Olympus 45mm Review

The m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 by Olympus is a stunning portrait lens. Put simply, if you only have a kit zoom and a wide prime (like the 14mm, 17mm or 20mm) then you’ve just found your next lens.

I’m a big believer in prime lenses. You get more glass for your money and it forces you to learn how to compose an image by zooming with your feet. But how does the 45mm preform as a street photographer’s lens?

Olympus 45mm 1.8

The 45mm focal length lets you capture small details even from across the street.

I’m not reviewing this as a travel lens or a macro lens. It’d be great for the former and terrible for the latter. I’m a street photographer, which means that what I’m looking for in a lens is speed, discretion and toughness.

Street use
The zoomed in 42mm end of my kit lens is the range that I use the least; so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a 45mm prime lens. But the 45mm is like any fixed focal length lens; the constraints are what teach you to be a better photographer. Marisa Myer, the lead product manager at Google has a saying: “Creativity loves constraints.” I certainly found this true with the Olympus 45mm. You end up moving your feet to compose the image.

Micro four thirds portrait lens

The Olympus 45mm blows out the background for near perfect portraits.

The 45mm forces you to decide in advance what you want the photo to be about. Once I got the shots into Lightroom I found that none of them needed (or would stand up to) re-cropping. All I can say is, get your framing right inside the camera. For me, that meant turning the GF2 into high burst mode and shooting multiple exposures for each subject. There was usually one shot in each cluster that was noticeably better than the others.

Olympus 45mm street photography

The Olympus 45mm f1.8 works just as well for spontaneous reportage shots.

The 90mm equivalent zoom really does reach out and touch your subjects. Reportage street shots suddenly become intimate moments and street portraits suddenly become studies in eyes, facial expressions and emotion.

Image quality
The m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 captures light like a dream. You do need to keep an eye on the autofocus because it only needs to be off a tiny bit to ruin the image. You’ve also got to fiddle occasionally with the white balance because you’ll be getting less in each frame than usual, but overall the image quality is excellent.

Olympus 45 prime

Like most micro four thirds primes, this lens loves strong light and dark shadows.

Contrast is good. Lightroom corrected for any distortion, vignetting or colour aberrations. Of which, there wasn’t really much in the first place. The image quality is consistent with a lens double the price.

Bokeh
The shallow depth of field and bokeh on the m.Zuiko 45mm lens are outstanding. This lens is the reason you got into micro four thirds instead of sticking with an LX5, Canon G12 or Olympus XZ-1 or even the Fuji X100. The f1.8 really brings an M43 sized sensor to life.

Olympus 45mm bokeh

Bokeh balls show up for almost any light source, this is a shot of a lamp post and taxis on Oxford Street in London.

Bokeh balls are soft and round because of the good quality aperture blades. The balls show up for even soft light sources and look consistently good. You simply can’t get this effect with a point and shoot.

m.Zuiko 45mm Portrait

Bokeh balls in daylight. This would be an achievement even on a full frame DSLR.

The blur is smooth and buttery. In the end, this is unashamedly a portrait lens. If you’ve never used a portrait lens before then it’ll feel weird at first, but I got used to it pretty fast. The way it captures faces is excellent, with very little distortion in the foreground and great backgrounds.

Olympus 45mm portriat

It takes a while to get used to composing a portrait to avoid cliches. The key seems to be just enough background interest without distracting from the subject.

The depth of field isn’t as razor slim as the Panasonic Leica 45mm, but for half the price it’s plenty narrow enough to do good portrait work. Just get your subjects standing a little bit further separated from the background.

Build quality
This is a plastic lens. It’s no Olympus 12mm. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The 45mm is well built, solid and tough. For street shooting you’ll still need a filter or a lens hood. But only to protect it from the usual bumps of life on the street.

Olympus 45mm on GF2 shot with GX1

The Olympus 45mm is solid and well built. It looks good on a street camera.

Overall, the build quality would suggest a much higher price. The lens will easily stand up to day-to-day street shooting.

Speed
The focus speed is fast. It’s all internal focus and the focus-by-wire feels good in the hand. The 45mm finds focus well. Even in difficult shots (with multiple subjects) the lens cooperated with the Panasonic GF2 very well.

Olympus 45mm f1.8

The long focal length lets the viewer peer into the scene and the autofocus copes with night scenes and multiple subjects.

The autofocus struggled at macro lengths (anything less than 1 meter) but at normal working distances it kicked ass. Manual focus worked with the GF2 range assist so it was easy to pre-focus for candid shots.

Discretion
Where the Olympus 12mm fell down for being shiny and sticky-outy, the 45mm is a more matt silver, and that little bit smaller. Taken together, the smaller diameter and less shiny body mean that the 45mm is discrete enough to work on a GF/GX Panasonic or PEN series Olympus as a street lens.

m.Zuiko 45mm depth of field

Having some distance from your subjects lets you capture the decisive moment that little bit easier.

The 45mm is also more zoomy so you’ll be a bit further away from your subjects. This means that the demands from bloggers to ‘make a black version’ aren’t as important as for the 12mm. Even so, I’d be tempted to wrap it in black electricians tape if I was using it at night or for shooting protests and riots.

Conclusion
The Olympus 45mm lens brings the versatility of the Micro43 system into the league of the old Olympus OM system or even the Leica Rangefinders. You can now build a solid 24mm/50mm/90mm three lens kit for semi-professional street photography use.

Pros:
– Shallow depth of field
– Focal length forces you to think
– Extremely good price

Cons:
– Requires a little getting used to
– You might graduate into the Leica 45mm after a few years
– Would have liked a black version

The 45mm was so good that occasionally when I’m out shooting a wide angle prime (my natural comfort zone) I occasionally say to myself “Damn I wish I had the 45mm with me.”

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5 thoughts on “Olympus 45mm Review

  1. ‘The depth of field isn’t as razor slim as the Panasonic Leica 45mm’

    I think you will find that wide open the Oly 45 f1.8 provides narrower DOF than the Panny 45 f2.8!

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