In the Field with the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm f/4-6.3 for Micro Four Thirds

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Panasonic has partnered with Leica to produce the new Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4-6.3 ASPH POWER O.I.S. for Micro Four Thirds-format mirrorless cameras, perhaps the most audacious example of their collaborations to date. It offers an amazing 200-800mm-equivalent focal-length range in a surprisingly compact, lightweight, and weather-resistant package designed for handheld or tripod use. It provides a relatively wide aperture range for shooting in low light or achieving shallow depth of field, and includes a sophisticated in-lens 2-axis Power optical image stabilization (Power O.I.S.) system that can be integrated with the sensor-shift system in select Panasonic G cameras to minimize the effects of camera shake.

Designed by Leica in Germany and manufactured by Panasonic in Japan, the lens employs an advanced 20-element, 13-group optical design that incorporates one aspheric extra-low-dispersion element, one Ultra Extra-Low-dispersion element, and two non-aspheric extra-low-dispersion elements. This unique combination reduces spherical aberrations and minimizes color fringing over the entire zoom range and also enhances sharpness, clarity, and color accuracy. Featuring dustproof, splash-proof construction using multiple rubber gaskets, this lens is clearly aimed at outdoorsy nature and wildlife photographers.

Beautifully made and finished in satin black, the Vario-Elmar 100-400mm measures 6.75 inches in length at the 100mm setting with the built-in lens hood collapsed, 3.27 inches in diameter, and weighs 2.17 pounds. When the striated 1-1/2-inch-wide zoom ring is turned about 135 degrees clockwise to the 400mm setting, the barrel extends an additional 3 inches, but its excellent handheld balance (on our Panasonic GH4 test camera) was virtually unchanged, since most of its weight is concentrated at the back end, and the optical components that move forward are relatively light. Directly in front of the zoom ring, there’s a 7/16-inch-wide zoom-lock ring, with a detent at the locked position, and a milled 5/8-inch-wide manual focus ring, which becomes active in manual focus (MF) mode. Just behind the zoom ring is a nicely machined set screw, which can be loosened to rotate the furnished accessory tripod platform up to 90 degrees for convenience in shooting verticals, and behind the set screw is a neat array of 3 sliding switches, a focus limiter switch with full range and 5-meters-to-infinity settings (the latter providing faster AF action), an AF/MF switch for selecting auto or manual focus, and a Power O.I.S. switch with On and Off settings—the latter is recommended when shooting with a tripod-mounted camera.


 

The lens comes with a 72mm lens cap with spring loaded mounting catches, a rear cap, a drawstring pouch and two useful accessories—1. A robust removable tripod platform that screws into the tripod socket on the barrel, is held firmly in position by 2 locating pins, and moves the tripod socket about 1-3/4 inches forward, closer to the center of gravity of the lens/camera unit. 2. An accessory slip-on lens hood that extends the effective length of the built-in collapsible lens hood by about 1-3/8 inches to minimize flare in backlit situations, and locks in position with a set screw. The removable accessory hood can be attached in reverse position over the front of the lens, making it shorter and easier to store or stow. I discovered that the tripod platform can also be used as an effective grip when shooting handheld, and it would be an even better one if they rounded its sharp top edges and added some padding.

The first things that struck me when I mounted the Vario-Elmar 100-400mm on the test Panasonic Lumix GH4 was how well balanced this combo was with the tripod mount and accessory lens shade in place, and how easy it was to handhold, even at the 400mm (800mm equivalent) setting. The fact that the GH4 is a medium-sized, medium-weight camera definitely helped, and my impression is that the lens is ideally suited for mirrorless cameras in this size/weight class. Look through the EVF and the reach of this lens is a breathtaking visual experience, especially given its relatively compact form factor, but equally impressive is its ability to focus down to the true macro range—4.3 feet over its entire focal length range—to deliver an equivalent maximum magnification of 0.5x, or ½ life size. Perhaps even more important (see the accompanying images), it’s definitely capable of crisp imaging down to its closest focusing distances, and therefore capable of capturing stunning close-ups and compelling portraits.


 

Its extraordinary framing versatility is complemented by Panasonic’s very effective 2-axis in-lens Power O.I.S. optical image stabilization system. It helps to brace the camera and you against a solid object when shooting handheld at the longest focal lengths, especially in low light, but even when my handholding technique was far from rock steady, I was able to achieve critically sharp images in most cases, thanks to Power O.I.S. Indeed, most of the images in this portfolio, including the hawk in flight and the three images of the Moses statue in Albany, New York’s Washington Park, were taken handheld. Panasonic’s Power O.I.S. is essentially what transforms this lens from an innovative optical design into a powerful real world tool, and its in-lens O.I.S. is accessible even on non-Panasonic cameras using the Micro Four Thirds mount.

To minimize the possibility of blur due to camera shake at slow shutter speeds I mostly set the camera to “Auto ISO” which meant that some of my indoor grab portraits were taken at high ISOs, ISO 3200 and higher. However, in general it’s preferable to have a little extra “digital grain” and a slight loss of color saturation than image-degrading blur. Also, while an aperture range of f/4 to f/6.3 may seem moderate compared to the wide aperture f/1.4-2.8 prime lenses currently in vogue, the Vario-Elmar 100-400mm provides very shallow depth of field at its widest apertures—great for making the main subject pop off a pleasingly diffused background. The beautiful bokeh produced by this lens also extends to subjects shot at smaller apertures, thanks in part to its 9-rounded-blade diaphragm.

Operationally this lens is beyond reproach, except for one foible—the uneven action of its zoom control ring. However, this was a pre-production sample, and Panasonic has assured us that this has since been corrected in final released versions. It’s reasonably smooth and relatively easy to turn between the 100mm and 200mm settings, requires a little more effort to turn from 200mm to 300mm, and becomes downright stiff between 350mm and 400mm. This is undoubtedly due to the complex system of multiple cams and moving optical elements needed to achieve its impressive zoom range. No, it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s also not ideal, especially when you’re trying to zoom while tracking action subjects in AF tracking mode or shooting video. In a way, it makes the zoom lock ring almost superfluous, because the zoom setting isn’t going to creep unless you carry the lens pointing downwards while jogging over a bumpy road. The zooming action did improve somewhat, becoming progressively smoother and easier to turn, over the course of our two-week test.


 

The Vario-Elmar 100-400mm incorporates a 240 fps high-speed AF micro-motor, and it is quiet and precise, as the manufacturer claims, but when shooting fast-action subjects such as motorcycles and birds I found that its AF speed, while somewhat quicker than average, was not blazingly fast. Part of this may be attributable to the characteristics of the generally excellent Panasonic Lumix GH4 test camera rather than the AF system in the lens itself. In any event, AF speed improved noticeably when I set the focus range limiter switch to the 5m-infinity setting. On the plus side, the lens worked splendidly when I set the camera to focus-tracking mode, which makes it an excellent choice for wildlife, sports, and nature photography. Of course, when shooting with a super-telephoto zoom like this, it’s critically important to select the right AF mode because the depth of field is quite shallow even at moderate apertures. Multi-zone AF is a great overall setting, but when the camera selects focus points that don’t align with the precise point of focus you want, you will get better results, and a much better picture taking experience if you switch to Center Zone AF or manual focus (MF) mode.


 

What really makes this unique lens stand out is its real-world optical performance, which is outstanding—in the same league as many of the much larger, heavier (end even more expensive) super-telephoto prime lenses offered by the major camera makers. It’s capable of delivering critically sharp, crisp, high-contrast images over its entire focal length range, at both long and moderate distances, all the way down to the macro range. Its color fidelity, detail rendition, and freedom from flare even under adverse lighting conditions are commendable. As you would expect of a lens in this class, it incorporates Leica’s acclaimed multi-coating on all elements. Out of the hundreds of images I shot for this review, only a few taken directly into the sun or bright sky showed any flare or loss of contrast—an impressive performance for a lens of this type.

The bottom line: This is am extremely versatile, superbly made, high performance super-telephoto zoom that should be on the short list for anyone, including pros, who uses a Micro Four Thirds format mirrorless camera and needs this kind of reach. 


 

1 Comment

Hope to add this to my collection, soon!.