Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2 Lens Review – Maitani’s Smallest Zuiko

Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2 Lens Review – Maitani’s Smallest Zuiko

2800 1575 Dustin Vaughn-Luma

I’ve spent the past few months shooting a rare and interesting lens from Olympus’ glory days, the Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2 in OM mount. This lens combines many of the things that photo geeks (past and present) value – high image quality, compactness, attention to detail. But what makes this lens special and worth writing about, is where it came from and just how good it is.

If you’re a camera fan in any capacity, you should appreciate Yoshihisa Maitani’s impact on the camera industry of the 20th century. The man was a visionary who helped define the camera world we live in today, and we spent about two-thousand words chronicling his life’s work in an article earlier this year. If you’re not sure about Maitani, our retrospective is a great place to start.

His truly innovative design of the diminutive Olympus OM-1 redefined what a 35mm SLR could be, and his extremely pocketable and inexpensive Olympus XA was a total reimagining of the old-fashioned rangefinder camera. Legendary engineering, innovation, and cult-like status have helped Maitani’s creations survive to this day as tools for the modern film photographer. And while many of his camera designs defined Olympus’ presence in the market for more than forty years, the true beauty and magic of the Olympus brand is found in their Zuiko line of lenses.

During Maitani’s time as head designer of Olympus, he had more than a few side projects. The one that I’ve always been most fascinated with was his pursuit to design the smallest and most optically stellar standard lens the consumer market had ever seen. Ever cognizant of his lifelong design philosophy that “the lens is the soul of the camera,” he and his team set out to create a lens that would perfectly compliment the OM’s compact size and exceptional performance.

The result was the legendary Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2; Maitani’s jewel of the OM line. If you’re an Olympus OM fan, chances are good that you’ve looked in its direction more than once. I’ve lusted after the lens for some time, but given its rarity, the collector’s market has lifted prices to uncomfortable heights. When I found one earlier this year for just shy of $400 (in mint condition, no less), I jumped on it.

But what is it, and where did it come from?

A History of the 40mm F/2 Zuiko

In the early 1980s, traditional SLR camera sales began to decline as more advanced electronic SLRs, point and shoots, and the like began to whet consumers’ appetites. In order to ensure buyers remained interested in their OM line, Maitani made a push to develop ever smaller and better lenses. The smallest and best, was the Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2.

Designed to fit his exacting standards and personal photographic taste, after years of effort the smallest Zuiko became a reality in 1984. Sadly, the market didn’t respond well and production on the lens is rumored to be limited to just 10,000 units. It was discontinued in 1994.

Originally prototyped as a 50mm pancake lens, Maitani and team found that they could reduce its size even further by widening its field of view to 40mm, and so they did. With a true picture angle of 56 degrees and at a dainty 140g weight, his team succeeded in creating something truly special.

Boasting six elements in six groups, its multicoated glass matched the best of what could then be found in all Zuiko lenses. In fact, all lenses marked with only the word “Zuiko” on the front feature the best-of-the-times optical multicoating. These are the last of the OM line, they’re the most robust, and they have the best coatings of any Zuiko lens.

Shooting the Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2

If you’ve used any of the more common OM mount Zuikos, particularly the stellar 50mm F/1.8, then the Zuiko 40mm F/2 will feel familiar. Its compact profile is slightly smaller than the far more common 50mm F/1.8, making it the smallest Zuiko ever produced. It is, however, not the lightest. That title belongs to the 20mm F/3.5.

I can imagine that Maitani needed to make a few compromises with this lens when he told engineers how small and fast he intended it to be. Its compact footprint and maximum F/2 aperture forced the team to rethink their formula. Though many Olympus Zuiko lenses have a forward-placed aperture ring, this lens takes it even further. Its aperture ring is literally on the nose. This makes adjustment of the lens’ aperture feel quite unusual, as it’s almost as if we’re spinning a filter thread or even the nameplate of a traditional lens. It does take some getting used to.

Shooters might find comfort, however, knowing that adding a filter or lens hood to the lens makes controlling aperture a bit easier given the additional material to grab onto. With that said, it does worry me ever so slightly when I’m screwing accessories on or off the lens due to the additional forces placed on the aperture ring at F/2 (screwing on) or at F/16 (removing).

The lens barrel itself contains all the familiar etchings and markings of any other Zuiko. The focusing ring is small but effective thanks to its unbelievably well-designed rubberized knobs. It has the ability to close focus up to 0.3 meters (~10 inches), which is nearing macro lens capability, and means that out of all the Zuikos I own, its focusing versatility is unmatched.

Image Quality and Rendering

Zuiko glass has a unique signature, lens to lens. The 40mm F/2 is no exception. In fact, it’s similar to the character found in the 40mm F/1.7 on the Olympus RD, but with multicoated glass to protect from flaring and with an even more refined sharpness (particularly at the corners when opened up).

Stopped down from F/4 onward, it starts to bite and can produce images that are wonderfully sharp. My results appear to be predictably close to my Zuiko 50mm F/1.4, but I think the 40mm F/2 falls just a bit short. Opening it up to F/2.8 and beyond gives it a completely different personality, and when opened all the way up in low light with a high speed film, I’ve experienced wonderfully dreamy results. That isn’t to say it’s any different from other Zuikos of this vintage, but more a testament to the unique signature that this glass brings.

[Shots in the samples gallery below were made by Dustin Vaughn-Luma with the new Kodak Ektachrome and Kodak Portra]

I’ve heard that flare can be an issue with this lens, however my copy seems to hold flare off quite well. I’m typically not the type of shooter to worry about flaring in the first place, but rather embrace it as it arises. On the other hand, given it’s very short focus throw between six feet and infinity, I have had difficulty focusing it when bright light sources are interfering. The split rangefinder circle on my OM-1 and OM-2 are just not ideal with this lens, so I often look to clarity outside of the circle for focus. Not a huge deal, but it probably won’t be my go-to for portrait work.

Finding one in excellent condition can prove challenging and might take patience. Additionally, vintage camera equipment appears to still be on the rise, so finding one for under $600 isn’t all that common. Less expensive examples are out there, so I encourage would-be buyers to stay diligent if this lens is on the bucket list.

[Shots in the samples gallery below were made with Ilford HP5 Plus, the new Kodak Ektachrome, and expired Kodak Portra 400 VC]

 

The Takeaway

While the Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2 isn’t perfect, it is a good lens. I don’t think it’s a better performer than some of Olympus’ less expensive and more plentiful offerings, but in my opinion, it is the one Zuiko that looks and feels the most appropriate for the many OM bodies.

Compact, versatile, and relatively sharp; Maitani’s personal vision for a standard focal length pancake was realized to its fullest. It’s just a shame that such a small run was ever produced; this rarity has left collectors and shooters with an over-inflated price to pay.

While pancake lenses aren’t ideal for every photographer, this one checks all the boxes for me. It feels as much at home on the street as it does in the studio, and it has a certain charm to boot. If I was forced to own only one Zuiko, this would be it. Small, fun, optically stellar, and born from the mind of a true genius, I encourage any Olympus fan to hunt one down for their bag. That is, of course, if you don’t mind paying a bit extra.

Want your own Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2?

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Dustin Vaughn-Luma

An experience designer, freelance photographer, and competitive cyclist living in San Jose, California with his wife, three sons, and neurotic bernese mountain dog. The majority of his personal work is shot on 35mm and 120 film, and is developed and scanned at home.

All stories by:Dustin Vaughn-Luma
8 comments
  • With most standard Zuikos smaller than their peers from other brands, this lens is kinda disappointing – not ‘pancake’ enough. And sadly the optical performance isn’t exactly stellar either. One can get by with 50, 28 or 35 mm lens if they want a small package.

  • I can’t find any way to justify paying the crazy prices asked for this lens. The 50mm/1.8 is almost as small, faster, has better ergos and optics, is dirt cheap, and if you take a couple steps back gives you the same perspective.

  • Hi Dustin,

    Nice read… Thanks.

    The 40mm is closer to our normal visual range than 50mm, and it is quite weird how the early Leitz cameras have set the 50 as the standard, even though as Malcolm Taylor will tell you, should you be on the phone to him, that the original UR Leica that he rebuilt for the Leitz company was in fact a 40mm lens.

    I briefly looked at acquiring an OM1 and this 40mm, but when I saw the prices, I decided to just keep my already expensive Leica M4/40mm Summicron arrangement. Although it is not the only “standard” lens I have for this camera, it gets more than its fair share of use, simply because it is so light and squat, the M4 becomes almost pocketable!

    I am on the look out for a nice fixed lens fully manual compact camera now, and I will be aiming for one with a 40. I sold my XA, it was no longer light tight.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for the nice words. I’m a big fan of 40mm. Always have been. It works well for me. I’m not sure the price makes this Zuiko a practical buy in any way, but it sure is a fun lens to use. My son shoots on an OM1n, and he’s probably going to end up with it one day.

      As for your current setup, I’m not sure you can get much better than that. The 40 summicron is hands down my favorite 40 ever. Cherish it.

      All the best!
      DVL

      • The Leica M 40mm f2 Summicron was contracted to Minolta to be manufactured because of their high “Quality Control” practices. Leica lost big on the M5 camera body because it was too big compared to the smaller “M” bodies. They contracted Minolta to build 90mm f4 and the CL camera body in the late 1970’s. Leica also allowed Minolta to build the same rangefinder body and lenses but with their Minolta brand-name. Minolta went further and built their own rangefinder 28mm F2.8 lens that would fit both Leica and Minolta rangefinder camera bodies. The difference between Leica and Minolta 90mm f4 lens was the coating that Minolta add it to their lens after their contract was over with Leica. The coating was supposedly to add a little more contrast and flare resistance on Minolta CLE version of their lenses. I have shot both Leica and Minolta versions of the 90mm and 40mm lenses. My conclusion lead me to get the newer later Minolta version because of the newer coatings,way cheaper pricing and the same build quality!!!

  • I owned an Olympus om4t in high school. I had only two lenses for it. A Olympus 28mm 3.5 and this lens here the 40mm f2! it was a fantastic lens but I did not appreciate the camera at the time and traded it to a friend for a Nikon fe2 and a 28 2.8 ais. My friend dropped the camera with the 28mm lens into a creek and ruined it. I don’t know what happened to the 40mm lens though I guess he sold it. One day I would like to get this set up again.

  • Takumar 40mm 2.8 has this lens beat as far as affordable 40mm with good ergonomics goes. The Zuiko is just too small, too dainty with its teensy weensy aperture ring. It’s a nice bit of Zuiko history and a talking point amongst collectors (yawn..) but a nice every day shooting lens it ain’t.

  • Really like this lens. The framing and rendering is better than the 50 1.8 or 35 f2.0, which I also have. The lens is plenty sharp, but has a very pleasing smoothness to its rendition — not clinical like alot of modern lenses. I use a metal lens hood on the lens, which makes changing apertures easy. To avoid stressing the aperture ring while mounting or unmounting the lens hood or filters, you just set the aperture at 5.6 or 8, hold the aperture ring firmly and unscrew the hood or filter. Same procedure when mounting a lens hood or filter.

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Dustin Vaughn-Luma

An experience designer, freelance photographer, and competitive cyclist living in San Jose, California with his wife, three sons, and neurotic bernese mountain dog. The majority of his personal work is shot on 35mm and 120 film, and is developed and scanned at home.

All stories by:Dustin Vaughn-Luma