Super tele-photo lens is something photographers love and hate. We love the extra reach and crazy compression which allows us to capture some really special and interesting photos. But the mammoth size and weight of the super telephoto lenses means the lens could end up sitting at home and rarely being used.
*** This review is based on a pre-production sample with pre-production firmware version 0.0 ***
Panasonic has recently released a new super tele-photo lens, the Lumix G Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 Power O.I.S. (I will just call it Panasonic 100-400 in this review) The weight of the lens is just under 1kg. And while it’s a pretty big lens in micro four thirds standard, it’s tiny compare to the super telephoto lens for other formats. With the 2.0x crop factor, the Panasonic 100-400 gives us a whopping 200-800mm (35mm equivalent) focal range but still small enough to fit inside a small camera bag
The word Leica printed on the lens tells us the Panasonic 100-400 is a premium quality lens that meets the standards set by Leica. The lens has weather sealing, power O.I.S. (and dual I.S. when used with compatible cameras), fast 240 AF motor. It feels pretty solid and I really like the lens’s aesthetics design! It’s a beautiful lens.
As a zoom lens with lots of heavy elements, the lens has a zoom ring lock to help prevents lens creep. Instead of the typical zoom lock that can only locks the lens at it’s minimum focal length, the Panasonic 100-400 can be locked at any focal length, I believe this can be really useful sometime for example when you are shooting at a tilted direction.
The Panasonic 100-400 has a pretty interesting lens hood design. In additional to the usual detachable and reversible lens hood (the primary hood), it also has an an additional integrated lens hood (the secondary hood) that you can just pull or push from the front of the lens. The size of this integrated hood is quite small so it’s nowhere as effective as the main hood. But if you just want to take a quick photo and too lazy to mount the primary lens hood (the primary hood uses a small screw to lock onto the lens, so it would take 10-20 seconds to put it on properly), you just need to pull the secondary hood out a bit to reduce lens flare. And when you are done just push it back in. It’s really quick and easy. If you need more flare or physical protection, then use the primary lens hood. I love it when companies spend time to design/improve little things like this.
There is also a rotatable tripod collar on the lens. The rotation is limited to 90 degrees only, so the mount can either points downwards or to the left and makes it perfect for shooting on a tripod in either portrait or landscape position. However, it also means if you want to handhold the lens, the tripod collar would get in the way no matter how you rotate it. Not too sure why Panasonic doesn’t allow you to rotate it 360 degree like most lenses but anyway I removed the tripod mount and left it at home during the whole review period as the tripod collar really makes it uncomfortable to do handheld shooting. I imagine a lot of users would just shoot handheld most of the time and do the same thing.
The tripod collar is a bit loose no matter how I try to tighten it up. I checked with Panasonic and I was assured that this is because the review sample is a hand made pre-production copy, the final production copy shouldn’t have this problem.
For an autofocus lens, the focus ring on the Panasonic 100-400 feels surprisingly smooth and nice. But I doubt many people would manual focus with this lens as the autofocus speed is lightning fast! With the 240fps AF motor and GX8’s autofocus system, even if I leave the focus limiter at full range, the lens snaps into the target almost instantly. I am truly amazed by how fast the autofocus is! I would even say the Panasonic 100-400’s autofocus speed is probably one of the fastest I’ve ever used. And the autofocus is almost completely silent too.
The continuous focus works reasonably well too. The success rate maybe not as good as the best DSLRs but when tracking large objects I can still get pretty good and consistent results.
The biggest issue with the autofocus performance comes from the lens’s small-ish aperture (f/4-6.3). Autofocus struggle a bit and hunts more when it gets dark. To be fair, this is a problem for all the super telephoto zoom lens I’ve used, no matter it’s for mirrorless or DSLR cameras. A price you pay in return for a small, affordable super telephoto lens. The only thing is that with the smaller micro four thirds sensor you would have around 1-2 stop less useable high ISO range compare to the bigger APS-C / full frame sensor.
The Panasonic 100-400 captures colour beautifully. Colours are vivid without any obvious colour cast. Flare is very well controlled. Apart from a few photos that I shoot directly into the sun, I hardly notice any flare at all.
Chromatic aberration almost does not exist. Check out all my sample photos and there is virtually no colour fringing. (and no i didn’t apply any CA removal when post processing the RAW files)
Panasonic Lumix GX-8 + Panasonic Leica 100-400 f/4-6.3 @ 213mm – ISO1000 f/8 1/500s
You may think you see some colour fringing, but I’ve checked the full resolution photo at 100% and there is absolutely no colour fringing in the RAW file with no CA reduction applied.
The Panasonic 100-400 performs very well in terms of vignetting. The amount of vignetting is moderate even at maximum aperture. In real life photos, you would hardly notice any vignetting unless your photo has a pure single colour background.
Overall, Sharpness is pretty decent as well. Images are reasonably sharp at maximum aperture, even at 400mm (800mm equivalent). Look at the 100% crop below, I say it’s really good for a super tele zoom lens and definitely exceeded my expectation.
There is a little bit of barrel distortion but nothing too crazy.
With the f/6.3 maximum aperture at the far end and 400mm focal length, to avoid image blur it’s quite often you need to bump up the ISO to keep the shutter speed fast enough. Panasonic 100-400 has built-in optical image stabiliser (Power O.I.S) which allows you to shoot at slower shutter speed. And if you are using the new GX8 or the newly announced GX80/GX85/GX7 Mk II, then you have the even more advanced dual I.S. to further improve the performance of its image stabilisation system.
To test how effective the image stabiliser is on the GX8, I took a few hundred photos at 400mm at various shutter speed, from 1600s all the way down to 1/4s with the image stabiliser. At each shutter speed I took 20 photos. I then repeat the test but with the image stabiliser turned off.
I used the electronic shutter to avoid any vibration that can be caused by shutter shock. And then I go through each of the photo and assign them into three groups: Sharp, Acceptable (there is a tiny amount of blur, but the image is still quite useable) and Blurry. The results are summarised below.
With the dual I.S. turned on, I could shoot as slow as 1/25s and still get almost 100% success rate. Compare to around 1/400s without I.S. This is around 4 stops effective in my real life test. It is pretty impressive and gives users more flexibilty to shoot under low light without a tripod. Of course it only works if the object you are shooting doesn’t move.
The Panasonic 100-400 really highlights one of the strength of the micro four thirds system. A lens with insanely long effective focal length but with reasonably compact size. The build quality and image quality of the lens are decent and I really like the dual lens hood and lockable focal length design. Not to mention that the really fast autofocus speed and good O.I.S. /dual I.S. performance.I do wish the integrated lens hood is a little bit longer so I don’t need to touch the detachable lens hood most of the time. But the only thing I don’t really like is the tripod collar can only be rotated by 90 degree so you do have to remove it when shooting handheld. The smallish f/4-6.3 aperture size also limits the low light performance (both autofocus speed and image quality).
This is a very welcome addition to the micro four thirds lens lineup.
All photos were shot in RAW converted to JPG using Adobe Lightroom, adjusted to taste with zero vignetting, CA and distortion correction.
Reviewer: Richard Wong
Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com
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