Panasonic’s new Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-f6.3 is the best of times and the worst of times and if I’m starting a review with Dickens you can be sure there’s a good reason for it.
First, the best of times. In ideal conditions, by which I mean strong lighting with scenes with good contrast, and a subject within 100m, you’ve got yourself a terrific lens.
The zoom length is very useful for a wide range of telephoto subjects and the optics are very good, performing at their best at less than 300mm, or at least that’s my impression after four days of chasing subjects to fill the frame.
The build quality immediately impresses. After pulling it out of the box, you feel the weight of it in your hand and it feels like about $2000 worth of lens should feel. Solid and hefty and well put together.
There were some shots I scored with this lens that in a side-by-side comparison would be hard to differentiate from some of the best glass I’ve shot using a full-frame pro DSLR.
As for the worst of times…
I should first point out I was supplied the loaner while I also had the Lumix GX85 on loan, so this was the only MFT body I had with which to test the 100-400mm.
The two are not a good match. The GX85 is the wrong form factor to attach a big lens to. It’s just clumsy to handle as the weight of the lens overwhelms the camera body.
It feels horribly unbalanced in the hand. If you’re a GH4 owner, you should be interested. Otherwise, owners of compact MFT bodies should examine other options.
It’s a slow lens. At f4 at the 100mm end it’s not too bad but when shooting at f6.3 racked out to 400mm you will be upping your ISO to get action-stopping shutter speeds.
Some users won’t mind doing that and, to be fair, high ISO performance in the latest generation of cameras will provide an adequate solution for many shooters.
It’s just that every time you reach out to higher ISOs, you lose crispness in the image. There’s no getting around that. As sensor noise creeps in, clarity recedes. That’s just how it is.
By way of explanation, here’s where I found myself. I took this lens to a Saturday afternoon Aussie Rules match on an especially grey and miserable winter’s afternoon.
To freeze action in these conditions required an ISO of 3200 when shooting at the 400mm end. Yup, not a word of a lie. The light really was that murky.
I flipped into every AF mode the camera offers but bringing a player into focus was more by good luck than good management. It was an exercise in frustration. Worse, at ISO 3200 the images were robbed of any crispness.
In this day and age, especially with the Olympics on, we’re bombarded with spectacular sports images on a regular basis, which just serves to emphasise the disappointment of seeing your own images coming out soft, which is how every shot from that footy match turned out.
Only two days before, I used the very same lens to pick out a tern flying about a breakwater, with the follow-focus mode switched in and it worked an absolute charm.
Why the difference in performance? I’m willing to be corrected but the reasonable conclusion is contrast detection auto-focus. It just doesn’t deliver in poor light.
Also, there are handling issues. It’s great that Panasonic includes a tripod collar but because it rotates strictly through 90 degrees, it’s limiting when you use a monopod because there are going to be times when you want to lean sideways to frame a shot but the limit of the collar rotation prevents you from doing so.
The zoom action, too, really needs a good look. It’s far from smooth. Not sticky. Just a tad too stiff. I found myself having to pull my eye from the EVF to avoid a moment of lens-induced eye socket soreness.
Would I buy this lens? No. But then, when I shoot with long lenses, it’s because I’m shooting sport and I demand a high level of performance when I’m doing that.
Who is this lens good for? There are genres this lens will suit.
Wildlife, for instance (just as long as it’s spring or summer). Also, given its relative compactness, it would be a good travel lens for those who want the range. Although, to be honest, I could be happy with the Lumix FZ300 as a travel camera with its 600mm focal reach and its certainly-better-than-good-enough optical quality.
While I was impressed with this lens in certain situations, it left me mostly underwhelmed. Remember, however, that I was handicapped a little by having to mate this lens with a GX85. If you’re the owner of a GH4, which offers an advanced contrast detection AF system, you shouldn’t disregard this lens out of hand.
This review was written by professional photographer Chris Oaten from Insight Visuals
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-f6.3