Choosing a super telephoto lens for Micro Four Thirds cameras

Written by Gary on May 5th, 2018

Here I will define a super telephoto lens as giving at least 300mm lens field of view on full frame cameras, which equates to at least 150mm focal length on Micro Four Thirds cameras thanks to the 2x crop factor of their sensors.

This sensor crop factor is a major advantage of Micro Four Thirds when it comes to achieving super telephoto range with a smaller, lighter lens, making this type of work more enjoyable, and much easier to hike with or carry as cabin luggage on planes when compared to full frame systems.

As is usual for my blog posts, the following links do not take you to a 3rd party online retailer but to my information wikipedia where you will find more details and links to reviews, etc.

Which lens best suits your needs will depend upon your budget and what you like to shoot.

If you are shooting moving subjects, then you need a camera that can AF on moving subjects such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (this has PDAF technology) or a Panasonic camera with DFD technology (most of the latest cameras from Panasonic have this). The other Olympus OM-D cameras do not have PDAF or DFD technology so you will not be able to track moving subjects well with AF locking onto them as they move.

Be aware that you may lose some features if you use a Panasonic lens on an Olympus camera or vice versa – in particular, you will not get Dual IS/Sync IS capability, and you may not be able to use auto focus stacking. If you use an Olympus lens on Panasonic cameras you will not have DFD AF and thus AF on moving subjects will not be great – this is not an issue with Panasonic lenses on the Olympus E-M1 models as they have PDAF built in which will work on any Micro Four Thirds or Four Thirds lens.

With any lens over 1kg, you may wish to invest in a vertical grip for the camera if you will be shooting a lot of portrait mode images as the lens will be causing strain on your hand otherwise.

Small birds or distant subjects = long focal length lens:

For small subjects such as birds, you will probably want a lens with 300mm focal length to give 600mm telephoto reach in full frame terms, or perhaps even a 400mm lens to get you to 800mm  reach – and ideally this should be weather sealed, have a wide aperture to allow faster shutter speeds and have a fast, accurate autofocus system.

The best lenses for this are:

  • Olympus micro ZD 300mm f/4
    •  has optical IS / Dual IS capability (on Olympus cameras only), a superb, but expensive lens, optional 1.4x teleconverter
    • unique manual focus mechanism is really handy for tripod work with difficult subjects such as astronomy
    • heavy for MFT (1270g) but light compared with full frame options
    • focus range limiter with two settings: 1.4-4m and 4m to infinity
    • lovely retractable lens hood
    • will focus as close as 1.4m which is much closer than full frame super telephoto lenses
  • Panasonic Leica DG 200mm f/2.8 with its supplied 1.4x teleconverter to give 280mm f/4
    •  superb, very expensive lens, optical IS (can sync with IBIS on Panasonic cameras but not with Olympus cameras)
    • heavy for MFT (1245g) but light compared with full frame options
    • 2″ shorter than the Olympus 300mm makes it more portable although just as heavy
    • focus range limiter with one setting – 3m to infinity
    • lens hood is an awkward slip on and tighten style hood
    • will focus as close as 1.15m which is much closer than full frame super telephoto lenses
    • is shorter than the Olympus lens and can be used in major sports events, while the 1 stop faster aperture allows lower ISO to be used if you don’t need the teleconverter to get closer to your subject, making it a more versatile lens than the Olympus 300mm
    • OIS may not be as good as the Olympus 300mm – further testing required
    • when used with teleconverter, image quality is almost as good as the Olympus 300mm lens and the Olympus 300mm gets you a touch closer to the subject
    • aperture ring (but does not function on Olympus cameras – you need to use the camera controls as is usual on all cameras)
  • Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens
    • more affordable, lighter (985g) but smaller aperture and lower image quality may impact on what you want to achieve
    • focus range limiter with one setting – 5m to infinity
    • similar length as the Pan. 200mm f/2.8 but it extends outwards on zooming

If you are on a budget, then consider the Olympus m.ZD 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II zoom lens or Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 Mega OIS lens however, image quality will not be as good and the aperture limitations will require higher ISO levels to compensate.

An alternative for those who cannot afford the premium lenses but who own an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with its PDAF technology, is to buy a second hand used legacy Four Thirds lens – the Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 with a teleconverter (and a FT-MFT adapter) – the AF will not be as fast as with the Micro Four Thirds lenses but image quality is excellent and it is weathersealed.

Outdoor arena sports events = 200mm lens:

Unless you are a certified photographer for the event, you will probably not be allowed in the event (eg. AFL football or Australian Open tennis) with a lens with a focal length greater than 200mm, and even then you are not licensed to publish or sell any images!

Note that some venues do allow lenses up to 300mm (eg. AAMI Park), and for these you could choose a lens as per the previous section.

This makes the Panasonic Leica DG 200mm f/2.8 with its supplied 1.4x teleconverter the BEST option by far of ANY system, but it is expensive and you cannot zoom out.

More affordable alternatives with zoom options but 1 stop less aperture are:

The kid’s soccer game:

Here you can usually get to stand at the fence within 5m of the pitch near the goal.

This gives you challenges as, for play near you, you may want a 100mm focal length, while play in the closest half of the pitch you need 200mm, play around the center and closest part of the further half, 300mm focal length, and for play around the goals at the opposite end, perhaps 400mm. (Note these focal lengths are for Micro Four Thirds, for full frame cameras you need to double these).

Imagine you are shooting a 10 yr old playing soccer with a 200mm lens on Micro Four Thirds (400mm on full frame). At 12m, you will get a half body shot in portrait mode. At 15m distance, you will get a great 3/4 length body shot when shot in portrait mode. At 25m distance you get the perfect full body action shot in portrait mode. At 50m, you can get a landscape shot of a group of players, but you may wish to crop it further.

For parents on a budget or wish to remain discrete, a Olympus m.ZD 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II zoom lens or Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 Mega OIS lens or if you really want more zoom and image quality, the Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens may be ideal, but the slow aperture may be challenging when the light gets dim.

Perhaps a better choice for those with more budget would be the Panasonic Leica DG 50-200mm f/2.8-4.0 lens and accept that you will just have to either forego the far end play or crop it a lot, but the wider aperture will be more forgiving in low light and will provide better background blurring. I would also expect image quality will be better but we will have to await reviews.

Of course, the Panasonic Leica DG 200mm f/2.8 with its supplied 1.4x teleconverter will cover most of your needs (and you may need to have another camera ready with a short telephoto for close play) but this may be overkill at $AU4299! Then again, your kids are only young once!

The full frame perspective:

For those wishing to compare full frame camera system alternatives, here is a short list of Canon lenses:

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 lens:

  • no image stabilisation at all
  • old optical design and 8 straight blades instead on 9 rounded blades
  • not fully weathersealed
  • much longer than the MFT options at 257mm
  • close focus only to 3.5m!
  • 1.25kg and $US1249 making it at least relatively light and affordable but the f/5.6 aperture means any advantage of using full frame over MFT with a 200mm f/2.8 is nullified.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II:

  • a more modern design than the 400mm f/5.6 but still the f/5.6 aperture means any advantage of using full frame over MFT with a 200mm f/2.8 is nullified.
  • heavier at 1.64kg, improved weathersealing but still not as good as the MFT options
  • 193mm long but extends on zooming
  • close focus to 1m
  • $US2199
  • Sony has a similar lens, the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens but this will set you back $US2499

Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II:

  • a unique diffraction optics (DO) optical design allowing a much more compact lens but characteristic DO aberrations
  • requires 52mm rear drop in filters
  • close focus only to 3.3m
  • 233mm long
  • 2.1kg
  • ~$A9000

Canon EF 600mm f/4 does give significant low light advantages over the Olympus 300mm f/4 but at 4kg it is not fun to carry and use, and at $US11,500 it is incredibly expensive and its close focus is 4.5m – it is a totally different beast altogether!

And, to cover the zoom range needed for a kid’s soccer game of 200-600mm full frame range, you might need to go for:

  • Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM EXT lens
    • this has a built-in 1.4x teleconverter which can switch it to a 280-560mm f/5.6 lens, very neat and a great lens but this will set you back $US11,800 and break your back at 3.6kg! It still doesn’t get you to 800mm for the far end shots.
  • “Sigmonster” – Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 lens
    • 6kg monster of a lens over half a meter long and will cost you around $US6000 and it won’t focus closer than 6m!
  • Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens
    • perhaps a more sensible lens for most, but still weighs 1.9kg and won’t get you the telephoto reach for the far end of the pitch
  • Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens
    • now we are talking, more reach than the Sigma but still sensibly sized and weighing 1.9kg, and is only $US1299



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