Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm F2.8 Pancake - Tiny Flawed Gem!

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I have owned the Olympus 17mm F2.8 pancake lens before, you will find my old blog articles if you run some quick search. I have sold it off some time ago since I rarely used it, and I did also have the newer 17mm F1.8, which I gave up (did not like that lens very much) to fund for 25mm F1.8, that I have used for many, many years extensively. Not having a 17mm prime lens (dedicated 35mm focal length) in my camera bag somehow made me feel a little empty, since I am a street photographer and I do believe 35mm is an important focal length. I recently found a used unit at a low price that I just could not refuse, so I finally required one. I am well aware of the lens flaws and issues of the original 17mm pancake lens, but I decided to get it any way, so the question here is - is it worth getting one now in 2021?

For those who prefer to watch me in action in video, you can go here (click). 




This will not be a review, the Olympus 17mm F2.8 pancake is quite an old lens, in fact it was the first ever Micro Four Thirds lens from Olympus, launched together with the PEN E-P1 in 2009. I brought the lens out, paired with my own Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III and did some street photography sessions (of course, what else would that lens be made for?), and I want to share my fresh photographs taken with that lens in this blog article. At the same time, I want to discuss the lens imperfections, and if you should stay away from this lens, knowing we do have better options out there today. 

I LOVE PANCAKES
I made it no secret that I simply love pancake lenses. I like how compact and tiny the design is, and the slim profile basically means when I attach the lens onto a camera, it is as if I don't have a lens on it at all, and I am only handling the camera. This minimizes the camera footprint, and if you treasure smaller setup and going as simple as you can with your camera gear packing (either for travel, or every day use), then the pancake lens makes perfect sense. I personally believe that a well made pancake lens symbolizes what Micro Four Thirds system stands for! I wish Olympus and Panasonic continue to make more pancake lenses, updating their optical design, improve the AF performance and make those tiny pancakes weather-sealed!

AF PERFORMANCE
Being an older generation lens, the Olympus 17mm F2.8 is very slow to focus. The AF speed is perhaps, one of the slowest for all Micro Four Thirds lenses, and the only other lens I can think of which could be even slower, is the Panasonic 20mm F1.7 pancake. Having said that, the AF on the 17mm F2.8, being used on the E-M5 Mark III, is still quite manageable. It does hesitate and hunt a little before locking onto focus, but it always successfully locked onto the subject and the focusing accuracy is very high. If you need absolute speed, and you shoot a lot of moving subjects or fast action, you are better off with newer Olympus M.Zuiko lenses, such as 17mm F1.8, or the PRO 17mm F1.2, both giving you blazing fast AF performance. The older 17mm F2.8 pancake pales in comparison, but for non serious photography, for casual shooting, I don't see much of an issue. The AF alone wins against any other manual focusing lens which requires an additional cumbersome step of manual focusing, and you will have a big chance of missing critically accurate focus as well. But that is another issue we shall discuss on another day, in another blog article. 

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Have you pet a cat today?

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An overpriced coffee a day makes you a better photographer. I promise. 

LENS SHARPNESS
The Olympus 17mm F2.8 actually exceeded my expectations when it comes to lens sharpness. Perhaps using it on a newer Olympus body with the 20MP image sensor (my E-M5 Mark III) breathed new life into the lens, or maybe my previous copy was less sharp. Looking at the center of the frame, the lens managed to resolve incredible amount of fine details with very good contrast, rendering realistic looking image with pleasing colors. I get sharp images consistently, either shooting subjects that are far, or very close to the lens (a meter or less away). However, the sharpness does not extend consistently to the edges or corners. Placing my subject away from the center of the frame does degrade the sharpness captured, and corner softness is a problem. Knowing that this lens was made to be extremely compact in design, I'd expect some compromises when it comes to image quality, so this did not come as a total surprise. Even the 14-42mm kit lens has better corner sharpness in comparison to this older 17mm F2.8 pancake lens. 

Shooting against harsh contrast conditions, purple fringing can be an issue. While the camera does try very hard to correct chromatic aberration via software, in some cases it was just not that easily done (complex scenes) and the traces of false colors, especially purple fringing can be a huge problem. Shooting against bright light also causes ghosting and flare issues, as expected from simplistic lens design. I did not notice any severe vigneting or any other lens flaws worth writing about. 

BLUR BACKGROUND/SHALLOW DOF
Some people may decide to get the Olympus 17mm F2.8 pancake, with the expectation of the lens being able to create some background blur, due to the bright F2.8 aperture. This will be a huge disappointment to those people, because even at F2.8, the 17mm is considered very wide for a Micro Four Thirds system, and you can't create that much blur even shooting at wide open F2.8. To sufficiently isolate your subject and create shallow depth of field, you need to go very close to the subject to achieve this effect. If your intention is to create as much blur as possible with your Micro Four Thirds system, my suggestion is for you to get the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8, or the 75mm F1.8, both lenses being able to generate much blurier background, far superior to what the 17mm F2.8 can do. 

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It is not easy to blur off the background/create shallow depth of field

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To blur the background you need to be very close to the subject

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Close up shooting with this lens is good

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Nasi Lemak - the best breakfast ever, in Malaysia

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Purple Fringing can be an issue shooting against high contrast areas

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Flare/ghosting can be an issue

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Thosai - Rice Pancake, another amazing local breakfast here. 

17MM F1.2 PRO
If you are a professional photographer or if you do care about getting the best output possible from your Olympus cameras and lenses, I'd highly recommend going for the Olympus 17mm F1.2 PRO. The lens is constructed in metal, weather-sealed, and has super bright F1.2 aperture, being able to shoot better in low light, and render shallower depth of field. The lens is also optically superior, giving you the best possible image quality from Olympus M.Zuiko lenses, and is designed for professional shooting environment. This lens is also much, much larger and heavier in built, and priced very heftily, not for casual, non-serious use definitely, if you don't generate income from photography. Unless of course, you have spare cash lying around somewhere. 

17mm F1.8
If you have a bit more cash to spare, I'd highly recommend going for the newer Olympus 17mm F1.8 instead of 17mm F2.8. All the issues, problems, flaws and imperfections in the older 17mm F2.8 was fixed and improved in the newer 17mm F1.8. The AF is blazing fast, the lens is built in metal construction, the optical formula is revised, and the lens is much sharper. The issues with purple fringing is solved, thanks to inclusion of ED (extra low dispersion glass element) in the lens design of 17mm F1.8, and it also suffers less flare/ghosting and corner softness. Everything that the 17mm F2.8 is not, has been added and made better in the new 17mm F1.8, and you will enjoy better performance and image quality with that extra bit of money you spend, and believe me, it is worth every cent. 

17mm F2.8 Pancake
While the original 17mm F2.8 from Olympus is now outdated and effectively discontinued, I am still deeply interested in it, for one reason only - the pancake lens design. Just because the 17mm F2.8 has a true slim profile, and is built to be so compact, it deserves a spot in my bag. Also now in 2021, if you can find a used unit in good condition, it should be dirt cheap! Considering the low price and compactness, I'd gladly have one and live with all the imperfections! And as I have shown in this blog article (hopefully) the lens is still capable of delivering some fantastic results!

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Pork noodles, Hakka Style, one of my favourites

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Look at how tiny it is!

I can clearly see how and why Olympus made the original M.Zuiko 17mm F2.8 pancake lens - it was made to be tiny and extremely fun to use. I admit it can benefit from some improvement when it comes to AF operation and optical design, but hey, being the first ever lens from Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, I think we can cut them some slack. I did enjoy shooting with the 17mm F2.8 pancake lens tremendously and I think I will use this a lot more in the future for my shutter therapy sessions. 

Do you own the lens, or have used it before? Please share your experience! Do you love it, or hate it?

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5 comments:

  1. I bought this with my E-P1 many many years ago.

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  2. Hi Robin why newer 17mm F1.8, which I gave up (did not like that lens very much) ?
    i belive this lences 17mm F1.8 is good ?
    Hi from Athens.

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  3. I recently got a 2nd hand Olympus camera (an E-M10 Mark II) mainly to use it for macro photo (with the 30mm f/3.5), and I was looking for a "normal" lens, I was undecided between the 12-45mm "standard" zoom, the newer 17mm f/1.8 and this one... at the end I got the pancake, also because I could find it very cheap as 2nd hand... but actually the 1.8 wasn't much more expensive. I got the pancake because your review showed me that even if it's not the perfect lens, its quality is still pretty high. So far I'm very happy with my choice, and thanks to you for your review!

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  4. Affordable Wide-angle lenses is THE technical problem for MFT - the counter advantage to MFTs ability to deliver great value high quality telephotos and tele-zooms from its crop-factor advantage/disadvantage......so I am pleased that you are on the case!

    To deliver wide perspective, rectilinear, wide aperture lenses takes usually a lot of expensive glass; often 10-15 elements with several being aspheric or high density glass design. Those elements often need to float to new positions as the lens is focused to optimise the image. This is why cheap or small size MFT wide view lenses either compromise on cost, size, quality of a combination of the 3. There is no escape - as the problem is just physics. This explains the compromises inherent in the Olymous 17mm and Lumix 14mm prime lenses.

    The only affordable solution for an MFT "ultrawide" is to use the simpler design of fisheye lenses which do not need ED or aspheric glass - but instead rely on software to deliver the rectilinear view. The stand-out value example for MFT is the 7-Artisans 7.5mm F2.8 or the slower and more expensive Samyang/Rokinon F3.5. The Olympus 9mm F8 is a cmpromise too far - but still great fun!

    Now how about using your Olympus connections to suggest: create an affordable 7.5mm F2.8 (even if it means a deal with 7-Artisans) and put a lens ID chip in it - and then build the "defishing" software into the Olympus camera as a software update so that the viewfinder shows the corrected rectilinear view. Panasonic does this for its kit zoom lenses and MFT cameras - creating in-camera correction for camera JPEGs that overcomes the limitiations of affordable zoom lens design in controlling chromatic aberration and lens distortion (barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion at the tele end). Shoot in JPG + RAW - and add defishing into the "Olympus Workspace" processing software to deliver the optimal results. Such a lens need not even be AF - since the depth of field is so great.

    Now that would represent another triumph for mirrorless camera tech.

    In the meantime Robin - can you get 7-artisans to loan you a 7.5mm MFT fisheye to show how much fun can be had? I will be one to click on your review!

    That 7.5mm F2.8 MFT lens defishes in just a couple of clicks using DXO Pro (and remember - DXO encouraged photographers to try its system out by giving away free versions of the DXO Optics Pro 11 to tempt you to try it and pay for the upgrade). Then there is the free to use "Hugin" defishing software to downlaod too.....

    best wishes - Paul C

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    1. Postscript - 7-Artisans have missed a marketing trick by not giving a defishing softwre download link with their wondeful fisheye lenses - or, even better, selling the lens with a dedicated de-fishing programme for PC or Apple-Mac to match the lens.

      Such software can be simple - the inherent advantage of the fisheye design is that there is no significant chromatic aberration whcih is the plague of rectilinear wide angle designs. So pixels just need to be transformed to their new positions to correct the image.

      Paul C

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