Small, Fast, and Light: Micro 4/3rds Prime Lenses

These small prime lenses for Micro 4/3rds format open up a wide range of creative possibilities

Three prime lenses for Micro 4/3rds mount: Panasonic/Leica 9mm f/1.7, Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Olympus 45mm f/1.8

Earlier this year, I purchased an OM Systems (formerly known as Olympus) OM-1 flagship mirrorless camera, along with a set of zoom lenses that are perfect for the majority of my photographic needs. One thing I hadn’t considered at the time was the prime lenses for Micro 4/3 format from Olympus and Panasonic.

Prime, or fixed focal length, lenses generally serve to either extend the range of your kit (ie, adding wide or telephoto prime to a zoom kit), or to provide a way of getting a different look to your images, usually because they are designed with a fast maximum aperture. You can also use primes for dedicated purposes; most portrait photographers will have at least one fast portrait lens (like an 85mm f/1.8 or faster) to deliver nice subject isolation.

Introduction

A few years ago, before I switched to using a mirrorless system, I frequently put a 50mm f/1.8, a.k.a the “Nifty Fifty.” In my bag when traveling. But when I got my Nikon Z kit, I stopped using a 50mm prime, even though I’d purchased the outstanding Nikon 50mm f/1.8S Nikkor Z. Why? Because it was just too darned big to bring along as an extra lens, and using the F-mount version required a lens mount adapter, adding weight and bulk to my kit.

With the Micro 4/3 system, fast primes are suddenly back to being small. And by small, I mean tiny. I currently have three prime lenses for Micro 4/3rds, and each one is small, light, and solidly built. Moreover, they are sharp across the frame wide-open, meaning you can maximize light-gathering capacity without sacrificing image quality.

Lens35mm EquivalentWeight (g)Weight (lbs)
Panasonic/Leica 9mm f/1.718mm1300.286
Olympus 17mm f/1.835mm1200.264
Olympus 45mm f/1.890mm1160.255

By comparison, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 Z Nikkor is 370g/0.814 lbs and the 85mm f/1.8 Z is 470g / 1.03 lbs. These are wonderful lenses, but rarely did I put them into my bag when traveling simply due to their size.

Field Testing Micro 4/3rds Prime Lenses

Now that I have a three-lens kit, I wanted to do a little testing. I chose my local gastropub because of its wonderful window light and opportunities for backgrounds with bokeh. Plus, it’s always good to grab a beer, right?

I used my OM-1 body, and put all three lenses into my very small Wotancraft sling bag, and stopped in for happy hour. I shot some very casual photos, as this is how I might choose to use these lenses during a travel photography workshop; indoors with available light.

Olympus 17mm f/1.8

I started out using my Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f/1.8 lens on the OM-1. This tiny lens is the equivalent of a 35mm prime on a full-frame camera. It’s a classic focal length for street photography.

Tending the bar. 1/50s f/1.8, ISO 200
When focused close, the 17mm f1/.8 Olympus generates pleasing bokeh.

Olympus 45mm f/1.8 Lens

Normally, packing a portrait lens as a supplement to your kit is cumbersome. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 45mm f/1.8 lens, however, is practically microscopic in size. Weighing in at only 116g, this tiny lens is actually an outstanding performer for anyone looking to make casual portraits at home or while traveling.

The Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens is great for casual portraits and delivers soft backgrounds. 1/60s f/1.8 ISO 80

One criticism of the Micro 4/3 system is that it’s harder to get soft backgrounds due to the smaller sensor size. While it’s true that the 45mm f/1.8 renders backgrounds more like a 35mm lens set to f/3.6, I haven’t found it to be an issue. If anything, I usually found myself stopping down my 85mm lenses to f/2.8 to ensure that the entire face was in focus. With the Olympus lens, I just use it wide-open and I’m happy with the results. Besides, I can always soften a background slightly using Lightroom.

Panasonic/Leica 9mm f/1.7

The Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 9mm f/1.7 ASPH lens is a relatively recent addition to the Micro 4/3rds lens lineup. It delivers an angle of view equivalent to a 18mm lens on 35mm format. It’s a little larger than the two Olympus primes I tried, but still extremely light at 130g. It features a minimum focus distance of only 9.5cm (3.7″), making it ideal for creating unique close-up compositions. When focused close, it delivers nice bokeh from point sources of light.

The 9mm Panasonic offers an equivalent angle of view as an 18mm lens on a full-frame camera, making it perfect for indoor scenes. 1/25s f/1.7 ISO 250
With a minimum focus distance of 9.5cm, you can make close-up images with the 9mm Panasonic lens. Backgrounds become soft and bokeh is pleasing. 1/60s f/1.7 ISO 400

Conclusions: How will these prime lenses fit into my kit?

When I got the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, I was simply astonished at how small it was, and how well it performed. Often times, small, lightweight lenses sacrifice optics and build quality, but not these. I’ve since added the 17mm f/1.8 and the Panasonic 9mm f/1.7 to my collection. Many of these lenses can be found on the used market in great condition at a tremendous cost savings (I got the 45mm lens for $167).

I see myself using the Micro 4/3rds primes in two ways. First, I envision using the 9mm lens as a way to pack a lightweight wide-angle lens while traveling with zooms. This lens complements both the 12-45mm f/4 and 12-100mm f/4 Olympus lenses without adding bulk to your kit.

The other way I may use these prime lenses is exactly how I tested them: as a trio. This harkens back to a style of shooting I haven’t done in a really long time; many film shooters used small primes due to their size and quality advantages over zoom lenses of that era.

See my recommended M 4/3rds prime lenses for trael here.

One thought on “Small, Fast, and Light: Micro 4/3rds Prime Lenses”

  1. The size and weight of these lenses still for me can’t justify paying the same price as a full frame A7c II for a 4/3 body to use for walk-around photography. Samyang and Sigma make plenty of extremely light, good quality lenses that cover full frame, some of them even lighter than these

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