It won't be shipping for a couple of weeks, but I got a chance to shoot a bit with a production model of Olympus' new 9-18mm f4-5.6 Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mount lens. Though MFT cameras from Panasonic and Olympus have been around for a few generations, they're new enough that the companies are still actively building out their stable of lenses. The eagerly awaited $699 9-18mm, a smaller version of Olympus' full-size Four Thirds-mount lens, delivers the least expensive wide angle available to date; Panasonic's 7-14mm model runs around $1,000.
It also incorporates internal focus, a technique that moves the lens elements within the barrel rather than moving the front element, which makes it quieter than Olympus' other lenses and more suited to macro and movie shooting.
The 9-18mm (18-36mm equivalent) has the same feel as the rest of Olympus' MFT lenses; it feels a bit plasticky, with a plastic mount, though it doesn't necessarily feel cheap. It's compact and light, and uses the same locking mechanism as the company's 14-42mm kit lens, which retracts the lens into a relatively small footprint. It's a clever design, albeit one that can get annoying if you lock it frequently. Both the zoom and manual focus rings have a smooth feel with good tension, although I'd prefer the manual focus to be a smidgen tighter.
Overall, it's quite a nice lens, with the solid optical qualities I've come to expect from Olympus. It's sharp, with very good edge-to-edge performance and very little barrel distortion given the wide angle. There's no significant aberration and as you'd expect, the circular aperture produces a smooth, natural-looking rendering of out-of-focus elements.
The lens also feels a bit faster than the other Olympus lenses I've used; though there are autofocus issues with the Pen bodies, this lens moves a bit more decisively when focusing.
The biggest disappointment, though, is the lens' f4 maximum aperture, especially given how wide angle it is. Though it's a little cheaper than Nikon and Canon's effective equivalents for users of their dSLRs bodies (10-24mm and 10-22mm, respectively, which run about $850), those also deliver maximum apertures of f3.5-4.5. And I have to say, for $700, Olympus should throw in a lens hood instead of charging another $30 for the option. But if you're kitting out an MFT camera and don't need the wide aperture you can as yet only get with prime lenses, the Olympus 9-18mm will be a useful supplementary lens to have around.