Olympus 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED M.Zuiko Digital
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January 5, 2016
by William Brawley
Things keep getting better and better for Micro Four Thirds shooters! Olympus yet again expands their quiver of lenses and continues their push of higher-end glass, this time with a striking and amazingly compact M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm ƒ/4.0 I.S. Pro supertelephoto lens.
Joining the ranks of the other well-regarded Zuiko Pro lenses, the 300mm ƒ/4 basically fills the last remaining piece of the puzzle, so to speak, to cover the major range of focal lengths that a pro photographer might need. With the addition of this 600mm-eq. supertelephoto, the Olympus pro shooter has his or her bases covered with an 8mm fisheye and three ƒ/2.8 zooms that cover 7mm all the way to 150mm.
A premium, pro-grade supertelephoto lens that catered to the demands of wildlife, nature and sports photographers was previously something the Micro Four Thirds system lacked, and now Olympus aims to fill that gap with their new 300mm ƒ/4 Pro lens.
Compared to the competition, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is a fraction of the size and weight of the typical DSLR-format 600mm lenses, yet features many of the desired amenities: a constant, relatively bright aperture; a robust, dust- and weather-sealed build; support for a teleconverter and -- for the first time ever in an Olympus lens -- built-in image stabilization technology!
Not surprisingly, this technology, performance and build quality doesn't come cheap however, and the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro comes in at a rather pricey estimated street price $2,499.99 (U.S.) and $3,299.99 (Canada). On the other hand, compared to competing 600mm lenses for your DSLR, the Olympus is a bargain.
Given our experience with Olympus' previous Zuiko Pro lenses, we expected great results from this 300mm lens…but we weren't expecting them to be this good. Wide open, the lens is tack sharp across the entire frame. Looking at our blur charts, the blur characteristics are practically completely flat across the frame and extremely sharp corner-to-corner. Exceptional sharpness is maintained as you stop down, though we do see minor diffraction-related softness come into play around most around ƒ/16-ƒ/22, but it's quite minor. All said and done, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is fantastically sharp.
As with the earlier Olympus 40-150mm ƒ/2.8 Pro lens, the new 300mm is compatible with the Olympus MC-1.4x teleconverter. Though you lose a stop, the sharpness of the lens at its new ƒ/5.6 maximum aperture is still impressive. We see about a 1-blur-unit drop in overall sharpness, but images are still very crisp. Sharpness still remains even across the frame as well, and, again, minor diffraction-related softness being observed mostly around ƒ/16-ƒ/22.
Be careful with shutter shock!
For critical sharpness, reducing vibrations is a key element. For DSLRs, one of the main tips is to use mirror lock-up when available to reduce or eliminate the vibration caused by the mirror slap prior to exposure. For a mirrorless camera, which is, well, mirrorless, the shutter is open most of the time. The first curtain must close first before re-opening in order to make the exposure. This can induce subtle, yet noticeable vibrations that result in blurry images.
When testing the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro, initially using our Panasonic GX1 test camera, we observed noticeable image blurring on some of our VFA test chart images, despite using a massive Cambo studio tripod and long 10-sec self-timer. We then swapped over to an Olympus E-M1 with v4.0 firmware. In this latest software update, in addition to the previously introduced "anti-shock" shooting mode, it also offers a full "silent" mode that uses only an electronic shutter -- thus being completely vibration-free.
We tested all three primary shooting modes with the E-M1 (single-shot, anti-shock and silent modes), and found the Silent mode did indeed provide the sharpest images with the Olympus 300mm. Testing this again handheld with I.S. enabled, we also found similar results, with Silent mode producing better images when using a slower shutter speeds (1/125s for our handheld tests, for example).
Olympus 300mm Shutter Shock Tests
(300mm, f/7.1, 1/80s, I.S. Disabled)
300mm f/4 Pro
300mm f/4 Pro
300mm f/4 Pro
To back-up our findings, we re-shot a series of tripod-based tests with the 300mm ƒ/4 Pro against the older Olympus 75-300mm ƒ/4.8-6.7 II at 300mm in order to rule out any issue with the 300mm Pro lens itself. Testing both with and without IS enabled, we shot a series at 1/80s with both lenses, and we found that with either lens, using Silent shooting mode produced the sharpest images. We observed shutter-shock blurring with single-shot and anti-shock modes from both lenses.
While the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is certainly a very sharp lens, care should be taken to either use a faster shutter speed or opt for Silent mode (or Anti-Shock mode at least) if critically sharp images are desired.
The Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro exhibits very little chromatic aberration overall. There's slightly more the wider the aperture is, but it's an extremely minor increase. Maximum measured CA was under three hundredths of a percent of frame height, but on average, CA is nearly zero. Adding the 1.4x teleconverter does introduce slightly more chromatic aberration, however the difference is extremely minor. Comparing our lab test images, there is very little difference in CA with and without the extender, though there is a subtle "hue" of purple in the far corners.
With a supertelephoto lens, we weren't expecting much in the way of vignetting, and this is indeed the case with the Olympus 300mm. With both the bare lens and with the 1.4x teleconverter attached, we measured little to no vignetting at all. There's a slight hint of vignetting with the bare lens at ƒ/4, but it's very minor.
Similar to vignetting, geometric distortion is practically nonexistent on this lens. Both with and without the 1.4x teleconverter, the level of barrel distortion sits just a hair above the zero mark.
The autofocusing performance is an interesting mix. Using the E-M1 with S-AF mode, which utilizes contrast-detect AF only, the 300mm ƒ/4 Pro can be a little slow (approximately over one second) to rack through the full range from minimum focus distance to infinity. Given the lens's impressively close minimum focusing distance (more on that in a bit), this behavior is not all that surprising. Making shorter focus adjustments is extremely quick though, and the three-way focus-limiting switch can help improve AF speed by limiting the focus range to suit your subject. On the other hand, switching the E-M1 over to C-AF mode enables Dual Fast AF with a combination of CDAF and on-sensor phase detect, making the AF performance much quicker with nearly instantaneous AF adjustments (especially with short distances).
The lens features Olympus' MSC ("Movie & Still Compatible") designation, for full-time AF in both stills and video that's also very quiet so as not to introduce focusing noise in video recordings.
For manual focusing, like Olympus' other Zuiko Pro lenses, simply snap the large focus ring back toward the camera to reveal the focus distance markings and quickly enable true, mechanically controlled manual focus. When in manual focus mode, the ring has hard stops and minimum and infinity distances, otherwise the lens will rotate freely in either direction while in the AF position.
You can also have manual focus override of AF. When using Olympus cameras, users can set the camera to "S-AF+MF," and after half-pressing the shutter and achieving AF, can turn the focus ring and make manual focus adjustments. This also works with Panasonic cameras as well, when "AF+MF" is enabled.
The lens is completely internally focusing, and during AF, the front element does not extend or rotate, making accessories such as circular polarizers easy to use with this lens.
Though the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is not designed for true macro photography, it has an impressively close minimum focusing distance. In fact, the Olympus 300mm's 1.4m minimum focus distance (approximately 1.15m from the front of the lens) far exceeds the image magnification and close-focusing capabilities of its 600mm DSLR competitors. With a 0.48x magnification factor, the Olympus 300mm is quite good at macro-style close-up photographer -- "telemacro photography," as Olympus puts it -- which far outweighs the 0.14x-0.15x magnification factor of other 600mm lenses, such as the Canon and Nikon 600mm telephoto lenses.
Adding the 1.4x teleconverter, you can further enhance the macro shooting capabilities, boosting the magnification ratio to 0.67x without affecting the close-focusing distance.
One of the more notable new features of the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is the inclusion of lens-based image stabilization, a first for an Olympus lens. Prior to this lens, Olympus offered only body-based image stabilization, either 5-axis IS on cameras like the E-M1 and E-M5 II or 3-axis with the original E-M10, for example.
Dubbed "5-axis Sync IS," the new Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro combines the efforts of the in-camera 5-axis IS of the E-M1 and E-M5 II with lens-based image stabilization -- similar to that of Sony's recent 5-axis IS system and Panasonic's Dual IS. What's unique about the Olympus system is that, according to Olympus, it offers a massive 6-stops of image stabilization correction when used with a compatible camera body! With the 5-axis Sync IS, the lens IS corrects for pitch and yaw movements, while the body-based IS handles pitch and yaw as well as roll movements.
Right now, the Version 4.0 for the E-M1's firmware and Version 2.0 for the E-M5 Mark II provide full Sync IS compatibility. However, for those with older Olympus cameras or other Micro Four Thirds cameras, the lens itself will still provide a very useful 4-stops of stabilization correction.
In our testing, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro's image stabilization using the E-M1 v4.0 was fantastic. Our lens technician Rob has quite the steady hand to begin with and, as you can see from our graph, was able to get about a 40% keeper rate of "Good" shots down to 1/60s of a second without any image stabilization. With image stabilization, however, not only was he now getting 100% keeper rates at 1/60s, he saw 100% of shots rated "Good" down to 1/15s! Going even slower, we still saw a handful of "Good"-rated shots (~30%) at a whopping 1s exposure time. At 300mm. That is incredible!
|Mouse over this chart to show results with IS activated.|
Why is the Image Stabilization system with the new Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro so great? According to Olympus, one of the main factors -- in addition to new I.S. algorithms -- is the hand-selected, high-performance gyro sensor inside the lens. Not only did Olympus contract specifically for high-performance gyro sensors, but also each gyro sensor undergoes performance assessments in the factory. Then, Olympus themselves hand-selects the best-performing sensors to go into each 300mm lens. In other words, only the best of the best make the cut for the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro lens. Furthermore, each time the camera is powered-on, the in-camera IS gyro sensor and the lens's counterpart are calibrated against each other.
Build Quality and Handling
Like other Zuiko Pro lenses, the build quality of the 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is excellent. Following a similar sleek black design, the all-metal construction is fully weather-sealed with protection from splashes, dust and dirt as well as freezing temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). Olympus states that there are a total of 17 separate seals throughout the lens, including a gasket around the lens mount and seals around the buttons and switches along the side. With the solid metal construction and weather sealing, the 300mm ƒ/4 Pro should be able to withstand whatever mother nature throws at it, within reason of course.
In the hand, the lens feels great with a very solid build and buttery smooth focus rings. The wide metal focus ring has a fine ribbed texture for a secure grip and is light and smooth enough to rotate with your thumb and forefinger. Like a number of Olympus lenses, the focus ring uses a clutch mechanism to engage full-time manual focus. Pulling back on the focus ring has a nice, satisfying "snap" to it and reveals the focus distance markings. Given the ring's large size and prominent position where you rest your hand, the ring can be a bit easy to accidentally engage into its manual focus position. With recent firmware updates to the E-M1 and E-M5 II, you can actually disable the MF Clutch mechanism completely (on this lens and others), should you find yourself not needing MF often, or frustratingly bumping it all the time.
If you're tired of lugging around a large DSLR-style supertelephoto lens, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is a welcome reprieve thanks not only to its lighter weight, but also to its sheer compactness. Compared to its DSLR counterparts, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro lens is astonishingly small -- it really puts the "Micro" in Micro Four Thirds when you consider what this lens offers and its focal length. For example, the Canon 600mm ƒ/4L IS II offers the same focal length in 35mm equivalence, yet weighs over twice the amount of the Olympus (8.64lbs vs. 3.25lbs). The Canon is also around 17 inches long, whereas the Olympus 300mm flies under the radar at less than 9 inches. Even with the retractable lens hood, the lens is able to pack away into rather small camera bags with ease, making it much more convenient to carry around -- one of the major benefits to the Micro Four Thirds system in the first place. The balance is great with the E-M1 and handholding this combo is very comfortable for extended shooting periods with little need to offload the heft to a tripod or monopod, as you'd typically do with a DSLR-equivalent lens.
In terms of optical construction, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro lens is comprised of a total of 17 lens elements, including 3 Super ED lenses, 3 High Refractive Index lenses, and 1 Extra-High Refractive Index lens. According to Olympus, the 3 Super ED elements help suppress color bleeding and chromatic aberration, and given our CA testing results, they certainly do their job. In addition to utilizing ZERO Coating (ZUIKO Extra-low Reflective Optical Coating) on the lens elements, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro also uses a brand-new lens coating technology called "ZERO Coating Nano," which combats ghosting and flares by minimizing reflected light.
The lens elements are designed and configured in such a way as to utilize a very small and lightweight lens grouping for focusing. Rather than having to move substantially large and heavy elements to focus, the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro uses a very small focusing lens group, which allows for faster AF performance as well as contribute to the impressive close focusing capabilities. Additionally, the moving Image Stabilized lens is also small and lightweight, further improving IS performance and allowing for smaller, more precise movements inside this relatively compact lens.
Other than the sleek black exterior, the Olympus 300mm does feature a small cluster of switches on the left side of the barrel as well as a removable tripod collar and foot. Of particular note is the design of the tripod foot itself. Olympus has gone and done something rather clever -- built-in Arca-Swiss-compatible dovetails along the base of the tripod foot. For users of one of the more versatile tripod mounting standards, no longer do you need to buy an add-on plate or replacement foot. The lens should be compatible with your Arca-Swiss tripod head straight out of the box. Handy! Of course, standard screw mounts are present in the foot, should you need to use another tripod mount. The foot and tripod ring itself is fully removable, and lens ships with a black "decorative ring" to cover-up the exposed section when not in use.
The button cluster includes a three-way slider switch for limiting focus (1.4-4m, 1.4m-infinity, and 4m-infinity) and an On/Off switch for image stabilization. There is also the standard Lens Function (L.Fn) button that's featured on all Zuiko Pro lenses. This customizable button offers up to 27 various programmable functions to set as you see fit.
As it stands now, for the Micro Four Thirds shooter, there's very little in the way of a direct competitor to the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro. Though less practical in a number of ways, the most apt alternative for a true 300mm (600mm-eq.) supertelephoto prime for a Micro Four Thirds camera is the older Olympus Zuiko 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens. A highly regarded piece of glass, this Four Thirds DSLR lens is reportedly extremely sharp and very well built (we've yet to test this lens). Though technically still in production nowadays, despite the quiet discontinuation of Four Thirds cameras, this lens is quite a bit more expensive than the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro at around $6,500, and it's also substantially larger and heavier. AF performance will also take a hit, as it needs a Four Thirds-to-Micro Four Thirds adapter to work on current MFT cameras. The Olympus E-M1 is currently the best option for use with adapting existing Four Thirds lenses thanks to its on-sensor phase detect AF, which does provide a nice speed boost for AF with these "older" lenses.
More practically, the Olympus 75-300mm ƒ/4.8-6.7 II is the next best option for Micro Four Thirds users looking for a lens that reaches the 600mm-eq. mark. While the 75-300mm lens is much smaller and lighter than this 'Pro' sibling, it's not nearly as sharp or as well built, with no weather-sealing and a mostly plastic construction. It also lacks the brighter, constant ƒ/4 aperture, instead narrowing to a rather dim ƒ/6.7 at 300mm. It is however much more affordable than the 300mm ƒ/4 Pro at around $450-550.
For the Panasonic arena, they also offer a compact and relatively affordable telephoto zoom lens that provides a 600mm-eq. reach. The Panasonic 100-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 ASPH MEGA OIS LUMIX G VARIO competes closely with the Olympus 75-300mm in terms of quality, compactness and a similar range of focal lengths. At around $600, it's another more affordable option for MFT shooters, but it -- like the Olympus 75-300mm -- doesn't offer the robust featureset and quality that the professional-grade 300mm ƒ/4 Pro does.
Panasonic recently announced their longest zoom lens, the Panasonic 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH POWER OIS LEICA DG VARIO-ELMAR. In fact, this is currently the longest-reaching lens for Micro Four Thirds at the time of this review. Though we have yet to review this lens, it does offer a couple of advantages over the Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro. For one, its 400mm long end offers more reach with an 800mm-eq. focal length. Plus, the lens offers more inherent versatility thanks to its zoom design. Like the Olympus, the Panasonic 100-400mm offers both image stabilization and weather sealing. The aperture on this lens is variable, however, compared to the constant f/4 on the Olympus, and is not as bright at full telephoto. The Panasonic is still pricey at around $1,800, but that's considerably less expensive than the Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro.
The Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro is one heck of a lens. Simply put. After a long time in development -- it was announced as "in-development" back at CP+ in 2014 -- the biggest, brightest supertelephoto lens of the Micro Four Thirds system is, well, not so "big" after all, physically at least. An impressive feat of engineering, the folks at Olympus have managed to shrink down a 600mm-equivalent supertelephoto lens, with a constant, relatively bright ƒ/4 aperture and image stabilization into a remarkably small, comfortable, hand-holdable, weather-sealed lens.
Like Olympus' other Zuiko Pro lenses, image quality from the 300mm ƒ/4 is thoroughly impressive on all fronts: excellent sharpness and all-around wonderful optical qualities with little to no distortion, aberrations or vignetting. What's even more impressive is the lens' stunning image stabilization. Combining lens-based and body-based I.S., the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro lets you capture handheld images down to shockingly slow shutter speeds. All this, plus impressive close-focusing capabilities, make the Olympus 300mm ƒ/4 Pro a stunning lens for the professional and advanced photographer looking for a top-notch wildlife, sports, stage performance and close-up lens no matter the weather or lighting conditions. It may be pricey, but this is one of the best lenses Olympus has made thus far.
View real-world sample images over at our Olympus E-M1 Gallery Page (look for images with "300mm" in the filename).
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
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