Olympus 300 f 4 Pro and why I’m reluctantly sending it back

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Olympus 300 f 4 Pro and why I’m reluctantly sending it back

I shall remember 6 July 2018 for a very long time, it was the day I was to receive the much lauded and highly praised 300 mm f 4 pro from Olympus, I sat in my study excited, anticipating the sound of footsteps, the courier, walking up my gravelled drive parcel in arms, more than willing to exchange this prize in favour for just an indelible scribble on his hand held electronic device .

For months I had been saving my pennies, all the while carrying out extensive research on this exotic optic and it seemed every review I had read or seen on line had showered this offering from Olympus with stellar reviews with even a few commentators having the temerity to compare this lens favourably and I’m not sure why as this is a 300 mm lens to the venerable Canon 600 f 4 and the Nikon 500 f 4 ,so surely, this must be a thoroughbred of a lens, a professional grade sculpted piece of optical art, an object of desire, optical perfection, all for a fraction of the cost and weight of the aforementioned .

but is it really? was it hype or fact or fiction

Whats it like in the real world, after you strip back all the glamour and glitz, ignoring all the marketing hype, deflecting all the paid reviewers well articulated story telling and comments — does it really offer the stellar performance, handling, in a small compact form factor and does it offer true value for money in support of these claims ?

Importantly how does it compare with the PL 100-400 of which I also own?

well, the moment arrived, I hear the footsteps over the gravel, the door bell rings not once but twice in quick succession ringing loudly in my ears so I get up and rush quickly to the door, heart beating fast, pulse racing , a quick scribble on his electronic pad and I”m now the proud guardian of my latest and most expensive acquisition.Lets skip over the box opening ceremony much beloved with the on line community and get straight into the nitty gritty.

First impressions on using this lens straight out of the box.

Mounting the lens onto my Olympus OMD EM1(ii), it smoothly slipped onto the mount of the camera , virtually silent, apart from the satisfying click as it finally locked into place, engineering perfection,I thought , truly a well crafted marriage. The lens, well balanced with a satisfying heft that only comes with a professional grade optic.

My pulse quickened ,as I made my way to the outside world for the very first time.

No fancy lens testing setting, no castle or abandoned warehouse for me and my new bestie, the initial testing place was only to be my garden, but still, I should find something suitable to acquaint my new best friend with.

The first test images I shot , were excellent the sharpness and resolution, everything within 1-8m ( 3-25feet approx ) was very impressive, my word this lens was sharp, so sharp you could cut yourself. From f 4 down to f 8 this was impressive.

Lovely contrasty images too , that remained sharp, retained good detail, even when cropped to 100% and beyond, so no complaints, so far ? Oh no but there’s a slight niggle , the bokeh does look a bit messy

hmmm so what about shooting subjects over 25 feet

Excited at the prospect of an extended field test ,I arranged a trip to a WWT centre mainly to photograph wildlife and small birds the next day.I was to meet up with a fellow photographer and friend and packed my OMD EM1(ii) with the 300 pro( also took my PL100-400) in anticipation of the trip.

My friend agreed to shoot that day with his D500 plus his stumpy little lightweight telephoto option lens the Nikon 300 f 4 PF + 1.4 extender, so both shooting at roughly the same focal range of 600 for me and 630 mm for him although I had the benefit of F 4 whilst he had to make do with one stop less at F 5.6. advantage Olympus.This was to be a test, a fair test we thought, both camera bodies lauded for their high speed, PDAF fast focussing, accuracy speed, agility noise control, image quality etc..and both outfits weigh virtually the same — in fact it's the Nikon kit that the lightest of the two, so Olympus advantage over its all square so let the contest begin

The test parameters were to be non scientific, we were not in a studio or in a lab but in a field literally, but also out of a hide, we wanted to compare a few basic things I.E focus accuracy and acquisition/retention in SAF CAF, quality of image ,sharpness and bokeh — which performed the better ? I’ll tell you a little bit later….

But, I hear you cry, why did you also take the PL100-400?

well, it’s the only true direct comparator in the M43 world and I wanted to know how the performance of both lenses compared , which offered the best bang for the buck,

Disclaimer: we ignored the PL200 for its lack of reach - I’m only interested in birding, so focal lengths over native 300 mm required,( without extender) besides neither of us owned the PL200 - neither of us want to be able afford it ,at its current price point, but thats another story

So ,moving on, is the 300 pro that much better than its nearest competitor( PL 100-400)? Befitting its colossal price differential, after all, it is a prime lens , its f 4 wide open , pro grade construction etc, etc.etc.

Surely, up against a variable aperture trombonist lens, offering f 6.3 at the long end wide open it must be a no contest right?

I’ll have over 1 stop more of available light , right?

well, not so fast my friends lets have a more detailed look

The PL 100-400 can go to 400 mm natively, whereas the 300 pro is limited, well to 300 mm in naked form with angles of view 800 & 600 respectively .

Okay, what if I stick the 1.4 extender on the back end of the Olympus? that will give me 420 mm right? an angle of view of 840 mm

Yep, absolutely, the angle of view does increase to 840 mm but with the penalty of f 5.6, wide open.

There is also some apparent image degradation resultant when adding an extender - DISCLAIMER - we did not have one to test this theory, so will have to take this comment as unsubstantiated.

So ,all in all not really much of a gain over the f 6.3 of the PL is it , in real world shooting that is.

Does the difference in 300 and 400 mm make a difference in wildlife and birding …….Well, hell yes absolutely , it's a biggie, the holy grail , every wildlife and bird photographer wants, no wind back, needs more reach right?

So, its pretty obvious you may “need” the Olympus 300 pro tethered with the 1.4 extender to get the extra reach ,at the expense of the gains in light gathering and sharpness and possibly resolution in its naked form.

what else should we consider — value for money? what delivers best value compared to performance , best bang for the buck so to speak

hang on a minute, before we come onto the relative costs and value of the Olympus 300 f 4 pro and other possible contenders lets make one thing perfectly clear, a 300 mm lens is a 300 mm lens period, no argument, no debate, end of story, it does NOT magically become a 400 mm , 500 mm ,600 mm, 800 mm or any other size lens ( or smaller for that matter ) simply because you mount it on a smaller or larger sensor despite the marketing hype , as some manufactures and commentators would have us believe — unless I’m living in a parallel universe of course

by the same token then, if we were to mount a canon, Nikon or Pentax 300 mm f 4 on a micro four thirds body via an adapter it would project the same angle of view as the native Olympus 300 pro — correctamundo

So, we have established that a 300 mm lens is a 300 mm lens ( fixed focal length) and therefore all things should therefore be equal, You might expect all 300 pro lenses of the same quality to be about the same retail price point in a free economy, right?

well actually are they? lets have a look at some UK retail prices as of July 2018 - figures obtained from Camerapricebuster web site ( prices do fluctuate on a day to day basis so these are indicative at the time of writing )

Olympus f4 300mm pro lens £1899

Nikon AF-S 300mm f4 ED IF lens £1159

Nikon 300mm f4E PF ED VR Lens £1599

Canon EF 300mm f4 L IS USM lens £1268

Pentax 300mm f4 DA Lens £915

*none of the other major camera brands and third party lens manufacturers produce a comparable lens currently that I could see or that I know of, so were not included

Hmmm, interesting cost comparison, the Olympus is twice the cost of the Pentax and roughly a third more than either the canon or Nikon equivalent,( excluding the PF) so is the performance that much better - I don’t know, about the Canon and Pentax , I do know its not better than the Nikon AF-S, I had one, I also had the PF, but the jury is out on that lens, I think I had a bad copy.

so is the retail price of the Olympus over valued, thats the question - I don’t have that answer, just pointing out the facts - others can make that judgment

Oh, and before some eagle eyed critic , re seller or indeed Olympus themselves stoutly defends the Olympus 300 mm f 4 by suggesting the cost should be compared to a Nikon or Canon f 4, 600 mm at £10,999 and £10888 respectively ,we have already established the Olympus 300 pro is not a 600 f 4 pro lens — it is, what it is, a 300 mm f 4 lens.

so, a lovely shiny new Olympus f 4, 300 mm pro can be your today in the UK retail for £1899, sometimes it's a tad cheaper sometimes a tad more expensive if you want to match the reach of the PL then add the 1.4 TC for £250 and your all set to go

For £2149.00 UK ,you have a truly professional and I do mean professional kit that will to take you to 420 mm at f 5.6 with an angle of view of 840 mm with stellar optics — whats not to like?

well, there may be other options available to give you better value if you can compromise a bit however, perhaps with another system or if you prefer like I do, to stay within the M43 world then :

you could for example get for M43 what some commentators and reviewers may perceive as second string by going for the variable zoom that is in my view the venerable PL100-400 in the princely sum of £1289 retail ( as of July 2018, although they are available grey market for £840 — £890 ) but retail costs on this optic also vary

so you could spend £860 less if you wanted too for a similar optic — a consideration especially as with the money saved you could go on that trip you’ve always wanted to take to create images, or buy that UWA you have always wanted too.

In view of the dramatic price difference between the 2 optics is the fixed aperture fixed focal length 300 pro that much better in the real world ?

short answer — depends

I know, its a crap answer isn’t it,

But it does depend

it depends on what you want or need , desire or lust, or what you perceive as acceptable performance

also bragging right count right?-

Image quality considerations

I found that well, actually, its very close, closer than I thought it would be, depending on the conditions, shooting distance,( this one is a biggie ) aperture used, shutter speed, accessibility to get the shot in the first place, Etc .Etc

I found the 300 pro along with the 100-400 only sharp when the distance to subject was below 8 meters or around 25 feet, after that the images were soft, but then I was hand holding, so if mounted on a tripod they may well be sharper although I used fast shutter speeds - something to note

However for me the PL is more flexible in the field goes from 100-400 naked so usable in different situations, tight spaces, open spaces so its more flexible

waving it around in anger with BIF, and carrying around the fields all day is easier for me

Weight consideraton

The Olympus weighs in at 1.27 kg / 2.8 lb (without tripod adapter)

Meanwhile the Panasonic Leica comes in at 985 g /2.16 LB a fair bit lighter there is more of a differential with tripod collars attached as well.

Conclusion of differences between the Olympus 300 pro and the PL100-400 purely from my perspective others who own both lenses may have a completely different view and perspective, I get that, so others mileage may and no doubt will vary — and this is highly personal and subjective view point

  1. the Olympus is a tad sharper than the PL at base 300 mm no doubt about it, but things could get a bit mirky when you add in the TC, I don’t know I did not test this
  2. The Olympus does resolve a bit better if the subject is within the 1-10m range, after that it matters less because both fall off appreciably the further the distance to subject
  3. The Olympus does offer the 300 mm at f 4 whereas the Pl cannot its f 5.7 I believe
  4. There is no doubt in my tests that the 300 pro does focus more accurately and is more consistent in SAF, in CAF I don’t think it matters much because they are both quite mediocre but thats another story, nothing to do with each lens more the system.
  5. The Olympus is a pro grade optic, well made, feels durable, nice hood, handles well and balances beautifully on the EM1
  6. takes a standard 77 mm filter — nice if have old filters from your FF days
  7. great fn button on the lens barrel to programme stuff, if programming stuff is you're thing
  8. tripod collar is arca Swiss compatible — very handy
  9. the lens does not trombone out like the PL does

are there any downsides to the Olympus 300 pro apart from the price differential

  1. for me 600 mm is too short, I would need the 1.4 TC to give me the reach, but in doing so I lose the advantage of f 4 and possibly some sharpness-
  2. I prefer having the 100-400 even if its f 6.3 wide open — no extender to worry about
  3. don’t underestimate the constraints of a fixed focal length lens , a zoom may offer more flexibility - I’ve found it does for me anyway
  4. I would need a larger camera bag — to transport in the car — a biggie for me
  5. the weight whilst not really that heavy ,does play a small part in the overall decision making process
  6. the size of the lens — as above really, it's not huge, its manageable but the 300 pro is not as small as the PL
  7. however, the biggest niggle on the 300 pro I found was the focus clutch — it simply does not stay in place — it propels itself backwards at its own free will , lunging you into manual mode unexpectedly — really annoying and frustrating
  8. the out of focus areas — what an abomination, the bokeh is just awful in my view
  9. I took a series of images at low ISO from ISO 200-400 and the noise in the images is quite apparent-I don’t find this as much with the PL - strange, perhaps the resolving power of the lens magnifies the noise
  10. whilst the images at f 4 deliver very good sharpness , (providing the subject is fairly close )it does however get better to excellent if stopped down to F 5.6 or 6.3……hmmm getting into PL territory now

so in conclusion the positives for me of the 300 pro are it's a beautifully made lens, well engineered, great optics, great finish, good fn button, good focus limiter switches, and OIS is brilliant — produced for me some very good images, albeit 600 mm is not long enough for me and, I would not add a TC for 840 mm because of the loss of 1 stop of light and the degradation in image quality that TC’s do produce.

is it a keeper? — not for me sadly, there are in my view definitely better options out there to give a balance of performance and value

the PL 100-400 for example must be one of the best value lenses around for the performance to cost ratio in M43

This is only my view, but Olympus may do well to address this imbalance by delivering a super telephoto zoom lens to rival the PL, with as much or more reach, better if possible aperture and within the same cost envelope or better

earlier in this story I mentioned my friend and his D500 + 300PF +1.4 TC

Well, we have compared images and come to the conclusion that the Olympus gear came a close second — not by too much granted ,in terms of image quality so not too bad for a M43 sensor, being smaller, light gathering, sharpness and rendering/bokeh being the big differentiators. However it was a totally different story when it came to focus acquisition, retention of focus, focus speed , here the Nikon was at another level altogether, but thats another story, this isn’t about the comparisons of the two camera systems just the 300 pro and really its only competitor the 100-400.

cuckoo - image taken from approx 12 meters away with OMD EM1 (ii) + 300 f4 pro

same cuckoo taken with D500 + 300PF +1.4 TC from the same position - shaper result with less noise on the bird

both the above images were taken from the same hide at around the same distance give or take a few inches, different shutter speeds and f stops to suit each camera - early close results, I think the nikon just steals it, others may argue - processing in LR only auto exposure only and saved as Jpegs.Each image cropped quite heavily to 1152 x 768

I love my M43 kit for most of my photographic needs, its small, compact, light and does some if not most things exceptionally well, however, I”m still awaiting the ultimate birding and wildlife solution that offers value and performance ,sadly the Olympus 300 f4 pro lens does not provide that solution for me ,so it’s going back, in the meantime and thanks to Panasonic Leica my current best option is the trombonist 100-400 mm f4-6.3.

I can only give this lens 3.5 out of 5 based on its overall cost value to performance ratio and ability to capture detail on anything over about 25 feet, especially when cropping the image

maybe I had a poor copy - is there product variation on the lens I wonder

until next time, thanks for reading-here are some more image samples

taken from a distance of 6 feet -noisy background

taken at a distance of around 12 feet - quite noisy background!

taken at a distance of around 25 feet - clearly not enough reach on this shot and the focus again is not spot on despite the indications to the contrary on the back of the camera - focus drift??

image above cropped - starting to go soft

taken at a distance of around 35 feet - subject too small in the frame focus not perfect even though the small focus point indicated it was fine - focus drift?

above image cropped - starting to go soft

taken 6 feet away

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 300mm F4 IS Pro
Telephoto prime lens • Micro Four Thirds
Announced: Jan 6, 2016
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