Olympus 12mm f/2 Lens Review

...in the 70's they were heavy metal" --Annie Leibovitz

PROD SHOT 1-2012 Oly12 24578

The 12mm f/2 makes balances nicely in size on the E-P3 body.

What is it?
"Where are the serious lenses?" people ask about micro 4/3 (m4/3). Well, there are plenty, but if you want real serious, take a look at the 12mm f/2 (24mm equivalent in 35mm film terms). Unlike most Olympus m4/3 lenses, this lens is mostly a solid chunk of metal and glass. That provides a healthy heft at 4.6 ounces (130g) to this small lens. It's also decidedly not a pancake lens. The 17mm f/2.8 Olympus sticks barely 3/4" (2cm) out of the mount, but the 12mm f/2 extends nearly 2" (45mm) from the mount. It's small, but it's not pocketable small when mounted on any of the m4/3 bodies as some of the pancakes are.

Inside are 11 elements in 8 groups, with all kinds of special elements (DSA, aspherical, ED, and Super HR). There are seven diaphragm blades. Close focus is around 8" (20cm). Because of the 84° diagonal angle of view you don't get much magnification at the close focus distance (1:12.5). The front element does not rotate during focus and has a 46mm filter thread. Stabilization Olympus style is done with the sensor, so there is no stabilization in the lens.

The lens comes with nothing but a lens cap for US$800. In the US, a four year extended warranty for the lens is US$80, and the LH-48 lens hood is another US$100. Olympus's page for the lens.

How's it Handle?
In m4/3 there's usually not a lot to talk about in terms of handling with lenses. Focus rings are fly-by-wire and there's no aperture ring, so most of the time there isn't much to write about. Not so with this 12mm. If you pull the focus ring towards the camera body you reveal focus markings that line up with DOF markings and the lens becomes rather old fashioned: a real coupled focus ring that rotates very smoothly through about 60 degrees from the near focus of 0.2m to infinity. Surprisingly, it appears someone at Olympus might have actually followed the Zeiss rule of thumb for the DOF markings (1/1720 the diagonal capture for the CoC value). My calculations say f/11 set to 5' focus should produce 2.1' to infinity focus. The ring on the lens says 2' to infinity. Of course, diffraction is an issue on m4/3 cameras, so you're probably going to find the DOF scale not nearly as useful as it at first seems it might be. Coupled with the sparse distance markings (1, 2, 5, and infinity for feet, 0.2, 0.5, 1, and 3 for meters), there isn't much ability to get a refined focus depth via the markings. Moreover, the lens focuses past the infinity mark (ED glass). I call the DOF markings more show than go because of those things. 

PROD SHOT 1-2012 Oly12 24577

Olympus doesn't supply a hood with the lens, a common fault of theirs, but the hood that they'll eventually get around to shipping to the US is a square jobber that is very expensive (nearly a Benjamin [US$100]). What's with these ridiculous lens hood prices lately? Note to Japanese camera companies: spread a little love and just have a good metal shop in the US produce a hood for the US market. I'll bet you that they underbid that US$100 price so much that you can offer an economy alternative. Indeed, if you grab a metal 46-49mm or 46-52mm step up ring and a short B+W metal hood (from expensive Germany), you'll be out less than a third of the cost that Olympus wants to charge you. A ring of metal with threads on one end shouldn't cost more than a week's worth of groceries, even if you do square off the corners to give it a different look. 

Olympus has given us another one of their thin plastic, very losable, small plastic lens caps again, too. Funny thing: the Olympus logo fell off mine. That's right, the Olympus logo is on a thin piece glued to the actual plastic of the lens cap. And glued poorly in this case. Caps this small need a tethering option, in my opinion. Finally, be a little careful mounting and unmounting the lens: neither the front nor rear elements are very recessed.

How's it Perform?
Given that the lens is more expensive than some of the bodies it'll be put on, we expect it to perform well, right? ;~)

Sharpness for a wide angle is good wide open, but the corners have at least twice the blur circle as the central area, and thus have a touch of softness to them. Stopping down to f/4 makes this an edge-to-edge winner, though: decently sharp across the frame. In between, f/2.8, is very usable for me, even into the corners, but again, you'd need to get to f/4 to pull everything up to the highest level this lens is capable of. Overall I expected a sharp lens, and that's basically what Olympus has given us. Some will quibble that the 12mm f/2 doesn't reach the highest possible results attainable on the current m4/3 bodies, but this is still a very respectably sharp lens.

Chromatic aberration is a different story. Color fringing is present and just into the visible range even on the 12mp cameras, especially in the corners. Vignetting is decent for such a wide angle, never hitting a stop in the corners (maybe two-thirds to three-quarters of a stop). Even setting f/2.8 pretty much removes the vignetting. Barrel distortion seems to check in at well less than a percent, which means I pretty much ignore it. However, it's pronounced enough that if you're shooting anything with straight lines you'll see it, so you may want to deal with it. (Remember, all the things in this paragraph tend to be easily correctable in software via post processing these days, so I tend to not get freaked out by anything but excessive problems in these three attributes. The 12mm is not excessive in any of these things.)

If there's any issue with the lens, it's flare. Light sources in the frame tend to produce visible flare. But without a hood, really strong side light also has a tendency to reduce overall contrast even if it doesn't produce a visible flare pattern. It's obvious enough that any engineer who put this lens on a camera should have seen it and recommended that the lens ship with a hood. Olympus ought to know better, especially on a US$800 lens. Unfortunately, we haven't gotten a lens hood with almost any m4/3 lens Olympus has produced. That means that it's an intentional tactic on their part to keep them as separate items for sale. Besides the loud chorus of boos that should produce, give them an additional chorus for not actually having the (how-hard-is-it-to-make?) lens hood available when the lens shipped. Finally, let's give them an additional raspberry for the (expected) high price of their hood. Funny thing is, the lens hood still tends to be out of stock at most places even at the high price, so it's obvious that users have discovered the same flare/contrast issues I have. 

Focus is very fast on the E-P3, still quite good on the older models. The focus system is MSC (Movie/Still Compatible), so the lens itself is quiet in focus, but not silent. 

Final Word
I'm happy to see Olympus give us a high-specification m4/3 lens for a change. There's little to complain about in terms of the execution of the lens itself, but Olympus isn't providing a high-specification out-of-box experience. When you put this onto your camera and start shooting, you're likely to run back to the store for a hood. Absolute pixel peepers will have some problems with the corners wide open, but as fast wide angle primes go, the 12mm f/2 is actually a very good lens. 

Recommended (2016, 2017)

review source: purchased lens 

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