The Olympus 17 2.8 was announced around the same time as the EP-1. Ever since it was announced the lens has faced quite a bit of scrutiny from users on the web. Even some reviews were rather ho-hum about this optic, and of course once the Panasonic 20 1.7 came onto market, it almost seemed to fade into the shadows. Truth be told I purchased this lens for two reasons: 1) The price was hard to resist and 2) The lenses profile and design are a perfect match to the EP-1. I did of course consider the Panasonic, but I honestly have trouble with the price of this lens which is almost as expensive as the camera body itself and my good friend, author, and professional photographer John Biggs stated that the Panasonic had two notable cons which concerned me: 1) Size - with lens cap in place the Panasonic is almost as thick as the kit lens and 2) Focusing - the Panasonic seems to focus a bit slower on the Olympus body. That being said I am not here to contest the two lenses against one another, only provide a subjective review of the 17mm 2.8 itself.
Design / Build
The Olympus 17 2.8 is quite small and extremely light with the profile only protruding roughly an inch from the camera body. The lens itself is a mixture of metal and high quality plastics all of which feels a bit better in hand than most 50mm 1.8 primes I have used. The focusing ring is well dampened and quite smooth though it should be noted that the focusing ring is by-wire and not truly mechanical, nevertheless in practice manual focus was actually quite a pleasurable experience.
Thought not scientific, one thing that I took notice of immediately when using this lens indoors was the speed of focus which seemed by all accounts to be significantly faster than that of the Olympus 14-42 kit lens. Focus acquisition was about as quick as I could press the shutter (center point engaged) which was a welcome delight considering that the EP-1 does in fact seem a bit slower at times than an SLR
I expected the image quality of the lens to be somewhat lackluster after reading several reviews and forum postings on the web all of which had me thinking that this lens was average at best. I suppose the lesson learned here is that one should always take information on the web with a grain of salt as my own findings revealed that the Olympus 17 2.8 was an all-around solid performer. Wide-open @ f2.8 the IQ is stunning from this little gem. Sharpness, color, and micro-contrast are superb. No pixel peeping was necessary to see that this lens is optically superior to that of 14-42 kit (and I do consider the 14-42 to be a very good lens). Out of focus rendition is quite appealing with a very smooth background rendition achievable at fast apertures which is something of an unusual trait that is typically not found in wide-angle lenses, but a welcome bonus nevertheless.
The Olympus 17mm 2.8 should in fact be on your short list, especially now that the price has dropped to below $250 (U.S. Dollars). You do give up the convenience of a zoom in the acquisition of a prime, but at the same time you maximize the IQ potential of the camera which for me is welcome trade-off. The lens is such a good performer that I am actually debating selling the 14-42 kit, a lens which I have raved about in the past. Probably the only notable con is the speed of the lens itself with 2.8 looking a bit slow for a prime, though in all fairness we should consider that most 35mm primes are typically no faster than f/2 (save exotics like the Canon 35 f1.4 L, but this lens also costs 5x more) and most likely the speed limitation is by design, after-all remember the Olympus 17mm is a pancake lens (silver dollar edition no doubt).
So in summary what does one get for $230 ?
- Portable Size and Weight.
- Fast and Accurate Focus Acquisition.
- Attractive & Well Executed Design matched to the Pen's retro looks and styling.
- Constant 2.8 Aperture.
- Excellent image quality (even wide-open), a step-above the Olympus 14-42 kit lens.
- Delicious Bokeh - did I just say delicious ?
Samples - Out of Camera JPEGs
Bokeh Test (Click For Larger Sample). Look closely at the texture and detail on the plug itself.
Detail Test - Wide-Open (Click For Larger Sample). Amazing level of detail and texture on the torch.
Bokeh Test -Wide-Open (Click For Larger Sample)
Detail Test - Wide-Open (Click For Larger Sample). Examine the level of detail in the Subject's Eye.