Source: Always Now: The Collected Poems(The Porcupine’s Quill, 2003)
Source: Always Now: The Collected Poems(The Porcupine’s Quill, 2003)
Firstly – Happy New Year! I hope 2018 proves to be fruitful and fulfilling – both photographically and otherwise. Now on to the business at hand…
The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens was launched in September 2017 and together with the Olympus 25mm and 45mm F1.2, completes the PRO F1.2 lens trinity. My review unit of the Olympus 17mm F1.2 was on loan from Olympus Malaysia during the final week of 2017. I acknowledge that 35mm (equivalent) is a classic, popular and highly revered focal length especially for environmental portraits, documentary and journalism work as well as traditional street photography. Frankly, 35mm is not my favourite focal length to work with – I generally prefer either the wider or longer end for my photography needs. Therefore, this review was exceptionally challenging for me and required more effort than usual.
Some disclaimers before we move on – the Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens was on loan from Olympus Malaysia solely for review purposes only and will be returned soon after. Neither myself nor MT are associated with Olympus in any way, and this review was conducted independently. This review is based off user-experience and presented from my point of view and is therefore, subjective. All images were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and post-processed with Capture One Pro.
A gallery of all the images shown in this article with EXIF data intact can be viewed on Google Photos Album here.
The Olympus 17mm F1.2 shares similar specifications with its other F1.2 PRO siblings. According to Olympus, the aim was to deliver critically sharp images even while shooting wide open at F1.2, while maintaining smooth buttery bokeh (with a feature called “feathered bokeh”). The lens construction is quite complex, consisting of 15 elements in 11 groups (1 Super ED lens, 3 ED lenses, 1 ED-DSA lens, 1 EDA lens, 1 Super HR lens, 1 aspherical lens). The lens is capable of a maximum magnification of 0.15x, nowhere near macro levels but useful enough for general close up shooting. The lens is by no means small or light, weighing in at 390g and similar in size to the Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 lens. For full product specifications, you can check out the official product page here.
The first impression of the Olympus 17mm F1.2 lens in hand is how similar it looks and feels like the 25mm F1.2 and 45mm F1.2 lenses. All three F1.2 lenses are about the same size and have the exact same design. I wouldn’t be able to tell the lenses apart, unless I looked for the focal length markings. Design uniformity is not necessarily a bad thing, but a little differentiation would be appreciated. Imagine working in a dark environment with these three lenses at hand – I’m sure some precious time will be lost just looking for the focal length marking.
The lens may look huge in the product images, but it does not feel unbearably large in the hand. I am used to handling the Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm F2.8 lens, so the 17mm F1.2 (similar size and weight) felt right at home. A genuine concern, however, is the diminishing benefit of Micro Four Thirds systems having smaller, more portable lenses. These new F1.2 PRO lenses are no smaller or lighter than their DSLR counterparts. I can’t deny that the size advantage is questionable now, but before we jump to conclusions, let’s take a pause and look at what the lens can do. After reviewing the results from this F1.2 lens, I can safely say I don’t wish the lens to be any smaller or lighter if it means a compromise in image quality.
I never liked the original Olympus 17mm F1.8 lens, and it wasn’t just me showing a lack of enthusiasm. I remember in Ming Thein and Steve Huff’s original reviews, they were both unimpressed with it. Before diving into the different aspects of reviewing the lens, if the lens works for you, it just works when you are shooting with it. With the older 17mm F1.8, no matter how much effort I put into getting a good shot, I always came home with lackluster results. I have given that lens many a chance at redemption over the years, but it just did not manage to work out.
The new Olympus 17mm F1.2, on the other hand, is a completely different lens altogether. From the moment I shot the first image, I was smitten by it, and as much as I dislike the 35mm equivalent focal length, I hope my images do justice to the “a-hah!” moments I had during my time with the 17mm F1.2 lens.
The 17mm F1.2 is super sharp, even wide open, and if my shooting experience was accurate, this could be the sharpest of all the three F1.2 PRO lenses. It is so sharp, that stopping down to F1.8 or F2.8 doesn’t yield that much more benefit, besides more depth of field control. Although sharp, the lens is still capable of rendering naturally pleasing looking images, and there is a sense of realism that the old 17mm F1.8 couldn’t deliver. The images just look right.
The sharpness is consistent across the frame, from corner to corner. At F1.2, the extreme corners are still very good, though stopping down a bit can help get better uniformity. Considering that Micro Four Thirds is not the best system for shallow depth of field, having sharp and usable F1.2 results is extremely important, and the 17mm F1.2 delivers just that.
Bokeh rendering comparison with a busy background: F1.2, F1.8, F2.8, F4, F5.6, F8. All original individual images can be found here
The 17mm F1.2 renders excellent looking bokeh. Olympus claims that when shooting at F1.2, the lens can produce “feathered bokeh”, which are softer looking bokeh balls that fall off beautifully into the background instead of the typical solid, blocky looking bokeh balls from ordinary lenses. Whatever Olympus is doing, the bokeh from the 17mm F1.2 lens is pleasing and addictive to look at.
It’s worth noting that you need to move in considerably close to the subject to be able to achieve sufficient subject isolation, as depth of field is still not that shallow with the smaller sensor size on a Micro Four Thirds camera. There is no contest to larger sensor cameras that can render blurrier backgrounds (shallower depth of field), but we are not talking about the amount of bokeh here, but the quality.
As expected from a PRO grade lens from Olympus (based on experience with their other PRO lenses), distortion, chromatic aberration and flare are all well managed. Wide open, the chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is evident in high contrast, out of focus areas. This can be eliminated in post-processing if required. Stopping down to F4 removes all traces of chromatic aberration.
The images are completely corrected for any barrel distortion, and most RAW converters should be able to read the lens profile and apply automatic corrections. This should not be an issue if you shoot JPEG, as barrel distortion is non-existent and all straight lines should be perfectly straight.
For my usual portraits, I normally use either the wide angle 12mm F2 lens for environmental portraits, or a medium telephoto or longer lens such as 45mm F1.8 or 75mm F1.8 to produce more flattering, natural looking results. I was curious to see what the new 17mm F1.2 can do when shooting people, so instead of just shooting strangers on the street as usual, I was fortunate to have my friend Carmen model for me again. And she looked stunning in that yellow dress!
If you are thinking of shooting portraits with subject isolation using the 17mm F1.2, simply because it has an F1.2 aperture, I’d caution you to manage your expectations. Do not overestimate the capability of the F1.2 lenses, you can only create sufficient background blur if you are close enough to the subject. Being so close to the subject also creates another problem – perspective distortion that will result in disproportionate looking human subjects. Therefore, the 17mm lens is suitable for mostly half body or more coverage when shooting portraits. If creating shallow depth of field is a priority, I highly recommend the 45mm F1.8, 45mm F1.2, 75mm F1.8 and 40-150mm F2.8 (you’ll notice that they’re all on the telephoto end).
Having said that, the images from the Carmen shoot were better than I originally anticipated. The lens managed to render really natural looking images – something that surprised me. Maybe I was conscious about not getting too close and the wider composition helped maintain the natural look in the images. Despite the harsh lighting, the lens managed to pull in good amount of contrast and the images pop even without much post-processing.
For an F1.2 lens, focus accuracy is more crucial than speed, and the Olympus 17mm f1.2 is both extremely fast and accurate at the same time. The few out of focus shots I did have were a result of user error (such as placing the focus point in the wrong area). I shot a few fast moving subjects, and the AF managed to lock on almost instantly. I briefly tested this 17mm F1.2 lens on a Panasonic GH4 as well, and the AF performance was speedy and accurate too.
Considering that 35mm is such a classic, popular focal length, I am sure many would treat this as the one do-it-all lens, replacing the standard zoom or kit lens. Having good close up shooting capability (0.3x maximum magnification) helps in shooting everyday subjects, such as food and simple wide angle product shots. You know, those “Instagram-Hipster-Looking” shots of a coffee by the window, or a plate of overly colorful food that people spend 15 minutes photographing and 5 minutes eating. Oh dear, I may be just one of those people, unfortunately.
Having brought the Olympus 17mm F1.2 around with me almost everywhere, I did try to shoot as many ordinary, every day subjects as I could. Did I find the 17mm lens to be versatile enough? Personally – no. I prefer to use the 25mm lens as my do-it-all solution. I can see the importance of and use for the wider coverage that the 17mm provides. If you can deal with the perspective distortion (not tilting your shots too much), you can get really good shots with the 17mm F1.2 lens, especially with the ability to shoot at F1.2.
The Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO changed my perspective of working with this focal length, especially considering I did not expect to fall in love with this lens.
The lens is incredibly sharp even when shooting wide open. The sharpness is uniform from edge to edge. The bokeh is beautiful and soft, resulting in pleasing and natural looking images. Technical flaws are well controlled with no noticeable distortion, minimal chromatic aberration and good flare control. AF is speedy and reliable. the lens just works and it exceeded my expectations.
Of the three F1.2 lenses, I am surprised to conclude that this 17mm F1.2 is my personal favourite.
If you are a 35mm focal length shooter, this could be the only strong choice available for you within the Micro Four Thirds family. There are other close alternatives, such as the Panasonic Leica 15mm f1.7 and 20mm F1.7, but these do not give you a 35mm equivalent field of view. I personally would not recommend the older 17mm F1.8, unless a budget is holding you back and you absolutely need to work with a prime.
I have a few more days before I return this Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F1.2 PRO lens to Olympus. I plan to roam the streets of Kuala Lumpur and do my usual street shooting with the lens! More sample photographs, this time street photography images will be available soon.
Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved