After more than a dozen hours of new research including reaching out to a panel of lens experts, we’ve found the best lenses with which to start building a collection for any Micro Four Thirds camera. Whether you’re looking to do portraiture, street photography, or extreme closeups, these lenses will deliver better-looking images than you get from the 14-42mm kit lens that came with your camera.
The sheer number of Micro Four Thirds lenses to choose from can be overwhelming. Olympus and Panasonic have created a wide array of reasonably affordable lenses that deliver very high optical quality—and growing support from third-party lens makers provides even more options. With so many choices, just knowing where to start can be difficult. We’ve identified highly regarded lenses in eight categories that, between them, will cover almost any photo opportunity.
I’ve worked as a professional photographer and digital imaging consultant for close to 15 years. I’m on the faculty of New York City’s International Center of Photography and lead photography workshops around the country. I’ve been covering cameras and photo gear here at The Wirecutter since 2013, getting to shoot with dozens of new cameras and lenses as they hit the market. I also shoot some of the lifestyle photography you see on our sister site The Sweethome. As a result, I’ve got a keen understanding of current camera technology as well as the features and performance that make a real difference when you’re actually out shooting.
In my research for this guide I pored line by line over spec sheets for 75 lenses, read 140 lens reviews, and reached out to some of the most experienced lens reviewers working today for their personal opinions on Micro Four Thirds glass.
Normally when shopping for a lens, you concentrate, at least initially, on models produced by your camera maker. Micro Four Thirds isn’t a camera brand, however; it’s a sensor/lens specification. Micro Four Thirds cameras are made by both Olympus and Panasonic; either company’s lenses will work on the other’s cameras. So if you own an Olympus camera, like the E-M10 II, you can go ahead and buy a lens made by Panasonic. It’s guaranteed to work.
In some cases, however, there is something to be said for brand loyalty. Until recently, Panasonic cameras didn’t come with built-in image stabilization, the automated feature that counteracts unsteady hands to produce sharp images. Panasonic instead puts that technology in many—but not all—of its lenses. Olympus, on the other hand, has long offered image stabilization in its camera bodies. Their lenses, therefore, typically omit this feature. So if you own a Panasonic camera that predates the GX7/GX8-series models and want image stabilization, you’re usually far better off with a Panasonic lens. And though its latest cameras have image stabilization built-in, Panasonic has designed the cameras to work in combination with lens-based stabilization for what the company claims are improved results over using either system on its own.
Olympus does not yet design its cameras to work simultaneously with lens-based stabilization, so if you own an Olympus camera and mount a Panasonic image-stabilized lens, you’re going to have to remember to disable either the stabilization on the lens or the camera body. Leaving both active will actually result in an less sharp image.
There’s another cross-brand issue we’ve learned about recently: built-in UV filters. Panasonic puts the filter in their camera bodies while Olympus places it in the lens. If you use a Panasonic lens on an Olympus body, there’s no UV filter, so in some circumstances, you may get chromatic aberration (purple fringes along high-contrast edges). This can be fixed by adding a UV filter to the front of the lens, but that’s an inelegant workaround.
It’s also important to know that the sensors in Micro Four Thirds cameras are physically smaller than those of mirrorless cameras from Fuji and Sony or DSLRs from Nikon and Canon. The size of a camera’s sensor determines how wide an area you see when looking through any of its lenses. For any given lens focal length, a camera with a Micro Four Thirds sensor shows a narrower view of a scene than a camera with a larger sensor.
Here’s a handy tip: Because Micro Four Thirds sensors offer one-half the diagonal view of a full-frame sensor, you simple double the focal length written on any Micro Four Thirds lens to get its full-frame equivalent.
To standardize this difference in scene coverage, we’ll refer both to a lens’s true focal length (the one marked on the lens) as well as its 35mm full-frame sensor equivalent. This provides a way to compare lenses made for different camera sensor formats. If lenses made for two different camera formats—like APS-C and Micro Four Thirds, for example—each offer the full frame sensor equivalent of a 90mm focal length, you’ll know your view of a scene will be the same that when looking through either of them.
There are more than 75 lenses compatible with the Micro Four Thirds format. To help wade through this clutter, we’ve given priority to prime lenses (those that don’t zoom). They typically let in more light, which means sharper and less noisy images when shooting at night or indoors, and they’re more compact and lighter than zoom lenses. And let’s face it: the smaller and lighter our gear is, the more likely we are to go out shooting with it.
We also assume that you already own a middle-of-the-road 14-42mm “kit” lens that came bundled with your Micro Four Thirds cameras. Our goal then, is to choose lenses that offer significant advantages over what you already use in focal length and/or image quality.
The physical design of mirrorless cameras also makes it easy to mount inexpensive but high-quality legacy lenses from the film days. A brief Google search will reveal a cottage industry of lens-mount adapters made to facilitate this. That’s beyond the scope of this guide, though, since these options mean giving up autofocus and often autoexposure as well. If you are interested in learning more about using non-native lenses via adapters here’s a good overview to get you started.
One of best ways for any new photographer to practice their craft is to shoot with a prime lens with a field of view that closely mimics that of human vision. Even for many seasoned photographers, a “normal view” lens remains their go-to tool. The best prime for Micro Four Thirds shooters to start with is the Panasonic Lumix G 25mm f/1.7 ASPH lens. When asked for his take on this 50mm-equivalent lens, Andy Westlake of Amateur Photographer got straight to the point, telling us “this is the obvious entry-level second lens for Micro Four Thirds…It’s really cheap and optically very good.”
It’s also fast. A fast lens has a wide maximum aperture that lets in a lot of light, letting you shoot at faster shutter speeds. Faster shutter speeds mean sharper photos indoors or at night. A wide aperture also lets you create a narrow depth of field to blur the foreground and/or background1 while keeping your subject in crisp focus, a hallmark of pro-quality photography. Our pick has a fast aperture of f/1.7, which lets in a lot of light. While it’s not quite as small as the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 25mm f/1.8, the Panasonic lens is still compact enough to rest comfortably in the palm of your hand. And weighing only 125 grams (or 4.4 ounces), it adds a minimal amount of weight to your bag.
Reviewers are unanimously impressed by the lens’ optical performance, with particular praise for its sharpness. Andrew Alexander at Imaging Resource finds that it “provides sharp images straight out of the gate at f/1.7, and while stopping down technically provides statistically sharper images, you’d have to peep pretty closely to see any kind of practical difference.” Focus performance is also impressive, with Andy Westlake writing for Amateur Photographer that “the lens focuses quickly, silently and decisively, thanks largely to its internal focus design. With the latest cameras, it will also continue to do so in remarkably low light without hunting back and forth for focus position.”
While those demanding the utmost in quality and performance will be better served by the classic (and much more expensive) Panasonic Leica Summilux DG 25mm f/1.4, we think the $350 savings you get with our top pick makes it an excellent value. Mark Goldstein at Photography Blog echoes this point, writing that the Panasonic is “a very good standard lens at a very affordable price, making it a must-have purchase if you don’t already have a 50mm equivalent lens in your kit-bag.”
The Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/4.0-5.6 R is the telephoto zoom we recommend for most Micro Four Thirds shooters. For just under $200 at the time of writing, this 80-300mm-equivalent zoom provides acceptable image quality in a light, compact package that takes up little space in your bag. We especially like that its zoom range picks up right where your 14-42mm kit lens leaves off. And at its current price, it’s a fantastic bargain. This is a solid choice for shooting faraway subjects, like tourist landmarks or landscape details. The lens’s fast autofocus makes it good for shooting birds and wildlife as well as catching the action at sporting events. Reviewed.com’s Brendan Nystedt, who shoots Micro Four Thirds, recommended it to us as one of his first-pick lenses due to its extra reach and affordable price.
The team at PhotoZone calls it “a quite good entry-level telephoto zoom lens,” praising its image quality when zoomed out but noting that quality drops off at the full 150mm (a common complaint for low-end zoom lenses). They also say that in-lens image distortion is taken care of by the camera’s auto-correction but would only be a concern at 40mm anyway and that “Vignetting is usually nothing to worry about either.”
Despite its light weight (the result of an all-plastic barrel), reviewers found the manufacturing quality to be decent. As Zoltan Arva-Toth writes for Photography Blog, this is a “tiny, lightweight and attractively priced telezoom lens that delivers a much better optical performance than its all-plastic exterior and wallet-friendly price tag would suggest.”
Image stabilization is a huge advantage when using any telephoto lens. Olympus bakes stabilization into the camera body, but if you’re using Panasonic, you need stabilization built into the lens. So we recommend that Panasonic shooters grab the Panasonic 45-150mm f/4.0-5.6 instead. It’s optically about the same quality as the Olympus and covers the same focal length range, but the image stabilization feature will cost you a bit extra—about $50 more as of this writing.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $898.
If you have the budget for a telephoto zoom that offers unmatched image quality, outstanding performance, and rock-solid durability, we recommend the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 ASPH lens. We don’t usually recommend pro-oriented lenses, even as upgrade picks, because they’re so expensive (the Panasonic debuted at $1,500), but this top-tier 70-200mm-equivalent zoom lens fluctuates in price; we’ve seen it as low as $900 on multiple occasions over the past year. When the price drops below $1,000, we suggest you grab one if you can swing the extra cash.
One great benefit of this lens is a wide f/2.8 aperture that remains constant throughout its zoom range. In addition to allowing you to freeze action in sports or wildlife photography by using faster shutter speeds, a wide aperture provides shallow depth of field for dramatic separation between your subject and the background. By their very nature, Micro Four Thirds cameras exhibit less background blur than larger-sensor APS-C cameras at a given aperture—read this for a good explanation—so you want as wide an aperture as possible on this smaller sensor format.
Why else is the Panasonic worth the extra money? It has elicited universal raves from reviewers on virtually every metric by which you can evaluate a lens. William Brawley at Imaging Resource writes, “Images are very sharp, even wide open, [chromatic aberration] and vignetting are hardly of any concern. Distortion is also extremely low. With great optical qualities, built-in optical image stabilization and a lightweight-yet-high-quality build, the Panasonic 35-100mm f/2.8 lens seems like no-brainer for Micro Four Thirds photographers looking for a fast, telephoto zoom lens.” Chris Gampat of The Phoblographer positively gushes, “the image quality from the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 is nothing short of jaw dropping…mesmerizing sharpness, wonderful bokeh, excellent colors, great stabilization, and a build quality that will be able to keep up with your rough and tumble life…”
Roger Cicala of Lens Rentals has seen just about every currently available lens pass through his rental company and concludes, “it’s easily the best telephoto zoom you can put on a Micro Four Thirds camera.” Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s worth noting that 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses for Nikon and Canon full frame DSLRs—the workhorse lenses of many serious shooters—sell for almost $2,000. For well-heeled photographers, getting similar performance for a Micro Four Thirds camera at about half the price is a compelling proposition.
For great image quality at a low price, we like the Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS lens. It’s a manual-focus-only lens but costs less than half the price of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2, the only other non-fisheye prime lens that goes this wide. We wouldn’t normally recommend giving up autofocus at any price, but when shooting with a wide 24mm-equivalent focal length, you’re not adjusting focus that much in the first place, as anything from about three feet to infinity is in focus simultaneously. In practice, you’ll only be adjusting focus when photographing subjects at very close distances.
The lens is made by Samyang, a Korean manufacturer known for good yet inexpensive optics. In the US, Samyang products are sold under the Rokinon brand. Don’t worry: they’re both the same. Because this lens is also compatible with larger-sensor APS-C cameras, it’s a bit bigger than a typical Micro Four Thirds lens. The Rokinon is .6 inches longer and .7 inches wider than the Olympus 12mm prime lens and weighs twice as much. But again, it’s less than half the price of the Olympus lens and still delivers great-looking images. This is a trade-off we think most users will be happy with.
Reviewers are universally impressed with the lens’s image quality. The folks at ePHOTOzine describe this lens as “an excellent optic that produces images with excellent sharpness, low distortion and low [chromatic aberration].” Jordan Steele of Admiring Light writes, “The center is blisteringly sharp, and even the edges produce excellent resolution when stopped down. It renders scenes with excellent contrast and color.” Ian Norman, writing for PetaPixel, found that while the depth of field markings on his unit were inaccurate (a problem he’s had with other Samyang lenses), “the Rokinon 12mm has excellent sharpness…and delivers photos that don’t disappoint.” When I asked Philip Ryan of Popular Photography about this lens, he stressed, “The price is phenomenal for what you get, and will likely be sharper than you’d expect.”
If you’re not comfortable with the relative bulk of our wide-angle prime lens pick or just prefer an even wider field of view, we recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 wide-angle zoom. Andy Westlake, an avid Micro Four Thirds shooter himself, calls it, “one of my favourite lenses.” This 18-36mm-equivalent lens offers the widest focal length you can get in a Micro Four Thirds system outside of the more expensive Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4.0 ASPH and Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 Pro lenses. The Olympus offers image quality on par with the more expensive Panasonic zoom and, due to its collapsible design, is one of the most compact zoom lenses available.
Gary Wolstenholme, writing for ePHOTOzine, remarks, “Weighing only 155g and being only 49.5mm long when collapsed, this lens is incredibly compact for the range it offers…perfect for taking on your travels.” Another selling point of the Olympus zoom is that it has filter threads so you can screw on a lens filter, something not possible with the bulbous glass of the Panasonic.
While the Olympus is less expensive than the Panasonic zoom, it holds its own on the image quality front. “Our tests show that optically, there’s little between the two,” writes Andy Westlake for DPReview.
If you’re interested in devoting some quality time to shooting portraits for your friends and family, we like the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8. It’s a great, fast prime lens with a 90mm-equivalent field of view, the classic focal length for head-and-shoulder portraits.
A hallmark of great portrait photography is the ability to frame your composition so that the subject’s head and shoulders fill the frame while simultaneously blurring the background. To achieve the former, you want a medium telephoto focal length. And a 90mm-equivalent lens—remember that’s 45mm on a Micro Four Thirds camera—offers just that. Stand a comfortable distance of 4-6 feet away and you’ll fill the frame with enough detail to make your subject’s eyes and facial expression grab all the attention. Creating shallow depth of field to blur the background is made possible by using a wide aperture. The f/1.8 maximum aperture of our portrait pick will turn a distracting background into a complementary blur of color.
As with so many of the fixed-focal-length Micro Four Thirds lenses, the 45mm has some pretty incredible optical qualities. As Chris Gampat from the Phoblographer told us, “We strongly recommend Olympus’s 45mm f/1.8 because of the fact that it renders a 90mm field of view and f/3.5 depth of field equivalency to a full frame camera. We strongly recommend it for the person getting into portraiture or the person that wants to start their own street fashion blog. It’s bound to get your Tumblr some extra reblogs.”
The lens is praised by ePHOTOzine for its “excellent performance for a wide aperture lens;” PhotoZone dubs it “highly desirable” and say the quality is “very high” at f/4. PhotographyBlog highly recommends the lens, and Imaging Resource comments, “with excellent test results, this is a no-brainer of a conclusion – it’s a great and inexpensive addition to your Olympus PEN kit, especially if you’re a portrait shooter.”
The Panasonic Lumix G 42.5mm f/1.7 ASPH Power OIS lens is just a bit more expensive than the Olympus portrait lens (although the prices for both lenses fluctuate) but it offers image stabilization, making it a better choice for those who own Panasonic cameras without built-in stabilization. With an 85mm-equivalent focal length, this lens offers a similar field of view as our top portrait pick and is comparable in size, weight, and build quality. Reviewers find little to separate it from the Olympus in terms of sharpness and image quality as well. Imaging Resource gave the Panasonic a “Lens of Distinction” honor in their 2015 roundup of best prime lenses.
Gordon Laing of Camera Labs tells us that while the Olympus was long the “no-brainer” choice for Micro Four Thirds portrait shooters, the Panasonic focuses a bit closer, giving a very respectable 1:5 (versus 1:9) magnification ratio, allowing you to use it as a pseudo macro lens in a pinch. And the folks at Lens Tip report that its image stabilization systems can offer up to a 3½-stop reduction in shutter speed.
If keeping your kit as small as possible is a top priority, consider getting a pancake lens. Small and flat, hence their name, pancake lenses add zero bulk to your camera. On larger cameras like the Olympus E-M1 or Panasonic GH4, these lenses won’t even extend beyond those models’ hand-grips. The price you pay for such a compact size may be slightly lower sharpness and image quality compared to traditionally-sized lenses.
Our pick for the best pancake lens is the Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 II Aspherical lens. This, along with its Mark I predecessor, has long been one of the most popular Micro Four Thirds lenses, and it’s pretty easy to see why. This 40mm-equivalent lens offers close to a “normal” field of view and its fast maximum aperture of f/1.7 lets in huge amounts of light in, great for shooting when the light gets low.
Noting its small size, wide aperture, and fast autofocus performance, Chris Gampat of The Phoblographer concludes, “if you’re a street photographer, then this lens may be the single one you’ll want to own.”
The majority of reviews are actually for the original 2009 version of this lens, a much-loved model and one of the earliest Micro Four Thirds lenses to be released. With DxO Labs showing such similar optical performance between it and the newer 2013 version, those comments are still valid. DPReview gives the original a “highly recommended” rating thanks to its “impressive image quality at all apertures” and “good build quality, proper manual focus ring and non-rotating front element.” Steve Huff, a self-professed “huge fan” of the original version, knows many shooters who use it as their only lens. He finds the updated model to be “basically the exact same lens” with improved flare resistance and a metal barrel instead of plastic.
If you prefer a wider field of view on your pancake lens, we recommend the Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 ASPH II. It has a slower maximum aperture than our top pick and can be more prone to distortion at close distances. But its 28mm-equivalent focal length makes it a good choice for street photographers who like to capture a wider frame. Put this lens on a small Micro Four Thirds camera like the Olympus E-PL7 and you have a very discreet lens/body combination that slips into a jacket pocket and still delivers great photos.
Imaging Resource reports that, “With sharp results and only slight issues with [chromatic aberration], Panasonic has produced a very nice walk-around lens…because it’s so small and light, you won’t feel like you’re dragging a ton of weight with you when you go out shooting, which after a long day of walking everyone will appreciate.” Of course, our top pick is almost as small and light. And the folks at PhotoZone, like most other reviewers, find that, “performance-wise [the 14mm lens] does not stand out…the resolution capabilities are very decent but not stellar.” But if you want a wider field of view than our top pick and don’t want to add any bulk, Panasonic 14mm pancake lens fits the bill.
Shooting with a macro lens is just plain fun. It turns your camera into a high-resolution magnifying glass, revealing intricate details of even the smallest objects. Super-closeups of flowers and insects are standard fare, but food, jewelry, or anything small with detail work automatically becomes more dramatic when shot with a macro lens.
The macro lens we like is the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm f/2.8 ED Macro. This 120mm-equivalent lens can focus as close as seven inches and yield a 1:1 magnification ratio. Here’s a great article if you’d like to understand the details about magnification and focus distances in macro photography. All you really need to know is that with our top pick, you can take a headshot of something as tiny as a Lego character.
Olympus’s macro lens has a focal length twice as long as the less expensive Panasonic 30mm macro lens, which means you don’t have to get nearly as close to your subject for maximum magnification. The larger, heavier Panasonic 45mm macro lens does offer image stabilization, which our pick lacks, but at nearly $900 at the time of writing, is too pricey to recommend. For the best results shooting macro, you’ll want to be using a tripod anyway, eliminating the need for image stabilization in the first place.
Reviewers appreciate the focus limiter on the Olympus lens, which can restrict autofocus to either near or far objects, avoiding massive focus hunt in close-up situations. There’s also a distance scale on the lens barrel to aid with manual focus.
Jim Fisher of PC Mag writes that our pick is “a bit larger when compared with most Micro Four Thirds lenses,” but attributes this to the fact that the lens is weather-sealed and thus uses an internal focus design, rather than having the front of the lens extend during focus. It’s always nice not to have to worry about an unexpected rain shower ruining your lens. And having a lens that doesn’t extend during focus makes you less likely to scare away skittish insects.
PhotoZone writes that while the corners may be a tad soft at wide apertures, this lens is “an impressive one. The center performance is great and the outer image region is also very sharp at medium apertures. Both distortions as well as vignetting are nothing to worry about.” Imaging Resource praises it for a winning combination of excellent optical performance and a reasonable price, writing, “There aren’t many options in this [macro] category of lens, but…with a lens this good, there don’t need to be.”
The lens that came bundled with your camera was designed to offer an economical way to get you started in your photographic pursuits, but if you want sharper, more detailed images that can be captured even in low-light scenarios, it’s time to step up to some better options.
We think the Panasonic Lumix G 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH is the best upgrade for most folks. It’s a much, much better version of what came bundled with your camera. This 24-70mm-equivalent zoom (camera enthusiasts refer to this range as a “standard zoom”) is a great walk-around lens that has a wide maximum aperture, delivers sharp images, and has a fast, quiet autofocus motor to keep up with your subjects. Built-in image stabilization is good news for those with Panasonic cameras. And all users will appreciate a weather-sealed construction to protect against the elements.
Jordan Steel of Admiring Light writes, “the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 X lens is a very high quality optic with a top end build quality to match…It’s also got a very convenient zoom range, covering super wide to short telephoto, making it an excellent all purpose lens. I’d imagine many photographers could do a vast majority of shooting with this lens and be just fine.”
The review team at PhotoZone are a bit disappointed with corner sharpness at wide apertures, but otherwise find plenty to praise. “The build quality of the lens is fantastic and it was also a joy to use it in the real life thanks to a super-fast and silent AF and smooth zooming and focusing. Size- and weight-wise it just feels right. We also appreciate the low-light capabilities thanks to the combination of high speed and image stabilization.”
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens offers extremely similar performance and build quality to our main pick. And while it forgoes built-in image stabilization, it does offer a slightly longer reach. Other than that, there’s very little to separate the two. Both have DxOMark scores that are nearly identical for sharpness, distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration.
Of the Olympus, PhotoZone writes, “The optical quality of this standard zoom is impressive, with an extremely sharp centre zone whereas the border and corner resolution is very good.” Imaging Resource calls it, “a powerhouse of a lens with excellent optical performance.”
The only significant difference between these two lenses is price. Although both lenses launched with four-figure pricing, at the time of this writing the Panasonic sells for $300 less than the Olympus, making it our top choice. But a look at price tracking site Camelcamelcamel shows that the prices of both lenses fluctuate significantly throughout the year. Our advice is to buy whichever is cheaper. If you’re willing to wait for seasonal price drops, you should be able to grab either one for around $700.
Olympus has announced an inexpensive macro lens, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 30mm F3.5 Macro, which offers bigger than life-size magnification. With a magnification level seldom seen on lenses of any camera format, this lens lets you capture objects at 1.25 times their actual size. While this is a neat feature, keep in mind that you’d need to be photographing something particularly small (think housefly) to capture its entirety within the frame. And with a relatively short focal length for a macro lens, you’ll need to position your camera about 10 centimeters from your subject to get maximum magnification. Once review samples become available, we’ll take a look and see if this lens is more than just a niche item for photographers who can get extremely close to their subjects.
In February 2016, Panasonic announced the Lumix G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH lens, a weather-sealed 24-120mm-equivalent zoom that features the latest version of the company’s image stabilization system. The lens can also focus close enough to render objects at one-half their actual size, making it a viable option for the occasional macro photo shot. The lens ships in May and once reviewers weigh in with real-world testing, we’ll see if its worthy of replacing our current kit lens upgrade.
(Photos by Amadou Diallo.)
Originally published: May 4, 2016