Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I love lens names like "M.Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f4.0-5.6".
The Long Version: Bill has already spent some time with the Olympus 9-18mm lens for Micro Four Thirds, and came away with mixed opinions. So when a friend of mine offered me a chance to borrow his copy, I couldn't resist – so this marks the first time on Thewsreviews that two different people have reviewed something that we don't actually own.
And a note for Four Thirds users about the product photos used in this review: the softness and blur that you see is not a defect. It's an optical quality called "shallow depth of field" that can happen when using a lens with a wide aperture on a large sensor. There's no need to remember all that, though, since the term "shallow depth of field" and "Olympus 9-18mm lens" will never again be used in the same sentence.
My first impression of the M.Zuiko 9-18 is that there's a lot of plastic involved. I've previously owned the godlike SHG Olympus 7-14, and currently have the well-built Panasonic of the same focal length. But moving to the little Olympus 9-18 is another step down in terms of feel and handling, and that's an impression that's hard to shake when it comes time to start taking photos.
And speaking of shaking when taking photos, there's a distinct wobble in the 9-18's lens barrel. It's not floppy, but when I shake my wrist I could feel the movement. I could usually tell when it was extended to its longest physical length, at 9mm, versus when it was at its shortest length at 18mm. With practice I might be able to distinguish the intermediate focal lengths as well, but I didn't have that much time with the lens.
A lot has been made of the collapsable lens design. This does make it smaller in storage, but bigger in use; personally I don't think that the tradeoff in the fit and finish of the lens is worth it. The resulting small size also something of a trick – or perhaps an illusion – because the Olympus lens is actually larger than the Panasonic 7-14 when it's in use, especially when the hood is included.
It's also worth noting that the lens hood that's on my test lens is "optional" in the sense that it's not included and costs extra, not optional in the sense that it's a take-it-or-leave-it thing that doesn't really matter either way. While flare is remarkably well controlled even with the sun in the frame, I was happy to have it for the extra shading and physical protection that it provides. For people with variable-aspect Panasonic sensors, it's good to know that the hood doesn't vignette even when the camera's set to a 16:9 ratio.
When people talk about the optical quality of the micro 9-18, they usually start by saying how small it is. That's not a good sign.
But perhaps I expect less from my Micro Four Thirds cameras than Bill does, as I tend to use my GH1 more for snapshots and casual photography, leaving the IQ-critical tasks to my other cameras. As a result the sharpness, flare resistance, and aberration suppression of the 9-18 was perfectly serviceable for me. Not stellar, but solid. I can't really say that I took any "wow" photos in the four-day weekend that I had it for, but wide angles are notoriously hit-or-miss to begin with.
What I did see in from the lens didn't leave me burning to spend a lot more time with it. It's essentially a 'kit lens' in ultra-wide form, and the slow 4-5.6 aperture isn't an endearing characteristic. That's usually justified in exchange for smaller size and lower cost, but the Olympus achieves only mixed success with that compromise.
My huge stumbling block was the amount of distortion at the wide end of the 9-18's range. Wide lenses on little cameras are a natural choice for cities and interiors, making this very objectionable. And while it could be user error, I consistently found the distortion more pronounced on the right side of the frame. I needed to minimize the appearance of the barrel distortion by composing at jaunty angles, which was fun for the weekend, but not something I would want to see in every photo of a far-off city.
What makes the poor distortion correction even worse is that the 9-18mm is a really useful focal range. At 9mm it's wide enough to create some very powerful perpective exaggeration, while 18mm is a standard slightly-wide lens that provides a very natural point of view. I would be happy with having only this range for a day's walk, while I'd want to carry the 20mm along with the 7-14 to give me the same flexibility.
The Olympus 9-18 remains a difficult lens to recommend. It's not as expensive as the Panasonic 7-14, but a well-known New York camera store currently lists the Olympus at $700 and the Panasonic for under $900. Frankly, that should be too small a difference to be significant when deciding on a lens that will provide years of service. So it comes down to practical considerations of the focal length range and optical quality.
In most respects the Panasonic 7-14 lens is better than the Olympus 9-18. Better built, brighter, better corrected: as a specialized ultra-wide it wins without question, but that's not the only consideration.
The Olympus has a range that can stand on its own as a general purpose wide-standard zoom lens, perhaps replacing a 14-42, especially if it's paired with a long zoom or the bright Olympus 45/1.8 prime. I wouldn't buy it as an ultra-wide, but rather as a short zoom with the occasional extra-wide option when it would suit the subject and the photograph. But even for that more modest goal, the price to performance ratio is a tough sell. I want to like this M. Zuiko lens more than I do, so like Bill, I remain conflicted.
last updated 24 mar 2012