Welcome to Part Two of our look at the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO lens. Part One describes my hands on experience with the lens as a person shooting extreme telephoto for the very first time (bottom line: it’s an extraordinary lens, but not for all photographers). After my loaner period, I reached out to Olympus to talk to one of their pro photographers because I wanted our readers to be able to learn more about the lens and see what you can really do with it (IE, way better sample images than what I was able to provide).
As a result, I interviewed Olympus Trailblazer, Frank T. Smith, who lives in Pennsylvania, but recently had a chance to take the new 300mm lens down to Central and South America to shoot in dense jungle regions. Frank is one heck of a nice guy, and he had some terrific insights about working with the new 300mm F4 PRO. Enjoy!
Steve’s Digicams: Frank, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us about the new M.Zuiko 300mm F4 IS PRO lens, which I got to play with for a long weekend. It’s an extraordinary lens and an extraordinary value, but as a more of an enthusiast level shooter, I wanted to talk to a pro such as yourself about your experiences. When did you get your hands on it?
Frank Smith: I think I had one of the pre-production models in early February.
What were your first thoughts when you opened up the box?
When I first opened the box — and I might be a little biased on this here, and many of my counterparts use the Canon and Nikon systems — but when I opened it up and pulled out a 600mm equivalent lens, I just laughed to myself and thought, “you poor guys.” The key there being the size of this lens, and of course the weight. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, from a size perspective, when I first got it, but that’s been amazing. I’ve shot the [M.Zuiko 40-150mm F2.8 PRO] with the [MC-14 1.4x teleconverter], the 300mm is still bigger, but that’s to be expected because there’s more glass, more length, more depth.
How does the M.Zuiko 300mm F4 PRO compare to the Nikon & Canon systems?
I recently had a chance to go down to the jungles of Panama and Costa Rica for a National Geographic photo trip. Many of my counterparts there had the Canon and Nikon stuff, and it’s always comical to me because, if I don’t know the people out of the gate, they look over at me, thinking “Oh, who’s this guy with his little toy over there?” And by the end of that trip I was asked to give a presentation on the Olympus Micro Four Thirds systems and this lens in particular because there were so many people who told me at the end of that trip they were going back and making a trade-in.
Is there any trade off, in terms of the glass itself and in your professional opinion, between getting this $2,500 lens versus the $8,000-$12,000 600mm versions meant for APS-C and Full Frame sensor DSLRs?
I’m going to bite my tongue a little bit and try not to be sarcastic with my answer, but one of the things I love about the M.ZUIKO PRO glass is that it’s second-to-none. And this lens, if it’s not “the”, is certainly one of the fastest, sharpest, pieces of glass that I’ve ever used. It has surpassed every one of my expectations. Not trying to be biased on my comment, but [this lens] is just amazing.
I do exhibits where my images are 36″ x 48″ and people ask me, “is sensor size an issue?” And then I ask them what they’re going to do with their images and they say something like, “well I’m going to make an 8″ x 10″.”
The way I look at it, unless you’re shooting 4K videos** for a living, or if you’re shooting images for a billboard, Micro Four Thirds is such a perfect sensor size.
I’m in total agreement with you, but as a sidebar, I have a buddy who works for a billboard company and he says to me, “Frank, you’re not going to believe this, but most of the images going on a billboard are 72 DPI and you could use a point-and-shoot because people are seeing them at such a distance.”
What’s your other go-to lens?
I am, for the most part, a wide shooter, unless I’m on a specific or special assignment. The [M.ZUIKO 7-14mm F2.8 PRO] is the one I use the most, along with the other M.ZUIKO PRO lenses. The 7-14mm is probably on my camera most of the time when I don’t have anything specific planned, when I’m doing landscapes, etc.
But for this trip to the jungle, with the 300mm F4 PRO, I got images nobody else on that trip got. It was just amazing. Shooting through foliage. Getting shots of bird life that nobody else was able to bring back. And that in and of itself was fun for this trip.
I love the vivid colors of your jungle shots. Are these .jpgs post-processed or straight out of the camera?
Full disclosure, I don’t share any images without first post-processing them, though I try not to do too much. For these images you have here, many of them were shot with a pretty high 3200 ISO so I did do some noise reduction and things like that.
Oh, wow, so you were under some heavy shade in those jungles.
Heavy shade and a lot of the stuff we shot was right around sunrise, so not a lot of light. Some of the stuff up in the trees is at ISO 1600.
When I first took the lens out for testing, I ran into some troubles trying to shoot airplanes — shutter speed, focus, etc — and I released there was a pretty steep learning curve and that I needed to readjust my process. What’s your advice for someone stepping up to 600mm equivalent lens for the first, both in terms of camera settings and mentality?
It doesn’t matter if it’s Olympus or Canon or Nikon, there is a process and a learning curve, definitely. Particularly if it’s something like bird photography and moving birds. I’m a strong advocate of shooting on Shutter Priority. If possible, 1,000-2,000 shutter speed. In low light, that can be a tough scenario. The beauty of this thing, as you know, is that the camera has the 5-axis image stabilization built-in plus the lens has another stop, which just gives you latitude. Some of these guys [on the jungle trip] were struggling tripods and I’m hand holding [the 300mm PRO], banging off these shots. And of course they’re curious at the end of the day, saying “let me see,” and there’s no comparison.
Yeah, there’s a change in the way you need to shoot with these. I do a lot of Aperture Priority and Manual, but in the case of a moving target like a bird, Shutter Priority is the way to go.
Do you adjust your AutoFocus settings at all?
Depending on the distance, and whether or not you have moving subjects. If I have a moving subject and there’s no foliage, I’ll change it to Matrix AF. Other wise, if it’s stationary or there’s lots of leaves around, I’m single point AF.
What types of photographers need the M.ZUIKO 300mm F4 PRO in their kit?
If you’re a street photographer, this is not your lens unless you’re trying to do some totally secretive stuff where you’re shooting over shoulders. But if you’re a wildlife photographer, bird photographer, this is absolutely a game changer for those types of people. And with respect to Olympus, before this they didn’t have anything for the Micro Four Thirds that was fast and as sharp that had this focal length. You put that 1.4x Teleconverter on and you’re holding 840mm in your hand, which is just insane when you think about it?
Thanks again to Frank for taking the time to sit down and chat with us about this awesome glass (and to Olympus for arranging the interview). If you’d like to see more of Frank’s work, please check out his website or blog. Also, here are a few more sample images taken with the 300mm F4 PRO, including two more Eagle images with an effective focal length of 840mm:
**Olympus does not currently support 4K video recording with their Micro Four Thirds camera systems, but Panasonic does.