Why have I finally dropped my resistance and chosen to buy this lens?
I have always favoured the 35mm focal length in film and “full frame” digital - it’s not the first time I have compromised on weight, size, price, even functionality, to get the best I can possibly squeeze out of the sensor or film at this, my preferred type of lens. I have had the Olympus 17mm f1.2 for just a couple of weeks now and had the opportunity to use it a few times for street photography and a little more carefully while out with my family today in Notting Hill, London.
While this will not be a technical or comparative review against my currently most used lens, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8, I will try to be as objective as possible. I won’t directly address price or value. To make any high quality, optically well performing f/1.2 lens is expensive. It will of course only be made in relatively small numbers, further adding to cost.
On initial inspection, for a system optimised for light weight and portability, a 390 gram lens measuring 68.2 x 87 mm seems big, in comparison with high end 35mm equivalent lenses for larger systems though, particularly those with f1.4 or faster maximum apertures, it is still relatively compact and light. Size, weight and handling is very similar to the popular Olympus 12-40 f2.8 PRO, whilst not as tiny as the 17mm f1.8, it is comfortable to handhold for long periods and balances perfectly on my OM-D E-M1 mark II.
The Nikon D750 and Zeiss Milvus 35mm f2, my favourite combination before moving to Olympus, weighs 1.5kg. This is pairing is less than 1kg, so noticeable lighter. Whilst it is in my opinion, just about within the bounds of what is unobtrusive for street photography, the smaller, slower primes do remain a better choice for most street photography uses. Weather and light will be the key drivers to choosing the 17mm f1.2 for this discipline.
The bulk is the price to be paid for getting full frame(ish) behaviour from micro four thirds. To a certain extent that is what this lens is trying to do, but am I trying to make the system something it isn’t?
There are times when I will be trying to make a small sensor camera behave closer to that of a full frame camera, at least in terms of obtaining reasonably shallow depth of field. The bokeh and ability to isolate a subject is the most talked about characteristic of this lens.
But it is so much more than that.
Build quality feels excellent. Metal body, smooth focussing ring, a well fitting lens hood and pouch included, all give the feel that this was built to last and to a quality, rather than a price point. The lens is dust, freeze and rain proof, combined with the E-M1 or E-M5, it has the benefit as a system of supreme weatherproofing. There is no doubt that it handles and feels as well built as the best Nikon lenses and is very, very close to the Zeiss Milvus. Being “fly by wire” focussing, when snapped into manual focus mode, there is less “feel” than a true manual focus lens and in fact a slightly less well damped feel than the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO, it is still a well balanced movement though. The ability to pull back the focus ring to engage manual focussing is in fact one of the most well thought out developments for me that Olympus has implemented in a number of its lenses. As someone who regularly switches between AF and manual, I really miss this on other lenses that lack this feature.
In terms of image quality, physics play a part, the sensor on my Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II is simply not capable of allowing this lens to deliver what the Zeiss Milvus can on the Nikon D750 or Nikon D850. I do believe however that this lens is absolutely capable of surpassing an all time favourite of mine, the Leica Summicron 35mm v4. It may even be close to the 35 Summicron ASPH on digital Leicas but I am not speaking from personal experience having only used this lens with film.
Where it leaps ahead of the Olympus 17mm f1.8 prime, is in performance across the field and at all apertures. As I have said previously, I am reluctant to use the slower prime any faster than f2.5. The PRO really is up there with those rare Zeiss and Leica lenses that perform supremely at any aperture, right across the field of view.
Micro contrast - those small transitions, so important to me in monochrome, are excellent.
Colour - bright, accurate.
What it gives is more than just an extra stop of light. As a system, Micro Four Thirds gives a very wide range of real usable options. It is not just about size. This lens allows me to get more and better. It further extends the usable envelope of the system, adding very good low light ability, really important with a small sensor demanding you to use the lowest possible ISO.
Finally on the subject of light, I would be interested to see the test results of actual transmission with this lens, I suspect it will be closer to a T-stop of 1.8 (the 25mm f1.2 Pro is also 1.8T-stop) as it is quite complex with 15 elements in 11 groups. For comparison, the 17mm f/1.8 records transmission of 2T-Stop. But this is usable light, as the 17mm f1.8 loses resolution visibly below f2.5(ish) whereas the 1.2 is perfectly usable wide open. This is important.
Conclusion - There are three key parts to this.
Weatherproofing - I trust Olympus’s claims for weatherproofing, my 12-40 PRO has been out in very heavy storms on many occasions without any problems. Whilst I may well reach for the PRO zoom over the 17mm f1.2, purely to avoid having to change lenses in bad weather, this is still an advantage and would make it my first choice for wet weather street photography.
For my street photography - the 17mm f1.8 remains preferable, purely because of size and within this discipline I can tolerate weaker image quality and disregard colour fidelity, optical problems, etc. The 17mm f/1.2 will not replace the f/1.8 lens.
Overall - It is the best micro four thirds lens at this focal length, not just wide open but across all apertures. Where I want the best quality, for travel, for the odd landscape, where small is not the driving factor, this is a supremely competent performer. It is valuable to me.
Update October 2019 - some further thoughts on this lens in my comparison of the Olympus system with the Nikon Z system here.