Olympus 150-400mm & Sony 200-600mm Comparison Experience
Long time in the making
My Olympus 150-400mm & Sony 200-600mm comparison experience is finally here. I’m grateful for everybody’s patience. Getting this out has taken longer than I expected. A big part of the holdup was a family emergency with my father. Dad went in for unexpected double bypass heart surgery just as I was getting started writing this blog and editing the YouTube video.
The good news is he pulled through just fine. It took a solid three months to get there. But he’s now doing well. Thank you to all who reached out with good wishes.
The holdup proved to be a blessing in disguise. My mother and I stayed in a beautiful little cabin on a gorgeous northern lake. Warm and inviting, it felt like a gift from heaven so graciously provided by my sister and her husband. Not only were we close to my father, but morning and evening, I was overwhelmed by the mesmerizing calls of the common loon.
As a young man of only 18 years, I produced my first relatively in-depth documentary on this gorgeous bird. Growing up in the far north gave me ample subjects. But I always felt the project was incomplete. So here I was, back in lake country with all my camera gear, a kayak on the shore, and a dozen subjects calling to me day and night.
A fellow photographer friend referred to my situation as the age-old lemons to lemonade problem. She was so right. In the mornings and evenings, I would take to the water for pictures. During the day, I visited with my father. The stress of such a difficult time was released by the ability to paddle a kayak. But we’re here to discuss lenses so let’s get the ball rolling with the Olympus 150-400mm & Sony 200-600mm comparison experience.
Olympus – Pricey but worth it
So first things first. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way right from the get-go. At the time I started this project I had been using the Sony lens for almost a year. And since the Olympus 150-400mm and Sony 200-600mm were fairly close in optical range, I ended up thinking of them as similar. But equal they are not, especially when you consider the difference in price.
Since you’re reading this blog post you most likely know that the Olympus costs $7,499 and the Sony costs $1,999. That’s a huge disparity! And it’s the main reason many people will not buy the Olympus no matter how good it is. But there are substantial differences which I’ll do my best to describe. And for me, those differences justify the price.
The Sony 200-600mm is an impressive lens, especially when you consider its price. I mention in the video how much I like the feel of the zoom and focus rings. Both are incredibly smooth. Sony has done a magnificent job with its fit and finish. And again, I can’t help but express my surprise due to its affordability.
The weight is acceptable for it being a full-frame optic. However, while hand-holding, I was constantly reminded of how front-heavy the 200-600mm is. It’s especially noticeable with the relatively small body of the Sony A9 attached. Fitting a battery pack to the camera most likely would have helped balance the system out.
But I like the size of the Sony bodies without the grip. This issue is not abnormal until you compare it to the Olympus. All super-telephoto lenses have had a front-heavy design due to large chunks of glass upfront. That is until the Olympus arrived.
The Sony 200-600mm weight= 4.6 lbs (2.08 kilograms)
Sony 200-600mm with A9 body (no battery grip) = 6.1 lbs (2.7 kilograms)
Many people would not consider either of these lenses light, but compared to my long-ago Nikkor 600mm F/4 (10 lbs) they seem almost featherweight. Taking into consideration the Olympus can reach up to 1000mm at F/5.6, the size and price become much more acceptable. But all the accolades in the world can’t hide the fact that if you buy the Olympus you’re going to have to shell out an extra $5,500. Is it worth it? I believe it is due mainly to the built-in teleconverter, the size and weight for the magnification, the incredible image stabilization, and the superb optics. This makes the Olympus 150-400mm & Sony 200-600mm vastly different.
The Olympus 150-400mm weight= 4.1 lbs (1.85 kilograms)
Olympus 150-400mm with E-M1X body = 6.3 lbs (2.85 kilograms)
Sharpness in the studio
Before my time in Minnesota, I had many opportunities for checking the sharpness of both lenses. Not just in the field but also in my studio. The studio pictures were shot using my Layman’s Lens Sharpness Test. It consists of photographing a newspaper on my studio wall and using flash to eliminate all motion. Flash is the key, since I can be certain there’s no softness due to camera or lens shake.
I use a newspaper rather than a lens target, since the newspaper provides such fine detail. And it’s easy to come by. To align the lens and target, I use a tool called LensAlign. This plastic box was originally designed to check a camera’s critical autofocus with a specific lens. I use it to make sure the target and lens are directly parallel to each other. That’s about as scientific as my test gets. I’m sure it’s not perfect by the standards of a true scientific technician, but it’s a great way for me to judge the sharpness of lenses by my own hands.
Below is a link to the images I shot in the studio. Feel free to download them for your own personal use. For comparison, I’ve also included a frame from the Olympus 300mm F/4 as well as the Leica 100-400mm zoom from Lumix. I shot the Lumix 100-400mm with the E-M1X. You can make your own mind up as to what you see in the frames. This is a link to studio originals from both Sony and Olympus with Lumix thrown in. The combo of Olympus 150-400mm & Sony 200-600mm samples are for perusal only, please do not forward them anywhere else. They are free to download but only for your own personal use.
Since I’ve outlined my studio test system in the video I’m not going to duplicate that in print.
Sharpness in the field
The images I’ve shot in the field with both lenses have been excellent. And it’s the field images I make my final judgments on. In the field, the Olympus seems to have an edge, but they both produce excellent results.
Olympus Sync IS versus Sony Steady Shot
I sometimes think that what looks like a slightly soft image from Sony is due to camera movement. Sony’s image stabilization known as Steady Shot just can’t compete with Olympus’s Sync IS system.
That’s not to say Sony’s Steady Shot IS is bad. It’s definitely as effective as what we’ve seen with traditional DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. The catch is Olympus’ Sync IS is just so superior to anything else I’ve ever used. I’ve heard Canon’s new mirrorless cameras are now competing with Olympus in image stabilization. But I’ve not had a chance to test them. In the field originals with teleconverters from both Olympus and Sony.
Poor autofocus made me switch
A large part of my work includes action. It’s one of my passions in the realm of photography. When I was shooting Panasonic Lumix cameras my action days were behind me. Unfortunately, the Lumix system just can’t shoot flying birds. Lumix uses what they call Depth From Defocus which is a type of Contrast Detection autofocus system. Unfortunately, it simply is not capable of shooting fast-moving action. Or at least not able to provide the number of precisely focused frames I was used to.
I still believe Lumix makes the best handling, well-built, camera on the market, but it’s inability to shoot action became too much and I finally had to move on. My problems with the Lumix AF lead me to where I am today, shooting both Sony and Olympus systems.
Olympus AF dramatically improves my hit rate
My interest in staying with micro four-thirds cameras influenced my decision to give the E-M1X a try. I knew the Olympus AF system was based on the tried and true Phase Detection system. The E-M1X paired with the new 150-400mm has been gradually impressing me with its ability to shoot fast action. The video above is a series of still photos of a common loon in flight. As you can see in the video, keeping a bird dead-on in the center of the EVF is difficult.
I’m adamant that if I do my part–keep the bird in the viewfinder, the camera should do its part–get the bird in focus. So far the Olympus is doing that as long as I shoot in Continuous AF-Low. The hit rate in AF-C High has not been nearly as positive. It can really crank the images out at 20FPS in AF-C High, but unfortunately the AF system just doesn’t keep up.
On a side note. Even though I had the camera set to the Bird AF mode I was never able to see any indication the camera had picked up a bird. Maybe the loon is bigger than it’s programmed to see. I don’t know. All I know is that there was nothing in the EVF telling me it had locked onto the bird. I also did not use AF-C + Tracking. I only used AF-C in Continuous Low. AF Points was set to All Focus Points.
Sony AF is very, very good
As far as Sony goes, there’s little concern about how it can handle autofocus. AF was actually the main reason I decided to try Sony a couple of years ago. The Sony A9 has been almost flawless when used with the Sony 100-400mm G Master. But I’ve not had as good of results with the 200mm-600mm. I was warned by my contact at Sony that it’s a bit slower than what I may be used to. Even so, the vast number of fast-moving subjects I’ve shot have all been in focus. It’s not perfect but it’s very, very good.
Between the Olympus 150-400mm and the Sony 200-600mm I would rate them about equal for fast action. I actually expected better from Sony. It’s possible the A9 could use some custom AF tweaks by way of the custom menu that might bring its accuracy up. But I used the same settings with the 100-400mm and it’s was nearly 100% accurate with flying birds. So it makes me think it’s the lens and not the camera. Even so, the hit rate with the 200-600mm is very, very good, just not exceptional.
So that’s about it. One thing I’ve learned on this project is that comparing two lenses as opposed to reviewing just one is a huge chore. After seeing many slick videos of other reviews I’m concerned people may be disappointed. The video has many more detailed specifics about the two lenses. In the end, I really respect both lenses. However, when they were both within reach, it was almost always the Olympus that I grabbed. I just found myself always wanting that extra reach. The teleconverter was especially useful. Not having to add it by taking the lens off is such a fabulous feature.
Let me know if there are questions you have I didn’t cover. Thanks for stopping by to join the conversation.