When Olympus first announced the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO telephoto lens for the micro-four thirds format there was understandably much enthusiasm for its arrival. After all, it would give users the equivalent field of view of 600mm at F/4 in a far more compact and lighter lens than a DSLR equivalent. I wasn’t personally that aroused by the prospect but curiosity prompted me to ask Olympus if I could borrow the lens to write up a user experience and they very kindly lent me a copy.
Now, as this is a user experience as opposed to a generic review you won’t find test charts, corner crops and sharpness comparisons. That’s simply not an effective or enjoyable use of Alpha Whiskey’s 24 hours. I don’t have a gear fetish or spend hours fantasising about features on a lens or camera; I simply like to go out and shoot. Other reviewers of this lens have shot copious examples of its sharpness and I won’t have anything original to add. It’s pretty sharp.
The 300mm F/4 is also designed for optimal use with the tiny Olympus MC-14 teleconverter, which turns it into a 420mm F/5.6 lens, equivalent to a 840mm field of view. The obligatory Moon shot below should demonstrate the difference.
With respect to its size, the only non-m4/3 lens I had to compare it to was the Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8. It’s around the same size as that lens but around 200g lighter. However, the new Nikkor 300mm F/4 PF is shorter and lighter than the Olympus, by 80mm and some 500g respectively. But the Nikkor offers a 300mm field of view on FX bodies and 450mm on DX bodies, somewhat shorter than the 600mm offered by the Olympus. It was compact enough that I was able to fit the lens with camera attached comfortably into a dainty little backpack, with space to spare for an extra couple of lenses.
Similar to its little brother, the 40-150mm F/2.8, it has a built-in retracted lens hood that conveniently slides forward or backwards as needed and rotates tightly into place.
Like the rest of Olympus’s Pro line it has a weather and dust sealed metal construction that feels substantial and robust, and it also has the manual focus clutch which snaps back with a satisfying click. Like many lenses of this type it has a focus limiter to speed up focusing within specific distances and it focuses down to 1.4m, which I think is pretty close for a lens of this focal length. The L-Fn button can apparently have 26 separate functions assigned to it, such as Manual Focus or AEL lock. Given the focal length and equivalent field of view, this is understandably the first Olympus lens to have image stabilisation incorporated into it, although it is programmed (via a firmware update) to work synergistically with the body-based stabilisation system in the camera. The lens comes with a tripod collar that is removable only if the lens is unattached to the camera.
Now a focal length like this is probably going to be used primarily for wildlife or sports (my female friends also suggest it might be useful to paparazzi or voyeurs but I’ll take their word for it). Shooting sports (and fast moving wildlife) probably requires a full phase detection autofocus system, and even the flagship OM-D EM-1 has limited phase detection. That said, it is easier to lock and keep focus from a distance even with a contrast detection system. In any event, I decided to shoot some wildlife with it and ventured down to some nearby havens and reserves to find some.
Now before the haters start spewing into the comments section I realise these images are nothing special. Their only purpose was to serve the experience of using this lens.
I found that the lens was far less cumbersome to carry around than I expected but hand-held shooting at this focal length still required a certain amount of discipline and stability. Some users have the additional battery pack attached to their camera bodies to balance the lens (I didn’t) and with this focal length a small monopod or bean bag would have helped to add stability. That said, the image stabiliser was pretty effective and I have seen sharp images taken by other users of this lens at 1/10sec.
I wanted to keep the aperture wide to keep the ISO low and depth of field shallow, and thus if the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough I would have to rest the lens onto a surface or crouch down and hold it tight. On some occasions where the subject was moving or there was not enough light under the forest canopy I had to ramp up the shutter speed and swallow the increase in noise. This is one area where larger sensor cameras and their equivalent lens would have an advantage with better performance at higher ISOs allowing a faster shutter speed to be used if so required.
The autofocus was pretty fast and manually overriding was very simple. The E-M5 magnifies the image in the viewfinder to help you fine tune the manual focus. Speaking of viewfinders, as much as I prefer using my touchscreen to focus and shoot it was simply not practical with this lens as it always required two hands to have a steadying grip on it. Not that I’m complaining; the viewfinder was certainly useful in the bright afternoon sun.
Many of these were shot with the MC-14 teleconverter attached to the lens and this certainly enabled me to keep a good distance away from my subjects, especially the deer (although they can spot you a mile off). The teleconverter seems to slow the autofocus down a tad but not to the detriment of acquiring these images.
One further advantage that larger sensor systems will have over this lens is the separation of the subject from the background. The shallower depth of field of larger sensors at any given aperture will better isolate the subject at long focal lengths, even if the subject is closer to its background than the foreground. In contrast the smaller sensors on m4/3 cameras have an inherently greater depth of field, with F/4 akin to F/8 on a full frame sensor. It will therefore not offer as much background blur or subject separation except where the subject is closer to the lens than its background. It is a matter of personal taste and not a deal-breaker for me but the bokeh certainly isn’t the smooth succulence one gets from a full frame DSLR.
Being able to focus so closely, and setting the focus limiter to focus between 1.4m to 4m meant I could capture some dragonflies while waiting for the kingfishers. (My friend Natalia gets full credit for spotting these. That girl has eagle eyes.)
Even with the teleconverter attached I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail could be captured with this lens.
No one could ever accuse Alpha Whiskey of being a gearhead or techie (or even a photographer for that matter), but I obviously appreciate that certain lenses enable one to capture certain subjects with greater ease and accessibility. This lens was ample proof of that.
Overall, I had a lot of fun shooting with this lens over a couple of days but I am ready and willing to return it to Olympus. While it does have certain limitations compared to larger systems the fact one can have such a long field of view in such a compact package will surely be an attractive incentive to m4/3 users. The lens is great value for money and built to last, returning sharp images from a focal length that I am rarely accustomed to.
All these images were shot RAW and converted to JPEGs in Lightroom. Minor adjustments to exposure and white balance were made but not to sharpness.
I would like to thank Olympus for loaning the lens to me to try out and write up. I hope I have honoured their generosity with some decent images.
(P.S. I realise I said my last post was my last, but I did tell Nasim I would write an article on this lens ages ago so this is me keeping my word. This article was taken and adapted from my blog, which is where I’ll be from now on. See ya!)