Olympus 12mm Review

GF2 with Zuiko 12mm lens

Olympus 12mm f2 on a Panasonic GF2

The Olympus 12mm Micro Four Thirds lens is an amazing piece of glass. The f2.0 apeture gives creamy background blurs and it’s sharp when you need it to be. The autofocus is snappy and it’s pretty small. So why is it not for me?

For such a lovely lens there are some significant downsides. You may be able to live with them. If so, then this is a must have lens. But for me they were deal breakers.

Too much of a good thing

12mm portrait lens

Wide angle lenses let you fit a lot into the shot

I normally love wide angle lenses. They capture more of the background for what are technically called ‘environmental portraits’. Or more accurately, ‘photos-where-you-can-see-stuff-around-the-person-so-you-get-a-sense-of-their-personal-story’. The 24m equivalent field of view is luxurious but on this lens it seems too wide for sensible street photography.

Just a little bit too close for comfort

12mm portrait lens

High angle, wide apeture, shallow depth of field (but getting a bit too close)

To get the creamy shallow depth of field that a 2.0 does best, you need to get close, really close. In fact, you need to get so close to your subject that it’s uncomfortable for the model even if they are a friend or willing participant. Let alone a stranger that you’re snapping an impromptu street portrait of. Even so, when you do finally get close enough, then this lens will give you some of the best photos ever taken on a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Too much of a good thing

Oxford St

Great contrast and sharpness, even wide open at dusk, but what is the photo really of?

For normal reportage style street photography the 24mm equivalent meant that everything felt a long way away. Each shot came out without a focal point, or if there was one, it suddenly felt an extremely long way away. I usually love prime lenses and am an advocate of ‘zoom with your feet’ street photography. Yet somehow the Olympus 12mm just didn’t sing as a street lens. Steve Huff took some great street photos with this lens but you’ll see that other than inanimate objects, a photo of his friend and a hit-and-run of a person sitting (read easy target), his photos don’t have a central point of interest.

Bling on the street

GF2 12mm

You are running a micro 43 kit because you wanted to be fast, small and discrete. The Olympus 12mm lens lives up to the first two but fails so badly on the third that it couldn’t be your primary street photography lens. It’s hard to convey in a photo just how shiny the casing of this thing is. The matt lustre silver seems like it should be subtle, but it’s not. Suddenly your range-finder inspired incognito stealth-camera might as well be an SLR. I got all the funny-looks, raised hands and turned heads you usually only get when shooting a full frame SLR on the street. For this reason alone, the Olympus 12mm is not a street photographer’s lens.

Is this a lens for street photography in a city like London?
Kai Wong and the DigitalRev team loved the lens. They’re right that the snap-focus ring and the build-quality are superb. If you are in Hong Kong or LA then the silver bling and the need to get close might not be deal breakers. Inhabitants of large Asian and American cities are pretty indifferent to strangers taking photos around them. But in London or most big European cities this lens will just spoil the decisive moment.

However, if you’re shooting travel, family and landscapes then the Olympus 12mm m.Zuiko is probably one of the best lenses on the market today. You can see more photos on flickr.

Ps. In terms of camera compatibility, the Olympus 12mm on GF2 worked perfectly. The Panasonic camera picked up the Olympus lens and the autofocus was spot on. Even the toggle pull distance focus worked with the distance scale on the GF2. Lightroom corrected for any barrel distortion in the RAW file, but there wasn’t that much anyway. The lens is definitely compatible with the GF2.

4 thoughts on “Olympus 12mm Review

  1. It seems you got the wrong lens to start with. 😉

    I couldn’t help but chuckle when you wrote “The 24m equivalent field of view is luxurious but on this lens it seems too wide for sensible street photography.”

    Any 12mm Micro Four Thirds lens has a field of view of ~74 degrees and no matter how fast it is, at this focal length the ability to render creamy background blur will require you to get really really close. As such, a wide-angle lens is not really a portrait lens.

    You are spot on about Olympus’ choice to only offer the lens in shiny silver (well, there’s a limited black one coming…). I like my camera gear as black as the night, so I do not like their choice either. I own the 45mm in silver (great lens, you will probably like it more for portraits and background blur) but I have refrained from getting the 12mm in silver so far.

    • You’re right that in terms of field of view, 74 degrees is 74 degrees, no matter what the aperture. But that’s the point I’m making. The Olympus 12mm is so good that it’s overkill for most shooting situations where you would want that focal length.

      For most street shooters a 24mm lens would be a quick and dirty lens (to get up close in a crowd). The Oly 12mm is a stunning lens, but it’s not really a street photography lens.

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