I have become very fond of 24mm prime lenses. One reason is that this focal length gives rise to very wide perspectives that look almost natural, as if the human eye could encompass such a field of view. At 21mm the distortion is generally hard to miss. I don’t dislike it, and if used with some care it can produce stunning results. Even at 18mm, with a fully corrected lens like the Zuiko 18mm f/3.5, the perspective can look almost natural, but the lens struggles to stay sharp, and even more to control aberrations, as one approaches the corners – hardly surprising when one considers that the angle of view of a full-frame 18mm lens is 90 degrees. Images shot at 28mm, although they tend not to give rise to unnatural distortion effects, are more challenging in regards to generating impressively wide perspectives. When you get them to work, though, 28mm lenses can render beautifully. But, at least for me, a 24mm lens provides the ideal balance of very wide compositions that remains natural-looking and generally free of aberrations, noticeable distortions and loss of sharpness.
I started by saying that the focal length itself is one reason why I like 24mm lenses. The other reason is the particular lens that I own in this focal length: a Zuiko 24mm f/2.8 MC, probably a very late production example, in pristine condition. I have never used the f/2 Zuiko in this focal length, but I doubt that, other than the higher speed, it offers any meaningful advantage – perhaps some of you has used both and can comment on this. I doubt that the faster lens can be any sharper, as the 24mm f/2.8 Zuiko is one hell of a sharp lens. Although I have no direct experience with it, I understand that the 24mm f/2.8 Minolta, and its Leica Elmarit avatar, are also outstanding – see for example the very detailed review of this lens at The Rokkor Files. I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that the Zuiko and the Rokkor/Elmarit were considered to be the best 24mm primes of the film era – which in my view means the best 24mm primes ever. Perhaps the latest generation (f/22) Hexanon matches these lenses in sharpness, but, much as I like it, I don’t think that the Hexanon is such a “well rounded” lens as the Zuiko.
For the Zuiko is supremely sharp, but with that “gentle” sharpness that characterizes great Zuikos. It is not the kind of sharpness that you see, for example, when you wear reading glasses that are too strong for your eyesight – sure, things are sharp but, after a little while your eyes hurt. The Zuiko is perfectly corrected 20/20 vision. And it is sharp throughout the entire field, if not fully open (although it is nevertheless very good beginning at f/2.8) then certainly by f/5.6. If you shoot landscapes then f/16 will render a very sharp image from infinity down to about one meter or less. I have not detected any image degradation at f/16 compared to f/11, but then I am not a pixel-peeper. The lens has a very pleasant contrast, which again I can best describe as being natural. And it has those wonderful Olympus colors. I have also found it to be very resistant to flare, which in a wide angle lens is a definite advantage. As all wide angle Zuikos, this lens suffers from significant vignetting, which depending on the nature of the scene and angle of light can be detected even at f/16. It is not always easy to get rid of in post-processing. I have found that the best solution for vignetting, not just for this lens but in general, is often a combination of some amount of light fall-off correction in Capture One coupled to a minimal amount of cropping. In any case wide angle lenses showed considerably vignetting on film too – we just lived with it.
I think that vignetting in wide-angle Zuikos is the price that one has to pay the for small size of these lenses. Which brings me to another reason why I love this lens. Like all Zuikos, the small size and magnificent build quality make them a joy to handle and use. You always know which is the focus and which is the distance ring. Aperture stops are gentle but precise. And I like the lens lock button located on the lens. Being so small and such great performers, this is one lens that, together with its 21mm and 28mm siblings, is almost always in my backpack. As always, I will stop here and let you see for yourself what this lens is capable of. One caveat, though. As with all of my other lens reviews, I feel that the limitations imposed by online file sizes do not do full justice to the quality of the original files. Somewhat better renditions can often be found in my other website, but I would also be happy to share privately some full resolution TIFFS.