Mirrorless Telephoto Comparison Leica, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus
Mirrorless Telephoto Comparison Leica, Fuji, Nikon, Olympus
Last December I was fortunate to receive the new Leica 100-400m zoom, built for the Panasonic Lumix cameras I’ve been enthusiastically shooting since 2008. A complete transition to Micro Four Thirds has been squelched by the fact we just didn’t have the long professional quality telephoto/zoom lenses needed for wildlife and nature. About the same time the new
Leica 100-400mm was released, we also received new lenses from Olympus in the form of a 3oomm F/4 (600mm equivalent) as well as the new Fuji 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6. (150mm-600mm equivalent), all of them targeted towards the telephoto starved shooters of the new mirrorless frontier.
Thankfully, I’m fortunate to have two of the best camera stores in the nation right in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. Friend and NE Explorer Marsha Phillips, who owns F11 Photographic Supply, was quite generous in allowing me to borrow the
Fuji and Olympus lenses which I paired against my Leica and Nikon optics of similar range. The plan was to do a side by side comparison between all of them, including my Nikon 80-400mm VRll attached to a Lumix GX8 and GH4 via a Novoflex Nikon to MFT adapter.
With all this gear on hand I was obviously anxious to shoot some tests. This would have all happened a bit sooner, but I wanted a production version of the Leica 100-400mm before we compared them all. That just arrived a couple of weeks ago, so I setup the studio and began to collect controlled photos. Keep in mind, I make no bones about it, my tests are not those you’ll see from a professional lab such as DXOMark or The Imaging Resource. With my tests you’ll notice the size of some images are not “exactly” the same, an exposure or two had to be adjusted. Working with four different lenses created a bit more futzing than I’m typically interested in doing. What I’m saying is this, the images you are about to review are not perfect from an absolute scientific perspective. Because of this, I guarantee, many will pick my unscientific results apart down to the nth degree. But overall the results you’ll see were shot in a real world studio and you can judge for yourself if the results will meet your particular needs.
Flash For Ultimate Sharpness
To do this test the best way I know how, I decided to use flash. Flash, or what I often refer to as a strobe, effectively eliminates shutter shock issues, camera movement, etc. Flash creates a precision image at a reasonable shutter speed, but more
importantly, flash stops all movement due to the intensity of the artificial light firing at thousandths of a second. In other words, there is no vibration from camera operator or the shutter movement of the camera tripod which was a Gitzo with Manfrotto 504HD fluid video head.
Aperture Wide Open
The images I’m offering for download were all shot at the widest opening of each particular lens. Wide open is where you’ll typically see any issues if a lens is not sharp. Additionally, wide open is where most of us will be using these lenses since all telephotos generally need as much light as we can give them, allowing faster shutter speeds, stopping camera movement, animal movement, etc. when not using flash.
The test target used was created by Steven Westin at Cornell Universtiy that has lines and numbers with detailed resolution. I generally use a newspaper for this kind of test but this looked more official, so I used it. On the test paper I
taped a piece of my business letterhead, allowing a place to write to keep track of the specific lens being used. Not an important factor since the cameras EXIF data contains all details but having something written down made it easier to review lots of frames and keep them organized.
This is the link to Download all four images if you want to review them. These are full size TIFFs.
Gallery Password: lenscomparisons
Screenshot Comparison Images
All test shots were loaded into Apple’s Aperture so I could review them at 100%, side by side. Though I’m not using Aperture any more, it was definitely the best program to compare the results since you can do a comparison view of more than two images at one time. It’s very helpful to see all four test images at the same time at the same size of 100%. With all four images showing side by side, I grabbed a screenshot. Once again, viewing a screenshot may not be the most scientific way of showing a comparison, but it clearly shows the differences between all four lenses. You can drag each screenshot off the web page and over to your computer to see the image in its full resolution.
This first group of four images shows the center sharpness of all the lenses. Without a doubt, when you view these images my placement of the tripod could have been more precise. Having different focal ranges such as the 100-400mm on the Fuji body
that has a 1.5X crop factor made being extremely precise a bit problematic. To make up for any issues I made sure to have at least some of the numbers and some of the bars showing in all the images to make it easier to compare. That said, this is where I might get criticism for not being “completely” scientific. Even so, you can see the results for yourself.
One of the critical issues less expensive lenses will often exhibit is poor sharpness at the edges of the frame. To check the edge sharpness of all four lenses I once again turned to Aperture to enlarge the edges to 100%. Like before, a change in focal lengths created less than perfect matches on the test target from one lens to the next . To compensate, I moved the 100% enlarged portion to the edge of each frame that held more details for a good comparison.
One of the critical issues less expensive lenses will often exhibit is lack of sharpness at the edges of the frame. To check the edge sharpness of all four lenses I once again turned to Aperture to enlarge the edges to 100%. Like before, a change in focal lengths created less than perfect matches on the test target from one lens to the next. To compensate, I moved the 100% enlarged portion, to the edge of each frame to exhibit more details for a good comparison.
Thoughts About Each Lens
For this section I’m going to give a basic rundown of how I feel about each lens as far as the fit and finish size and other details. Most details will be with the lenses I’ve used extensively – the Leica, the Olympus, and the Nikon. I’m going to tell you right up front I will not be making any comments regarding each lenses sharpness and quality or lack thereof. I want my readers to decide for themselves without my potential biased view.
Leica 100-400mm F/4-6.3
I’ve held off from writing any real information about this lens even though I’ve been shooting one since the first week of December 2015. That first lens was a prototype and had some definite issues I was hoping would not be part of the final production lens. I’m happy to say I won’t even mention those early concerns since Panasoinc did as promised and eliminated all issues I had at one time. Keep in mind, this lens is listed as a 100-400mm, but in reality it’s similar to looking through a lens on a full frame camera with a range of 200-800mm. That is an astonishing range.
The new 100-400mm zoom action is very smooth. Maybe not as smooth as other lenses such as the Olympus 40-150mm or even the Fuji 100-400mm, but it’s smooth enough and possibly is better off not being too smooth for such a long zoom range. The somewhat stiffer zoom action stops the lens barrel from creeping out as it’s hung from your shoulder. For even more security, Panasonic added a Zoom Lock that allows you to set the zoom at whatever focal length you choose and lock it there. It’s a nice idea that goes a step further than some zoom locks I’ve seen where it simply locks the zoom in the retracted position, stopping the lens from extending while being carried. With the Leica zoom lock you can actually lock the lens at specific lens settings. Let say you don’t want to shoot at anything longer than 600mm eqivelant. You just set the lens to 300mm and lock it down and you now have a 600mm lens.
There’s also a tripod collar that is easily removed. It’s solid and well built with a very rough knurled texture to the main knob used to loosen and tighten. Interestingly, the tripod collar rotates 90 degrees to the left only. I must admit, left only rotation was something I didn’t necessarily like at first. I don’t typically rotate in a vertical format by going to the right, but once in awhile that’s not a bad option depending on how long you have to hold the vertical position. I believe one of the reasons they went with this different concept was to keep the lens switches from rotating out of a fixed position when the lens is rotated. Actually, it’s quite a nice idea. In other words, when you rotate the lens, the AF On/Off, Image Stabilization and Focus Limiter switches all stay in the same place they’re normally at in the horizontal format. I actually like that and have found having only one direction for vertical shooting is worth the trade off for keeping the switches in a consistent place.
The manual focus ring is silky smooth and easy to use but I haven’t focused manually for a very, very long time in a real shooting situation. I did do some manual focusing during these tests but found the AF focus was perfectly accurate so once again, I’m back to using AF almost exclusively.
The Leica 100-400mm has an extremely small built-in and almost useless lens hood. But it also ships with a much more effective additional hood that is slipped onto the built-in hood and tightened in place via a small screw. The two combined actually do offer some relief from bright light coming in at an angle.
Unlike most the other Leica lenses built for the Lumix cameras, the 100-400mm does not have its own separate manually operated aperture ring. All aperture changes are done via the control dials on the camera, either the front or rear dial, depending on how you may have them set up.
The size and weight of the Leica is one of it’s most appealing features. To have a lens that gives me an effective focal length of 800mm in a size that fits nicely in the palm of my hand is sheer joy. One downside to that small form factor is the maximum aperture of F/6.3 when extended fully to the 400mm position. Would I have rather had an F/4-F/5.6 zoom? Maybe. I’m not sure how much additional weight and cost that 1/3 of a stop would have added to this beautiful lens. Case in point is the Fuji 100-400mm which is an F/4.5-5.6 that I detail shortly. It’s a beast compared to the Leica and the Leica is a bit brighter at F/4 compared to F/4.5 when at the 400mm position.
Fuji 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6
This lens is a silky smooth beast, extremely polished in all regards. It’s a superb optic that was sharper than any of the zooms and beats other lenses in fit and finish that cost five times the price. Unfortunately, Fuji employs a somewhat strange aperture ring that I had one of heck of a time figuring out how to operate. The Fuji XT2 has a front side dial and a rear dial, similar to my Lumix and Nikons, but the front dial did not operate the aperture as I expected. I wasn’t impressed with either the front dial or the rear dial, both extremely thin and extremely easy to turn – too easy to turn. Once I figured out the lens aperture ring I was able to proceed, but I did not find the Fuji lens or XT2 very intuitive. The camera does have very nice, dedicated dials for ISO, exposure compensation, and shutter speed, but after that it wasn’t very obvious to find other options which includes the menu. Not here to review the camera but I did have to figure it out to a point to do these tests and I was surprised and a bit dissaponted with the less than positive feelings about the camera body. Admittedly, it might just be what I’m used to. But I’ve said it many times before, I feel the Lumix system has the best laid out controls of any camera made, including my Nikons.
Olympus 300mm F/4
This lens is another home run by Olympus. Wow, they are building some stellar optics. I actually own this lens along with my Leica 100-400mm. Having the extra stop of light can be very handy, and I love the equivalent 600mm focal range that matches what I shot with my Nikons. An additional HUGE bonus is the new in-lens Image Stabilization Olympus added to this lens. It’s become rather well known that in-camera image stabilization is not as effective as in-lens IS with super telephotos lenses. I’ve found the new in-lens IS to be exceptional when used with my Lumix GH4, and I’ve heard extremely positive reports of Olympus’ Sync IS, working exceptionally well with this lens and Olympus cameras.
Like the 40-150mm F/2.8 that came before it, the 300mm F/4 is extremely well built. The focus ring is silky smooth and all switches are well positioned and easy to operate. One downside while using this lens with my Lumix cameras is the IS stays active continuously. Meaning it doesn’t shut off, even when the camera has gone to sleep. This is a huge drag on battery consumption. I’m hopeful I may be missing a setting in my menu that stops this battery drain but I’m guessing Lumix has nothing offered to help. I plan to try the lens with an OM-D E-1 to see if the same issue exists.
The 300mm comes with a beefy tripod collar and has the ability to add the wonderful Olympus 1.4X teleconverter. When I say wonderful I’m referring to its superb optical quality. I point this out since the 1.4X teleconverter has not been so wonderful in holding up to the basic rigors of serious photography. I’ve had two of them lose their screws that hold the front mount the lens attaches to. I know three other photographers who have experienced the same problem. I solved my issue by taking it down to my local camera shop, Bozeman Camera, to have them add glue to keep the screws locked in place.
Nikon 80-400mm F/4.5-5.6
What is there to say about the new Nikkor 80-400mm lens? I loved this lens when I was shooting my Nikons. It’s extremely sharp, but after running these tests, not as sharp as I had thought. Once again, you can review the results for yourself to decide which lenses perform better. That said, I found the images I shot with this lens to be extremely salable and never had any issues getting images published that I captured with this lens. The zoom mechanism is very smooth and rotates with ease. The switches are well placed and it has a tripod collar that you can remove. I won’t belabor the details of the lens itself since this test is mostly about the quality of the optics.
So there you go. The above is my take on the current line of super telephotos we’ve all been dreaming of. Some might say this test should not have included the Olympus 300mm F/4, but I feel it was fair game since it fits the super tele category and many will be comparing the Leica 100-400mm to the Olympus for their Micro Four Thirds cameras. Both are superb lenses but one comes out on top in a big way.
Even so, one thing to keep in mind is this. Clear back in 1985, I bought the first professional zoom Nikon offered, the 80-200mm F/2.8. I had more than one serious photographer look sideways at me, thinking I was out of my mind. How could anybody think they were going to produce professional results with a zoom lens was their thought. But I said it in 1981 and I’ll say it again; a quality zoom will produce many more fractionally, less sharp images, in such volume, that those additional pictures will far outweigh the perfectly razor sharp photos a prime lens will produce. A good photograph is as much about composition and creativity as it is about pinpoint details. Not having to run forward and reverse with the added benefit of composing at will is a huge advantage with zoom lenses. Zooms have even greater advantage when used for wildlife and nature. Sitting in a wildlife hide/blind, taking pictures from a Tundra Buggy, or working from your truck or car, a zoom is much more capable allowing you to compose properly.
Throughout my career I’ve used mostly zoom lenses, and I’ve been very fortunate to have earned a decent living marketing the pictures captured with those variable optics. There will always be times where a fixed lens might be the choice to make and it’s the reason I’ve bought both the Leica 100-400mm and the Olympus 300mm. But the best part about having both is realizing MFT shooters now have so many choices. Now if we can jut get a sensor with 1-2 more stops of high ISO capabilities we’ll really have it made.
One last thing. A friend brought to my attention I didn’t cover and that is the amazing price and size differences of all these lenses when compared to what I used to shoot with traditional DSLR’s. I have to say that I’ve seen several reviews about the Leica 100-400mm and the Olympus 300mm suggesting that both are very heavy and exceptionally expensive. My response to that is, “are you out of your mind?” The only reason these reviewers would even suggest such nonsense has to be they’ve never even seen, much less actually used a Nikkor or Canon 600mm F/4 that weighs 10-12 pounds and costs $12,000.00US. Nor have they seen or used a Nikkor or Canon 800mm F/5.6 that runs close to $18,000.00US. Those are the lenses both the Leica 100-400mm and the Olympus 300mm are competing with. Maybe not in all situations but many for sure. Any reviewer making similar statements just have no idea what reality is and that’s not hard to understand when the big Nikon and Canon lenses are so difficult to get your hands on. I shot a Nikkor 600mm F/4 in some form or another for 4 decades. I know what they cost, I know how difficult they are to man handle and anybody that says otherwise is not dealing with reality.