For all the talk of mirrorless camera domination, there are few super telephoto lenses—let alone high quality, wide aperture telephoto glass—available for Micro Four Thirds (MFT) shooters. Fortunately, that’s changing. Both Panasonic and Olympus used CES to announce professional-grade telephoto lenses with fast apertures—the former a 100-400mm f/4-6.3 zoom and the later, a 300mm f/4 prime and the subject of our review.
What’s notable about the ED 300mm, other than its impressive reach, is its image stabilization. Mount it to Olympus’ O-MD E-M5 Mark II or E-M1, which have their own in-camera stabilizers, and the lens offers a whopping six stops of correction (per CIPA) as the lens and camera stabilizers work in sync. (We tested the lens on the E-M1.) Mount the lens to another Olympus or MFT body and you’ll enjoy a still-impressive four stops of image stabilization.
This prime stops down to f/22, has nine aperture blades and accepts 77mm front filters. Olympus also used a new coating, dubbed Z Nano coating, to help reduce ghosting and flaring.
This lens’ 300mm focal length is equivalent to a 600mm full-frame DSLR lens. The build is impressively solid. At 3.3 pounds with the tripod collar attached, the lens is a piker next to comparable DLSR glass. Pop the collar off and the weight drops to 2.8 pounds. Olympus thoughtfully bundles a cover that you can put on the lens in place of the tripod collar so your hands don’t brush against the screw mounts. The collar itself has grooves for Arca-Swiss base plates.
There are switches on the lens body for focus limiting and a programmable L-Fn button. It has a snap-back manual focus clutch, so you can switch into manual focus by pulling the clutch back. As you do, you’ll see focus distance markings that were previously hidden on the lens barrel. This may be a matter of personal taste, but we find the clutch system a bit clumsy. We prefer a simple dial to toggle between AF and manual. We did like the retractable lens hood, however.
The lens is weather-sealed in 17 places, so dust and light rain won’t keep you shuttered indoors.
When paired with the E-M1 or E-M5 Mark II, Olympus’ 300mm f/4 lens delivers a whopping six stops of image stabilization.
IMAGE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE
The sharpness of this lens is first rate. From its widest aperture setting to around f/16, the lens is razor sharp edge-to-edge. There’s no noticeable chromatic aberration and we spotted zero vignetting when wide open. Optically, it’s the best MFT lens we’ve tested.
The AF speed won’t break records, but it’s not unduly slow. You can manually override autofocusing, although there’s no dedicated button to enable this feature on the lens itself. Instead, you’ll have to set it in the camera menu, which is less efficient.
A very pleasant surprise is the lens’ close focusing capabilities. You can focus on subjects as close as 4.6 feet from the front of the lens, letting you edge up closer to your subject than is typically possible with other long primes (Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4, for instance, has a close focusing distance of 15.7-feet). Not surprising, though still impressive, was the lens’ incredible stabilization. Flip IS off, and it’s nearly impossible to keep the scene in your viewfinder from wobbling uncontrollably. Turn it on, and it’s like a plane passing out of turbulence into totally placid air. We felt comfortable shooting at shutter speeds down to 1/60 handheld. Steadier hands may do even better.
The aforementioned Panasonic 100-400mm f/4-6.3 telephoto lens is Olympus’ main competitor. While it has a variable aperture, it does have a longer reach and greater versatility, image stabilization, weather sealing and a slightly less expensive price tag ($1,800). Just as the Olympus lens offers greater stabilization on select Olympus camera bodies, the Panasonic lens offers dual IS for select Panasonic camera bodies. We haven’t tested the Panasonic lens yet, so we don’t know how well it holds up in the image quality department.
We do know the 300mm f/4 holds up very well. For E-M5 Mark II and E-M1 owners who shoot wildlife and sports and who benefit from the greatest degree of image stabilization, this lens is a no-brainer. Given its “Pro” pedigree, the lens entails more of an investment than other MFT glass, but we think it’s worth it.
PROS: Incredible image stabilization, lightweight design; weather-sealed body; excellent close focusing; excellent sharpness.
CONS: Expensive for a mirrorless lens; manual focus clutch mechanism can be clumsy.
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