The Olympus 300mm Pro F/4 Official Lens Review
by Craig Litten
A 600mm lens is the lens we all dream about. It’s the crème de la crème, the one that makes people drool, the one that when carrying it people ask, “Are you a professional?” I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone who gets into photography dreams of one day owning the big daddy of them all, a telephoto lens like the 600mm.
600mm is the preferred focal length for wildlife and sports photography—and anything else that you can’t get close enough to. With wildlife we know that animals are naturally afraid of humans and keep their distance, thus the need of a super-telephoto lens. But when it comes to sports, we have logistics to deal with like sidelines and size of venue, etc. For instance, in baseball center field is a long way away from the position of the photographer, so the photographer needs a long lens like a 600mm to get close enough to grab a shot of the center fielder snatching a would-be home run near the top of the fence at 400 feet.
The Olympus at 300mm (Pen-F) giving you a 600mm equivalent focal length.
But you say: This is the Olympus 300mm f4 you are reviewing, why do you keep calling it a 600mm? Well, 300mm is the lens’ actual focal length, but with the 2x crop factor of a Mirco Four Thirds camera, the 35mm equivalent focal length is 600mm. It may not have the same shallow depth-of-field as a true 600mm on a full frame camera, but this lens is a true f4 lens (as far as light gathering is concerned), and its actual focal length, when factoring in the 2x crop, becomes 600mm. So, from this point forward I will be referring to this Olympus 300mm f4 Pro lens as a 600mm. Because when you’re out in the real world shooting with it, you will be framing your subjects as if it was a true 600mm lens, and you’ll have to get way back to fit whatever it is you are trying to photograph in the frame, and it does take some practice.
Try this on for size. The Sony below will get you 70-200mm. The Olympus will get you 600mm f/4 (equiv) and the Canon, also 600mm f/4. Here is where M 4/3 shows it’s massive size advantage.
For instance, if you had three cameras next to one another in a row; the first being a Canon 600mm f4 lens on a 5D MkIII (on the left), with a Sony RX10 III zoomed all the way out to its longest focal length—a 600mm equivalent (on the right), and placed the Olympus E-M5 MkII with the Olympus 300mm f4 Pro lens attached (in the center), whatever object you are photographing should be exactly the same size when viewing it on the back of each camera.
Who in the World Needs a 600mm Lens Anyway?
Personally, I am pretty amazed that Olympus released this lens. The fact that it’s currently on backorder here in the US seems to give credence to its success. But make no mistake, it’s an exotic piece of glass to be sure. It’s also outside the normal kit that most people would buy, which in my opinion would be between the 24mm (35mm equivalent) to 200mm or 300mm (35mm equivalent). Traditionally, going back to the film days, very few photographers ever purchased lenses wider than 20-24mm (35mm equivalent), but today with the advent of digital, a vast array of sensor sizes allowing smaller lens design, plus computer aided lens designs, super wide lenses are becoming much, much more common. And fewer still ever purchased a lens longer than 300mm, but things are changing. Because of the aforementioned mentioned, it is now feasible to make cameras like the Sony RX10 III with its 24-600mm (35mm equivalent) lens, the amazing Nikon 1 Nikkor 70-300mm zoom (190-810mm in 35mm equivalent), the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm zoom (200-800mm in 35mm equivalent) and this Olympus 300mm (600mm in 35mm equivalent).
So who is this lens for? Well, as mentioned above this lens is certainly for wildlife and sports photographers, which I think will be the main user base who will purchase it, but it’s certainly not limited to those types of photographers. Because of the current lack of DSLR-like focus tracking in most mirrorless cameras, I think this lens’ greatest potential is yet to be discovered.
To be fair though, I am testing it with Steve’s little Pen F. My hunch though, is that the recently announced Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II will close the gap between mirrorless and DSLR-level focus tracking. Who knows, it may even match it. But I don’t think the limitation is in the lens, but in the bodies. In other words, I think the lens will focus just as fast as a given camera body would allow it to. So as the years pass and mirrorless technology grows, this lens will be able to keep up. Single focus accusation, by the way, is lighting fast and instant—no hesitation (on the Pen F). If I had to guess from what I’m currently seeing in the mirrorless market, mirrorless camera’s focus tracking limitation will not be a factor in the next two years. So those who purchase this lens now will be making a solid investment knowing that focus tracking will continue to improve and most likely match anything offered by all but the top pro DSLR cameras like the Canon EOS 1D X-series and the Nikon D5, D6, etc.
Because this lens is so small and compact compared to an actual full frame 600mm f4 lens, it’s one that you can carry around as easily as any full frame 70-200 f2.8, with which it compares with very well in size and weight. I included a photo of it next to my Sony FE 70-200 f4 to give you a better idea of its size.
The Sony 70-200 f4 is very close in size to its Canon or Nikon counterparts also in case you’re more familiar with them. The size of this lens alone opens it up to so many more photographers outside the camp of wildlife or sports. If you’ve already built up your m43 lens kit and have the basics covered, and you want to get closer, this is lens you’re looking for. Or if you just love telephoto lenses, you’re in for a real treat as very few photographers have ever had the chance to shoot with a lens of this focal length. This is not a lens you’d keep in your bag everyday though, but I feel that it fits in more as another tool in your photo toolbox to be used when it’s needed. Just like a flash, tripod or a fisheye lens. You have it when you need it, but it won’t be used everyday like lenses that cover the 24mm to 200mm (35mm equivalent) range—the bread and butter lenses.
Also, the Olympus 300mm f4 Pro would be a great alternative for dedicated DSLR shooters who many have never considered mirrorless, and who desire a super telephoto lens in a smaller, lighter package but don’t want to sacrifice image quality (meaning lens quality—as this lens is equal in quality with any top-of-the-line lenses from other manufacturers). This, along with the Olympus 7-14mm (which I’m reviewing next) may just be the ticket as an alternate camera kit to compliment your current DSLR system. And it won’t take up a lot of room.
Build, Construction & Design
What is the build quality like? Think: Sherman M4 Medium Tank-like. Or in the photo world, think Leica R lenses or old-school, manual focus Nikon AIS lenses. It’s that good.
A few decades ago I was in downtown Homestead, Fla., just south of Miami toward the Keys. While walking around I stumbled upon a very nice camera store (I doubt that it still exists), and bumped into a guy who was coming out of the store. He had an old manual AIS Nikkor zoom lens that had been shot with a powerful handgun at close range (I don’t remember how or why it happened) and he wanted to show it to me. When I looked at the lens I noticed that it had a nice size “dent” in it, that’s it. The most amazing thing about this was that the lens still worked perfectly. In my opinion, the Olympus 300mm f4 Pro lens is in that same realm of quality, and just may be able to take a bullet and keep on ticking. OK, so we just added combat photographers to the mix of who this lens may be for. Wildlife photographers, check; sports photographers, check; combat photographers, check.
The surface of the lens is silky smooth and handles fingerprints really well. In fact, it’s so smooth that if you are like me and decide to remove the tripod collar, you must take extra care when mounting and un-mounting the lens as to not let it slip from your fingers, as it’s a tad bit slippery. But shooting with it feels great as it just glides into your hand.
The focus collar is metal, as is the entire lens including, of course, the mount. The focus ring has a very nice grippy surface too. This is especially helpful when manually focusing of course. If you have used or own any of the other Olympus Pro series lenses, you will immediately be familiar with how nice it is.
I’m sure that most of you are familiar with the Auto Focus/Manual Focus Clutch mechanism of the other Olympus Pro lenses, well this lens uses the same implementation. I personally love the idea of this feature, and feel that it’s a real necessity especially on the wider prime lenses where you may choose to zone focus. The biggest benefit to this is instant manual focus override in cases where your focus gets fooled. You simply pull back and turn. Probably the greatest feature of this is that even though this is a focus-by-wire lens, Olympus choose to add hard stops at either end just like the old manual focus SLR lenses. This is a wonderful feature and actually fools your senses into thinking that you are shooting with a manual focus lens. The focus is, as they say, buttery smooth, with no discernible lag.
On the Pen F it’s amazingly realistic feeling and precise. The one downside of the clutch mechanism is that I think that it needs to be stiffer, if possible, to keep one from accidentally activating it. Many times I accidentally bumped it, went to take a picture, and found the camera not responding. I then realized that it was in manual focus mode and therefore missed the opportunity. This might sound like a small thing, but if you’re a working pro, this could mean you missed a very important shot. Perhaps, on larger lenses as this, Olympus could add a locking mechanism. But the downside of that is that it could negate the whole purpose of the clutch mechanism in the first place.
The Cool Stuff
Olympus went all out with this lens, so I want to mention a few very cool features that you may not already know about. First up is the fact that the tripod foot has an ARCA-Swiss compatible tripod foot built in. Amazing! So if you are using an ARCA-Swiss type tripod head, such as those made by Really Right Stuff, etc., you won’t need to slap another lens tripod plate onto you lens because it’s built in. This is not only super convenient, but can save you anywhere from $65 to well over $100. If you have another brand/style of tripod head or plate, no problem, as you simply attach it to the 1/4-20 thread on the bottom of the tripod mount. Secondly, the lens has an extra assignable Fn (L-Fn) button on it (like Sony). It can be used as a focus hold button when in continuous auto focus, or can be assigned to one of many other customizable functions of your choosing.
Finally, for those of you who won’t be mounting the lens to a tripod often, and want to remove the tripod collar altogether, which is quick and easy to do, you can purchase the Olympus DR-79 Decoration Ring. What?! This is amazing and unheard of attention to detail in my opinion. What’s a decoration ring? The decoration ring slides into place to “fill” the spot left vacated by your tripod collar to make the lens look more ascetically pleasing. How cool is that?! Your lens will now look great with or without the tripod collar, and no more embarrassing moments with your Canon or Nikon friends.
FULL SIZE: CLICK IT TO SEE (PEN-F)
Finally, the lens meets the usual expectations for those who have owned such telephoto lenses before, such as a manual Image Stabilization On/Off switch, and a Focus Limitation switch with three different settings. 1.4-4m, 1.4m to infinity, and 4m to infinity. This is very helpful when you know you’ll be shooting subjects farther away than normal or close up, as it limits the travel distance of any possible focus hunting. And the lens hood is not only supplied with the lens, but it’s built in and implemented very well. It appears to be constructed of hard plastic, is well made and has knurling on the edge, similar to the focus ring, for easy gripping when turning it. It simply slides out into place, and turns to lock. It’s as simple as that. The hood stays firmly locked too until you decide to turn and slide it back into place for storage. It’s so well designed that it barely adds any circumference to the lens, so packing it into your camera bag will be easy. A built-in lens hood that is implemented well is an excellent idea, but unfortunately it’s a two-edged sword as some may want to remove it. I know many photographers who choose not to ever shoot with a lens hood, so this might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Click to see the image with a full 100% crop
Auto Focus & Image Stabilization
The Image Stabilization in this lens is rock-solid, super steady and honestly, probably the very best I’ve seen in any lens I’ve ever used. In one word: Amazing. And remember, I’m using the Pen F, so I imagine it will be even more spectacular on the upcoming E-M1 Mark II. As is, you will have no complaints. Not only does it lock in and activate, but it causes the LCD viewfinder to become super smooth and clear even in very dim light. I have been able to shoot photos with shutter speeds as low as 1/20th of a second, and included a sample of some glassware in my wife’s china cabinet, at night, under extremely low lighting conditions at ISO 3200. To take advantage of this amazing image stabilization, I recommend shooting in High/Silent Mode. This will give you the greatest advantage in getting a perfectly sharp photo even in the worst lighting conditions. Of course, this won’t help if your subject is fast moving, but only for things that are static.
The auto focus is completely silent, or let’s say, very, very inaudible, and in single shot AF mode, it is instant and without hesitation—which is an amazing feat for such a big lens lens. Again, I’m using the Pen F, but there is no hunting or hesitation for single shot mode in good light. There were a few times I struggled with acquiring focus, but I blame the camera, not the lens. As started above, this is a lens that will be as good as the cameras body you’re mounting it to. As for continuous auto focus, it’s a work in progress. I was able to shoot surfing with it, but knowing how to overcome autofocus systems is my job. You can shoot just about anything with any camera/lens combo if you understand that camera’s auto focus system. For instance, if any of you have ever shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, you’ll know right away that it is not a great auto focus system (not until the 5D Mark IIII did it become really great). But I was able to cover night time high school football (think the worst lighting possible coupled with fast action) for a few seasons with that camera. That being said, with the right body and as technology increases, this lens should be able to keep up with a cheetah in full sprint.
Just how good is the Olympus 300mm f4 lens? To me the biggest deciding factor in purchasing a lens is its image quality, this is first and foremost. But many times you have to give a little on certain preferences such as build quality, auto focus speed, size and weight, etc., when purchasing a lens. Fortunately, the image quality with this lens is nothing short of stunning. Olympus hits the trifecta, so to speak, with the 300mm f4 Pro lens, as it has stunning image quality, an incredible tank-like build and instant auto focus. What’s not to like? It’s a fast f4 lens with the 35mm equivalent focal length of 600mm, it is approximately the size and weight of a standard 70-200mm f2.8 lens (so it’s portable), it has a tank-like build, amazing built-in image stabilization, macro-like close focusing ability (4.6 feet) at a very reasonable price (in my opinion—as Olympus didn’t hold anything back) and it features exotic glass with letters like HR, E-HR, ED and Z with MSC (which is all Greek to me).
Comparing focal length only, Canon’s 600mm f4 lens cannot be handheld, has close focusing ability of only just under 15 feet, and cost $9000 more. I know that’s not a fair comparison, but if your main goal is to shoot far-away subjects and bring them close, this mighty little super lens will do just that, and will draw very little attention from people around you. Pull out a big, white Canon super telephoto lens and you’ll draw crowds plus need a monopod to use it, and a case to carry it in. I know this for a fact because I had regular access to a 200 f2, 300 f2.8, 400 f2.8, 500 f4 and 600 f4 in the past as a newspaper staff photojournalist.
As for the image quality, I am quite impressed with it. It draws an image beautifully, is sharp and contrasty, creates smooth, subtle transitions with very pleasant blurred backgrounds. This is a lens that you want to shoot wide open most of the time. In fact, there are few reasons to ever stop it down more than one or two stops. Super telephoto lenses were created to shoot wide open, and this lens is no exception. Fear not, it is excellent right from the get-go, wide open. In fact, most of my sample shots were taken at f4.
From my testing I feel that this lens performs at its very best with closer to medium subjects. One example is photo of the man reading a book on the beach—the text is crystal clear and easily readible.
On the other hand, the shot of the loading docks, which are in my estimation just over a mile away, is incredibly clear. You can easily read the numbers and letters on the boat, shipping containers, crane and tower.
CLICK THE IMAGE TO SEE A 100% CROP EMBEDDED
So again, this piece of glass is a great investment because sensor technology will only get better adding more megapixels and greater resolving power. Shooting subjects far away, like this loading dock or the 100% crop of the boat out in the Atlantic (see photo of boat with license number FL 9610 FN on it below) is what makes owning such a lens so much fun.
100% OOC crop of 600mm
This particular boat was so far away that the naked eye couldn’t make out any of the fine details. But in this 100% crop, you can see who is on board, the name of the boat, the tiny red light on the port side of the boat, the window air conditioning unit, the white two-way radio mic and cord, the type of hat the captain was wearing and the fact that he was wearing a wedding band. Amazing!
If you’re wondering, and image quality is your deciding factor for this lens, you can stop worrying and just order it, you won’t be disappointed. I’ll say it again, the image quality is nothing short of stunning, and with the amazing image stabilization you’ll be able to shoot at almost any shutter speed and in almost any light. I’m afraid to say 3-D like rendering, because that phrase seems to set some people off, but the images have a beautiful depth to them that I didn’t think possible from cameras with such small sensors. Some much liked lenses from top manufacturers are sharp, contrasty and do the job, but leave you feeling flat. Not this lens, as it has some character of its own.
600mm, a whole new way of seeing
As we know 600mm is a very specialized focal length, and if you’ve never shot with such a super telephoto lens before, there will be a fairly steep learning curve, and it may take quite a bit of time to get used to. Many, many times I went to photograph something while testing it and found that I was just too close to my subject. If you’re not used to shooting sports, 600mm is tight and it can be quite challenging to keep up with the action, as well as staying back far enough to give context to your subject matter. My recommendation, should you buy this lens, is to be patient and allow yourself time to adjust. Don’t get discouraged as you will eventually “feel” where you need to be to frame up your subject just like you currently do with your 200mm (equivalent) lens, or your 50mm (equivalent) lens. But on the flip side, it’s a lot of fun, as there is a whole new world out there to discover. If you look at the photo with the pale yellow boat in the background and the light green boat with a dog on it to the left, you’ll see a perfect example. This is a 100% zoom-in and crop from the original photo, but it’s a perfect example of all the things this lens allows you to see that go basically unnoticed with the naked eye because they are just too far away. When I shot this photo, I was on the shore sitting on a rock in the shade just shooting whatever caught my attention as boats and people moved in and out of the frame. With my naked eye, I couldn’t tell there was a dog on the boat, make out what was written on a T-shirt or read what type of engine the boat had. Not until I got home, downloaded the photo and zoomed in to a 100% crop, did I notice all of this. It’s a whole new world of discovery. Secondly, if you look back to the photo of the loading docks and view it full sized, you will notice people wading in ankle deep water to the left of the frame, and that one of the guys is holding a bottle. Amazing detail.
One thing that might double your fun with this lens, or at least make it 1.4x more fun, is using the Olympus MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter as it will give you an astounding 840mm equivalent lens that you can hold in your hand! That’s more fun than a barrel of Leica’s!
Olympus knows how to make glass and build lenses. They have a great legacy and they aren’t a company who knows compromise. Olympus is going all out with their pro lens line, and now have in their lineup: The 8mm f1.8 fisheye (16mm equivalent) which is over a stop faster than the competition—and tiny to boot, the 25mm f1.2 (50mm equivalent) which looks amazing—look out Canon, and the 300mm f4 (600mm equivalent) to round out the primes. In their pro f2.8 zoom range they have you covered from 14mm to 300mm with: The 7-14mm f2.8 (14-28mm equivalent), the 12-40mm f2.8 (24-80mm equivalent) and the 40-150 f2.8 (80-300mm equivalent) which is 100mm closer than the competition. And finally, the newly announced, very practical all-in-one lens, the 12-100mm f4 (24-200mm equivalent) which is the first f4 lens of the bunch. Olympus is on fire! My prediction is that Olympus isn’t finished and has a few more lenses yet to be released in the pro line. By looking at their history, I predict that Olympus will also produce some super fast telephoto lenses. Possibly a 150mm f2 lens (300mm equivalent) and a 300mm f2.8 lens (600mm equivalent) like in their current 4/3rd’s lineup. Let’s also hope they revise the 90-250mm f2.8 lens (180-500mm equivalent). I think that once the camera bodies can match the continuous auto focus ability of a DSLR, this system will be able to compete on the sports field. Of course, they will never match the shallow depth-of-field offered by a full frame DSLR, but keep in mind that until the game-changing Nikon D3 (Canon only had the “S” series full frame cameras at that time which were too slow for sports) was announced in 2007, ALL cameras used in the digital sports world were shot on an APS-C sized chip.
If I were to buy this lens, there is no doubt that I’d get it with the newly announced E-M1 Mark II (with the grip) to take advantage of all that new technology—especially the reported blazingly fast auto focus. There is nothing more fun than shooting a sporting event while having the right tool that can actually keep up with the action. And of all the Olympus bodies available, the E-M1 Mark II should give you the best of everything. If you have an inkling for a super-tele, I don’t think it gets any better than this.
I’m Craig Litten, and I approve this lens.
You can order the Olympus 300mm Pro at the approved and recommended shops below:
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