Review: Olympus 100-400 vs Panasonic/Leica 100-400

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xaprb Forum Member • Posts: 90
Review: Olympus 100-400 vs Panasonic/Leica 100-400
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I’ve rented both the Olympus 100-400mm f5-6.3 and the Panasonic “Leica” 100-400mm f4-6.3 lenses over the last couple of weeks, both from LensRentals, to see for myself how they compare. I shot them on my Olympus PEN-F extensively, up to a couple of hours a day, on local wildlife. Short version: the Panasonic is more portable, has to be stopped down too far to get good image quality, and the image stabilization is notably inferior. There are other points of difference between them — handling, what the zoom ring feels like, how much control you get with the focus limiter switch, how nice the tripod foot is, but all that is details. The big takeaway for me is that these lenses are both not-super-bright, and so for my intended purpose (birds/wildlife at a distance, mostly at 400mm) I need every stop of aperture I can get, and the Panasonic I tested isn’t usable at its widest few stops. The outcome is that it’s ONLY useful, for me, in full sunlight.

The Olympus, on the other hand, is much sharper wide-open. I noticed this immediately in usage, even through the viewfinder. For me, it’s perfectly usable at 400mm and f/6.3. Is it the world’s sharpest lens at that setting? no… but it’s not offensive. Images are good-quality, in my opinion. It was a giant difference from the Panasonic, which I was immediately stopping down to sharpen up on the first day out, even before I got home and saw images on my big computer screen. I knew I was not getting keepers at anything much less than about f10 and I didn’t want to lose all those shots.

With the Panasonic I rented, it was a constant tension between sharpness, motion blur, and sensor noise. I wasn’t always in full sun, so a bunch of shots were sharp images of moving birds that were blurred because I was afraid to push ISO too high. I was really bummed to miss some hummingbird shots because there wasn’t enough light (it was midafternoon, but the bird was in the shadow of my porch). I thought I’d pushed ISO high enough to freeze the motion, but I didn’t check until after the bird was gone, and not one shot was a keeper.

There’s sample variation, to be sure, but a) LensRentals has a good reputation for renting lenses that are performing well, and I’ve rented from them a lot, and b) my results match what others have written online. In particular there’s a detailed set of test shots on https://mirrorlesscomparison.com/micro-four-thirds-lenses/olympus-100-400mm-vs-panasonic-100-400mm/. My results match those; if anything my two rentals had an even bigger sharpness gap than shown there. In my test shots, the lenses don’t produce similar sharpness until f11.

I tested by mounting the lens on a tripod and turning off lens and body image stabilization. I set the camera to A mode, ISO 200, silent shutter (fully electronic) and shot at 400mm from f6.3 to f12, several shots each. I used autofocus, refocused each shot, and used the Olympus mobile phone app as a remote release. All of my groups of shots were consistent, so among the shots there wasn’t a clearly sharper sample from what I observed, which is comforting—it’s not as if I was getting widely disparate results and picking the best shot from each group. I was testing indoors in natural light, so although the exposures were the same ISO and timing, the light wasn’t exactly the same (I rented the lenses on adjacent weeks, not at the same time). But despite the slightly different light (one with more fill, one more harshly lit) the difference in sharpness is still obvious in my opinion. Here is a side-by-side center crop from the representative sample images wide open. This was pretty much the story until f11, at which point I couldn’t really say which was sharper anymore.

Olympus at 400mm and f6.3 on the left, Panasonic on the right. Both shots at ISO 200, auto white balance, 1/5th second exposure. Shot RAW and converted with Apple’s Preview.app, which has support for the Olympus RAW format, and I don’t believe it applies any lens corrections.

I also want to comment on the lens’s image stabilization. I feel like I have to fight the Panasonic’s stabilizer. The subject starts to drift to the side — is the lens mistakenly detecting panning and trying to correct it, I am not sure? — and I try to re-center it and can’t, it just keeps drifting, until suddenly it stops fighting me and the image in the viewfinder jerks back towards (and often past) center. I took some video of a great blue heron wading, and the lens drift-and-jerk is really obvious and annoying in that video. In practice this made it really difficult for me to keep a focus spot on small/distant birds, especially moving birds—basically impossible for me to do BiF shots with the Panasonic. The Olympus’s lens IS feels a lot more natural to me. There’s no official CIPA rating for the Panasonic, but anecdotally not only does the Olympus work better as just described, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it delivers 1-2 stops more stabilization than the Panasonic. This is a little more difficult for me to really test scientifically. I tried taking some handheld test shots but the results are harder to interpret. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions about that from my tests. All I know for sure is, the Olympus doesn’t erratically jerk and fight like the Panasonic does.

I’d buy the Olympus, no question. I’m not sure I will buy either of these lenses. I just wanted to try them out and see, because I read a lot of reviews but my own experiences often differ. After doing that, I thought it’d be helpful to post my findings here. Hopefully this helps someone!

 xaprb's gear list:xaprb's gear list
Olympus PEN-F Fujifilm X-S10 Fujifilm XF 23mm F1.4 R Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ Fujifilm XF 50-140mm F2.8 +5 more
Olympus 100-400mm F5.0-6.3 IS Olympus PEN-F Panasonic Leica 100-400mm F4.0-6.3 ASPH
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