Just before the new Olympus 17/1.8’s arrival: Revisiting the Panasonic 20/1.7

If you are into the idea of a fast “almost standard wide angle” lens for your Micro Four Thirds camera – something like a “classic 35mm prime”, with working auto focus and all bells and whistles that this system can offer – there are, as of late 2012, basically three options: The Sigma 19/2.8, the Olympus 17/2.8 and the Panasonic 20/1.7. I must confess I have never tried any of the first two lenses. That’s not to say that I consider them bad in any way – it’s just that I directly went for the 20/1.7 to go along with my E-M5. Of the three, the Panasonic is the fastest but also the most expensive. So, as always, just consider your own style of shooting for your own buying decision.

As probably most who are interested in Micro Four Thirds already know, a fourth lens is just around the corner: The new Olympus 17/1.8. It’s about as fast as the Panasonic 20 yet gives the slightly wider field of view just like any old 35mm lens on traditional 35mm film cameras. It’s new and shiney and also – by quite a margin – the most expensive of them all. While the MSRP of the Panasonic 20/1.7 currently is €399 in Germany and street prices start from about €320 onwards, the Olympus 17/1.8 comes in at €549, and we’ll just have to wait and see what real-world pricing will be within the next few monthes.

These pictures show them all to roughly the same scale:

Olympus 17/2.8. (Photo: olympus.de)
The cheapest M4/3 “wide standard”: Olympus 17/2.8. (Photo: olympus.de)
Sigma 19/2.8. (Photo: sigma-foto.de)
Taken from the mighty Sigma DP1 Merril: Sigma 19/2.8. (Photo: sigma-foto.de)
The fastest: Panasonic 20/1.7. (Photo: panasonic.de)
The fastest “wide standard”: Panasonic 20/1.7. (Photo: panasonic.de)
The new Olympus 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)
The brand-new Olympus 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)

(You’ll note that the Sigma 19 is bigger than the others – that’s probably because it was developed to cover APS-C size sensors as well. And sorry, I didn’t include the Voigtländer 17/0.95. It does not offer auto focus and is probably targeted at a very different customer group as the three lenses shown here.)

The little Panasonic 20/1.7 “pancake” lens was introduced almost exactly three years ago – in September 2009 – and enjoys a strong following within the Micro Four Thirds crowd since then. The reasons are obvious: It delivers good image quality, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, its field of view is perfect for an everyday lens, it’s small and light-weight, and regarding lens speed it has had no real competition for the last three years. The competition of the 20/1.7 will be the new Olympus 17/1.8. So my question at the moment is: What does the 20/1.7 offer and what could really be improved?

Olympus E-M5 with Panasonic 20/1.7
Olympus E-M5 with Panasonic 20/1.7

The Panasonic 20/1.7 in use

The size of this lens is just perfect. They just don’t come much smaller than this. It’s not a wonder of haptics but then, what do you really need in a lens this size? The only real downside is the somewhat sluggish auto focus. However, as with anything, AF performance is another example of “your mileage may vary”: Personally, I never have any trouble with the AF speed on the E-M5. It might be a different story on older Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the E-P1, though. Or if you’re into any kind of “action” shooting.

One thing worth noticing is that the lens does not have internal focusing – rather, the whole inner lens barrel, including the filter threads, moves forth and back during focusing. This means I’m always a bit worried that the lens might suffer any kind of damage or wear when packed in a small bag where something might press against the front of the lens. But so far, my copy survived without any problems or signs of wear – so everything’s probably just fine, regarding build quality.

Giraffe in Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/1.7)
Giraffe in Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/1.7)

Click for full-size sample

What I really do love – it’s not a function of the lens, though, but probably more of the camera system – is the superb auto focus precision. I can shoot this lens wide-open all time and it will always nail focus perfectly. Whereever you place your AF point within the whole picture frame. The only exeption to this are super low light pictures – sometimes, it will just “hunt” and not lock focus at all – as well as when using the focus-on-the-nearest-eye feature of the E-M5 which I found sometimes to act more like a focus-generally-on-something-on-the-head-even-if-it’s-the-ear feature. Use manual AF point selection and make the AF points as small as you can by selecting the 14x screen loupe feature of the E-M5, and it will just nail focus, though.

When it runs into trouble due to difficult lighting or whatever else, it won’t lock at all. But when it locks, it’s spot-on. There’s never the constant worries of DSLR days with misaligned lenses, micro focus adjustments, selecting the cross-type sensors because otherwise it’ll run into trouble, artificial lighting problems or anything else. This is, of course, nothing special to the Panasonic 20/1.7 – but rather it’s one of the prime reasons why I just love mirrorless cameras. With very fast standard and wide-angle lenses, this advantage of mirrorless cameras is most pronounced.

From dusk till dawn: Image quality of the 20/1.7

How good is image quality, then? I can’t answer that in one sentence. Really. Because there are situations where the 20/1.7 just rocks big time. And there are situation where it’s really just lame. I should probably say I like printing some of my pictures large. 24×36 inches, sometimes even more. The E-M5’s resolution is absolutely fine for that, when you shoot RAW. It’s just that the 20/1.7 never delivers the kind of sharpness that the 45/1.8 is capable of. It’s, after all, a nice little pancake lens, and it was never developed to be a resolution wonder.

Here’s a few shots taken with the 20/1.7. Full size samples are available for your evaluation. As always, these were developed from RAW with Lightroom and whatever settings I like. Feel free to compare with my shots of the Olympus 45/1.8.

First, here’s a shot that I am very happy with (regarding the lens). It’s surely sharp and detailed enough. The areas behind the wall – especially the tree to the left, above the wall – are somewhat out of focus, so it’s just fine that there is not that much sharpness. Nice colours and not much problems with colour fringing:

At Fort X. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/6.3)
At Fort X. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/6.3)

Click for full-size image

But the 20/1.7 has problems with colour fringing. Just look at the tree branches in the very bottom right corner of the shot below and you can see what I mean. Note that all these files went through Lightroom post-processing including the nice “remove color fringe” feature and removal of chromatic abberations (well, I just tried my best… I found I’m personally not a great expert when it comes to CA handling during processing image files….)

While the 45/1.8 just delivers great images “out of the box”, you always have to tweak 2o/1.7 images to look like this.

The last colourful days. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/7.1)
The last colourful days. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/7.1)

Click for full-size image

Ok, here’s another example of the colour fringing stuff. Look at the foilage at the top right corner – all that false blue color around the foilage. This time, I did not try anything to remove it in post:

Classic Range Rover. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/4.5)
Classic Range Rover. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/4.5)

Click for full-size image

I would say that this false colour around very fine detail is the single biggest fault of the Panasonic 20/1.7. Again, it’s probably perfectly acceptable performance given the intention behind this lens. In fact, I think that the performance of the 20/1.7 is way better than the typical scope of a “pancake” lens would suggest. Sharpness is good – it’s definitely not at the same level of the 45/1.8, but still really good, as you can see at all the full-size samples – and it will even remain sharp and crisp at open aperture, provided you don’t try to shoot landscapes this way. (But then, very few lenses are good for shooting landscapes wide open.)

Olf in Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/1.7)
Olf in Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/1.7)

Click for full-size image

What about distortion?

When talking about lens performance, the last thing worth noticing, of course, is distortion. The Panasonic 20/1.7 has plenty of distortion (see the links in the last paragraph of this blog entry below to see all the test results about this). The thing is, most likely you’ll never notice this because it’s digitally corrected, even when you shoot RAW files. This is a design decision: The lens designers considered distortion can be corrected in post, so they did not optimise their lens for this. It allows them to improve on other design targets, such as sharpness or contrast, size and – last not least – cost.

Given the price tag of over €300, I have to admit I am not entirely happy this way. A lens like this – with a rather modest field of view and not too extreme aperture either – should probably be designed even better than this. Take the new Canon 40/2.8 STM or the Voigtländer 40/2, for example: These two are somewhat 24x36mm DSLR siblings of the Panasonic 20/1.7, offering a similar field of view and similar speed, and they both have better distortion characteristics. Anyway, the Panasonic is not a really expensive lens per sé, and it has its other advantages, so I won’t complain too much.

E-M5 with 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)
E-M5 with 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)

What about the future competition – the Olympus 17/1.8?

It’s probably still to early to answer this question. I haven’t been able to try out the new 17/1.8 myself, save for holding it in my hands for a short moment at the Photokina 2o12. There are things I really love about this lens, though: It’s got a nice feel to it. It has true internal focusing, no moving parts at the outside whatsoever. 17 mm is a little bit wider than 20 mm, I do appreciate that. I guess I’ll never ever need anything wider than that as I am not into super wide-angle shots anyway.

There are two things I don’t love about this lens, right from the onset. The first is that they are going to charge €64 for the original lens hood. WTF? It’s a plain simple piece of metal. But, of course, you can just revert to third party offerings, so let’s get over this. The second is that it’s not weather sealed. C’mon Olympus, weather sealing is a matter of a few rubber gaskets integrated into the design. It’s not rocket science and you can even do it with much cheaper lenses such as the 12-50 zoom. Why not on a little €549 prime lens?

The first Olympus 17/1.8 image samples and reviews

The last thing to discuss will be image quality, of course. I won’t go into too much detail at this point, giving the fact I haven’t shot this lens myself, so far. I’ll just give you the list of current reviews of the 17/1.8 here:

Robin Wong from Malaysia did a two-part review. Here’s part 1 and part 2. He also provides a set of full-size JPG files for download. Note that he seems to shoot JPG out of cam, so the detail rendition is likely to be a bit weaker than when developing RAW files. In contrast to myself, Robin does not really prefer the “35 mm” field of view that much. But that’s, of course, fine, as these things are always a matter of personal taste!

Lenstip.com reviews the Olympus 17/1.8 here. They are the first of the technical review websites to do so. For comparison, their Panasonic 20/1.7 test can be found here. The Olympus 17/1.8 does not fare well at all in their test – but better read it for yourself!

Pekka Potka from Finland has also already shot the 17/1.8 and his impressions can be read here. He loves 35 mm lenses! And he also dislikes the colour fringing of the Panasonic 20/1.7 and the fact that you so often have to correct for this in post. In contrast, the new Olympus 17/1.8 seems to be remarkably free of this problem. However, it does not exactly break records regarding sharpness and resolution, as the 20/1.7 seems still to be a little bit better in this respect.

Ming Thein did a comparative lens review of the Olympus 17/1.8, 17/2.8 and Panasonic 20/1.7 here. My advice is to read this carefully. Again, the new 17 is praised for its absence of color fringing issues while it does not exactly beat the 20/1.7 in any other respect, regarding image quality.

Karmel Maria vom Frieden, Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/4.5, 60 seconds exposure)
Karmel Maria vom Frieden, Cologne. (Panasonic 20/1.7 at f/4.5, 60 seconds exposure)

Click for full-size image

At this point, I can’t say that I will be the first one to run and buy the new Olympus 17/1.8 when it hits the local shelves. But I’ll surely give it a very close look when it is available. I’m a bit worried about sharpness and detail reproduction – while it is good on the Panasonic 20/1.7, I certainly don’t want to step down from here, as you just can’t restore any lost details in post production. Probably the 20/1.7 will continue to be a very good, if not the best, choice for all the wide standard prime lovers with Micro Four Thirds cameras out there. But probably the new Olympus 17/1.8 will be able to take the crown, even if only barely so. We’ll see….!


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