An important aspect of my photographic interest is wildlife, an interest that requires long lenses and good field craft. The field craft I am ok with but my relationship with long lenses is a long story.
Stepping back a few years my go to wildlife kit was the Canon EOS 7d mk ii and the venerable Canon 500mm f4 big white. On the Canon APS C crop body this gave me an effective focal length of 800mm a good focal length for birding and coupled with the Canon 100-400mm zoom on a Canon 5d mk iii a good all around wildlife kit, all be it with one major problem, well actually 2 major problems, size and weight (those 4 items alone weighing in at 6.43kg).
For me the size and weight of my Canon kit had become a real problem, not only was it frankly physically exhausting to shoot with (something I finally realised during a Tanzanian safari), but perhaps more importantly the ever increasing restrictions on size and weight being placed on hand luggage by airlines was making in very difficult to travel with it. It was increasingly looking like the only way to travel with this kind of kit was to check it in as hold luggage, which for me always was and always will be a total non-starter.
So back in early 2018 I decided the time had come to do something about this and thus I started looking around to find a lighter and smaller alternative. I documented my thoughts back then here. Suffice to say I decided to move to the much lighter micro four thirds (m43) system initially based around a Panasonic G9 and more laterly joined by an Olympus OMD EM 1 mk ii.
Three years on and from a wildlife photography perspective I am broadly happy that I made the right choice, the m43 system has some well known and well documented shortcomings but for me the shortcomings have been largely outweighed by the huge benefit of having a much smaller and lighter kit bag, all be it that kit bag has inevitably grown somewhat more than I originally intended it to. The workhorse now being the OMD EM 1 mk ii with the Olympus 300mm f4 lens (600mm full frame equivalent), this is a superb lens being both light and very sharp, it is just a shame it is not a little longer.
To add extra length to the 300mm lens I quite often use it with the MC 14 1.4 teleconvertor giving a full frame equivalence of 840mm at f5.6, I generally find this a better solution than just cropping the image as the OMD EM 1 mk ii just does not have enough pixels to crop in significantly without loosing image detail (this is particularly the case if an iso over about 800 has been used). To get wider coverage I use my Panasonic G9 with the Olympus 40-150 f2.8 lens (80-300mm FF equivalent) thereby giving me coverage not unlike my orginal Canon kit, but at a weight of 3.97kg rather than 6.43kg, and this makes a huge difference. It is worth at this point noting that the real weight saving is not in the cameras per se but rather the lenses due principally to the 2x focal length factor due to the small m43 sensor.
Now one shortcoming of both my Canon and Olympus systems for wildlife trips always has been and remains the need to have 2 bodies and 2 lenses to cover the range of focal lengths that are needed for a mammal/birding trip, wouldn’t it be so much better if a single super zoom could do the duty. Now whilst lenses like the Pansonic 100-400 and more latterly the Olympus equivalent do exist they are slow (a real problem on m43 cameras given their poor high iso performance) and the optical quality especially at the long end are just not, in my opinion, good enough for my kind of bird photography.
So when Olympus announced (what seems like ages ago now) their intention to produce a professional quality 150-400 f4.5 zoom lens with a very useful built in 1.25 teleconverter I was more than a little interested. This one lens would cover a full frame equivalent of 300mm through to 1000mm, with 300mm to 800mm at f4.5 and 800mm-1000mm one stop slower at f6.3, so perhaps a little bit slower than ideal but respectable although a little dissapointing that the zoom range didn’t start at 100mm rather than 150mm as 300mm full frame equivalent is rather long for a one lens suits all wildlife lens. Now having seen a pre-production copy of this lens at Birdfair 2 years ago I knew it was not going to be a cheap lens, it was clearly being made to compete with Canon’s big whites and although alot smaller and lighter than those lenses (it weighs about 1.9kg) it was nevertheless going to be a complex and very high quality piece of glass. At the time I remember thinking that it was unlikely to be priced at much less than £5,000.
Fast forwarding to late 2020 and Olympus (actually now OM Digital Solutions, more of that later) finally announced the launch of the lens with deliveries to start in Q1 2021 but unfortunately at a somewhat gobsmaking price of £6,499 ! I had hoped for about £4,000, feared about £5,000, but £6,500 was way more than I had been expecting. Now putting this in the context of Canon’s big whites, some of which cost over £10,000 the price is perhaps not that surprising, however it should be remembered that the lens is actually just a medium fast 150-400mm (slowish 500mm with the TC) and although that gives a much longer effective full frame equivalent focal length it is not in itself a 600mm or 800mm lens and therefore should indeed be alot cheaper than such lenses.
So the price is a problem for me, as I had, on balance, intended to buy this lens. But that is not the end of the story.
There has over recent years been quite alot of speculation about the future of m43 especially in the world of mirrorless full frame cameras. Canon, Nikon & Sony are all now producing excellent mirrorless cameras which have to some extent stolen a lot of the benefits of the m43 system, indeed the one real advantage that m43 does still have is the size and weight of lenses although as I shall go on to explain even that is changing. Now the speculation around m43 was not helped when Panasonic decided to move into the world of full frame and that does appear to be where they are now focussing their attention especially for stills cameras, indeed they have recently hinted that there will be no direct successor to the G9 rather a combined GH5/G9 successor is more likely with more of a movie focus. Furthermore Olympus have, after more than 100 years in the camera business, sold their imaging business to a private equity group (JIP), to be know going forward as OM Digital Solutions, and have thus created a great deal of uncertainty where that business is going.
So what to do ? ….. well, as I see it Olympus have produced in the 150-400mm f4.5 a truely outstanding lens, and all the reviews I have seen suggest it is a very good lens (although in truth I am not actually sure the images produced are actually any better than those from the 300mm f4, indeed up to 300mm it is one third of a stop slower, although the extra reach is significant. But here’s the thing, I think perhaps the lens is too good as I am really not sure that you can justify putting a lens of this calibre and price in front of a 20mp m43 sensor, bluntly I think this lens is just too good for the cameras that it works with, it frankly is capable of delivering far more detail than the current m43 sensors can capture. Furthermore for me spending £6,500 on a lens for a system that has an uncertain future is just a non-starter, for as it stands at the moment it is far from certain that there will be any more development of m43 cameras and as such the system risks being at a dead end.
So in conclusion for me I am afraid the Olympus 150-400 f4.5 is a pass, and as an aside given that photographers like myself must be the target audience for this lens I think this is going to be a real problem for Olympus, or should I say OM Digital Solutions. I cannot help but think that whilst no doubt a number of professionals will “buy” this lens the number of enthusiats that opt for it will be very low. So I think I will happily stick with what I have ………. or will I ?
Now here is the thing, my dissapointment at the pricing of the 150-400mm has caused me to cast my eye around to see what alternatives now exist. Now whilst I enjoy wildlife photography and have a need for long lenses it is also the case that I also enjoy other genres of photography including landscape amongst others and whilst I believe m43 is decent for wildlife it really is well below par for landscape and other short focal length genres. The fact is that many of the advantages of m43 mirrorless cameras have been well and truely caught up with now that all the major camera manufactures are producing mirrorless full frame cameras, cameras which are no bigger or heavier than m43 cameras and even the short focal length lenses are not substantailly bigger or heavier. I believe in 2021 it has become very difficult to make a case for m43 for landscape or similar photography, the advantages of full frame with their sensors 4x the size, better resolution, much better high iso performance, much better dynamic range etc are just too great and the disadvantages are waning almost daily.
So here is one thought. The Sony A7r iv is a 61mp beast of a full frame mirrorless camera (it is probably the best all-round full frame mirrorless camera on the market today), the image quality it is capable of is frankly in a different league to anything any m43 camera can produce. Incredibly it is no bigger than my Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii and weighs just 89g more at 665g against 574g. It does of course cost twice as much as an OMD EM1 mk iii and three times as much as the OMD EM1 mk ii, but more of that later.
Now as mentioned above the issue with size and weight is not so much the camera body but the the lenses and this is where m43 cameras have a huge advantage, or do they ? Well historically yes but here is the thing, the Sony A7r iv has a 61mp sensor when used in full frame mode but it is also capable of shooting in APS C mode which still gives and incredible 26mp image i.e still bigger than many full frame cameras, so in this mode a 400mm lens becomes a 600mm lens and with no loss in light cathering ability. So for example the Sony 100-400mm f4.5/f5.6 G Master becomes a 150-600mm lens or perhaps more pertinently the Sony 200-600mm f5.6/f6.3 G OSS becomes a 300-900mm lens i.e longer all be it one stop slower than the Olympus 150-400mm f4.5. Furthermore these two lenses are virtually the same size and very similar in weight.
Now the Olympus lens is a professional grade lens whereas the Sony is an enthusiasts lens (it is from Sony’s G series rather than G Master). I have no doubt the Olympus lens is sharper than the Sony and it is 1 stop faster but, and this is a big but, the Olympus will deliver a 20mp image whereas the Sony will deliver a 26 mp image, that is 30% more pixels and that is not the end of the story as the photosites on the Sony sensor are about 27% larger than those on the Olympus sensor which means in turn a much better low light/high iso performance. Taking all these factors together you just have to wonder if the Olympus setup despite being the sharper faster lens is actually capable of delivering sharper results, I have serious doubts especially in low light conditions. I’m afraid this just goes back to my earlier concern that the Olympus lens is just too good for the cameras.
And finally what about price, and for me this is where the Olympus lens has a real problem. The Olympus lens is £6,499 the Sony lens is £1,449 a staggering £5,050 less ! For that £5,050 you can buy the Sony A7r iv for £2,899 and still have over £2,100 in change or add in the superb Sony 100-400mm f4.5/f5.6 G Master for £2,099 or the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 G Master for £1,949. Watch this space…….