Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens, first impressions review

If you have been reading my blog, you may recall that I bought the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f/2.0 lens with my Pen-F last week. Olympus was having an August sale where the prime lenses were $300 off list price with the purchase of a Pen-F.

12mm f/2.0 on Micro Four Thirds is equivalent to 25mm f/4.2 on a full-frame camera if you crop the Micro Four Thirds image to a 3:2 aspect ratio. (See my post on the Micro Four Thirds focal length multiplier. )

The lens can be purchased in two colors: black and silver. I chose black, and I am nearly certain that I made the right choice. The black 12mm f2 is the most beautiful Olympus lens that I own. It looks more elegant and retro than the silver 17mm f/1.8 which I also own. I think this partially has to do with the shape of the lens; the 17mm has a more modern-looking shape. But I also think that silver is just too flashy and makes the camera look more modern, even though I am aware that silver lenses were actually popular in the 1950s. Ironically, 1950s Leica was probably trying to make its cameras look futuristic, but today we want cameras that look like they’re from the 1950s. (Because after you strip away all of our high-tech gadgets like computers, smartphones, digital cameras and high-speed internet, underneath the 2010s suck compared to the 1950s.)

The black 12mm f2 looks awesome on the black and silver Pen-F. After using the E-P5 with the huge 12-40mm, the Pen-F, with the small 12mm lens and a built-in EVF instead of a big ugly plastic add-on EVF hump, has such a lightness and ease of use about it. Using it gives you such a feeling of joy.

Some readers are no doubt wondering, by this point, “but how does it function as a lens?” As a lens, it’s a little bit disappointing. Not because it’s a bad lens. It’s definitely sharper than the 9-18mm at the same focal length, and far superior to the Panasonic 14mm f/2.5. If I did not know about the 12-40mm “PRO” zoom (which people didn’t in 2011 when this lens was first introduced, because the “PRO” zoom didn’t exist back then), then I might proclaim “finally, a sharp wide-angle lens!”

This lens is perfectly useable at f/2.0, as long as you don’t expect super-sharp corners. The Olympus primes are generally not intended to take pictures of brick walls wide open, but if what you focus on is in the central two-thirds of the frame, then you will get a sharp picture. But not as sharp as the 12-40mm zoom at f/2.8. In fact, I am pretty sure that at all matching focal lengths, the 12-40mm is very slightly sharper than the 12mm f2 in the center, and more noticeably superior in the corners. If you want across-the-frame sharpness, then you need to stop down the 12mm prime to f/5.6.

I would say that, in the corners, compared to the 12-40mm zoom, the 12mm prime has less contrast and is softer. The 12mm also gets a little bit of purple fringing in the corners if there are tree leaves or branches there, while the 12-40mm is totally free from purple fringing. Also, I think that the 12mm prime has a little bit of an astigmatism. This is noticeable with certain subjects, like brick buildings, and it causes the edges of the photo to have an unpleasant nervous look. The 12mm has less lateral chromatic aberration, so that’s one benefit of the 12mm. (But lateral CA is automatically corrected in Adobe Camera Raw if you check the box, so it’s not an especially big benefit.)

I think that the 12mm has some field curvature, which means that the corners are front-focused relative to the center. This is a lot more prominent on the 17mm f/1.8 lens, but I still think it’s a good idea, when using this lens, to not use the focus and then recompose method. (Luckily you don’t have to do that on Olympus cameras, which have focus points all over the frame except for the extreme edges.) Also, corner sharpness when focused at infinity may be improved slightly by using a focus point near the corner (thus causing the center to be focused a little bit past infinity). I always use that method with the 17mm lens to get sharper corners without any noticeable detrimental impact on center sharpness.

The 12mm prime is slightly wider than the 12-40mm at its widest. So maybe the 12-40mm is really a 12.4-40mm. Or maybe the 12mm prime is really an 11.5mm prime.

Should you buy this lens? Considering that this lens has a list price of $799, and the 12-40mm zoom is only $200 more than that, the zoom is a much better value. Buy this lens because you want small and light and are sure that you want this focal length (which is a more challenging focal length than 17mm). Buy this lens because it looks so beautiful on a Pen-F. Buy this lens because you get an extra f-stop over the 12-40mm. (But unfortunately, even with f/2, you won’t get much bokeh on this lens. If you want wide-angle bokeh, that’s an area where full-frame shines over Micro Four Thirds.) Don’t buy this lens because you think that a prime lens means superior image quality over a zoom lens. It doesn’t. My overall conclusion is that this lens is overpriced at $799, overpriced at its current sale price of $699, and yes, even for $499 it’s still kind of expensive.

Also note that Olympus is too much into nickel and diming its customers to include a lens hood with this lens, making the value proposition slightly worse. Being too cheap to buy the official Olympus lens hood for $59.95, I bought a Sensei 52mm wide-angle screw-in rubber lens hood for only $6.95. Used with a 46-52mm step up ring, over a 46mm Firecrest UV400 filter, there is no vignetting. However, the rubber lens hood does significantly ruin the aesthetics of the lens, and the how the lens looks on the camera is one of its main selling points.

If you are looking for the most amazingly impressive wide-angle image quality in a small camera, plus bokeh, I’m afraid that the camera for you is the Leica Q rather than any Micro Four Thirds camera. Yes, I’ve pixel peeped at some Leica Q samples posted on the internet, and I am really blown away by the quality of that lens. It’s head and shoulders above the Olympus 12mm prime. But that Leica Q costs $4250, and that’s pretty expensive. Remember what I said a few days ago when I bought the Pen-F: you don’t need a new camera, it’s just G.A.S.

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I haven’t had much opportunity to actually take many pictures with this lens. And I don’t have any which demonstrate the benefits of f/2. The photo above is a quickie of 7th Avenue in Manhattan which I took while walking home from work earlier this week. I cropped it to my favorite aspect ratio of 3:2, but otherwise there are no other lens corrections.

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Read my next 12mm F/2.0 post: Olympus 12mm F/2.0 lens, corner test

3 thoughts on “Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens, first impressions review

  1. Thanks for the review and the comparison. I have both the Olympus 12mm f/2.0 and the 12-40mm f/2.8. Although it certainly can be interesting to compare the image quality, in the end these two lenses are very different. Three tiny high quality fast primes take up less space and weigh less than the Olympus 12-40mm zoom lens. A lens that lets in more light is often better if you use a camera with a small sensor, because of the noise that comes with higher ISO settings. Also, a small prime lens is less conspicuous than a bigger zoom.

    Personally, I find the fact that the depth of field of a MFT sensor is twice that of a full frame sensor a bonus. You don’t have to stop down to get more in focus and it still is a fast f/2.0 lens. This and the fact that the cameras and lenses can be very small, made me switch from full frame/APSC to MFT cameras. I think large “Pro” zooms and super fast primes defeat the purpose of the MFT system. Of course I understand that a zoom lens comes in handy on a trip or in other situations where there is enough light and you have to change the focal length fast. The two types of lenses have different applications.

    The fact that the corners of an image taken with a fast prime are not critically sharp at wide apertures is normal and often not important at all. If you need your image to be perfectly sharp from corner to corner, you stop down a zoom lens too. Every lens is a compromise. There is no lens that is fast, optically excellent, small, light and affordable.

    Often, comparing lenses, sensors and systems can make you see tiny flaws that you’d never see in your current online or printed photos. As you say yourself, you probably don’t need another camera (system) or lens, it’s just G.A.S. For me the MFT system strikes the perfect balance between size, weight, image quality and costs. And the fact that the image quality slowly but surely gets better is a bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree with anything. It’s just my personal opinion that a $799 lens for a smaller sensor like Micro Four Thirds should have an extreme level of sharpness and image quality that this lens doesn’t meet.

      My advice is to buy the 12-40 zoom instead (if you can only buy one) unless you really need the extra f-stop or you are willing to pay a lot of money for the luxury of a small and light lens that’s less versatile than a zoom. I guess my own purchase of this lens falls into the “willing to pay a lot of money for luxury” category.


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