Long lens for OM-D E-M1 Mark II

Started Mar 17, 2017 | Discussions thread
mrxak Regular Member • Posts: 218
A Panasonic birder's perspective

elsier wrote:

Hi all, and I thank you for any advice in advance!
My current setup is a Nikon D750 paired with a Sigma 150-600 Contemporary. I photograph birds and wildlife, but am not getting any younger and am tired of carrying all that weight (and I shoot hand-held). For years I've been waiting for mirrorless to catch up with dSLR in terms of AF and low light capabilites. And now, with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, it apparently did. My doubt pertains to which lens will pair with it for the best results: Oly 40-150 f/2.8 with TC 1.4; Panny 100-300 or Panny 100-400? I know the Oly + TC and the 100-400 are heavier, but with either the camera + lens still weighs less than the Sigma 150-600 on its own, so that isn't a deal breaker. I'm focused on image quality and quick AF. Thanks.

I mainly got into m43 photography because of birding and wildlife. I have shot extensively with the original Panasonic 100-300mm on a couple different Panasonic bodies over the years. The size of this and other long m43 lenses is, to me, one of the best reasons for getting into the system.

It's true, the 100-300mm lens is not the sharpest out there, and it's a bit slow both in terms of aperture and auto-focus. It's an old lens with older mechanisms, and the original version which I have wasn't weatherproof either. Nonetheless, I would say it's more than adequate for birding, and I have been thrilled with the results I've gotten of smaller birds filling the frame close to me, or larger birds farther away filling the frame. When lighting is good, it's a great lens that's easy to shoot handheld

Where I haven't had great results is in dark cloudy days, shooting at birds too far away and too small to fill enough of the frame. The small aperture, Mega OIS, and older 16 MP Panasonic bodies lacking any IBIS capability, makes for blurry, low-detailed photos on the 100-300mm, at least handheld, which is how I tend to shoot when birding.

Now the good news is there's a new version, with Power OIS, weatherproofing, and supposedly faster autofocus on the newer Panasonic bodies, and newer Panasonic bodies have IBIS that works with the newer lens OIS for even better dual stabilization. I haven't had a chance to shoot with it, so I can't speak to how much better it is in suboptimal conditions. The glass is all the same though, so it won't be any sharper.

If I had an Olympus body, I think I'd get the 300mm f/4 IS Pro lens and be thrilled with that. I tend to shoot only at 300mm anyway with my 100-300mm Panasonic, and the added speed and synchronized IS with the latest Olympus bodies seems like a no-brainer to me. By all accounts it's a fantastic lens and I've seen some stunning photos taken with it.

To complicate matters, there's the new 100-400mm lens from Panasonic. I recently got it for myself, but I've gotten it so recently that I haven't had a chance to shoot with it yet at all really. Weather's been miserable and I live in the city now so if I want to do any wildlife photography I have to travel a bit. I have been itching to try it but not so much that I'll go out into a blizzard or 10 degree F weather.

The best I can offer you is an impression on the build quality, weight, and size, plus whatever I've learned from a few indoor photos taken with it. It's definitely a lot larger and heavier than the 100-300mm, but it feels solid, and everything about it screams quality construction. Now, I know I've been spoiled using m43 lenses, and it's still about half the weight of your Sigma 150-600 Contemporary, but if you're choosing between the 100-400mm and one of these other lenses, you may feel like it's a factor. The 100-300mm is about a pound lighter and you can definitely feel the difference. Now, on the other hand, it does give you an 800mm full frame equivalent reach, which is just incredible considering the size and price of something that'd fit your Nikon.

As for image quality, I'm very impressed. Granted, the tests I've done are probably about the Panasonic Dual IS more than anything else, as I was shooting at different ISOs/shutter speeds handheld from a hallway shooting into a room at some small text (my guess is about 8 or 10 pt). I did a set of comparison shots with a newer 20 MP Panasonic body (the GX8). I looked at 300mm vs. 300mm between my two lenses, and then looked at the 400mm range, stepping back to do the same framing. I didn't bother looking at shorter focal lengths. The difference is stunning. The 100-400mm is just so much better handheld.

With the 100-300mm, handheld in light poor enough to need a 1/13th sec exposure time at ISO 200, the small text I was taking a picture of from about 15 feet away was certainly readable, but blurry. I could still print it on an 8.5x11" photo paper and it'd look pretty good. A 25% downscale digital could easily go on a website and nobody would know I shot it handheld with such a long exposure. I certainly wouldn't use a 100% crop for a desktop picture or anything like that though.

With the 100-400mm, handheld with the same exact light, I noticed the aperture could only be as open as wide as f/5.7, instead of f/5.6 which is the widest open the 100-300mm gets at 300m. Only my first shot at ISO 200 showed any difference in shutter speed in my resulting ISO tests, but the camera did decide to shoot at 1/10th sec exposure on aperture priority mode. Surprisingly, not only did the longer exposure not make the image more blurry than the 100-300mm photo, but the picture was razor sharp at 100%. Unbelievably good image quality in low light. In my tests at that range with the 100-400mm lens, I would use 100% crops in a digital context all the way up to ISO 6400, and I think I'd even print up to ISO 12800. That maybe says more about the GX8 than the lens, but if the OM-D E-M1 II has comparable or better performance, I think you'd be very happy with the 100-400mm lens shooting handheld. In low light, you can just go to a higher ISO and it should deliver wonderfully sharp and clean images at 600mm full frame equivalent.

Now, at 400mm, the lens does shoot at only f/6.3 wide open, and because you are at such an extreme magnification stabilization performance does deteriorate. Where before I shot single shot for my 300mm photos, at 400mm I shot burst mode and managed to find sharp images even at 1/8th second exposure for ISO 200. I found that just the act of pressing the shutter button jerked the camera enough that my first image was always blurry, even leaning against a wall. By the second or third shot in the burst, the camera shake was small enough that Dual IS worked well enough to get at least a few shots in that weren't too blurry at such a slow shutter. My ISO 400 shot with the 100-400mm at 1/15th sec exposure still came out better than the 100-300mm at 1/20th sec exposure, and I think as long as you get a pretty reasonable shutter speed, the sort you really should be using with fast birds anyway, you will have no complaints about this lens. m43 sensors in the past couple years have really improved, and I think now is a fantastic time to get into the system if you're a bird photographer. I certainly look forward to proper real world photography with the 100-400mm, but I think I'll be leaving my 100-300mm at home.

Last but certainly not least, the zoom on the 100-400mm is extremely fast, especially after just shooting photos with the 100-300mm. I moved the focus point every time between my test shots as I fumbled with ISO settings, and the lens would reacquire my target almost instantly every time I raised the camera back to my eye and half-pressed the shutter. I can't wait to do some BIF shots with it, just as soon as it warms up a little. With the 100-300mm, it might be hit-or-miss, but with the 100-400mm I am expecting to hit every time.

Caveats: I don't have the 100-300mm mk II to compare with. It's possible the Power OIS is significantly better, but it's still the same glass and everything I hear tells me the 100-400mm is better at 100-300mm focal length for optical qualities. I can't say that's true myself until I've actually shot some birds with it. I haven't shot either Panasonic lens on an Olympus body so I don't know what sort of image stabilization performance differences there might be. I could put my 100-400mm on one of my older Panasonic bodies without IBIS/Dual IS and test, but I haven't yet.

Recommendation: Consider the 300mm f/4 from Olympus. It will give you synchronized IS with the OM-D E-M1 Mk II and I suspect at 300mm focal length it can't be beat by any other lens you've mentioned. If I had money to spare, I might buy that exact combo to use as a second kit when I'm out with my 100-400mm on a Panasonic body. I do think the ability to zoom is nice for wildlife photography, but in practice I've found I always shot at 300mm with my 100-300mm anyway.

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