What are the best lenses under $500 for Micro Four Thirds?

It doesn’t matter if you’re new to Micro Four Thirds, or if you’re ready to buy your 3rd or 4th lens… there’s plenty of fantastic options under $500 and today we’ll be featuring the best ones. This post will focus on native lenses, we’ve covered legacy lenses such as Canon’s FD line in the past (and more to come in the future).

Let’s start with a word of warning: I’m not a fan of (most) zoom lenses, thus this list will be heavily biased towards primes. Though there are fantastic zoom lenses for Micro Four Thirds, I’ve shot with primes since I started photography that I’ve started to see scenes as “a great 50mm picture,” or “a great 28mm picture,” etc. If I had started with zooms like the Panasonic 12-35 or 35-100 f2.8 I might think differently. But, neither are under $500 anyway and that’s the focus of this post.

Let’s start with my personal favorites:

Panasonic 20mm f1.7 – My very first lens on the m43 system, provided as a kit lens with the Panasonic GF1. While kit lenses are notoriously subpar (for lack of better words), the 20mm f1.7 is still arguably one of the best lenses for the system. Not only is it one of the smallest lenses but it’s rated as one of the sharpest lenses for m43. This fast “pancake lens” at f1.7 with a 40mm equivalent is the perfect walk-around lens with a versatile focal length. I often bring mine to Red Rock, and even the smallest GorillaPod is strong enough to hold it with the GX1 (check out other lightweight tripods here):

Panasonic 20mm f1.7
Shot with iPhone: Panasonic GX1 with 20mm f1.7 on GorillaPod

This particular setup, which weighs no more than 2 pounds, provided one of my favorite shots of my wife and I at Red Rock Canyon right before the storm strolled through:

What are the most versatile tripods?
GX1: f8, 1/125s

There are 2 versions of the 20mm f1.7, version 1 can be found for about $225 used, and version II goes for about $300 used on Amazon. Version II features the new metal casing and reports of improved auto focus and less chromatic aberration.

Alternatives: Another popular pancake lens that even happens to be a touch smaller and slightly cheaper than the 20mm is the Panasonic 14mm f2.5. It features a 28mm equivalent, thus it’s wide, but not too wide. For comparison, it provides about the same field of view of an iPhone 6 (29mm). There’s also the Panasonic-Leica 15mm f1.7, though a little larger it does have a aperture ring that might appease some photographers and filmmakers. Used copies can be found for a touch under $500. On the Olympus side, there’s the 17mm f1.8, though all things considered I’d point you to the 20mm f1.7 instead.

At 20mm and under, the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 is my favorite. Some shooters may complain that it’s not wide enough, especially for landscapes. And that might be true, I don’t shoot landscapes very often so it’s hard for me to digress. But here’s a trick you can use, on a tripod flip the orientation to vertical and take 3-5 (or however many you want) images that slightly overlap each other as you pan across the scene. The result? Here’s one of my fave panoramas with the 20mm:

Panorama with the 20mm f1.7
Panorama with the 20mm f1.7 (Click to Enlarge)

Panasonic-Leica Summilux 25mm f1.4 – Let’s move to my next favorite, I held off on this lens for so long because the legendary 20mm f1.7 shared such a similar focal length. As many of you already know, Leica is one of the most prestigious brands and last year marked their 100th birthday. As such, Leica branded lenses are held to stringent standards and are widely known to be excellent lenses. And the Summilux certainly meets the mark. It’s discernible differences from the 20mm f1.7 are that it’s about 1/2 stop faster at f1.4, faster and quieter auto focusing, and while the 20mm f1.7 is very sharp lens, it falls off a bit in the corners. The Summilux is a little sharper in the center to my eyes, and holds sharpness much better in the corners.

And I will note that the difference between 40 to 50mm (35mm equivalent) is very notable. I’ve run into a lot of situations where I couldn’t get as wide as I wanted to. As such, considering the size and field of view, I tend to keep the 20mm f1.7 as my walk-around pocketable setup. With that being said, the Summilux gets the call for almost every other situation. Such as situations where you could use every bit of light you can get, like a low lit bar:

A Bachelorette Party I Shot with the OMD EM5 w/ 25mm f1.4
A Bachelorette Party I Shot with the OMD EM5 w/ 25mm f1.4

If you could only own one lens for Micro Four Thirds I would point you to the 25mm f1.4 if you’re more of a serious shooter, and the 20mm f1.7 if you’re more of the casual shooter. At about $400 for a used copy on Amazon – it’s a steal.

Alternatives: At ~$400 the Summilux can’t be beat. There’s the Olympus 25mm f1.8 but it’s about the same price 2/3rd’s of a stop slower and not an overall better performer.  If you’re looking to spend a bit more, the Voigtlander 25mm f0.95 is an amazingly fast lens, but it’s manual focus only.

Olympus 45mm f1.8 – Alright, so if you could only own TWO lenses this would be one of them. With one lens on the wide end, and one on the long end you have a setup that can take care 95% of your shots (unless you’re shooting wildlife or sports, etc.). The Olympus 45mm f1.8 and either the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 or 25mm f1.4 is the perfect combo. The Olympus 45mm f1.8 is one of the best portrait lenses for Micro Four Thirds, sure the Olympus 75mm f1.8 and Leica 42.5mm f1.2 are better, but those are double and triple the price (respectively). Since this post focuses on the best µ43 lenses under $500, this can’t really be beat (well, at least until the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 comes out). Here’s one of the first portrait shots I took with this lens:

Olympus 45mm f1.8
Portrait of Brenda. Olympus 45mm f1.8 at f2.8

I picked up this lens for about $260 used on Amazon. Right now, it’s available for $255 brand new! And this is probably the result of the recent announcement of the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7.I also picked up the JJC lens hood because it does not come with one.

Alternatives: The upcoming Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 can be pre-ordered for $399 and will without question be the biggest alternative to the Olympus 45mm. We’ll have a review for it once it comes out, so if you’re interested feel free to subscribe. Another option is the Sigma 60mm f2.8, available brand new for $209. Despite the low price point, it’s actually rated as one of the sharpest lenses for µ43, rated even sharper than the Olympus 45mm at f2.8. Another interesting note about this lens is that it’s sharpest at f2.8, whereas most other lenses tend be sharpest about 2 stops down from it’s widest opening. The 120mm equivalent is preferable to 90mm for headshots, I really just wish this lens was faster.

Zoom Lenses

As mentioned earlier, I’m not a big fan of (most) zoom lenses. Especially the ones under $500. Primes are always going to be sharper at their respective focal length. But I do have a few exceptions:

Olympus 12-50mm f3.5-6.3 (~$200 used) and the Panasonic 12-32mm f3.5-5.6 (~$250 used): Virtually every kit lens for Micro Four Thirds starts out at 14mm. We have plenty of 14-42mm’s, 14-45mm, 14-140mm’s, 14-150mm and I might even be missing a few. A lot of people consider 14mm (28mm equivalent) wide, but not wide enough. Enter the Olympus 12-50mm and Panasonic 12-32mm. A mere 2mm might seem like such a small change but the wider you get, the more significant the difference is. Just to get an idea of the shots 12mm can do, here’s a shot by photographer Sergei Yurin, whom we covered before as he shoots weddings with Micro Four Thirds, and to say his work is amazing is an understatement.

Photographer: Sergei Yurin
Photographer: Sergei Yurin

This is just to give you an idea of the 12mm FoV, this wasn’t taken with a zoom – rather the Olympus 12mm F2 (another reason to go for primes, though this particular lens is $800). But that isn’t to say you can’t get great shots with the Olympus 12-50mm or Panasonic 12-32mm.

Originally, I had thought the 12-50mm is too big, too clunky, especially compared to the Panasonic 12-32mm. But when you consider the extra range, weather sealing, an extra function button, and built in macro capabilities it’s actually a really solid lens, especially if you can get it for around $200. And even though I’ve never shot macro before, mainly because the native options are a bit pricey for something I rarely shoot. At $200, this lens has me interested in playing around with it. Although it won’t give you true 1:1 macro, Robin Wong posted a series of amazing macro shots that has me convinced that it’s good enough for the casual macro shooter.

The Panasonic 12-32mm is amazing because it gives you that wide focal length in an incredibly small package. Here is it on the smallest µ43 camera, the Panasonic GM1:

Panasonic GM1 with the 12-32mm
Panasonic GM1 with the 12-32mm

Personally, I opted for the fast prime for my walk-around lens (20mm f1.7), but as always, different strokes for different folks.

Panasonic 14-140mm f3.5-5.6 ($480 used on Amazon)- This is the sole other zoom lens under $500 I’m considering, primarily because it’s great for video. This can be found used for just under $500. There’s also the older, slower (f4-5.6) and bigger version available for around $300.

I’ve also considered the Panasonic 100-300mm f4-5.6 at about $400, but with the 200-600mm equivalent it’s really a better bet for wildlife shooters. It is one of the Panasonic super zooms with good reviews, because I’ve had the Panasonic 45-200mm for a bit and did not like it.

Notable Mentions

Olympus 9mm f8 Body Cap Lens ($90) – At a mere 12.8mm, calling it a body cap lens is aptly named. It’s not for the serious shooter, but can certainly be a very fun lens. Again, Robin Wong has reviewed this lens and posted a lot of great images samples.

Rokinon 7.5mm f3.5 Fisheye Lens ($240) – If you want to shoot at around 7.5mm, there’s not many cheap options. Panasonic has the 7-14mm and the 8mm fisheye for about $700. Olympus has the 9-18mm for about the same price. The Rokinon is an affordable option, and although it’s manual focus, at such a wide focal length it’s easier to catch things in focus.

What are your guys favorite Micro Four Thirds lenses under $500? Let me know in the comments below!

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