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.
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.
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.