Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH Power O.I.S. lens

      Photo Review 9
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      In summary

      Panasonic’s Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH lens has a  compact and lightweight body; it’s arguably the lightest 200-800mm equivalent lens on the market.

      Bird photographers, in particular, are likely to find this lens appealing, especially if they use a GX8 camera which lets them take advantage of the Dual I.S system.

      The durable, gapless construction keeps out dust and light rain, making it ideal for outdoor photographers and the integrated lens hood can be quickly pulled out to shade the front element against glare. A larger detachable lens hood adds extra shading for difficult lighting conditions.

       Some people may think AU$2199 is a lot to pay for a fairly specialised lens. However, we feel this lens represents excellent value for money, particularly when compared with similar lenses for DSLR cameras, which weight several kilograms more and cost at least four times the price of Panasonic’s 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 lens.

       

       

      Full review

      Announced in January, Panasonic’s Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH lens is a significant step-up from the existing H-FS100300 Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4.0-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. lens both in zoom range and build quality. Covering focal lengths equivalent to 200-800mm in 35mm format, it is currently the only 800mm equivalent lens in the Micro Four Thirds lineup. The Leica branding implies this lens conforms to that company’s high quality standards.

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       The Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 ASPH lens, shown with its tripod stand attached. (Source: Panasonic.)

      The  optical design contains 20 elements in 13 groups, including one aspherical ED (extra-low dispersion), one UED (Ultra Extra-Low Dispersion) and two ED elements to minimise aberrations like chromatic aberration and distortion. Nine diaphragm blades close to produce a circular aperture for smooth, attractive bokeh. This lens is also weather sealed.
       

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       The diagram above shows the positions of the exotic elements in the lens. (Source: Panasonic.)

      The integrated Power O.I.S. stabilisation system works with Panasonic’s Dual I.S system, providing superior stabilisation in cameras with sensor-shift IS, such as the Lumix DMC-GX8. The compact, two-part tripod mounting system on the lens has a large locking screw to enable fast swapping between landscape and portrait orientation.

      One interesting feature of this lens is the inclusion of a near-silent micro-motor AF drive, which operates at 240 frames/second. In addition to providing fast autofocusing, this drive is quiet enough to allow the lens to be used for 4K video shooting.

      The lens will focus to within 1.3 metres of subjects, providing scope for interesting close-ups at half life size magnification. It provides a good working distance for photographing small birds and animals and enough magnification for flower shots.

      The lens takes 72mm filters. It is supplied with front and end caps, the tripod extension foot and the extension for the integrated lens hood. A soft carrying bag with a drawstring top is also provided.

      Who’s it For?
       Most photographers will buy this lens for shooting sports and/or wildlife. Bird photographers, in particular, are likely to find this lens appealing, particularly if they use a GX8 camera, which lets them take advantage of the Dual I.S system.

      Arguably the lightest 200-800mm equivalent lens on the market, its compact and lightweight body make it suitable for users who need to walk some distance to find their subjects. It’s ideal for photographers who spend a lot of time standing, such as sports photographers.

      The durable, gapless construction keeps out dust and light rain, making it ideal for outdoor photographers and the integrated lens hood can be quickly pulled out to shade the front element against glare. A larger detachable lens hood adds extra shading for difficult lighting conditions.

      Build and Ergonomics
       Panasonic doesn’t reveal whether the barrel of this lens is made from metal, although it notes ‘a metallic black finish’ and the barrel feels solid and cool to the touch. It feels equally well balanced on the GX8 body Panasonic supplied for our review (so we could test the Dual I.S system) and on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera we used for assessing the built-in stabilisation in the lens.

      With the permanently attached lens hood slid back and no lens cap attached, the lens protrudes 171.5 mm from the camera body. It has a maximum girth of 83 mm aroudn the leading edge of the lens hood.

      When the lens hood is slid forwards to protect the front element, it adds about 12 mm to the overall length. The additional lens hood (supplied) adds a further 35 mm. It’s attached with a clamping screw that holds it securely in place.
       Behind the hood section is a 27 mm wide focusing ring that carries a 12 mm wide grip band of ribbing. Focusing is totally internal and achieved by moving a group of elements within the lens barrel. Immediately aft of the focusing ring is a rotating lock that can be used to either prevent zoom creep or fix the lens at a specific focal length.

      The zoom ring sits behind the locking ring. It’s roughly 52 mm wide with a 35 mm wide band of ribbing that is slightly thinner than the ribbing on the focusing ring. The trailing edge of this ring is stamped with focal length settings for 100mm, 150mm, 200mm, 250mm, 300mm 350mm and 400mm. These are lined up against the non-moving section of the barrel, which also provides an anchoring point for the tripod foot.

      As you move from 100mm to 400mm, the maximum aperture diminishes, as shown in the table below.

      Focal length

      100mm

      150mm

      200mm

      250mm

      300mm

      350mm

      400mm

      Maximum aperture

      f/4

      f/4.4

      f/5

      f/5.4

      f/5.6

      f/5.9

      f/6.3

      The base of this section has a moulding with a standard tripod socket, to which the supplied extension foot is attached. You can also attach the lens directly to a tripod without using the extension foot.

      The lens barrel steps in between the tripod mount and the mounting plate for attaching it to the camera. In this section of the barrel are three sliders. The top one is a Focus Limiter, which lets users constrain focus to between five metres and infinity or use the entire focusing range. Below it is an AF/MF switch, while the final slider lets users switch the Power O.I.S. in the lens on and off. The lens attaches to the camera via a solid metal mounting plate.

      Performance
       The only objective measurements of performance we could conduct were at 100mm due to a lack of space in our testing set-up. This was carried out with the camera on the DMC-GX8 body, which has higher resolution than our Olympus cameras. We also made subjective assessments of performance at other focal length settings, using the lens on both the GX8 and the OM-D E-M1 bodies.

      We were only able to run our Imatest tests on the 100mm focal length because of a lack of space in our testing area. However, Imatest showed the review lens to be well capable of meeting expectations for the GX8’s 20-megapixel sensor with JPEG files. There was some edge and corner softening at wider apertures but by about f/6.3 this was barely noticeable in actual shots. The graph below shows the results we obtained at   the 100mm focal length.

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       Autofocusing was almost silent with both camera bodies and, with both cameras it appeared to lock on swiftly and accurately. Lateral chromatic aberration was negligible at all aperture settings, as shown in the graph of our Imatest results below, in which the red line marks the boundary between negligible and low CA. No coloured fringing was seen in any test shots.

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       Subjective assessment of images taken at other focal lengths implied image sharpness was maintained up to about 250mm, after which it began to tail off a little. However, images were still nice and sharp at 400mm and judicious application of unsharp masking before printing yielded excellent results.

      The sharpest images were captured between the maximum aperture and one to 1.5 stops down. Diffraction began to impact on sharpness from about f/8 on and by f/22 softening was noticeable. Vignetting was apparent at the widest apertures but vanished by a stop down. Rectilinear distortion was effectively negligible.

      Fast, long telephoto lenses tend to have attractive bokeh and the 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 lens is no exception. At wide apertures, the nine-bladed iris diaphragm can produce pleasing blurring in out-of-focus areas ““ unless the background contains contrasting areas of dark and light tones. Evenly-lit backgrounds are rendered with pleasing smoothness.

      With the lens on the GX8 and using the Dual I.S system, we were able to hand-hold the camera and lens at shutter speeds as slow as 1/50 second and obtain more than half of the shots taken with acceptable sharpness. With the lens on the E-M1 and relying on the built-in Power O.I.S. stabilisation, the best we could average was 1/80 second.

      This is impressive since, going on the focal length reciprocal estimation, the minimum shutter speed for hand-holding this lens should be 1/800 second. Note that with a 2x crop factor for   the M4/3 format, the 35mm equivalent focal length should be used.

      The review lens handled backlighting well, although we found some veiling flare in shots taken with the sun just outside the frame. Most shots would be quite easily corrected with a competent image editor.

      Conclusion
       Some people may think AU$2199 is a lot to pay for a fairly specialised lens. However, we feel this lens represents excellent value for money, particularly when compared with similar lenses for DSLR cameras, which weight several kilograms more and cost at least four times the price of Panasonic’s 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3 lens.

      The nearest M4/3 competitor is the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4.0 IS PRO lens, which we reviewed recently and is priced at AU$3699. The Panasonic lens has the advantage of variable focal lengths but pays the penalty of a reducing maximum aperture as it is zoomed in. It’s also more versatile than the Olympus lens.

      The RRP of this lens is slightly higher than expected when we reviewed the Olympus lens, probably as a result of currency fluctuations. Even so, going by current overseas pricing, you’ll save at least AU$200 if you buy it from a local specialist re-seller ““ and you’ll be able to enjoy hands-on experience with it before you buy.

       

      SPECS

       

       Picture angle: 12 degrees to 3.1 degrees  
       Minimum aperture: f/22
       Lens construction: 20 elements in 13 groups (including 1 aspherical ED lens, 1 UED lens, 2 ED lenses)
       Lens mounts: Micro Four Thirds
       Diaphragm Blades: 9 (circular aperture)
       Focus drive: Micro-motor
       Stabilisation: POWER O.I.S. (works with Panasonic’s Dual I.S system)
       Minimum focus: 1.3 metres
       Maximum magnification: Approx. 0.25x
       Filter size:   72 mm
       Dimensions (Diameter x L): 83 x 171.5 mm
       Weight:   985 grams (excluding lens caps, lens hood and external tripod mount)
       Standard Accessories: Lens front and end caps, Lens hood, External tripod mount, Lens storage bag

       

      TESTS

      Based on JPEG files recorded with the Panasonic DMC-GX8 camera.

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      SAMPLES

       

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       Vignetting at 100mm f/4.
       

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       Vignetting at 200mm f/5.
       

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       Vignetting at 300mm f/5.6.
       

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       Vignetting at 400mm f/6.3.
       

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       Rectilinear distortion at 100mm.
       

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       Rectilinear distortion at 200mm.
       

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       Rectilinear distortion at 300mm.
       

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       Rectilinear distortion at 400mm.
       
       The images in this section were taken with the lens on the DMC-GX8 camera body while on a Panasonic-sponsored media trip to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. All photographs were taken with the camera hand-held.
       

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       400mm focal length, ISO 800, 1/60 second at f/6.3.  
       
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/100 second at f/6.3.
       

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      161mm focal length, ISO 500, 1/400 second at f/4.6.
       

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      225mm focal length, ISO 800, 1/250 second at f/5.2.
       

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      Backlit subjects. 250mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/200 second at f/5.6.
       

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      224mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/800 second at f/5.2.
       

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      350mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/160 second at f/5.9.
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/4000 second at f/22.
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/125 second at f/6.3.
       
       The images in this section were taken with the lens on the OM-D E-M1 camera body.  All photographs were taken with the camera hand-held.
       

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       Strong backlighting showing slight veiling flare; 400mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/640 second at f/9.
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/400 second at f/7.1.
       
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/640 second at f/8.
       

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      400mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/500 second at f/6.3.
       

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      100mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/640 second at f/6.3.
       

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      224mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/320 second at f/5.2.

       

      Rating

      RRP: AU$2199; US$1798

      • Build: 9.0
      • Handling: 8.9
      • Image quality: 9.0
      • Versatility: 9.0

      Buy