Which super telephoto lens for Micro Four Thirds? The Olympus 300mm f/4 vs Panasonic 100-400mm

Written by Gary on June 18th, 2016

Now that a few lens testing websites have had time to review the new super telephoto lenses for Micro Four Thirds, I thought it might be an opportune time to give some pros and cons of each.

The average consumer would be tempted to buy the least expensive zooms which cover the most range, such as the 10x 14-140mm zooms and the 4x super zooms such as the 75-300mm consumer lenses.

There is nothing wrong with doing this but one must be aware that there is no free lunch in photography – something has got to give, and in these lenses, it is image quality at the telephoto end, and the low aperture resulting in poorer capability for low light conditions, need for higher ISO, slower AF.

Panasonic has just introduced a high level 4x super telephoto zoom lens, the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH which is a great lens given it is so small to reach 800mm field of view in full frame terms, while the 4x zoom is very versatile.

The lens is well built, weathersealed, has optical image stabilisation compatible with Panasonic’s Dual IS, 9 rounded aperture blades,  close focus to 1.3m is superb, high speed silent AF motors compatible with 240fps CDAF, focus limiter, zoom lock, sliding lens hood, and all this coming in at just under 1kg.

With the Olympus mZD 300mm f/4, Olympus decided to take a different approach and went for a very high end, optically superb (the sharpest lens they have ever made and that is saying something as Olympus make great lenses!), weatherproof lens but instead of going for a zoom lens, went for optical quality of a fixed focal length 300mm f/4 OIS lens, compatible with their 1.4x teleconverter.

Remember that 300mm on Olympus OM-D cameras or Panasonic cameras gives the same field of view as a 600mm lens on a full frame camera.

What do I want from a super telephoto lens?

  1. excellent optical image quality at the super telephoto focal length
  2. wide aperture to allow faster AF, shallower depth of field, better subject isolation, and lower ISO
  3. fast, accurate autofocus with focus limiters
  4. weatherproofing because these lenses are likely to be used outdoors in all conditions
  5. if it can be compact enough for comfortable hand held use, then an effective image stabiliser
  6. removable tripod mount (no need to carry extra weight if not planning on using a tripod)

So how did these lenses compare optically at 300mm focal length?

For this I found one website which has compared them all, so these charts are courtesy of ePhotozine which is an great lens testing site, worth a visit.

Resolutions at 300mm:

Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6: results are better than the Olympus 75-300mm II and you get 0.5 extra stop aperture, but still not excellent sharpness at 300mm
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3
Olympus mZD 300mm f/4.0

Chromatic aberration at 300mm:

Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6: results are better than the Olympus 75-300mm II especially towards the edges
Panasonic 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3
Olympus 300mm f/4.0: superb results, especially at f/5.6 where it is incredibly sharp and with low CA!
Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II Panasonic 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Panasonic 100-400mm f/4.0-f/6.3 Olympus 300mm f/4.0
Price $US499 $US549 $US1799 $US2499
Weight 430g 520g 985g 1270g
Size 116mm 126mm 83 x 172mm 93 x 227mm
Filter size 58mm 67mm 72mm 77mm
distortion at 300mm 0.25% pincushion 0.8% pincushion almost zero 0.2% barrel
close focus 0.9m at 75mm 1.5m 1.3m 1.4m
optical image stabilisation no OIS 3-4EV OIS ?5EV OIS with Panasonic 6EV OIS with Olympus

Conclusion:

You get what you pay for!

The budget 4x super zooms are great as light, compact, travel lenses but performance at 300mm is only fair, while the slow aperture will limit low light use. Of the two, the Panasonic 100-300mm gives sharper images and wider aperture at 300mm with only a little more weight and size.

The Panasonic 100-400mm is much more expensive and more than 50% bigger and heavier than these but you get more reach and better image quality and better image stabilisation and autofocus speed, making it a great, versatile lens.

The superb, but very expensive Olympus mZD 300m f/4.0 is just an amazing lens in every aspect, easily beating the above on image quality and image stabilisation as well as weatherproofing, and although it is not as versatile as the zoom lenses in terms of zoom, the f/4.0 aperture really makes a BIG difference in low light capability, subject separation, ability to use lower ISO for sports, and will probably allow faster AF. It is a much sharper lens and with faster AF than the Canon EF 300mmf/4L IS lens which only has 2EV image stabilisation and does not give the same reach even if used on a Canon 7D dSLR.

In addition, it is compatible with the Olympus 1.4x teleconverter to give the equivalent field of view of a 840mm lens on a full frame camera whilst allowing this to be hand held and used at f/5.6 (although it would probably be even sharper at f/8).

The Olympus lens is so good I just had to have a play with one, so here are some samples:

bokeh test

Above – a handheld bokeh test and to show how narrow the depth of field is at f/4 – this is a walking path and focus point is around 4m.

moon

Above – hand held shot of the moon through thin cloud – focus was very fast, IS awesome, resolution superb, no purple fringing anywhere – fantastic indeed!

crop moon

Above is a crop of the moon shot showing all the craters.

sports

Above is a hand held shot of sports under lights at f/4.0, ISO 2000, RAW file with post-processing to crop by about 1/3rd, add vignetting, and a edgy tonal structure. Unfortunately a 300mm lens is too long to be allowed into most commercial sports stadiums for commercial image licensing reasons, but as you can see, if you don’t have these issues, it can give awesome results indeed.

The AF technique I used for the sports shot was S-AF, central group of 9 AF points active, Release Priority OFF, burst mode on High, then just fired away (no half-press shutter as is usual to lock AF as in these scenarios just a straight shutter press usually gives better results as S-AF is so fast as long as contrast and light is reasonable).

The lens balances nicely on an Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, such that carrying it in the hand for 1-1.5hrs was not a problem as total weight with camera but without the tripod mount comes to 1.8kg – easily passes for carry on cabin luggage in an airplane.

When reviewing images on the LCD screen, I was amazed by how sharp they were, even magnifying to 14x did not show the softness I usually see in many other lenses.

Hand held shots at 1/25th sec are very sharp as long as you hold it steady – quite amazing for 600mm field of view!

For commercial sports venues, I would really love Olympus to give us a great 200mm f/2.8 weathersealed lens which we can take into the venue – perhaps this will be their next fixed focal length telephoto! Here’s hoping.

Start saving up!!!

Disclaimer: I do not work for, nor am I paid in any way, by any photography company, including Olympus and Panasonic, and any gear I test, I have bought from a retail store without any privileged discounts.

 

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