Disclaimer: if you came here looking for optical perfection, you should probably stop reading now.
On the other hand, if you came here because you were curious about this little pancake, then read on. I admit that although I’m usually squarely in the former category, for some odd reason, the 15/8 got me intrigued – I suppose it was the size, or the fact that it suits the whole ‘fun’ ethos of the smaller PEN cameras. I think it’s the photojournalist in me that very much likes the idea of having the camera ready to go at all times, even if it’s in storage; the Olympus BCL-15 lets you do just that. It’s effectively the same depth as the supplied standard body cap (maybe a millimetre or two thicker, but nobody’s counting) – making the smaller bodies like the E-PL5 and E-PM1 very pocketable indeed. The lens was launched together with a number of other items at Photokina 2012 – notably the E-PL5, E-PM1 Pens, 60/2.8 Macro and the wireless SD card system.
It isn’t anything special in terms of construction: the lens has just three elements (supposedly glass), all-plastic construction, and a clever little lever that both doubles as a shutter to protect the front element, as well as a focusing lever; on the subject of focusing, you can get as close as 30cm to your subject. The lever is light and doesn’t really stay in place if bumped, but then again, precision isn’t that important in a lens that both has an extremely great depth of field – being a 15mm f8 and all – and optics that aren’t exactly highly-corrected. In fact, it’s a wonder that it isn’t just fix-focused.
Needless to say, there’s no electronic communication of any sort between camera and lens, so EXIF data is not recorded, and since there’s only one aperture, you’ve effectively got a point and shoot. Curiously though, it appears Olympus has put a small baffle between two of the elements to only use the central portion of the lens in a bid to keep image quality reasonably high; I suspect that if one could somehow separate the elements and remove this, you’d find the lens to be closer to f4 or thereabouts – at the expense of optical quality and depth of field, of course. It might be something I’d be willing to try as a rainy day project…
So how does it perform optically? Well, it’s surprisingly sharp in the center, even though the 16MP M4/3 sensors are already hitting diffraction limits at f5.6 and smaller; the lens might well be a bit sharper if it was a stop faster due to this. The edges and corners are another story – let’s just say they’re not very sharp anywhere, and rather smeary in places. No doubt this is due to the limited optical correction possible with just three non-aspherical elements. (That said, this lens reminds me of the MS-Optical Perar Triplet 35/3.5 and 28/4 lenses for the Leica M mount; I wonder how they perform optically.) So long as you keep your subjects in the central third or so of the the frame, and take a little time to ensure focus is just about at the right distance, optical results are better than expected.
Although you might think that some of the crops are soft because of the focus distance, let me assure you that at f8 and a 15mm real focal length, the depth of field is more than sufficient to cover where I placed the focal point – and that was verified with live view magnificaiton for the purposes of this test; in real life, I don’t think I’d bother.
Simple lens designs like this one tend to have very high contrast and transmission because there aren’t a lot of surfaces and air-glass interfaces inside the lens to lose light at; the 15/8 renders with very high macrocontrast indeed; microcontrast is much less impressive, though (and has a lot to do with resolving power – you weren’t surprised about that result, were you?). Color is saturated, brilliant and actually quite pleasing.
I can see photographers buying this for several reasons – as a fun walk around lens; as an impulse buy when you go to the camera shop with itchy fingers but perhaps not enough money or not finding anything that really catches your eye; the blogging crowd will probably find it fun and conveniently compact. I actually used it a lot while reviewing the E-PL5 (which all of these images were shot on) simply because it made the camera very pocketable and immediately responsive – not having AF and all – and being very close to my preferred 28mm focal length, an interesting street photography option (at least in good light; f8 means that you’re hitting ISO 3200 even in the shade, and forget about using it indoors).
Conclusion: At just US$60, it’s a no-brainer recommendation for anybody who owns a M4/3 camera, especially if you’ve got a older or spare one lying around. Mine now lives on my E-PM1 Pen Mini, which has seen little use since the OM-D and Sony RX100 entered the stable. put this on, stick the camera in your pocket, and go for a walk. You’ll be glad you did. MT
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