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!)
A refresh of this review would be very interesting.
I have both a Nikon D810 & Olympus OMD EM1.2 & looking at getting a wildlife lens. The Olympus 300mm f4 is certainly a useful option, but looking at the images in this article, I’m concerned about the quality. Another option for me would be the Nikon 300mm f4 PF with a 2x t/c. This option would be about the same size, weight & price of the Olympus offering, albeit without the excellent Olympus stabilization & without the further option of a 1.4 t/c on top.
It would be however very interesting to see a comparison between the Olympus 300mm f4 & Nikon 300mm f4 PF with 2x t/c?
I have had the most disappointing results from my EM-1 Mk II with the 300mm f/4.
Jessops kindly replaced the lens three times and eventually got it nearly right. I am not 100% happy with it yet.
Shame because all the other six lenses are perfect.
It’s both bigger and heavier than the older Nikon 300 f/4 AFS full-frame lens…and 2.5 x as expensive! Wow!
I had this lens and I used it with the teleconverter and the EM-1. I switched to this setup from Nikon because of the weight. The lens is sharp as hell, but the autofocus was a nightmare. It was slow and hunted a lot, even in bright daylight with a contrasty subject (bird mainly). I tried it on a Em-5 II, with the same result. Combined with the EVF lag this slow autofocus made it near impossible to get successful BIF’s. And although i liked the lens for it’s sharpness (not the bokeh though), I sold it. For static subjects this lens is a winner, but beyond that… mwah.
I use this lens a lot. I do NOT recommend adding the 1.4 converter. Images from the lens itself are stellar. With the converter they are not. The VR of the camera and lens are also best in class. The only drawback of an Olympus camera with this 300mm lens is that the AF is not quick enough for erratically flying birds such as terns and swallows. I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 II which I understand aims at improving the speed of the AF.
The Olympus Zuiko 300mm f/4 Pro lens is a keeper.
That was an interesting article, and I was particularly interested in your size comparisons. This lens isn’t on my wish-list since i don’t usually need that focal length, but I thought that your photographs were very good. In fact, it inspired me run around the house taking pictures of all of our cushions. Just kidding – I really did enjoy seeing your photos.
A really nice review – those pixel peep ones are so boring. My main question is – can I use. For sports? Sounds like not quite given the focus on the EM5… one day.
Btw I shoot both OM and Canon gear.
Olympus sure has some sexy lenses can’t argue about that. Maybe I’ll try 4/3 at some point, after I’m done with Fuji. ;)
P.S.: Remember when I said something about your watermark being “WordArt”-like a month ago or so? I can’t believe you actually made a new one. This looks so awesome now. It may be nitpicking for some, but this sure matches the quality of your pictures now.
Tobias, I have you to thank for my new watermark. I do consider comments and suggestions and I’m always willing to improve things where possible. Your previous critique about the watermark was fair and encouraged me to change it and I’m glad I did. So thank you! :)
Thanks for review AW! Nice lens/system, but personally I don’t like the rendering of the out of focus areas. It looks too harsh for me.
Guess it is good for birds in flight photographers, but again lacks the flexibility of those 150-(5)600 zooms for crop sensors that have been released recently.
Hi. Did you / can someone in this forum compare this lens + TC combination with the Nikkor 300 + tc on a crop factor? Thanks.
I shot the Olympus before returning to the Nikon D500 and now have the new Nikon 300 pf and 1.4 111. Both great combos but the Nikon combo with the 630 equiv gets my vote.
Nice review. I have the Olympus. Why do you prefer the Nikon combo, and what am I missing (other than a narrower DOF which I view as a disadvantage)?
I greatly prefer the Nikon combo as well. Note that I shoot both Nikon and Olympus and own / love the 300 F4. Also note that I do not own the 300pf TV combo. I do have both the Nikon 200-400 F4 and the 80-400.
There are several reasons why the Nikon combination is better – most having to do with the superiority of the Nikon D500 AF and tracking. For fast action it blows away the Olympus OMD-M1. It also is better in low light for wildlife shooting at dawn and dusk.
As for the lenses, the Olympus holds its own. It is sharper then both Nikon’s (not surprised by that – all the Olympus pro glass is super sharp.
In order for the Olympus to keep up. you would need a better AF / tracking system (improved phase detection on sensor) Of course, it can’t keep up in terms of depth of field. Maybe we will get that with an OMD-M2! I am really hoping! Obviously, the Olympus combo is much lighter and less bulky, which I love.