was allowed to slip silently into oblivion.
I wanted to upgrade to the new f1.7 but I could never find a dealer who had it in stock. The same was true when I thought I wanted the Panasonic Leica 15mm f1.7 as a replacement. In the end I bought the Sigma 16mm f1.4 DG DN which is optically a huge improvement over the little Olympus, but is physically enormous. I kept the Old 17mm f2.8 because it served several purposes. It had a very useful close focusing capability when compared to the Sigma (0.11x compared to the Sigma’s 0.07x) and when mounted to my EP-5 it was small, unobtrusive, and would fit in a jacket pocket. The same could not be said for the Sigma.
|Focal length||17mm equivalent to 34mm on full frame|
|Diagonal angle of view||65º|
|Optical construction||6 elements in 4 groups with 1 aspherical lens|
|Diaphragm||5 rounded blades|
|Minimum focusing distance||20cm|
|Maximum magnification ratio||0.11x|
|Dimensions||⦰ 57mm x 22mm (h)|
This lens is small – really small – just 22mm high and 57mm in diameter at its widest. To put that into perspective the lens is only just a little bigger than a Canon EF body and lens cap and weighs just 43g heavier. For such a small and lightweight lens it does feel surprisingly dense in the hand. The lens mount is metal and the body is plastic with no weather sealing. The only control on the lens is the focusing ring which is of the focus by wire type and is nicely dampened. Filter size is weenie – just 37mm. Olympus did not supply a lens hood and nor did they make one. I bought an after market vented metal hood which looks very spiffy when the lens is mounted on my EP-5.
Wide open at f2.8 in the centre of the frame the image lacks a little “bite” . Stop down to f4 and sharpness and contrast improve and it remains good until f11. After that diffraction softens the image. In the corners wide open the lens is tiny bit softer than the centre. Sharpness improves at f5.6 but it is not as sharp as the centre at this aperture.
Wide open lateral chromatic aberration is very apparent with magenta and cyan fringing. The modest minimum aperture of f2.8 and the wide angle of view means that there is longitudinal chromatic aberration visible. When Olympus and Panasonic established the Micro Four Thirds standard they made the lens with built in profiles which correct for distortion and vignetting. Consequently looking at an image straight out of the camera with the profile applies there is no sign of distortion or vignetting on the Olympus 17mm f2.8. Switch that profile off and the barrel distortion is very noticeable as is very slight vignetting.
Veiling flare and ghosting are prominent when shooting into the sun as is the loss of contrast. The diffraction spikes (aka sun stars) are a bit pedestrian and nothing to write home about.
When it comes to bokeh well this lens is never going to be the “Bokeh King”. The bokeh balls are consistently shaped throughout the frame but were not quite perfectly circular. While the rendering of out of focus areas is smooth it is not the most attractive that I’ve seen.
When the EP-1 was introduced it and the Panasonic G1 were heading the rise of a new class of camera – the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. The autofocus was contrast based and still in its infancy. In fact dodgy AF was one of the things that was always levelled at mirrorless cameras by DSLR users in those far off days. The AF performance of the Olympus 17mm f2.8 certainly reflects this. For point to point AF using single shot mode the lens is quick and accurate if a little noisy. It is when you switch to continuous autofocus and tracking that things become dodgier than a Balinese Rolex. The performance is very hit and miss. Even when you put it on a phase detect auto focus camera (EM1 mk ii and later) the results are only marginally better. The fault is the because of the type of motor used to move the lens elements. It just can’t keep up with information being sent by the camera. This is why Olympus later introduced its MSC technology. MSC stands for Movie and Stills Compatible and consists of a high speed motor that can provide very small precise adjustments. So while it appears poor compared to later models this is not a lens you’re going to shoot sports with.
Video AF is also a bit pants. The lens makes a horrible noise as it rocks back and forth. It does find focus eventually its just not very elegant or confidence inspiring in the way it does it.
This lens is not what you call optically brilliant – if you want that look at the Olympus m.Zuiko 17mm f1.2 Pro which costs $1900 AUD – but that’s not what this lens is about. This is a fun lens to use. It’s so convenient to slap it onto an Olympus Pen EP-5 or EM-10 and have a great small camera lens combo that can go with you anywhere. This is what micro four thirds was all about when it was introduced. Team it up with the ridiculously compact Olympus 45mm f1.8 and you have a nice two lens outfit that will fit in a jacket pocket and produce good photos. Unfortunately 17mm f2.8 is out of production, but it can be bought second hand for about $200 AUD. Factor in $10 AUD for a lens hood and you’ve got a nice little walk about lens.