Shoot anything, anywhere, anytime and get the best IQ on m43

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bluevellet Veteran Member • Posts: 3,551
Shoot anything, anywhere, anytime and get the best IQ on m43
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Pros:

  • splash-proof, freeze proof
  • manual focus clutch
  • fast f1.2 aperture
  • among the very best IQ on m43
  • very low light AF
  • practically no focus breathing
  • Minimum focusing distance

Cons:

  • Pricey
  • Kind of big
  • A fair amount of software correction
  • Some flare

In these dark winter times with mind-numbing lockdowns and empty streets, a man needs new toys to keep him sane. Luckily, I recently caught an unexpected deal on Ebay I just couldn't pass up so I've finally acquired my most wanted of the Olympus M. Zuiko f/1.2 Pro primes: the 17mm.

Like a gift from the Olympian gods...

17mm (roughly a 35mm equivalent) is a popular focal length. It's fairly close to what human eyes see and 17mm lenses are pretty flexible tools allowing you to take photos of almost anything: landscapes, architecture, still life, street and even portraits. I particularly like it for portraits since you can include some of the surrounding environments, on top of the people you are taking pictures of. I often find dedicated portrait lenses too tight.

The m43 system already has two other 17mm primes (with AF), released by Olympus no less. One is a largely forgotten pancake design from over a decade ago and the other is a much more popular f1.8 lens. Chances are, you already own the latter (I don't myself, more on that later).

17mm f1.2 Pro compared to similar-sized zooms and primes on m43.

But 3 years ago, they also came out with a premium lens that is the subject of this review: a larger, faster and significantly more expensive lens. On paper this lens tries to offer a way to overcome two weaknesses with the m43 system: a lens that sucks in more light to (partially) offset m43 sensors being not as good as larger sensors in low light (raising ISO degrades image quality faster on m43). That and to allow more subject isolation, again in competition with larger-sensored cameras. Furthermore, premium lenses tend to have better overall IQ compared to cheaper lenses. Does the 17mm f1.2 Pro live up to the hype? Read on.

Now, first impressions with the f1.2 prime are good, and familiar. The lens is similar in design, size, weight and feel to the must-have Olympus 12-40 f2.8 Pro standard zoom. It is made of a mix of metal and plastic and feels dense and solid in the hands. I personally prefer the all-metal design of the classic Olympus 75mm f1.8 because it looks cool, although not exactly practical especially in cold weather. The 17mm f1.2 also features the same customisable button and the useful pull-up clutch to activate the very satisfying manual focus operation, all featured in (most) Pro series lenses from Olympus. My only little complaint here is you can AF a little closer than you can with MF. Why? IDK. Just strange.

In practice, the 17mm handles well on larger m43 camera bodies like the E-M1 Mark III (2020).

While the headline feature is the fast f/1.2 aperture, the weather-sealing aspect is actually more important to me. One great flaw of m43 is most of the weather-sealed lenses are the top end ones. If the lower-priced Olympus 17mm f1.8 had weather sealing, I might have opted for that lens instead (and tolerated its more average IQ). Low light is not just indoors, it can often be outdoors in bad weather. This Pro prime allows you to shoot in nearly any situation.

I don't want to pretend I do not care about aperture. Turning on my camera with the 17mm attached and seeing the f1.2 value displayed for the first time was exciting in itself.

Minimum focusing distance test, high resolution test and gaudy bokeh test all in one.

Obviously, f1.2 helps you to blur backgrounds. I'm not sure I buy all the marketing talk about "feathered bokeh", but it does have a nice, general look to it. But there is a catch of sorts: this is m43 and this is wide angle on m43 so there are limitations. To achieve that look, you need to get close to your subjects and thankfully, the lens has a pretty close minimum focusing distance (about 7-8 cm from the front of the lens). I've always suspected Olympus (and Panasonic) purposely design their lenses with that close focusing ability to make up for their deeper depth of field handicap. In any case, it's greatly appreciated and it is something I often miss when using other camera systems.

In contrast, the 17mm is unbalanced on smaller m43 bodies like the Panasonic Lumix GM1 (2013), although it does work perfectly. Even the focus clutch works.

In the real world, sure, if you do food or product photography, you are fairly close to your subjects already so backgrounds will melt away. But if you do portraits for example, well, people are a lot larger than a plate of food, a fancy watch or a LEGO figurine so you will have to stand back. Head shot or from head to shoulders, ok, fair amount of background separation will occur. Full body shot though? Not so much as you will have to stand back significantly more.

"Too big" is relative, but for many, m43 is about small size and the 17mm f1.2 Pro dwarfs smaller primes on the system, including the classic Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7.

So in the end, it's about realistic expectations in this area. If your end goal is just to obliterate backgrounds then maybe m43 is not for you. If you are still dead set on that objective and want to remain within the system then it's better to use a longer lens rather than this 17mm. There's a 45mm f1.2 Pro prime, I've already mentionned the excellent 75mm f1.8 prime and there's of course the classic and cheap 45mm f1.8 prime among many others.

Case and point here, the 17mm f1.2 Pro approaches the size of a classic, Full Frame prime with the same angle of view and half of a stop slower (f1.4). The Sigma is close to twice as heavy though.

Now fast aperture also means allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISO values, at least in theory. Big, complex lenses tend to fare more poorly with light transmission and when the previous f1.2 Pro prime was released (the 25mm f1.2 Pro), there were some complaints that it barely performed better than Olympus' much cheaper 25mm f1.8 prime lens (never tried this other Pro lens myself so I can not confirm). Well, shooting with this 17mm, side by side with other lenses, I'm happy to announce its f1.2 aperture gives you roughly one extra stop of light in practice. Nice.

The 17mm allows for some ridiculously low light AF. But m43 sensor tech can't keep up. Ask your subjects to stand still, shoot at a lower ISO and then boost exposure in post for best results.

One other side benefit of the fast aperture is the increased sensitivity of the AF system (in-camera) in very low light. At least with some Olympus cameras (it works with my EM1 mark III, but less so with my older EM5 Mark II). I think the lens is rated up to -6EV sensitivity; That sounds like coal mine kind of dark, not too likely to be in my agenda. But in more practical terms, like shooting outside in the evening/night, it works pretty well. A bit slower than in daylight, but it locks on, recognizes faces and all. In fact, if using autofocus then you are likely shooting people, requiring you to raise your shutter speeds to freeze your subject's movements. In that case, you are much more likely to be hitting the high ISO limit (extended ISO 25600 on my EM1III) than whatever limit AF has in darker conditions (I have yet to see that AF limit). A bit overkill, but impressive none the less. Pity current m43 sensor tech is lagging behind here.

One thing that I could notice right away when taking my first shots is the good sharpness, even at f1.2. Technically, it's slightly soft with some chromatic aberrations, but only noticeable in high contrast scenes. Most CA goes away by f2.8 and you can significantly increase sharpness to near record levels on m43 (f4-5.6 looks like the sweet spot). But to me wide open is where I stay at most of the time to shoot gorgeous photos without a care. In many ways, IQ reminds me of the classic Olympus 75mm f1.8: great bokeh and one of the sharpest lenses on m43 at that same time. The 17mm is just easier to use in comparison to the much more narrow 75mm. As one would expect, the 17mm also shines in pixel-shift, hi-res mode. The only limiting factor is the sensor behind the lens; I find my old Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art (similar field of view to the 17mm) is punchier, thanks in large part to that big FF sensor sucking in all that light.

Here's what shooting portraits wide open with the 17mm f1.2 Pro looks like, compared to a classic FF 35mm lens (the Sigma Art). The Sigma is shot both wide open and at f2.5 which is roughly the "equivalent" aperture to the Oly at f1.2.

So... do I approve of this Pro prime? After a few weeks of use, I think it delivers. While not as fun, the 17mm has dethroned my trusty Oly 8mm f1.8 FE lens as most glued to my main camera. My goal in buying the Olympus 17mm f1.2 Pro was to have the definitive workhorse prime on m43, a lens that could shoot anything, anywhere, anytime and get you the best image quality for the system.

More objectively-speaking, I don't believe this premium prime is well suited for all m43 users though: there are many cheaper and smaller options that are more likely to satisfy the typical kit-lens upgrader. And I don't think this 17mm, as good as it is, quite matches a modern FF camera with a good fast prime, if your goal is to somehow hack your m43 camera into performing like a FF setup, that is. But if your standards are high, this 17mm f1.2 is your best option in the normal/wide angle category to get the most out of your m43 camera.

 bluevellet's gear list:bluevellet's gear list
Nikon Z6 Olympus E-M1 III Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM Art Olympus 17mm F1.2 Pro Nikon Z 50mm F1.8 +12 more
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F1.2 Pro
Prime lens • Micro Four Thirds
Announced: Oct 25, 2017
bluevellet's score
4.5
Average community score
4.8
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