My wife’s sister lives about eight hours away and we get to see her sister’s family three or four times a year. Ever since they had kids, those three or four times a year have become a valuable chance to catch up with and get to know our nieces and nephews. Time has inevitably set in however — their kids are growing faster than we could ever imagine.

I’m sure this is how our parents looked at us as well. Before they knew it, their children were off to high school, going to university, getting married, and having children of their own.

But there’s a difference between my parents’ generation and my generation in regards to capturing those incredibly short periods of early childhood: My parents’ generation couldn’t as easily capture those moments. Cameras were far and away less prevalent than they are now. My parents bought a Canon DSLR in 1990 right after they got married, but the film photos they snapped back then were extremely expensive and relatively poor by today’s standards. And, even worse perhaps, my wife doesn’t have proper baby photographs.

These photographs are seemingly emblematic today. Baby photos are a right of passage, as are kindergarten graduation photos, high school graduation photos, and engagement photos. I know people who can’t bear the thought of missing their sweetums walk down the aisle to accept their eighth grade achievement certificate.

I happen to find myself right in the middle of many of these events. From young children in the recent past, to university graduations in the near future, and to a wedding nine months from now, my camera is sure to be exhausted by year end.

Knowing this, and knowing my potential subject matter, I went on the hunt at Christmas time for the ultimate portrait lens in the Micro 4/3 system. My hunt wasn’t as exhaustive as my current lens hunts, but that’s mostly because of the widespread love for the Olympus 75mm f/1.8. After seeing some incredible photos across the web, and after getting some encouragement from new colleagues, I expended my Christmas money on a piece of glass that cost more than my camera body itself.

And, after using the 75mm for a solid four months, I can’t see myself skimping out on a lens again.

History

The Olympus 75mm f/1.8 was announced in May 2012 as one of Olympus’ M. Zuiko Premium lenses for the Micro 4/3 system. At the time of introduction, the 75mm f/1.8 was one of a kind in the Micro 4/3 world and no other lens matched the lens in terms of field of view, sharpness, or aperture.

Fast forward almost three years and not a whole lot has changed. Olympus has begun to release higher end lenses as part of the M. Zuiko Pro line that compete slightly with the 75mm and other manufacturers have released a few lenses in the same focal length range as well. Even still, the 75mm provides some of the best optics in the Micro 4/3 system and remains one of the highest quality lenses money can buy at this point in time.

Specifications

Focal Length

The size of the Micro 4/3 sensor inside Olympus and Panasonic bodies is generally considered to be half the size of a full-frame sensor. This difference has an incredible effect on the photographic experience as a whole with these cameras, but when it comes to shopping, the biggest impact is in the field of view. Micro 4/3 lenses, as a rule of thumb, can have their focal length multiple by a factor of 2 to be brought in line with the generally accepted full-frame focal length. So, if you have the awesome Panasonic 20mm f/1.4 pancake lens on your camera body, you’re actually using a full-frame focal length of 40mm.

Obviously this has an exponential impact on the focal length of telephoto lenses in the Micro 4/3 system. And it directly puts the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 in awkward territory.

Awkward because 150mm is quite a long focal length to be using on a daily basis. This focal length is often left for portrait photography, as it gives the shooter a chance to stand a ways back and let a scene develop naturally. Moreover, lengthier telephoto lenses are able to provide incredible background blur and subject isolation even at slower apertures. This is why bird photographers are able to make jaw-droppingly creamy backgrounds with lenses at f/4.0 and beyond.

All this adds up to a 75mm lens which is meant for shooting photos of people. The 150mm full-frame equivalent is ideal for keeping your distance and capturing scenes in an intimate and natural way. I find this 150mm focal length to be absolutely ideal for shooting photographs of my young nieces and nephews while they play in the living room. I can stand across the room and have the lens do most of the walking. The results have been nothing short of spectacular.

But, having said that, this personal focal length won’t be for everyone. If you tend to shoot landscapes, or yearn for artistic street photos, I can’t see the Olympus 75mm being a lens of choice. There’s too much reach in the 75mm to stay impersonal and it’s difficult to capture a proper landscape at the 150mm focal length.

You’re also going to have to look elsewhere if you’re hoping for a sporting lens or a birding lens. The fast aperture would be ideal for indoor sporting events, but the 150mm full-frame equivalent doesn’t always reach far enough for a baseball or hockey scene. And if it doesn’t work for a baseball scene, birding photographs are certainly out of the question.

Right off the hop, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 may be a mixed bag depending on your goals. The 75mm lens is ideal for in-tight portraiture, blurry backgrounds, and dreamy photos. It’s not meant for anything a full-frame 75mm lens is normally used for. Ever since I purchased the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens, the 75mm has spent the majority of its time in my camera bag. It’s just not an every day focal length. However, when it’s time to see my nieces and nephews, or when it’s time to venture outdoors for family photos, the 75mm quickly becomes my best friend.

Aperture

Most full-frame lenses with a 150mm focal range are limited to aperture sizes of f/2.8. Canon and Nikon’s famous full-frame 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms are a great example of a telephoto lens topping out at f/2.8.

By keeping the 75mm as a fixed length, Olympus was able to build an incredibly fast f/1.8 aperture into its top-end M. Zuiko Premium lens. Like any other fast lens, the 75mm’s f/1.8 aperture is great for indoor portraits where light may be at a minimum or where you have moving subjects that are hard to freeze in your frame. Again, the 75mm points directly to the realm of baby and toddler photography; combining its long reach and fast aperture allows for intimate, natural scenes of young children doing their thing.

Many of the scenes I shot at Christmas time involved natural light from a large living room window and three or four munchkins flying around the house. Not once did I need to push ISO to its maximum in order to boost my shutter speeds and capture the kids while they moved around. Instead, my ISOs were able to stay well below 1000 and I was still able to achieve sufficient shutter speeds in dim light.

I’ll let you be the judge on this one.

The above photo was shot wide open at 1/160 and ISO 500. I still think this photo is one of the best I’ve ever shot and I chalk it up to the Olympus 75mm f/1.8’s fast aperture and intimate focal length. For this reason alone, I foresee myself keeping the 75mm well into the future — or at least until all my extended family’s kids have become too old for fun photographs.

Auto Focus

I shot exclusively with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.4 pancake lens for the first six months after I bought my E-M10. That Panasonic lens put my kit lens to shame in numerous ways. Sharpness topped the list of improvements the pancake lens offered, but autofocus was a close second.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled the 75mm out of the box and the lens snapped to the proper focus point in a fraction of the Panasonic 20mm’s time.

The Olympus 75mm f/1.8’s autofocus is top notch. It uses Olympus’ Movie-Still-Compatible (MSC) technology which allows the lens to focus lightning fast. Further, this technology keeps the autofocus system completely quiet — perfect for those moments when silence is necessary, like in videography.

Technology and specs aside, this autofocus system was a saving grace two months ago when I shot my sister’s engagement photos. We headed out on a nippy January morning and I originally had the 20mm attached to my camera. I expected the 40mm full-frame equivalent lens to be my go-to choice for the more artistic kind of photos my sister was looking for.

A few shots in, and I realized the autofocus system was getting in the way. I remember looking at my wife with frustration in my eyes because I wasn’t able to capture what I was seeing in my viewfinder. After a few missed shots, I switched to the 75mm. I never looked back. The AF quickly focused right where I was aiming about 9 times out of 10, and if it missed, it quickly snapped to a new spot. The focal length of the 75mm pushed me back from the budding romance developing in front of us, but the autofocus was so far improved over the Panasonic 20mm that I was able to capture that romance instead of being a sole witness. Without a doubt, this 75mm lens and its fast autofocus system saved my sister’s engagement photos that day.

At this price point, it may be normal to expect a high-end, fast autofocusing system. I would venture to say the 75mm takes things beyond high-end and fast. This lens can snap to a target lightning quick and this has helped me take spot-on photos with not a moment to spare.

Build

Construction

Naturally, being at the high end of Olympus’ M. Zuiko lens collection provides the 75mm f/1.8 with a quality build.

The 75mm f/1.8 is made entirely of metal. This can be felt the moment you pick up the lens. Despite Olympus’ claims of the 75mm being a lightweight lens, it isn’t a lightweight lens in relation to other Micro 4/3 options. The lens feels dense from the onset and will provide a small amount of added stress around your neck when carrying the lens on-the-go.

The lenses inside the 75mm are full of jargon, but I’ll spew them quickly. The 75mm has 10 individual lens elements in 9 groups and has 3 ED lenses and 2 HR lenses. Honestly, I don’t have a clue what this all means.

But, what I do understand is the beauty of the Olympus 75mm f/1.8’s front element. The front element is 58mm in diameter if you’re interested in adding polarizers or ND filters to your collection. Clearly more present is the very beauty of the front element — the way it refracts light makes even the highest quality Pro lenses look like toys. Although superficial in nature, I love putting the 75mm on my E-M10 body when I’m shooting photos of the camera body and lens combination. This lens looks fantastic and adds a spark of inspiration every time I pick up my camera.

The lens mount is made of metal, meaning the mount between camera and lens is as durable as it gets. At the smaller lens end of the spectrum, this metal mount doesn’t make much of a difference. However, as lenses get bigger, it becomes easier to grab the camera by the lens instead of by the camera body. At this point, a metal mount becomes paramount to making sure your lens doesn’t break in half.

The 58mm front element is protected by a 58mm lens cap. Normally, I would stay away from talking about a lens cap, but this lens cap actually disappoints me. It is unmounted by pushing in the notches on the sides of the lens cap. Overall, this wouldn’t be a big deal. However, once a lens hood is attached,1 the lens cap becomes extremely difficult to dismount. Olympus’ Pro lenses have a mechanism on the front of their lens caps which aids in quickly removing the lens cap with the lens hood mounted. It’s little details like this that push lenses into ultra-high quality territory, and the 75mm drops the ball on this one.

Despite the metal construction and beautiful element selection, the 75mm f/1.8 isn’t weather sealed. Many folks don’t need a weather sealed lens if they opt to shoot on temperate days. However, a lens at this price should include weather sealing. If weather sealing was cast aside in hope of selling higher end Pro lenses, I can’t help but feel cheated. At $900, weather sealing should be present, especially considering the build construction.

Manual Focus Ring

I’ve opted to create an entire subsection regarding the manual focus ring because it is the single biggest shortcoming of an otherwise outstanding lens.

For anyone comparing the 75mm to a less expensive lens, this entire topic may come off as nitpicking.

The manual focus ring on the 75mm doesn’t compare to anything offered on Olympus’ Pro lenses. The focus ring, although decently sized, feels like a poorer quality material than the rest of the lens. The focus ring feels plasticky when compared to the remaining lens materials and it gives the impression of being poorly made.

Second, the focus ring spins to infinity and has no distance meter. In comparison, the 12-40mm f/2.8 hard stops at infinity and 0.2m, which allows for focus at all areas in the focal range. The 75mm spins to infinity, making it increasingly impossible to pinpoint focus on a subject in the distance. It also makes it very difficult to spin focus back from a far distance to a subject closer to the lens. Focus peaking, which is fortunately included in all Olympus camera bodies these days, is a necessity when using the 75mm in manual focus mode.

Thirdly, The 75mm has a minimum focus distance of 0.84m, which quickly eliminates any hope of using this lens for macro photography. I remember pulling the lens out of its box in my car around Christmas time and trying to focus on the passenger side rearview mirror. Admittedly, we drive a small Honda Civic, so the distance from the lens to the mirror was fairly tight. Regardless, flipping the lens to manual focus wasn’t enough to pinpoint focus on that mirror.

Fourthly, Olympus has become known for their masterful manual focus clutch mechanism. This mechanism is built into all of Olympus’ Pro lenses, as well as the 12mm f/2.0 and the 17mm f/1.8. By pulling back the manual focus clutch, the lens automatically converts to manual focus. Pushing the clutch forward flops the lens back to auto focus.

This clutch mechanism is brilliant for finding the perfect focus point in a moment’s notice and eliminates having to feel around for buttons on top of the camera body. After playing with the 12-40mm for a month, I’ve found myself habitually looking for the manual focus clutch on the 75mm.

And finally, most of the manual focus ring’s shortfalls would be made up for if it felt super smooth when spun. Expectedly, the 75mm manual focus ring feels poor when rotated and spins far too easily for ideal control. Again, Olympus’ Pro lenses have a perfect amount of friction for controlling their manual focus rings and this friction has been left out of the 75mm.

From start to finish, the Olympus’ 75mm f/1.8’s manual focus ring is its biggest downfall. For all this lens’ incredible technology and specifications, this manual focus ring could use some work.

Image Quality

Alright, the name of the game. Realistically, I’ve said all the bad I can say about this 75mm lens. From here on out, all you’ll hear is praise.

Sharpness

The 75mm quickly became known as one of the sharpest lenses available for the Micro 4/3 system. From wide open at f/1.8, focus points are razor sharp.

Here are some sample images. Each image is shot from the same spot with the same light. The only adjustment made between photographs is a stop down in aperture.


Editor’s note: The images below come straight from the camera, both uncropped and unedited.


Meta data: ISO 250, 75mm, f/1.8, 1/160.

Meta data: ISO 640, 75mm, f/2.8, 1/160.

Meta data: ISO 2000, 75mm, f/5.0, 1/160.

Meta data: ISO 3200, 75mm, f/8.0, 1/100.

As can be seen in the above series of photos, this 75mm lens is sharpest wide open or stopped down to f/2.8. The results are stunning at f/1.8 and f/2.8, but nothing is dropped in quality until f/8.0 in my opinion. Granted, finding small discrepancies in sharpness has often baffled me, so take this for what it’s worth.

Based on the results above, the biggest hurdle to overcome in attaining a sharp image is the 75mm’s large f/1.8 aperture. For a Micro 4/3 lens, depth of field is quite small at f/1.8 and pinpointing a focus point will determine whether your image is sharp enough to your liking.

Image Quality

I’ve always felt optical quality of a lens and camera combination to be very subjective. Some people adore the vibrant Fuji greens, while others prefer more neutral tones.

Count me in Olympus’ camp — I couldn’t be happier with Olympus’ colour results right across the board. Colours are vibrant, but not overly vibrant and colour appears to be spread evenly across the spectrum without any specific tone standing out.

This puts the Olympus 75mm in my ballpark. The lens produces beautiful backgrounds with nine aperture blades — bokeh balls jumped brilliantly in my viewfinder at Christmas time. And when shiny lights don’t appear behind your subject, the lens makes sure to keep everything else smooth and your subject sharp.

I’ll let some photos do the talking.

It used to be that I would need to snap 50 photos to get a single good one. Experience as a photographer helps to bring that ratio down a bit, but equipment helps as well. The 75mm has single-handedly pushed that ratio to 40 or 35 to 1. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m thankful my equipment is working for me rather than against me.

Conclusion

At this point, I’ve spent about 2,500 words praising the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 portrait lens and another 1,000 words bemoaning its shortcomings. Really, I could have dwindled it all down to this: The Olympus 75mm f/1.8 has a sturdy build, a poorly executed manual focus ring, a snappy autofocus system, and absolutely top notch image quality. That sturdy build could be taken further, especially at this price, but it’s pretty easy to get over the lack of weather sealing when the SD card is popped into the computer.

I have done some soul searching as of late, though.2 The 75mm focal length is an awkwardly long one in the Micro 4/3 system and it can present some difficulty as a prime lens. The lens’ focal reach often pushes you into the wall as you hope to compose a proper photograph. I think this is the reason why so many longer focal lengths end up in zoom lenses.

This soul searching was intensified when I picked up the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8. The quality of Olympus’ Pro lenses are truly second to none and the 75mm f/1.8 falls slightly short of the 12-40mm in my books. Because of this, I’ve had to consider the utility of a 75mm prime lens when the quality of the 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro is sure to knock my socks off. I’ve had to look myself in the mirror and ask myself if I’ll actually use this lens if I pick up the 40-150mm zoom.

Then, this past weekend, I picked up the lens after a few weeks of down-time. My niece ran around the house and in the outdoors during some of the warmest March weather in recent history.

And I remembered why I love this lens. It reminded me every time I fired the shutter.

This lens was built to shoot photographs of people. It captures those intimate scenes; those surprises at a moment’s notice; those quick, personal glances. It finds a way to capture the soul of its subject in a way I’ve never seen before. It nudges in close to find the truest, most pure form of the story.

There is nothing more fascinating than the unique, individual stories of people. If you want to shoot those stories, it’s time to pick up the Olympus 75mm f/1.8. It’s Olympus’ best foot forward in portraiture, and it’ll be your best foot forward as well.


  1. Which, oddly, isn’t included in the box at the point of purchase. The 75mm lens hood is fairly large in size and is also quite expensive. A lens at this price should include a lens hood and a carrying bag in my opinion, especially when you consider the 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro is basically the same price and includes a high end carrying case and a top notch lens hood. 

  2. Boy. Is it just me or is it blatantly obvious the above photo was shot with an iPhone 6 Plus? I mean, for a smartphone camera, wow. But I’m starting to think I need a second camera body for reviews like this