300mm Shootout - Olympus 75-300 vs 50-200 SWD w/ EC-14 vs 300/4

Started Sep 23, 2018 | Discussions thread
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Phocal Senior Member • Posts: 3,013
300mm Shootout - Olympus 75-300 vs 50-200 SWD w/ EC-14 vs 300/4

I arrived at Brazos Bend State Park in a good mood despite my pack weighing in at just over 41 pounds. That weight is without the 3 liters of water which comes in at an additional 6.6lbs, I had 1 liter left so that makes my pack weight a minimum of 44lbs (actually just shy of that) up to 48lbs. I will have to say that the F-stop Ajna pack handled the weight extremely well and I only noticed the weight when removing or putting on the pack, I really do love this pack.

I had the following gear in the pack.

  • EM1 /w grip
  • EM1
  • MZ 300mm f4.0 IS Pro
  • MZ 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II
  • ZD 50-200 f2.8-3.5 SWD
  • ZD 150mm f2.0
  • MC-14
  • EC-14
  • EC-20
  • Godox V860iiO
  • Godox X1T-O
  • 3D printed skimmer pod w/ ballhead

There have been a lot of post about full frame and other systems lately and as always some post with people complaining about the size of new m4/3 gear. Some even claiming that it’s gotten to where m4/3 camera/lens are approaching full frame size. Those threads always make me laugh because it is so easy to prove them wrong. I could go through and prove it right here by looking up weights and comparing a similar load out of full frame gear, but I have more important things to do. But I will say as a previous full frame / APSC shooter that there is no way I could fit a similar load out into a 40L bag, let alone carry it while covering just over 4 miles. This and the amazing weather sealing of Olympus is why I switched.


It was really foggy driving in, which meant it was super humid and everything was wet. I had fully intended to include the 150/2 in this comparison but while switching from the SWD to the Little Tuna I dropped the Tuna, it ended up getting wet on both ends and never un-fogged while I had my subject in front of me. I actually had problems with all the lenses fogging up because I was having to lay them in the extremely wet grass. There were a few times I had to remove the lens hood and wait for the lens to un-fog before I could shoot because I couldn’t get them to un-fog with the hood on but needed the hood on the lens to keep the front element from getting wet when laying in the grass. I had actually tried getting into position on several other birds while dragging my pack behind me so I would have a dry place to put the lenses/camera not in use. After a number of failed attempts I changed my method and crawled into position on the Great Blue Heron I used for the comparison while carrying only two cameras with lenses attached. Once in position at the 41 foot distance I crawled back for the other two lenses, this tactic also worked when I moved to the 35 foot distance as well. But it also meant that I had to lay everything not in use on the wet grass. Because I was concerned with the weight of my pack I left out a lot of the little things I like to bring with me for those just in case situations when out shooting. One of those items is a small tarp I like to use when laying in really damp swamp mud to try and keep somewhat dry/clean. Was kicking myself the entire morning for leaving it behind because it would have been so very useful.

Because this is a lens comparison pieces I will include my camera settings for the testing. I also used two different cameras and feel I should mention that the 300/4 and 75-300 were on the same EM1 while my 50-200 SWD was on the other.

Camera Settings

  • ISO - Auto
  • White Balance - Auto
  • SAF w/ Single Small Auto Focus Point which I moved to a location for a decent composition.
  • Drive - Continuous Low w/ Anti-Shock (set to 6.5fps)
  • IBIS - SIS1
  • Metering - ESP
  • EV - -3/4 Stop
  • Mode - Aperture Priority
  • Photos all taken in RAW and processed via my custom preset in LightRoom (no crop)
  • Handheld w/ Elbows braced on knees while sitting on the slope of the bank

I shot all lenses wide-open since that is how most people will be shooting, at least that is how I mostly shoot my lenses unless I need extra DoF. But I also shot all three lenses stopped down one full stop because that is typically the peak sharpness for m4/3 lenses.

I also tried to maintain a parallel perspective to minimize any perceived increase in sharpness due to increased DoF. In testing lenses I have noticed that an increase in DoF can give the impression of greater sharpness because of more being in focus and I wanted to limit that when looking at the lenses. So in some ways shooting the neck and head of the GBH had an advantage over a smaller bird where I would have shot full body.

As many know I only do real world in the field testing and this was no exception. I rarely shoot anything from over 50 feet and was hoping to find one of the smaller Herons/Egrets so I could shoot full body but had to settle on the Great Blue Heron that allowed me to photograph him. The vegetation is currently very high and thick, so even if I wanted to shoot from farther away and do full body it would have not been possible unless shooting across the water and that opportunity never presented itself.

I initially moved into position (which ended up being 41ish feet according to EXIF) and took photos with the first 3 lenses. While switching to the 150/2 I dropped it and the elements at both ends (had caps off when I dropped it) ended up getting wet from the grass it rolled in. I spent a few minutes trying to get it dry and un-fogged but couldn’t. I knew I was close to 50 feet and wanted to get closer so I moved forward to what turns out to be 35ish feet (per EXIF) and had hoped to get the 150/2 un-fogged for the next round of photos. At the closer distance I took more photos but the 150/2 never got clear enough to shoot with before the GBH took off because another photographer came down the trail. On my next trips out I plan to bring the EC-20 so I can at least do a comparison against the 300/4. I will not be taking all 4 lenses out again, just to much work and I think these shots will provide a good idea on how well it would have compared when I do test it against the 300/4.

For those hoping to see the 300/4 compared to the 150/2 w/ EC-20 I am sorry, but I do promise to get that comparison done as soon as I can.

Shooting distance of 41ish feet with all three lenses wide-open.

Shooting distance of 41ish feet with all three lenses stopped down one full stop.

Shooting distance of 35ish feet with all three lenses wide-open.

Shooting distance of 35ish feet with all three lenses stopped down one full stop.

My thoughts on the outcome…………………

Color - I was really surprised by how different the colors are between the photographs. When I compared the 150/2 and 300/4 I noticed very similar color in the photos (which I was happy to see). These three lenses have very different colors and I processed them all using my normal custom preset that I use for all my wildlife photographs. Personally I prefer the color from the 300/4 followed by the 75-300 and finally the 50-200 SWD. I was really surprised to discovery that I preferred the 75-300 over the SWD since I have always liked the images from my 50-200. I should note that I did also notice the color difference when I did my comparison of the 50-200 SWD against the 150/2 and in that comparison I preferred the 150/2 over the SWD.

Resolution - It is pretty clear that the 300/4 has significantly more resolution than the other two lenses. The images just appear sharper and with a lot greater detail compared to the other two (I can tell without knowing lens used). All three lenses sharpen up a noticeable amount when you stop down one full stop, which is what I expected after looking at LensTip’s testing of the 300/4 and 50-200 (they don’t have any of the m4/3 xx-300 lens tested, really wish they would). I find the wide-open shots from the 300/4 and SWD to be usable but the 75-300 really needs stopped down a full stop to become usable. When looking at the images I encourage you to also look down the GBH’s neck and compare some of the fine feather details between the images.

Distance - I have always talked about shooting distance and how you want to be as close as possible to capture as much detail as possible. The first set of photos are from close to my personal maximum shooting distance for birds, while the second set is from a distance I find much more comfortable and what I typically shoot from (if not closer depending on size of bird. Even with only an approximate 6 foot difference in shooting distance I can see a noticeable difference in detail capture in all the lenses. The 75-300 with it’s lesser resolution seemed to benefit the most from getting closer. Unlike the farther shooting distance I find the wide-open shot from the 75-300 right on the cusp of being usable, the stopped down shot is significantly sharper as I would expect. I think from around the 25 foot distance the 75-300 would easily start to become usable wide-open. The other two lenses as before are usable wide-open (do sharpen up stopped down) and do capture more detail when closer as expected.

Bokeh - I know that this aspect of an image comes down to personal preferences, but here goes. The 75-300 easily has the worse bokeh of the three lenses, especially when stopped down to f9.0. There is really nothing you can do about it other than get closer, the bokeh in the closer images is not as bad as the farther images in my opinion. It’s slower aperture just can’t compete with the faster lenses when it comes to bokeh. The SWD and 300/4 have a similar wide-open aperture (f4 vs f4.9), so the amount of blur is pretty similar. But to me the transitions between color is no contest and the 300/4 creates much more pleasing out of focus areas. This difference is really noticeable if you look at the vertical weed that crosses right behind the beak in the images with those two lenses. That change in color is just not as harsh or sudden from the 300/4 as it is with the SWD and that 1/2 stop difference is just enough in my opinion to also create a little more blur to be noticeable.

Shutter Speed / Freezing Action / ISO - I was shooting a static bird so shutter speed was not really my concern. My shutter speed requirements for this comparison were fast enough to handhold, fast enough to freeze any movement from the bird or from the wind blowing it’s feathers while being at base ISO. I bring this up because of the slower shutter speeds when using the 75-300. Keep in mind that I am currently concerned with shutter speed from a freezing the action standpoint, I will address the ability to handhold in the next section. Sunrise was 7:07 and I took these photos between 8:15 and 8:24, so I was shooting in good morning light. The 300/4 had no problem with keeping shutter speed high enough to freeze the action. I like to photograph birds catching food because you never know what they will pull out of the water and I am still waiting for that bird catching a baby gator photograph. To freeze the strike from a bird I have found that 1/800 is the absolute minimum and even at that speed you can get some motion blur, for that reason I prefer to be at 1/1000 or faster. The 300/4 stopped down to f5.6 was at 1/1000 but I almost always shoot the lens at f4.0 because it’s more than good enough, at f4.0 my shutter speed was 1/2000. The SWD is also a lens I always shoot wide-open so it’s 1/1250 was more than adequate, even stopped down it was at my bare minimum of 1/800. The 75-300 is another matter, wide-open it was at my bare minimum of 1/800. This leaves no room for any error or change in lighting and also means that shooting in a little less light I would have to raise my ISO to keep shutter speed high enough. The lens already isn’t the sharpest, so every increase in ISO is going to decrease detail captured and make the image just that much softer. Since the lens is distance sensitive that means for farther away shots (like my 41 feet images) it needs stopped down to f9, which lowers the shutter speed to 1/500. Now we have to increase ISO even more to get shutter speed back up to freeze action and the images fall even farther behind the other lenses. If shooting static subjects there is no need to worry about shutter speed beyond ability to hold steady, but if needing to freeze action the 75-300 image quality drops farther behind the other lenses because of the higher ISO required. This is why I say the 75-300 requires good light and in anything less it’s image quality compared to other lenses like the 300/4 drops significantly due to higher ISO required to maintain fast shutter speeds.

Shutter Speed / Handholding / ISO - The 300/4 is without a doubt the King of the three lenses. I find the weight just about perfect (really wish it was a bit heavier, especially with the MC-14 attached) for handholding and combined with the amazing dual IS this lens is so easy to handhold (I can even shoot pretty smooth handheld video with this lens). For this test the shutter never dropped low enough for me to even be concerned. I don’t even think about my shooting technique with this lens until I drop much lower in shutter speed, for this I just raised, framed, focused and shot. Every single image taken with the 300/4 was perfectly sharp, it really is that easy to shoot. The SWD is a little light in my opinion to handhold (with the EC-14, perfect weight bare lens) and I do need to pay a bit more attention to technique when using it, but the Olympus IBIS really is amazing and during this test there was no concern about getting sharp images. I did have a number of out of focus shots with this lens (maybe 15%), but some of it could also be due to PDAF focus errors. With this lens I don’t start to really be concentrate on technique until I get down to the 1/400 mark (for the record with the 300/4 I start to pay attention around 1/250). The 75-300 was as I have always said, way to light for the focal range. When shooting it wide-open I had to really pay attention to technique and had at least 25% of the images blurry. It is just so light that the smallest of movements can cause the camera/lens to move and I always shoot this lens at the top of a breath like when shooting a rifle. Now when I stopped down and the shutter speed dropped to 1/500 I had at least 50% blurry and had to really pay attention to my technique. I also shot a lot more images to make sure I got sharp ones for the comparison. Unfortunately the 75-300 is just a much harder lens to shoot, a remake with dual IS would make such a huge difference in this lens.

Honestly this test turned out exactly as I predicted it would. The only real surprise for me was the color differences between the lenses and the fact that I preferred the color from the 75-300 over the SWD. Really wish I could have included the 150/2 and do feel somewhat let down by not being able to test it. I briefly considered waiting and trying again but my favorite time of shooting is here and it was a lot of work to drag all this gear out and concentrate on getting those shots over other photo opportunities. One of my failed attempts when dragging my pack was a Green Heron who would have been in the most beautiful light as the sun came over the trees. If I was out to just shoot I would have gotten in place with nothing but the 300/4 and waited for the sun. I don’t regret taking all the gear out and doing the test, I really did want to see how they compared. But it is not something I am willing to do again, unless I do it from the kayak where weight is really not a concern. I may actually do that because I have a good test of the lenses now to compare against, because shooting from the kayak brings a lot of other variables that I have to account for. One in particular is increased shutter speed due to kayak movement, which could cause an increase in ISO for the 75-300. So you never know, I may get a chance to repeat this and if I do I will probably throw in the Sigma 50-500.

Oh, one more thing. I also was able to photograph a Bullfrog with the 300/4 w/ MC-14 and the 50-200 SWD w/ EC-20 to do a comparison, so look for that thread in a few days.

Ok, let the comments and arguments and disagreements begin as I know they surely will…………….,


Edit - I also uploaded full resolution images for your pixel peeping pleasure

 Phocal's gear list:Phocal's gear list
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 150mm 1:2.0 Olympus M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS Pro Olympus OM-D E-M5 Olympus E-M1 Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm 1:2.8 Pancake +6 more
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