Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens

If I could only have one lens, and that one lens had to be a prime, then the 17mm f/1.8 would probably be the one lens I’d choose. Of course that’s a choice that no one actually has to make. But the field of view provided by this lens is a popular choice for one-camera-one-lens people, and is why the Fuji X100 and Sony RX1 series embrace this field of view. (17mm in Micro Four Thirds is conventionally considered equivalent to 34mm on a full-frame camera, but see my blog post on the Micro Four Thirds focal length multiplier.)

This lens is great for taking touristy photos of buildings in Manhattan, as seen above in a photo I took earlier today. A very cold day in New York, the temperature was in the low 20s.

Yesterday I wrote that the Olympus body cap lens is the only lens that makes a Pen-F camera pocketable. Even though the 17mm f/1.8 is the third-smallest Olympus lens (or fifth-smallest if you count the two body-cap lenses as lenses and not body caps), I say that the Pen-F is definitely not pocket-sized with this lens on it. Although technically I was able to stuff the Pen-F with 17mm lens into the large pocket of my winter coat, a trick that certainly would have been impossible with the much larger and heavier 12-40mm, it wasn’t a very elegant fit.

On internet forums, there seems to be some negative sentiment about the sharpness of this lens. I think this lens is pin sharp when stopped down. Wide open: I previously did a test against the 12-40mm and don’t see anything wrong with the wide-open performance. The 17mm lens is a little bit more sharp at f/2.8 than it is at f/1.8, but that’s hardly something to be shocked about. The lens still seems decently sharp even wide open.

So I don’t know if the negative sentiment about this lens comes from:

1. Unrealistic expectations. (I do agree that this lens is a bit overpriced.)
2. Bad quality control. Maybe some people have bad copies of the lens.
3. One particularly negative review that came out shortly after the lens was available for testing, even though their own tests showed this lens is as sharp wide open at f/1.8 as the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens at 14mm stopped down to f/5.6, and sharper wide open at f/1.8 than the kit lens ever gets at 28mm or 42mm at any f-stop.

I may add the warning that this lens has some noticeable field curvature, so if you take a picture of a brick wall at f/1.8, the corners will definitely come out soft.

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The Olympus 15mm body cap lens

When this lens first came out a few years ago, there were a bunch of articles on the internet praising its ingenuity. And then, after two or three months, you never heard anyone talking about it again. Everyone who praised it apparently came to realize that, objectively, it was a pretty crappy lens (although an excellent body cap), and their praise was just a case of temporary G.A.S. induced love. End of story.

The photograph above was taken today with the body cap. I attempted to improve the image in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, and cropped it to a 2:3 aspect ratio (currently my favorite aspect ratio for still photography). Can you tell that the lens is crappy without pixel peeping? Actually, I think if I had taken the same photo with the super-sharp Olympus 12-40mm lens, and you could compare them, you would notice that the photo taken with the 12-40mm is technically superior. But I think that, when the image is reduced to a web size and viewed by itself, the body cap passes the decency test, but just barely.

I think that Olympus could have made a much better body cap lens if they had wanted to. If only they designed a four-element lens instead of a triplet. But I’m not a lens engineer, so what do I know?

What I like most about this lens is that it’s really the only lens that makes an Olympus Pen-F pocketable (but that would still be a coat or jacket pocket, not a pants pocket). And as I previously pointed out, sharpness is a bourgeois concept. Possibly. Just because I wrote that doesn’t mean I’m 100% sold on it.

As crappy as the body cap lens is, I still like the image quality more than what I get from my iPhone 6, but maybe if I upgraded to an iPhone 8 or X then I would have a more positive impression of iPhone image quality.

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The black body cap lens has been discontinued. You can still get the silver body cap lens for $49.99 at the Olympus website.

Olympus E-M10 Mark III review at dpreview.com

The renowned dpreview.com released their review of the new Olympus E-M10 Mark III camera.

Unlike at online forums where people are outraged that Olympus removed features from the camera in what’s apparently a move to dumb it down so as not to cannibalize sales of higher-priced cameras, the dpreview.com review is quite blasé about it.

However, the company has also gone on an aggressive prune of the Custom menu, meaning the E-M10 Mark III only has 43 options in the Setup menu, rather than the Mark II’s rather daunting 99.

I’d be way too worried that one of the 56 missing items happens to be something I actually use to ever commit to buying that camera. Unfortunately, Olympus has not released the instruction manual for the camera, so, at the moment, there’s no way for me to find out what’s missing. Too bad that I don’t get free cameras to test like bigshot photography websites.

Actually, I do know that RC flash control has been removed, and that’s something I experimented with in the past, and is something that I’d want to have if I ever got serious about portrait photography, so there’s at least one definite reason not to buy this camera.

My recommendation is that if you want the least expensive Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera, buy the old E-M10 Mark II model before it’s sold out.

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

4K video on the Olympus E-M10 Mark III: just a marketing gimmick?

I don’t know that much about shooting video, so I could be completely wrong about this.

But it seems to me that adding 4K video to the E-M10 Mark III is just a marketing gimmick so that the camera can check a box. And it’s a gimmick that has apparently worked, because everyone is praising Olympus for adding 4K video.

But who really needs 4K video? I think you’d have to be a pretty serious videographer to worry about shooting 4K video which, currently, is impractical because it takes up so much bandwidth. I, personally, don’t even own a 4K monitor!

Anyone who is serious enough about videography to need 4K isn’t going to be interested in a camera like the E-M10 Mark III which doesn’t even have ports for microphones or a headset, nor does it have an HDMI output port.

Like I said, I could be wrong, anyone reading this who knows more about video, please leave a comment!

Thoughts on the Olympus E-M10 Mark III

It’s officially out. (See information page at dpreview.com.)

It looks like a pretty good camera for anyone who doesn’t already own a recent Olympus camera. It looks (from a functional perspective) very similar to the Pen-F (see my recent review series) but without the front DoF preview button and missing some specialty dials (like the JPEG dial and lever, and the exposure compensation dial) which I don’t think are that useful anyway.

Olympus has given the E-M10 Mark III the same sort of retro styling that the Pen-F has, except that it looks like an old SLR instead of an old rangefinder. I presume the E-M10 Mark III has a slightly less deluxe feel to it, given the lower price tag. But Olympus removed the cheap plasticky E-PMx cameras from its lineup, and now only makes cameras that have a quality feel with nice clicky dials, so it would probably feel like a nice upgrade in quality from less expensive cameras.

With a small front grip, and the Fn2 button in what looks like a more convenient location than on the Pen-F, the E-M10 Mark III might be the more ergonomic of the two cameras.

The obvious specs in which the Pen-F outshines the E-M10 Mark III are the max shutter speed of 1/8000 (vs. 1/4000) and a 20MP sensor (vs 16MP).

The mode dial on the E-M10 Mark III is missing the C1 – C4 settings; I presume you can overwrite some of the other settings with a custom setting (as you can do on the older Olympus E-P5 which I have), but it’s a lot more intuitive to have dedicated C1 – C4 settings. [UPDATE: now that I know that Olympus has dumbed down various capabilities of the Mark III, I would NOT assume that you can assign custom modes to the mode-dial settings.]

Is anything else important missing from the E-M10 Mark III? I’m not sure.

It should be noted that the E-M10 Mark III is about the same weight as the Pen-F (half an ounce lighter) so it’s not a super lightweight camera. Olympus seems to have abandoned the idea of super-lightweight plastic cameras in favor of cameras with a more retro metallic feel to them.

Although camera gearheads were very disappointed that Olympus gave the E-M10 Mark III only a 16MP sensor, 16MP is enough resolution for super-sharp 12×18” prints that are indistinguishable from prints made from pictures taken on cameras with more pixels, as well as enough resolution for viewing photos on 4K monitors, so there is no reason why this isn’t an excellent camera for someone upgrading from a smartphone or a point & shoot or an older interchangeable-lens camera.

UPDATE

I believe my initial positive impression of the E-M10 Mark III was WRONG. The camera is missing more than just a 20MP sensor. It appears that Olympus has REMOVED some other functionality from the camera, including RC flash among others. Olympus will claim that the purpose was to “help” beginners by making the camera easier to use, but the real reason is because Olympus doesn’t want advanced photographers to be happy with a less expensive model. If you want the best features, Olympus is telling you that you need to buy a Pen-F, an E-M1 Mark II, or an E-M5 Mark II (no doubt soon to be replaced by a Mark III model).

Pen-F review, part 3, EVF and display options

I’ve already discussed the aesthetic advantages of having the EVF built into the camera, but this is such a big advantage it’s worth restating. It’s so much more elegant than having a huge ugly plastic VF-4 sitting atop the flash hot shoe on the Olympus E-P5 camera that precedes the Pen-F.

The primary benefit of the VF-4 is that it has greater magnification and presents an image that’s noticeably larger. (A secondary benefit is that it swivels. And the diopter dial is a little bit easier to use.)

But otherwise, I find that I prefer the Pen-F EVF. The image is clearer and has more accurate colors. It somehow looks more natural and less electronic. I haven’t found the Pen-F EVF any more difficult to use with eyeglasses than the VF-4.

The Pen-F has improved live-view display options over what was available on previous Olympus cameras. The E-P5 can only display one of the following features at a time: shadows & highlights, histogram, or level indicators. With the Pen-F, you can display all three at once if you want to!

Shadows & Highlights is a display mode unique to Olympus cameras, which causes highlights (that would be blown out in the JPEG) to display in orange and shadows (that would be black in the JPEG) to display in blue. I always have this feature turned on, and it’s one of the main reasons I could never go back to using a DSLR. This mode allows you to expose to the right (thus minimizing noise) without blowing out any highlights. Even when ISO is set to “Low” (which I recommend whenever you have the time to carefully adjust your exposure), you can have a little bit of orange and still recover the highlights in Adobe Camera Raw.

Most (but not all) other brands of mirrorless cameras now have zebra patterns, which are supposed to do the same thing as the orange highlight indicators on Olympus cameras, and in fact they may offer more customization over when the zebra patterns are displayed. However, I have not personally used any camera which offers zebra patterns. As far as I know, only Olympus has shadow indicators.

Another new feature of the Pen-F which wasn’t available with the E-P5 is that you can set the viewfinder display so that various indicators such as f-stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation, etc., move to a bar below the image. This makes it easier to compose the photo because those indicators are no longer blocking your view of the bottom of the image. It also makes the viewfinder more SLR-like.

In conclusion, the EVF and the live-view display options on the Pen-F are a big improvement over earlier-model Olympus cameras.

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Reminder: You don’t need a new camera, it’s just G.A.S.

Read my previous Pen-F post: Pen-F review, part 2, buttons and dials out the wazoo