Review: The Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6 Lumix G Vario for Micro Four Thirds

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Micro Four Thirds users have a lot of consumer-grade choices when it comes to telephoto lenses. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of any serious lenses – fast aperture, fast focusing, or even prime. Thanks to the 2x crop factor, this is one of the places where M43 actually offers a substantial advantage over larger formats. It’s just a shame that there aren’t any telephoto lenses of serious optical quality to make the most of this. Wildlife photographers and sports shooters still favor DX crop bodies when there’s enough light – the increased pixel density and extra 1.5x reach can’t be ignored. I was still birding during Nikon’s transition to FX with the D3; I remember being frustrated at the quality of the sensor, but the lack of reach. There are some species that simply will not allow you to approach close – I frequently used a 500mm with 1.4x TC on a DX body, for a total of 1,050mm f5.6 equivalent. To reach 1,000mm on FX, you’d be a stop down in brightness and having to deal with the associated optical quality limitations of a 2x teleconverter.

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Collapsed at 100mm.

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Fully extended. This is not a short or discrete lens, and I haven’t even added the hood yet.

The current crop of M4/3 lenses stops at 300mm. This gets you to 600mm equivalent; the Olympus 75-300/4.8-6.7 (150-600mm equivalent) and Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6 (200-600mm equivalent) are your only two options. (A 300/4 or 400/5.6 with Olympus’ MSC-grade fast AF would be wonderful, but sadly not to be – at least not yet). The Olympus is the more compact of the two (and by all reports, slightly sharper too), but also quite a bit more expensive than the Panasonic – US$899 vs US$599-699 or so. The bigger issue is that you’re down half a stop on the Panasonic; with complex multi-element zooms, this difference in physical aperture translates into more when it comes to light transmission. The Panasonic is probably closer to T7-T8; the Olympus may well be at T9-11. More worrying is that with both lenses you’re going to be right up against the diffractions limits of the higher density M4/3 sensors, such as the OM-D and GX1, even when shooting wide open. To be useable at 300mm, this lens has to perform optically – we’ll address this later.

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Untitled. OM-D, 100-300

The 100-300 is a moderately-sized lens, weighing in at about 500g and similar in heft to consumer DSLR 70-300 lenses. Despite only having to cover the M4/3 image circle, it isn’t any smaller; size advantages are more apparent in wideangle lenses due to the short back focus distance of mirrorless cameras not requiring a rear telephoto group*. The lens has a 67mm front thread, metal rear mount and front plastic bayonet hood; this is included with the lens. (Olympus, I’m looking at you: not including lens hoods is just penny pinching.) The zoom ring is a broad, rubber affair that should be easy to operate, but is actually very difficult to set precisely in practice because of friction between the plastic surfaces inside the lens; it tends to bind and move in jumps. There is an ample focus ring up front, narrower than the zoom ring and distinguishable by touch, but it runs fly-by-wire and obviously has no hard stops at either end of the range. With telephoto lenses, it’s nice to have the ability to place the focus range by feel, or at least kick it over in either direction closer to the subject distance to avoid hunting – especially important with the CDAF systems used in mirrorless cameras. Overall, build quality is acceptable at this price point, but nothing to write home about. The plastics feel a little brittle and thin, I’m generally fairly careful when handling this lens.

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Caught in the act. OM-D, 100-300

*The rear telephoto group on a lens is used to straighten out the image-forming rays so they fall perpendicular to the sensor, and extend the image plane further than the natural distance associated with the focal length – in order to clear SLR mirrors. This distance is proportional to the focal length of the lens. Rangefinders and mirrorless cameras can use symmetric retrofocal lenses whose rear elements can be positioned very close to the sensor, making the lenses physically much smaller. Lenses with a focal length longer than the flange distance do not require the rear telephoto group to project the image plane out to clear the mirror, which is what removes the size advantage between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for lenses over 50mm or so.

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Reminds me of Gibraltar for some reason. OM-D, 100-300

However, by far the biggest gotcha of the whole setup is that the lens is physically large and not well balanced at all, especially on the smaller M4/3 bodies; even the OM-D requires a grip for optimal handling. Given this, the omission of a tripod collar is unforgiveable; you simply can’t mount it on the body’s tripod socket because it not only places a large amount of stress on the mount, but it’s also impossible to frame precisely especially at 300mm, because the image frame droops perceptibly through the viewfinder. This means you’ve got to shoot it handheld; here, the relatively light weight of the whole system works against you, because there isn’t enough mass to damp the vibration. And forget about using it at arms’ length without an EVF. The good news though is that the OM-D’s EVF and IBIS system are excellent, and allow you to brace the entire setup against your forehead. Being a Panasonic optic, the lens has moving-element OIS built in; and it’s pretty effective, too. Although it’s very difficult to scientifically test, I feel that perhaps the IBIS in the OM-D is very slightly more effective than OIS built into the lens – but it could go either way, really. Both systems allow consistent critically-sharp-at-100% handheld shots at 1/100s and 300mm, which is about 2.5 stops. You could probably push it a stop further, but then your hit rate will fall considerably.

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Painterly. OM-D, 100-300

Let’s talk a bit about optical performance. The lens is a 17/12 design with one ED lens and several aspherical elements; no fancy coatings, but a decent specification that should yield decent optical results. Like most of these consumer telephoto designs, performance is surprisingly good below 200mm; 200-300mm is so-so, with weakest performance at 300mm. Stopping down by one stop below 200mm improves clarity a hair, but anything more starts to reduce resolving power due to diffraction. At 300mm, f8 is slightly better than f5.6 because there’s less chromatic aberration and improved contrast, however, the resolution gains are once again offset by diffraction losses. There isn’t any point in going beyond f11, even though the minimum possible aperture is f22.

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Surprisingly decent bokeh. OM-D, 100-300

The lens never gives you the impression of clarity or transparency as the best lenses do; there’s always a layer of something between you and the image, which can be somewhat ameliorated through good postprocesing. No amount of postprocessing can put back the missing microcontrast, however. Part of the problem is there’s chromatic aberration visible at all focal lengths; this causes the image to separate out slightly, reducing resolving power. It’s especially obvious in the corners and at high contrast edges at the 300mm end of the zoom range; a good 2-3 pixels’ worth at times. There is some vignetting, but it’s very, very minor and easily correctable. Finally, bokeh is surprisingly smooth, though large out-of-focus highlights have the telltale texture that signifies the use of moulded hybrid glass-plastic aspherical elements.

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Lily pads. OM-D, 100-300

All of this said, the 100-300 is still a cut above most of the consumer-grade offerings; I haven’t used the Olympus 75-300, though. I certainly don’t think the Nikon 70-300VR had this level of resolution – on the lower pixel density D700 and D7000 bodies, the 70-300VR’s resolution above 200mm left much to be desired.

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Contemplation. OM-D, 100-300

So what’s the 100-300 useful for? To be honest, I bought it out of curiosity and the lack of a telephoto solution for any of my other systems. It’s actually a pretty good option for reach in a pinch, especially when you’re not sure you’re going to need it – and don’t want to carry around a large 300, 400 or 500mm supertelephoto. The combination of lens and OM-D doesn’t occupy much space in the bag at all. Aside from slightly reduced optical quality and a slower aperture, the biggest limitation is continuous AF performance. It’s already a problem for the M4/3 system since all focus systems are contrast detect; it’s even worse with the 100-300 because the focus motor itself is slow, the required amount of physical movement of the lens elements between the infinity and the 1.5m near limit is large, and the lens is one of the earlier generation of designs that doesn’t have the benefit of the technology used in Panasonic’s current lenses. It isn’t slow per se, but it definitely isn’t up to the latest Olympus primes in speed. Note that I’ve had a couple of experiences where the camera/lens confirmed focus, but it turned out that things weren’t quite perfect. Very shallow critical depth of field (especially at closer distances) is nothing new with telephotos, but it’s not easy to tell without magnification exactly which small bit of the frame is in critical focus with current EVF/ LCD technology.

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Crowded. OM-D, 100-300

Given those limitations, I think its strength is probably in situations where you need reach or perspective but your subject isn’t moving much, if at all; some forms of wildlife, landscapes and perhaps even architecture or abstracts; I tried using it for street work, but it just felt far too conspicuous. It’s also surprisingly difficult to frame a 600mm FOV shot when there are a lot of people about – the foreground takes forever to clear, and by the time it does, your primary subject has probably moved on. That said, I used it without issue at a recent concert I was covering – in that case, it’s all about timing and making sure that your subject hasn’t moved out of the depth of field of the lens, which is actually a bit more than you’d expect. It’s also worth noting that whilst AF is fast and positive up to about 200mm, beyond that if the new subject is far outside the previous subject distance, or contrast is only moderate, you’re going to see situations where the combination hunts and sometimes even fails to find focus.

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Smoke break. OM-D, 100-300

I think the best litmus test for any lens is the question of ‘given a chance, would you buy it again?’ I didn’t pay very much for mine on the secondary market – mint, boxed, pretty much as new ran all of $400 – so yes, I definitely would. It’s not a staple lens for me, but it is fun, does offer something that none of my other lenses can, and the optics are good enough. Overall – recommended, but with caveats. MT

The Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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On the lookout. OM-D, 100-300

Comments

  1. Thanks for a very useful review of the Panny 100-300mm.

    One comment: you said “its strength is probably in situations where you need reach or perspective but your subject isn’t moving much, if at all.” In my experience, this lens is outstanding for outdoor sports, both stills and video, provided you don’t try to use continuous AF. This means, of course, that either the subject is moving mostly across the field of vision (rather than toward or away from the camera), or the action is at significant distance (to allow greater absolute DoF), or both. Surfing, football (both American and other) from the midfield bleachers, and so on. I’ve used this lens for a couple of years in this manner (on a GH3) and gotten consistently excellent results. For surfing on sunny days, due to extreme contrast and very bright highlights, at full zoom, 200 ISO (the GH3 native ISO), f/8 at about 1/800 to 1/1000 works very well. I use the same settings for video (1080/60p to allow for slo-mo).

  2. Hi there! Do you consider it a good lens for shooting 4K on a GH4?

  3. Would you consider selling this Panny lens?
    Sounds pretty well used, but when was the last time you did use it?
    Wouldn’t you be a little better served by the F mount 150-600mm…Or even the Sigma zoom-500mm?
    Then you could sell me this old and wore down Panny lens ! ! :) and consolidate a little because you are far more likely to have your 810’s at hand than that old OMD…
    Heck, I could give you a fair price for that old brick as well…
    Give it some thought and let me know!

  4. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished
    to say that I’ve really loved browsing your weblog posts.
    In any case I’ll be subscribing in your rss feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

  5. Thank you for the excellent review and pictures. I am using the 100-300 on an OMD-EM5 and am trying to work around the limitations of the auto focus, the principle one being a failure to lock to target which results in the lens focusing through its complete range. I have been using single auto focus controlled by a function button then focusing on a static object which is at a similar range to where I estimate my moving subject will be. This method can work well but is not much use with aircraft or birds in flight. I note from your review that you use manual focus on some of your shots and am wondering what success rate you achieve and if you have any tips on using manual focus. Lastly, have you found any depth of field scales for the lens? I plan to use it set to infinity and see if I improve my success rate with aircraft flying at a display.

    • I was also using a manual focus lens for those. None of the current mirrorless cameras does a very good job with continuous AF; unfortunately until we get PDAF on-sensor, this is going to remain a problem.

      There are plenty of DOF calculators available online if you do a search.

      • Tord S Eriksson says:

        I use my 70-300 VR in a similar manner,with my V1, which avoids most problems with the lens by only using the central areas of the lens, which is amazingly sharp, considering the price. Handles most jobs excellently, from candid photgraphy from a distance, to close-ups of flowers and butterflies. Not very good for birds in flight, but sometimes even that works really well.

        For many jobs surprisingly sharp and easy to work with!

  6. Doug Rainwater says:

    Nice, comprehensive review…just purchased it from Amazon using your link :-)

  7. Denny Pritchett says:

    Good write-up Ming. I’m new to the site, and I’ve been looking at the Olympus 12mm f2.0 write-up mainly. I noticed the 100-300mm mentioned here and I pretty well agree with what you’ve written. I’ve had the lens for over a year and it’s my main wildlife lens with the OM-D. I have taken well over 20,000 images with this combination, and I have to say it’s a bit of fun kit. I have shot butterflies, birds, grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, plants and flowers, you name it, and I have gotten pleasing results. The closest kit I’ve used before to this was the NikonD70 and Nikkor VR 80-400mm, but apart from the optics of the Nikon lens, the Panasonic leaves it in the dust. I’ll be looking in from time to time, I like your style of writing.

    Denny

  8. Jamal Rashdi says:

    Ming:
    First of all, besides images,your reviews and other subjects, I like your writing style. Clear and Precise. Thank you so very much and please keep going. it is very much appreciated. Thanks

  9. Good way of describing, and nice paragraph to get data on
    the topic of my presentation subject matter, which i am going to deliver
    in school.

  10. You rightly complain the lack of a tripod mount. A photographer commenting on the lens’ Amazon page said he had bought a $100 tripod collar for this lens from a German company; here’s the link. http://roesch-feinmechanik.de/29701.html

    • Well, it doesn’t have a built in one, so I think that’s still a legitimate comment! I actually emailed them a while back but didn’t hear anything back…

      • Howard Stevens says:

        Hi Ming,
        I have just bought this lens collar mount http://www.roesch-feinmechanik.de/29701.html
        It is very well made and does the job perfectly, the results at full zoom (600mm equivalent) really make a difference and mean I will be able to get a lot more use out of this lens.

        OM-D EM-5 with 25/1.4, 45/1.8, 75/1.8 and this lens with a Manfrotto befree tripod all weighs so much less than the old DLSR kit that I take my camera bag with me nearly every time I go out – fantastic!

        Great site Ming :)

        Thanks,
        Howard

        • I sent them an email some time back but never got a reply. Wanted to buy one, but I admit it’s fallen off my priority list lately because I haven’t used the lens much. Good to hear it’s useful though.

  11. First of all I’d like to congratulate you on some gorgeous images, you frame your subjects beautifully! Now, I have been using my OM-D for the past year and a half and goes without saying it is a fantastic camera. Been playing with the idea of adding a tele-photo lense to my exclusively ‘Primes’ line up for quite sometime and no I was not keen on an expensive 2.8 short tele photo. You mentioned you have used the Oly’ 75-300 which is in fact the choice I made recently. Are there any quirks I need to be aware of using this lens with my OM-D…your insight would be highly appreciated. Kind regards

    Robbie Pacheco
    Sydney, Australia

  12. Thank you Ming for a very informative article. I’ve started using this lens with a Gh2 for sports photography (highschool lacrosse) and I’ve been somewhat disappointed with inconsistent results. I sorted my lightroom4 collection of 2K photos taken so far and found that my very nicest pictures were all at the wide end, perhaps 100-200mm. I purchased the lens for the extra reach it provided, and yet I wasn’t able to find even one stunning picture. I figured even if my technique was poor, random chance should give me a better result occasionally!

    I still have more experimenting to do, so I’m not throwing in the towel yet, but you’ve given me some things to consider. I may start emphasizing getting physically closer to the action so I can keep the FL to <200mm. And I will see if I can bracket certain pictures across a range of apertures and see if there is a sweet spot at a given FL.

    I'm open to suggestions for other lenses to consider. I find lacrosse action to be too quick to consider manual lenses, so even if a legacy lens were better I don't think that would help me. Most likely I'll wait some months/years for a better lens and then finally just change my subject once my daughter is beyond highschool. That might be the ultimate solution ;-)

    Thanks again for clearly writing about this lens in such an engaging way.

    • You’ll need continuous AF for sport – and that lens is not the best for such things. In fact, the CDAF M4/3/ CSC cameras don’t do so well with continuous AF simply because they have no phase detect capability…

      I’m told the Olympus 75-300 is much faster to focus in both AF/ AF-C mode though.

  13. Ming,
    You make this lens look good :)
    How will it compare to 70-300 Tamron VC, if you’ve used it.
    I hope they do 150 F2, which will be 300 F4 on full frame parameters.

  14. I’ve had this lens sitting in my room for the last two weeks whilst I await delivery of my OM-D and sell off my 5Dii and 70-200L f/4 (non-IS), amongst other lenses. This reaffirms my decision to buy this lens (and camera), thank you. Excellent photographs!

  15. Wonderful work, as always. The lack of a relatively (f4?) fast telephoto prime for micro four thirds systems is somewhat disconcerting. There have been so many zooms released that I would have hoped either olympus or panasonic would release a nice long telephoto prime lens by now. I guess is this best option out there at the moment and you certainly have shown that the lens is capable of producing excellent results.

    • Thanks David. There’s the Panasonic 150/2.8 coming soon, but I’d have preferred something longer personally – maybe a 300/4, or something.

      • We are in complete agreement. :)

        Here’s hoping for a 300/4!

        • Mick Deu says:

          I want both a 150/2.8 and a 300/4 as long as they come close to my 45 and 75 in quality :)
          Now .. the zuiko 17 – or the panny 20 – both have good and bad points but I will settle on one of them.
          Hmmm that will make 9 lenses then, I’d better stop or get a new bag!

          MFT and the Pana/Zuiko choices – unmatched kit and light weight!

  16. The other nice thing is that this lens is so so much sharper and a hair brighter at 200mm than the 45-200 at 200 which can be extremely soft…As far as I know there’s not a better option even at 200, putting aside the performance at 200-300…

  17. Jorge Ledesma says:

    Wow, you made this lens shine, despite its limitations Ming. Ming I’d love to see a post in the future on vision and the eye behind the lens. Cheers – Jorge

    • Thanks Jorge. I’ve wanted to write something like that, but I have no idea on how – everything is so subjective, varies with the scene, and I think we lack the proper language to describe as lot of the cognitive and visual processes. We’ll see :)

  18. I own the 45-200, which has been transformed since the firmware update, however, pretty soft 150mm upwards. Been contemplating an either the 75-300 or this. How does it perform above 200mm? Do u have some photos that u can share pls? Thanks

    • If you click through the images in the review, you’re taken to their hosting page on Flickr; the EXIF data is intact. Most of these were shot at 300mm, and I believe I answered your question in the review text.

  19. I’ve been eyeing this lens for a while, to add to my EM5. But I am still happy with the old reg43 70-300 with adapter. Though it is heavy, I use both grips on the EM5 and this makes it fine. It’s closeup ability is nice and I use it for nearly all of my flowers and butterflies due to the 35″ focus distance with 1:2 (equiv) at the 150mm setting. The focus is slow, but nearly the same as it was on the E-620. (It focused much faster on the older E-520.)

    For what it’s worth.

    Peter F.

  20. I think, that concerning M4/3, we have very good old lenses (Nikon, Canon, CZJ, Contax, Leica, Minolta, etc…..) which are faster, due to the crop factor, than new zoom or tele lenses.

  21. How you caught the dragonflies in the air? Amazing skill!

Trackbacks

  1. […] very sharp at the short end but gets softer as you zoom out–which is a major disappointment.” Ming Thein marked it as “recommended, but with caveats” due to some slowness in focusing […]

  2. […] (D800E, D600, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100, Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR, OM-D and Panasonic 100-300, and of course the Gitzo GT5562, geared column and Manfrotto 410 geared head, all except the tripod […]

  3. [...] will restrict you to good lighting or high ISO. Reviews I read before buying are here, here and here – the last one from Ming Thein has some stunning photos with a Panasonic lens similar to this [...]

  4. [...] SB-700 x1, SB-900 x3 Olympus OM-D Olympus ZD 12/2, ZD 45/1.8, ZD 60/2.8 Macro Panasonic 20/1.7, 100-300/4-5.6 Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon; ZF.2 2/28 Distagon; ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar; ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar; ZM [...]

  5. Anonymous says:

    [...] GH3 etwas besser in der Hand liegen als die G3 mit den langen Brennweiten. Vielleicht interessant: Review: The Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6 Lumix G Vario for Micro Four Thirds Beispielbild 100-300 an G3: Abstand ca. 75 m. Iso 160 f/5,6 1/1600, Freihand, OOC JPEG mit [...]

  6. [...] Zoom-zoom now with the Panasonic 100-300mm f4-5.6 Mega OIS lens by photographer Ming Thein. [...]

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