One huge benefit to a smaller sensor is the effective focal length multiplier. Sure you can crop into an image captured at a wider angle, or on a larger sensor but as we have seen in the focal length vs sensor size post, when utilizing a smaller (relative to full frame) sensor, you can actually decrease your depth of field with the same focal length if shot from a fixed location, all while generically increasing your focal length by way of the effective multiplier in that smaller sensors crop into the larger image circle. Aperture is aperture as far as exposure is concerned, so even by this standard, f/5.6 is relatively quick when you consider the focal length and price. This said, is the Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 (<UPDATE! click the link to see it at B&H, and if you click on “Savings Available” the price is down to $499 if you purchase one of the three things that qualify, like the $10.99 software…) worth the price of admission when you consider you get a 600mm lens able to shoot at f/5.6? Let’s see…
I have debated this lens for a long time, having almost pulled the trigger multiple times only to find myself pulling back in hopes of avoiding some type of perceived, inevitable disappointment. I’m not a huge fan of most zoom lenses, and for what I shoot most, I’m very happy shooting with fixed focal lengths. That said, the super tele options for the system are still surprisingly limited, and I’m sure when we start to see the longer prime lenses introduced, the prices will rival those of the super teles for the DSLR systems, so, this is certainly a budget option all things considered (and anticipated).
I can go on and on, but really, let’s just get to the brass tacks here. Below are shots with their respective descriptions, crops, my opinions, et al.
The shot above was shot from the passenger seat of a car driving at 60mph, so I wouldn’t judge pure sharpness from this one. From our location, we would be just about 3/4 of a mile away from the shore on the far side of the river at that point and over a mile away from the homes in the 100% crop.
A quick zoom at identical exposure settings between 100mm and 300mm. Handheld and using the OMD EM5’s in body stabilization with the lens OIS turned off.
The shot above was handheld at 1/320th using the optical OIS, on the OMD EM5 (with the in body IS turned off). The grain at ISO 800, especially in the out of focus areas, is more apparent than with other lenses, but the detail of the in focus areas, while a little soft, is very decent for a shot under these circumstances and exposure settings to me. The grainy, blotchy bokeh seems to me to be part and parcel for most zooms, especially those of the consumer variety.
Now, tracking moving subjects through the viewfinder at 300mm (600mm e-fov) is a difficult task regardless of the camera or lens. Every little movement, pan, bump or vibration is amplified amazingly, and tracking birds in flight, athletes, et al, is an art in and of itself. Combine this with the blackout between frames and the less than great tracking abilities of an entirely contrast based auto focus system, and the keeper rate can drop like Howard Dean’s approval rating after his impression of an insane person in the 2004 election cycle. For those not well versed in American politics, just know the reference is meant to mean “pretty damn quickly”. Below is an example of my inability to really do well at tracking a moving subject racked out to 300mm.
While the frame rate on the OMD EM5 is nice, it does it’s best job to make tracking difficult with the viewfinder blacking out with each actuation making it difficult to guess where the subject may be for the next frame, especially at 300mm where you can very easily lose your subject by over compensating (or in my case, under compensating) your movement. Of course, a well practiced individual should be able to get around this, but it is something that when shooting moving subjects, you should at least be aware of. I was also handholding the camera and lens for this series. Perhaps a good gimbal head would have helped, but I was balancing on an outcropping of very uneven rocks at water level, so sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
Optically, this lens can be very sharp, or at least very sharp for a zoom. Taking into consideration the price and reach, it may be the sharpest and fastest sub $600, 600mm equivalent lens I’ve ever seen. The further away your subjects, the worse the cameras tend to do resolution-wise I’ve found. If you’re shooting portraits, or subjects within 20′, this lens can be very sharp, contrasty and do a fine job at resolving fine detail. If you’re trying to get a quality, detailed shot of a person 100′ away, the optical shortcomings are far more apparent to my eye largely down to the AF struggling to really latch onto fine detail in distant subjects, and the generally lower fine detail resolution.
When you consider that you get this kind of reach, with optical image stabilization and very decent optics to boot in a package that can easily fit in a small kit bag, I think we micro 4/3 system users can consider ourselves lucky. This lens is hindered most by the relatively poor auto focus (comparatively speaking) in these cameras. Until there is a functional hybrid Phase/Contrast detection, I can’t see these mirrorless system cameras as “serious” sports, or birding tools, or at least on the same level as comparably priced current DSLR’s. This is too bad, because the IQ in these cameras and through these lenses stand up to even some of the best current sensors in the larger, more developed DSLR systems (at least I feel they do which you can see in this Oly75 vs EF135 post).
Tracking birds in flight, or fast moving action can be far more difficult with a contrast detection auto focus system (as is utilized in the micro 4/3 cams) and I found the pause/blackout between frames on the OMD EM5 to be next to impossible to accurately keep tabs on quickly, and erratically moving subjects, especially when needing to try and adjust AF between frames as they moved toward or away from me. This is not to say that there are those of us that aren’t capable of amazing results under these circumstances, I’m just saying that these cameras aren’t the absolute best options for certain shooting scenarios.
That said, if your subjects are static, or have steady and easily trackable movements, or you’re really good at manually focusing and anticipating, I’m sure you could find much more success in these situations than I. For under $600 for a 600mm equivalent f/5.6 lens though, the price might be enough to ignore this as missed frames really only cost the time to delete them. If you’re being paid to shoot sports or birds, you should be looking at far more expensive tools. For the rest of us, this lens is fully capable of producing some keepers.
Optically, I’d say this lens is on par with other super tele zooms for any system, that I’ve used anyway. Granted I’ve not yet used the EF 200-400 f/4 +1.4x TC, but that is largely because I’ve already promised all my organs and appendages to various research facilities and can’t see me selling off a child to afford one. Plan on using higher ISO settings to gain access to fast enough shutter speeds to account for hand shake or certainly for moving subjects. I have yet to find a situation where I’ve felt the need to stop down past f/8 though and from what I’ve seen, f5.6 – f/8 is about the sharpest that this lens gets, so unless you really need to increase the DOF, I’d keep it right around here. For the price, and for this system, it is a good, but perhaps not great, lens. For what you get, and with realistic expectations, it can be a great situational lens. I certainly feel that it is good enough that I’m keeping it.
You can find this lens around for between $500-600 and can be found at B&H here: Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 Lens
Thanks for the read, and keep an eye out as this lens was largely purchased to be brought along on my multi day backpacking adventure which will be well documented here on the blog in the coming weeks as well. I should have some tripod mounted shots with this lens as well which shouldn’t hurt.
Cheers all and happy shooting,