Camera Lens Review: Panasonic 20 mm F 1.7 for Micro Four-Thirds Cameras

Panasonic 20mmWhen I bought my Olympus Pen-F camera two weeks ago, it was joining a collection of lenses that I’d purchased over the past two years for the Olympus OM-D E-M10. I have a 25mm f 1.8, a 45 mm f 1.8, and a 17mm f 2.8, as well as the kit lens (14-42mm) that came with the camera. While the 17mm Olympus lens is good, it’s pretty slow at f 2.8. I like that it’s a pancake lens – about an inch thick – which keeps this small camera compact. Other lenses, like the 25mm, are much thicker, and add a lot of volume and weight to the camera, but it’s nice to have one very slim lens to use when I’m just walking around with no intentions of shooting specific scenes.

When I started taking pictures some 40 years ago, I used an Olympus OM-10 with a 50mm lens. I like that focal length, but having something a bit wider is helpful. (Note that lenses for micro four-thirds cameras are half the equivalent focal length of 35mm cameras. This can be confusing, but it means my 25mm lens is equal to 50mm; the 17mm equals 34mm.) The 17mm Olympus lens I have is a bit too wide, and I saw that there’s a 20mm Panasonic lens; that’s equal to 40mm in the 35mm world. (I know, this is a drag to have to specify like that…)

Anyway, I thought I’d try out the Panasonic; while it’s not an Olympus lens, it is a micro four-thirds lens. This is a standard that Olympus and Panasonic developed together, so their lenses and bodies are compatible. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Pen with lens

I’m not qualified to go into detail about the potential distortion of the lens or chromatic aberrations; suffice it to say that it’s a good, solid, compact lens, which offers the advantage of being fast; having a very wide aperture, at f 1.7. As you’ll read if you check any sites that do more technical reviews, it’s a bit slow to focus, and this can be a problem if you do street photography and need to focus quickly. In that case, you’re better off with, say, the Olympus 25mm (the 17mm isn’t that fast in focusing, or in aperture).

What this lens offers is excellent image quality in a small package; at about an inch thick, it won’t get in the way, and it won’t weigh you down. I’ve found it to be fast enough to focus on what I shoot, and it offers excellent depth of field at smaller apertures. If you want a small, light, unobtrusive lens for the Pen-F – or for any micro four-thirds camera – check this one out.

16 thoughts on “Camera Lens Review: Panasonic 20 mm F 1.7 for Micro Four-Thirds Cameras

  1. I think too much is made over “fast” lenses vs. “slow” lenses. Yes, there are moments when minimal light is the controlling factor, but current cameras can be set to very high ISO ratings, with modest visual noise. Therefore, the depth of field loss at wide apertures must be considered strongly, along with decreased overall sharpness. A macro shot is dubious at under ƒ16, and I rarely shoot a landscape at under ƒ11, a street scene below ƒ8, or a non-cropped or group portrait below ƒ5.6. If I’m framing a single person’s face from the forehead to the lower lip, sure, ƒ1.8 or lower might give a great effect. Indeed, wider apertures can produce nice special effects for a variety of subjects, but almost always in a carefully composed, arranged setup shot. For candid and non-studio photography on a modern, light, carry-around camera, the ƒ2.8 maximum of Kirk’s 17mm Olympus lens would probably not get much use for me, while I would celebrate that lens’s compact size and great sharpness at ƒ5.6 and above.

    • It depends on the lens, but on average, lenses are sharpest when stopped down a bit. So if you want to shoot at f2.8, it might be necessary to use an f2.0 or faster lens. Also, in dim climates tending to heavy overcast all day for much of the year, f2.8 isn’t fast, and even at f8 ISO often wants to be 3200 up which is, to be kind, not very good on micro 4/3.

      I have the Oly 25mm and I like it, but since it isn’t rainproof, I rarely use it. I live in the Pacific Nothwet. The lack of rainproof is also why I haven’t allowed myself to look too closely at that nice Pen F, which would otherwise be a great upgrade for my starting-to-wear-out E-M5. In winter, I tend to use the Oly 14-150 most of the time because I love the wide range, though it’s somewhat big, slow and soft. But from the time that buds start to swell through November when everything is dormant again, it takes dynamite to make me take off that wonderful 60mm macro. I’m trying very hard to not get the Panasonic 100-400mm for the zoo, though. (I won’t, I won’t, I mustn’t, well maybe…)

  2. I think too much is made over “fast” lenses vs. “slow” lenses. Yes, there are moments when minimal light is the controlling factor, but current cameras can be set to very high ISO ratings, with modest visual noise. Therefore, the depth of field loss at wide apertures must be considered strongly, along with decreased overall sharpness. A macro shot is dubious at under ƒ16, and I rarely shoot a landscape at under ƒ11, a street scene below ƒ8, or a non-cropped or group portrait below ƒ5.6. If I’m framing a single person’s face from the forehead to the lower lip, sure, ƒ1.8 or lower might give a great effect. Indeed, wider apertures can produce nice special effects for a variety of subjects, but almost always in a carefully composed, arranged setup shot. For candid and non-studio photography on a modern, light, carry-around camera, the ƒ2.8 maximum of Kirk’s 17mm Olympus lens would probably not get much use for me, while I would celebrate that lens’s compact size and great sharpness at ƒ5.6 and above.

    • It depends on the lens, but on average, lenses are sharpest when stopped down a bit. So if you want to shoot at f2.8, it might be necessary to use an f2.0 or faster lens. Also, in dim climates tending to heavy overcast all day for much of the year, f2.8 isn’t fast, and even at f8 ISO often wants to be 3200 up which is, to be kind, not very good on micro 4/3.

      I have the Oly 25mm and I like it, but since it isn’t rainproof, I rarely use it. I live in the Pacific Nothwet. The lack of rainproof is also why I haven’t allowed myself to look too closely at that nice Pen F, which would otherwise be a great upgrade for my starting-to-wear-out E-M5. In winter, I tend to use the Oly 14-150 most of the time because I love the wide range, though it’s somewhat big, slow and soft. But from the time that buds start to swell through November when everything is dormant again, it takes dynamite to make me take off that wonderful 60mm macro. I’m trying very hard to not get the Panasonic 100-400mm for the zoo, though. (I won’t, I won’t, I mustn’t, well maybe…)

  3. Having done more research since my previous comment, I will add that the Panasonic 20mm ƒ1.7 lens is reviewed as being noticeably sharper at all apertures than the Olympus 17mm ƒ2.8 that Kirk also owns. That extra sharpness is a solid reason to consider the Panasonic 20mm, especially since it is also small and light. (Although it costs about twice as much as the Olympus, on Amazon). As before, I will still argue that the 1.5 ƒ-stop greater maximum aperture is a questionable reason for choosing between the two lenses, or between any other pair of lenses, in this era of great imaging chips and extensive ISO adjustability.

    • It’s not twice as much; in the US, the Olympus is currently around $200, the Panasonic $267. As I explained, it’s as much the aperture as the focal length that made me want this lens. The 17mm is too wide for me.

      I was at the ruins of an old abbey this morning, and I took some pictures with the 20mm. I’ll post one or two tomorrow. It’s a very nice lens, you don’t see the wide angle effect around the edges very much.

  4. Having done more research since my previous comment, I will add that the Panasonic 20mm ƒ1.7 lens is reviewed as being noticeably sharper at all apertures than the Olympus 17mm ƒ2.8 that Kirk also owns. That extra sharpness is a solid reason to consider the Panasonic 20mm, especially since it is also small and light. (Although it costs about twice as much as the Olympus, on Amazon). As before, I will still argue that the 1.5 ƒ-stop greater maximum aperture is a questionable reason for choosing between the two lenses, or between any other pair of lenses, in this era of great imaging chips and extensive ISO adjustability.

    • It’s not twice as much; in the US, the Olympus is currently around $200, the Panasonic $267. As I explained, it’s as much the aperture as the focal length that made me want this lens. The 17mm is too wide for me.

      I was at the ruins of an old abbey this morning, and I took some pictures with the 20mm. I’ll post one or two tomorrow. It’s a very nice lens, you don’t see the wide angle effect around the edges very much.

  5. As I understand it, Olympus put the image stabilisation mechanism in the camera body, and Panasonic put it in the lens.
    I wonder if there is any complication in having both?

      • You can use in-lens stabilization on Olympus, since in-lens stabilization is completely independent. If you use a stabilized lens and there’s no switch on the lens to turn it off, you should turn off IBIS in the body settings or they can fight each other.

    • It depends on which models. Olympus has been using IBIS (in body stabilization) for a long time, but Panasonic started adding it to a few of their micro 4/3 bodies about two? years ago. Olympus will take some catching up to, but Panasonic is capable in the long run. Olympus has one stabilized lens so far, the 300mm Pro. Panasonic has many stabilized lenses because they were slow to provide IBIS. In general, Olympus lenses are somewhat smaller, lighter, and less expensive for otherwise similar specs.

      IBIS is great up to moderate focal lengths. At longer telephoto focal lengths, it’s better to do it in the lens. Best is to have both the body and the lens stabilized and coordinated. Unfortunately, Oly lenses won’t coordinate with Panasonc bodies and versy vicey so you have to choose one or the other in a mixed situation. Since I prefer Oly bodies for several reasons, if I do break down and get that lovely Panasonic 100-400mm, I won’t get the maximum benefit.

  6. As I understand it, Olympus put the image stabilisation mechanism in the camera body, and Panasonic put it in the lens.
    I wonder if there is any complication in having both?

      • You can use in-lens stabilization on Olympus, since in-lens stabilization is completely independent. If you use a stabilized lens and there’s no switch on the lens to turn it off, you should turn off IBIS in the body settings or they can fight each other.

    • It depends on which models. Olympus has been using IBIS (in body stabilization) for a long time, but Panasonic started adding it to a few of their micro 4/3 bodies about two? years ago. Olympus will take some catching up to, but Panasonic is capable in the long run. Olympus has one stabilized lens so far, the 300mm Pro. Panasonic has many stabilized lenses because they were slow to provide IBIS. In general, Olympus lenses are somewhat smaller, lighter, and less expensive for otherwise similar specs.

      IBIS is great up to moderate focal lengths. At longer telephoto focal lengths, it’s better to do it in the lens. Best is to have both the body and the lens stabilized and coordinated. Unfortunately, Oly lenses won’t coordinate with Panasonc bodies and versy vicey so you have to choose one or the other in a mixed situation. Since I prefer Oly bodies for several reasons, if I do break down and get that lovely Panasonic 100-400mm, I won’t get the maximum benefit.

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