Review Olympus 300 mm f/4
The Olympus 300 mm f/2.8 Zuiko Digital, because of its unique construction and image quality, is a famous telephoto lens for nature, sport and telephoto-macro photography. But its price, weight, and the fact that the lens is designed for four-thirds cameras that are no longer made make this topper from 2005 a less obvious candidate for the popular micro-43 cameras of today. Since 2005, a great deal of progress has been made in making AF faster and more accurately, and you especially benefit from that with telephoto lenses.
|Olympus 300mm f/4 PRO @ OM-D E-M1 + 1.4x converter f/7.1, 1/200 sec, 100 ISO (beelduitsnede)|
|High sharpness, contrast and bright colors at an extremely long focal length. Two months ago, this was still on the bucket list of the (semi-)professional photographer with a micro-43 camera. Both the recently released Panasonic 100-400 mm and the Olympus 300 mm f/4 have made it come true.|
Olympus M Zuiko 300 mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED? Solid!
|Olympus is a brand that actually collaborates with photographers. Example? Owners of an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod should take a good look at the tripod collar shown in the picture above: the tripod collar of the Olympus 300 mm f/4 fits without using a tripod plate. Handy! Will a tripod collar also come to market for other tripods? I hope so.|
Build and auto focus
Just like the earlier Olympus PRO lenses that we have reviewed (Olympus 8 mm Fisheye, Olympus 12-40 mm f/2.8 and Olympus 40-150 mm f/2.8), this Olympus lens is not only great to look at, it is also rock solid. You feel that immediately when you first pick up this lens. If you compare the Olympus 300 mm f/4 with the Panasonic 100-400 mm, then a difference of 30% on one kilo is not bad at all. That is a negligible difference for a professional photographer who is accustomed to a camera that weighs more than one and a half kilos and a lens that weighs a multiple of that. If you are not accustomed to working with a heavy camera, then it may be that photographing with the Panasonic zoom will be easier. A difference of 30% is one that you will notice.
In comparison with the plastic lens hood of the Olympus 40-150 mm, the Olympus 300 mm f/4 has an even better (less play and attaches more precisely to the lens) metal lens hood. A lens of 23 cm long (28 cm with the lens hood extended) that has a field of view of 4 degrees (equivalent to a 500 mm lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor) is a luxury. The buttons on the lens for focus limiting, AF/MF and image stabilization on/off are larger than we are accustomed to from micro-43 lenses. There is space for that on the lens body, and they can now also be operated with gloves on. If you remove the tripod collar, then you can place a ring, that is included, in its place. It looks great.
Manual focusing with the wide, ribbed metal ring is a real pleasure. Just like the other Olympus PRO lenses, this lens has a Focus clutch mechanism for switching between AF and manual focusing. With an SLR camera with a high resolution sensor, you can have trouble with front or back focus, because the focus module is not on the sensor, but elsewhere in the camera. Because a mirrorless system camera focuses on the sensor signal, you will never have trouble with front or back focus. The silent focus motor of the 300 mm f/4 makes use of fly-by-wire, so that the focus ring does not have a hard stop at the shortest or longest focal length when you manually overrule the AF motor. If you make use of the focus clutch, then you do have a hard stop at the extreme focal lengths. You are thus certain when focusing manually that you have turned too far at a given point while focusing. On our test model, the focus ring was a bit too loose for my taste, so that you could unintentionally set the camera to manual focus.
There is a special Fn button on the lens to which you can assign an extra function. I find that handy, because when photographing with a telephoto lens, you hold your hand under the lens. This button is then within reach, while not all the buttons on the camera are
Don’t think that you will come home with nothing but successful shots without practice. This—certainly in my case—does not have to do with the equipment, but the photographer. I am not accustomed to photographing with extreme telephoto lenses. It takes practice with an extremely small field of view to target the subject precisely. The AF is very fast and, like you find on many professional lenses of other brands, you can limit the focal range to 3 modes: full range, 1.4 to 4 meters, and from 4 meters to infinity. Clever use of the focus limiting makes it possible to focus even faster. Continuous AF is fast, thanks to the phase detection sensor of the Olympus OM-D E-M1. Even so, I think that the camera is a limiting factor here, and that the lens will appear to be even faster with an eventual successor of the OM-D E-M1. The Olympus EE1 Dot (more about that in a moment) increases the number of successful action shots.
The bee's knees: Olympus' 5-Axis Sync Image Stabilization
From our earlier tests, we already know that the IBIS image stabilization of Olympus cameras provides an enormously stable image. The Olympus 300 mm f/4 PRO has equally unbelievably good image stabilization built in that can also work with the in-body image stabilization of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 Mark II. This 5-axis synchronized IS, according to the specifications, is good for a profit of 6 EV steps. In common language: a photo that you shoot by hand with a shutter time of 1/1000 sec without image stabilization is just as sharp as a shot made with a shutter time of 1/15 sec with image stabilization.
With older cameras, you can choose between sensor and lens stabilization: for lenses with an extremely long focal length, always choose lens stabilization. For extreme telephoto lenses, the sensor in the body has to make enormous adjustments to correct for the movements that a lens makes. Olympus has therefore fitted the 300 mm f/4 with built-in image stabilization. An added advantage is that owners of a Panasonic camera also benefit from the image stabilization. With some Olympus cameras, the image stabilization in the camera works together with the image stabilization in the lens (5-axis Sync IS), as is explained in the video above. This is a recent development from which you, for example as an owner of an Olympus OM-D E-M1, only profit if you install the most recent (free) firmware on your camera. Olympus is one of the manufacturers, just like Sigma, Panasonic and Fujifilm, who provide their customers with extended service by also offering new technological innovations.
|The practice shot below is a great illustration of the extremely effective image stabilization. On a cloudy, gray day, I saw two wild boars, and I took a picture as quickly as I could, with a shutter time of 1/13 of a second. This is not the best result from a series of shots: it is a realistic example from practice. The boars did not stand still for a second shot. If you enlarge this shot to 100%, you can see that at a shutter time of 1/13 sec, the sharpness is less than it is with a shorter shutter time. Even so, I am amazed that I can get a picture like this by hand with a telephoto lens with a field of view that is equal to the field of view of a 600 mm lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor. Not with a shutter time of 1/800 sec (for which I would have had to change the ISO from 100 to 6400), but with a shutter time of 1/13 sec. I would not be shocked if, with a bit more time to get a stable stance and if I could have taken a few shots in a row, even a shutter time of 1/6 of a second would have produced a sharp picture. Bizarre.
Enlarged to 100% (move your mouse over the picture above), the eye of the boar is still sharp in a shot made at 300 mm 1/13 second (= 600 mm FF FOV-equivalent) thanks to the synchonized image stabiliztation. Less sharp than a shot taken from a tripod, but sharper than a shot made with a shutter time of 1/300 without image stabilization.
Fantastic close-up lens
|With a 600 mm telephoto lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor, you have to think of about 5 meters for the shortest focus distance. That produces a magnification of about 1:7. A subject about 25 cm wide fills the frame then. The Olympus 300 mm f/4 has a shortest focus distance of about 1.4 m, at which distance a subject of about 7 cm fills the frame. Thanks to a magnification of 0.24x (0.48x converted to full-frame) you can get close-up shots of insects from a relatively great distance, without them noticing your presence, in comparison with real macro lenses, that usually have a much shorter focal distance.d
The Olympus 300 mm f/4 has a new coating, Z Coating Nano, which means that there is a layer of nanoparticles applied to a number of lens elements, including the front lens. This nano coating appears to be very effective at preventing internal reflections. With previous tests, we found some purple flecks with bright backlighting situations, but when testing the 300 mm f/4, we did not see any flare or ghosts in our shots.
To analyze the sharpness, we took test shots that stored in the camera simultaneously in RAW and jpg formats. The graph below shows the Imatest measurements of resolution (MTF50) for jpg files that are made with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 (16 megapixels). The measured resolution is a bit higher than the measured resolution of the Panasonic 100-400 mm at the same focal length on a Panasonic GX8, with a 20-megapixel camera. We are now working on getting practice shots with both lenses on the same camera (OM-D E-M1), in order to determine whether we can see a difference in image quality. We also take shots with the Olympus 300 mm f/4 with the 1.4x teleconverter.
|The MTF50 is tested in the image ratio of 4:3, but the scores in the conclusion are calculated with an image ratio of 2:3. This allows the measurement results in the Lens Comparison or in our list of test results at individual focal lengths (see 600mm) directly comparable with the measurement results of lenses on a camera with an APS-C or full-frame sensor.
No chromatic aberration, vignetting or distortion
|Neither lateral (purple and green edges at sharp contrast transitions in the corners of the image) nor longitudinal (“color bokeh”) chromatic aberration are visible. With micro-43 cameras, lens errors are corrected in the camera, so you might think that this is because of in-camera correction of any lens errors. That is not the case here. It is because of a good lens design, the right glass types and careful production, or strict quality control. I can say that because for the Olympus 300 mm f/4, it also applies for uncorrected RAW files: you have no trouble from lens errors like chromatic aberration, distortion and vignetting. The low chromatic aberration in uncorrected RAW files is thanks to the high-quality glass types that are used. Vignetting is not visible across the whole range: a bit more than 1/3 stop in an uncorrected RAW file at f/4 and equal to zero after stopping down 1 stop. Distortion is actually absent: less than 0.25% in an uncorrected RAW file. In part, that low distortion is thanks to the compact dimensions: distortion increases with the size of the lens. With high-end, full-frame telephoto lenses with a focal length greater than 250 mm, distortion of 1% is quite normal.
The longer the focal length of a lens and the brighter the lens, the better the bokeh becomes. If you compare the bokeh of the Olympus 300 mm f/4 with the bokeh of bright telephoto lenses (300 mm f/2.8, 500 mm f/5.6, etc.) on a camera with a full-frame sensor, then there is a clear difference. With extreme telephoto lenses on a camera with a full-frame sensor, you get a background blurred to one color at full aperture, as though the subject were placed in front of a studio background. With the Olympus 300 mm f/4, you get a beautifully blurred background, as in the example above. But it is not so blurred that the entire background has become just one color. It is a question of taste, over which the argument is endless. Some people find such a background less beautiful than a completely even background. Personally, I find it a plus that the character of the background is still visible, in a beautifully blurred bokeh, with an extreme telephoto lens.
Must-have accessories: 1.4x converter & EE1 Dot
There are two accessories that I think ought to be purchased with the purchase of the Olympus 300 mm f/4. First, the 1.4x converter, unless you already bought one with the Olympus 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO. Teleconverters are a practical solution for further increasing the range of a telephoto lens without too much hassle. It only works well with lenses that are very good optically. Both the Olympus 40-150 mm f/2.8 and the Olympus 300 mm f/4 have the chops for it. The loss of image quality from using a teleconverter is really very small, and the AF continues to function well. We will publish a review of the Olympus 300 mm f/4 with teleconverter shortly.
|Another must-have is the Olympus EE1 Dot. This is an ideal solution for every photographer with an extreme telephoto lens, regardless of brand. A Nikon or Canon photographer with an SLR camera gets just as much benefit from this accessory as a photographer with a micro-43 camera.
Problem? When photographing or filming with an extreme telephoto lens, the field of view is so small that it requires a great deal of experience to focus at just the right place. If you see a bird flying, the chance is good that when you bring your eye to the viewfinder, you will only see blue sky, and no bird. And which way should you turn if the bird is outside the frame? Right or left? Especially if you have not focused yet, it is difficult to get the subject in frame quickly with an extreme telephoto lens.
Solution? The Olympus EE1 Dot is a viewfinder with a red target in the middle; you place it in the camera’s hotshoe. With the red target, you can outline what will appear in the picture. Once you’ve done that, you no longer have to look through the viewfinder to follow a bird in flight. Thanks to the Olympus EE1 Dot, you know exactly how to get and keep a (moving) subject at a great distance in frame with an extreme telephoto lens. The only thing you have to do is to get the red dot on your subject. Ideal for photography and video. I’m going to buy one.
Conclusion Olympus 300 mm f/4 review with Olympus OM-D E-M1
|Look in our list of reviewed lenses to compare this lens with other lenses.
WYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens if you save the files in the camera as jpg, where you have applied all available in-camera lens corrections. This score gives you for this lens/test camera combination: "What you see is what you get".