Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Olympus Zuiko 17mm f2.8 Pancake lens review

A 35mm lens on a film body was often considered the classic focal range as a walk-about, capture anything, zoom with your feet, one-camera one-lens combination. 35mm is wide enough to be used as a landscape lens, and also wide enough for an environmental portrait. While the 50mm is often referred to as the ‘standard’ field of view for the human eye – many argue that 35mm actually is closer to the truth of how we ‘see’ the world.

At 17mm, the Olympus Zuiko f2.8 pancake is roughly the equivalent of the 35mm in terms of field of view (34mm is close enough). It’s also tiny, at only 22mm high and weighs in at a mere 70grams (2.5oz). The 37mm filter thread is something of an oddity, and even Olympus don’t make a lens hood to go with the 17mm f2.8 – even though it certainly benefits from using one. Most reviewers report a strong amount of flare and lowered contrast if there is very bright sun coming into the field of view, so I purchased a cheap rubber lens hood that works perfectly to mitigate this issue.

17mm f2.8 Pancake lens on OM-D E-M5 Mk2
Although it’s small and light, the lens itself is well made and feels solid in the hand. The lens mount in metal, and the lenses themselves are glass (with one aspherical element) – but the rest of the construction is based around polycarbonate plastic. I don’t have a problem with this ‘cheaper’ form of construction – especially if the lens mount itself is metal. Yes, all metal construction would be nicer, but it would also be heavier, and much more expensive. If you want that level of build quality, then Olympus hasn’t forsaken you. Just get the 17mm f1.8 instead.

Mounted on the OM-D E-M5 Mk2, the 17mm f2.8 pancake enhances the ‘retro-ness’ of the OM-D look and makes it almost pocketable. It certainly balances nicely with the E-M5, and gives you just enough to hold on to when using your left hand to support the camera in the shooting position.

In terms of build quality, the final nod to its budget class is the autofocus motor in the lens. It makes a definite whirring noise when focusing – noticeable but not distractingly so. You get used to it after a while and the noise tends to ‘disappear’. This obviously isn’t the case when shooting video though. The motor noise when focusing will be very noticeable when shooting video with sound, so this probably isn’t the first choice for videographers. But for shooting stills, the noise really isn’t a problem.

Cranes - Greymouth Wharf. Zuiko 17mm f2.8 Pancake @ f5.6, 1/320th. ISO 200
What can be a little distracting, is the way the 17mm f2.8 pancake focuses. It’s a slow focusing lens, racking forward and then back before locking on focus. You have to get used to the ‘zit-zit’ back and forth autofocus motion that the motor uses to lock on with the contrast detection autofocus, no matter how good the light is. It’s just the way that this first generation lens focuses. When it does lock on, it’s very accurate. But it just isn’t very quick at doing it. Again, if you want quicker then there are better (faster), more expensive options. For what I will be using it for (landscapes, environmental portraits and general snapshots) it’s plenty fast enough.

So there are compromises to be had in such a small, lightweight and budget lens. What about the image quality? Are there compromises to be had there as well?

Short answer is ‘Yes’, there are. For a start, with a pancake lens of this size, and a field of view this wide, the engineers were always going to struggle against the laws of physics. Lens distortions at these limits are likely to be severe. It’s only with clever in-camera software, that does it’s best to eliminate these, that anything approaching distortion-free images are possible. So that said, how does the Olympus Zuiko 17mm f2.8 pancake lens perform in the ‘real world’?

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Ok, let’s do the bad news and get it over and done with. Bad news is that, wide open at f2.8, the edges of the frame are pretty soft and detail is smeary. Open up to f4 and it gets better (but still not brilliant), and it’s only really ‘ok’ at f5.6. Doesn’t get any better than that – at the extreme edges of the image. Bummer.

But then there’s the good news. And it is really good news. At f2.8, in the centre of the image, the lens is super sharp, and doesn’t really get that much sharper as you stop down! Maybe f4 and f5.6 might be a hair sharper – but that’s about it. So, central sharpness is fantastic, even wide open.

Dixon Park Band Rotunda, Greymouth. Zuiko 17mm f2.8 Pancake @ f5.6, 1/400th. ISO 200
Maybe this isn’t fantastic news if you want to use the 17mm pancake primarily as a landscape lens (at which case you will want to shoot at f5.6), but it’s brilliant for environmental portraits or street shooting/snapshots even wide open, where perhaps the extreme edges of the frame might not be so important.

Is the Olympus Zuiko 17mm f2.8 Pancake the perfect ‘standard’ prime lens? No – of course it’s not. But is there such a thing? Is it perfect for someone on a budget who wants a reasonably fast, sharp and light walk-around prime for their kit? Absolutely it is. Is it perfect for the landscape photographer who wants a prime for the utmost quality and performance? No, it’s not. If that’s you, and 35(ish)mm is your preferred focal length, then the 17mm f1.8 is calling your name.

Yes, there might be faster, and yes their might be ‘better’ lenses out there in this wide to standard range (the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 or Sigma 19mm f2.8). But for the price, the size and the performance in the centre of the frame wide open, if casual documentary style images are your main concern, then this little 17mm f2.8 is a great option to have in your bag.

Coal River Park, Greymouth. 17mm f2.8 @f4, 1/640th. ISO 200
It’s really important to ask yourself – “what/who am I shooting for”? Is it for the web? Is it to document life around you? Will the images be blown up to gigantic sizes, or will they only need to get to A4 size (8x10”) at best (if at all)? Will they only ever live on a hard drive and get viewed on a monitor? How much of the image needs to be super sharp or in ‘critical’ focus? Take a look at the images in this blog post shot with the 17mm f2.8 Pancake. Are they acceptable/unacceptable to you? How good is ‘good enough’?

The Richmond Hotel Building, Greymouth. Zuiko 17mm f2.8 @ f5.6, 1/800th. ISO 200
Since moving to micro four thirds, I’ve been asking myself these questions quite a lot. I’ve never been a ‘pixel peeper’ whose blown things up 400% and studied each photo to within an inch of its life. But neither do I want to invest in tools that won’t let me achieve my vision. If I’ve confirmed, through my own testing, that the 17mm f2.8 isn’t maybe the best choice for landscapes, then I might reach for something else in my bag when I’m out shooting landscapes. 

Or maybe I’ll decide that, shooting for the web, the 17mm f2.8 pancake is ‘good enough’ at f5.6 to still use it as a landscape lens? And again, maybe some of the shots in this post proves that it is? Maybe – maybe not. But I do know it makes a brilliant documentary style lens even wide open. So I’ll be keeping mine and using it as often as I can.  

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