Olympus Releases Lightweight Super-Telephoto Zoom Lens

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Olympus has officially released its long-awaited M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25x IS PRO lens, and I was given the opportunity to photograph with it for a few days. The representatives from Olympus were very excited and proud of this new telephoto zoom and after my time with it, I find it obvious why. Let’s start with the basics: this is a noticeably lightweight and compact lens, designed for Micro Four Thirds format cameras and, therefore, has a 35mm focal length equivalence of 300-800mm. With its built-in 1.25x teleconverter, it will extend the equivalent focal lengths to 375-1000mm. Again, this focal length, with a constant f/4.5 maximum aperture (f/5.6 when using the built-in teleconverter) is in a lens body that weighs just 4.1 lb (1.875 kg) and is only 12.4" (31.4 cm) long.

300mm Equivalent Focal Length
300mm Equivalent Focal Length
375mm Equivalent Focal Length
375mm Equivalent Focal Length
800mm Equivalent Focal Length
800mm Equivalent Focal Length
1000mm Equivalent Focal Length
1000mm Equivalent Focal Length

The compact size of this lens should not be underestimated; it is fundamental to this lens being so functional, so useful for sports, nature, and wildlife photography, especially when used handheld. Other factors, including its 5-AxisSync IS image stabilization system, complement this functionality, but in my days using this lens—on the Olympus OM-D E-M1X Mirrorless Digital Camera, I was wholeheartedly impressed with its versatility, focus speed and accuracy, and overall ease of use. Amplifying this versatility are the optional Olympus MC-14 M.Zuiko Digital1.4x Teleconverter and the MC-20 2x Teleconverter, which extend the equivalent focal length to a maximum 2000mm. Its minimum focus distance is just 4.3' (1.3 m) across the entire zoom range, even when using the built-in converter.

In putting this lens through its paces for a few days, I used the built-in teleconverter and both optional teleconverters, which enabled a wide-range of photography—birds, sailing, high school sports, landscapes, and cityscapes from roofs and windows. It is hard to understate the range of options this lens can provide—it is a multi-discipline workhorse to satisfy the professional and enthusiast alike.

Image of Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn maintains contrast with late evening backlight. Shot at 420mm equivalent focal length.
Image of Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn maintains contrast with late evening backlight. Shot at 420mm equivalent focal length.

The new white finish on the lens provides heat-shielding coatings to reflect infrared rays and suppress temperature increase in the lens when working in hot conditions, and it is well suited to work in the woods or on the sidelines with its magnesium-alloy, dust-, splash-, and freezeproof construction.

Rubberized zoom and focus rings were smooth to operate and easily “findable” when looking through the viewfinder, and a rubber lens end offers a bit more protection for the barrel. Included with the lens is also a remarkable carbon fiber lens hood. Its tripod base plate is “optimized” for carry with a non-slip rubber grip, and I found myself using it often as a secure way to grasp the lens when shooting handheld or transporting it. Suspension fitting of the base plate improves portability and reduces stress on the mount, and the tripod seat ring smoothly adjusts to a vertical or horizontal position with click stops every 90 degrees. Fluorine coating enables easy cleaning of the front lens element and the front end has threads for a 95mm filter.

500mm equivalent focal length
500mm equivalent focal length

Internally, the system contains 28 elements in 18 groups including 1 EDA lens, 4 Super ED lenses, 2 ED lenses, 2 HR lenses and 1 HD lens. The ED and Super ED elements are particularly effective in suppressing on-axis chromatic aberration, aka color bleeding, and Z Coating Nano technology applied to the lens elements enables clear image quality, as well as significantly reducing ghosts and flaring in backlit situations. Nine aperture blades create its circular diaphragm.

On the Roof, It’s Peaceful as Can Be

It was previously arranged. I met an Olympus sales rep at a very specific location and time in Penn Station. With the decreased travel and required masks it felt more clandestine than it really was, but I did leave “the exchange” with one of the very few 150-400mm f/4.5 lenses “in North America” under my elbow. I felt fortunate to have such a toy for a few days and put it to use immediately photographing New York cityscapes from my windows and rooftop. The lens made it easy to focus on tourists taking their own photos from the observation decks of the Empire State Building and the Edge. It also pulled back to create geometric abstractions of the architecture of the city and pigeons racing by. The integrated 1.25x teleconverter was ready at my right thumb to give that extra reach for more magnification or better composition.

The “handling” of this lens must be one of its first talking points. Again, it’s hard to understate the sharp telephoto reach you have at such a size and weight; even pulling it out of your bag, setting it up, and mounting additional teleconverters is made simpler and faster due to its size. Compared to my midsize Nikon DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, this lens on the Olympus E-M1X is just 1.5 lb (690 g) heavier, and it provides a 1000mm focal length. Imagine the benefit when you are hiking miles with this lens and using it over the course of hours.

The control settings are also set on the side of the barrel for easy access with your left hand. Three focus-limiting settings are on top, AF/MF and Image Stabilization switches are below that, and beneath those are the L-Fn/Preset Focus switch and a sound off switch. The L-Fn/Preset Focus switch enables use of the four L-Fn buttons on the lens barrel for customized settings control and the preset focus function. The preset focus function maintains any focus position and is set by a small button where your thumb rests on the right side of the barrel.

A word about focus hunting: it’s hard to avoid but I was photographing migrating birds and kayakers on a very reflective river and came away impressed with the autofocus on this lens, especially when working within the limiter settings. I could move on to a subject, either with a tripod or handheld, and achieve autofocus in a silent heartbeat. Software to optimize focus in certain situations (Eye-AF, Helmet-AF, even Bird AF) will be supported soon. I did wish for manual focus override when in AF mode, but there were very few instances when I needed it.

Image Stabilization proved to be particularly useful when I was shooting mega-distances with the optional MC-20 2x teleconverter or when photographing sports at night from a distance. When paired with the OM-D E-M1X, the 5-axis Sync IS is rated for and equivalent of 8 steps of compensation when lens is set at 150mm and 6 steps when at 400mm. In both instances I was on a tripod but again—along with the size and weight of this lens, its IS system allows you to consider daylight bird and wildlife photography without a tripod.

1000mm equivalent focal length, f/8, 1/25 sec, ISO 4000
1000mm equivalent focal length, f/8, 1/25 sec, ISO 4000
375mm equivalent focal length, f/5.6, 1.0 sec, ISO 800
375mm equivalent focal length, f/5.6, 1.0 sec, ISO 800
500mm equivalent focal length, f/20, 1/8000 sec, ISO 250
500mm equivalent focal length, f/20, 1/8000 sec, ISO 250

Included with the lens are the LH-115 Lens Hood, the LC-115 Lens Cap, the LSC-1642 Lens Case, the LR-2 Rear Lens Cap and the CSS-P121 Lens Strap. The Zuiko PRF-ZD95 PRO Protection Filter is also brand new for this lens but it is an optional purchase and Olympus is offering a 2-year extended warranty, specifically for this lens.

As a first-time user of the OM-D E-M1X and a long-time user of super telephoto lenses, the new ED 150-400mm f/4.5in combination with the E-M1X was a revelation and just what many photographers have been waiting for to help them incorporate wildlife and adventure photography into their repertoire. With its focus speed, versatile focal lengths, easy handling, and—let’s face it—attractive pricing, it’s a great catch for enthusiasts interested in expanding their photography and a durable time and effort saver for more seasoned photographers.

What is holding you back from embracing long lens photography? What drew you into it? Share with us your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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