On 7th October 2018 I put a video up of me unwrapping the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400 f4-6.3 ASPH Power OIS and my initial impressions of it. Well after six months of use this is my opinion of the lens. I don’t know if it has won the title for having the longest model name, but if not it should be a contender. For brevities sake I’ll just refer to it hence forth as the PanaLeica 100-400. At the outset I’ll say that this is my lens bought with my money and I’ve only used the one copy of it
First off let’s set things straight – this is a very specialist bit of kit that you either have a need for or you don’t. I’ll also say that there is a very good argument to adopt the micro four thirds system just for this lens alone. No I’ve not stopped taking my meds, this lens should be a contender for anyone who shoots wildlife, particularly birds, and travels a lot. A long time ago someone said to me, and I’m not entirely sure who it was, but I’ll attribute it to Hugh Graham who’d been a Fleet Street photographer, that you should choose your camera system on the basis of the lenses you’ll use. I think Panasonic were very smart when they designed this lens because this leverages all the benefits of the m4/3 system. It uses the two times crop factor and small size to produce a lens that is just not available in the 35mm full frame world ie a compact lightweight 200-800mm zoom lens. Recently a muppet on YouTube pronounced that micro four thirds is dead but this lens proves that the system is very viable indeed. Lets compare the PanaLeica 100-400 to some of its rivals.
|PanaLeica 100-400||0.985 Kg||$1900 AUD|
|Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens||4.5 Kg||$17000 AUD|
|Sigma 800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens||4.9 Kg||$8400 AUD|
|Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens||5.8 Kg||$8000 AUD|
|Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens||4.5 Kg||$23000 AUD|
Or lets look at it another way. My Panasonic G85 with battery grip, two batteries, a memory card and the PanaLeica 100-400 weighs in at 1.829 Kg. A Canon EOS 550d with a Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Lens which has the same equivalent angle of view is 2.958 Kg and my Canon 6d with the same Sigma lens is 3.345 Kg and doesn’t have the same range. To get the same zoom range the 6d would need to be paired up with the Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM Lens and the combination would weigh 7.1 Kg. Now if you sit in a bird hide all day with your camera on a tripod then you might be prepared to sacrifice weight, expense and portability to get high image quality. But if like me you walk around anything up to 20 Km in a day looking for birds and are willing to work around the issue of the smaller sensor and it’s inherent poorer performance at ISOs over 6400 (and coming from the days of shooting slide film at ISOs between 50 and 400 I can’t believe that I see 6400 as a problem) then you will be very happy. The argument about image quality is very spurious if you only look at your images on an iPad or phone. So you can see why I think that this lens is enough to persuade people to adopt the m4/3 system – it has enormous reach, is lightweight and is very affordable.
|Focal Length||100-400mm (200-800 35mm equivalent)|
|Aperture range||f4-6.3 to f22|
|Construction||20 elements in 13 groups|
|Diaphragm||9 circular blades|
|Focus drive||Ultra sonic stepper motor|
|Close focus distance||1.3 m|
|Maximum magnification||x 0.25|
|Length collapsed||17.15 cm|
|Filter size||72 mm|
The Leica designation denotes that Leica had input into the design but the lens is made by Panasonic at their Yamagata lens factory in Japan. The PanaLeica 100-400 retains the same design cues as Leica’s own lenses and the other Panasonic lenses in this series such as the 8-18mm f2.8-4 ie it uses the same fonts and the same ribbing for the focus and zoom rings. It features an all metal body construction and is listed as being weather proof. However, there is no rating as to the extent of the weather resistance. It is a very attractive lens to look at and has a satisfying heft to it which reinforces the fact that this a quality bit of kit. In November 2015 I blogged about the Olympus m.Zuiko 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 mk ii which I bought when I first started dabbling in wildlife photography, with its plastic construction it makes the PanaLeica 100-400 look like a luxury item.
With regards to the physical controls on the lens body working backwards from the built in mini lens hood (a separate full-sized one can attach to this but I have never used it) there is a narrow focus ring. As per usual with Panasonic this a fly by wire ring with no direct physical coupling to the lens heliocord. Behind the focusing ring is ring which locks and unlocks the lens mechanism to prevent zoom creep. This can be applied at any point in the focal range. The zoom ring is nice a broad enabling a good grip and is quite smooth with a little resistance to movement. It has a ninety degree throw and works very nicely when shooting video. The lens body extends outwards as you progress through the lens range. The front lens element, however, does not rotate which is good news for users of polarizing and variable neutral density filters. The tripod foot and collar is really a rather clever piece of design. There is no collar as such, the rear part of the lens rotates 90 degrees to allow users to change from horizontal to vertical orientation. The foot screws into the lens and can be completely detached. In another nice touch you don’t need the foot to attach a tripod plate as you can attach it directly to the lens body which reduces the profile of the lens considerably. Just before the lens mount there are three physical switches. The first is a focus limiter which offers two positions, full focus range and 5m to infinity. Below that is a switch for AF or manual focus, and below that a switch for the optical image stabilisation system. The lens mount is metal and there is an o ring that provides some sealing against water and dust ingress.
Without a doubt the PanaLeica 100-400 is a very complex lens with 20 elements in 13 groups, 1 ultra low dispersion element, 2 extra low dispersion elements and 1 aspheric extra low dispersion element. From this we can see that it is corrected against chromatic aberration and optimised to produce high contrast, high-resolution images whilst maintaining a compact form factor. Although each group is positioned precisely within the lens barrel it is impossible to do this perfectly so the three lens groups that are most acutely effected by tilt and centring defects and therefore impact most upon image quality are the only ones that are adjustable. This has meant that repair or adjustment of the lens is very difficult and only Panasonic’s Yamagata factory is able to do this which means warranty repairs are sent back to Japan for assessment and then are usually replaced. If your lens fails outside of the warranty period customers are offered a refurbished lens at a discount rather than a repair. To further complicate the issue Panasonic in most countries contracts out its customer service and it is very difficult to access and there have been quite a few accounts of poor service on various camera forums. So my best advice would be to buy this lens from a bricks and mortar store with a good returns policy and then thoroughly test the lens, because if you have a problem it could be quite difficult to resolve.
The image quality is very good from 100-300 and just gets a little softer towards 400. This is not unusual for zoom lenses. At all focal lengths the edges of the frame are a little softer wide open but sharpen up nicely as you stop down. Diffraction becomes apparent at f16. There is next to no chromatic aberration, and the only times that I did observe it a simple click in Lightroom fixed it. Flare is remarkably well controlled on a lens with so many glass elements. I have shot a lot of frames into the light and have found that I don’t need to use the full-sized screw on lens hood, I just use the mini sliding hood that is built into the lens. Filter users be aware that this lens is very fussy about filters as many long lenses are. I’ve had no problem with multi-coated B+W and Heliopan filters. For giggles I tried an uncoated Fotga variable neutral density filter and using a combination of the lens on both a G85 and an EM1 could not get focus. This is not a fault of the lens but shows the effect that using cheap uncoated filters can have on lenses. My Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS L does exactly the same with the Fotga filter. I’ve never understood why people will spend $2K on a lens and then slap a cheap $10 filter on it. If you are going to use filters use good ones.
After six months of use and a few thousand exposures I think I’ve got a good handle on this lens. The inbuilt optical stabilisation combines with Panasonic’s Dual IS bodies (at the time of writing the GH5, G9, G95, G85, GX85, and GX9) to give impressive results, around 5-6 stops. When shooting 4K video with the G85 it is very impressive being able to shoot handheld with such a long lens. The video below has footage using the lens on both the G85 and EM1 as well as more stills examples. Unfortunately the OIS does not combine with the IBIS on Olympus bodies so it’s a case of either or. I have my EM1 set up with the IBIS permanently on and have selected Lens IS Priority in the custom functions. This means that when a lens with inbuilt stabilisation is detected the camera switches IBIS off. The reason for this is with shorter lenses IBIS is more effective, but with longer telephoto lenses lens based stabilization works best. The OIS works well enough to get fairly good handheld 1080 video with the EM1, but it’s obviously not as smooth as the G85. The hybrid AF system in the EM1 (a combination of contrast detect and on sensor phase detect) is more confident than the DFD (depth from defocus) of the Panasonic. With small subjects against busy backgrounds I’ve found that the G85 and the PanaLeica just hesitates that little bit as it tries to acquire focus and with small birds that slight hesitation is difference between getting a shot or not. The EM1 is very quick to acquire focus and that is why I’ve ended up favouring it more for bird photography. Now I’m perfectly happy to accept that this just might be a shortcoming of the AF system in the G85 and having read the Lumix GH5/Gh5s/G9 AF Guide Book things might improve significantly if I were to use one of those bodies. But for now I have the quandary of superb image stabilisation versus better AF and I’d sooner have better AF and use faster shutter speeds.
If you are already invested in the m4/3 ecosystem and are interested in photographing birds then this is a no brainer. The PanaLeica 100-400 is streets ahead of the Olympus 75-300 and I would imagine the similarly priced Panasonic 100-300mm. It’s absolutely the muts nuts for walking around in the bush photographing birds and larger insects. Now if you’re interested in wildlife and nature and either don’t have a camera or have another brand I’d really recommend giving this lens and a micro four thirds camera some serious consideration. The image quality is very good as long as you’re not a pixel peeper and are honest with your self on what you’ll do with the image. It is very liberating to walk through the bush unencumbered by heavy camera kit that cost the equivalent of the annual GDP of a small Pacific Island nation. My only wish is that there were more compatibility within the micro four thirds system so that the image stabilisation worked across brands, the zoom rings turn in the same direction and that Panasonic adopt the clutch mechanism on their lenses for manual focus with hard stops.